The Dakota Hunting & Kennel Club is a long-running, under-the-radar outdoor enthusiast’s oasis ten minutes west of Grand Forks, North Dakota. Since the late 60s, when the club first started, members have been going there to get away. The main club grounds feature a distinct multi-dog kennel, mowed training field, clay target range and a clubhouse. On most days, a crackling fireplace sends a lazy stream of smoke up and above the clubhouse lounge. A picture window near the fireplace reveals the opportunities that await outside. In front of the kennel, its chain-link kennel runs, and the old brown club sign, is a gravel road and the scenery of ag-fields that could be found anywhere around Grand Forks. Behind the kennel building and the main clubhouse, the view out that picture window is vastly different. There is no mistaking the scene looking west of the clubhouse. From where you stand outside the clubhouse, it is clear the space between you and the horizon is special.
Spanning more than 540 acres (not all contiguous), the club’s scenery features natural tall grass fields, wooded coulees, deep ponds and marsh habitat perfect for the types looking to escape the sights of the city for the sounds of grass strands swooshing against their pant legs as in-heaven bird dogs bolt through the field ahead.
Mike Elgin bagged his first rooster pheasant at the club when he was 15. A few years after that in 1984, he started working there. In 2007, he and his wife bought the club from the original owner who started the club as an outdoor-themed retreat for potato executives and other corporate leaders to partake in bird hunting without having to drive four to six hours away. “I’ve worked here my whole life,” Elgin says. “Even now, I don’t know what else I’d do. It is just so amazing out here.” Like most regional gems, much has changed while much has remained the same.
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Included in the membership fee, participants have access to the dog-training fields and clubhouse nearly any time they want (Elgin lives on the property and he is always around somewhere). Some members utilize the vast outdoor space to exercise their dogs in any combination of tall grass, mowed fields or in the deep clear pond that, to get to, requires a long walk down a skinny gravel road into the heart of the fields. The walk from the clubhouse to the pond on that gravel path is distinct in all parts of the year. In summer, song birds and far-off honeybee wings are the sounds. In the fall, you hear the northern winds and see everything glowing in a soft golden hue during late afternoon. No matter the season, you know where you are but also where you aren’t.
Elgin utilizes every acre of the club to put on pheasant hunts. Members schedule a time when they—and any non-members they invite—want to venture out with shotguns, blaze orange attire and bird dogs. There are wild birds that survive and thrive year after year throughout the club land, and, Elgin also buys additional stock to bolster numbers. Northern plains winters are hard. Elgin caters each hunt to the type of hunter. Sometimes he has big groups with high-end dogs that need a challenge. Other times he has 85-year old hunters. No matter who wants to come out, Elgin will create the near-perfect experience.
The land where the majority of the club acres reside is in the middle of an alkaline flat that spans several miles to the south, west and north. Part of the reason the club exists is because the land isn’t the best for farming. Elgin doesn’t care what type of land he has. To him, the setting and his job there were just always meant to be. Over the years, Elgin hasn’t changed the natural habitat much either. “You want a hunting experience that is as real as possible,” he says. Although he has planted and groomed different grass types and plant species, he has found that the natural tall grasses hold up best over time. Weather is a major factor in the success of members out on a hunt. The grasses can withstand cold, wind and precipitation. Wet, heavy snow is hard on everything.
In addition to bird hunts that can take place from early fall to late April of the following year, members can also partake in sporting clays (a service open to members and the general public). Since he first started the sporting clay course located a few miles south of the main grounds, it has been a huge success. This year he had more than 35 teams and every year the program grows. The main grounds also provide dog boarding services. Elgin is a taxidermist in addition to his title of do-it-all CEO of the club. During the main hunting season, Elgin is busy hosting large-group hunts throughout the week. Thanksgiving and Christmas are two of the busiest times of the year with members always looking to create a family memory from the field. Because the club is where it is, some memorable photos inside the walls of the club’s lounge show hunters with huge smiles lined up by their dogs and their birds on top of a solid white ground.
During a typical day at the club, hunters, or participants just there for the outdoor atmosphere, walk through the fields for two to three hours before returning to the clubhouse for a break. Without exception, Elgin will have a fresh, warm fire blazing in the central fireplace. Most members relax in the vintage furniture and play a game of cards, rehydrate with cold beverages of the adult or non-adult kind, nibble on some pre-prepared snacks, stare at the embers in the fireplace, talk about the details of the previous hunt, stare again at the fire and then repeat until it is time to head back out. When the day’s hunt and excursion is over, participants bring their game to Elgin to take care of for transport and future use. Although the fire is always going, and the furniture is always comfortable and appealing, Elgin says most hunts end with everyone standing in the game cleaning room downing a beverage while everyone heckles everyone and laughs and tells Elgin about the same unforgettable (to them) moments that he has heard a million times. “The thing I like most about the job is making people happy,” Elgin says.
Despite his reluctance to create a website or even a Facebook page, membership at the club is growing. In the past five years, there has been an influx of younger members. For the first time in a long time, there is actually a waiting list to become a member of the Dakota Hunting & Kennel Club, although Elgin is the type that seems hard-pressed to give a solid no. Fees are in the hundreds, not thousands, but what you get in return is something you know you won’t be able to get anywhere else but on that 540-plus acres west of town where that lazy smoke trail is always rising from the clubhouse, the tall grass is always swaying in the wind and Elgin is waiting inside to talk about your day, your dogs and the memories that come free with membership. G
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PHOTOS BY: DIMENSIONS PHOTOGRAPHY
From Issue 4, 2018