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Family bonds, memories run through deer season

DULUTH -- Maybe you can feel it in the air. Or smell it in the aroma of decaying popple leaves. Or see it in the thick, gray days we've had lately.

Deer season is coming on.

I'm convinced that no other outdoor pursuit creates the same kind of anticipation in so many Minnesotans as the deer opener.

The fishing opener is a big, big deal. Turkey hunting has become a pleasant addiction for lots of hunters. And many hunters greet the duck and pheasant openers with great passion.

But deer season is in a class by itself. I was talking to a friend the other day. He's been hunting deer for four decades.

"It's amazing that a guy who's lived as long as I have can still feel like a little boy when it's time to go to deer camp," he said.

What he means, of course, is that he's excited. He has been up to his family's deer shack several times over the summer and fall, sprucing the place up, repairing the roof, squaring the foundation.

He has been out checking stands. He knows which one he'll sit in on opening day, the same stand where he's taken other deer. He was telling me about it.

"I think I'm in a good spot," he said, like a little boy. "It overlooks a little depression, and for some reason the deer like coming in there."

His hunt, like so many others, will be about brothers and uncles and fathers and nephews. In other camps, the list also includes moms and grandmothers and nieces and daughters.

Family runs deep through this hunt. And where there's family, there's food. Baby back ribs and venison stew and casseroles and bacon and eggs. Outside, someone tends the grill by flashlight, and through the foggy windows flows golden lantern light.

The old men in plaid shirts and red suspenders tell the old stories while the first-time hunters sit quietly on the fringe of the room, taking it all in. Much about our world has changed, but deer camp is one place that has defied the march of time.

I remember a story that a young woman, Azur Buczinski of Esko, wrote a few years ago. Her grandpa was her hunting partner well into his 80s. She would always walk him to his deer stand each morning on the way to her stand, she wrote. I was deeply touched by what she wrote next.

"We would say, 'Good luck,' and give each other a kiss and tell each other, 'I love you,"' Buczinski wrote. "Grampa would say, 'Get that big one, now, and if I see one I will send it your way.' I would say, 'You shoot it, and I will gut it.'

"To this day, on opening morning of deer season, I walk to Grampa's deer stand alone. I get to the end of the stairs and say good luck and I love him. We keep a picture of him in the deer stand, so whoever sits in his stand can sit with Grampa."

Deer season.

There's nothing else like it.

Sam Cook is a reporter for the The Duluth News Tribune, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.