Chasing America’s fastest land animal

 

Chasing fast-footed antelope is a challenge on Wyoming’s open range lands.

The sign along the highway promised “cheap drinks, lousy food’’ not too many miles ahead, just across the border in Montana.

We ignored the bait and turned off the paved road. We made a long dust trail on a gravel road and turned off again. The next sign pronounced “open range’’ and we slowed and sometimes stopped for the cattle grazing alongside (and on) the road, this one hard-packed. We turned down a rutted trail into a pine woods and made camp.

We had made our way to this corner of northeast Wyoming for our first-ever try at antelope hunting.

We put on miles hiking to locations where we could spot and stalk.

Sons Ryan, Erik and yours truly were truly new to this, but we were not entirely clueless as to what we were up against. Ryan lives in Sundance, Wyoming, and had scouted the area we were to hunt ahead of time. There were antelope to spot as we drove along, and mule deer too.

We knew from reading the works of avid hunter Judd Cooney that pronghorn antelope are North America’s fastest land animal, capable of clipping along at an estimated 60 miles an hour and more. They take off like the Road Runner of cartoon fame, minus the beep-beep. Cooney advises that their eyesight is equal to that of a person using 8x binoculars. They keep to the open range, grazing in small herds with their eyes watching all directions. When spooked, they bolt and zigzag unpredictably like a flock of birds at a cruising speed of something like 30 to 40 miles per hour.

The slightest movement can send antelope running.

They’re known as “speed goats,’’ and there’s some science behind this moniker. They’re genetically related to goats, and are not part of the deer family, according to Cooney.

My first encounter with antelope had been years ago at Custer State Park in South Dakota. I was surprised then by how they seemed more curious than afraid of vehicles, and found the same true now. Yet I discovered quickly what a challenge they are to hunt. They know two-legged creatures are predators to fear and will easily spot you more than a mile away. The only way to get into a football field’s distance of them was to keep out of their sight. That meant stalking them by crawling-sometimes on your belly- to get to a ridge- or tree-line that might offer some cover. Finger and fist-sized cacti made the crawling a tricky endeavor.

Stalking required crawling over range land filled with cacti of all types, the worst with hair-thin needles.

The real trick was to figure out the antelope, and where best to intercept them as they made their way towards a watering hole or their favored grazing. Luck helped us too. We each were able to fill our tags.

Blue skies, warm weather and star-filled nights around a campfire made it the perfect adventure.

The true test came when we finished processing the meat, and daughter-in-law Felicia put the first steaks in the frying pan. I’m sure the ranchers who raise some of the world’s best, grass-fed beef on these lands look at antelope meat much like a Minnesotan would a sheepshead (freshwater drum) pulled from a lake. Sure you can catch, fillet and fry them up, but do you really want to when there are walleye available?

Felicia told our dinner companions Alexis, 12, Hunter, 10, and Avery, 9, that chicken- fried steaks were on the night’s menu. They devoured the steaks unaware of their origin, and loved every bite.

We knew the truth, and enjoyed the fare with every bit as much enthusiasm. They made for a meal worthy of being complemented with expensive drinks.

The open skies of northern Wyoming offered clear, star-filled nights.

October’s fog played part in Green Lake plane crash 56 years ago

 

Captain Richard Carey was flying in dense fog when his Cessna L-19 crashed into Green Lake on October 15, 1958. It was recovered in August, 2005, shown here as it is being lifted to the surface for the first time.

 

Fog blankets our landscape on many mornings now, especially near our lakes where summer-warmed waters give up their heat to the much cooler, nighttime air of October.

The change of seasons occurring in October brings with it many foggy nights.  This seasonal phenomenon had tragic consequences for Captain Richard Carey, 36, some 56 years ago on October 15, 1958.

Many people in the area remain very familiar with the story. Carey was piloting an Army National Guard Cessna L-19 Birddog that vanished into Green Lake in dense fog. He made his last radio call just before 1:30 a.m., stating he was low on fuel and had “hit something.’’ It’s believed the small craft had hit a seagull and went down. Capt. Carey’s body was recovered 13 days later, but the plane went missing for 46 years.

