On the hunt for pheasants

My blurry pheasant in flight photo. :)

If there was a dream shot to be taken during this past weekend’s Minnesota Governor’s Pheasant Hunting Opener in Nobles County, it wasn’t to be done with a gun.

Nope. I had a camera.

My dream shot was to get a hunter perfectly poised, aiming his gun toward a beautiful ringneck pheasant as it took flight over a field in its attempt to escape.

Leave it to an award-winning photographer from the Mankato Free Press to burst my bubble (or perhaps take the self-imposed pressure off!). John Cross — a graduate of Worthington High School who worked at the Daily Globe early in his nearly 40-year career as a newspaper photographer — told me it’s easier to shoot a pheasant with a gun than it is with a camera.

Nevertheless, I tried my best. (That’s all the Chief asks for, right?)

Congressman Tim Walz (right) watches for a pheasant to flush.

Clad in a bright orange sweatshirt that made my eyes hurt, blue jeans, a worn-out pair of walking shoes and an awesome pheasant-adorned, blaze orange cap courtesy of Runnings, I set off with my hunting party minutes after Saturday’s 9 a.m. Pheasant Opener start.

Pheasant hunter and habitat promoter extraordinaire Les Johnson served as our hunting guide, and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz was among those carrying the guns. Cross and I followed along with our camera gear; and Johnson’s dogs, Darby and Brandy, led the hunt as they sniffed out and spooked up more than a dozen pheasants, albeit mostly hens.

Bret Amundson shows off his two roosters as four excited dogs surround him.

I’ve always considered myself an outdoors person, so to be walking through tall stands of prairie grasses like Indian Grass and Big Bluestem that towered over my 5’8” frame, I was as happy as a lark … or perhaps more appropriate for this adventure, as happy as a pheasant hen.

We’d traversed more than a quarter-mile of land before we saw our first action. I was in awe as Darby bounded through the grass, his nose seeking, then finding the scent. The faster his tail wagged, the more imminent the potential for a bird to flush, I learned.

I was so mesmerized by the dog that the first pheasant to fly out from under cover flew off into the distance without so much as one click of my camera’s shutter. I think I forgot what my job was to be on this hunt!

I’ll be ready next time, I declared, as visions of blank newspaper pages flashed before me. Yes, I must get a shot — a good shot.

We kept on walking through brief clearings and thick brush as Johnson and Walz talked about government funding for habitat and the array of wildlife on the land, mixed in with occasional praise of the hunting dog.

After joining other hunters in our group, we divided up again. Johnson and Brandy walked through the cornfield, and I trailed behind Walz along the field’s edge. Hunters to our right had four working dogs to help scare up the birds.

We hadn’t walked far when Johnson shouted that a deer was on its way out of the corn field.

The thought of being pummeled by a 10-point buck immediately interrupted the serene feeling I had about connecting with nature.

A pheasant hen safely flies away after being scared up by one of the hunting dogs.

While I missed any photo ops with deer, I captured a few shots of pheasants in flight — and missed the closest opportunity of all. A hen flushed about two feet from my walking shoes, scaring me enough to elicit a scream. Walz laughed at the surprise encounter and said we were close enough to feel the breeze of the flush.

Yep … that wasn’t all I felt!

All in all, it was a successful hunt — the gun-toting members of our hunting party bagged three beautiful roosters; the photographers had opportunities aplenty; and our First District Congressman experienced a hunt on some amazing Reinvest In Minnesota prairie ground in Nobles County.

Kudos to all of the people who made the 2014 Minnesota Governor’s Pheasant Hunting Opener not only happen, but one to be proud of. It was well-organized, educational and fun, and Mother Nature did her best to provide perfect conditions for a hunt … whether we carried a camera or a gun.

In search of stitchers and knitters

WORTHINGTON — I was probably about six or seven years old when my Grandma Elizabeth taught me how to hold a needle and thread and stitch along the pink lines imprinted on a cotton dish towel.

I remember trying to speed up the intricate work by making long stitches — stitches my grandma would rip out — only to have me do the work again, this time with smaller stitches. She was trying to teach me the right way to do embroidery work.

A couple of years later, as a 4-H member learning from expert needleworker and patient 4-H leader Jean Weness, I learned how to cross-stitch. Like my grandma, Jean has certain standards. I eventually learned if I couldn’t do it right the first time, it was all the more painful to rip it out and redo it.

