GRAND FORKS — In my world, at least, Labor Day weekend marks the unofficial end of summer and the beginning of fall.
Fall is my favorite time of year: There’s a bite in the air, hunting seasons are getting underway and outdoors enthusiasts who don’t put away their fishing rods often are rewarded with the best action of the year.
With only a couple of exceptions, my biggest fish have come in the fall.
As fall activities go, there are few things I enjoy more than walking the trails for ruffed grouse on crisp October afternoons, the earthy aroma of decaying leaves — the smell of fall — filling the air. Or hanging out at night by a blazing campfire, solving the world’s problems while enjoying a few glasses of home-brewed craft beer.
There certainly is no shortage of problems that need solving these days.
Just like most of 2020, I suspect this fall will be a bit “different,” for lack of a better word. The ongoing risks of COVID-19 will require a few extra precautions, at least among those of us who choose to take the pandemic seriously. Not everyone does, obviously; if they did, wearing masks wouldn’t have degenerated into a political issue and case counts wouldn’t be rising exponentially, as they have in recent weeks.
That’s my take, at least.
According to the website covidexitstrategy.org, North Dakota is mired in the “Uncontrolled Spread” category, with Minnesota faring only slightly better as “Trending Poorly.”
Despite that gloomy scenario, the outdoors can provide a place of refuge and relief from the barrage of bad news and the pandemic that continues to interrupt all of our lives.
It’s just a matter of being smart about things.
No doubt there’s cause for excitement as the calendar slips toward fall. A friend drew a once-in-a-lifetime North Dakota elk tag, and if all goes according to plan, another friend and I will accompany him and a couple of his family members for the early October hunting excursion to the Killdeer Mountains.
All of us are looking forward to being there and sharing in the thrill of the hunt and experiencing some of North Dakota’s most rugged and scenic landscapes.
A couple of weeks after that, our annual “October Trip” ruffed grouse gathering will go on as scheduled, though we’ll probably have to spread out a bit, just to be safe. Ideally, every one of the half-dozen or so regulars who gather for the trip will be tested for COVID beforehand and know the results.
Whether that’s possible remains to be seen, but that would be my preference.
If that’s not possible, we’ll do our best to social distance; instead of three or four people sleeping in the 12-by-16 bunkhouse that’s on the property, perhaps some of the regulars will have to stay in tents. Meals, as always, will be prepared by one or two people but probably eaten outside or, in case of rain (or snow), inside a 30-by-60-foot pole shed that offers plenty of room for spreading out.
The fire pit, which serves as the evening gathering place where the aforementioned problems are solved and home-brewed craft beer is consumed, will easily accommodate social distancing.
As for the hunting aspect of the trip, most of us either hunt alone or with no more than one other person when we hit the woods anyway, so that should be business as usual.
Ideally — and I’m crossing my fingers on this one — we’ll have a nicer fall than last year, when late September monsoons sent some of our favorite fall walleye rivers soaring past flood stage, rendering them unfishable.
During the October Trip, reaching some of our favorite grouse-hunting spots meant navigating flooded roads. Navigating between the fire pit and the woodpile meant setting pallets to create a makeshift bridge so we didn’t have to slog across the waterlogged yard.
With everything we’ve already endured this year, better conditions than we had in 2019 would be a welcome turn of events indeed.
But as always, we’ll play the cards we’re dealt and make the best of it.
The anticipation will continue as November approaches and deer season prospects that are very favorable in the area we’ll be hunting.
Again, there will be some logistical challenges, and we’ll probably have to do things differently from previous years to be safe during the ongoing pandemic.
We’ll figure it out.
This fall definitely won’t be business as usual, but the time outdoors and the opportunity to get together with friends for activities all of us treasure will still be possible.
That’s about the best we can ask for in a year such as this.