Splush, splush, splush.
The sound of our tires struggling on the snow, slush and soft gravel told us our climb on this steep grade was about to end. The black Suburban with Minnesota plates, whose tracks we were following on this snow-covered gravel road, stopped as well.
The vehicle held a party of turkey hunters, as were we. They had made up their minds. They were turning back and heading to the south end of the Black Hills, where they’ve always hunted in preceding years. “More birds there anyway,” they said, while also expressing their hope that the southern portion of the hills would be without the snow that blocked our way.
The invitation to join a spring turkey hunt in the Black Hills of South Dakota had been irresistible.
Son Erik Cherveny and friend Josh Neu are avid turkey hunters. The plan was simple: Pitch a tent amidst the Ponderosa pines of the northern Black Hills and camp near the birds in an area Erik had hunted a few years earlier at just over 6,000 feet elevation.
Almost a week before our arrival, a snowstorm smothered this wilderness with about 11 inches of snow. A few more inches of snow arrived just a day ahead of us, sprinkled like salt over any vegetation turning green.
We needed the snow shovel kept in the truck for winter emergencies to clear a site for our tent.
This was the opening weekend for the firearm season for turkey in the Black Hills, but we carried only bows and arrows. Josh and Erik are accomplished archers, and the point of this hunt was to take on the challenge.
This early April adventure was the first Black Hills hunt for both Josh and I, but I’ve enjoyed many years of camping, hunting and fishing in wilderness locations. I still look forward to every such trip with the same enthusiasm that Eric Sevareid described in “Canoeing with the Cree,” when he waited to be sprung free from his high school classroom for an epic adventure. “Paradise was outdoors, out on the greening hills and along the lazy river,” he wrote.
I had looked forward to witnessing the early spring greening of the Black Hills, scouting the backcountry trails and hearing the turkeys and other birdsong far from civilization.
That first night in the tent was dang cold, and like a devil on my shoulder, the thought crept into mind: Just over an hour’s drive away in Belle Fourche, S.D., awaited the home of my oldest son, Ryan, where a warm bed had been offered.
We stuck to it despite the cold, and our spirits were high. On our ride to where we pitched our tent we spotted a strutting tom with hens. The beauty of seeing this Merriam turkey with the ivory-colored tips on his tail feathers made the challenge of dealing with the snow seem inconsequential.
We must have picked our camping site well. About a dozen deer bedded down hardly a football field’s distance from us, and they returned the following nights as well, never mind us.
Our first day of hunting, Saturday, offered warming temperatures, melting snow, blue skies and the fragrance of pine. We spent much of the day scouting, and the snow had its advantages. We found turkey tracks and knew they were fresh. Before the day’s end, we had each heard some gobbles in response to calls.
The winds came that night and ushered in colder temperatures. No doubt, the weather suppressed turkey activity.
On our second day, we heard no hens clucking or toms gobbling until late in the day when we were finally able to venture to the area where Erik had hunted years earlier. There, we managed to entice a gobble from a tom hidden amidst an area of cut over trees. But he figured us out.
We faced a steady parade of snow squalls and relentless winds for most of three days. We came home without any birds and blamed the weather for it. We also could thank the weather for what it did make possible. We hiked the backcountry and enjoyed the scenery that attracts so many to the Black Hills and had it all to ourselves.
“This is just beautiful,” Neu remarked as every turn in the trail revealed a new vista. The phone app in his pocket told him we were covering seven miles a day during our scouting, much of it on hilly terrain; we climbed as high as 6,786 feet at one point.
We heard only one shot fired during our four days of hunting, and that distant pop of a shotgun occurred on our first day. We saw the vehicles of a few other hunters here and there on that opening day. As the weather turned and the winds blew, it was obvious. Like the turkeys, the local hunters had hunkered down. The hunters had decided to wait for better conditions.
I confess. After returning home, I lamented to a fellow hunting enthusiast about coming back without birds and the challenges posed by the weather. “You stuck with it, right?” he said “Yes,” I answered. “That’s what matters,” he responded.
To me, that conversation was just like hearing the applause Sevareid and paddling partner Walter Port enjoyed when they told the Winnipeg Canoe Club about all they had endured in paddling to Hudson Bay on their big adventure.