Many homes and businesses in Minnesota have mounts of fish, deer, pheasants or ducks on display with a story to go with each trophy.
Greg Cheek also has stories for over 200 mounts he has in his home at Breezy Point. But what makes Greg’s display unique is the majority of the mounts are of exotic animals that he has hunted in the past 17 years on five continents.
Students from the elementary school in Pequot Lakes, who tour the Cheek home annually, are in awe as Greg speaks about the life-size mount of a lion who charged him while he and his wife, Jessica, were on a safari in Tanzania, or the 14-foot alligator hunted in Florida with granddaughter Jessika, which now lies under the stairway to the loft where more motionless eyes gaze at visitors.
In addition to the more recognized animals ,such as a zebra, bear, elephant, rhino, turkey or moose, the mounts in the Cheek home include the sitatunga, gerenuk, Chinese deer, cape eland, yak, Iranian red sheep, black wildebeest and many more.
Greg is a species hunter who harvests a variety of antelopes, goats, deer and other species of animals that are native to the countries in which they roam. He has also hunted various species on large ranches in Texas, where nearly extinct animals have been raised in order to increase the numbers.
Besides enjoying the hunt of these animals, both Greg and Jessica emphasized the importance of their hunts as a means of wildlife conservation. “We try to educate people, including anti-poaching. We harvest out the older males only,” explained Jessica. Revenue generated from hunting in some African countries goes toward wildlife conservation programs and anti-poaching.
“Hunting keeps the population in check,” Greg added. All expeditions are done with a professional guide who tells the hunter on which animal to focus their crosshairs. He also explained that sometimes hunters kill an animal that is a threat to humans or their animals.
Such was the case with the large male lion that Greg shot during a safari in South Africa in 2008. The Cheeks went to that country to hunt for limpopo bush buck, southern greater kudu, klipspringer, jackal and vaal rhebuck. While staying at a large ranch, the guide told Greg that a problem lion had killed 98 of 100 donkeys on another ranch.
In the book, Expedition Cheek 1997 – 2012, that he and Jessica have written, which is filled with beautiful photos from their many safaris, Greg says, “A major problem exists when a predator, particularly a lion, has free range to a food source without much effort. They become complacent and lose little fear in approaching any type of food source.”
Greg and other professional lion hunters drove to the ranch, which did not have very much brush, but the land had many ditches up to 4 feet deep. By “glassing” (using binoculars), no lion was seen so the men began walking and threw rocks into the various ditches in hopes of scaring up the male lion.
Soon a large roar was heard, and the lion ran into another ditch 50 yards from the hunters. Jessica was escorted back to the truck and told to keep the windows up.
The hunters separated into three groups and began stalking the ditch. Without speaking, the guide pointed to the back end of the lion that was sticking out of some brush. Greg was told to shoot the lion in the butt with the hopes of hitting the spine. The bullet missed the spine, but the shot aggravated the large predator to back out of the brush.
“His roar was deafening,” Greg recalled. “I shot again, hitting the lion high in the shoulder but luckily knocked it further down into the ditch.” Greg quickly reloaded his gun, and as he raised it to shoot, the lion was charging toward him.
“I shot from the hip and by the grace of God, hit directly into his heart, dropping just a few feet from me. It was not my day to be mauled by a huge lion,” Greg stated in the book.
While on their expeditions, Jessica takes many photos and videos of their hunts. “Unfortunately, the lion charge was not (recorded),” Greg continues, “but I personally wouldn’t want to revisit the experience again . . . It is impossible to convey the pure adrenalin one receives from such an experience. I personally cannot watch lion hunts on TV nor view lion enclosures in zoos or parks without reliving the event.” He added that his lion is the ninth-largest lion shot on record.
Greg is a member of Safari Club International (SCI), an organization with more than 55,000 members that works to protect the freedom to hunt and promotes the worldwide conservation of wildlife. According to SCI’s website (www.safariclub.org), the organization has spent $140 million to protect the freedom to hunt, one of the oldest human traditions, with policy advocacy and education for legislators at the state and federal level to make sure hunting is protected for future generations.
Greg has taken the Sportsman’s All Weather All Terrain Marksmanship (SAAM) course at the over 12,000-acre FTW Ranch in southwestern Texas, which has allowed him to shoot with assurance up to 500 yards. The four-day course centers on rifle hunting. Five of his seven grandchildren have also taken the course.
Many of their trips are booked through Signature Ranch Collection, international time-share hunting ranches located in Michigan, Florida, Georgia, New Mexico, Alaska and New Zealand. This company also teams up with Passing Along the Heritage (PATH), a foundation that allows children with illnesses or physical or mental limitations to enjoy their heritage of hunting and fishing.
In many African countries, Greg noted in his book that many outfitters/guides lease an area for hunting.
“Also, a government official (in many African countries) accompanies the hunters since there is a governmental fee for every animal harvested,” he said.
