Dennis Anderson
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On Thursday, exactly 54 years after Don Soderlund first hunted ducks on Pelican Lake, he was remembered fondly in a Lutheran church in Albertville, just northwest of the Twin Cities.

This was at his funeral, and more than a few duck hunters attended to honor their friend and to recall a time in this state when waterfowl were so plentiful a man could define his life by their comings and goings and by everything that attended those passages: cold mornings; wet retrieving dogs; muddy waders.

Soderlund died Monday at age 72.

Born in Chicago, as a boy he moved to Minneapolis with his family. Other kids at the time might have aspired to be firefighters, doctors, accountants or truck drivers. Soderlund perhaps harbored similar ambitions. But ultimately his calling was ducks, whether hunting them (he shot drakes only), painting them (he was an accomplished wildlife artist and decoy painter), photographing them or, simply, talking about them.

Minnesota was different then. Flush with clean waters and plentiful grasslands, the state raised a lot of winged fowl and welcomed still more of these transient birds in spring and fall. Smitten by their abundance, record numbers of Minnesotans chased ducks, most of them recreationally but others, like Soderlund, passionately.

Soderlund's son, Don Soderlund III, lives in South Dakota, where he is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service enforcement officer at Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

"One of my fondest memories as a kid occurred in winter when Dad invited his friends to our house with their hunting photos from the past season," the younger Soderlund said.

So intent was the elder Soderlund to live and relive his duck-hunting escapades that he recorded every game bird he shot dating to 1970. He also chronicled other pertinent data from his outings — information that, along with photographs, he bound in scrapbooks thick enough to stop bullets.

A few weeks back, a day before the duck opener, I visited with Soderlund at his home. He was weak — he had suffered a major heart attack in 2011 — and at times fought for breath. Still, he cited by memory facts and figures from hunts dating back decades.

While we talked, just outside, a stone's throw from the house he and his surviving wife, Laurie, built in 1972, Pelican Lake lay quiet, all 3,800 acres of it.

To his great satisfaction, Soderlund had lived long enough to see this shallow-water jewel on the road to recovery.

Beginning in the early 1980s, as farmers intensified drainage, Pelican's water level rose, killing aquatic vegetation important to ducks. In turn, vast numbers of these birds vanished — a course now being reversed, thanks to the efforts of countless conservationists, Soderlund among them, as well as the DNR and various conservation groups.

Assuming continued success in this effort, one day, perhaps, skeins of Soderlund's favorite duck, the canvasback, will again arrow over Pelican. Perhaps a few might even be banded — the ultimate waterfowling trophy, Soderlund believed.

Fred Bengtson, a DNR area wildlife manager and an admirer of Soderlund's, hopes so. Tuesday, he and Tim Bremicker, a retired DNR wildlife section chief and also a Soderlund friend, hunted Pelican Lake, meeting there, as if by providence, some other of Soderlund's buddies.

"In a way, at the boat landing, it was like a visitation," said Bengtson, who later that morning shot a canvasback, as did Bremicker, rare occurrences nowadays on Pelican.

Providence also shined recently on Don Soderlund III.

"Last weekend, I came home [from South Dakota] with two of my boys to see Dad," he said. "While I was here, I figured I should hunt Pelican like I did with Dad when I was a kid.

"The first two days I didn't do much. Then, the night before my third day of hunting, I told Dad which way the wind would be from, and he told me to go to a certain point, which I did, deploying Dad's canvasback decoys.

"A pair of canvasbacks came in that morning, and I shot the drake. When I went to pick it up, I couldn't believe it: It was banded.

"One of my sons delivered the duck to Dad. He was in as much disbelief as I was that he was holding a bull canvasback from Pelican. And a banded one.

"I'll remember that experience forever, and I took it as a sign that someone is out there watching over things. If it's not a sign, I don't know what is."

Dennis Anderson •