Dennis Anderson
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IN SOUTHEASTERN NORTH DAKOTA — Imagine yourself in this state a couple of years back. It's October, and you're in a small-town bar in a county that's home to fewer than 2,000 people.

The sun has set, dinner is a memory, and among happy talkers in the only tavern in town are a few guys from Minnesota. Decked in camouflage, these are duck hunters, drawn here by the sloughs, potholes and small lakes that pockmark the area's otherwise flat, fertile soil.

A local guy, a farmer, is in the bar, too, talking to the Minnesotans, and he informs them that his 90-plus-year-old aunt has died and he's charged with selling her house.

"What do you want for it?'' one Minnesotan, Joe Unger, asks.

"The lawyer says I should get 10,'' the guy says. "But it's harvest time and I don't want to mess with it. If I could get something between 7 and 8, I'd consider it.''

A friend of Unger's, Jeff Shie — they grew up together near Rice and Maryland in St. Paul —is in the bar, too. The house-peddling farmer seems to Shie like a straight-shooter. But what kind of house costs $8,000?

"So Joe goes and takes a look at the house,'' Shie, 66, recalls, "and it's real nice. New paint. New roof. A little dated, sure. But nice. So Joe says, 'I'll take it.'

"Then he calls his wife back in the Twin Cities area and tells her he just bought a house for $7,500. And she says, 'What is it, an outhouse?'"

***

Now it's a recent day, and Shie and I, along with a friend of Shie's, Tom Franchino, are in the same small North Dakota town where Unger made his real estate deal of a lifetime.

North Dakota grew at a 15% clip between 2010 and 2020, fourth fastest in the nation. But most population boosts were in the state's larger cities, Fargo and Bismarck, and in the northwest, where oil and money are the big attractions.

With fewer than 2,000 residents, this county is not one of those places. It is instead one of more than 30 North Dakota counties that lost population in the last decade.

Which is just fine by Shie, Franchino, Unger and an unknown number of other relative newcomers to North Dakota, many of them Minnesota duck hunters.

They want rural and everything that goes with it. Friendly people. Slower pace. And, especially, great hunting and fishing.

"Of the approximately 250 houses in town,'' Franchino says, "maybe 45 are owned by non-resident duck hunters.''

Having moved to North Dakota from St. Paul 19 years ago, Franchino, 64, is by now almost a local. He was a taxidermist in the Twin Cities and a tournament bass fisherman. But he wanted a slower pace. He knew he'd have to swap bass plugging for walleye jigging. But he could live with that. And the duck and pheasant hunting would be a bonus.

"The first night I was in town I was at the bar having dinner and I wrote a check,'' he recalled. "The woman looked at my name on the check and said, 'Franchino? What are you, Mexican?'

" 'No,' I said, 'I'm Italian.'

"She looked at me funny because everyone around here is German or Russian German. So, humoring her, I said, 'OK, I'm Italian and I'm in the witness protection program.' Then I watched as she went right down the bar, telling every farmer on every stool I was in witness protection.

"The people here are super friendly, but still today that's how a lot of people think of me. Seven years after moving to town I rescued a guy from a local lake and when I got him to shore, he said, 'I know you. You're in witness protection.' ''

***

Psychologists spend a lot of time helping patients ease the tension between what they have to do and what they want to do.

Many people never resolve the conflict.

Others, whether by whim or design, make a break for it, some by quitting jobs they don't like, others by moving to places where the weather, as it were, suits their clothes.

Some of this latter bunch are haunted by landscapes different from their own and yearn to immerse themselves in what they consider dream destinations. For some it's seashores. For others, mountains, the north woods or prairies.

"I bought my house here last July," Shie says, referring to the town where Franchino and Unger bought homes. "I had retired and I was up here on a fishing trip. I'd come to North Dakota forever to hunt ducks, which I love to do. So I figured, why not be here, where the ducks and the prairies are?

"Now if I travel five miles to hunt, that's a long way. You still have to ask permission to hunt. But the people here are incredible, and that's a big part of the attraction.''

***

By the crow, Jake Whitten lives perhaps 80 miles from Franchino, Unger and Shie.

Most recently from Alexandria, Minn., where he was a bovine veterinarian, Whitten, 69, aspired a long while to own a place in North Dakota where neighbors were friendly but not next door, and where ducks bobbed and preened on his own personal wetlands.

"I grew up in Michigan, where there wasn't a lot of duck hunting,'' Whitten said. "But my parents were from Minnesota and my dad hunted a lot, so I heard all the stories. After vet school at Michigan State, I moved to Minnesota, but as years went by, duck numbers declined in the Alexandria area and I started looking for land in North Dakota.''

In 2004, between Jamestown and Devil's Lake, he purchased his dream property: 300 acres with an old farmstead, an 80-acre slough and 30 smaller wetlands.

He's since added another 500 acres, some of which are enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. Another 240 acres are tillable, which he rents to neighbor ranchers.

In 2014, Whitten retired and moved to North Dakota full-time, living in a home with a bird's eye view of one of his wetlands. He built the home himself, with help from his son, Ben, and brother, Bob.

"You come to a certain place and you get the feeling this is where you're meant to be,'' Whitten said. "That's how I felt when I moved here.''

Though he didn't intend to practice veterinary medicine in North Dakota, and doesn't, generally, he will help local ranchers when they need him, particularly during spring and fall roundups.

Otherwise he and Moses, his 9-year-old yellow Labrador, keep themselves busy, especially now, as colder weather signals the coming North Dakota winter, and in its advance, ducks by the hundreds of thousands funnel down from Canada.

Sometimes mallards and other wild fowl descend onto Whitten's marshes, wings cupped and feet backpedaling, but sometimes — even in North Dakota — they keep flying.

Regardless, his fascination with ducks and particularly with the fertile shallow waters and surrounding grasslands he provides them, remains.

"This is where I carve my decoys,'' he said a few days ago as he entered a large building where waders, hunting blinds and other gear were stored. "I like to hunt over my own decoys, so by trial and error I've taught myself how to carve and paint them.''

As Whitten spoke, though separated by 80 miles, give or take, Unger, Franchino and Shie were in workshops of their own, and also surrounded by dogs, waders and decoys.

This was October and ducks would fly in the morning.

They were where they wanted to be.