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Sam Cook column: Prairie pilgrimage

EASTERN MONTANA -- The first thing we noticed when we pulled into the hay yard was a sign jammed between a couple of bales. In bold red strokes painted on an old pallet, it read, "Reserved Minnesotan Parking Only."...

Hunter on the prairie
A sharp-tailed grouse hunter and his dog move across native prairie in eastern Montana. Sharp-tailed grouse prefer open, short-grass habitat. (Sam Cook / scook@duluthnews.com)

EASTERN MONTANA - The first thing we noticed when we pulled into the hay yard was a sign jammed between a couple of bales. In bold red strokes painted on an old pallet, it read, “Reserved Minnesotan Parking Only.”
We could see, too, that a few of the big round bales had been strategically placed to form a shelter for our camp.
We were back in eastern Montana on the sprawling farm of David and Shele Christoffersen to spend a few days hunting sharp-tailed grouse. The sign, we would learn later, was the handiwork of Bailey Christoffersen, a high school junior.
The Christoffersen home was down the road a half-mile. It was a mild September evening, and the Christoffersens were not around. They were too busy harvesting nearly 3,000 acres of wheat, taking advantage of the dry weather to work long into the evening in their big John Deere combine.
We felt their welcome even without their presence.
The four of us, all from Duluth, pitched our tents and set up our simple kitchen - Coleman stove, small table, lantern, water jugs. For four days, we would live close to the land, waking up before sunrise, brewing coffee in the dark and walking miles and miles of native prairie behind five dogs.
Heaven.
Sharp-tailed grouse, relatives to the boreal forest’s ruffed grouse, are native to this country. They like the wide-open, nearly treeless landscape where they can see potential predators a long way off. They feed on red buffalo berries, pale green buckbrush berries and unwary grasshoppers.
We would shoot plenty of birds, although not nearly our limits. A hunter probably could find more sharptails in North Dakota, but we are drawn by the unbroken expanse of prairie that rises from the nearby Missouri River.
One patch of private land we walked covers a dozen square miles. We fanned out, each with a dog, and didn’t see each other for two or three hours. If we did spy another hunter, he was one of us, a tiny blaze-orange speck three or four ravines away, too far even for a wave.
It’s always good to get out of one’s home territory just to immerse yourself in another ecosystem. We walked for miles across grass that’s rarely taller than the rough that lines a golf-course fairway. We poked along over glacial till, through prairie plants like sideoats grama and little bluestem and coneflowers.
Standing on a ridge, we could imagine this country before wheat, before highways, before oil. Images came to mind - wild mustangs, buffalo, wolves, Teddy Roosevelt.
We lived outside in temperatures ranging from 30 degrees to more than 80. A day of wind-driven rain sent us scurrying to a laundromat, where we stripped off wet clothes and tossed them in dryers. We came to know sun and stars and frost. We went to sleep listening to cricket symphonies. We awakened to Canada geese honking on their morning commutes to feed.
We shared a meal with the Christoffersens. We thanked Bailey for the red-lettered welcome. Carolyne, a fourth-grader, sketched horses and barns and made sure we each took home a piece of her artwork.
The talk at the table ran from birthing calves to Carolyne’s new laying hens to prospects for Bailey’s coming basketball season. We found ourselves becoming tied to this land not only through our boot soles but through human souls.
Several days after we made the 12-hour drive home, long after we had wrapped and frozen our birds, long after our shell bags had been stowed away, I received an e-mail from one of my partners.
“Just walked past the dog trailer,” he wrote. “Made me want to go right back to the hay yard.”
Sam Cook is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or scook@duluthnews.com . Find photos of his Montana trip at samcook.areavoices.com or on Facebook at “Sam Cook Outdoors.”

Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the News Tribune. Reach him at cooksam48@gmail.com or find his Facebook page at facebook.com/sam.cook.5249.
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