It sort of applies to everything in life — if you can’t do it right, it isn’t worth doing at all.

Anyway, because of those patient women and their willingness to share their talents, my life was set on a course to stitch.

Bad day at school? I’d go home and stitch. Good day at school? I’d go home and stitch.

When kids my age were partying on Friday nights, I was home with a needle and thread, creating works of art for family, friends and eventually the walls of my own home.

Stitching has often been my refuge — a way to relieve stress in this stress-filled, deadline-filled career that pays my bills.

I can’t imagine how boring life would be without my needlework stash.

Anyone who does needlework, whether knitting, crochet, quilting, embroidery or what have you, has a stash — a stack of patterns, a pile of fabric, a collection of threads — they hope to use up “some day.”

My stash, having grown in recent years thanks to donations from local retired stitchers, now makes me feel sad — sad that there are so many projects waiting to be completed at home.

Some might say my needlework hobby is an addiction, and I’d have to agree. I map out needlework shops on vacations; and I will drive three and a half hours to buy a special scissors for cutwork.

If anyone ever saw my stash, they’d probably also call me a hoarder. Yes, that would be accurate as well.

So, with the encouragement of some other local stitchers who are working to reduce their stash, we are establishing a Stitcher’s Group in Worthington. (I’m so excited!)

On the second Tuesday of each month, all area stitchers are invited to bring their projects for stitching and socializing from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., at the Center for Active Living, 211 11th St., in Worthington. Our first Sit-n-Stitch is next Tuesday.

Over the next few days, look through your stash, pick out a project and bring it Tuesday night to the CAL. Who knows, maybe with some dedicated stitching time and encouragement, we’ll be able to finish some of those projects in our stash.

Wistful thinking

A few weeks ago, I was looking longingly at my calendar and wondering if somehow, some way, I could manage a trip to the North Shore this fall for a little relaxation in the leaf-peepers paradise.

I love the drive between Duluth and Grand Marais – or really, anywhere that offers water views as far as the eye can see, perhaps a lighthouse or two, some walking trails amid the trees and the unmistakable sounds of seagulls.

I’ve been up and down the North Shore enough times to know where to go and what to do. I guess that’s probably why one of my brothers texted me the other day asking what there was to see and do in Duluth.

After texting back ideas for must-see things like the North Shore’s state parks, Duluth Harbor and Split Rock Lighthouse, I suggested a ride on the North Shore Scenic Railroad, a lunch stop at Betty’s Pies and a bit of shopping in the towns along Highway 61 – all the typical touristy kind of stuff. And, if they wanted to take a scenic drive through the trees, a trip up Highway 1 to Ely is pretty cool as well. The one and only time I drove that route, I saw a moose – a real – roaming in the wild – moose!

Gosh, any more talk about Duluth and the North Shore and I might want to ride along! Ah, but who wants to be the third wheel? Not me!

Well, at least not until the next text came through inquiring about the fall colors. After I’d directed him to Minnesota’s fall color guide online, he replied back that this very week is slated to reach peak color along the North Shore.

Hmm, do you have an open seat in the car for me?

I’m pretty sure my hopes of getting to the North Shore this fall have, well, fallen through – thanks to a rough couple of days for my credit card. My clothes dryer died, and then I was informed I needed three new tires on my car. There’s nothing like a couple of big bills to bring me back to reality!

So, while some people in my family get to take a little trip to our northern Minnesota paradise, I’ll be staying closer to home for the next couple of months and doing what I usually do on my weekends – laundry – with a dryer that works.

The fleeting days of summer

As much as I enjoy the crisp feel of the autumn air, the beauty in the changing colors of the leaves and the sound of Kenny Chesney singing “The Boys of Fall” on my MP3 player, I’m feeling a bit melancholy about our fleeting days of summer.

From beginning to end — a mere 13 weeks — the summer season seems hardly long enough to pack everything in.

That first weekend of summer began with a Daily Globe picnic at Chautauqua Park and a first birthday party for my beautiful one-year-old great-niece Elsie, and it seems every weekend since has been filled with one activity or another.

It must be a built-in trait of Minnesotans to cram as many outdoor activities as possible into a span of just a few months because, as we all know, the snow is going to start flying soon enough.

