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KEN BARNES: Face-to-face with the founding fathers

I recently received a group of text photos from Chris Merlo who lives in Texas.

Chris is Steve Merlo's son, and I had spoken to him a few months ago telling him I was looking for old pictures of me and his dad that I might use in future columns.

But wow ... was I in for a shock. The ones he sent were from a hunting trip I took with Steve close to 40 years ago to North Dakota. I had almost completely forgot about that particular venture.

I remember the day Steve called out of the blue and said, "Barnes, would you like to go to North Dakota and shoot some sandhill cranes?"

I just replied, "When do we leave"?

He said one of his old friends from Shafter had asked us along, and we would be flying there in his private plane. His name was Gene Guenther, and he had been the past Postmaster for the city of Shafter for about the last 25 years.

Gene's cousin had invited him back for the hunt and had no problem with the two of us tagging along. I was very excited about making the journey in a private plane because I had taken flying lessons about 20 years before that time from Pemberton Flying Service at the old Meadows Field terminal.

I had been on a few trips before, and I wanted to know what to do in case the pilot ceased to function for some reason. I had close to 60 hours of solo flying time under my belt, so I hoped Gene would let me use the controls during some of the trip.

We met up one morning at Minter Field and began to load the plane. It was a Cessna 172 single engine aircraft, and was just a little larger than the Cessna 150 I had taken lessons in. The trip started with one crazy incident though.

After lift-off on the runway, Gene said we had a major problem. Too much weight in the rear potion of the aircraft. Without even backing off on the acceleration, he made a huge U-turn to the west of the field, and we made a very hot high speed landing right over Lerdo Highway and rolled to a stop.

We moved some of our bags into the passenger area forward, as well as moving other things right into the engine compartment. And then, off we went again.

A storm front had moved through the state the evening before, and we were met with very wild winds while flying over the Sierra's. I remember seeing the altimeter drop as much as 150 feet in one or two seconds, and then just go right back up again. Really bouncy. It all cleared up by the time we were in Nevada though, and we made a beeline for Salt Lake City where we were to spend the night.

The next morning we continued east without incident. After the rough air over the mountains the day before, Gene let me have the controls for most of the next day. Our plan was to refuel in Rapid City, South Dakota, and then fly into Jamestown, North Dakota.

Boy, was I ever surprised when we approached Rapid City and I saw Mt. Rushmore looming in the distance. The city is only about 25 miles from this most revered National Park. We flew right across the face, and I was eye to eye with images of two of the founding fathers of our great country. It was a very special and unexpected treat to view these faces for real after only seeing them in photos for all of my life.

We arrived in Jamestown and were greeted by Gene's cousin, 'Bud' Wingire. After loading our gear, 'Bud' drove us west to the small farming town of Woodworth where we would be staying with his family for the duration of the trip.

I have been on a lot of hunting trips where guides were used, and there is nothing better than being able to eat and sleep with the guide's family. Always great food and stories to tell. 'Bud' was involved with farm equipment sales in the area for many years and knew many of the local farmers who could give us permission to hunt their lands.

On the first morning of the hunt we were taken to a small pond adjoining a harvested corn field. It was amazing to see flock after flock of mallard ducks just pour into the area, and we could not have had a better shoot anywhere.

That afternoon we set up for snow geese in a grain field. It was just like the morning hunt with just bigger birds.

Hundreds of these majestic white flyers worked our decoy spread, and we filled our limits in nothing flat.

The following day we drove north to an area called Devil's Lake, and had some terrific pass shooting at sandhill cranes. This was the first time I had ever had a chance to bag these big birds, and it was quite exciting.

For the next two days we did nothing but chase upland game. Bagging ruffed grouse and Hungarian partridge were, also, firsts for me. I didn't think anything could get off the ground and move as fast as the partridge, but they did.

Overall, this was one of the best hunting trips I have ever been on. Looking back now, I am only disappointed that I was not using a video camera at that time like I did for many years after that hunt. Could have had some totally awesome footage to share with my family and friends today.

ONE FINAL NOTE: I would just like to thank Chris Wingire, 'Bud's' son living in Arizona, for useful information as to names and places. As well as Gene's daughter, Jean Fuller, who you will remember locally as the past minority leader in the California State Senate, and the Superintendent of Schools for the Bakersfield City School District.

Kudos to you both. Greatly appreciated.

Ken Barnes is a record setting shooter and longtime outdoorsman from Kern County. Email him at with comments or column ideas.