It started as a fall fishing trip, as I recall, an annual October rendezvous with a couple of friends on the Rainy River near Baudette on the Minnesota-Ontario border.
Two of us some years; other years three.
We always caught plenty of fish during those mid-’90s excursions, but the focus changed a few years later, when the trip switched from fishing to ruffed grouse hunting.
The destination changed, as well, when siblings and I in the summer of 1998 moved an old trailer house to the family homestead in northern Minnesota, a site that had fallen into a state of neglect after our parents died.
We soon had the place whipped back into shape.
I think it was the fall of 2000 when a friend and his son, who was maybe 12 years old at the time, made the long drive from Stillwater, Minn., over the annual teachers’ convention weekend. They’d both completed firearms safety training earlier that summer and wanted to give ruffed grouse hunting a try.
Carrying a single-shot 410, the boy shot his first grouse that weekend, and a tradition was born.
It was just the three of us the first few years. Some years, bird numbers were good; other years, not so much.
Either way, we gathered every year, good weather and bad, for what came to be known as the “October Trip.”
The crew grew larger over the years, an expansion made possible by improvements to the camp and the addition of a bunkhouse that sleeps up to four people.
This year, seven of us ranging in age from 9 years old to 62 years old gathered for the October Trip, which is about as many as the camp can handle. Joining me were Brad Durick and his son, Braden, 9, of Grand Forks; Jason Laumb of Grand Forks; Peter Hinderlie of St. Paul; Pete Howard of Stillwater; and Scott Jensen of St. Anthony, Minn.
To a person, the October Trip is a can’t-miss event, the outdoors equivalent of Christmas and Thanksgiving and birthday parties all rolled into one.
There’s even a cup — a traveling trophy, of sorts — awarded the last night, named in honor of one of the regulars who left us unexpectedly and all too soon in April 2016. The cup was awarded based on who shot the most grouse the first couple of years, but the three of us who do most of the organizing — the “Board of Governors,” we call ourselves — loosened the criteria last year when it became apparent that the same person would win the cup every year unless we changed the rules.
Deserving though it might be, there really wasn’t much point in that.
Everyone who makes the trip has their own reasons and expectations for gathering every year on the third weekend of October. Hunting is still a focus, of course, and the most dedicated of the crew spends hours in the woods every day.
Others, truth be told, don’t leave camp, instead spending their time cutting wood or just kicking back with a cold beverage at the patio fire pit and a campfire that reaches several feet tall after dark.
The other improvement in recent years is the addition of a projector we use to show evening hockey games on a 200-inch diagonal cloth screen we mount to a pole shed wall. Using a smartphone as a hotspot to access the Internet and a Roku stick to stream the NHL app through the projector, we’ll spend several hours by the fire watching hockey on a larger-than-life screen and a soundbar we mount on a portable stand near the fire. The highlight is the Saturday night broadcast of “Hockey Night In Canada.”
I’m sure even Don Cherry would be impressed.
We’re in the boonies, but thanks to 4G cell service and the miracle of technology, we use a tiny gizmo to watch hockey that once required a giant satellite dish to access.
The food also is a highlight and a story in itself, and this year’s October Trip was no exception. Evening meals, meticulously planned by Hinderlie and Laumb, included moose lasagna with homemade romaine tomato sauce, grilled moose steaks and twice baked potatoes, ruffed grouse and wild rice casserole (a Saturday night staple) and “Whiskey Bear,” bear steaks marinated in a whiskey-based sauce and grilled to perfection (they were excellent).
For me, this year’s October Trip and the great weather we enjoyed all five nights in camp was a welcome reprieve from the horrible weather that has characterized much of this fall and the hours I spent battling water in my basement and the stress of watching a weather forecast that never seemed to improve.
Conditions were wet, to be sure, especially in low spots, but there were birds to be had for those who put in the time and effort. For those who didn’t hunt, the trip offered the opportunity to unwind, relax and simply enjoy what all of us consider to be a very special place.
And so it went for five days in October and an annual gathering that dates back more than 20 years.
Every hunting camp has its traditions; this is ours.
May it continue for many years to come.