It all seems so fitting that Ron Schara, one of Minnesota's most recognizable outdoors ambassadors, was far afield earlier this week in Redwood County.
He was there, at Two Rivers Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in southwestern Minnesota, to spread the ashes of his equally recognizable black Labrador retrievers, Raven I, II and III.
The moment was rich with relevance: Schara's appearances with his Labs, one to the next, have raised thousands of dollars for conservation over the years, including money that helped Pheasants Forever and others establish the 700-acre Two Rivers WMA.
Raven is top of mind, too, this fall for other reasons. Schara will celebrate the 1,000th episode of his outdoors show, "Minnesota Bound," in a few weeks — a remarkable broadcasting run that began in 1995 and made stars — his words — of those lovable Labs. The milestone show airs Nov. 14 in its normal slot, at 10:30 p.m. after the news on Ch. 11-KARE, the show's home platform.
Schara recalled that his wife, Denise, recommended getting Raven into the shot in the first "Minnesota Bound." Videographer-producer Joe Harewicz suggested something colorful to help Raven, black as night, to stand out. Schara found a red bandanna, which became a signature look for her and the Ravens to come over the next 20-plus years. A star was born.
"We had created an instant icon right then," Schara said Tuesday.
If viewers came to see a lovable canine companion, they also tuned in for Schara's signature outdoors storytelling. At the time a long-serving Star Tribune columnist, he felt limited by printed words and images and saw television as a powerful tool. With Denise's encouragement, he made the leap.
"For one reason or another, I knew the show ought to fly," Schara said. "We are telling stories about the outdoors, and Minnesota is full of people who love the outdoors. It is our DNA."
Kelly Jo McDonnell, who with Schara and Harewicz made up the initial production team, said Schara recognized he could tell stories with more impact through television.
"He always said he felt like an orchestra … he had all these instruments to play," said McDonnell, speaking of Schara's "golden" voice, a sidekick in Raven, and, of course, Minnesota's abundant and striking outdoors scene.
That initial team of three has evolved into Ron Schara Productions, with a staff of about 25 writers, producers and videographers. Schara said he made sure to hire videographers and others with a news background because of their instincts and skills for "capturing the moment," whatever it might be in the context of a good story. Current co-host Bill Sherck was a longtime TV news reporter who has reported for "Minnesota Bound" for 19 years.
McDonnell continues to produce "Minnesota Bound" and, now, several other shows, like "Due North Outdoors" on Bally Sports North. All are woven from the success of the original. ESPN for a time wanted in on the action, too, and broadcast "Backroads with Ron and Raven" in the 1990s. Amid the numerous Emmys and accolades, about 7 million viewers still tune in to "Minnesota Bound" on weekends.
Whether it was fleshing out the story of a character in a fishing boat or heading to a unique spot of public land, multiple topics are intentional underpinnings of the show, Schara said, and likely why it has sustained success. That and, well, his soothing voice.
"I have heard that [from fans] more than anything," he said, laughing.
For his part, Schara, 79, has stepped back from "Minnesota Bound" since 2018. He's no longer host, but he still is heavily connected to what airs, McDonnell said, focusing ideas, attending certain shoots and writing. "He will always be a master writer, master storyteller," she added.
Schara's daughter Laura agreed and has come alongside her father to help present what they are observing and experiencing. Laura joined the show almost 20 years ago as a reporter and now has co-hosted with Sherck since 2018.
She said her dad has taught her many skills afield and built in her an ethic of respect for natural resources in all their forms. He's also taught her what it means to tell a story well. And one nugget about time behind a camera that still resonates, and possibly speaks to the show's popularity all these years with viewers, however and wherever they tune in these days.
"One thing my dad taught me is, always be yourself," Laura said. "That is so true."
Sherck said the show has endured in part because of Schara's authenticity.
"We just keep going, right?" Sherck said. "Ron being a newspaper hound, that has always been his mentality: Let's keep going."
While Schara believes big networks have done away with platforms for outdoor shows, "Minnesota Bound" has an appeal because of the special state — and its landscape — in its name. He said story ideas continue to bubble up and now there are deeper, substantive topics like climate change that beg exploration.
"Interesting stories and storytelling are never going to go away," he said.
The production staff plans to gather together to watch the primetime special together. No doubt, Schara and others will keep the star of the show, Raven, close.
"I just like to tell people, it's been quite a ride," he said. "You don't set out to do something like that."
- Prime-time special on "Minnesota Bound," 7 p.m. Nov. 13, Ch. 11-KARE
- "Minnesota Bound" 1,000th episode, 10:30 p.m. Nov. 14, Ch. 11-KARE