North Dakota Or Bust!

March 24, 2009 by  

By Perry Thorvig

Some hunters will do anything and endure a lot of hardships to make their annual hunting trek to the North Dakota prairies. I am one of those guys. This story is not about shooting birds and decoy layouts. It is about the adversity we hunters endure to pursue a few flying fowl.

I first hunted North Dakota in 1975. That began 27 years of annual expeditions to North Dakota with my various hunting partners in pursuit of the snow goose and a few mallards. All of these trips have been a lot of work, but great fun. Some of them were downright adventures when I did not know if I would get there or not. One time, we almost did not get home and my North Dakota trips nearly ended permanently. Despite all these troubles, the prairie is a magnet to me and I continue my annual visits.

There is a popular myth that all non-residents go to North Dakota in their fancy vehicles and flaunt their wealth in front of the locals. Well not us. I mean to tell you that there were several times that our old, beat up vehicles barely got us there.

The first of these trips was in 1976. My hunting partner, Russ Fortner and I left the Twin Cities in mid-afternoon and drove my sedan to Grand Forks where we met our friend, Bruce Carlisle. He was in the process of waiting for a new Ford Bronco but had not yet received it. The car dealer had given him a loaner pickup truck until his new vehicle arrived. Bruce had obligations that kept him in Grand Forks until Saturday morning. Bruce decided to give us the pickup and drive my car out west the next day. So, Russ and I packed our gear into the back of the old pickup and headed for Hwy. 2 west.

As soon as we hit our first stop light in Grand Forks we began to experience trouble with the pickup. I was driving and could not baby the clutch to accelerate properly. It kept killing. Russ had the right touch and got us going. He drove for several miles until sleep began to gnaw at his consciousness. We had to switch drivers. I tried again but could not get the vehicle going. I felt absolutely helpless and embarrassed. Russ just said, “You’re something, Pear,” and climbed back into the driver’s seat. Though Russ was dead tired when he resumed driving, we made it to Churchs Ferry sometime after midnight.

The next morning we jumped into the finicky pickup. I tried again to drive and finally got the knack of the touchy clutch. All was well for a few hours until we noticed that one of the tires was almost flat. It was a good thing we had taken Russ’ tire pump along on the trip. We scouted all day stopping every three hours or so to pump up the bad tire. I can still remember pumping up that tire that evening as thousands of geese flew over-head, silhouetting the pink clouds, on their way back to Alice.

The next hunting season arrived and we still had no hunting car to haul our growing pile of decoys and hunting equipment. I arranged to borrow my friends F-150 Econoline van. It had no seats and could hold all of our decoys without taking them apart. I paid my friend the grand sum of $100 to use the van. We put 2000 miles on it in a week. I guess I got a pretty good deal.

However, there were some problems. One, the darned thing would not start all the time. Second, the brakes weren’t that good. We almost met disaster at one T-intersection on our cross-country jaunt from Minot to Aberdeen, South Dakota. We were doing a little road hunting, but primarily trying to get to Aberdeen by dark. I was reading the map and Russ was barreling down the gravel road at a pretty good clip. I was trying to decipher where we were on the thin gray line of a road on the map. I said to Russ, “It looks like this road is ending up here a little ways.” The words were no more than out of my mouth when Russ hit the brakes and the old white van started fishtailing down the road. “Oh my God,” I said as I looked up and saw a huge ditch and the barbed wire fence approaching at the end of a T intersection. The gravel and dust flew as we skidded to a stop not more than 2 feet from that fence.

Personal circumstances caused Russ to discontinue his North Dakota trips in 1980. But, the snow goose bug had bitten me deeply by then. I made arrangements to meet Bruce Carlisle in Churchs Ferry that fall. But, I had to get there by myself. I left the Twin Cities about 1:00 p.m. About 3:30 p.m., I blew my transmission fluid just south of the rest area around Dalton, Minnesota. It was the second time in three weeks that I had blown a hose. The first repair was clearly inadequate. I was able to get a ride to the rest stop and call a tow truck. The garage was able to replace the blown hose and get me on the road again. However, it was almost midnight when I got to the “Hilton” in Churchs Ferry where I met Bruce for a weekend of hunting.

