Giving back to natureLove of outdoors, commitment to conservation bear fruit for sanctuary creator
WARREN, Minn. — Eldor Omdahl is back in his heated shack that sits atop a hill overlooking some of the best wildlife habitat northwestern Minnesota has to offer, but he’s not carrying a rifle on this third day of deer season. Instead, he’s here to watch, to observe nature for what it is and see whatever there might be to see. This he does throughout the year, and not just deer season.
By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald
WARREN, Minn. — Eldor Omdahl is back in his heated shack that sits atop a hill overlooking some of the best wildlife habitat northwestern Minnesota has to offer, but he’s not carrying a rifle on this third day of deer season.
Instead, he’s here to watch, to observe nature for what it is and see whatever there might be to see.
This he does throughout the year, and not just deer season.
Often, it’s little things: A chickadee landing on a nearby branch, perhaps; or geese swimming in the manmade pond at the base of the hill.
In the spring, he will come to hear frogs and toads tuning up to greet the summer. Their rousing chorus is music to winter-weary ears.
Stillness reigns on this November afternoon, and darkness soon will settle across the countryside. For deer hunters, it’s Magic Time, that short period at dusk when wildlife is on the move.
After several days of cloud and wind and gloom, clear sky has triumphed once again, and the western horizon glows a brilliant orange.
“Now’s about the time,” Eldor says.
Occasional rifle shots ring out across the countryside.
Eldor has taken deer from this very shack, and he ventured out with his .30-06 the first two days of hunting season, but the deer he saw were too far away. From this vantage point, it’s easy to imagine a deer walking into range at any moment, but Eldor isn’t about to get caught up in the excitement.
He started the year with five bullets, and he’ll end the year with five bullets.
“I kind of gave up on hunting,” he explained earlier back at the house over coffee and his wife, Stella’s, homemade date cookies. “I figured if I hit a deer and have to dress it out … well, it’s not worth it.”
At 98, Eldor can be excused for taking a more casual approach to his deer hunting.
He’ll tag a doe or fawn that his nephew, Roger — everyone calls him “Buzzy” — shoots. And as they do every year, Eldor and Stella will cut and wrap the venison in their home just a short walk from this shack where he comes so often to commiserate with nature.
Stella cans some of the venison, too. It’s handy, she says, when company stops by unexpectedly.
Matter of necessity
For Eldor, deer hunting isn’t so much a passion as a necessity. There’s too many deer, he says, and they’re notorious for nibbling away at the trees.
Eldor loves trees, and he’s planted thousands of them over the years.
Just two months shy of his 99th birthday, Eldor has lived here, on this land his grandfather homesteaded in 1893, all of his life except for 10 years; he headed west in his early 20s to find work.
Construction mostly, dam projects in Montana, New Mexico and Utah.
“He was just a dam worker,” Stella said with a smile.
The farm called him home, though, and Eldor spent most of his life raising small grains.
And planting trees.
Eldor says he picked up his passion for conservation from his dad, Olaus, who also planted trees and made birdhouses from old four-buckle overshoes. By the late 1950s, a time when the practice of draining wetlands for farming was prevalent, Eldor began developing ponds and coulees on his land to retain water for the benefit of wildlife.
Maybe it was the “dam worker” in him.
More likely, though, it was because Eldor Omdahl was what you might call an “old-school” conservationist.
He still is.
Eldor and Stella married in 1972, the second go-round for both of them. Eldor didn’t have any children of his own, and Stella’s three children were grown up and didn’t have any interest in farming
So, when Eldor retired from farming in 1981, he and Stella donated 640 acres of land to the Agassiz Audubon Society. That donation became the Wetlands, Pines and Prairie Audubon Sanctuary.
Something for wildlife
It’s an apt moniker for this paradise Eldor played such a key role in creating. With its varied habitat and abundant wildlife, the sanctuary might be northwestern Minnesota’s best-kept secret.
“I wanted to do something for wildlife, and I figured if I did it this way, it would be left here,” Eldor said of his decision to donate the land. “It’s something for the wildlife, too, then — the birds and the animals and the trees and the wildflowers.”
Eldor and Stella, a youthful 89, still live on the site adjacent to the sanctuary’s visitor center, in a spacious home with large windows overlooking one of the ponds he helped create.
He’s planted nearly every tree on the grounds, either with a planter or by hand: Scotch pines and Ponderosa pines and ornamental apple trees that make good food for birds in the wintertime.
Prairie grasses grow in other places, intermixed with jack pine, cottonwood, elm and willow trees that have taken root on their own.
There’s even a bear’s den, which Eldor made by placing a 4-foot steel culvert into the side of a hill.
“It’s open on this end,” he explained during a drive around the sanctuary earlier in the afternoon, “so if a bear comes along, it would be a good place for him to hibernate.”
So far, though, no bear has taken advantage of the digs.
Eldor still enjoys spending time on the sanctuary grounds, cruising the site’s numerous trails on his ATV. He points out a plaque on a large rock that sits in front of a stand of pines.
Someday, he says, he and Stella will have their ashes scattered here.
Supper and stories
Nightfall has settled across the countryside, and it’s too dark to see deer, even from the vantage point of the heated shack.
Only Venus is visible, and it glows in the southwestern sky.
Eldor decides it’s time to make the short walk home, down the hill and across the footbridge, for supper. The table is set, and Stella has served up a meal of wild rice casserole, squash and pumpkin pie.
After supper, he makes the short trip to his nephew, Buzzy’s, hunting camp to check on the hunters’ success and swap stories about the old days.
There were 15 hunters here earlier, but most have gone home, back to jobs and other responsibilities. Buzzy Omdahl lives in East Grand Forks, and he’s here. So is his son, Danny, of Warren.
The camp also attracts annual visitors from afar: Jerry Anfinson of Naples, Fla.; John Harrison and Pete Walton of Everett, Wash.; and Richard Minton of Biddeford, Maine.
They’re here to embrace a northern Minnesota tradition by gathering in an old farmhouse they’ve spruced up and made into a hunting paradise.
Buzzy tells a story, a well-worn chestnut, about a buck Eldor shot years ago. Buzzy wasn’t there to experience it first-hand, but he just as well could have been.
“The season was later, and he was standing by the fire, and the deer was coming down the trail,” Buzzy said. “He slowly picked up the gun, and the buck didn’t see Eldor, and he got him.”
Time was, Eldor says, when deer were a rarity in northwestern Minnesota.
“When I grew up, there were no deer at all,” he said. “I never saw a deer. I suppose there wasn’t a deer here until 1926 or 1927.”
It was about that time, he recalls, that a local hunter was the talk of the town when he returned from a hunt near Grygla, Minn., with a buck strapped to the fender of his car.
“He brought it to town to show it to people,” Eldor said. “People were excited to see the deer.”
The deer camp conversation switches gears, and someone asks Eldor how he and Stella have managed to stay so healthy.
They keep busy, he says, and active.
And they dance.
“I’m slowing up,” Eldor said. “My gun feels a lot heavier than it used to, I can sure notice that.”
He might be slowing up, but Eldor Omdahl still has a lumberjack’s handshake. His blue Norwegian eyes reveal a man who’s seen a lot of changes in his lifetime, who’s done more than his part to make the world a better place.
The proof is all around him, on the land he and Stella call home.
Some of the best wildlife habitat northwestern Minnesota has to offer.
Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to email@example.com.