Spring’s little gifts

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We went from winter to summer here in Western North Dakota. Last Saturday it was nearly 80 degrees and so I loaded the kids up with sunscreen and attempted to clear the yard of dog poop while Edie sprayed the hose into the little plastic pool and Rosie watched and drooled in her stroller.

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The sunshine made us all feel so alive and happy that I didn’t even mind shoveling the dead squirrel in full-on rigamortus from the yard for the thirteenth time that week (country living is glamorous).

And when we heard the next day was going to be even warmer, we went ahead and made plans to go fishing, successfully transforming us from grumpy, nose to the grindstone workaholic types, to full-on retirees–if retirees wipe toddler noses and baby butts while they’re poles are in the water.

Oh, it was the complete heaven that comes when we get nice weather up here. Because when it’s nice, it’s glorious. The lake was still and the fish were biting, at least for Pops, who proves time and time again that he’s the luckiest of the lucky ones.

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I looked over at him who is getting better and better every day and said “Isn’t it a great day to be alive?”

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And it was indeed. It is indeed.

Cheers to spring turning rapidly into summer. Just make sure you’re checking for ticks.

Love, the Girls of Spring!

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Coming Home: Relishing the signs of spring, whether good or bad

Throw open the doors and bring out that old book that props up your window. Let the sun in and the breeze blow through the house because I think spring might finally be happening after all.

I wouldn’t dare say for sure, except last weekend I picked some crocuses and a tick off the back of my neck, and out here those two things might be the most reliable indicators that sub-zero temps are on their way out, for a few months anyway.

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It’s incredible what a 70-degree day will do to a person up here where winter drags its heavy feet coming and going.

After a February that lasted three months, I promised my friend who has been living on a ranch in North Dakota with her husband for just a few years, that spring always comes … eventually. She didn’t look convinced.

Maybe because I wasn’t so convinced myself.

But here it is, however late. It’s that promise that keeps us crazies living up here in the great white north, all bundled up and waiting to walk around in our Ice Cream Shirts (with a jacket in the pickup just in case). And now that I see it in writing, I realize that I might be the only one in the great white north who uses the term “Ice Cream Shirt.” I’ll explain.

Ice Cream Shirt: The term our grampa Pete used to describe a button up, collared cowboy shirt with short sleeves, the type of shirt a man might have to wear if he spends his days scooping ice cream. Also, a piece of clothing the man himself probably never wore, because of the thorns in the bullberry brush and frankly, arms that aren’t accustomed to the sun should probably remain in the protection of sleeves, no matter the weather.

It’s the same sentiment my friend’s husband has about shorts. “I don’t like things touching my legs,” he said. “Like grass or bugs or air.”

That’s a cowboy for you.

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And it’s my understanding that even the ones who live in the desert might only be caught in shorts on that Caribbean cruise his wife bid on at a church silent auction or something.

Oh, there are good reasons for these unspoken wardrobe rules out here.

My little sister found out firsthand last weekend on our hike up to the top of the hill we call Pots and Pans. We were both dressed in tennis shoes, leggings and had a baby strapped to our chests, practical for a sidewalk stroll but brutal when you march right into a giant cactus patch, proving once again that out here, sunshine comes with a few small, annoying price tags, some with tiny stickers and others tiny legs.

Oh well, shedding a little blood is a small price to pay for a spring crocus bouquet, said the girl with a cactus plant dug into her ankle to the other with the tick stuck behind her ear.

Happy spring everyone. Wear what you want and soak it in!

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Sunday Column: Spontaneous Fishing

When you live on a ranch, your free time is pretty much mapped out for you. Meaning, you don’t really have it. There’s always something to be done, especially in the summer–fences to be fixed, cows to be checked, weeds to be sprayed, yard work to procrastinate, gardens to weed…you get the idea…

And it’s ok really, because if you choose to live on a ranch, most of the time most of us prefer to be out working the place than anything else.

Especially in the summer. Summer is why we stand strong through the winters here.

But when you live on this ranch there is a bit of a distraction, one thats swimming in the river about ten miles to the south, or the big lake that surrounds us.

