Begun in political conflict, annual Mount Blogmore Hunt shoots for birds, chili, friendship
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In the warm, well-lighted place of Nick and Mary Jo Nemec’s dining room, I surveyed the gathering of friends and occasional social-media combatants and proclaimed the annual hunt a success.
Before a single pheasant flushed. Before a single shot was fired. Before, even, we stepped away from the stack of doughnuts and steaming cups of coffee and out into the spitting skies and muscular winds of late October.
“This is my favorite part of the hunt,” I said to members of the orange-clad collective, as they refilled coffee mugs and re-told stories. “Until the chili, of course.”
Between the doughnuts in the morning and Mary Jo’s chili in the late afternoon, there was some flushing and some shooting on Sunday, as always. There was a bit more of both, in fact, on the Nemec land near Holabird than I was expecting, given the hard winter, the drought conditions and the sizzling temperatures during the nesting season.
Nick had been warning that bird numbers seemed down, a prediction that came as no surprise given the year and the bad statewide pheasant news from the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department. The annual August roadside pheasant survey indicated a 45 percent drop from last year and a level that could be 65 percent below the 10 year-average.
But it’s been a pretty good 10 years. Slipping from outstanding to really good to simply, well, not so good still would almost certainly mean some birds in the bag. So I was hoping for better than horrible as we gathered at the Nemecs. Everybody likes to see a few birds, after all. And it’s nice to bag a few, too.
But just in case my worst pheasant fears were realized, I had been trying to lower group expectations on the shooting to come. Then I happened to stop and consider the assortment of grins and headshakes, hugs and handshakes between the Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, an independent, a Libertarian and one well-armed Buddhist. (He shoots, but can't seem to kill. Go figure...)
All had assembled prior to 10 a.m. shooting hours in the Nemecs' kitchen, spreading out into the dining room and living room. And it became clear that the hunt couldn’t fail, once again, no matter how many roosters we flushed.
Almost certainly, we'd flush and kill a few. But whatever the rooster count, we'd do best what we've done best during the 10 years of the hunt -- we'd build fellowship and share humor and strenthen human connections. Because on this day, at least, the things that connect us always fly high above any that do not.
This year's hunt was destined, however, to begin a little late, because we were missing the guy with the perpetual "Hurry up! Let's go!" look on his face. Watertown lawyer and former Republican state legislator Lee Schoenbeck wasn’t there, after all. Something about personal and professional demands getting in the way.
And he’s the guy who always makes sure we don’t forget the hunting part of the hunt, or the 10 a.m. shooting hour.
Lee drives in from Watertown early on the morning of the hunt to arrive at the Nemecs all wound up. And he gets further wound from there. As the shooting hour approaches, he announces the time, then updates it, sometimes, it seems, minute by minute. Then he relentlessly pesters the slow-moving and loquatious among us to break away from the coffee conversations, step away from the doughunts and march into the shelter belts.
Come on, you guys! Let's go!
No Schoenbeck. None of that. So Sam Hurst did what he could.
“Shoenbeck’s not here, so I have to say — let’s get going!” Hurst urged at about 10:25 a.m. (although I'm not sure he really urged emphatically enough to deserve that exclamation point). “Somebody’s got to say it.”
Sam has the standing with me to say quite a bit these days, and not just because he has become a regular at the Blogmore Hunt who adds a touch of old-school class by shooting a side-by-side 20 gauge and wearing a tie in the fields. The Rapid City resident is also living in a shack on a isolated patch of Mary Jo's family ground a dozen or so miles north of the Nemec farmhouse.
Say what? Say shack. Say 100th Meridian, too. And a book to come.
Sam is spending two or three days a week for a year in an old line shack, likely used long ago by cowboys caring for cattle and riding along the fence lines of sprawling pastures to fix broken or loose spots in the wire. More recently the shack was a playhouse for kids at Nick's brother Victor's farm not far away.
But the little shack is far from Victor's place now, situated as it is out on a patch of rugged praire along a massive slough that provides great duck hunting during wet years. It's bone-dry escape cover for coyotes and other critters in drought years like this one, however. And it's just over the hill a mile or two from where Mary Jo grew up on the Zilverberg family ranch.
