In the grasses along the ditch that drains to the small trout creek down the road from the family cabin grows a reminder of the summer solstice. While I’m not always there to see them in full bloom, and sometimes they’re not yet at that stage due to seasonal timings and conditions, I often look back on the find I made one chilly and damp summer while moving some shoreline weeds out to the pickup area along the road. Amidst the curls of green swamp grass, the purple-and-white bulbs of a patch of showy lady slippers stood out, their beauty hard to miss. Ornate and flowy, like many other orchid species, around this time of year, I check for the symbol that serves as a reminder of summer’s start.
Their summer display now also coincides with the end of another spring event which draws me annually to the cabin: the state high school clay target league tournament in nearby Horace, N.D. What I refer to as “the big show” when talking to our young participants. While my weekend is often hectic with back-and-forth driving to the massive shooting park before an overnight stay near the event, early morning or evening walks with the dog slow down a bit, as I inspect the grassline for the flowers I first found about eight years ago. Akin to the piles of medals the kids amass at the competition, with ribbons in orange, blue and yellow for third, second and first place – and if they’re really on during their competition day, the black ribbon of an overall winner – the color and rarity of the lady slippers are also a symbol of seasonal transition and a developing tradition.
In a pre-dawn walk, just before hitting the road for the first day of this year’s competition, I stopped to inspect the likeliest spot where the patch of lady slippers had been in the past. While I hadn’t seen the flowers in the previous season, as the tournament was cancelled due the pandemic, I was hopeful the timing was right and they’d be there. In the first light of day, with a squint through my glasses, I caught multiple splashes of white against the dark grass and took a step into the ditch. The patch had expanded along the break that drained into the swampy forested area below, and thirty or more flowers were in bloom. But the expansion wasn’t limited to the only ones I remembered as I stopped to snap a few photos before rolling onto Highway 10.
In three more groups down the edge, dozens more lady slippers bloomed just above the top of the grass, and I was awestruck. A follow up walk that night would reveal another set just a few more yards up the road, and I was amazed by how many there were and what great shape they were in, especially being such an uncommon flower. The bunches of the unique wildflowers buoyed my spirits, and portentously set the stage for the weekend.
Coming off a spring that challenged our shooters – with wind, snow, rain and cold temperatures the norm from March into early May – those that had signed up for the state tournament, had certainly earned their moment in the sun. The first two days of the event gave them just that, both figuratively and literally, as Friday’s hot and windy conditions and Saturday’s perfection of warmth and calm, were a bit of a change from the regular-season which still produced a number of high honors for the stalwart young shooters. Sunday’s wind and rain, which served as spring’s last slap before the changing of the seasonal calendar, mattered little, as the final schools persevered through more familiar conditions and excelled beyond expectations.
At the end of each day of competition, the clang of medals resounded through the parking lot and the shine of plaques for their accomplishments beamed as bright their smiles. In the end, our crews boasted the Class 1A men’s trap champion, the high guns in men’s and women’s skeet, the high score in men’s class 2A trap, the ladies’ champion and runner-up in class 3A trap, and many more who made the podium with top three finishes in their Varstiy, Junior Varsity and Novice divisions. After a year away, it was the most successful finish that our participants had ever had and testament to their hard work and perseverance through a challenging time.
With those memories locked away, I headed back to the cabin and as I pulled in, I took one more look at the flowers in the ditch, catching the day’s first rays of sun as the storm system moved out of the area and the last light of spring shone down on the flowers. Like the shouts, hugs and fist bumps shared by family and friends as the shooters closed out their record rounds and the tense quiet gave way to celebration, the flowers served the same purpose – a showy end to one season, and the herald of another that would begin, at least celestially, shortly after the sun set on spring and summer would start…in our outdoors.