Corey Fladeboe of Willmar and Brett Almquist of Maple Grove found the plane in 40-feet of water while they were fishing for walleye at a location out from the Joseph Brown access on July 3, 2004. They spotted the plane with an underwater camera and marked the spot, returning the next day with scuba gear to see the plane and its insignia first hand.

The plane had been the focus of countless searches over the years, including by a man who made a small submarine from a propane tank for the purpose. A Burnsville man, Greg Olson, had found the plane in 1996. He had researched the crash and made repeated underwater dives in the area he believed the plane would be found. He did not make his finding public at the time.  Frustrated by all the red tape involved, he abandoned his effort to retrieve and salvage the plane.


The plane’s finding became very public when the Spicer American Legion led an effort to retrieve it. The plane was lifted from the lake in August, 2005 as on-lookers watched from boats and shore.

Many came to watch the plane’s removal from the depths of Green Lake.

There were ambitious plans to restore the plane and display it in memory of its late pilot, but tragedy struck again. Pilot and aviation enthusiast Gene Underland, 64, of Spicer, died in an April, 2007 plane crash. He was returning home from Florida with a newly-acquired, amphibious craft when its engine lost power and he attempted an emergency landing near Knox City, Missouri.

Underland’s expertise and enthusiasm were essential to the restoration project. His loss dealt the final blow to the restoration project, which was already in trouble.  The estimated costs for restoring the plane had been steadily rising beyond what anyone had anticipated.

The plane looked to be in decent shape when retrieved, but upon further review it was determined that its restoration would have been extremely expensive.

A novel introduction to a park in the making

Chippewa County has placed two camper cabins in its park near Wegdahl. They’re very similar to those found in state parks, and can be used year around.

WEGDAHL — Camper cabins have proven so popular that they now can be found at 27 different state parks, and they’re credited with introducing people to those parks who might otherwise never have visited.

They are about to do the same near the tiny community of Wegdahl, which is home to Chippewa County’s newest park.

“A diamond in the rough,’’ is how Bill Pauling, a member of the Chippewa County parks board and an avid outdoors person, describes the park.

The park is located six miles south of Montevideo on the Minnesota River, and getting there can be as fun as it is easy: You can drive your vehicle on U.S. Highway 212 or Chippewa County Road 15 right to the cabin doors; hike on foot or ride your bike along a paved trail running directly from Montevideo to the park; or launch your canoe and paddle the Minnesota River to it.

The park is barely 10-years in the making, but its biggest step was taken this last week when the doors to the two, new camper cabins were opened. The park is also offering two sites for recreational campers, with 50-amp electric service at one and 30-amp at the other.

“Now it’s a matter of getting the word out,’’ said Scott Williams, director of the county’s land and resource management office, which oversees the county’s parks.

Interior view of a camper cabin. They will sleep five to six.

Williams and park board members are optimistic that the camper cabins will prove as popular as the state camper cabins after which they are modeled.  Just like the state’s cabins, they take the “rustic’’ out of camping by providing families and other campers with a roof over their heads, bunk beds, and electricity.

And like many of the state’s camper cabins, these northwood-style cabins will be available year around. Both have electric heat, and there is plenty of reason to believe they will prove popular in the winter. A cross country ski trail maintained by the Bushwackers, a group of Montevideo outdoor enthusiasts, already makes the park a destination for many in the winter.

The Bushwackers have also helped make the park a place to visit in the warmer months too. They’ve worked with the county to install a shelter and picnic area, large campfire ring, and playground equipment for children.

Slowly but surely- on what Williams describes as a shoestring budget- the county has been developing the 30-acre park into an attractive and increasingly popular park.

A public waters access at the site also makes it a popular destination for anglers and paddlers.

It’s all a far cry from the state of affairs here in 1997, when flood waters inundated much of the area. In the years following the flood, the county purchased and removed several flood-damaged homes in the area. It also worked- along with the Minnesota National Guard and Clean Up our River Environment- to remove junked cars, appliances and other trash that had been tossed in this river bottom area for years.