Greg and Jessica went to Tanzania in July for another expedition. Their next trip will be to the Arctic Circle to hunt musk ox and artic caribou. Sweden is also on their itinerary to hunt reindeer, moose and grizzly bear. Before their trips, Greg walks up to eight miles a day in the rolling countryside near their home in order to prepare for expeditions.
Jessica has shot two zebras but prefers to shoot from behind her camera in order to capture photos and videos of the hunts and the time spent touring the countries they usually visit more than once, and experience the diverse cultures.
One of Greg’s more notable trips was hunting in England and visiting with the Duke of Bedford in order to ask permission to hunt Chinese deer on the Duke’s estate. Greg, accompanied by a hunting guide, used a .223 rifle as the deer are very small. “It was probably the most unusual deer I have ever harvested with small tusks that protrude from his mouth to just under his chin.”
He’s also hunted rhinos, but not with a gun. Despite increased conservation methods, poaching of this species has risen dramatically with a chance of rhinos becoming extinct within 10 years.
As a member of a rhino expedition on an over 60,000-acre ranch in South Africa that raises cattle and is also a wild game ranch, Greg has darted rhinos in order to tranquilize the animal. Once the animal is tranquilized, a computer chip is placed in its horn by a veterinarian to discourage poachers, and the vet also takes a blood sample. While photos were being taken of Greg with the rhino, he was unaware that the vet administered an antidote at the same time in order to awaken the rhino.
“Seconds after the last picture was snapped, the rhino stood up, placed his horn under my right rib cage, and tossed me about 10 to 15 feet into a tree,” Greg recalled. “I was temporarily unconscious, but one of the trackers rushed in and dragged me out of the brush . . . I was lucky to have only cuts on my hands and face and some bruised ribs thanks to the 10 extra pounds from the ranch chef for cushion.”
Both Greg and Jessica were raised in Michigan. Greg’s father was a naval officer and worked on the atomic bomb project in New Mexico. His mother was Native American, and she and her two sons experienced prejudice in various ways, including not being served at a restaurant. His father suffered severe injuries during the Korean War and spent many years in San Diego’s Naval Hospital. During that time Greg, his mother and brother stayed with his grandparents in Ohio, where Greg went deer hunting for the first time with his grandfather. After high school graduation in Warren, Mich., Greg received his bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. degrees in manufacturing engineering. He went on to receive a doctorate in business administration.
Greg’s first job after college was with General Motors, where he rose through the ranks. He left GM to teach as a professor at Lawrence Institute of Technology in Southfield, Mich., and from there to Western Michigan University, where he was a professor in the engineering department.
He and Jessica have been married 40 years, raised three grown children, and have seven grandchildren. While Greg’s passion is hunting, Jessica’s is traveling with Greg, which sometimes includes family members. She, too, is a college graduate, and is involved with Christian activities and loves to cook and entertain.
Wild game is on many menus in the Cheek home. “I can camouflage wild game so that there is no wild taste,” Jessica noted. Her husband’s favorite wild game is eland, another member of the antelope family, which Greg has hunted in Central African Republic.
“It’s a very tender meat, no fat, and it tastes like prime rib,” he claims. He added that he has tasted the meat of all the species he has hunted, and the couple has donated thousands of pounds of meat, including through Hunters for the Hungry, an organization that donates wild game to the needy.
The couple is now retired and serve on the board of directors for a company they founded 35 years ago, Professional Lake Management (PLM) based in Michigan, which has expanded into 22 states, including an office in Brainerd. Its mission is to offer quality products to manage invasive species in rivers and lakes, such as Eurasian milfoil and zebra mussel.
Recalling the early days, Greg said he worked for a man who owned an aquatic company, and he decided to start his own company. He and Jessica purchased a row boat, and while Greg paddled, Jessica spread 3,000 pounds of product with a can. They earned enough money to purchase a boat motor with which to clear a lake of invasive species in Michigan.
After seeing a farmer spread seed in his fields, the couple purchased a similar piece of equipment and some lumber so that it could be placed in the boat.
“However, that didn’t work well as half of the chemicals went into the boat!” Greg laughed. They progressed to 30-gallon drums, and soon the application process evolved to the modern technology used today.
“It was a lot of work, and we took a lot of chances,” Jessica added. “He’s had the crazy ideas through the years that worked out for us.” They have done well, which they attribute in part to hiring good people which has allowed them to retire and enjoy their passions.
Together they have started 22 businesses, including a fitness center and PLM, one of the largest aquatic management companies in the U.S. When not traveling, their winters are spent in Marco Island, Fla., and for the past 10 years, the Brainerd lakes area is their summer home.
The couple supports a Christian-based preschool of over 90 Zulu students up to 6 years of age in the KwaZulu-Natal Province in South Africa. In addition to donating furniture and supplies, last year they delivered over 100 quilts to the school made by quilters in the Pequot Lakes area. The children refer to their school as the Zulu Cheek School.
“We’ve been successful, but that means we can help more people,” said Greg. “It’s rewarding to watch people grow.”