The sound of our tires struggling on snow, slush and soft gravel told us that our ascent on this steep incline would soon be over. The black suburban with Minnesota slabs, the tracks of which we followed on this snow-covered gravel road, also stopped.
The vehicle stopped a group of turkey hunters, just like us. They had made up their minds. They turned back and went to the southern end of the Black Hills, where they have always hunted for years. “There are more birds anyway,” they said, expressing their hope that the southern part of the hills would be without the snow blocking our way.
The invitation to a spring turkey hunt in the Black Hills of South Dakota had been irresistible.
Son Erik Cherveny and boyfriend Josh Neu are avid turkey hunters. The plan was simple: pitch a tent in the middle of the ponderosa pines of the northern Black Hills and camp close to the birds in an area Erik had hunted a few years earlier at just over 6,000 feet.
Almost a week before we arrived, a blizzard choked this wilderness with about 30 cm of snow. A few inches of snow arrived just a day ahead of us and sprinkled like salt over any vegetation that turned green.
We needed the snow shovel, which was kept in the truck for emergencies in winter, to make room for our tent.
This was the opening weekend for Turkey’s gun season in the Black Hills, but we only carried bows and arrows. Josh and Erik are accomplished archers, and the purpose of this hunt was to take on the challenge.
This early April adventure was Josh and me’s first Black Hills hunt, but I have camped, hunted, and fished in wilderness areas for many years. I still look forward to any trip like this with the same enthusiasm that Eric Sevareid described in Canoeing The Cree as he waited to be released from his classroom for an epic adventure. “Paradise was outside, out on the green hills and along the lazy river,” he wrote.
I had been looking forward to witnessing the spring green of the Black Hills, exploring the backcountry trails, and hearing the turkeys and other birdsong far away from civilization.
That first night in the tent was damn cold, and like the devil on my shoulder the thought occurred to me: A little over an hour’s drive away in Belle Fourche, South Dakota, the house of my eldest son Ryan was waiting for me, where it was warm and bed was offered been.
We held on to it despite the cold, and our mood was high. On our drive to our tent we discovered a strutting male cat with chickens. The beauty of seeing this Merriam turkey with the ivory tips on its tail feathers made the challenge of dealing with the snow seem insignificant.
We must have chosen our campsite well. About a dozen deer were barely a soccer field away from us, and they kept coming back the following nights, no matter.
Our first day of hunting, Saturday, offered warming temperatures, melting snow, blue skies and the scent of pine trees. We spent much of the day scouting and the snow had its advantages. We found turkey tracks and knew they were fresh. Before the end of the day, we’d heard a couple of Gulps in response to calls.
The winds came that night and resulted in colder temperatures. No doubt the weather suppressed turkey activity.
On our second day we didn’t hear any chickens cackling or devouring Toms until we finally ventured into the area late that day where Erik had hunted years earlier. There we managed to lure a devourer from a tom that was hidden in the middle of a tree-fallen area. But he found out about us.
We were faced with a constant parade of snow gusts and relentless winds for almost three days. We came home with no birds and blamed the weather for it. We were also able to thank the weather for what made it possible. We hiked the backcountry enjoying the scenery that draws so many to the Black Hills and had it all to ourselves.
“This is just beautiful,” remarked Neu as every curve along the way opened up a new view. The phone app in his pocket told him that during our scouting we were covering seven miles a day, much of it in hilly terrain. We climbed up to 6,786 feet in one spot.
During our four days of hunting we heard only one shot, and on our first day there was the distant crack of a shotgun. We saw the vehicles of some other hunters here and there on this opening day. When the weather turned and the wind blew it was obvious. Like the turkeys, the local hunters had huddled together. The hunters had decided to wait for better conditions.
I admit. After returning home, I complained to another hunting enthusiast that I was going back without birds and the challenges of the weather. “You stuck with it, didn’t you?” He said “yes” I replied. “That depends,” he replied.
To me, this conversation was like the applause that Sevareid and paddle partner Walter Port enjoyed as they told the Winnipeg Canoe Club about everything they’d experienced paddling to Hudson Bay on their great adventure.