The great outdoors has a way of bringing people together and creating common ground. As a native Minnesotan, Gov. Mark Dayton knows this well. It’s easy to forget that the longtime politician and great-grandson of the founder of what became Target Corp. grew up doing many of the same things many Minnesota children do.

Each winter, he played hockey on the frozen neighborhood ponds of Long Lake near his family home. He spent summers fishing the clear waters of the northwoods. Every fall brought him to the prairies of southwest Minnesota for pheasant hunting season.

Having been to Washington and back, it is still those moments Dayton spent gliding across the ice on a crisp night, or sitting in a boat with his dad on a glassy lake, or tromping through the prairie grass on a quiet morning, that he said have become the foundations for his philosophy on both life and governing.

In a recent interview, Dayton spoke about the origins of his outdoor life and its role in the legacy he is hoping to leave for the state’s natural resources.

On growing up hunting in Minnesota

My father took my brother and me to southwestern Minnesota, down near Worthington where my family’s Minnesota roots are, to go duck and pheasant hunting a couple times every fall. I liked pheasant hunting the best because I always liked to be on the move and anticipating that split second when something arises, so I have great memories of that. That was part of what prompted me to start the Governor’s Pheasant Opener when I took office.

On learning to fish

My father and his brothers have a cabin on Lake Vermilion, and my father would take us out fishing there. He didn’t know how to catch fish, but I didn’t know that he didn’t know for about the first 20 years of my life. I spent many hours out on Lake Vermilion not catching fish.

On sharing his love of the outdoors with his sons

One time when Andrew was about 5 and off with the baby-sitter playing on the shore, Eric was fishing and landed a good-sized northern — 9 pounds or so. As he was pumping his fist in success, Andrew broke into tears, saying, “That’s not fair, he caught a big fish and I didn’t!” I never prayed so hard in my life that Andrew would catch a fish, and literally 30 seconds before we had to go home, he pulled in about a 4-pound northern. There’s a picture of us standing on the dock, each one of us holding our fish. I was so exhausted, but those are the memories you treasure.

On preserving our natural resources

We have a lot of people living and working here, which is great for the state and economic growth, but our social vitality depends, in part, on keeping these resources available to everybody and in prime condition. So when we find the pheasant population declining drastically, what’s the cause of that? And when we find the rivers and streams in southwestern Minnesota uninhabitable because of the pollution runoff, we need to wake up and change our practices or we’re going to leave our kids and grandkids in really desperate straits.

On learning a love of the land from his father

My father lives on the land where I grew up — about 170 acres out in the Long Lake area. He bought it in 1950 or so and it has old-growth forest — one of the few urban old forests — and he’s donated it to the DNR to preserve it. He’s now 96 years old, and I said to him, “Dad, you’re really a good steward of your land. This land is in better condition now than when you acquired it.” As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that a measure of our citizenship is to be good stewards of the resources that are available to us.

On being an all-state hockey player

There were only two indoor rinks in all of the metropolitan area when I was growing up, so everything was outdoors. I wanted the winter to get cold as early as possible and stay cold as long as possible. If we could skate on the neighborhood pond by Thanksgiving, it was the beginning of a good winter.

On life lessons learned through sport

I wasn’t naturally a great athlete, so I had to work very hard for whatever I accomplished, which was good preparation for life. I’d say being a goalie was also good preparation for being a politician: You never know what’s going to come at you or where it’s going to come from — high on the left or low on the right — you just react and when you make a big save, everybody applauds you, but when you let one trickle through your legs, everybody says, “Oh, my gosh!” Either way, you just have to suck it up and keep on playing.

On his dogs, Itasca and Wanamingo

They are my pals. I come home from work and even when everybody in the world hates me, they wag their tails. When I wake up in the morning, as far as they’re concerned, my sole purpose in life is to go out and throw Frisbees.

On his friendship with Will Steger and their expedition to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 1996

Will is such a fascinating guy. Eric and I went with him for a little over two weeks. For Will it was a walk in the park, but for me it was a bona fide expedition. We camped out on the tongue of this ancient glacier, and the next day we went up over the Continental Divide, about 7,500 feet in a whiteout snowstorm with the snow up to our hips. There’s no question when you’re out there, you realize the enormity of the universe in the broader scheme of the centuries and eons, and it puts the little problems that seem so overwhelming into perspective.

On deciding to run for the Senate in 2000 while on a Steger expedition to the North Pole

The first day we went out onto Hudson Bay it was 25 below zero with 25- to 30-mile-per-hour winds and we had these sleds to practice with. At one point, I took my mitten off and the wind grabbed it and shot it off, and I made the best split save I had made in 30 years. It was then that I decided, I really think I want to run for the U.S. Senate. The things you do to get out of training to go to the North Pole! I said to Will, “You take your expedition, and I’ll take mine.” I realized there are things he’s meant to do and things I’m meant to do.


Mackenzie Lobby Havey is a freelance writer. She lives in Minneapolis.