Sam is writing a book about his experience in the shack and with the landscape around it. He's blending that into an historical account of life and settlement, successes and failures along the 100th Meridian. The line cuts north and south just a few miles west of the shack, over near Medicine Knoll and just west of the appropriately named town of Blunt.
It's an amazing project, which I expect to produce an amazing book. And I'll write more on it soon. For now, let's just say that Sam leads a spartan existence at the shack for a few days each week that should make the book even better. I admire him for his grit, especially with winter coming on.
Brrrrrr... better him than me.
Still, he's not quite at Schoenbeck's level when it comes to forcing the issue on beginning the hunt. He and I agreed that Lee would have been heading into the trees with his dog and shotgun by 10:25 a.m., lamenting the loss of 25 minutes of good hunting time and suggesting over his shoulder that the rest of us could join him when and if we were so inclined.
But with Sam doing a servicable-but-understated Schoenbeck imitation, our gray haired hunting party and its collection of surgically implanted steel joints -- seven total just between the twins Terry and Larry Mayes -- finally sputtered to a start like an old John Deere tractor on a cold morning.
Slow and rough running, but reliable. That's us.
The real beginning of the hunt, of course, was in October of 2007, when we held the first Mount Blogmore Invitational Pheasant Hunt & Charitable Chili Feed at the Nemecs. Planning began months before that when Nick and I conspired to bring together a bunch of South Dakotans who seemed to hate each other, judging by their nasty political exchanges on the Rapid City Journal web log called Mount Blogmore.
Begun in 2004 by former Rapid City Journal reporter and online visionary Bill Harlan, the blog was initially moderated by Harlan, Denise Ross and me. Denise had moved to new journalism adventures by the summer of 2007 and Harlan and I were engaged on a daily basis with a flurry of comments on blog topics we selected, mostly related to politics.
Sometimes there were hundreds of comments on one blog post. Most were edgy. Many were angry. Some were highly personal.
In a couple of really bristly exchanges there was even some mention of physical confrontations to settle things. Nick Nemec was a regular commentator then. And as I recall he was encouraged by someone in one exchange to consider stepping outside to further consider things. Nick being Nick -- which is good natured, and unflappable -- said he was outside most of the time working anyway, and would be available for further conversation or other forms of human interaction.
Then he offered detailed information on how to find his farm.
I have no doubt that Nick was grinning broadly over his laptop, probably sitting at the dining room table with a cup of coffee, when he typed that invitation.
Somewhere during those bumpy, busy, entertaining times on Mount Blogmore, Nick and I came up with the idea of getting together with a bunch of Blogmore participants at his farm. Kind of a Mount Blogmore bash. And what better way could there be, we decided, to deal with a bunch of really angry people than to get them together with a bunch of really loaded firearms?
A South Dakota solution, you might say.
Some suggested that we were being unwise, and outlined the possibility of all kinds of unfortunate results. But Nick's an old Marine who's difficult to spook. And I'm just generally reckless. So we pressed on with our plans.
Besides, he and I were pretty sure we knew what would happen when we rounded up a bunch of South Dakotans: nothing bad, and plenty good. Maybe life-changing good.
We figured people would show up, act like the adults they sometimes forgot they were while ranting online, go pheasant hunting and have a great time together in the outdoors, despite powerful political disagreements and even past personal animosities. We even thought, perhaps, they might not be so angry with one another when it was over.
And they did. And they weren’t. And we called it good.
No, better than that. We called it great.
One of the most endearing moments of that first Blogmore Hunt was the sight of arch-conservative blogger Steve “Sibby” Sibson of Mitchell and political moderate Tony Dean — who served as press secretary to Republican Gov. Frank Farrar in the late 1960s and worked on behalf of Barack Obama in 2008 — standing arm in arm in Nick and Mary Jo's living room after the hunt, grinning at the camera.
It’s a poignant memory, too, because that was the only Blogmore Hunt our friend Tony attended. The smoothest voice every to bless a radio or TV show on the outdoors went silent just days before our second hunt in 2008, when Tony died at home along the Missouri River in Pierre after a brief illness.
Rest well in the great beyond, old friend, and know you are remembered -- especially at the Blogmore Hunt.
