– For those whose days are unbound by cubicle walls, land often is the touchstone from which their lives spring and, ultimately, descend to.

Arching between these in the most fortunate cases are faithful dogs, wild critters and good times. Or so it’s been for Butch Owens, from his days as a kid in Chatfield, in southeast Minnesota, until now.

“When I was young I hunted, fished and trapped,” Butch said the other day. “I didn’t have time for sports or band practice.”

Soon 65 years old, Butch counts the years behind him nearly as often as he ponders those to come. A dog trainer in recovery from that admirable craft, Butch and his wife, Nancy, live on a section and a half of land not far from Pine Island, about a half-hour north of Rochester.

For them, the property’s hills, trees and food plots are refuge and business both, the latter titled Hidden Valley Gamebirds, a shooting preserve dating to 1988.

A few days back, in the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, Tom Hexum of Rochester, Josh and Whitney Miller of New Richmond, Wis., and I, along with a few others, gathered at Hidden Valley to work some dogs, shoot a few birds and, afterward, to gather around a campfire, eating chili and warming ourselves, a pleasant passing to a year now gone.

Not far away were Tar, age 14, and his daughter, Crickett, 10, the Owens’ two Labradors. Six more canines were on the property not so many years ago. But within an 18-month period, each succumbed to old age, transitions that are hard to watch, Butch will tell you, and Nancy, too.

“You get attached to these dogs. They’re never in a bad mood. And they work their butts off for you,” Butch said.

A moment passed, then he added:

“When these last two, Tar and Crickett, are gone, we’ll probably do something else with our lives.”

About 80 shooting preserves are licensed in the state by the Department of Natural Resources. Some are open to the public. Others, like Hidden Valley, require memberships. Either way, few are managed with the laid-back attitude the Owens effuse.

“In our heyday, when we really pushed it, we’d go through more than 20,000 birds,” Butch said. “This year we’ll be lucky if we do 3,000. But that’s OK. Most of our members are getting older, as are we. In fact, most of our members have been with us since the beginning, when we first opened. They just don’t get out here as much as they used to.”

Butch’s life plan, such as it was years ago, did not include owning a shooting preserve. Dogs were his passion, and he had a way with them. This was in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and he regularly fit the sporting breeds, Labradors mostly, for pheasant, duck and goose hunting.

Finding clients wasn’t a problem. They found him. But training ground, that was in short supply. Land was what Butch needed, and soon he purchased the first parcel that ultimately would become Hidden Valley.

“When CRP [the federal Conservation Reserve Program] took off in the mid- to late ’80s, more and more bird hunters in Minnesota started buying pointing dogs,” Butch said. “Flushing dogs — Labradors — is what I cut my teeth on. But as the big CRP grasslands expanded, I started focusing on pointers, German shorthairs mostly.”

Over the years, as land adjacent to the Owens’ initial parcel became available, it was added to the fold, most of it highly erodible — not ideal for cultivation.

Care of the property, as well as the club’s clientele, soon used up most of Butch’s time, and Nancy’s, too. They’ve planted more than 20,000 trees, mostly red and white pine, and have established vast expanses of other wildlife cover, on which only released pheasants are hunted, not the wild stuff, turkeys or deer.

“When you’re on a piece of property like this over many years, and you work very hard, you plant deep roots,” Butch said.

“But sooner or later you get older, and you realize you’re going to have to split from the land you’ve cared for. Our vision — and we might get flak from some hunters about this — is that the land someday will go to the DNR to be managed as a wildlife sanctuary.

“There is so much pressure on wildlife these days, it would be nice in some areas if they could just live.’’

Around a campfire on New Year’s Eve, with darkness falling, this was what Butch was thinking.

Begun in Chatfield nearly 65 years ago, his life had arched from land to land, descending here, to a place he calls Hidden Valley, shared with Nancy, also faithful dogs, wild critters and good times.


Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com