And when your work in the yard or digging fence posts unearths dozens and dozens of worms just waiting to be collected for bait on a Sunday evening after you’ve tired of tinkering on the tractor or you’re on your seventeenth load to the dump grounds, a farmer or a rancher might take it as a sign to head to the river before dark and see if the catfish are biting.

I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.

Sometimes you just need to throw those homegrown worms in a coffee can, grab whatever tackle is leftover from last summer and maybe the new stuff you got for Christmas, trade your boots for your old tennies, grab some seeds and bug spray and head to the river.

Because it’s summer dammit. And sometimes you just need to go fishing.

Coming Home: Quick, hold on to summer traditions
by Jessie Veeder
6-15-14
Forum Communications
http://www.inforum.com

You can find my columns weekly in the Fargo Forum (Sundays), Dickinson Press and the Grand Forks Herald. All columns are reposted on this blog.

Sunday Column: On the little yellow boat…

April did us a favor and, after bringing us a little spring storm, it warmed up nicely this weekend. 50 degrees uncovered all sorts of treasures for us, mostly mud and things stuck in mud…like dog poop, leftover construction materials and the Christmas tree that made it out the door, but not quite to the garbage pit.

We set out then in that spring air to do some tidying. When the weather warms up I get crazy. I want to do everything that I haven’t been able to do (because of the seven months of snow and subzero temperatures) all in one day.

I want to till up the garden spot. I want to plant grass seeds. I want to finish the garage. I want to ride all eight horses. I want to buy baby chicks from Tractor Supply. I want to roll up my pants and wade in the creek. I want to fix the barn. I want to start our landscaping project. I want to work on my tan. I want to go swimming. I want to make margaritas and grill burgers and have a deck party.

I want to buy a boat…

I think brown dog has the same idea…

Yes, a few days of warm weather will get the plans rolling. And the smell of the thaw, the sound of the water, the blue sky and sun and things uncovered by melting snow had me poking around the place, in search of projects, things I could accomplish.

And in my search I stumbled upon one of the ranch’s most unique relics. Sitting next to the shop covered loosely by a blue tarp and snow turned to ice water is Husband’s yellow boat, the one he brought with us to the ranch when we were first married. The one he built with his dad during the long winter nights when we were all just trying to make it out of high school alive.

The one he took me out in, to go fishing down in Bear Den, a little unknown nook of Lake Sakakawea a few miles from the ranch. The tiny hand-made boat where we sat back to back and trolled the shore, with nothing but sun-seeds, a couple beers and worms in our cooler.

And when the sun started sinking down below those buttes that surrounded the lake, it was that boat that got us stuck. Stuck in mud up to the floorboards of Husband’s little Dodge.

And there we sat. The little pickup connected to the little boat, stuck in the bottom of a badlands canyon, a new husband scratching his head and a wife in flip-flops clawing her way up the steep, cactus ridden banks that held them on a prayer that maybe her cell phone might find enough signal to call Pops to come and rescue them.

Pops, who had no idea where they went in the first place.

Pops, who wasn’t home, but got the message an hour or so later..

“Dad…*scratch scratch*…stuck….*static static*….Bear Den…*crackle crackle*…”

When I think spring I think of that fishing trip with my husband. When I think of that fishing trip, I think of that boat. When I think of that boat I think about mud and dads and how they have so many ways of saving us…

So I wrote this.

Coming Home: Little yellow boat never meant for fishing
(I’m having trouble with my hyperlinks,
please click URL below to read the column)
http://www.inforum.com/event/article/id/431239/
by Jessie Veeder
4-6-14
http://www.inforum.com

Happy thaw out. May this season bring mud and good memories….

When you take the time to fish…

North Dakota summers don’t last long.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again as I take notice of the days getting a bit shorter, the grass a bit more golden, the heat a little more dry and nights that cool us all down.

Today the kids of my community will be packing up their book bags and climbing on school busses and I will have the feeling I always get as summer winds down as fall waits around the corner.

I will miss my favorite season before my favorite season is even over.

