The most attention-grabbing photo to accompany an outdoors column might be an unwary peacock backing into a lion's mouth at sunset. Today's image tenders considerably less chromatic sizzle, a handful of people looking at you, while you look at them.
I've carried the photo on my phone for a couple of years and stumbled across it the other day while paging through other vintage images. Call it a hazard of the trade, but my inbox is oftentimes stuffed with photos sent by friends or readers posing with ducks or walleyes or grouse or deer — the types of pixilated grip-and-grinners that confirm we haven't changed all that much from the time when bison hunters preened for snapshots perched atop bovid skins stacked 10 high.
Today's photo is different than that, displaying as it does remnants of a small group of us who until the pandemic interrupted everyone's life met for lunch each year at Christmastime.
Fundamentally, our annual gatherings were a sort-of thumb in the eye to actuarial tables, noting as they did that another year had come and gone and no one had died. The most recent of our bunch to go was Joel Bennett, a husband, father, gentleman, valued friend, funny guy and (this would be important to him) inveterate waterfowler, who passed away from cancer in 2010.
Our luncheon meetings started decades ago. A few interlopers have joined occasionally, but the group's core in addition to me has been Dick Hanousek, Bob Lessard, Norb Berg, Bud Grant and, in recent years, Bud's partner and welcome addition, Pat Smith.
Bound by common interests and shared experiences, we gathered for many of the same reasons that quilting clubs, yoga troupes, civic organizations and wild-game gourmands, among others, get together. "Social groups,'' academics say, are people who share similar characteristics and have collective senses of unity, and that was us.
Emphasis on "was,'' because in the two years since COVID-19 threw a wrench into everyone's plans, we haven't met.
Instead, similar to the way some churches and synagogues have suspended services, wildlife groups have canceled banquets and office workers have scattered to home offices during the pandemic, collectives such as ours have gathered not in person but by chitchatting on phones or by text or email.
Communication-wise, this amounts to little more than shouting across high fences, and the personal disconnections that result, in my view, go a long way toward explaining why opinions these days among many people have assumed the properties of rock, why fisticuffs break out on airplanes, and why for increasing numbers of institution-averse Americans, belief in anything other than what they can see with their eyes and hold in their hands is considered a chump's choice.
Disconnects amid the pandemic might be even more unfortunate for people who traditionally have shared adventures and misadventures in the natural world.
One reason is that campers, hikers, hunters and anglers, and others of their ilk, rarely aspire to simple distraction in their recreation choices. Nor do they necessarily seek only "fun.'' Instead, their goal, even if they can't define the term, is self-actualization, whose rewards often are paid in quiet satisfaction and an ever-developing sense of wonder during what is oftentimes a life-long process.
Launching a boat on Mille Lacs, for example, in hopes of catching a walleye, is an entirely different kettle of fish than buying a ticket to a ballgame or a concert in anticipation of being entertained.
Whatever the benefits of the latter, the former combines problem-solving, physical activity and varying degrees of risk-taking, leading to an uncertain outcome, the result of which links the participant, and not just metaphorically, to all people of all time who likewise have thrown themselves into similar voids.
Memories of such challenges and accomplishments, and occasionally mishaps and danger, can and often do bond these adventure seekers with others of similar interests, particularly when the experiences have been shared.
So it has been with our group.
For 30 years and more at our Christmas gatherings, I could look across the table and recall days beginning in the early 1980s that we, in twos or threes or all together, fished or hunted or traveled to fish or hunt, gathering at times in early morning or late at night around campfires to talk and laugh and ready ourselves for the next day, whatever it might bring.
Bud was still coaching when he and I and Norb, a Control Data executive and linchpin of our little outfit, first hunted ducks together in the Minnesota River Valley below Bloomington. On some weekdays and especially on game days, Bud would have to leave early, and as he rowed his boat to shore, his black Lab curled at his feet, he'd say: "You guys with all the time. You're the lucky ones.''
Bob and Dick came into this circle about the same time, though in many ways they couldn't haven't been more different from one another.
Bob was a downhome state senator from International Falls. A woodsman, Canadian fishing camp owner and walleye fisherman, he was also a consummately successful legislator, though no one was quite sure how he accomplished this, given his treatment of English as a sort-of foreign language.
Dick, by contrast, was a fly fisherman and successful businessman whose love of southeast Minnesota streams and their trout, and of Caribbean salt-water flats and their bonefish and tarpon, knew no bounds. For many years, he was our secret weapon when Bud and I traveled to Colorado with the late Tony Andersen and a handful of other Minnesotans to beat a hotshot Colorado team in a fly-fishing competition.
So it went for many years, and each Christmas, pre-pandemic, when we'd get together, we'd report on our families and their doings, recall the good times we'd had together, and, generally, take stock of each other. And of ourselves.
I haven't mentioned age, and it's true these guys are a fair bit older than I am.
But in the only ways that count, they're still the kids they once were, forever stealing glances at ducks wheeling high overhead, deer silhouetted at sunrise, and fish finning in clear streams.