Now, visitors can hike a wooded trail under a canopy of oaks, maples and basswood, or enjoy the spacious grass and picnic area.

Williams said Jim Dahlvang, a Chippewa county commissioner and park board representative, first proposed adding camper cabins to the park. The immediate challenge was this: How to add structures in a floodplain?

The solution proved simple, thanks to Jamie Winters of Montevideo, who built both cabins for the park. They are built atop wheeled-frames, much like the famous Ice Castle Fish Houses built in Montevideo. If flood waters threaten the park, the county can simply hitch up its camper cabins and pull them to higher ground.

The cabins are being offered on a first-come, first serve basis, at $50 a night. Reservations can be done in person or by phone at the Land and Resource office in the county courthouse building, 320-269-6231. Williams said in the near future it will also be possible to make reservations on the county’s website.

There is a fire ring and charcoal grill available outside of each camper cabin. There are porta potties in the park, but no water. Williams said future plans call for adding water and bathrooms in the park, and possibly, two more camper cabins.

Scott Williams, director of land and resource management for Chippewa County, said the county is now taking reservations for the camper cabins.

A close encounter in the northwoods

A mid-September trip to the BWCAW offered autumn scenery and the hunting and fishing opportunities we sought.

A September frost had arrived before we did, but our timing could not have been better. The tinge of red and yellow evident in the forest when we arrived grew visibly by the day, adding lots of color to the boreal forest of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

And after all, it was autumn pursuits that brought us. Grouse hunting and fishing occupied all of our mornings. At mid-afternoon, we hid ourselves in tree stands among the changing colors of the forest canopy in hopes of luring a bear to boiling pots of honey before nightfall.

It almost worked.

For a few years now, my son Erik and I have been fortunate enough to be drawn in a lottery for a BWCAW bear hunting license. It’s a very challenging hunt. Most bear hunting in Minnesota takes place over bait. The bait is usually placed in the woods well in advance of the season, so that bears have had time to discover it and become accustomed to making regular visits to it. And in most cases, the bait is placed where larger quantities of it can be set.

We found grouse to cook over the camp fire, and the fishing was good too.

In the BWCAW, baiting has not been allowed. This year, hunters could set bait out while they are in their stands by it, but they must remove it when not present. Needless to say, there’s no way to portage barrels of sweet bait to remote sites.

The no-baiting regulation leaves hunters with one strategy.  Simmer honey in a small pot and hope the sweet aroma brings a hungry bear your way.

So while bear hunting is our stated purpose for the trip, we make the most of it by enjoying other fishing and hunting opportunities.

We were fortunate enough to have found an area in the BWCAW where there are old trails to follow in pursuit of grouse. The season opened on the day we arrived, and we took it up. We found birds too, although not as many as two years ago during a visit to this site. Still, we enjoyed grouse cooked over a campfire, along with fish we caught in the lake at which we were camped.

It’s the same lake that treated us to another pleasant surprise.  I woke one morning to a rhythmic sound, like a paddler in a canoe. Through the trees I could see ripples like that in the wake of a canoe too, until I spotted the source. A bull moose was swimming alongside the shoreline, and made a beeline across the lake when he realized his proximity to our camp.

As for the bear hunt, we came close too. Our schedules prevented us from making it to the BWCAW until mid-September, or two weeks after the season’s start. We also only had four days to hunt, far less time than we’d like.

And sure enough, it was on our final night when we finally got a bear interested. Erik set himself up deep into a swamp. To reach the site he had to canoe to a boggy, cattail-lined area where he then walked over a spongy marsh to a high spot with trees. He lined his path with colored ribbons to find his way out in the inky darkness of night.

On his final evening in his stand he heard sloshing and activity and knew a large mammal was circling about, but never got a sight of what he figured was a bear. When night fell, he took on the chore of removing his tree stand and bringing his unloaded gun to the canoe. He was making a second trip to the canoe with the last of his stuff when the bear growled at him and he made haste to exit.

Simmering a small pot of honey can attract bears.

New era to begin at Lac qui Parle with ’14 goose season; first come, first serve blinds

A four-decades long tradition ends with the 2014 goose season at the Lac qui Parle refuge, where blinds will be available on a first come, first served basis, no registration required.