I will wonder where the time’s gone, why my skin isn’t more tan, why the work isn’t finished, why I didn’t pick more wildflowers, why I forgot to plant cucumbers and why my requirements of summer have not been adequately fulfilled.

I think husband was thinking the same thing as last week drew to a close. He’s been spending every waking minute hammering nails, wiring something, tinkering with plumbing, sawing, planning and wondering if we are ever going to eat a meal before 10 pm again…

Because while my requirements for summer include a sun tan, evening walks to hilltops, numerous cocktails on the deck, floating in the lake and popsicles, most of the men in this area only have one summer dream…

Fishing.

And husband was wondering last week if that dream was ever going to come true.

Up the gravel road a ways my friend has her own husband with his own fishing dreams, but it turns out he’s a little more serious about them.

Because he has a boat.

So on hot summer evenings she has found herself sitting alongside her dearly beloved as he trolls through the waters of Lake Sakakawea searching for a monster walleye to bring back to the ranch and fry up for supper.

And while he scours the lake, she quietly hones her own skills, innocently and unexpectedly pulling in nice sized catches off of the back of the vessel.

While her husband theorizes about bait and tackle and the relationship the two choices have on his ability to catch a trophy fish, his wife chooses the prettiest lure, attaches it to her pink fishing pole, drops it in the water and pulls out a giant northern.

And then a walleye.

And then a bass.

And another northern.

And another walleye.

And another bass.

Her husband finds this amusing at first, until the tenth fish begins to inhibit his ability to concentrate on his own catch.

He re-baits his line to match her concoction:  “A purple lure, one minnow and a half a worm.”

He drops his line in the water.

She follows.

He waits.

She yells “Oh, yep! Yep! Got one.”

He grabs the net, she reels in her catch and the cycle continues until the sun sinks down below the horizon and casts sparkling light on the waves of the big lake.

I’m not sure this story would have been told this way had I not seen it for myself this weekend when our friends offered to take us along on one of their epic fishing trips. Husband was glad to oblige and I quickly loaded up our Cheetos and cooler of beer while he dug around the graveyard of lonely and unused fishing tackle to find the poles we last touched on our unsuccessful May catfishing excursion.

We were happy to leave our work behind and glad to have friends willing to take us on out on the water.

I was prepared to lounge in the boat, soak up some sun, drink a few cocktails and probably not catch a thing.

Husband was prepared to do the same.

But three minutes into the fishing excursion, two minutes after we baited our hooks, my friend started her roll.

“Oh yep. Yep. Got one!” she hollered off the end of the boat just as I dropped my line in the water.

And she reeled in a great big northern.

I opened the bag of Cheetos and she caught another.

I took my first drink of beer and she reeled in her third.

We all changed our lures to match her sparkly green one.

And then we put on one minnow and a half of a worm.

And as her husband steered the boat along the banks of his favorite spots he worked to set the hook on his first nibble as his lovely wife reeled in her fourth catch of the day.

My husband got a bite.

She got another fish.

I got a snag.

My friend caught a bass.

Her husband caught a tree, my husband caught some bait…

and my friend caught another walleye.

I cracked another beer and her husband suggested that perhaps she should give it a rest so the rest of us might have a chance.

Oh, somewhere in there I caught a few fish of my own and so did the boys.

But really, despite the jokes about luck and timing and never taking his wife along again, it wasn’t about the fish at all, except I couldn’t help but hold my breath every time my friend dropped her line in the water. Because the excitement that flew out of her lungs with each nibble was bouncing off the buttes and energizing the water surrounding us. All I wanted was for her to catch more fish.

I think we all felt the same way.

Because the season is short and fleeting around here, the sun doesn’t shine forever and the fish don’t always bite. But watching my friend squeal as she reeled in fish after fish gave me something to keep in my pocket for those days when December feels like years.

So I think our neighbors have it figured it–that summer isn’t about the time, but how the time is spent…

And it turns out you just can’t go wrong when you take the time to fish.

 

Work and fishing

I woke up this morning with a little krink in my neck, my back stiff and sore, my arms reminding me of muscles that hadn’t been used in a while. The sun was shining through my bedroom window, backlighting the lush green leaves that have come to our world to stay for a while. The cool breeze through the screen prompted me to pull the sheets up to my neck and scootch in closer to Husband.

