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Historic duck camp tradition lives on: Conservation easements will keep shoreline undeveloped to protect wild rice.

Dan Markham distributes duck decoys between two canoes in preparation for Saturday's duck hunting opener Friday at the Squaw Lake Bird Watchers Society hunting camp. The camp recently put much of its property into a conservation easement. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service1 / 7
Hunters dig into Friday's supper at the Squaw Lake Bird Watchers Society camp. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service2 / 7
Wild rice beds on Nature's Lake as seen from the Squaw Lake Bird Watchers Society camp. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service3 / 7
Dan Markham (left) and Marty Espe put a canoe in the waters of Nature's Lake Friday at the Squaw Lake Bird Watchers Society camp. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service4 / 7
Dan Markham (from left), Bob Owens, Marty Espe and Andrew Bauer visit around a fire outside the main cabin at the Squaw Lake Bird Watchers Society camp on Friday. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service5 / 7
Mike Seyfer (left) and Dan Markham discuss where they plan to hunt on Nature's Lake Saturday while visiting at the Sqyuaw Lake Bird Watchers Society camp on Friday. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service6 / 7
Big game trophies at the Squaw Lake Bird Watchers Society camp date from when James J. Hill started the camp. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service7 / 7

SQUAW LAKE, Minn. — At the end of a winding, two-rut driveway under a canopy of maples just turning orange and red, past the black lab running in the yard and before you get to the lake where teal, wood ducks and mallards are flying over miles of wild rice, you'll fund Plushville.

Officially known as the Squaw Lake Bird Watchers Society, it's the kind of place that should be in the photograph next to "duck camp" in Wikipedia, or maybe on the cover of Ducks Unlimited magazine.

Bigwigs from the Great Northern Railroad (James J. Hill may have been one of them) built the place back in 1913 on the shores of what's now called Nature's Lake, previously known as Squaw Lake.

The railroad executives apparently liked to hunt ducks which have been stopping here on their southward migration for centuries, thanks to the lake's ample wild rice. The Minnesota DNR lists the 2,885-acre lake as having 2,499 acres of wild rice, a favorite food of many waterfowl species.

The founders designed the duck camp after a traditional northwoods logging camp with a main lodge, a cookhouse and dining room for meals and a bunkhouse for guests, and then filled the lodge with trophy mounts of big game from the Rocky Mountains — bighorn sheep, mountain goats, moose, elk and deer (word is Hill himself shot the animals from the caboose on his trains).

The trophies are still here, but the railroad moguls sold the camp in the 1920s to the Andersen Window family, who held it until the 1950s when a group of Duluth duck hunters bought it and named it the Squaw Lake Bird Watchers Society.

The name remains the same, and although members have come and gone, the tradition lives on.

"It's still mostly Duluth members, or guys who were from Duluth,'' said Bob Owens, one of the eight current members that also include Doug Lewis, Clancy Dokmo, Clay Sederberg, Dan Markham, Tom Conrad, Tony Bauer and Marty Espe. "There's a lot of history here. The names change but the camp history, the camp culture, goes on."

"I've been hunting the lake since I was in college in 1969,'' Lewis said. "I've been a member the longest out of this current group, since 1992. But I'm not the oldest... That's Owens!"

The camp has traditionally had a full-time cook on site during hunting season with gourmet meals served after a day in the marsh.

"We don't eat pizza,'' Lewis said. "We've had some great cooks."

There's a huge stone fireplace in the main lodge, a sauna building and a garage for all manner of canoes and duck boats. Officially a state waterfowl rest lake, motors of any kind are prohibited during duck season. Propulsion is by paddle or pole.

Espe is the newest member — this is his third season — but he's already cemented to the place. A duck hunter as a kid, he had been away from the marsh for many years.

"It wasn't hard to get back into it here. The whole ambiance and the history. It's the quintessential duck camp ... and a great group of guys,'' Espe said. "Even if you didn't like duck hunting it would be a great place to hang out. ... But this place also has ducks."

Lewis agreed.

"There's good camaraderie. What can be better when you finish a cold, wet day of duck hunting than taking a sauna and then sitting in front of a huge fireplace and enjoying a beverage?'' he said.

The Plushville nickname came from members of another camp just down the lake, the Schoolhouse Camp, that had more spartan quarters. (Eventually the two camps merged.)

The club member truly seem to enjoy one another's company, almost as much as they love their dogs. Owens breeds, trains and sells Labradors. And most members have well-trained retrievers, several of which have earned their stripes in hunt tests or field trials.

"Almost everyone at the camp has a pretty good dog,'' Lewis said. "I wouldn't' hunt if I couldn't watch the dogs work."

A "membership of friends"

Over the years members have come and gone, usually aging out of what is a fairly physical sport — what with paddling canoes and handling decoys and working with dogs. The remaining members get to decide who replaces any retiring member, Owens noted, a critical component to the longevity of the camp.

