Gary Orlich checked on the elk roasting in the hot oven.
Jerry Hawkins stirred ruffed grouse simmering in a cherry and pecan sauce.
And Jack Bartlett tended the halibut filets, stuffed with wild rice and asparagus.
Also on tap: Venison meatballs, deep-fried salmon balls, venison thuringer, wild rice, squash soup and homemade raspberry ice cream.
And plenty of laughter.
Welcome to the 41st annual Kabekona Creek Trout Fishing Society's wild-game dinner -- a celebration of food, friends and outdoor fun by 10 Minnesota men who have hunted, fished, hiked and paddled together for more than 40 years.
The group, named after the small stream in northern Minnesota where they began fishing together back in the 1960s, gathered last week in Apple Valley to reminisce about old trips, plan new outdoor adventures and feast on a sumptuous wild-game dinner that -- as tradition holds -- they prepare while their wives kick back and enjoy.
"The outdoors is the excuse for us to get together,'' said Tom Hayden, 67, a retired teacher from Bloomington. "It's the warm friendships that we all enjoy.''
The game dinner is the highlight.
"There's not a more important gathering in the year,'' said Jim Fulford, 66, of Apple Valley. The men take turns holding the big event, and this year was Fulford's turn. A hand-made wooden plaque -- a 'traveling trophy' -- inscribed with the name of the angler who caught the most linear inches of fish used to go to the winner. Now it goes to the fellow who is host of the dinner.
"The men bring all the food, prepare it, set the tables and clean up afterwards,'' said Fulford.
"It's a joy for us women,'' said Carol Hawkins, wife of Jerry Hawkins, 67, of Shoreview. "We sit back and they wait on us. And the food gets better every year.''
They call themselves the Kabekona Creek Trout Fishing Society -- but the group's gatherings are low-key affairs.
The only dues are a willingness to share good times together.
"It's a way to get together and maintain close friendships over the years,'' Fulford said. "That's what it's all about.''
"We go way back,'' Hayden said while the group -- nine guys this time and eight wives -- mingled.
Some of the men met while attending Hamline University in St. Paul. Two have known each other since elementary school. The group fused when four of them joined the 5501 Army Reserve Hospital Unit at Fort Snelling in the mid 1960s.
"We reacquainted and became life-long friends,'' Fulford said.
The common thread: They all enjoy the outdoors.
They began exploring mountain trails while serving their two-week active-duty stint at an Army hospital in Denver.
Back in Minnesota, a few of them started fishing trout at Kabekona Creek, holding a 'derby' to see who could land the most linear inches of trout in a season.
"Within two years we dubbed ourselves with the Kabekona name and the game dinner was created,'' Hayden said. That was 1968.
Over the years, their outdoor adventures have been varied, far-ranging and frequent. They've paddled wilderness rivers in Manitoba and Ontario, backpacked and trout-fished in the mountains of Wyoming and Montana and fished multiple times in Alaska.
They've explored Isle Royale in Lake Superior, paddled the Boundary Waters wilderness in Minnesota and Ontario, hunted ruffed grouse and deer in Minnesota and Michigan, and fished all over the state, often in the Rainy Lake or Gunflint Trail areas. (They're going to Rainy Lake this June.) Some use muzzleloaders to hunt deer. Some hunt ruffed grouse with pointing dogs. Most fly-fish for trout, but love catching walleyes, too.
Most are retired. When Fulford retired, he invited the whole crew on a fishing trip to Kodiak Island in Alaska.
"That's the best retirement party I've ever been to,'' said Orlich, 62, of Marine on St. Croix.
Three own a cabin in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, used as a base for hunting and fishing there. Hayden has a cabin near the Gunflint Trail, another jumping-off point. Two live in International Falls, one lives on a lake near Gilbert on the Iron Range and the rest live in the Twin Cities.
Of course, 40 years of outdoor adventures has spawned some tales.
There was the fishing trip near Sitka, Alaska, when Hayden hooked a salmon. As he was fighting it, a sea lion struck the fish, snapping his line.
"Within seconds, the sea lion surfaced, spitting out the fish's head,'' Hayden recalled.
Just then, an eagle swooped down, snapped up the salmon head and flew off, the broken line glistening in the afternoon sun.
"Not bad: A fish, sea lion and eagle on one bait,'' said Hayden. He calls it his "trifecta fish story.''
Over the years, they have shared more than good times. They've shared sweat and tears, too. The group, sometimes including wives, helped build the cabins on the Gunflint Trail and in Michigan. They've celebrated births, toasted marriages and mourned deaths.
"We've done all of life's important things,'' said Bartlett, 67, of International Falls."They're my best friends.''
Doug Smith • email@example.com