It’s Monday morning and it seems like the workweek has come in with sparkle and style. I appreciate it.

But the weekend? Well, judging by the dirt hanging out under my fingernails and the size of the laundry pile it seems it was one of the good ones.

No, we didn’t have anything extravagant on our schedules, no vacation on the beach, no road trip to the mountains, no concert or festival, just a couple days spent inside a simple life that we’re working to create here. I wouldn’t even have much to mention about it really, except for somewhere between chasing the cows that got out into the fields with husband, planting Pops’ tomatoes, catfishing on the river with Little Sister and sitting on the porch with a vodka tonic and my mother as the sun began to set at the end of Sunday, I found myself wishing there was more time in my life for chores…and I think I might have realized why ranchers don’t take many vacations….

Because when the sun is shining on my back and the cool breeze moves through the sweaty tendrils of hair that have escaped from my ponytail, it’s hard to be too upset that the cows got out. In fact, sitting on top of a good horse watching so the cows and their babies don’t miss the gate as Husband moves back and forth behind them, gently pushing the pairs along, I find I’m glad for the work.

And glad that I got to push my horse to a full-out run as I raced to stop the lead cow from finding her way to the brush. Grateful I had that chance to cowgirl up, feel that wind in my hair and power of the horse beneath me.

Proud the two of us turned the herd around on our own and happy to be working alongside a man who loves this work as much as I do.

Summer weekends like this remind me of what it was like to grow up out here, a ranch kid with three months off and no driver’s license. Sure, I had the occasional coveted trip to town to swim in the public pool, but for the most part we were out here riding in the fencing pickup with Pops, chasing cows on sunny mornings trying to beat the mid-day scorching heat, mowing the lawn and eating summer sausage sandwiches for lunch. The work with Pops was never stressful or hurried, just constant and quiet and he was glad for the company…it didn’t matter if the ten-year-old and fifteen-year-old in the seat next to him were too uncoordinated to run the wire stretcher.

I remember the heat, the sweat, the horseflies and wood ticks we would find as we rode through the thorny brush on our way to find a stray cow. I remember the country station coming through the static and speakers of the old fencing pickup as Pops climbed out to fix a wire and I leaned my head on the sill of the window and watched the grasshoppers fling themselves to the sky. I remember taking my little sister to climb up the clay buttes while we waited for Pops to emerge from the mud underneath the stock-tank he was fixing.

I remember taking a break from the sun under the shade of the tree line and the way the cool grass felt under the pockets of my jeans.

I remember the smell of the wet dirt as Little Sister and I dug in the ground below our house on the hunt for worms…because the work was going to have to wait…Pops was going to take us catfishing.

When I think of early summer I think of these things. And this weekend it seemed I had an instinct to recreate and live life the way summers here were meant to be lived. So after the cows were rounded up on Saturday, the flowers were in their pots and Husband had enough tinkering with the plumbing on the new house, I called up my Little Sister who has just moved back to town and told her to bring her cooler.

We were going catfishing at the river.

The process is always the same: pack a bag full of sunflower seeds, bug spray, long sleeve shirts and something chocolate. Fill a cooler full of beer. Hunt unsuccessfully for all remaining pieces of the fishing supplies you haven’t seen together in one place for months. Patch together a mis-mash of fishing line, hooks, reels and poles and say it’s good enough. Search high and low for the missing camp chairs. Put on your short shorts and get in the pickup, roll down the windows and head south toward the Little Missouri where the water runs low and slow through the slick clay banks of the badlands.

Each year we debate about the location of our favorite fishing spot, wonder if we’ve missed the turn and discuss how the moisture from the previous winter has changed the trail. And we are reminded once we arrive of why we come here, the seclusion and quiet of the untouched banks makes us feel free and wild and capable of catching our own supper.

We kick off our shoes as they grow heavy with the mud of the banks. Little Sister and I cast lines that have been prepared for us.

We talk.

