I’m standing next to a replica of a massive Alberta non-typical whitetail deer, and people are coming by to visit.
They have come to opening night of the annual Duluth Boat, Sports, Travel & RV Show at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. They are there to touch boats, flex fishing rods, pet Labrador retrievers and quiz resort owners.
They have come for bright lights and shiny ATVs and mini-donuts and to forget about slipping on the ice for a couple of hours. And, when they find me, we talk.
A grandpa comes by with his teenage granddaughter. They talk about the big smallmouth bass she caught last summer. Twenty-two inches long. A huge smallmouth. And the 28½-inch walleye she also caught last summer. She pulls out her cell phone, shows me the walleye photo.
And here comes a deer hunter, enthusiastic about a new crossbow he has discovered. A breakthrough in crossbow technology, he says, showing me the brochure. Easy to cock. Lots of power.
“You should write about this,” he says.
Now comes a family from Eveleth with whom I’ve hunted shed moose antlers. They had a good year last year, hunting for antlers that fell off moose and deer, they say. Ninety-six antlers, about half of them from moose. They’re toting three of them now, headed for the booth where the Minnesota Official Measurers will score them. Size matters.
They move on. Others keep coming.
A Grand Marais canoe outfitter. A South Range fishing guide. A U.S. Forest Service official. An Ontario moose hunting outfitter. A Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conservation officer.
They come with stories, observations, opinions, questions. They come from Duluth, the Iron Range, the North Shore, Wisconsin. I know a fair number of them from previous encounters. We have hunted or fished or paddled or camped together. Or they know someone I know. Or they want to talk about something I’ve written.
I realize, every year I stand at this booth and wait for people to come by, how much the outdoors matters in all of our lives up here. Deer camps matter. Big fish matter. Big fish that get away matter. Canoe trips matter. The moose population matters. Lake trout matter. Four-wheelers matter.
We are connected inextricably to the land and the weather and the fish and the wildlife. Most days, we wake up and go to work and do what we have to do. But when we get time off, we can’t wait to get outside. To the cabin. To the river. To the lake. To the trails.
We watch sunrises, try to fool fish, follow our dogs, try to shoot something to bring home. And eat it.
I realize how lucky I am. I get to listen to people’s stories. I get to tell their stories.
A North Shore resident who guides elk hunters out West comes by. He missed last fall’s season, he says. Had to have a knee replaced. He’ll have the other one replaced next month. He’ll be good to go. He’ll be back with his elk hunters this fall.
A Duluth man comes by, tells me about the 120-mile snowmobile ride he made in the wilds of Voyageurs National Park last weekend.
Five teenage boys come by, not quite sure what to say. But they don’t want to leave. We talk about dogs. Hunting dogs. How much we’d be willing to pay for a good dog.
A fishing guide comes by. He talks about trolling on the St. Louis River.
A woman wants to talk about running Duluth’s trails, about training for Grandma’s Marathon.
Two Duluth brothers file a report about lake trout fishing near Ely.
A Lake Vermilion fishing guide, holding his hands more than a foot apart, shows me the size of the crappies he’s been catching.
A man tells me he’ll be leaving soon in his motor home, headed south somewhere, alone, with his 11-pound cat.
This is the boat show. These are my people. This is a portrait of life in the North.