We’re into it now – fall is in full swing – and despite the pandemic that continues to interrupt our lives, I’d give the season to date better marks than last year, at least from the vantage point of actually being outside.

That might be the only good thing I say about 2020, which has been a downer on pretty much every count.

Last fall, as many North Country outdoors enthusiasts will attest, was a disaster, thanks to two massive rain events in late September that turned much of eastern North Dakota and northwest Minnesota into a wet, muddy mess.

I’m fairly sure I spent more time in my basement vacuuming up water and hauling out waterlogged junk that probably should have been thrown years ago than I did in the woods slogging down trails that should have been dry.

On that count, at least, fall 2020 gets the edge, if only because the weather and conditions on the landscape are more favorable than last year. Crop harvests are ahead of schedule, the woods and prairies are dry (too dry in some cases) and the forecast looking into the next couple of weeks appears to be mostly favorable.

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Another plus – based on my travels, at least – are fall colors that have been nothing short of resplendent, a notable change from the previous two years, when colors were so-so, at best.

It hasn’t all been good, of course. For fall fishing enthusiasts who set their sights on big water such as Lake of the Woods and Devils Lake, there’s been too much wind on many days, but at least area rivers – where I’ve had some of my best fall fishing over the years – aren’t flooding like they were last year at this time.

Some rivers actually are getting too low, which creates its own set of challenges.

No doubt, though, people are taking advantage of better fall weather and the opportunity to put this train wreck of a year on the backburner, if only for a few hours.

Already this fall, it appears hunting license sales are following the same uptrend as fishing license sales – at least in North Dakota. As expected, the sale of nonresident waterfowl licenses in North Dakota is up from last year, a trend likely driven by the ongoing closure of the U.S.-Canada border to nonessential travel.

Hunters who normally go to Canada to hunt waterfowl – and, to a lesser extent, sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridges – are having to explore other options.

As of Wednesday, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department had sold 11,159 nonresident waterfowl licenses, an increase of 1,422 from last year at this time.

While up from last year, the increase isn’t yet significant, said Jeb Williams, wildlife chief for Game and Fish in Bismarck. A better picture will emerge over the next six weeks or so when waterfowl season hits its prime, he says.

The department last year sold 20,733 nonresident waterfowl licenses, so it’s going to be interesting to see how this year’s numbers shake out by season’s end.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources didn’t have year-over-year comparisons on small game license sales available before my deadline, but John Myers, a colleague at sister paper the Duluth News-Tribune, wrote a column about a recent excursion to Superior National Forest in the northeast part of the state.

“At the risk of sounding like my father, it was never like this in the old days,” Myers wrote. “In what 25 years ago seemed like remote areas a guy could explore uninterrupted, last weekend there were people everywhere. We literally secured the last available campsite in the Superior National Forest, a week ahead, and every campsite we saw was occupied, some with multiple vehicles, RVs and tents.”

I was equally surprised earlier this week, while visiting the Lake of the Woods area reporting for a story about life along the northern border during the pandemic. The Wheelers Point boat ramp near the mouth of the Rainy River north of Baudette, Minn., was packed with vehicle-boat trailer rigs.

On a Monday afternoon, that’s something I certainly didn’t expect to see.

As long as the weather cooperates, the trend likely will continue. School holidays coming up Oct. 15-18 in Minnesota and Oct. 22-25 in North Dakota will see more parents afield with their kids, whether in the forest, on the prairie or on the water.

The crowds might not appeal to everyone, but everyone deserves a break from the ordeals we all have faced during this nightmare of a year.

I can’t think of a better escape than being outdoors and doing what I like to do.

Brad Dokken
Brad Dokken