And then we’re quiet, our attention turned toward the calm flow of the river and the beaver who is working on tearing branches from a willow branch on the other side.

Then my line tips. We hold our breath. Someone says ‘reel’ and everyone stands up as husband runs toward the banks to ensure a safe arrival of this strange looking fish emerging from the muddy water of the river.

We laugh and celebrate. We brag. We take a picture and re-worm our hooks.

And wait.

Open another beer.

Change locations.

Sit on a rock.

Watch the clouds roll in.

Spit seeds on the banks.

Declare 8:00 pm to be the witching hour.

Wait for another tip to bend.

Leap up when Husband starts reeling. I jump and holler in excitement but do nothing to help ensure the fish makes it safely to shore. Husband moves toward the deep mud at the bank as the fish flops and struggles and the fisherman leaps to grab it…

But it’s too late…it’s escaped to the mucky water, a worm in its belly leaving two fishermen stranded in mud up past their knees.

I say I can’t believe it got away.

Little Sister laughs hysterically as she watches me snap photos of my dearly beloved sinking deeper and deeper by the second into the slick mud of the riverbank while he tries to hand me his pole so he can escape.

The sun sinks toward the horizon and the thunderheads move in, reflecting blue and gray on the surface of the murky river water.  We declare it time to reel up.

We let my catfish go, deciding it’s not enough fish worth the work of cleaning it. And besides, I have steaks waiting for us at home.

Muddy and tired and full of mosquito bites and bug spray, we head for the trail that leads us to the highway and then the pink gravel road that meets up with the ranch house. Husband fires up the grill. I pour something over ice.

We open the windows and we are us. Dirty and hungry and smelling of horse hair and sweat and fish.

It’s summer at the ranch and the tomatoes need to be planted. There is a house to finish, plumbing and wiring to be done, and corrals to be patched. The cows found an open spot in the fence and are heading down the road. We will know this tomorrow and we will saddle up to bring them home after coffee and bacon in the morning.

The sun will be shining, the breeze will be cool, the cows will be willing to move…

…and we won’t mind the work.

Paddlefishing. Who said Rednecks aren’t fancy?

Oh, the river. So calm, so peaceful. So beautiful and serene. Take a look at this scene and you would never guess that during the first week of May the shore is filled with hundreds of rednecks, grilling bratwurst, pitching tents, sporting camouflage, making small talk and casting their fishing poles and hooks into the current on a hope that emerging from the surface will be one of the North America’s largest freshwater fish.

Husband was one of those lucky rednecks.

He pulled this from the river on Friday afternoon.

It’s a paddlefish. 74 lbs of a prehistoric, dinosaur-esque creature with fins and no scales, tiny eyeballs and a long flat nose from which it gets its name.

Husband’s smiling because he’s managed to snag one with a giant rod, reel and hook at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers where, ironically, the state’s biggest and brightest rednecks work to harvest a creature that supplies some of the best and most coveted caviar in the nation.

Who says hicks aren’t fancy.


I can say this because I’m one of them. And I am behind my camera-phone barely able to hold the thing up while my dearly beloved basks in his victory. Because I have been casting and whipping my giant fishing rod into the channel of the river for nearly three hours and I haven’t caught anything but a couple of logs, lots of sticks and my father-in-law’s boat.

Yup.

Caught that thing on the first cast.

But I was happy for husband. And so were the 20+ people down stream from him when he hollered “FISH ON!” and worked to keep the creature on the line. The other fisher men, women and kids who shared our sandbar came running toward where they saw the fish roll to the surface to assist with its capture. Two kids appeared with a gaff (a long stick with a hook on the end used to pull the giant river-dwelling creature to shore), a girl came over with her camera and muck boots, a couple older men chimed in with advice, our friend waded through the strong current to try to locate the thing and I screamed and started running toward it with my video camera fully engaged.

