It wasn’t the first time I’ve reached Dennis Daugaard while he was on a road trip.
Governors get around, after all. And Daugaard got around plenty during his eight years as South Dakota’s chief executive.
But this trip is different. And so is Daugaard, when it comes to titles at least. And work schedules. And attire.
He’s now a used-to-be governor and a retired 67-year-old. And he’s much more into t-shirts than ties. When he gets “dressed up,” it most likely means strapping on a COVID-conscious mask so he and his wife, Linda, can safely enter a store in Sioux Falls or Dell Rapids or Garretson.
And this particular road trip? Well, it’s a first for the former governor, former lieutenant governor, former state senator, rural-home remodeler, and evolving canoe master.
Right now, he and a couple of buddies from his law-school days at Northwestern University are somewhere up on the 1-million-acre Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness, paddling deep into the pleasures of solitude and the sweet indulgences of distant lakes and streams.
I caught him by cell phone last weekend during his solo drive up. He was headed to a meeting with his pals — Gene Frett of Chicago and Dale Eikenberry of Indianapolis — at Ely, Minnesota, the gateway to the BWCAW and good times in canoes.
Frett and Eikenberry have been there before a number of times. It’s Daugaard’s first trip.
“I know we go to Ely. Then Snowbank Lake is our entry point,” he said. “So, I know where we start. Beyond that, I don’t know.”
Heading off into the gloriously unknown
What he is surely beginning to know this week with his friends in the Boundary Waters is at least some of what writer, naturalist, and wilderness advocate Sigurd F. Olson knew so well: the value of the north country and the importance of exploring it by canoe.
“There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace,” wrote Olson, an avid canoeist who was instrumental in the preservation of the BWCAW. “The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness and of a freedom almost forgotten.”
The freedom felt with a paddle in hand isn’t completely foreign to Daugaard. He has been canoeing for years. He started with an aluminum canoe borrowed from a friend and eventually upgraded to a better-quality Mad River canoe borrowed from another friend.
Eventually, he got his own 16-foot Mad River canoe, through a group gift from his cabinet and executive staff one Christmas.
“It’s very comfortable, with backrests and cup holders,” Daugaard said.
He and Linda were paddling on the Big Sioux River the day before he headed for Ely. And he and son, Chris, make summer canoe trips that typically include three days of paddling and two nights of camping.
“We start on Friday, then tent camp that night, continuing on Saturday and tent camp that night, then we finish up sometime Sunday,” Daugaard said.
Along with many Big Sioux River trips, Dennis and Chris Daugaard have been on the Missouri River, the Niobrara River in Nebraska, and the Root River in southwestern Minnesota.
Now he’s up in the vast expanses of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, through the week.
“I’m really excited about it,” he said during that phone call on the way up.
Just a couple of retired guys, celebrating their lifestyles
I got a little excited about it just talking to him, even though that wasn’t the purpose of the call. I called because I had been asked to write a small piece in a much-bigger writing package on Daugaard coordinated by former staffers. So I figured I’d better check-in and see how retirement was working for him.
We concluded that we both like our more relaxed lifestyles these days. We both spend a lot of time in comfortable, socially distanced situations, mostly outdoors but for different reasons. For me, it’s fishing and hiking and, in a few short weeks, hunting.
For Daugaard, it’s the regular canoe trips but also more seemingly mundane business back on the family farm. There in a way far from mundane, he uses carpentry skills learned from his father, Raymond, a family farmer and wage-earning craftsman whose hearing impairment never defined who he was or what he could accomplish.
“My dad was a pretty good carpenter who learned woodworking at the South Dakota School for the Deaf,” Daugaard said. “He worked at a cabinet-making shop for a few years and framed houses for a few years in-between farming. So, he knew a lot and taught me a lot.”
That teaching and those handed-down skills have come in handy since Daugaard left the governor’s chair in January of 2019, returning to a rural home near Garretson that was fetching and comfortable but in need of some sprucing up.
“In part, because it was occupied by one of Linda’s siblings, by our son or by no one for eight years, I’m trying to catch up on overdue maintenance, siding some outbuildings and things like that,” Daugaard said. “And we got a little spoiled in the governor’s mansion by an attached garage. We never had one, and here we’d been parking in an old chicken house for about 30 years.”
OK, you have to like that: a governor who would head back for the farm for a weekend or holiday and park in a chicken house. Fixed up to some extent, I'm sure, but still.
That’s a sign of a man who’s not all that impressed with himself, even if he should be.
