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Kevin Schnepf, Published November 08 2009

Deer old friends meet again

Seven hunters, donned in their blaze-orange jackets, piled in the back of Alvin Swanson’s pickup Saturday morning. Swanson and two more hunters hopped in the cab.

Under a bright sun amidst 45-degree temperatures, they ventured out for the Minnesota deer opener into the fields north of Moorhead – the same countryside where this group’s ritual started a half-century ago.

It was in 1959 when Alvin Swanson, his neighbor Milton Gee and his 16-year-old farmhand, Dennis Orvedahl, started hunting together.

Fifty years later, the hunt continues for Swanson, now 77 years old, and Orvedahl, now 66. And even though Gee passed away in 1983, the annual hunting rite has grown to include some war buddies, sons and grandsons.

“Milton was the driving force behind all of this,” said Orvedahl, a retired teacher who now lives in Evansville, Minn. “For Alvin and I, it’s just a way of carrying it on and thinking of Milton. It’s been one of the highlights of my life for 50 years.”

Orvedahl’s two sons were part of the group Saturday. Dale, 45 and retired from the Air Force, flew in from Salt Lake City to join the group. Jon, 41, can still brag that the 13-point, 200-pound buck he shot in 1984 is still the biggest over the years.

“You always spend a lot of time talking about old stories,” Jon said.

Like the time Dennis had to cut his hunt short because he had to play football for Moorhead State against rival Concordia. Like the time the hunters huddled by a Nipco heater in Swanson’s garage, waiting out a blizzard.

Like the time some of the hunters canoed the Red River to retrieve one of the deer they shot.

“That was cold,” Dennis Orvedahl said. “And it’s surprising how heavy a deer is when it’s full of water.”

On Saturday, the hunters had to deal with lots of unharvested corn – prime hiding spots for the deer. Even though they appreciated Saturday’s balmy weather, most in the party described ideal conditions as “cloudy and 2 inches of snow.”

“You can track the deer a lot easier in the snow,” said Mehmed Borcic, a refugee from Bosnia who joined the group six years ago.

There was too much snow last year – especially for 79-year-old Tom Beck, who has been a part of the hunt since 2000. On his 1,800-mile drive from his home in Medford, Ore., Beck became stranded in Dickinson, N.D., for two days because of a blizzard.

Beck became part of the group because of his acquaintance with 78-year-old Harry Detwiler, who served in the Korean War with Alvin Swanson.

“I was euphoric when I had the chance to come here,” Beck said. “1,800 miles is worth the trip. You can see the sun come up and see the sun go down. It’s different than the mountain country in Oregon.”

Detwiler, who hunted pheasants with Swanson while in Korea, became intrigued with the Red River Valley deer hunt when Swanson kept mailing him pictures.

“On this deer hunt, it’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on,” Detwiler joked.

Jerry Gee, the son of Milton, has had fun on this hunt ever since he was a kid. On Saturday, he proudly displayed a 1962 photo that showed his dad, Milton, Dennis Orvedahl, his sister Jennie and himself posing by one of the deer they shot.

Gee was 8 years old. On Saturday, his 18-year-old son, Alex, was part of the group, as was 16-year-old Reid Hurner and 18-year-old Ryan Swanson – both Alvin’s grandsons.

“It’s pretty special with all the generations,” Jerry Gee said.

The group – which one year harvested 20 deer – didn’t get any deer Saturday, but they will go out again today. Next weekend, they will get together to butcher the deer and divvy up the meat.

“And then we all say, ‘See you next year,’ ” Dennis Orvedahl said. “It seems no matter what’s going on in our lives or the world, we seem to find our way back here.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549