Open Season: You never leave North Dakota empty-handed
Alaska has its fjords, Montana has the Rocky Mountains, and Minnesota has 10,000 lakes; but to experience pure, unabridged feelings of complete freedom, North Dakotans need look no further than their own back yard.
A perfect example of this occurred last weekend, as friends Matt Vanderpan and Charles Gorecki, both of Grand Forks, let me tag along for a little outdoors action - surf-and-turf style.
The plan was simple. First, we'd head west to the Sheyenne River Valley region in an attempt to fill their two spring turkey tags. The duo knew of several spots where they had spotted a number of the bumbling birds, so I was assured it would be a cinch.
Then, with fresh Jenny-Os cooling in the truck bed, we'd hit up flooded ditches near Stump Lake to see if the walleyes or northern pike were biting. By day's end, a freezer full of goodies would be our just rewards.
Nothing to it.
The funny thing about plans, particularly those involving uncooperative wildlife, is they seldom pan out perfectly. Turkeys proved a bit more wily than previously perceived. Calling was fruitless, and only resulted in the fervent gobbles of hormonal toms miles away.
An impromptu deer-hunting-style drive was just as unsuccessful. Though the birds cooperated in the sense that they scampered away as Vanderpan and I clomped through the underbrush, they failed to provide Gorecki with a clear shot.
Oh well, we thought, no tryptophan hangover, but at least we can acquire our daily allowance of Omega 3.
Alas, it was not to be. The first fishing spot we tried was shoulder-to-shoulder anglers chucking frozen smelt and fruit-sized bobbers for pike. With nary a space for our own lines, we hit the back roads in search of some secret honey holes Gorecki knew of that had relinquished 200-fish outings in the past.
But the pike were as elusive as the turkeys. Gorecki caught the only one, a mangled male slimmer that looked to have gotten the business end of an incensed spawning female - its tail frayed and skin rubbed raw. He let me keep it for pickling, but our coolers remained largely vacant.
To outsiders, the end result of the day may appear unpleasant, even bad.
It was anything but.
In fact, we were in high spirits - it's nearly impossible not to be, given the environment. The weather was gorgeous for a North Dakota spring: mid 60s, expansive baby-blue skies and barely a breeze.
And the scenery left nothing to be desired. In the morning, we snaked across back roads that sliced through parts of this region's famous Prairie Pothole region. Waterfowl decked out in their courtship best portrayed a full kaleidoscope of colors and patterns.
As the sun rose, its golden rays illuminated the iridescence of decked-out drakes. Mallards with heads like under ripe avocadoes shimmered violet and indigo in the sunlight. Canvasbacks burned crimson on their head, and sported bleach-white lab smocks across their backs. And northern spoonbills (or "Hollywood" as my companions call them) with their spade-tipped bills, boasted an array of color that seemed oddly uncharacteristic for their otherwise unnerving appearance.
But the true gem of the morning occurred as we crested a hill in valley country. The scene unfolded like a dream. To the east, a herd of cows lazily grazed on a hillside blanketed in an eerie layer of fog. The beasts were effervescent in the sunrise, fading from view like ghosts of cattle drives past. Clustered atop the largest hill, they appeared as if sheltered on an island amidst a boiling sea of amber grass.
The picture was nothing short of breathtaking.
Though we began the day with hopes of bringing home dinner, we instead returned with something just as filling: a smorgasbord of memories inspired by North Dakota's natural beauty.