Dakota State University -- NDSU Agriculture
7 Morrill Hall, Fargo ND, 58105-5655, Tel: 701-231-7881, Fax: 701-231-7044
April 17, 2003
Plains Folk: On the Ice
There are some things that, in what I delude myself is middle age, I refuse to waste time doing anymore. One such thing, as I have said before in this column, is providing guidance and explanation for journalists visiting here to write their same-old stories about the Great Plains. You know what I mean: the dying-country-town, sunbleached-prairie-woman, stoic-suffering-farmer, tough-as-leather-rancher stories, the main points of which already were set before leaving Philadelphia or San Francisco.
Whenever a distant publication or broadcaster calls, be it the LA Times or the BBC, I always offer to put them in touch with a good local writer to do the story. Theyíre never interested in that proposition, and so it gets rid of them.
Another thing I wonít do is try to convince someone from somewhere else that the Great Plains are a good place to live. The truth is, most people are not taken with wide-open prairies. They want other things, which is fine. Some small minority of people do like the prairies. It may be some genetic disposition or it may be an acquired taste, but if even a trickle of the people who are so inclined were somehow enabled to move to the plains, then we would suffer serious growth pains. So when I write this column, I write for people who like the plains. Who else would read it anyway?
Still, even here among us, now and then we need to be reminded why we live here and so Iíll give you an analogy. The agricultural historian Mary Hargreaves has explained why it is that wheat farmers always have pushed the edge of marginality, have carried cultivation into lands most would say were marginal at best. It is because these hardest environments commonly produce the best grain. There are bad years, sure, but the payback is quality.
The same goes for the quality of human life. There is much about life on the plains that tests your mettle and resolve. On the other hand, there are experiences here that are just sublime. These are the things I never try to explain to the unreceptive, but I know you understand.
This winter Iíve traveled the plains from Winnipeg to Fort Worth, grazing as I went, but Iíll tell you about one of those sublime days right near my home in Cass County, N. D. The winter fishing season was winding down but this was the day for one last outing on hard water. I drove to a nearby slough and turned onto the ice.
I knew the ice was plenty thick; later, I would find I had barely enough augur to punch through 40 inches; but when you drive onto a frozen lake with four inches of melt atop the ice, that gets your heart pumping. Near the far shore, along the timber, I set tip-ups baited with smelt for pike. Farther out I baited jigs with waxworms for perch.
The fishing was slow. The pike were having a meeting somewhere else. Now and then a perch would bite and Iíd pull him out on the ice to flop. Fat ones, not so many as to be a bother.
A slow day is sometimes the best. All afternoon giant Canadas came honking low, perturbed that I was on their slough. Pheasants cackled from a grassy swale. A great horned owl sat in one of the cottonwoods, a bald eagle in another.
From the timbered shore a perky worm of black came sneaking toward the bait bucket left with the tip-ups. Mink like smelt. This one was not quite bold enough to steal one from the bucket, as others in the locality have, but he was thinking about it.
It is beyond my powers to describe the quality of light that ricocheted from the gray ice just before dusk. My computer only delivers 256 colors. Those of the plains are innumerable.
Click here for a TIF photo of Tom Isern that is suitable for
Click here for a TIF photo of Tom Isern wearing a hat that is
suitable for printing.