If there’s one thing I hope I never see in my life, it’s the underside of my dog’s skin.
Yet, as a hunting dog owner, I’ve almost come to terms with the odds of it happening one day. With countless miles of old barbed wire fences lurking in fields and forests, it’s a constant threat.
Reid, my cousin’s husband, knows this all too well. Once in the farthest corner of North Dakota, his dog lost a game of tug-of-war with a fence. He coldly reports, “A torn four-by-four piece of skin, so they cleaned it up and they stapled it together. It sounds like a simple affair years after the fact, but he was probably a nervous wreck at the time. I know I would have been.
Once, my dear old boy caught his protective vest on a beard, which partially peeled off the reflective trim from the body part. It wasn’t apparent at the time, however. All I could tell was that Johann got caught on the fence, and the next thing I knew was that he came loose with a brief ripping noise.
I almost fainted.
I swear, I hold my breath every time my young dog ducks or jumps through a barbed wire fence at high speed. The hunt would definitely be less nerve-wracking if there were no fences at the start.
Well, that was the idea this week at Mud Creek WMA in Dakota County near Northfield. The Minnesota Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers teamed up with the Dakota Ringnecks Pheasants Forever Chapter to tear down all the old barbed wire fences.
As a dog owner and BHA member, the email invitation resonated with me. It seemed like an interesting way to fill my Friday.
I went there knowing no one else, which always makes me feel more uncomfortable than it should. As usual, this was unwarranted – it turned out to be a large group. The sense of purpose and collegiality was strong from the start.
At 8 a.m., about a dozen of us received instructions for the morning as we stuffed our faces with exceptional baked goods from Sweet Kneads in Farmington. We had to walk over to the west fence, clear the barbed wire from the posts, then roll it up and put it in place to be picked up. If we had time, we were told, we would also tackle the eastern fence in the same way.
It seemed simple, but it wasn’t always. This fence had been in place for almost a century, which is a long time for the posts to bend, for the strands to be absorbed by the ground, and for the trees and brush to swallow it all up.
Personally, I spent most of my time freeing fence clips from metal posts and old staples from wooden posts. Some performed wire rolling duties once long lengths had been freed up, while others collected them and transported them to a central location.
We had this stretch tamed in a very short time. Eli Mansfield, our BHA coordinator, noted that in less than two hours we were ahead of schedule.
Even before lunch we worked quickly on the east side. Within a few more hours, we had picked up hundreds and hundreds of yards of old fence. This included a lot of stuff inside the Cattail Swamp that Mansfield said no one even knew was there until recently.
Also unknown until Friday was the power that bands like PF and BHA wielded in a simple collaboration like that. It happened during a chance encounter at Game Fair last year between Mansfield and Bill Wiseman.
Wiseman, whose own dog was injured by barbed wire in Mud Creek, had been trying for three years to get the project off the ground. “It’s been a journey,” he said.
There was a lot of paperwork related to volunteering for the state of Minnesota. However, a recent development called a “no-fee contract” between Pheasants Forever and the state has reduced this bureaucracy. Quite simply, if PF, as an organization, makes a plan, does the work, and takes responsibility, things become very simple and effective.
So the only thing standing in the way of Wiseman was the sheer scale of the task relative to his chapter. Once he and Mansfield put their heads together, however, everything fell into place.
Backcountry Hunters and Anglers is basically a public land advocacy group whose members have a proven thirst for service work. Mansfield knew if he spread the word, he could get a lot of boots on the court. What neither he nor Wiseman nor anyone else knew, however, was how quickly a small group of motivated volunteers could tear through a thousand yards of barbed wire.
What had been planned as a three-day event would barely split in two. Since it became apparent on Friday that the removal of the fence posts would have to wait until the ground thawed further, all that remained was to find and flag each fence post for removal in the coming weeks.
Before we all disperse on Friday, I thought I’d ask the remaining group by a show of hands how many dogs had ever had barbed wire injuries. An astonishing eight out of ten raised their hands.
As for Mud Creek WMA, that number should stay at zero out of ten.
Roy Heilman is an outdoorsman, writer, musician, and native of Minnesota. His adventures take him all over the map, but he’s always at home on neveragoosechase.com.