If Minnesota hunters and anglers had been on stage Thursday night in Cleveland instead of the 10 leading Republican presidential candidates, their approval ratings might have been even lower than those of the would-be White House occupants. For good reason: In past weeks, the state’s outdoorsmen and women have been portrayed alternately, and erroneously, as cretins intent on decimating the world’s lion population and walleye wienies whining about their loss of opportunity at Mille Lacs. A field day, that’s what it’s been for media types, shining their spotlights on small slices of the state’s outdoor life, and reducing to simpletons, outlaws or both those who participate in it. It is true that people who pursue fish and game are in ways a different bunch. A particular passion courses their veins, a fact true dating to the days before statehood, when the Dakota and Objiwe inhabited what is now Minnesota. Read your history: Not all Native Americans hunted or fished. Rather, only some did, the pursuit of game being a specialty reserved even then for a relative handful.
The difference of course was that a couple hundred years ago, those who didn’t hunt or fish weren’t following those who did with cameras, chronicling their steps and missteps, while tweeting vacuously with dark intent.
I write this sitting at Game Fair in Ramsey, a six-day-over-two-weekends gathering place for people whose psyches often wander to long days previously passed in boats, alongside streams or in duck blinds. Anticipation in these instances is rampant, and the intent always is to replicate those days: to match wits one more time with the elements, also with the changing seasons and ultimately with the quarry pursued.
Mentally, this is a good place to be, in constant anticipation, and it can get you through some long meetings and even longer days.
• • •
The afternoon was sunny. Sigurd Olson and I were in his backyard in Ely. This was late summer, 1977. Coffee was on the table between us, and Sig puffed on his pipe.
His wife, Elizabeth, had baked cookies, and these, too, were on the table.
I said, “You should come this fall. We’ll drive some old roads for grouse.’’
Sig’s face was deeply creased, his hair white and swept back, his head nodding.
But he wasn’t in any shape to hunt grouse.
He did say he recalled many times when he returned from the woods with a ruffed grouse or two.
“Well, then, maybe,’’ he offered and looked away.
But his time had passed.
• • •
In appearance the 50,000 or so people who attend Game Fair each year could trade places with those who instead favor for distraction the State Fair or perhaps the Renaissance Fair.
But differences abound.
The State Fair or Renaissance Fair, however interesting, are activities similar to Twins or Vikings games, or concerts, whereat one purchases a ticket and sits back, awaiting entertainment.
Amusement also is a desired outcome for participants in the field sports. But self-satisfaction, and self-actualization are the higher goals, and attaining them often requires equal parts preparation and execution.
Come autumn, for instance, if you want to bust alder thickets for grouse or wear out boot leather in pursuit of ringnecks, you’d best prior to those activities be in a gym or weight room.
Also in advance you’ll want to consider the gun you’ll shoot, its fit in your shoulder, the stock against your cheek, and the loads you’ll chamber. A truck or similar rig is another consideration, also a dog, its feeding and care.
No fewer choices confront anglers. Rod. Reel. Line. Boat. Motor. Batteries. Anchor.
These investments — mental, physical, equipment, financial — shape the challenges of outdoor pursuits, and careful consideration of them is paramount to successful conclusions afield.
But sometimes frustration is unavoidable.
If, for example, Mille Lacs no longer holds fishable numbers of walleyes, and your life experiences are invested in those fish and their pursuit, their loss is your loss, keenly felt, like a dagger in the back.
• • •
In 1961 I was 10 years old and we lived in Rugby, N.D.
My dad was born in North Dakota and knew something about duck hunting.
Our best Labrador was a big dog named Boze.
At the time, you couldn’t imagine such a thing as an SUV. So on warm summer evenings Dad loaded Boze into the trunk of our car and drove into the countryside, dust plume trailing.
Then he stopped, popped the trunk and freed Boze to run in water-filled ditches while Dad drove alongside him slowly, dragging on a Camel and watching the rearview mirror.
Boze lived to retrieve ducks and geese. Dad loved him, and I loved him too.
Then one day Dad said we were moving to Michigan.
Boze, he said, wouldn’t be coming with us.
“Michigan doesn’t have ducks,’’ Dad said. “Not like North Dakota. It wouldn’t be fair to him. We’ll leave him here.’’
• • •
In Minnesota, the number of people who hunt and/or fish remains strong.
But the percentage of state residents who participate in these pastimes is declining as the population increases, making those who engage in the field sports more of a minority than they were previously.
Like all minorities, they’re easy pickings. Ridiculed at times on television. Chastised on op-ed pages. Caricatured by political cartoonists.
The surprise at Game Fair and other places is that optimism among these residents abounds nonetheless.
Not so much optimism in society at large, or in the way things are going, generally, in the world.
They’re not fools.
But optimism in themselves.
Invested deeply in their pastimes over now many years and generations, they’ve chanced to succeed time and time again, occasionally against long odds, and they’ve earned the satisfaction that comes with making those attempts, win, lose or draw.
Now, optimistically, they anticipate keenly the coming change of seasons, summer to fall, and winter again after that.
• • •
The guy was 75 years old, pushing 80, and wasn’t dressed for the ride.
He wore bib overalls, a camouflage coat and a knit hat.
This was a year or two back. The temperature was 1 degree Fahrenheit, snow was falling and a 35-mile-an-hour wind blistered our faces.
With some help, the old man pulled himself into his saddle.
We had 27 miles to ride into the mountains of the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana. We were elk hunting, and this was his last shot at it.
The night before, he said his wife and doctor had told him not to come on the hunt. But he made the drive alone from his home in Washington State nonetheless.
“If I’m going to die, I’d like to die in the mountains,’’ he said.
Now we were saddled and the long ride was ahead of us.
The old man tipped a shoulder to the wind, tucked his head down, kicked his horse up the trail, and said:
“Let’s go hunting.’’