In the early morning hours Saturday, Nov. 9., John Ringdahl struck a match and gently pulled air through his pipe. A cloud of warm smoke floated to the roof of a one-of-a-kind deer stand as he awaited shooting hours.
The first rifle crack could be heard about 20 minutes before legal shooting far in the distance. As the minutes ticked by and the landscape became visible, more and more rifles resounded, reminding any deer in the area this might be a good day to sleep in.
John, 81, intently watched a lane along a stand of corn, hoping a large buck might step out. Nothing else would do as the rule for Saturday was hunters on the Ringdahl ranch only shoot a buck over eight points. After a couple hours and no deer, he didn't seem to mind. Instead he shared a story about the deer stand he was sitting in.
The stand was an old grain cart flipped over with the bottom removed. It was made just days before the opening weekend by a hired hand. The sides were anchored to a platform with steps leading hunters to a view like no other. The rolling hills north of Fergus Falls offer up deep ravines. high overlooks, dense patches of hard woods, pot holes, food plots, and on the Ringdahl property it's all accessible thanks to miles and miles of trails carved out over decades.
On the opening day hunt, John wasn't the only one out and about. The property boasts about 15 stands and most had a hunter occupying a section of land. Everything is positioned just so that no one has a line of sight to another hunter over the 450 acres.
"Everybody is in a good place," Tony Mariotti, a family friend and avid hunter said to the group the night before the hunt. he bragged about the huge bucks he'd seen on the property and, while he didn't want to use the "guarantee" word, he felt there was a good chance at success.
You can't even see the abundance of neighbors that dot the outer edge of the property line. That is until a couple hours into the hunt when a neighbor walks into view to retrieve a fine 9-point buck he shot earlier that morning. Somewhere on that hunt were John's sons Tollef and Bjorn. A friend Mike Leonard was perched in a tree stand. Others on site were mostly media folk, invited to the event as part of the 2019 Governor's Deer Opener. Two men from the Twin Cities came in search of a buck and a story to share with their media group. Another joined from Elk River, a handful came from video production groups out of the Dakotas. All were lucky enough to enjoy the generosity of the Ringdahl family.
By mid morning, another hunter joined John in the stand, Jerry Johnson, an avid hunter and former electrical contractor in the Fergus Falls area. Jerry had showed up just minutes late and had to make the trek to the stand on foot. It was no small feat for the 81-year-old hunter who was breathing hard as he climbed the steps to find a spot in the cart.
There's no heater in the grain cart stand, but apparently having walls to keep the wind at bay is a luxury among these hunters.
"I'm kind of a wuss," John whispered as he peered out at the open expanses of the property. John started buying this property in 1972, including the first couple hundred acres at just $65 an acre. Included on the site were numerous old buildings, an old city of sorts just miles from Elizabeth, Minn. Most of the buildings are now renovated and offer almost tourist charm in the middle of these deer woods.
John contemplated heading in for a mid morning break, thinking about the fire he'd start in the wood stove in the basement of the cabin. It's there that the group would convene for a meal of traditional chili. It's there they would talk about the many deer that were obviously still out there. It's at deer camp, really that John and some of the other long-time hunters really have a reason to keep coming back to the hunt.
"It was never important to me to shoot a deer," John said. The fun of hunting and eating deer is one thing the hunters agreed was enjoyable, but for the Ringdahl family, who own and operate Ringdahl Emergency Services with headquarters in Fergus Falls, the idea of actually shooting a deer and the work that follows are not high on their list.
At a safety meeting the night before the hunt, Bjorn explained to the hunters that, yes, he enjoyed deer hunting, but being a paramedic, actually killing and dressing a deer is rather difficult. Opening up the deer emits a smell Bjorn has smelled all too often in responding to a serious injury crash, where a human being's life is in his hands.
"Red reminds me of red," Bjorn said. "The smell reminds me of the smell."
It's something that John and his boys inherited from the work. That work began back in 1967 when John read in the newspaper that 90 funeral homes in Minnesota would no longer be offering ambulatory services. Fergus Falls needed help. He saw that as an opportunity to start an ambulance service and started the business buying two transport vehicles. Ringdahl EMS is now a collaboration of five Advanced Life Support ambulance services in Minnesota and North Dakota, including Fergus Falls, Pelican Rapids, Jamestown, Lisbon, Morris and Casselton.
John wishes his sons had never gotten into the field that he entered, saying he sacrificed too much family time always running out to handle calls. But much like their father, they are in the business of helping people.
Even when off the clock, the Ringdahl family continues to try to help people like the members of the media hoping to bag a deer. Unfortunately, some things, big bucks included, are out of their control.