The Streak

March 30, 2009 by  

By Perry Thorvig

My brother-in-law, Kenny Carlson, loves to hunt and fish. As most hunters do, he got started hunting during his high school years. Kenny is a lean six-footer. I guess that’s a kind way of saying that he must have been a pretty skinny kid in high school. He was not a Friday night gridiron gladiator.

So, what else was there for an active teenager to do but go hunting? After high school graduation, there were other matters that got in the way of those weekend hunting trips – like a job, education, and women. But, in the early ‘70s, there were bluebills for eager high school kids to shoot at. I guess they even got a few.

Kenny has regaled me with many stories of shooting those “bills” on Lost Lake near Ely, Minnesota in the early ‘70s. Every Friday after school, the boys got their gear ready for the long trip to the northern frontier. Ken traveled to the lake from St. Cloud with his neighborhood chum, Tony
The cabin was a pretty peaceful place, most of the time. However, during hunting season, it got a little crowded. Many other hunters had found this little round, shallow bluebill lake and arrived early (almost in the middle of the night) to get the best spots on the lake. But, they never got the “best” spot on the lake.

Orren. Tony’s mother would drive for five and a half hours through a ribbon of dreary Iron Range towns on the way to duck camp. Often, they did not get there until almost midnight.

Lost Lake, their hunting destination, has only one access point. At the end of the access road is a little cabin with ancient, half log siding and a foundation of rounded stones. The setting is somewhat reminiscent of those in a Terry Redlin painting. But, the site is a little more open than those wooded, lakeshore sites in the Redlin paintings. It is the only cabin on the whole lake.

The entire lakeshore is ringed by bog and spindly, tag elder vegetation except for a ten-foot high spruce covered knob on the east shore of the lake. It was a pretty setting the one time I visited the lake on a cool June evening while fishing with Kenny and our sons.

That was reserved for Tony and Kenny. The boys had no officially reserved spot and there were no “No Hunting” signs. Kenny and Tony simply beat everyone else to the preferred spot (the one with the old couch on a shooting platform). They accomplished this by being the first boat out of the landing in the morning. You see, they had their boat all loaded and ready to go.

They also slept in their clothes! About 3:30 or 4:00 A.M. the dog lying next to Tony’s bed would begin to growl. That was the signal. The dog could sense approaching cars from about a mile away. If the boys missed that signal, the old dog would begin to bark.

When the dog’s signals finally pushed reality into what had been nocturnal hunting dreams, the boys bolted from their beds and hit the floor running. They grabbed their guns, threw on their jackets and leaped into the early morning chilly darkness. Normally, they would be just pushing off shore when the first hunter’s vehicle with boat-on-trailer broke through into the cabin’s opening in the woods. Kenny and Tony would almost be to their chosen spot by the time the intruders got their boat off the trailer.

Now, all they had to do was put their heads back on the couch that was in their blind and try to sleep for another two hours until it was time to shoot. Sometimes, the tranquility of the predawn was broken, by some disgruntled hunter lowly muttering to his companion, “Those god-damned kids got out here first again.” Their voices could be heard all the way across the quiet, foggy lake.

The young hunters were usually rewarded by squadrons of low flying bluebills that darted ten-feet above their decoys on the first pass. On the second pass, if the boys let them go, their black feet would be up preparing to skid to a stop in the cheap decoys.

And so, the legend of Lost Lake was born.

Those times must have made quite an impression on young Kenny, because those memories are often shared on our long rides to and from other hunting destinations. It is good that a middle-aged man can remember those days of old. If one doesn’t remember the past, how can he compare hunting today with what it was years ago? How can he know that the hunters no longer rush to Lost Lake at 4:00 A.M. or even 9:00 A.M? How would he know that the scaup population is not what it used to be? How would he know that he and his fellow hunters should try to stop the steady downward decline of waterfowl numbers?

Kenny has accompanied me for almost 20 years on my trips to the prairie to hunt ducks and geese. His first experience in North Dakota was in 1986. The two of us pulled goose decoys in a trailer behind a Plymouth Reliant station wagon. My, how times have changed!

That first trip with Kenny yielded 17 snow geese (5 was the daily limit in those days) and a limit of ducks on the opener. The mallards were so thick that they were landing ten feet in front of Kenny’s field blind. The next year, 1987, was also an ammo-eater. Four of us removed forty geese and forty ducks from the prairie over a four-day weekend around the first of October.

Kenny was spoiled after those two back-to-back successful years of North Dakota hunting. He probably thought every year was going to be like that and that every year would bring the kind of shooting he and Tony experienced at Lost Lake. But, several lean years followed, except for 1991.

Kenny was steadfast in those lean years. He hopped in the car every year, except one or two, and made the seven-hour journey to North Dakota with Kenny Z, Ferb, and me. It was during the lean years that Kenny started to become a legend in his own right. There were many boring mornings when we watched nothing but the sunrise in the east. (You better have a good brim on your hat and sunglasses to cut the glare.) Kenny developed his own solution to the glare. He closed his eyes so long that he fell asleep.

In preparation for protecting his eyes, he got a very thick blue sponge rubber mattress to lie on in his trench. (This was in the days before low profile blinds.) He would cover it with a white sheet. He also dressed in white. He would pull on his white hood/face mask, put those powdered chemical footwarmers in his boots and get ready for the bright, chilly morning.

But, getting ready for Kenny, meant making that little trench and head rest as comfortable as can be. Apparently, he was successful. Because, it did not take Kenny long before he was sound asleep protecting his eyes from the blinding sun beginning to rise in the east. Kenny missed many opportunities completely because he did not see ducks or geese pass near him. And, when he did shoot, his eyes still weren’t focused from his naps. The results were predictable.

Kenny had a pretty bad run of shooting luck for a number of years. He and I went to the trap range during that time to see what the problem was. But, there was no problem, really. Kenny shot well enough on the trap range so that he should have had some success in the field.

But, Kenny was in a slump – about eight years long. The more he missed, the tougher it was to hit the next shot. Sometimes, we thought Kenny was napping as an excuse to avoid missing. The old skunk was in his hunting bag for a long time.

Finally, “the streak” was broken in the fall of 2003. How could it not be? There were so many snow geese that any hunter would eventually have taken enough shots so that the mental picture of what it takes to hit a snow goose would have been printed indelibly on his mind. And, so it was with Kenny.

He and I put down a pile of birds on our last day in Canada. The morning’s shoot was topped off when Kenny got the last three birds. I was about 300 yards from our blinds looking for two cripples that I had downed earlier in the morning. While scrounging for white feathers in a stubble field, I heard a small flock of snows coming in on Kenny. I knelt down and peaked back toward our blinds. The birds looked pretty high, but were right over Kenny. Just as I was thinking that it is about time for a shot, one of the birds dropped out of the sky, seemingly without a shot being fired. But, a second later, I heard the shot. Then another bird went pinwheeling to the earth followed by the delayed shot sound. Kenny had gotten his first double that I could recall. The streak had been broken! What a relief – for all of us!

Hopefully, Kenny will keep that mental picture of gun barrel passing the bill of the goose in his mind, and will have the confidence to smoke those geese again next year. I know that I will keep the picture of those two birds, high above Kenny, falling to the ground before the sound of his gunfire reached my ears. I am sure that, on future long drives to the prairie, Kenny will tell stories of that morning’s hunt in Saskatchewan right after he tells his stories about Lost Lake.


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