WALHALLA - The famed Pembina Gorge annually attracts enthusiastic deer hunters. This year's opening day was no different with lucky license holders eager for a chance to fill their tags. Conditions were chilly, but otherwise perfect for the opener. While sections of North Dakota got walloped by a snowstorm during the opening weekend of the deer gun season, the northeast corner of the state fared reasonably well.
The snow stayed away from the northeast opening day, but temperatures dropped below freezing and rainfall made things precariously icy for Day 2. The snow didn't completely stay away either. Still, it was far less than what much of the state received and not completely unexpected for deer season.
Hunters in the Pembina Gorge enjoy both the scenery and the season. The green leaves of summer had dried and fallen by the deer opener, further revealing the remarkable contours of the marvelously wooded landscape. The broad hills and slopes and connecting coulees lead to the gently winding river below. It is a wonderful home for wildlife, from small birds that rely upon the woodlands for food and cover to the stately elk, powerful moose and roaming white-tailed deer.
A North Dakota tradition continues as old friends meet at deer camp near the Pembina Gorge. The scene was repeated at numerous locations throughout the state.
Like elsewhere in the state, the tradition of deer hunting is strong in the region too. Even during a season with reduced deer numbers and fewer permits than the previous year, enthusiasm among hunters was high. Deer season is North Dakota is a very special time of year all across the state. Hunters at one deer camp in the gorge summed up what deer season is really all about.
"It's great, just being outdoors, seeing wildlife and everything," said Travis Walden, East Grand Forks, from the warm comfort of a small mobile home used as a home base during deer season.
Inside also was Pat Burton of Pembina. Burton was stretched out in a recliner during the opening hours of the season, relaxing prior to heading to a blind later in the day. Burton was a sort of greeter, enjoying the appearance of others showing up at deer camp.
"It's about camaraderie. You see all the people you get to see only once a year," said Burton. "Everybody gets together and has a good time. I'll get out of the La-Z-Boy in about an hour or so."
"It's about sausage, horns and fun with the guys and family. My mom and dad will be up tomorrow," said Keith Charbonneau, Grand Forks.
Vehicles and hunters could be seen throughout the gorge area opening day. Deer were visible too, sometimes just out of sight of hunters pursuing them. The thick cover of the gorge and hilly terrain provides ample escape routes. Sometimes deer are visible only for a moment or two when they step into the open or cross a small clearing.
The terrain is what helps make the hunt. Hunters must learn the area and anticipate where deer will make an appearance. A Grand Forks woman was among those who did well opening day, harvesting a 3x3 white-tailed buck at mid-afternoon.
"I'll tell you, it was a lot of walking!" laughed Lorraine Storey. "You know, I don't mind shooting them but I don't want to do the hauling out, especially that far."
Storey shot her buck well down in a steep draw. Fortunately, she was hunting with two sons and a grandson who were eager to help retrieve the downed deer. They had a four-wheeler too, which made the task much easier.
"It's been about 15 or 16 years since the last time I was in the deer season," said Storey. "We had moved to Grand Forks and never got around to go hunting again. I was the only one who had a buck license. Now we've got to get all the does."
"It is a very nice start," added Kevin Ellingson, Park River. Ellingson had helped retrieve Storey's deer. "It's a nice time to be with the family and be outside. I don't have a tag but still get some walking in."
Getting a deer opening day was part of the plan for Storey. The temperature was dropping and the forecast was calling for freezing rain and the possibility of heavy snow. Putting a deer on the ground before the weather could turn nasty was much better than waiting for a bigger deer that might never show and then dealing with the added difficulty of deep snow.
"We've got a few more to fill and the snow is coming," said Evan Hiller, Grand Forks, a member of Storey's hunting party. "We'll tough it out and see how it goes. I just love being outside and spending time with my family. It is always nice to go out and enjoy ourselves."
It was easy to see where the enjoyment would come from in the Pembina Gorge. The scenery of the area is truly remarkable, tall tree-covered hills cascading into the bottom land where the Pembina River has long cut its storied path.
"It is big country. A lot of people come up here once and don't come back because they shoot one in the bottom and it's tough to get them out. It's work," said Charbonneau.
Charbonneau was raised in the small town of Olga, a stone's throw from the famed gorge. He knows the region well and never misses a deer season.
"It is beautiful country and it's quiet. You also have a chance at a big one," said Charbonneau. "You don't see them every year, but you have a chance."
Charbonneau took a week off from work for deer season. Like several others at deer camp, he had numerous stories about deer, big and small, that were encountered or taken in the area. He was in no rush to hunt opening day, preferring to move around and see who else was in the field, noting where they were and how many were in the party. He said he prefers to hunt after opening weekend when most other hunters have either filled their tags or have returned to work.
Minoter Greg Kurtz was among the fortunate to fill a buck tag opening day. Kurtz secreted himself at a favorite location in the bottom of the gorge and waited for a deer to make an appearance. It did.
"I went down to the stand for about an hour and a half. A smaller buck came out about 125 yards away," said Kurtz. "He's sausage for the freezer and the wife will be happy."
Kurtz has been hunting the gorge for several years and has harvested numerous large bucks. This year though, he was content to shoot a smaller 4x4. He was aware of the weather forecast calling for a possibility of heavy snow which would make travel in the gorge very difficult. With that in mind, he opted to take his deer about a half hour prior to the close of shooting opening day.
The sky was overcast and darkness came quickly. Kurtz and a hunting partner cleaned the deer but had a long drag through the night just to get the deer to a small path cut through the timber. Once there, they waited until a few other friends from deer camp slowly made their way through the dark woods on a four-wheeler.
"I've known these guys for 15 years," said Kurtz, acknowledging their help. "I like to get away from work and just hang out and do some hunting. It's beautiful country, a lot different from the plains, and a river runs through it!"
The North Dakota deer gun season runs through Nov. 25.