We carried on without him in 2008, when Sen. Tim Johnson and his wife, Barbara, joined us to help raise funds for a profoundly disabled youth in Highmore than Mary Jo was caring for. We held that hunt on a chilly day in early November, less than a week after Johnson won reelection to his third term in the U.S. Senate. And he did all that less than two years after suffering a massive brain hemorrhage that almost killed him and left him with slurred speech and limited movement on one side of his body.
There was a poignant moment at that hunt, too. It came in the city auditorium in Highmore where we had a fundraising dinner and silent auction associated with the hunt. Tim Johnson was in his wheelchair when he rolled up next to the boy, Jacob Moser, who was sitting in his own wheelchair. Jacob clearly noted their respective chairs as Johnson leaned forward with an introduction and personal words of encouragement.
From a United States senator. In a wheel chair.
With Mary Jo and other women warriors doing the heavy lifting on the event, we raised something like $18,000. When bolstered by donated labor and materials, it produced a handicapped accessible addition worth about $30,000 for Jacob at his family's home.
We haven't matched that fundraising effort since. Nor have we tried to. But every year we continue the simple process from the first hunt of tossing some money into a container of some kind and leaving it to the Nemecs to choose a charity. This year they chose the local Knights of Columbus fundraising project for Special Olympics and the South Dakota Urban Indian mittens and caps program, which will each get half of the $463 pitched into a coffee can on the dining-room table.
Bravo to both charities. And Bravo to Nick and Mary Jo for hosting our event.
Sen. Johnson was hard to top as an honored guest. But we've had an interesting line of state legislators, constitutional office holders, bloggers, wildlife professionals, journalists and congressional candidates. Former Sen. Larry Pressler joined us for a hunt, and says he'd like to come back. He's always welcome.
Like Schoenbeck, former GF&P Secretary John Cooper is a regular. And we have six or eight others that we can count on most years. After that, we try to fill out a party of between 15 and the state-allowed maximum of 20 hunters, based on a variety of life experiences and political affiliations and philosophies. And also based on who's likely to make the hunt a lot of fun.
Which is exactly what the hunt has been for the last decade, as it aged and evoled and even went through a name change.
When I resigned as a reporter for the Rapid City Journal in August of 2013, Journal managers at the time allowed the once-popular blog to die. Even worse, they actively erased almost a decade of blog posts and extended conversations, many of which had historical, educational and entertainment value.
I still get inquiries from people trying to find one Blogmore thread or commentary or another online. Sadly, very few are available.
The Journal is under new management these days, however, with top-down changes that bode well for the paper and its readers, even during these tough newspaper times. And with a nod to that old blog, new managers have reached back into history a bit to name a new podcast: Mount Podmore!
I love that!
I love the Mount Blogmore Hunt even more, however, and how it brings people together. So does Nick. So during that first autumn after my departure from the Journal, Nick and I were committed to continuing the hunt. And he came up with a great idea for a new name: Requiem to Mount Blogmore Invitational Pheasant Hunt & Charitable Chili Feed.
Mount Blogmore might be gone, but the hunt it inspired lives on. It even motivates some who don't attend to get involved, in their own way. My editor at South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Cara Hetland, couldn't make the hunt this year. But she sent the grand prize -- an old-but-well-tended jacket from a long-past Gov. Bill Janklow's Buffalo Roundup.
We had a drawing for the jacket, with each hunter's name going into a hat and one of the Nemec grankids drawing the winner. And in a deliriously delightul bit of chance, the winner was Rick Hauffe, former executive director of the South Dakota Democratic Party. Rick seemed thrilled, aghast and amazed as Nick Nemec handled the presentation ceremony. And in a gesture of generosity, or perhaps simple self preservation, Rick volunteered to bring the jacket back for next year's hunt. Perhaps we'll draw again and make it a traveling trophy.
The hunt is a trophy all on its own, however. This year there were were 14 hunters, plus Lyman County’s own Joe Leichtnam, who was mainly a driver and commentator (we always have room for non-hunters, too). And we bagged 19 wild rooster pheasants. So everyone who wanted to take home a bird or two was able to.
Nobody left hungry. Nobody left early. Nobody left angry. And if the rest were like me, everybody left feeling a little bit better about the state of the world — or at least our little piece of it.
The South Dakota piece.