But there were good reasons to upgrade from the tenuous vehicle shelter of the chicken house, quaint though it might have been.
“It was old and small and dirty,” Daugaard said. “And in the winter, we had to trudge from the chicken house to the house in the snow.”
Socially distant, with hammer in hand
So last fall he built a garage. But that wasn’t the end of it. He also took on another project, converting a three-season porch to a bedroom and bath. And now he’s building a deck.
It’s a socially distant activity that keeps him engaged and inspired.
“I still make a lot of mistakes. I have to do and undo. But you can go to YouTube, learn something and try to apply it,” he says. “I enjoy it. And I really like the fact that I can do it at my own pace. It’s therapeutic.”
He and Linda do most things at their own pace, although the pace can quicken when their three children — all living in Sioux Falls — and their families are involved.
“We have seven grandkids now, ranging in age from 8 years to one month old,” Daugaard says. “Linda is more responsible about attending grandchildren’s events, the t-ball games, and birthday parties. I’m pretty good, but she’s unparalleled. And we have the grandkids come and stay overnight. The pandemic made us stop that for a while, but we’ve resumed. They’re pretty socially isolated. When they start school, we might have to adjust.”
The pandemic has changed their lifestyle just as it has changed life for most of us. When they first returned to the farm after Daugaard left office, they were out often, shopping or meeting others for meals. That all changed. When Linda, who is one of 12 siblings, has dinner with her friends or sisters, for example, they eat outside.
Beyond that, trips are limited, social gatherings generally avoided.
“We stay pretty isolated,” Daugaard said. “And, of course, when we go someplace, we both wear masks unless we’re outside and have some distance from others. Inside we always wear masks.”
Daugaard’s favorite mask has a picture of Mount Rushmore with the words “Great Faces Safe Spaces” and all four presidential faces wearing masks.
Planning the paddle trip with safety in mind
Daugaard said he and his law-school pals discussed the pandemic when they made their Boundary Waters plans. They decided that “Yes, we could do it if we were all very careful about being socially distant and not going up there and infecting one another.”
So, like many of the rest of us, Daugaard is figuring out how to fit life-enriching activities into his commitment to avoiding catching or spreading the virus. He’s also keeping a low profile politically, which means avoiding commenting on current officeholders.
“The officeholders deserve the right to not have a former governor analyze them,” he said. “If I’ve got something to say about what they’re doing, I’ll say it to them. We don’t need to communicate through the news media or social media or whatever.
“And I think that’s a good rule to follow anyway, whether you’re in office or out of office,” he said. “If you have something to say to someone, say it in person.”
These days “in-person” might mean a Facetime call or Zoom meeting. He and Linda Facetime every few weeks with former Lt. Gov. Matt Michels and his wife, Karen. Daugaard also stays in touch with former staffers, who remind him of what he misses most about being in state government.
It’s not the government work, which he found challenging and inspiring and instructive and eventually something of which he’d had enough. The people, though, he didn’t quite get enough of them.
“I miss the people,” he said “We got to know a lot of good friends over the years, and we had pretty good longevity in cabinet members and staffers. When you work with somebody every day, you miss those people. So I try to keep in contact.”
A Daugaard political revival? Yeah, not so much
He remains uninspired by the notion, suggested by some, of a political comeback. And he’s generally unlikely to accept an invitation for a speaking engagement.
“I kind of like not having to write a speech, or think about what I want to say,” he said. “I’m getting lazy, maybe. I don’t mind speaking. I just don’t like getting ready. And I wear a t-shirt these days. I put on a tie for something — Oh, what was it? Oh yeah, the law school was announcing a gift and wanted a videotape — so I put on a tie. And I’ll bet it’s the first time I had one on for six months.”
Daugaard isn’t inclined to take on any new jobs, either, other than a few very part-time positions that provide useful income and spurts of more-structured focus to his otherwise self-directed lifestyle.
“When I finished my (second) term as governor, I wanted to think that I was wealthy enough to live on Social Security,” Daugaard said. “But the fact is unless we were pretty hermit-like, that wouldn’t do.”
So, he took on periodic board or advisory panel work for some financial, energy, and food companies.
“Those all pay a little bit. And they keep me intellectually interested, yet they’re not very demanding,” Daugaard said. “I probably deal with one or the other of them a few hours every week.”
The rest of the week is his. And Linda’s. And the grandkids’. And the farm’s.
And this week — this whole, delightfully distant week — it’s the Boundary Waters, the old friends and the “magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe.”
No official titles. No speeches. And, especially, no ties.