Though there were no break-downs in 1983, there was a meltdown. My new hunting partner, Ken Ziegler, who I worked with at the City of Minneapolis was the designated driver. We used his old VW bus that year. All of my rubber Quack decoys were riding in the mid-section of the bus. We bumped along pretty well until we got to those two deep Turtle River crossings west of the Grand Forks Air Force Base. It was there that the old bus began to lose power going up the hills on the west sides of the valleys. Kenny was familiar with the old bus and got out and fiddled with some wires around the engine. We were on our way again but only at about 45 miles per hour top speed. The “bright lights” of Devils Lake never looked so good that night.

One of the next, dark mornings when we were headed to our field location, the engine again lost power somewhere out by Kramer. Ken, again, was able to get the engine humming with a little bailing wire.

The trip home was much better. We had a nice northwest tail wind and were really rolling. But, remember that meltdown I mentioned. It was our decoys. That old VW got so hot that many of the decoys nearest the rear engine suffered melted beaks and warped bodies.

The next year, 1984, the VW was hauling a boat trailer full of field decoys. The pin dropped out of the tongue of the trailer and it began to come apart. We hunted a quarter mile stretch of road west of Starkweather trying to find that pin. We never found it. But, fortunately, I had some spare bolts that just happened to fit the tongue. We were on the road again and made it home without any more problems.

After acquiring our licenses, we drove, slowly, over to the Napa Auto Parts store. We jacked up the trailer and took the wheel and hub off the axle – in an absolute downpour. Fortunately, the guys at Napa were very helpful and we were able to get the hub fixed ourselves. Three soggy, wet hunters continued their trek west to goose country.

We did drive a new suburban for several years starting in 1985. It was a nice period of no car problems. Ken retired the old VW. (It’s still in his backyard.) But, eventually the old sub developed some hardening of the arteries and caused us problems too. In 1995, we were around Motley, Minnesota when we developed engine problems. The sub lost power and was not getting any gas. Fortunately, we were only about a mile from a garage in Motley. After about three hours delay, we were on the road again. But, the sub was still missing and we decided to transfer all our gear to Mike Ferber’s small Toyota pickup in Detroit Lakes. Kenny and the dog found themselves buried in the back of the pickup with all our gear for the rest of the trip.

Ken and Ferb tried the sub one last time in 2000. However, they only got to Fargo when they turned into a howling north wind on I-29. The old horse had so little power left in the engine that it could not buck the wind. They turned around and drove all the way back to Detroit Lakes where they again transferred the load to Ferb’s smaller pickup.

I have had some other challenging episodes such as last October’s snowstorm and icy and rutted roads. On that trip, there was a bad accident that occurred right behind us on I-94 between Fargo and Valley City. I have fought off sleep at 1:00 a.m. on the way home after a long, tough weekend of hunting. And, I have been big-time stuck in greasy fields.

But, the real granddaddy of all the car troubles was in 1998. My son, Erik, and I were on our way back from a nice weekend trip to North Dakota. We were between St. Cloud and Clearwater, Minnesota in heavy Sunday night traffic returning to the Twin Cities around 7:00 p.m. I was in the left lane doing about 60 when a small Plymouth Horizon came galloping out of the median like a deer in the headlights. The little car was northbound and had come from nowhere. As it made its entry into the southbound lanes, it spun around and was rolling backward in front of two lanes of on-coming Sunday night traffic.

All I could do was hit the brakes and steer to the right. There was no way!! I hit the little Horizon behind the back left wheel and blew through its back bumper with the left front bumper of my Dodge Caravan. We made it though the collision with no injuries, but had considerable car damage. However, we were able to limp the remaining fifty miles home by not making any real sharp turns.

That was the event that almost put the lights out permanently.

Despite all these troubles, they really are only footnotes about my trips to North Dakota. None of these events are included in my hunting diary. Surprisingly, the guys have some real good laughs about these mishaps. However, these troubles have caused me to think cautiously and take precautions.

The real memories of these trips are the guys with whom I have hunted, the friends I have made in North Dakota, steaks at Gordy’s, Pizza at the Sand Bar, the decoy layouts, bright green heads, pink sunrises, golden stubble fields, and waves of snow geese passing overhead. For us, its North Dakota or Bust!


One Comment on "North Dakota Or Bust!"

  1. Pau on Wed, 12th Oct 2011 1:09 pm 

    Thanks for the great story. I began hunting in North Dakota for the first time in the Fall of 1973 and last season I wrote a story that was published in the Foster County Newspaper [2 parts in 2 successive weeks.

    In recent years we have had to travel from Florida but our love for North Dakota, the hunting and the wonderful people has never changed. Thanks again for sharing.

    Continued blessings, Paul Kelly

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