Orville Johnson's lifelong hunting buddy died six years ago.
"We were best friends for 70 years,'' said Johnson, 84, of Plymouth, as he hunkered on a recent day in a hunting blind, cradling his 12-gauge, searching the early morning sky for Canada geese.
Waterfowl hunting has been Johnson's passion. Which is why an unusual early-season Canada goose hunt for veterans — dubbed Waterfowl for Warriors — held in Anoka, was so special.
"If it wasn't for this, I wouldn't be waterfowl hunting,'' said Johnson, a retired officer in the Minnesota Air National Guard. "It's been a blessing.''
Divine intervention could be credited for the hunt, now in its third year, but it was inspired by volunteers, city officials, residents and corporate citizens.
Last week's event was the second of four Waterfowl for Warriors hunts held in September and October at the Anoka Nature Preserve, a 200-acre parcel nestled along the Rum River in the center of bustling Anoka, surrounded by trails and new homes.
An unlikely site for a hunt, perhaps.
But among the forested acreage used by walkers, bikers and runners are fields that, years ago, grew food for the local state hospital. That land is leased to farmers to grow soybeans, corn and wheat, which attract geese and ducks.
"It's a hidden treasure, a jewel,'' said Jeff Weaver, an avid hunter and Anoka City Council member. "You feel like you're out in the middle of North Dakota. And there's geese everywhere.''
Scott Wahl, 51, a Minnesota State Patrol trooper from Coon Rapids, and George Walker, 38, an Anoka police officer and former Marine, suggested using the nature preserve to provide metro hunting opportunities for veterans.
"It's just to give back and say thank you to our vets,'' Walker said. "And it's fun. The vets all have a common bond. Even if we don't shoot birds, there are stories to be told.''
Said Weaver: "We're just saying thanks to those who risked their lives for our country.''
Walker and Wahl pushed the idea, which Weaver enthusiastically supported, getting Anoka officials to embrace the hunt.
"We've got a unique location, and a unique city,'' Weaver said. "This is not typical government. I'm very proud of that. It's exciting to see government do good things, outside the box. We're taking advantage of an amazing resource that's right in our backyard.''
While the city allows bowhunting for deer in the nature preserve, firearms aren't normally allowed. On hunt days, signs are placed at entrances to the park, and volunteers are stationed along a nearby trail to alert people a hunt is occurring.
Other walking and biking trails are left open.
"It's really special we get to do this,'' Wahl said.
Complaints from citizens are rare.
The hunts are free. This year, local farmers brought hay bales for use as blinds, and volunteers set out dozens of goose decoys.
Federal Premium Ammunition, based in Anoka and a major employer, provided free shotgun shells.
Food was donated, and a city firefighter manned the post-hunt barbecue. The city provided picnic tables. Volunteers served as guides.
"There's lots of people involved to make this work,'' Weaver said.
Birds were flying
As the hunt unfolded, 10 hunters accompanied by several volunteers and their hunting dogs, sipped coffee in the dark before the hunt. Among them was Tim Kelsey, 68, of Ramsey, who was wounded serving in the Army in Vietnam. Kelsey and his fellow vets didn't get much of a welcome home when they returned from that controversial war, he noted. So he appreciates the special hunts.
"A little recognition is nice,'' he said before heading afield. "It's really a neat deal, close to home and a great opportunity. I've shot geese every year.''
At 7:40 a.m., with dark clouds hanging almost within arm's reach, two dozen honkers flew in low, circled the decoy spread warily, then glided into a far corner of the field, well out of shotgun range.
But a short while later, a dozen more geese banked in from the west, and the hunters unleashed a volley of shots, dropping four birds. Then three of the big birds approached from the same direction, angling right over the decoys.
"Take 'em!'' shouted guide Alex Wahl, 23, of Coon Rapids.
Shots peppered the sky, and all three birds folded.
"The one I shot at went down,'' Johnson said. "Of course, with this many people shooting, who knows if I got it?''
Wahl explained why he volunteered to guide at the hunt.
"These guys gave a lot for our country,'' he said. "And it's a good time.''
In another blind were Joe Hill, 30, Dylan Grimes, 20, and Joe Ekhaml, 21, all members of the Minnesota Army National Guard.
"It's been an awesome time,'' Hill said.
The geese soon quit flying, and the vets finished the morning with seven birds. No one was complaining.
"It's been a lot of years since I calculated a good hunt by the number of carcasses I brought home,'' Johnson said. "To me, it was worth coming out just to see those two flocks come in.''