So, from birthday parties and trips to the lake to weekends at the office and lazy days with my nose in a good book, I whittled away yet another summer. I didn’t watch a single Twins game  – and I didn’t get to Fairmont to watch my nephews play in Little League. It seems my summer was spent “preparing for Germany”, “being in Germany”, dealing with a quick recovery from Germany before “fair week”, followed by “post-fair week” and State Fair week. Boom. Just like that and it was over.

But, there are the memories … my first limit of northern pike; putting leeches on hooks for nephews too scared to do it themselves; bonfires; watching wild turkeys grow up on the farm; listening to pheasants cackle; four-wheeler rides; conversations with neighbor kids in my backyard; princess and dinosaur birthday parties; croquet.

I find the greatest memories come from the kids.

A couple of weeks ago, my great-nephew and I hopped on the four-wheeler and took off for the back pasture just as the sun had begun its descent and a light fog was settling over the Ocheyedan River.

I had just turned down the lane when the pungent odor of skunk hit us in the face. I sped up. Brody was chattering about the stink and then told me to slow down because he was cold. Yes, fall is in the air.

We drove a little farther.

Brody started chattering again. Apparently he just saw a kangaroo hopping through the soybean field.

“Are you sure it was a kangaroo?” I asked.

“Yes, it was a kangaroo!” he exclaimed in his confident, almost-4-year-old voice. “I saw it!”

“What did it look like?”

“Like a kangaroo! It was jumping!”

“Could it have been a deer?”

“No Julie … it was a kangaroo!”

It wouldn’t be the first kangaroo sighting in Back 40. Not too many years ago, probably about this same time of year, I tried to convince one of my nephews that the creature we were admiring — again in a soybean field — was a kangaroo. All we could see was the head and neck.

I almost had the boy convinced, too, if the deer hadn’t been spooked and started leaping over the bean rows.

I’m pretty sure I took a sock to the arm for stretching such a tale. This time around, with the next generation of the Buntjer family along for the ride, it wasn’t the boy that needed convincing, but his aunt. This time around, I didn’t get a sock to the arm. Instead, I got “the look.”

You just don’t argue with an almost-four-year-old.

The Farmer’s Table

My parents have one of the biggest gardens I’ve ever seen, and with a summer growing season blessed with periodic rainfalls, plenty of sunshine and a healthy dose of humidity, the fruits of their labor have been abundant.

Green beans, peas, cucumbers, tomatoes, sweet corn, strawberries, raspberries, peppers, cilantro, asparagus, rhubarb, potatoes, carrots, onions, beets and a few other things have been picked, washed, cooked, canned, frozen, processed, sliced and diced as Mom fills up her shelves, refrigerators and freezers.

The other night, I was invited out to the farm for supper to find fresh-cooked green beans, sliced tomatoes, cucumbers in cream and a pan filled with new crop mashed potatoes on the table. Meanwhile, in the basement, a huge pot of tomatoes was slowly cooking on the stovetop as she prepared yet another batch of canning jars for homegrown tomato juice.

The week before, she had beets in the pressure cooker. I wish she would have warned me.

There are a few smells that waft from Mom’s kitchen that I have little tolerance for — liver frying in the pan, the aftermath of chicken processing and the odor of red beets cooking.

Mom says I used to like beets. In fact, when I was still young enough to be sitting in the high chair, there were meals where those diced red beets were the only thing I’d eat. Now, a queasiness comes over me at the mere sight or smell of pickled beets.

Any way, the beets are finished and neatly organized in jars on the shelf, and the tomatoes are slowly being added to the collection.

Come November, when my brothers and nephews are home for deer hunting, those jars of tomato juice will be plucked from the shelves one by one as we cook up our traditional deer hunter’s Crock-Pot Chili.

At Thanksgiving and Christmas, the family will celebrate the holidays with another nod to the garden’s abundance — dill pickles, sweet pickles, squash, potatoes, canned green beans and fresh-frozen sweet corn. Those pickled beets usually show up on the buffet line as well.

Month by month, jar by jar and freezer bag by freezer bag, the bountiful harvest will slowly whittle down through the long Minnesota winter.

And just as the memories fade of all the work that went into planting, weeding and harvesting, Mom will get excited for the new seed catalogs that make their way to her mailbox come January.

My only hope is that she might consider a smaller garden with less work next summer. After all, she’s not feeding an Army!