WATSON — A new era begins at the Lac qui Parle refuge this year, where hunters will no longer be required to register for any of the state blinds.

Blinds will be available on a first come, first served basis through the 2014 goose season, running Oct. 16 through December 30.

It’s one of many changes coming this year, but hunters should know that it remains a controlled hunting zone. Hunters must use designated blinds within the refuge, possess no more than 12 shells, and must unload and case their shotguns when more than 10-feet from their blind.

Refuge Manager Dave Trauba of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources believes hunters will welcome the change to a first come, first served allocations of blinds. The change, he said, “makes sense.’’

Hunter numbers at the refuge have declined for more than a decade as goose hunters find ample opportunities to pursue their sport throughout much of Minnesota today.

As a result, there are more blinds available than demand for them, said Trauba. That’s the case on weekends as well as weekdays. It is no longer cost effective to staff the hunter contact station and hold the morning and afternoon drawings to allocate blinds, as had been the case for 40 years.

The practice originally began four decades ago in an old barn at the site, when the Lac qui Parle refuge offered one of the few opportunities for goose hunting in the state. Hunters gathered under dim, incandescent lights as a pre-dawn drawing was held for blinds lining the refuge.

This year, hunters need only drive to a blind of their choosing. They can use one blind in the morning and if not successful, move to a different blind in the afternoon.

Finding the right blind will be made easier too.

The DNR is currently in the process of publishing an “everything you want to know about goose hunting at Lac qui Parle” guide, according to Trauba. It will provide a list of blinds, photos of each, even information on placing decoys at each, and lots of tips on how to be successful.

The comprehensive guide will be available on the DNR’s website late this month or in early October, and include information on geese migration numbers and dates through the refuge.

The guide will also outline the other changes coming, and they are significant.

The controlled hunt zone is shrinking. All of the area east of Chippewa County Road 32 and north of County Road 33 is being removed from the controlled zone and made part of the wildlife management area. That means the area remains accessible to hunting, but hunters will be free to locate themselves as they wish and carry as many shells as they want.

The Watson Sag, including the water blinds located there, is part of the area being removed from the controlled zone and available for hunting as part of the wildlife management area.

A fabricated blind will be added to a crop field in this area as well. It will be mandatory to use decoys at the blind, and it will only be available for use on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. The limited use should keep geese from developing a pattern of avoiding the area, explained Trauba.

Watching waves of geese arrive at the Lac qui Parle refuge has excited hunters and others for 40 years.

He said there are also plans to remove some of the blinds now in the controlled zone. He’s reviewed years of records and staff will be removing those blinds where hunter success was very poor. Due to the changed migration patterns, there were a few blinds where no one shot geese in the last five years, either because no one occupied them or the geese no longer fly over their locations.

With all of the changes are sure to come some challenges, noted Trauba. One of the concerns will be that hunters reach blinds before shooting hours in the morning. Staff will be watching to make sure that people aren’t parking vehicles and walking to blinds while geese are flying and other hunters working to decoy them.

DNR staff will continue to be available seven days a week at the refuge and can answer hunter questions about everything from flight patterns to which blinds were hot the previous day.

Overall, the changes being implemented are aimed at providing hunters with an enjoyable and quality hunting experience, said Trauba.

The changes also recognize that the Lac qui Parle area today is much more than a goose hunting destination. Trauba said many are recognizing that a trip to Lac qui Parle can also include opportunities for everything from pheasant hunting to walleye fishing.

The changes also speak to what has been the Lac qui Parle success story. There were no more than 150 Canada geese at Lac qui Parle in 1958, when efforts began in earnest to attract the Eastern Prairie Population geese that were migrating through the area from summer nesting grounds on the tundra.

At that time, there were also fears that Minnesota had lost its population of native, giant Canada geese.

Today, Minnesota’s giant Canada geese population has grown to the level that the DNR offers a special, August hunt with a daily bag of 10. And, the Lac qui Parle refuge remains a very important resting and feeding site for the EPP geese, which arrive by the tens of thousands through the migration.