Inside the Outdoors: Scrapes and narrow escapes are sometimes part of a hunter’s life
Outdoors writer Mike Rahn shares a harrowing incident while duck hunting on Leech Lake one year
If you Google “dangerous pastimes,” or “risk-filled hobbies,” it’s unlikely that you’ll find hunting up near the top of the list.
This, despite the fact that potentially deadly firearms are an integral part of the hunt, as well as the skill building practice that takes place at the range, and on the trap, skeet or sporting clays fields.
Every season we will likely hear a news report about someone who has been injured or killed while hunting.
But it is so rare as to be the exception that proves the rule: Most who hunt and target shoot become familiar with their firearms, learn to be cautious in their handling and use, and are highly unlikely to ever be injured or killed, or to do the same to another.
It is far more likely that threats to our safety will come from some outside element, rather than the shotgun or rifle we carry into the grouse woods, the pheasant slough or take with us into our deer stand.
In fact, it’s the elements in the meteorological sense that often are the source of any real danger.
We’re reminded of this on an almost annual basis when Veterans Day rolls around on Nov. 11. Older Americans know this also as Armistice Day, which marked the date when soldiers laid down their arms to end World War I in 1918.
It has since been renamed Veterans Day in honor of those who served in any of the conflicts during our nation’s history.
In addition to being a day to appreciate and thank our military veterans, Nov. 11 is the date back in 1940 when the most publicized winter storm in Minnesota’s post-settlement history began.
The storm is linked not only to an important date in our history, but memorable for a death toll of more than 150 Minnesotans, Iowans and Wisconsinites. One out of every six deaths — 25, in all — was a duck hunter. They were unprepared for a lightning-speed change from a balmy Indian summer morning to full-on winter, with vicious winds, drifting snow and plunging temperatures by that same afternoon.
In that era, the forecasting of severe weather was not as sophisticated as it is today, and the average citizen did not have access to weather reports that we take for granted, obtained in real time with the push of a few buttons on our smartphones.
Legendary Minnesota Vikings Coach Bud Grant, then a high school age young man living in Superior, Wisconsin, was caught in the storm, but was one of the lucky duck hunters who survived, as was recently recounted in a story by Minneapolis Star Tribune outdoors columnist Dennis Anderson.
Staying safe is not only about forecasting, however. It’s also about using good judgment.
Several decades ago, while employed as a reporter for a weekly newspaper, I learned from a news media outlet of the fate of two duck hunters on Leech Lake, that immense and popular northern Minnesota lake that is appealing not only to anglers, but to duck hunters — and many thousands of ducks — during the fall migration.
Two hunters had outfitted their boat with elevated sides made of netting, into which vegetation was woven for concealment. But the netting’s virtues for concealment had the downside of catching the wind and becoming ice-laden under very wintry conditions.
Their boat was swamped by wind and waves, and the two hunters lost their lives on this, their final duck hunt.
I survived a similar experience, though on a much smaller scale.
During college years I would often car-top a homemade 10-foot jon boat to a small lake west of Minneapolis, row out to one of its bulrush islands, set out my decoys and wait in hopeful anticipation of ducks. One afternoon I rowed out on its calm waters, set out the decoys and began my vigil.
There was no expectation of bad weather, but a southwest wind gradually shifted to the northwest, and then began a steady escalation. By the time I summoned the good judgment to weigh anchor and head for shore, rolling waves were licking at the gunwales of my shallow draft boat.
I made the tortured but wise-in-retrospect decision to leave my decoys and make for shore as rapidly as I could.
To avoid taking on water, I kept the boat’s nose pointed into the wind, let the waves take me downwind, then rowed back upwind at an angle slight enough to avoid taking on much water. I did this in repeated cycles: drift downwind, then row upwind at a shoreward angle, over and over until I reached the landing.
My decoys, still anchored out on the lake, were retrieved the next day when the wind had abated.
I could just as readily have become a statistic as did those hunters on Leech Lake, but for a combination of good fortune and the good sense to abandon the hunt when I did. Perhaps a little divine intervention, too!
It is both humbling and chilling to contemplate a “but-for-the-grace-of-God” incident that may have ended well, but could have been disastrous.
During high school years, before duck boats and decoys, a companion and I got most of our ducks by “jump-shooting,” walking along the edges of sloughs to scare up birds, with his dog along in case we downed a bird we could not wade out to recover.
While heading across a field to a likely looking wetland, walking side by side, my pal’s shotgun discharged, blasting my eardrum while the charge of #4 shot erupted toward the heavens, just a step or two ahead of me.
Did he forget to put the gun on “safe?” Did the safety fail? We could not determine, but what overshadowed the question was the knowledge of how badly it could have ended.
I once had the frightening experience of having my deer rifle discharge a bullet into the ground at my feet as I attempted to gently let the hammer down on the shell in my rifle’s chamber. None of my companions was close enough to be at risk, but it was no less mortifying.
Events like this underscore the vital importance of never-fail safety practices, foremost among which is to never allow your firearm to point in the direction of another person. “No harm, no foul,” is never an excuse for mishandling a firearm.
Over a lifetime of outdoor adventures, there is a very real possibility that inexperience, miscalculation, overconfidence or just pure chance will put a person in a dangerous or even life-threatening predicament.
That we escape intact can be attributed to preparedness, caution and sometimes just plain old good luck.