By Steve Maanum
Each year, when October rolls around, my mind takes me back to those childhood autumns in Benson. My senses were filled with the sight of colorful maples, the taste of fresh apple cider and pumpkin bars, the smell of burning leaves, and the sound of Canada geese breaking the stillness of the October nights.
October also gave way to the opening of hunting seasons. Waterfowl season usually began at noon on the first Saturday of the month and the pheasant opener commenced two weeks later.
To this day, the fall hunting seasons still bring out the kid in me. Dad and I were a Terry Redlin scene waiting to be painted. In 1958 dad took me hunting for the first time. I was eight years-old and my .410 double barrel was as tall as I was. Four pheasants and one mallard died of heart failure when I pulled the triggers that October.
That was the beginning of a hunting partnership that lasted for decades. The first years were full of excitement. I had so much to learn, and dad was always there to pass on his knowledge and experience. He gave me encouragement as I arranged and rearranged the decoys, as I hit sour notes on his duck call, and as we constructed hunting blinds out of corn stalks or whatever else the surroundings had to offer.
Sometimes pleasures came in the natural occurrences around us – the stillness just before a sunrise, the many color changes the eastern sky goes through as a new day begins, or the rustling of the golden aspen leaves as a warm autumn day tries to cling to summer. It all added to the total hunting experience.
Mom got involved, too. No stores carried hunting clothing my size, so she made everything I needed, right down to my shell vest. On those early morning hunts, she would get up to make sure we had a good breakfast and a lunch packed. After a hug and a “be careful,” she would watch us head out into the darkness.
Dad’s job kept him on the road during the week, but when those autumn Fridays rolled around, he would find me packed and waiting on the front steps. There were days when he didn’t even take time to change. On one of those occasions, we rushed out to our favorite cornfield for a crack at Northern mallards. As a large flock began circling, we hid motionless under a covering of cornstalks. The flock landed in front of us, and we watched them play leapfrog as they competed for kernels of corn. We never even fired a shot. It just didn’t seem important. We must have made quite a pair – dad in his tweed sport coat and tie and me in my home-made hunting clothes.
Over the years some things changed. The .410 went back in the gun cabinet and I moved up to a 20-gauge pump before finally graduating to my 12-gauge Remington Wingmaster. As one season blended into the next, I began growing and mom didn’t have to make my hunting clothes anymore. My legs even stretched out enough to fit into my hip boots without rolling them down. I still remember the discomfort I suffered while waiting for that day to arrive.
When I left for college in northern Minnesota dad found time for fall visits and we learned to hunt ruffed grouse together. When I got my first teaching job in the northwest part of the state, we found another challenge as we chased sharp-tail grouse through willow breaks and prairie grass.
Dad died in the summer of 1992 after battling cancer for five years. Each time we were together during dad’s last years, all the hunting stories were told and re-told. His skills went beyond marksman and outdoorsman. He was a great storyteller. Those stories reminded us of the impossible shots we made and the easy ones we missed. They got better with each new version and through our laughter could be sensed an ever-growing friendship. The most important thing that came from all those autumns together was certainly not the game we brought home. In fact, that was probably of least importance. The deep love and appreciation I gained for nature was accompanied by just as deep a love and appreciation for my hunting partner.
Much of my hunting is now spent with a camera as I focus on ducks, geese, grouse, and deer. All the outdoor lessons dad took time to teach me - the early hours, the patience, the knowledge of my subject, and the excitement and anticipation are still part of every photo safari.
Oh, I haven’t given up my other hunting. Our own two kids joined me in the field as they grew up and now the grandkids are carrying on the same tradition. The .410 double barrel found its way back into the hands of young hunters and dad’s seasoned duck call was speaking to distant flocks of mallards once again.
I am doing my best to pass on all that dad taught me about the outdoors and in the process, we still take time to marvel at the wonders of a sunrise.