STANLEY, N.D. -- The feeling is not so much one of hunting as being at sea in a rolling green prairie. On a September afternoon, three of us are following Labs and a pointer across nearly six square miles of native grassland on the Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge in northwestern North Dakota.
Country like this is all but gone, even here in the lightly populated corner of the state, not far from Montana and Canada. Most of the land has been broken under the plow to grow wheat or flax or canola or corn. But here, thanks to your tax dollars and mine, one can still get a glimpse of what this country looked like when covered wagons creaked and groaned over the sod and great herds of buffalo thundered across the land.
The three of us have split up, gone our separate ways on this hunt.
There is little advantage in hunting sharp-tailed grouse as a group, to move birds as a phalanx of hunters might push through grass or corn for pheasants. Sharptails can be almost anywhere in this pale green ocean of grasses and calf-high plants. Birds of the short-grass prairie, they prefer a room with a view, the better to spot predators such as weasels, foxes and raptors.
To be sure, you can find sharptails in wheat stubble and tree rows and more civilized habitat. We have. But to fully experience the essence of this native bird, you must once in a while hunt them in native prairie.
When we left the truck, my partners were flanking me, but traveling on random vectors we quickly dispersed. I can see Bob now, far below me, a tiny blob of blaze orange against the gray-green land. Bodyn, his German shorthair, ranges beyond him, gobbling up real estate, seeking bird scent. Mark is somewhere beyond the next rise with Millie.
"See those trees way up there?" he had said back at the truck. "I'll go there."
The trees are tiny pockets of aspen that grow in the damp creases of the land where saplings gain enough protection from the relentless winds to get a foothold in the soil. In one such clump, Mark will report later, he flushes a huge bull elk.
I follow my yellow dog across a broad valley, then up into the folded hills left behind by the glaciers. The country is full of wetlands, too, some of the best duck breeding range on the continent. In this year of rain, they are all full, but this is not a normal year.
The wind is light from the northeast. The dog and I make sure we check the lee side of each ridge top, where sharptails like to sit. Like the rest of us, they prefer to be out of the wind.
Sometimes, I'll admit, I just stop. I cannot help it. Especially up high, I feel compelled to pause and take in the austere beauty of the land. It is one thing to be a hunter. It is another simply to be a human being, a tiny speck of humanity, at large in country unchanged since the last ice age. From my vantage point, I can see Lower Lostwood Lake a mile distant to the south and Upper Lostwood two miles or more to the north.
People who study such things say that Paleo-Indians were using this country 10,000 years ago. Some 200 tipi rings are scattered over the refuge, which includes many more square miles closed to hunting this time of year. Cradling my 20-gauge in my hands, I cannot help thinking of a native hunter sharpening a spear tip or an arrowhead on one of these ridges, wondering how he's going to kill a bison or an elk for his family. Now, there was a hunter.
On a saddle of grass between two hilltops, the dog perks up and surges ahead. The single sharptail rises from her nose and bores hard into the breeze until the light load of steel pellets catches up with her. The dog scoops her up and trots back.
Later, three more grouse flush from the lee of a hilltop, but they are well out of range. This happens as often as not. It is difficult to sneak up on a sharptail when you stand more than five feet above the tallest cover. For eons, sharptails have stayed alive by not waiting to see who's coming to call.
Our pre-arranged hunting time beginning to expire, I make a large arc that points me toward the truck. From a ridge along the way, I finally pick out the rig and two tiny human forms. Soon, I'll join them.
Hunters returning from the land, just as they have for centuries on this prairie.