Points North: On the Plains, Human Encounters Are Few, But Memorable

Plains
Plains

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 On the western plains, most everything seems temporary or transient. All that has permanence is the grass. Plow it up and even the dirt blows away.

 
We drift across the plains every autumn in search of game birds. Their annual abundance goes up and down in response to the elements, but hunting them is reason enough to visit this wild and windy place. That said, we take the hunting seriously enough to feed and train a dog who takes it even more seriously than we do. A dog living in the northern forest knows he only gets a few days on the plains every autumn, so he makes the most of them. We just follow behind and fire the shotgun as necessary.
 
Out among the birds, you don’t encounter many people, partly because the plains are sparsely populated. Towns are scattered far enough apart that you always check the gas gauge before driving from one to another. About the only people you pass on the lonely highways and dusty back roads are local ranchers who nod or wave. If socializing is what you seek, don’t come here.
 
We mostly talk to people at gas stations, small town cafes or campgrounds. Invariably they are friendly, as is usually the case wherever folks live with ample elbow room. However, you can never be sure what direction the conversation may turn.
 
“We killed 26 rattlesnakes today,” said a man from Washington state who was camped near us. “We were out on the grasslands shooting prairie dogs when we came upon the snakes.”
 
Since there are neither rattlesnakes nor prairie dogs where we live, we listened with interest. The man said he and his friend had happened upon a den site where rattlesnakes in the vicinity gather for the winter. The snakes were out in the warm afternoon sun, but were sluggish. The man said about half of them would rattle when approached, but all would strike if provoked. He told us they found all of the snakes within a 50-yard radius. Which begged the question: What do you do with 26 dead rattlesnakes?
 
“I skinned out a half dozen of them and we were gonna eat ‘em, but I dunno,” he said.
 
Birds, not snakes and prairie dogs, had drawn the two men over the Rocky Mountains and across the plains to this place. Many of the hunters we meet cross the Divide, hailing from California, Oregon, Washington or Idaho. All are bird hunters and, like their Minnesota brethren, are frustrated with the scant prospects they find in their home covers.
 
“We see a lot of California quail, but we’re lucky to shoot a pheasant a day,” the man from Washington said, echoing what I’ve heard from other northwestern bird hunters. As is the case across the Corn Belt, wild bird habitat west of the Divide is less than it used to be.
 
Even on the plains, the land itself has changed. Where once there were mule deer, pronghorn and sharp-tailed grouse, (and before that bison and elk), now there are white-tailed deer and pheasants--nonnative creatures more compatible with modern agriculture than native game. Although today’s bison are now in fenced pastures, remnants of past wildlife exist. One morning we found the tracks of a bull elk along a muddy creek bottom, 100 miles from the nearest free-ranging herd. Later, a local conservation officer confirmed what we’d seen.
 
“I’ve had reports of a bull elk around there,” he said. “Somebody saw a young bull moose over that way, too.”
 
Later, we had another conversation about the elk while talking with an old rancher we met while eating dinner in a small restaurant. He was surprised and happy to hear about the elk.
 
“I hope they leave it alone,” he said. “It’s good to have them around.”
 
He told us it was possible the bull had escaped from someone’s penned herd. He was dismayed that a few of his neighbors raise trophy-antlered bull elk and then sell them for thousands of dollars to rich men who shoot them in a pen.
 
“Why would anyone want to kill an animal that way?” he said, posing a question to which we had no answer.
 
In the same restaurant we talked to another man, who unlike the old rancher, was as transient as a tumbleweed. Without prodding he shared some of his life story, about how he’d moved to the Great Plains from Wisconsin. Whatever he was doing back in the Dairyland paid three times as much as the job he’d found working for a county road crew.
 
“I’m going back,” he proclaimed. “I can make more money in a few months back there than I’ll make all year in this place. And I’ve got an RV down in New Orleans where I can spend the winter. Now what’s wrong with that?” Again, we were asked a question for which we had no answer.
 
But it was the next day, as we cleaned a couple of birds and prepared for the long drive home, that we were asked the hardest question of all.
 
“Have you seen my dog?” asked the man with Idaho plates on his big diesel pickup.
 
It turned out he’d just driven in from Idaho and was still two hours from the town where he planned to meet his friends from Back East. He stopped to hunt alone with his dog in a standing cornfield on a public hunting area. Apparently, the springer spaniel had disappeared in 80 acres of corn. He’d seen our vehicle parked nearby and wondered if we’d encountered the dog. We hadn’t. When we tried to explain the lay of the land and where the dog might turn up, he just said that he’d left all of the information about the dog at a local store, and drove away.
 
We talked about the man and his lost dog on the way home, happy such a fate hadn’t befallen us. Curled up on our pickup’s backseat was a tuckered out dog who seemed happy enough to be headed home after his temporary time on the plains. We wondered if the man intended to stick around until he found his dog or if he would just continue on to meet his friends. There were enough people around the public area that the dog was likely to turn up within an hour or two. At least we hoped so. 

Airdate: October 29, 2010

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