By Nick Green, Michigan Out-of-Doors Editor
“Bully!” he said — sharply breaking the 6 a.m. silence. Who is this yahoo and why have I committed to four hours in the car with him, I thought to myself.
Headed west from Bismarck, playing hooky from the conference’s scheduled activities like two mischievous high school kids in search of cigarettes and beer, I was on a mission with a man I barely knew: We were to harvest a sharp-tailed grouse, or two, and follow in Teddy Roosevelt’s footsteps.
The task didn’t come easy. We spent the first day birdless, pulled over and contemplating the utilization of some unorthodox hunting techniques. Well north of the country that Teddy roamed, we felt empty — empty because the dogs hadn’t found a bird and because we didn’t place ourselves in the mix of storied history.
It all came together on the next day, though, September 11, to be specific. With five birds down from two coveys and some excellent dog work, we were set on fulfilling that second part of our goal.
I met Brandon Butler, the former executive director of the Conservation Federation of Missouri, the day I picked him up from the airport in Bismarck for the annual Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers Conference. As these meetings often go, it didn’t take us long to find the nearest hunting store, buy licenses and discuss things not fit for a magazine.
Butler is an interesting character. It was obvious he knew people in far higher places than me, and he was never at a lack of words on a topic. We covered the gamut: politics, podcasts, advertising for our respective publications and, of course, hunting.
Former Executive Director of the Conservation Federation of Missouri Brandon Butler poses for a quick photo before chasing sharptails in North Dakota’s Badlands.
Communications with Butler before the conference consisted of airport pickups and drop-offs, hunting expectations and gear. But after I picked him up, it was like I was riding with an old friend that I hadn’t seen since high school.
Breakfast on the 11th was what one would expect for a conference — eggs with a consistency my pallet didn’t quite agree with, decent sausage and a glass of apple juice. As Drew YoungeDyke from the National Wildlife Federation finished his pitch on partnerships, Butler and I slowly implemented our disappearing act.
The two-hour drive west to the Badlands and Theodore Roosevelt National Park was fueled by optimism and a greater understanding of expectations, which we had learned from the day before.
Dirt roads dotted with the occasional oil well were broken up by the steep terrain and rock that only years of erosion and nutrient-stripped soil could create. It’s amazing how the hallowed ground of the Badlands hadn’t chewed up and spit everyone out that stepped on it. Cattle and bison roamed throughout what little vegetation there was, and an occasional mule deer showed us some semblance of life as it bounded away.
As we crested a hill looking for sharptail habitat, we came upon a man and his wife letting their wirehaired pointing griffon out for a run. The couple, from Montana, were in the area for work and talked about a successful hunt the day before.
The man told us to find water. “The birds will be within a mile of water,” he said. Knowing little about the country or sharptails, we meandered down the road another mile or two and spotted two water holes several hundred yards off the road.
With anticipation building and the unknown gnawing at us, we pulled over, put on our vests and loaded our shotguns. The walking was easy — calf-high, at most, grass and what the locals called “buck brush” was all that the eye could see.
The author’s German shorthaired pointer, Summit, left, and small Munsterlander, Calvin, stop for a quick break during a hunt in the Badlands. Hot temperatures and relatively low winds didn’t help with finding birds, but the dogs managed to get it done.
It’s amazing to think that birds would hide in this cover. Being a somewhat seasoned ruffed grouse and woodcock hunter, birds that require heavy cover, I thought to myself that there was no way a self-respecting bird would hang out in this grass — vulnerable to avian predators and anything else fast enough to chase them down.
My research dictated the contrary, though — sharptails prefer short grasses that give them good sightlines and the leeward side of hills.
Off we walked. About two miles into our journey, I was ready to turn around and try another rolling hill on our way back to the truck. Butler spotted big tracts of highbush cranberry in the distance and insisted that we continue on around those to see if the birds were hunkered down and feeding.
Green sets off with Calvin, his small Munsterlander, in search of sharptails.
As we made our turn westward at an old fencerow, Calvin, my oldest dog and a small Munsterlander, locked up on one of those cranberry bushes. Before Butler could get the word “point” out of his mouth, a covey of about a dozen sharptails took flight. Butler made quick work of two with his semiautomatic, and I dropped one, missing on the second shot from my over under.
My German shorthaired pointer Summit made the first retrieve as Calvin searched for one of the birds Butler had knocked down. As I turned towards Butler to express a sign of relief, four birds from the original dozen made a wide swing several hundred yards out and headed back for us.
Was I in a duck blind? There was no way these birds were going to buzz us in shooting distance after we had dropped their friends. But, they did. Butler made a beautiful 35-yard passing shot on one of the birds to fill his limit. I was able to take another out of the covey and had two in the bag.
And just like that, all within three minutes’ time, we had harvested five sharptails.
Butler poses with his first sharptail, pointed by the author’s small Munsterlander in some high-brush cranberry bushes.
Being only six miles from Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch, I couldn’t help but wonder if Teddy had stepped on that ground, taken a sharptail or shot a mule deer there. I have never felt like I was a part of history more than that moment.
We made our way back to the truck, birds in tow, and settled on the rest of the morning’s plans: We would head south to the hub of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and visit Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross Cabin.
The namesake of Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross Cabin, located in Medora, North Dakota.
When we arrived, families and tourists dotted the streets of Medora. We made our way into the park, and skipping the interactive history the center had to offer, we headed straight for the cabin.
Any conservationist would be at a loss for words knowing they are stepping where Roosevelt did. Butler and I never said a word to each other — we each chose a side to start on of the cabin and examined the artifacts, still wondering if by some small chance Roosevelt had stepped where we stepped, put his hand where we put ours and breathed the same North Dakota air.
Roosevelt said, “I would have not been president had it not been for my experience in North Dakota.” Like Roosevelt, I wondered what mark this experience would leave on me. Surely it would be greater than a great day’s harvest or great company — there had to be something deeper.
It really didn’t hit me until I laid down that night. With the dogs by my side, I relived the experience. In a place so untouched by civilization, I had harvested some of the West’s most elusive birds, I walked where Roosevelt walked and I understood what it means to be the “Man in the Arena” — one of Roosevelt’s most famous speeches.
Green poses with his dogs near and two harvested sharptails near a National Grasslands sign in the Badlands of North Dakota.
The most prominent line from that speech that sticks with me is, “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming…”
Roosevelt realized theoretically, politically and in regards to conservation, that one must be in the arena to have a voice. We can all throw stones from outside the arena, but a true mark of character is being in that arena, falling down, being beaten and rising up.
Will I someday be a man in that arena? In the arena of conservation, love or outdoor writing, will I be a man in those arenas? Time will tell. The Badlands surely gripped me that day, and at that moment, I was some semblance of a man in that specific arena.