Children of members are certainly welcome to hunt at the camp, but they don't get an automatic membership when they become adults. Some have become members, many have not.

New members are nominated and vetted. Replacing an outgoing member "is a pretty deliberate process. It goes pretty slow,'' Owens said, noting that members look for compatibility and not just a zest for hunting waterfowl. "We're a membership of friends."

Lewis said many hunting camps feel obliged to keep adding generations, and soon the size of the camp is out of control.

"Pretty soon eight members become 20. They don't even know each other, except when they get crammed into camp, and they may not like each other. That's not a good recipe,'' Lewis said. "This system we use has been working pretty well for more than 50 years."

While Minnesota once had a rich tradition of elaborate duck camps, from Swan Lake in the south to Squaw Lake and beyond up north, that tradition has slowly faded.

Waterfowl hunting in Minnesota has changed over that time, Lewis noted. Hunting is less consistent. Migrating ducks are coming later in the season — sometimes well into November. Many Minnesota hunters have abandoned permanent camps and moved to making trips out of state to Saskatchewan or North Dakota.

At Squaw Lake, even with ample wild rice, there are lean years between the good ones. Much depends on what ducks the north winds send south and when.

"The idea of a duck camp has kind of taken a hit in recent years,'' Lewis said. "But to me, that's the charm. I like the idea of being in camp with people I like and going back time after time over the season, and year-to-year, for the tradition. The hunting may not always be great. But there's such a sense of tradition in this camp."

Conservation easement protects wild rice

In August the Squaw lake Birdwatchers Society closed on a deal selling the future development rights to 107 acres of the duck camp's land on the lake to the State of Minnesota. The camp still controls the land, still pays property taxes, still can manage it for forestry and/or wildlife habitat. But those acres can never, ever be developed (the camp reserved several acres where existing buildings are located so they can continue to maintain them).

The camp will use the money received from the sale to help maintain the land, Lewis said. And the state easements don't allow public hunting, which keeps private access for camp members to hundreds of feet of shoreline on the west shore, an island in the middle of the lake and more land on the east shore.

"This wasn't about the money. None of us are interested in seeing this sold off and developed. We wanted to protect the land and the lake and the wild rice. And so does the state. So this (conservation easement) just made sense."

The move not only preserves the land around the lake, and thus helps buffer water quality in the lake, but it also helps ensure the duck camp tradition continues.

"At some point there's the chance that the members, down the road, would say "let's get out of this and make a little money and sell it all','' Lewis said. "Now, they can't do that. There's an incentive in place now to keep the tradition going."

Owens agreed.

"It's a way to preserve the lake as a prime source of wild rice, which is what brings the ducks in,'' Owens said of the conservation effort. "There's very minimal development on the lake now and it should stay that way."

The Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources administers the program across northern Minnesota to protect wild rice lakes and rivers through conservation easements. Dozens of properties already are enrolled in the program that pays about 60 percent of the county's assessed value of undeveloped land.

At Nature's Lake, Tim Frist, Forestry/Shoreland specialist for the Itasca County Soil and Water Conservation District, recruited the duck camp to enter the easement program. He's also working to complete an easement for another Nature's Lake camp shared by Duluth and Grand Rapids members, the Two Point Gun Club. Another property on nearby Dora Lake is also in the process.

Landowners must have at least 20 acres to enroll. The easement is in perpetuity and transfers to whoever buys the land if it is sold.

"If you're trying to protect wild rice, water quality is key and the shoreline around the wild rice (lake) is critical, and that's what this program is for,'' Fritts said.

The wild rice protection effort started in 2012 with money from the state's Outdoor Heritage Fund stocked by a portion of the state's sales tax that's set aside for conservation and recreation. So far the effort has pumped more than $7 million into easements to protect wild rice lakes.

The state Board of Water and Soil Resources is approaching 100 wild rice projects across 10 counties in central and northern Minnesota, said Dan Stewart, who heads the effort out of the board's Brainerd office. Some 5,000 acres and nearly 50 miles of shoreline have been protected around wild rice lakes and rivers, Stewart said. The board is asking the state for another $1.75 million in 2019 to protect another 6.5 miles of shoreline and hundreds of acres of woods on waterways that are getting increasing attention from developers as larger lakes and rivers become fully developed

"Obviously the goal is to keep the wild rice lakes quiet, developed, to protect the rice,'' Stewart said. "But we also get the added benefit of slowing forest fragmentation. We're ensuring that we have undeveloped forest into the future."

About the name

The Minnesota Legislature in 1995 moved to change the name of the lake named Squaw Lake to Nature's Lake after efforts by local Leech Lake Chippewa tribal members, namely students, to remove the word, which many consider derogatory, from geographic place names.

But the tiny City of Squaw Lake, population 107, hasn't changed its name despite continued pressure to do so.

For their part the Squaw Lake Birdwatchers Society isn't sure whether to stick with tradition or make the change.

"We're still debating whether we should change the name of the camp to Nature's Lake Bird Watchers Society,'' Owens said.

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