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'You gotta go on': 40 years later, Minnesota man reflects on tragic morning

Jerry Kern of St. Paul talks about his life during a recent interview. Bob King / Forum News Service1 / 3
Jerry Kern of St. Paul takes a break on a September morning in Duluth on his way back to St. Paul from his cabin in Silver Bay. Kern used to hunt deer at a family deer camp near Island Lake north of Duluth. Bob King / Forum News Service2 / 3
Jerry Kern took this photo of his son, Mark, on the evening before grouse season opened in 1977. Jerry and Mark were at the family's deer camp north of Island Lake. Jerry Kern photo. 3 / 3

DULUTH, Minn. — Jerry Kern used to hunt deer at a camp north of Island Lake. But after what happened on this date 40 years ago, Kern no longer hunts deer. Or any other kind of game.

Now 82, Kern still makes the drive up to the camp from his St. Paul home each fall, in the weeks before deer season. Often, he brings along some of his grandchildren. He cuts and splits some wood, sits by the campfire and stays overnight in the shack his dad and friends built in 1940.

But he doesn't come up during deer season. And he doesn't poke along the camp's trails hunting grouse during September and October.

Kern has a cabin at Silver Bay, too, and drives up every few weeks to stay for a few days. He's a friendly and outgoing guy, a tall and rangy man with ruddy cheeks and a good thatch of gray hair. He's still working. He tends 27 honey-bee colonies near St. Paul and sells the honey his bees produce. He finds time to sharpen 100 mower blades a week for a lawn-care business that two of his sons operate.

I have come to know Kern over the past year. He stops in Duluth regularly on his way to Silver Bay. He's a bright and genuinely happy man, inquisitive and well-read.

Early days at deer camp

When Kern's dad and friends from Duluth and the Iron Range built their deer shack, the country north of Duluth still grew a lot of pine. Eventually, it was logged off. Kern started hunting deer there in 1956, in the old nine-day season.

"I never saw a deer until '62," he said. "That year, I shot seven deer in two days. I shot four on Saturday and three on Sunday."

Under Minnesota's party hunting regulation, that was legal, of course.

On opening day of the ruffed grouse season in 1977, Kern was at the deer camp. He had brought his son Mark, 14, and one of Mark's friends to the camp to do some grouse hunting. Mark was the second-oldest of his five sons.

"Mark loved hunting," he said.

The night before, Kern had snapped a photo of his son. He still has the picture.

"It's a good picture," Kern said. "He had a real nice expression on his face."

The three grouse hunters headed for a place they called "the island," a stand of trees in an area that had been clear-cut a few years before.

"We were going up this little grade, and Mark said, 'Can I go ahead, Daddy?'" Kern recalled.

He allowed Mark to move ahead a few steps. Just then, a grouse flushed along the trail.

"When a grouse flushes, your instinct is to be quick," Kern said.

He was. He shouldered his shotgun and swung on the fleeing bird. In that split-second, he wasn't aware that Mark had moved directly into the path of his shot.

"I shot him right in the back of the head," Kern said. "Killed him instantly."

He speaks openly about that day, not without showing some emotion. He shares his story with others from time to time. He hopes it might serve as a powerful reminder to other hunters about the importance of safe gun handling, about being aware of where one's hunting partners are, about understanding the finality of an ill-advised shot.

Making choices

Kern described what happened in those next few moments

"I said an 'Our Father,' " he remembered.

Then he faced the task before him.

"I figured I had to carry him out of the woods," Kern said. "So, I carried him out of the woods, about a quarter of a mile. I laid him in the van."

He drove to Island Lake, called the sheriff and explained what had happened. The sheriff met Kern at Island Lake. It was the sheriff who called Alice, Kern's wife, and told her about the accident.

Kern was overwhelmed with remorse.

"I thought, 'If I have to go to jail for the rest of my life, I'll do it,' " he said.

The sheriff, after investigating the incident, determined it was an accident, and Kern faced no legal consequences.

Tormented by what had happened, all kinds of thoughts entered his mind on his way home that day.

"Driving home, I thought, 'I could drive off the road right now,' " Kern said.

But he couldn't let himself do that to Alice or the rest of his family. He kept driving south. At home, he told Alice the whole story of what had happened, not knowing what her reaction might be.

"She stuck with me," he said.

Coping with grief

In the next days and weeks, Kern began picking up the loose strands of his life and tried to move on. He remembers sitting in his bedroom in St. Paul, looking down on the street below.

"The conversion, for me," he said, "was sitting up in our room, watching 18,000 cars a day going by on Cretin Avenue, and thinking, 'They don't give a s--- about this. I gotta get my act together.'"

He returned to work at Butler Manufacturing, building bulk milk tanks.

"Every day that I'd go to work, I would shudder, but you gotta go on," he said. "It affected all of us — my family, the community and everyone you know. It just devastates you."

Over the years, Kern has regained his inner strength and a sense of who he is. He believes strongly that each of us has "a force" within. A kind of energy. A spirit.

He cannot, of course, forget what happened on that long-ago September day. He doesn't try to bury the memory. He fully acknowledges the reality of what he did.

"This happened to me," he says.

One day last week, Kern passed through Duluth on his way home from Silver Bay. As he often does, he stopped to visit a granddaughter who goes to college at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He took her out to breakfast at Perkins.

Then he drove on home. He had honey bees to tend and mower blades to sharpen.