Three years ago almost to the day, Arik Matson cut short his dinner at a Waseca restaurant and sped in his police cruiser to a changed life.
A call had come in about a backyard prowler with a flashlight, and Arik, then 31 years old and wearing Waseca Police Department Badge 222, was going to check it out.
At home in nearby Freeborn, Arik's wife, Megan, about the same time was putting their two daughters to bed, Audrina, then 7 years old, and Maklynn, 5, and planning to turn in early herself.
None of them could have known that their lives were about to intersect with that of Tyler Robert Janovsky, 37, a "meth head'' as one cop would later describe him.
Janovsky was the guy in the backyard in the 900 block of Third Avenue S.E. in Waseca, and when Arik arrived along with two other officers, Janovsky climbed onto a garage roof and started shooting.
One round struck Arik in the head, shattering the right frontal lobe of his brain.
. . .
Arik was 9 years old when his uncle Paul Matson first took him duck hunting.
Maybe it was the smell of a dank marsh on an early morning. Or perhaps the sight of blue-winged teal cupping their wings over decoys.
Or simply the opportunity to be with his uncle.
Whatever it was, from that day forward, duck hunting became Arik's passion, so much so that years later, at Minnesota State Mankato, when he met Jeremy Henke in a class and the two became friends, Arik wanted to pass along what he had learned from his uncle.
"We were both studying law enforcement,'' Henke said. "When Arik graduated, he got hired as a deputy in Freeborn County, while I worked for a year as an officer in Lake Crystal. Then I got on as a deputy in Freeborn County as well.
"Because we were the new deputies, we often worked the night shift together. Sometimes in October, we'd get off work at 5 in the morning and go duck hunting. He knew a lot about duck hunting, including where to go. So it was great.
"Our friendship continued when Arik moved on to the Waseca Police Department, and when, in 2015, I became a Department of Natural Resources conservation officer.''
. . .
Chris Tetrault is also a DNR conservation officer, posted in Stillwater. He is also ex-Army, and along with a small group of other law enforcement officers and military veterans, about five years ago he formed a group called Hometown Hero Outdoors.
The idea was to help people like themselves — first responders, essentially — who were going through tough times.
"Our goal has been to get people who are on the front lines and who need help because of something that's happened to them, to get them outdoors, to do something they enjoy, to encourage them while they meet new people,'' Tetrault said.
"Our bread and butter is hunting and fishing. But we've taken people on hot air balloon rides, ATV rides, dog sledding trips — whatever they want.
"We started small, here in Minnesota. But we're in 26 states now and we've taken more than 4,000 people outdoors. Nationally, we have 150 law enforcement officers and others who are volunteers. No one gets paid.''
. . .
Chad Davis is also a DNR conservation officer, stationed in Owatonna. After he heard Arik had been shot, he called Tetrault to ask about putting together a trip for Arik.
"He loves to hunt ducks,'' Davis told Tetrault.
Neither Davis nor Tetrault knew at the time that Arik had long dreamed of hunting king eiders, an elusive and beautifully plumed sea duck that is hunted in only a few places in North America.
One is Alaska, off St. Paul Island, a 43-square-mile spit of rock in the Bering Sea, inhabited by only about 500 people and often featured on the TV show "Deadliest Catch.'' Lying about 320 miles west of the Alaska mainland, the island is 770 air miles from Anchorage.
"On the internet there's a video called 'To Kill a King,'" Arik said the other day. "That's where I first learned about king eiders and king eider hunting.''
Hunting conditions on the island are often horrendous, with small boat rides onto raucous seas beset by unpredictable currents and tides. Amid the maelstrom, often from snowy, windblown redoubts, the eiders are intercepted.
"You're going to be cold, you're going to get wind in your face and you're going to get rain in your face,'' a guide says in the video. "If you can't accept that, you have no business being out here.''
Arik was still in a Twin Cities hospital — he was hospitalized for three months before being transferred to an Omaha rehabilitation center, where he stayed for seven months — when he was told that Hometown Hero Outdoors had awarded him an adventure anywhere in North America.
At first Arik said, "I want to go bear hunting in Canada.'' Which confused everyone, because he had never hunted bears, nor expressed an interest in them.
Then he changed his mind. "I want to hunt king eiders off of St. Paul Island, Alaska,'' he said.
. . .
On Friday, Arik, along with his uncle Paul, Jeremy Henke, two videographers from a St. Paul company that is producing a documentary on Arik's recovery, and Chris Tetrault will board a Delta flight to Anchorage. From there, on Saturday, weather permitting, they'll fly to St. Paul Island.
For Arik, his uncle and Henke, it'll be just like old times, hunting together.
Tetrault, meanwhile, will help Arik get around.
And he'll need help.
"Arik still loves being a husband to me and a father to our girls,'' Megan Matson said. "We are so impressed by the progress he's made. He's had a couple of setbacks, but he just pushes himself that much harder.
"He's different, though. Due to the traumatic brain injury, his personality is completely different from before. That's been a huge adjustment for me that I still haven't fully accepted.
"Physically, he still struggles with his left arm. But when he's given a shotgun, and he goes duck hunting like he did last fall, his arm seems to work like everything is connected.
"I'm excited for him for this trip, to get away and to be in his hunting element with his best friend and his uncle and the new friends he's made. He'll pay for it in the end. He'll be exhausted for a week or two.
"But it'll be worth it.''
. . .
Janovsky was given 35 years for shooting Arik.
At the sentencing hearing, with his Waseca Police Department badge swinging from a chain around his neck, and with Megan alongside him, Arik said:
"From this day forward, I choose to live life to the fullest, trust God's plan and never take anything for granted.''
Then he said, "[I] would still respond to that call if it were tomorrow.''