Now the compass points north

It was the only year I ever missed deer season. In November, 1987, we moved from the outskirts of Atlanta to Grand Marais, where I’d been hired as the editor of the weekly Cook County News-Herald. The move was strategic. It took me away from the urban world of magazine editing and positioned me in a place that was a bubbling spring of story ideas. As a young writer, that was where I wanted to be.

The weekly grind of the newspaper was enjoyable. I quickly discovered that a small-town editor connects to every facet of the community, which provides endless lessons about how the world turns. Reporting the news and telling the stories of Cook County was excellent training for a budding writer. Living near the edge of the Boundary Waters and the Superior National Forest was a perfect place to learn natural resource issues and how to write about them.   

Grand Marais lies snug against Lake Superior’s North Shore, its harbor sheltered with a long concrete breakwall that ends at a lighthouse. On the editorial page of the newspaper was a long-running column called Beyond the Breakwall where previous editors had posted their commentary and musings. Although it was a little intimidating at first, I did the same. Soon writing that column became the high point of my work week. The perpetual challenge of coming up with fresh ideas and the discipline of writing to a specific word length appealed to me.

When I left the newspaper four years later and embarked on freelance writing career, the one thing I missed was writing a column. Fortune smiled and a new opportunity presented itself when I began working with Minnesota Outdoor News. Publisher Glenn Meyer agreed to let me write a column that was mostly focused on the north. It came to be called Points North.

It wasn’t long before my words generated a response from readers. Growing numbers of hunters were beginning to use ATVs for ruffed grouse hunting, putting along forest trails and potting the birds they encountered. While “road hunting” for ruffed grouse has always been legal and socially accepted in northern Minnesota, adding ATVs to the mix brought road hunting deeper into the woods on trails where street-legal trucks couldn’t go. I opined that maybe using ATVs for hunting wasn’t a very good idea. And I referred to ATV hunters as “round-bottomed low riders” to boot.

The column touched a raw nerve with many readers. Letters to the editor began to pour in. Week after week, the ATV debate raged in the Letters section. If memory serves me, Outdoor News received over 600 letters on the topic over the course of a year. The intensity of the discussion prompted then DNR commissioner Rod Sando to host an ATV Roundtable in Grand Rapids, which led to the formation of a statewide off-road vehicle organization. This essentially was the state’s first step toward managing ATV use on public lands.

Not all columns were controversial. Sometimes I interviewed interesting people, took readers along on an outdoor adventure or explained a new DNR policy. Over time, the column became a window into my world. Readers got know my dogs, my partner, Vikki, my father and a cast of characters with whom I enjoy the outdoors. Over the years I said goodbye to a few dogs in these pages, and my father and Vikki, too.

Readers tagged along on some excellent adventures. We kayaked among sea otters on Monterey Bay, fly-fished for Atlantic salmon in Newfoundland, hunted pheasants in South Dakota and ducks in Arkansas, fished for steelhead on Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula, and chased walleyes, whitetails and ruffed grouse countless times in Minnesota. One column I especially remember was when Vikki and I took a roundabout route to the Black Hills by way of Teddy Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota; Camp Crook, South Dakota; Alzada, Montana and Devil’s Tower, Wyoming. A year later, someone told me that column inspired him to make a similar western excursion.

Points North has chronicled a lot of good times, but some bad ones, too. The lowest point was a DNR information session in Garrison, where someone followed Vikki when she stepped outside for a smoke and berated her simply because she was wearing an Ojibwe-beaded hairpiece. Apparently, the woman assumed Vikki was Ojibwe. I haven’t forgotten the ugliness of her racially motivated rant.

The great reward of writing Points North has been the people I met along the way. I’m proud to have been mentored by the likes of Art Hawkins, David Zentner, Jan Green, Michael Furtman, Steve Hirsch and many more. I’ve learned a ton and gained insight from innumerable conversations with folks in federal, state and tribal natural resource agencies and conservation organizations, the vast majority of whom are dedicated, good people. I’ve also met dozens of people from all walks of life who had in common a love for the outdoors and a desire to the natural world better than they found it. And then there are the faithful readers of Points North. At least once a week, someone stops by my office in Grand Marais to say how much they enjoyed a recent column or one from many years ago.

When you look across that span of time, you can’t help but notice change; some of it for the better. I’d like to think that I played at least a small role in the restoration of steelhead and coaster brook trout populations along Minnesota’s North Shore; that my trip to meet with conservation leaders in Missouri sparked early interest in what eventually became the Legacy Amendment, that my writing helped defeat a poorly planned national forest land exchange and that incessantly banging the drum for conservation made a difference.

At the same time, one can’t ignore change for the worse. Points North chronicled the modern heyday for pheasants and other farmland wildlife that benefitted from the Conservation Reserve Program, as well as some of the best years for northern Minnesota deer and moose hunting. At present, I’m not sure we’ll see those days return. It’s hard to stay positive these days when conservation, never a front-burner political topic, is now largely ignored or brazenly attacked by politicians. Watching what remains of the prairie and western plains be converted to industrial agriculture and energy production is disheartening. I am humbled to know I once took moose sightings for granted and now only rarely see them.

Outdoor users have changed, too. Hunting and fishing don’t appear threatened in Minnesota, but people now have many other ways to enjoy the outdoors. Mainstream hunting and fishing has become more sedentary with comfy boats, heated blinds and a reliance on gadgetry and machines. I wonder what that means for activities that require dedication and skill, such training hunting dogs. Upland bird hunting, which requires a good dog and someone with the gumption to walk behind it, is already in sharp decline.

Such a topic could provide fodder for a future column. If it does, you won’t be reading it here. This is my final Points North column for Minnesota Outdoor News. I’m not ill nor am I retiring. I remain as busy as ever. I intend to refocus my professional and volunteer energy on the place that means the most to me: Lake Superior’s North Shore and the wilderness beyond. If you’d like to stay in touch, drop me an email at editor@northernwilds.com. To everyone who reads this column, I offer a sincere thank you.

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By Shawn Perich