SIXTY-SIX DAYS may seem to be a relatively short period of time, but for me the next 66 days will seem like an eternity. That’s how far away the opening day of North Dakota’s duck and goose season is.

As that opening day draws nearer and as the days begin to seriously tick down to what for me is the most joyous day of the entire year, the waiting will be, as it always has been, a tortuous affair. In the end though, the wait will be worth every second.

Last weekend, as my wife enjoyed her 50th class reunion in Mondovi, I put my time to good use. There were places in nearby Eau Claire that soothed the soul of a duck hunter aching for 66 days to pass; places with shelves filled with duck and goose decoys, where a hunter can test duck calls, where shotgun shells fill an aisle, and camouflage clothing hangs from racks and racks just beckoning to a passionate duck hunter.

While she “reunion-ed,” I visited some of those places and came away with a heavy load of shells, a new camouflage shirt and a song of mallard quacks resonating in my heart.

While the sight of cartons of decoys, racks of shotguns — none of which I could afford — and all the other trappings of duck hunting lightened my heart, what made me feel the most joy was the thought that North Dakota is just a bit more than two months away.

You might think that I pine for North Dakota just for the hunt itself, for the sight of green mallard heads glistening in the brightness of a prairie dawn or the sound of geese honking in lustful anticipation of grazing on freshly harvested wheat fields. You might think I long solely for the satisfaction of holding aloft a brace of canvasbacks bound for the dinner table, but North Dakota and the North Dakota duck hunt are far more than that for me.

Truthfully, though I will kill and eat my share of ducks, the hunt itself is nowhere near as important to me as all the other things that go with it. The older I get and with hundreds of ducks having fallen to my occasionally accurate shooting over the past 58 years, what I actually bag during a week of hunting has slipped well down the line of importance as time goes on.

What I look forward to first and foremost is sharing a little white house on the prairie with some of the best friends a hunter could ask for, counting dogs and men. I have had many of both over the 28 years I have hunted North Dakota and this year will be no exception.

The canine friends will share their unbounded love and joy of the hunt with me as they make retrieve after retrieve, each rewarded with many pats on the head and the words “Good dog, good dog,” ringing in their ears.

The human friends will share stories and laughter, and after each day’s hunt is over, share glasses containing generous dollops of Crown Royal. There will be much bragging about great shots made, and even more laughter over missed shots and assorted pratfalls each day.

While I will hunt each day, I also will take much time to observe other rituals of the North Dakota experience. I will see if I can catch a fish from lakes in the Turtle Mountains. I will drive many miles each day just to find and watch ducks and geese. More times than not, as has been the case for years, I will look at a field filled with geese or a prairie pond alive with ducks of many species without even thinking of taking a shot.

I will stop at a few cemeteries that dot the countryside near tiny villages with populations of less than 100 and I will pay homage as I wander among the headstones looking at names of old-timers, some from back in the 1800s. I will try to envision how life was like on the prairie where winters were harsh, summers were scorching and neighbors were scarce for someone like a Lars Olsen who was born in 1844 and died in 1892.

I’ll stop by an abandoned farmstead and wonder about the farm family that once lived there. Some of those families I have knowledge of; people who befriended me in my early years of hunting North Dakota and who are now gone. People like Jamie who nearly pulled my arm out of its socket urging me to come and hunt the ducks on his land. And people like Ken Price, who approached two hunters in the Egeland Bar and Grill while they had lunch, and welcomed them to hunt ponds and sloughs on his land that were filled with ducks.

When I enter that establishment this year, I will think of the warm friendship of Rose and Rick, the longtime proprietors, both of whom cancer claimed far too early in their lives. I will have an excellent burger for lunch one day at the Calio Bar where just last year, an aging farmer came in for an ice cream bar, and promptly ordered me and my son to get out in his fields a half-mile from town where hundreds of mallards were feasting on his crops.

There will be an untold numbers of things, places and people in North Dakota which have given me much joy for all these many years. I will try out new recipes on my hunters and will parry the best barbs they can throw my way regarding my shooting skills. 

Undoubtedly, I will find a new pond or slough filled with ducks, a little body of water previously undiscovered. Depending on rainfall the rest of the summer, I may find some of my favorite honey holes bone dry or other ponds that have been nothing but mud holes before might be filled with water and ducks this time around.

Brilliant North Dakota sunrises will greet me in the morning and golden sunsets will say goodnight. I may see a moose and I will for sure see sharp-tailed grouse and shorebirds of all descriptions. Green cattail fronds by the millions will sway in the prairie wind, and marsh hawks, golden eagles and other birds of prey will drift aloft looking for their prairie meals.

This is what I longingly wait for each year. These will be the things that remind me why I love North Dakota so much, why I am so happy from the moment I cross the Red River bridge in Grand Forks heading west, until I touch the bridge again on the eastward trip home.