For the heat of the hunt

This October, a national cocker spaniel competition found a host home on the shore of Minnkota’s Nelson Lake.


Kaylee Cusack


November 10, 2020

Claustrophobic fog hung over the warm water of Nelson Lake on Oct. 30, as the rising sun tried its best to break the gloom. But where the sun failed, other things cut through – the blaze orange of hunting hats, the crack of a shotgun and the focused fire of 16 English cocker spaniels.

These dogs were what remained of the 93 entrants of the 2020 National English Cocker Spaniel Field Championship, hosted this year by the North Dakota Sporting Spaniel Club (NDSSC) in Bismarck. The four-day competition brought dog owners and handlers from around the country, as far away as Florida, to compete in a series of hunting trials in field and water.

The fields were easy to find, but the water was more of a challenge. That’s why organizers set their sights on the Milton R. Young Station.

Blaze orange was the uniform of the day for attendees of the National English Cocker Spaniel Championship. (Minnkota/Kaylee Cusack)

“We had a great partner with Minnkota Power to give us that opportunity to showcase their facility here at Nelson Lake,” said NDSSC treasurer and event co-chair Jon Hunke.

Hunke explained that the water series, in which each dog retrieves a pheasant simulated to be shot over the water, was planned to be held at nearby McDowell Dam. However, the never-frozen water of Nelson Lake was a saving grace when the mercury dropped faster than the pheasants.

“It’s a pretty famous lake for its temperature,” said NDSSC president and event co-chair John Alstad. “So knowing that we might have an early freeze up, just because it’s North Dakota, it was great to have Minnkota help us out and be our safety net.”

Situated at the foot of the Young Station, Nelson Lake is the state’s only body of water that won’t freeze in winter. That’s because the plant uses the water to cool its turbine before returning the warmed water safely into the lake.

Competition champion Vicky Thomas (right) poses with her partner and group of canine competitors at the Young Station. (Photography by Tangula Unruh)

Plant environmental superintendent Scott Hopfauf said he was surprised to get the call from Hunke requesting use of the lake for a national event, but he didn’t hesitate to approve. The lake’s recreation area has been used for many community efforts throughout the years, including N.D. National Guard boat training, Escape to the Lake water events for the N.D. Association for the Disabled, and as a N.D. Game and Fish Department fishery to stock other lakes in the state.

“It is fantastic to see that Nelson Lake is not only an asset for Minnkota operations, but also for the city, county, state and private citizens and groups,” Hopfauf said.

Strong connection

One by one, the dogs and their handlers took their places on the east shore of the lake, waiting for the sound of the gun and the toss of the pheasant. At the command of the handler, the spaniels took off to the water, leaping in for a short dogpaddle to the bird and a quick return to the handler. Each dog was judged on patience, control and obedience.

A dog leaps into Nelson Lake to retrieve a pheasant for competition. (Photography by Tangula Unruh)

One of those canine competitors was Frost from Cambria, Wis., brother to the dog that won the national championship in 2019.

“He looks at me like I look at ice cream,” Frost’s owner Kaye Wyn said with a giggle. “I love that about him. He really wants to work for me.”

Wyn described the love and loyalty from a hunting dog that is key to competitive success. “It’s really fun to watch them find game birds – for you,” she said. “That’s originally what you want for your bird dog, is you want them to find your food, and you want them to work with you as a team.”

“It’s all about the connection with the handler and the dog,” Alstad said. “In the field, it’s just like a ballet, how they move with the wind and with the whistle.”

One by one, competitors returned pheasants from the water of Nelson Lake. (Photography by Tangula Unruh)

The owners and handlers want only the best for their companions, so when competition shifted from land to lake, participants were grateful for Nelson’s unique warmth. “The water conditions were just better for the dogs. When the snow came in and it got cold this week, the ponds iced over,” Wyn said. “This was the best possible answer, so it was wonderful.”

Frost was one of 14 dogs to move on to the championship event later that day. As the hunting duos hopped into pickups and SUVs and rolled back out through the mist, organizers reflected on their co-op collaboration.

Kaye Wyn's Frost waits in the grass for one of several championship events. (Photography by Tangula Unruh)

“To have these facilities here to produce power for, really, the United States … that’s great to have. But to have a partner in this event, for wildlife, for stewardship, for community – that’s why I reached out,” Hunke said. “I understand the importance of cooperatives, I understand what their core values are. They’re in the community to serve.”

Main image: One of the remaining competitors dashes toward the water to retrieve a pheasant. (Photography by Tangula Unruh)


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