POTAMO TOWNSHIP, Minn. — Henry David Thoreau had Walden Pond. Crocodile Dundee had his days on walkabout. Jesus Christ had 40 days and nights in the wilderness. For countless men and women across Minnesota and the Dakotas, the deer stand proves to be a similar venue for solitude and the pondering of life’s opportunities and temptations. And if those men and women are fortunate, those long hours of quiet shivering will be interrupted by on-target gunfire.
Thirty minutes before sunrise on Saturday, Nov. 9, the plan is to be in one of those thousands of deer stands that dot the forests and fields of the North. It will be the start of my 39th Minnesota deer season, and just as I did that first cold, quiet November morning in 1981, I’ll begin the day by shaking my father’s hand and sharing wishes of good luck and safe hunting.
Our gathering of men and boys (sadly, no girls hunting with us this season) spans three generations and three families. That’s the same as it was in the early days of the Reagan administration, when, at 12 years old, I joined both of my grandfathers and my father at our Deer Camp. It is a humble but functional place, consisting of a collection of small cabins, an outhouse, a bonfire ring and a corrugated metal shed located on the edge of the big woods, roughly 10 miles south of Highway 11 in Lake of the Woods County.
That first Friday night at Deer Camp all those years ago, my paternal grandfather Roy “Red” Myers of Waseca, Minn., whipped a tasty combination of ground beef, onions, canned tomatoes and macaroni for dinner. The tradition of opening night goulash was born long before I passed my firearms safety training course and joined the camp, and it continues unabated today, long after all three of my children have joined us at camp and have gotten deer of their own.
It was 20 years ago that Red bagged his final deer, a massive buck we dubbed the “Hartford Stag” after an insurance company’s logo. Nearly a dozen years ago, a few days before his 95th birthday, Red passed away, but not before handing down his hand-written and very detailed recipe for Deer Camp Goulash.
“Step one,” the directions read, “Pour yourself one shot of Black Velvet. (Measure very carefully.)”
To be sure, much has changed in nearly four decades, from the days where story-telling and card-playing and debates about whether Tommy Kramer was the answer for a certain team in purple (spoiler alert — he wasn’t) were the primary ways to pass the time. Today the camp is still off the electrical grid, but a gas generator provides a few hours of DirecTV each night (or on Sunday afternoon, if the Vikings are playing), and one hunter’s new truck even includes a WiFi hotspot.
Successes and cycles
In 1983 I shot my first deer, a smallish buck for which I still have the antlers. There have been roughly 15 more killed via my pulling of a trigger since then, a little less than one every other year. More importantly, I have been blessed to have been sitting next to both of my sons and my daughter — who broke the camp’s imaginary glass ceiling a few years ago — when they shot their first deer. As a parent, there have been few happier moments in my life.
While deer can be bagged by the dozen in other parts of the nation, and are more plentiful in southern Minnesota, the northern one-third of the state is a place where the federal protection of timber wolves has been a great success for that species. These days, the haunting howl of a lobo is heard almost as often as the crack of a far-off rifle on some opening days of deer season. The number of deer bagged by our camp each season has varied greatly over my time as a hunter, from “bucks only” seasons after particularly harsh winters, when an 0-for-10 rate was disappointing but not unexpected, to seasons where doe tags were plentiful, bonus deer tags could be purchased, and our group went 10-for-10.
We will head out to the cold, quiet woods in the predawn darkness on Saturday morning, scattering to one of roughly a dozen deer stands that my father Richard “Dick” Myers, 80, spends countless summer hours updating and maintaining, with some help from his long-time hunting partner Tom Beadle. The stands vary from a simple wooden platform with swivel chair and a railing to a handful of enclosed stands with sliding plexiglass windows (salvaged from the garbage pile behind a few area hockey rinks) and propane heaters that provide some extra comfort on cold mornings.
Some stands are named after their location (The Ditch Stand, The East Driveway Stand, The Dead Tree Stand), some are named for those who have hunted there most often (Red’s Stand, Jakob’s Ladder) and some are named for incidents, good and bad, that have happened there (The 10 Deer Stand, The Burnt Pants Stand).
In recent years, deer have been less abundant in our neck of the woods. There is great debate about the reasons for this, but when some wildlife biologists estimate that one adult timber wolf will kill more than 25 whitetail deer over the course of a Minnesota winter, and the December snow around our camp features considerably more wolf tracks than deer tracks, it takes minimal sleuthing to form an educated opinion.
Still, for some of us, Deer Camp is not really about the deer, and when there is a shortage of the raw materials for venison sausage, it does little to damper the enjoyment of the season. A field-dressed deer carcass hanging in the shed, and a set of antlers worthy of a trip to the taxidermist, are simply extras — solid things than you can post on social media or hang on a rec room wall to show friends.
Family for the future
The real bounty of Deer Camp is the company of friends and family, shared stories, memories of past seasons, the quiet of watching a sunset through the pines and the fond recollection of those former hunting partners who have passed away. In an era where reports from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources show declining numbers of hunting licenses being sold and there is an increasingly desperate search for the next generation of hunters, our camp will welcome another member of that next generation this season.
On Friday, Dougie Johnson, 11, of Inver Grove Heights, Minn., will join his father Jeff, and his grandfather Doug at his first Minnesota Deer Camp. He will hang up his blaze orange hunting coat, take off his warm boots, join us around the dinner table and dig in to a bowl of hot goulash as the stories and the laughs fly.
And just like the repeating order of spring, summer, fall and winter in the north woods, the cycle that started with an excited and somewhat intimidated 12-year-old boy nearly four decades ago will begin again.