There's something magical about a hunting camp in the north woods, a point that was driven home several times again during this year's deer season.
Whether it's a rustic shack pieced together over the years or a deluxe cabin with all of the comforts of home, deer camps offer a tradition the likes of which few other outdoors experiences can match.
It's about family, friends, stories, camaraderie and—yes—even the occasional bit of good-natured ribbing.
Deer camp is a gathering place with a significance that goes far beyond the shooting of a buck or a doe.
In response to last Sunday's Outdoors section cover story, "A Tale of Two Hunting Camps," Paul Kleist of Marion, Iowa, shared a story and several photos from the northern Minnesota hunting camp near Crane Lake on the Ontario border where he gathers every deer season with family and friends.
Unlike many hunting camps, this one is on public land. For a few days, anyway. The 16x24 hunting shack is portable and collapsible and fits on a 16-foot car trailer, Kleist writes.
They call it "The Kleist Crane Lake Hilton."
"It sits at the end of an old logging road and the beginning of a series of snowmobile trails," Kleist, 43, says. "The federal Forest Service usually stops at camp every so often and knows the long standing tradition. As long as we leave it cleaner than we found it, they seem to have no issues with it. They have our contact information if they need to get ahold of us."
The frame of this deer camp Hilton consists of 1x1-inch studs, and a tarp stretched over the plywood walls serves as a roof.
"It sets up in six hours, depending on beer breaks," Kleist says.
Styrofoam insulation on the walls offers a place for members of the camp to "proclaim their glory," as Kleist puts it. Or share pearls of wisdom such as this:
"Early to bed, early to rise ... is the one who shoots the buck between the eyes."
"Undertaker, Mr. Undertaker. Please take your wagon slow, 'cause that man you're haulin' we sure hate so see him go."
Kleist, a Minnesota native who went to college in Ely, Minn., says family members have hunted this part of Superior National Forest for more than 65 years.
Others in camp this year included patriarch Randy "Gramps" Kleist," 72, Eagle Lake, Minn.; Rudy Kleist, North Mankato, Minn.; Tom Kleist and son, Nathan, Eagle Lake; Allan "Bubba" Kleist, Eagle Lake; Tony Brown, Eagle Lake; and hunting buddy Bob Cemensky, Mankato, and nephew Joshua Bruender.
"Brother Rudy has two sons that are usually in camp with us, but they were unable to attend this year" because of school- and work-related commitments, Paul Kleist writes.
The crew is sizable, but the cabin "sleeps 12 comfortably and 14 people if you have to," he says.
No shower, no phone, no Internet in the shack; just classic country on the iPod charged by a car battery. Propane furnaces replaced the wood stove several years ago, he says, and propane lanterns provide the camp's dingy light.
"This is home for each of us opening week from Friday to Friday," Kleist adds. "Set up on the Friday before opener and tear down Friday, seven days later."
As in the past few years, Paul Kleist said deer movement this year was slow; the crew saw 13 deer between eight guys.
"Pretty tough," he said. "We are in such a large woods drives are ineffective for the most part. We walk a little and set a little.
"Crane Lake being on the Canadian border in St. Louis County has a large wolf population, and it tends to cut down on the deer. Four to six deer harvested in the past was average. We had years with 14 deer and some with zero."
As in most camps, though, hunting is secondary at the Kleist Crane Lake Hilton.
"We do it for the family time more than the deer," Kleist said.