A Sense of Place: Heron Lake Legacy
Duck hunting is great on great-granddad's favorite lake.
By Lacey Rose Horkey
On the wall above my dad's recliner is a faded black-and-white photograph of a handsome young man with an 1897 Winchester and a pile of waterfowl at his feet. He has a childlike innocence about him, but his regal stance exhibits the confidence of a seasoned hunter. The man was my great-grandfather Albert Olson.
Albert enchanted his eight children with tales of tromping about Heron Lake in the early 1900s as a hunter and guide. His stories instilled a passion for hunting in his six boys. When Albert's youngest son, Louis, grew up, he shared the family lore with his nephew, my dad. Armed with well-oiled shotguns and coffee, the two found a home in the reeds of the lake.
On a frosty fall morning when I was 13, Albert's legacy was passed from the men in my family to me.
It is the morning of my first hunt. My dad's creaky footsteps on the wooden stairs break the silence and my slumber. His whisper announces the arrival of dawn, and I awkwardly rise from a warm mattress. I'm drowsy, yet aware I must endure the cold for this opportunity to have my dad to myself. While I tightly cinch his 36-inch-waist camouflage fleece pants around my waist and slide into his monstrous boots, he zips my 20-gauge Benelli and his 12-gauge Winchester into their carrying cases.
Mesmerized by the oversized footprints I am leaving in the frost on our driveway, I slowly march toward the truck. The chilly October air bites my cheeks as I watch my dad load the truck with hunting gear. With his scruffy cheeks and burly mustache framing his overlapping front teeth, he is the handsome and rugged hunter one sees when thumbing through the pages of Outdoor Life.
Once the packing is finished, we slam truck doors and depart for Heron Lake. A makeshift path links the two-lane highway with the wilds of the lake. On our left, an unharvested plot of field corn bounces past the window. On our right, a line of maples hides the lake beyond. As we drive over hardened clumps of grass and mud, Dad's keys jostle against the steering column.
My great-grandfather made his trek to the lake in hunting boots. He never sat behind the wheel of a car, though Henry Ford's Model T was introduced in 1908.
My dad and I ride without speaking until the crunch of water-worn rocks beneath the tires signals our arrival at the lake. The moon still lights the rugged landscape as my dad transfers the truck's contents into my outstretched arms and I place them in the canoe at water's edge.
Waves lap at the canoe as my dad paddles us to the cattail-covered duck blind he designed and built. Halfway there, I take over the paddling. As his daughter and a descendent of hunters, I want to prove I'm a worthy hunting companion. I want to claim our family's hunting stories as my own.
When we reach the hunting blind, my dad wedges the canoe into the bulrushes. The sky lightens as we toss decoys of mallards and teal into the icy waters. Then, we wait.
Crouching on plastic pails padded with seat cushions, we whisper about the wind and water and weather. I giggle as my dad admits to past adventures plagued with tipped canoes and leaky waders. The hunting stories span four generations of foggy fall sunrises.
"Lace, look!" The words fly out of my dad's mouth as his finger points out a distant flock of targets in flight.
In the next few moments, my eyes dart from the flock to my dad and back again. He grasps the wooden mallard call suspended from his neck and begins an atonal conversation, negotiating where the birds should land. The rhythmic flapping draws closer to our hideaway, and we lift our guns to our shoulders. In my head I hear my dad's shooting lessons, and I am aware that his words echo guidance given by my great-grandfather to Louis, and Louis to him.
I stare down my gun's barrel toward the mallards suspended in flight. As they catch themselves midflap and expose their thickly feathered chests to our sights, we pull triggers. Powerful bursts erupt from our gun barrels.
At once, I am linked to my dad, my great-uncle, and my great-grandfather.
My dad and I retrieve our harvest among the painted decoys, then paddle back to the sunlit shore we'd left in the darkness of early morning. Behind us, the swirling trail of our canoe vanishes into the water. Nevertheless, we've left our imprint on Heron Lake, and my great-grandfather's legacy has been carried forward for another generation.
Editor's note: For more about Heron Lake's famed duck hunting history and efforts to restore it to its previous glory, read Conservation Volunteer articles "Lake of Dreams," January–February 1996, and "Will the Thunder of Wings Return to Heron Lake?" March–April 1989.
Lacey Rose Horkey is an English/journalism major at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D. Hunting, fishing, and picking strawberries are among her favorite childhood memories from Heron Lake.