That’s the way it is out there during the few short weeks when these massive and strange creatures are up for catch. Sports-people from all over the region gather at the banks of the river, pitching tents, making little cities with their campers, revving the engines of their pickups, barbecuing, drinking beer and sharing fish stories. Depending on how the fish are moving fisher-people generally have less than two weeks to snag their fish before the limit is reached and the season is closed. So they move through campsites and shoot the breeze, asking about the catch-count so far, exchanging stories about the one that got away, the one that weighed almost 100 lbs, and the one their friend’s, sister’s grandmother caught yesterday up river from them…

Yup, if you happen to be down river from someone who snagged a paddlefish, their fish story becomes your fish story. Because one man cannot reel one of these creatures in on his own. It seems it takes a village of men and women in muck boots and ball caps cheering you on, offering advice, grabbing supplies, hollering, and leaning in toward the water to see what’s on the other end of the line that’s bending the pole and making the fisher-person attached to it sweat and squirm for a good five to fifteen minute fight.

If it sounds intense to catch one of these buggers, I tell you, it is.

But it doesn’t take skill.

I know because once upon a time I caught one myself. I was somewhere in-between the first verse and chorus of a Disney song as I cast that giant hook as far as I could throw it…(ahem…three feet in front of me)…into the current. I looked over my shoulder to my audience shaking their heads at me on top of the steep banks. I  laughed and threw one of my arms in the air to really hit the punch line of Pocahontas’s “Just around the river bend”  and just as I started in on my grand finale my hook caught something and jerked me dangerously close to the edge of the bank and ironically close to a literal image of the song I was performing. I gripped my pole and worked to regain my footing just as my brother-in-law came bounding down the riverbank to grab the back of my shirt to prevent me from becoming just another casualty of the sport.

It was the hardest I’d ever worked at the sport of fishing–a sport that usually involves me sticking my pole in the sandy banks of the river while I kick back with sunflower seeds and a brewsky and wait for the catfish to bite.

But it was exhilarating leaning back against the weight of the fish and the current of the river, reeling the beast toward shore as the party of people hanging by the river with me scrambled to help retrieve my catch with nets and gaffs and rules and superstition.

We got the fish to shore and, at 25 lbs, it wasn’t a whopper in paddlefish land, but it was the biggest fish I’ve ever caught. And ever since I  stood on the banks of the river in the rain and my camouflage coat, channeling every red-neck fiber in my body as I held that fish up for the world to see, I’ve been itching to re-live that feeling.

And so have the hundreds of other fisher-people who flock to the banks of our rivers each year.

They come with their coolers and sleeping bags to hash out the game plan, meet up with friends, and re-live past year’s catches the same way we re-live my fish story every year when I meet my in-laws and friends from college and Canada at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone River at the beginning of May.

Yes, paddlefishing is a tradition for us that includes matching t-shirts, beer darts, barbecue, laughter, bad jokes and memories of each fish caught.

And this year husband gets the bragging rights as the only man in our party of twenty who actually pulled something living from that river.

Oh, it doesn’t matter if he only casted like seven times.

It doesn’t matter that me and two of my friends stood in ice-cold water up to our crotches casting and reeling in the current of the two converging rivers as the water and paddlefish floated on by for hours.

It doesn’t matter that we wanted it so bad we held our breath and made up our own superstitious chants as we pulled back our lines, visualizing, sending positive energy into the river as our bare legs turned raw in the deep mud of the river and our arms turned to noodles with each hefty cast.

We were not bitter when husband pulled that whopper of a fish right out from under our noses. Nope. We dropped our poles and went screaming toward him with cameras and hands clasped in delight.

We took his moment with him. We oooed and awwweed over the event that was to be a part of our story too. We shared our reaction: how S had jumped out of the boat and into water up to her knees when she heard husband holler. How L threw her arms in the air and grabbed her camera. How B and my father in law were convinced husband lost it when the fish didn’t reappear…

How husband stayed calm, cool and collected as I screeched and ran and jumped up and down…

How the clouds were fluffy and the sky was blue and the sun was so warm we could wear shorts and tank tops and walk around in bare feet…

How husband caught a paddlefish on his seventh cast…

and how I caught the boat on my first….

a log on my second…

the river bank on my third…

a buzz on my forth…

and fifty-seven sticks in between.

Paddlefishing.

It’s not a sport…

It’s a lifestyle.