NEW LONDON, MINN. – Five-year-old Jordan Strand didn’t know how good he had it Saturday morning. Or perhaps he did. Brandishing a big smile, he was with his dad, Mike, and grandpa, Matt, doing what his great-great grandpa, Orrin Strand, a son of Norwegian immigrants, hoped his descendants would be able to do forever: hunt ducks.
That’s why more than a half-century ago, Orrin Strand purchased 80 acres of land in Kandiyohi County that these many decades later remains a gathering place on opening weekend of duck season for the Strand clan and assorted hangers-on.
“My dad was a hard worker who had one hobby, hunting ducks, and he wanted us to always have a place to hunt,” said Roger Strand, 83, Orrin’s lone surviving male offspring and patriarch of the family’s concrete-block shack, built in 1955.
It’s at the “Stoney Lake” shack and the woods and waters that surround it that the Strands hunt ducks and deer in fall, and turkeys in spring.
But more so than hunting, the Strands, like many family sporting operations throughout Minnesota, seek to galvanize through common outdoor experiences the family’s multiple generations, young to old. That these get-togethers occur at a homestead that hearkens to Orrin Strand’s life and times, with no running water and no electricity, makes the intergenerational weave that much tighter.
Roger, a retired Willmar surgeon, has been in love with this special part of Minnesota since childhood. Neither prairie nor woodland, it’s a mix of each, interrupted by lakes and potholes, the latter of which were home, a half-century ago, to flocks upon flocks of nesting and migrating mallards.
Hearkening back still further, Henry Sibley, Minnesota’s first governor, hunted elk in this country, guided, it is said, by none other than Little Crow, who trotted alongside Sibley’s horse, keeping up by foot.
Acknowledging that times change, Roger Strand nevertheless has made it his life’s work to hang on to important semblances of days gone by. The elk aren’t coming back, and the mallards have moved west. But loons nest here, as do trumpeter swans. Wood ducks are abundant, too, and Roger nurtures their springtime brood-rearing efforts by posting nearly 100 nesting boxes throughout Kandiyohi County.
“In 1966 I bought the farm adjacent to the 80 acres my dad bought for hunting,’’ Roger said. “I didn’t know the couple who owned the farm. But one day I just walked up to the door and said, ‘My dad owns the land next to you and if you ever want to sell your farm, I’d be interested.’ The farmer looked at me and said, ‘Well, Ma and I have been thinking about selling.’ ”
Saturday morning, darkness gave way to light long before daybreak as Matt Strand of Eden Prairie, his three sons, Mike, Alex and Tom, all of the Twin Cities; his nephew, Eric Westlund of Hutchinson, and Roger’s son, Bob, joined young Jordan shuffling about the Stoney Lake shack, their movements illuminated by gas lights.
Wanting to be in their blinds by legal shooting time, they ate breakfast quickly. Then, soon, scatterguns at their sides, some of them crossed the lake, a vintage Lund Ducker providing the conveyance. In the mix as well were a black Labrador retriever and, of course, young Jordan, a kindergartner now already on his fourth opener.
“Our rule is we shoot only drake wood ducks and mallards, if we can,’’ Matt said. “We don’t make a big deal of it if someone makes a mistake and shoots a hen. But we try to shoot only drakes.”
Roger didn’t hunt Saturday morning because his wife, Kay, suffers from Parkinson’s disease and needs his help.
But ducks, and especially conservation, were on his mind. Since 1983, he and Kay have hosted Prairie Pothole Day on their 115-acre home place, and the event has become a hallmark of the region’s outdoor heritage.
A sort of mini Game Fair attended by more than 4,000 people, Prairie Pothole Day since its inception has been a fundraiser for the Minnesota Waterfowl Association, which was founded in 1967 in Albert Lea but is going defunct at the end of this month.
On Monday, a meeting will be held in New London by Prairie Pothole Day organizers who must decide whether to continue the event or, like MWA, fold the tent. To carry on, the group will need to acquire its own tax-exempt status and insurance. Previously, both were provided by MWA.
“We don’t charge admission to Prairie Pothole Day, which is why we get so many families,” Roger said. “In fact, more than half the people who come are kids. And if they’re going to understand the concept of conservation, we have to get them interested and experienced in the natural world. You can’t take care of the earth from a couch, playing video games. So, yes, I want to continue Prairie Pothole Day.”
From his farmhouse Saturday morning, Roger could hear gunfire rattle across Stoney Lake, and could well imagine a drake wood duck somersaulting into decoys.
Turns out, Orrin Strand, the son of Norwegian immigrants, was right so long ago, as were the generations of Strands that followed.
Some things can last, and should.
Dennis Anderson • firstname.lastname@example.org