I’ve had the t-shirt for years, a faded red Old Navy special that probably filched four to five dollars from my wallet. It’s suffered the extremes of landscaping, oil changes, baby spit-up, and still holds solid form. A tribute to the insignia prominently displayed in its mid-section “when the tide rips, rip the tide”. It echoes other synonymous proverbs, “Come hell or high water”, or “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”, but this shirt is a tangible memento of the adventure I experienced in central Saskatchewan this past fall.
It was mid-September with the maple trees shining in brilliant oranges and reds, that my preparations would take place. I was slated to take this journey with my neighbor Andy and his business partner Mike. Naïve in my experiences, I had no idea the logistics of such a trip would be as arduous as they were. Numerous forms and licenses (the processing takes weeks) needed to be procured in order to hunt in the province of Saskatchewan, and the planning for food and gear for a week long excursion took several email exchanges and conversations to lock down. In the wee hours of October 15th, we stored our supplies, hunting gear, and lovingly said goodbye to our families.
While trekking through the wind-blown pains of western Minnesota, my mind reached for images of what the terrain in North-Central Saskatchewan may bestow. Would it resemble the plains, potholes, and bluffs around Minot North Dakota where I had spent portions of other hunting seasons, or would it be forested and full of large lakes and small beaver ponds that my hometown of Aitkin Minnesota prominently held? As we progressed towards the Canadian border, my mind continued to alter the result over and over again as the landscape shifted. Tunneling rocky bluffs lined the twenty mile stretch on approach into Canada, with cattle farms and small homesteads present on the hills. It reminded me of the eastern approach into Denver Colorado with vast wide-spread ranches and rolling hills as far as the eye could see. Surely this would not be the mainstay. Even as Andy and Mike assured me the scenery would get “much better”, I had my concerns.
In the last 40-50 kilometers before we reached our destination, the land turned into what I had subconsciously hoped for, but had never registered fully in my mind. Bright, golden cut wheat fields for miles and miles, sloping ever-so slightly from horizon to horizon. Moose cows and calves peaked through small stands of ash-gray timber, ready for their night feed in the miles of harvested agriculture. On the flanks of the roads were streaks of white that span hundreds of yards in each direction. Bobbing and walking in constant motion, these snow and blue geese numbered in the tens of thousands. Just watching these flocks lift off in waves of hundreds against the setting Canadian sun was magnificent to behold as we made our last turn into the small town we were staying for the week.
With our gear unpacked and beer(s) in hand, Andy and Mike went through the scenarios of scouting this broad scape in the morning. With multiple rural municipality (County) maps strewn across the table, they poured over past memories and strategies they had exercised in the past fifteen years of hunting this untamed province.
In the morning we packed enough gear to do an improvised water hunt if we felt the conditions were right, and headed out on the dusty gravel roads that would be our bothersome companion for the next five days. I could barely contain my excitement, as countless hours in a truck the day before had caged muscles that were primed to haul decoys, wade through swamps, and retrieve the occasional bird that Mike’s dog Briar was too busy to get.
Unfortunately, two challenges presented themselves in incalculable form within the first few hours. As we assessed the surroundings, sloughs and small lakes that had been filled to the brim last year were either bone dry, or had small puddles remaining in the center. This continued for fifty miles in each direction, as this area was in an unspeakably difficult drought. As we spoke to more and more farmers and locals the message was visibly grim. “Really, really dry” or “We haven’t had rain all year”. Everyone in those rural areas depends on the multiple crop yields, and the spring planting season was looking more and more dire.
The second challenge that we encountered is a sweat inducing nightmare for almost any hunter. The local radio forecast was calling for temperatures in the low to mid 70’s for the five days that we were visiting. Migration…halted. Bird movement…barely existent. The only stretches that we did find thousands of mallards and geese were the “watering holes”. Almost an exact replica of what you would watch on an African documentary. Alive with fluttering and commotion, every living creature was collapsed in and around large lakes whose shorelines had shrunk by 10-12 feet. We even spotted coyotes slyly wadding through the cattails for a chance to grab an easy feast.
After a humbling twelve hours on the road, we set back for our base camp and ate uncertainty for dinner (Ok, it was actually sloppy joes). Luckily, our neighbor Lloyd came over for a cordial cocktail and lifted our spirits a little. Lloyd is a retired farmer who was born, and spent his entire life in the small town in which we were staying. He is also a wealth of information regarding tractors and farming, not to mention the nicest man you will probably ever meet. However, when we inquired to him about the current state of the land, his weathered gray eyes dimmed and looked ominous as he spouted out “Driest I’ve seen it in 20-30 years, eh”. After Lloyd said his adieu for the evening I had decided, on the morrow I would wear the faded red shirt.
The next morning we traveled an arduous fifty miles to a pocket-sized slough that was deep enough to hold knee-high water. We had talked to the friendly land owner the afternoon before, and smirked as he stated “mallards pour in there by the hundreds in the evening”. With excitement and coffee surging through our veins, we pitched a conservative decoy spread and awaited the dawn. Just before daylight, a flurry of wings beat the air as ducks jumped from roost to pothole. It wasn’t until I glanced back to the western horizon, that I knew our venture wouldn’t be as “lights-out” as we imagined. Three hundred yards away, several flocks of 50-75 mallards were careening into another pond in the adjoining property (in which we did not have permission to hunt). Devastating to our efforts, any duck with slight intuition would choose to land with several hundred live ducks to our paltry twelve phonies. Through some out of practice effort, we managed to take three drake mallards in the course of the morning. It’s funny to think back on the morning, as these potholes were situated at the bottom of a hill. Every bird that did pay us a visit seemed to appear out of thin air, twisting and dropping 30-40 yards into our decoys. A difficult shot to say the least.
To Be Continued…