THOUGH THERE IS no place like a lifelong home, there also are places near and dear to your heart that you get to call home every year, even if for only a short time.

My home away from home for 27 years has been the prairie country of North Dakota. Were it not for the winters in that country, I would move there in a heartbeat. It may not have the woods and waters that I treasure so much in north Wisconsin, but it does have the one living thing on God’s green earth that I treasure most: wild waterfowl.

The ducks and geese that populate the North Dakota prairie country for roughly seven months a year like their siblings — if you will — here in Wisconsin, to me are the most treasured of all wildlife species in the world.

Like this neck of the woods where I have lived my entire life, North Dakota has something besides waterfowl, actually many somethings, that have grabbed hold of me and pulled me in for the past quarter century-plus.

It begins with passing over the Red River from East Grand Forks, Minn., into Grand Forks, N.D., and the sign hanging atop the bridge that says “Welcome to North Dakota.” That sign says to me “You are home again” and this year, for 12 full days, it was my second home.

Each year, as I roll across Highway 2 from Grand Forks to Devils Lake, the excitement in my heart grows by leaps and bounds as I begin to flash by ponds and sloughs holding flocks big and small of the waterfowl I have traveled so far to see.

Be they tiny green-winged teal, beautiful drake mallards or even a lowly spoonbill, each and every duck gladdens my heart a little more. A flock of Canada geese feeding in a harvested wheat field or winging over the highway heading for who knows where brings my heartbeat count to a pounding high.

Around about the town of Lakota, N.D., I begin counting down the miles to go before, once again, I am pulling into my second home, the little white house on the prairie that has served me and my band of fellow duck nuts so well year after year.

Home is where the heart is, they say and my heart for every minute I am in North Dakota tells me I am in a wonderful home. As a structure, the aging house isn’t that much to look at. Plywood painted gray constitutes the flooring finish in all but the bedrooms. 

Light fixtures held in place by twist-on connectors hang from the ceiling in some rooms. The floor slants down in the kitchen a little and in an upstairs bedroom the old plaster ceiling is held up by particle boards nailed to the rafters.

Out back there is a table made for and built by someone 6-foot-4 and every year, those of us lacking that height cuss the builder. Hundreds of ducks have been plucked and cleaned on that table, with a great many of them turned into gourmet breakfasts fried with bacon, Crockpot™ delights or heavenly roasted birds within minutes of being cleaned.

My love for North Dakota is not just for the ducks and geese. It is for the sunny afternoons when I can sit in a camouflaged chair at the edge of a cattail-ringed slough and watch blackbirds, curlews, marsh hawks and other birds of the prairie go about their daily business.

My love is for the characters who lived or still live in the prairie country, some who remain good friends and some who are now somewhere up above looking down at guys like me who are drawn to the prairie each year as a moth to a nightlight.

I love everything about the prairie: its unending number of duck-rich small bodies of water; its fields of wheat, sorghum, soybeans, sunflowers and other crops; the army of huge tractors, combines and other implements farmers use to plant and harvest those crops; and the houses, mostly old, but some new, that dot the prairie at well-spaced intervals.

But of course, it is the ducks and geese foremost that draw me back into their midst each year. It is the thrill and excitement of being a part of their home and hearth that pulls inexorably at my heart every year, all year, but especially for the days I am able to be a part of it each autumn.

I spent my time on the prairie this year chasing ducks, renewing friendships and even making new ones, like the one with an aging farmer who began a conversation at a local cafe one noon with the question “You boys like to hunt ducks?” Since the answer, naturally, was “yes,” the pleasant conversation went on with the upshot of it being my son and I were invited to hunt two half-sections we had never hunted before, with only one string attached.

The old boy said at the end of our chat “You are welcome to hunt there anytime, on one condition. If it has feathers and quacks, shoot it.” The old boy had often lost portions of some crops to ducks and geese over the years, and was not a fan of his uninvited feathered guests.

Brooks and I did put a slight dent in the duck numbers on his land that very afternoon.

The following day, after Brooks and the rest of my gang had all left for home, I set out on a solo hunt near the hamlet of Hampden, N.D. It was 31 degrees with winds howling 25 mph or higher, with rain turning to sleet, which stung like hornets on unprotected cheeks, before turning to pelting snow.

I am sure I was the only 69-year-old duck hunter crazy enough to be out in the elements that morning and judging by what I saw while driving backcountry gravel roads, I guessed I was the only duck hunter, period, in that part of the country fool enough to be there.

On the other hand, the three drake mallards and three gadwall I finished off my hunt with made it a perfect ending to a perfect journey. 

If my body is still in one piece, and I am still standing upright and able to hold a shotgun, I reckon there’s a good chance I’ll return home to the prairie next year.