Steve Knutson freely admits that he didn’t know the first thing about writing a book, let alone self-publishing one. The entire process, more or less, began as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
“I really didn’t have a clue,” said Knutson, an avid waterfowler from Apple Valley, Minn., laughing. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I sort of stumbled into it. It just kind of happened over a period of years.”
All of which makes Knutson’s book, “Minnesota Duck Camps: 160 Years of History and Tradition,” all the more a monumental achievement for the retired engineer with no formal writing experience. Released in February, the handsome, glossy hardcover isn’t some easy-breezy afternoon read on the beach. It’s a hulking book of 750 pages (edited down from 900) that weighs 6 pounds and is densely packed with information and photos from stem to stern.
It features more than 250 ducks camps, clubs, and passes from across the state. The book has a reader-friendly structure, with sections on camps from Minneapolis and St. Paul, the metro region, as well as camps in the northern, southern, central, and western regions. There’s even a section on “minimally documented” camps.
“It’s gratifying to have completed it, because there was a time when I wasn’t sure it was going to happen,” said Knutson, 71, who grew up on a farm in the heart of duck country in Otter Tail County. “One thing is for sure: I wouldn’t have completed the book without Doug’s help and guidance.”
“Doug” is Doug Lodermeier, a waterfowling historian from Edina who has written two volumes of books on Minnesota duck calls and decoys. In 2016, Knutson attended a vintage decoy and sporting collectibles show in Illinois, at which Lodermeier was giving a presentation.
“After Doug finished, we talked a little bit … and he mentioned that he was writing a book and was trying to track down some information about a decoy carver near Lake Christina,” Knutson said, referencing the storied waterfowling lake near where he grew up. “That fall, I reached out to Doug and offered to help with the research.”
Knutson had retired in 2012, so he had plenty of time on his hands, he said. Intensely curious about all things waterfowl and waterfowling, Knutson began unearthing nuggets of information “about old duck-hunting camps,” which he filed away in a binder – which got thicker and thicker as time went on.
“I just thought it was interesting,” he said. “It was part of our waterfowling history that hadn’t been chronicled. I remember sort of causally mentioning it to Doug … and saying someone should write a book on these camps.”
Lodermeier knew the perfect person: Steve Knutson.
“He said I should do it and that he’d help me with everything along the way,” Knutson said.
But Knutson was skeptical. After all, what did he know about writing a book? Over the next three years, he started researching and writing, “but not fully committing to its conclusion.”
But as he started conducting in-person interviews across the state, he kept hearing the same story. “They’d say, ‘You should have been here a few months ago before my uncle, or my grandpa, or whoever, died,’” Knutson said. “They had the best information, the best stories. That’s when I knew I had to fully commit to the book, because my best sources were dying. At that point, I felt an obligation to get this book done. I wanted to preserve this history as much as possible.”
The book, which took roughly six-plus years to complete, features duck camps dating back to the 1860s and to the present. It chronicles stories about some of Minnesota’s “wealthiest and most prominent residents in duck-hunting camps and clubs,” as well as “less extravagant accommodations … used by the average working man.”
The book covers East Coast hunting groups that traveled through Minnesota in the 1870s on newly-laid railroad tracks, men who lived in rail cars specially modified for hunters. Stories abound. Photos, too. Roughly 700 (vintage, present day, aerial) provide context and give his many stories a sense of place.
“Duck hunters and duck camps spanned the range of financial means,” Knutson said. “Some hunting camps were made up of the most prestigious and richest businessmen in Minnesota, some camps were all plumbers or similar occupations. For those lucky enough to live near an excellent hunting location, even the very average working man could have fantastic hunting.”
One such example: the factory workers living in Shakopee in 1870s and 1880s.
“They could hunt the great duck passes close by the city along the Minnesota River,” Knutson said. “Swan Lake had lots of examples of average working men with hunting camps.”
According to Knutson, the salad days of traditional duck camps in Minnesota were during the 1920s. Then the bottom fell out, at least for a period of time. That’s when the drought years of the Dirty ‘30s parched wetlands, sending duck numbers tumbling.
In all, the book identifies more than 200 active duck camps.
“When the depression and then the drought years of 1930s came, that was certainly a setback in duck hunting and camps,” he said.
Knutson traveled across Minnesota to research the book, putting on thousands of miles, many with his wife riding shotgun.
“The one thing I learned about doing a book like this is that you need a patient and understanding wife,” he said with a laugh.
During his travels, Knutson conducted hundreds of interviews, many initiated by cold calls. He visited roughly 300 duck-hunting camps. He spent hours sifting through documents at county historical societies and in libraries.
He became a mainstay at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul. The archives of local newspapers provided reams of information. He used online websites such as findagrave.com to find summaries of the deceased and their descendants.
“That would get me going down a path, which sometimes led to important discoveries,” Knutson said. “Doing the research was like stumbling around in the dark. One clue would lead to another. It was like a giant puzzle. After a while, I really started to enjoy the research part. I guess you could say I became a little obsessed.”
His family noticed, too, he said. In fact, the formation of the book became a family affair. Knutson’s daughter edited the manuscript.
His son taught him how to use a drone to take aerial photos. His son-in-law helped Knutson “fix old photos” with Adobe Photoshop. Even his 12-year-old granddaughter Freya played a role by helping Knutson get the books ready for shipping. And, of course, Lodermeier, already an experienced hand in the publishing business, provided invaluable insight and advice.
“I think the book is an instant classic,” Lodermeier said. “I say this because of my intimate knowledge of the project. Steve’s dedication and dogged research has produced the only comprehensive book of its kind. I believe there will be many more individuals wanting this for their libraries than actual books available.”
Knutson says he’s sold roughly 500 copies of a limited-edition run of 1,000. As word has spread about the book, Knutson said he’s learned about other duck camps that he didn’t find originally.
“It’s been great that way, getting the feedback and learning about other camps, which I knew would likely happen,” he said. “I think the book has touched a nerve with people. So, yes, I think there’s a reasonable chance I’ll do a volume two. I’ve been collecting information and setting it aside. We’ll see.”
In the end, Knutson said, he was taken aback by the strain of Midwestern generosity he encountered while researching the book. Call it Minnesota nice, if you must.
“From the hundreds of phone calls, interviews, and visits I made, I was amazed at how helpful and friendly people were to someone they didn’t know and had never met before,” he said. “It’s probably the most important part of getting the book as complete and comprehensive as possible. Of all the calls I made, I had only one person hang up on me, which I think is pretty remarkable.”
To order “Minnesota Duck Camps: 160 Years of History and Tradition,” email Knutson at email@example.com. Ordering information also can be found on Facebook. The price is $85, plus $9 shipping and handling.