Ask a deer hunter to describe a “best of” experience among all their years of hunting whitetails, and chances are that most could at least narrow it down to a few finalists. Notwithstanding the fact that some are blessed with a better memory than others, the passage of time can dim distant recollections. Of course, fuzzy details can give us license to embellish, and we might end up with something just a tad more colorful than reality.
I’ve been accused of having a two fact memory. I can readily remember two things, but if a third is added, I am liable to forget one of the other two. But when it comes to a most-memorable deer hunt, there is one that truly stands out, and its most salient facts are firmly fixed in my normally far-from-photographic memory.
Deer hunters are prone to refer to their almost sacramental annual pilgrimage as going to “deer camp.” Deer camp might be a log cabin tucked deep in the northern Minnesota woods. But it could be a resort—rustic or deluxe—a pickup camper, travel trailer or even a motel. The “camp” element may have as much to do with the companionship and camaraderie of friends, relatives and acquaintances coming together to enjoy a commonly held passion.
The deer hunt I’d be inclined to label “best of” certainly lives up to the deer camp concept; literally. It was a deer hunt that employed not only a high-powered rifle, but a nylon tent, backpacks, sleeping bags, hiking boots, topographic maps and campfires. It was full-on camping in the November north woods, with the hope of my hunting partner and I that we would enjoy not only tangible success, but an uncommon adventure.
We were just a few years out of high school, and very much still figuring out what to do with the rest of our lives. But there was no such uncertainty about what we wanted to be doing in early November, when Minnesota’s red or blaze orange-clad legions descend on the woods and fields with whitetails on their minds.
I had stumbled upon the idea of backpacking into a remote area that might not be overrun with hunters, and would have at least a whiff of wilderness to it. Stumbled upon it while interviewing the director of the Belwin Conservancy—known then as the Belwin Nature Center—a nature preserve and environmental learning center near the St. Croix River.
Before becoming Belwin’s director, Bernie Fashingbauer had a lengthy career with the Minnesota Department of Conservation, which was the agency’s name before it was modernized as the Department of Natural Resources. Among other things, he was a writer who played a role in the agency’s publications; perhaps not by coincidence, its guide to big game in Minnesota.
Over the course of this interview on the nature center’s mission, I learned that he and I shared an interest in deer hunting, and he described his hunting party’s bushwhacking to camp and hunt in the watershed of the North Shore’s Baptism River, a trout stream that winds some nine scenic miles through the state’s Arrowhead region and terminates in Lake Superior.
Inspired by his encouragement, I broached the idea to a lifelong friend and sometime hunting partner. When you’re young and less influenced by practicality, ease and comfort than you will eventually become, you often act on enthusiasm and a sense of “we can do anything.” Thus, the 2-0 vote to give this brand of deer hunting a try.
We were not new to deer hunting. Nor were we strangers to camping, at least the warmer weather kind. But November is not June, and it would require more thought and preparation. Things like warmer sleeping bags, clothing appropriate to cold and snow, and obtaining accurate topographic maps to help us navigate. Then pre-hunt scouting to narrow down promising deer habitat, and hopefully confirmation in the form of deer trails and deer sign.
Neither of us were serious hikers or backpackers, as romantic and adventurous as that has always seemed. But there are only so many ways to get gear in to a remote location without a vehicle, and—lacking snow that would have made pulling a gear-laden sled possible—we “hoofed it” with heavily laden but thoughtfully assembled packs. A light dusting of snowflakes during our hike in offered that perennial hope of all deer hunters: “tracking snow.”
Much is different in such a deer camp. Darkness arrives in late afternoon, and you live by the light of a gas or battery-powered lantern, and usually end up “turning in” early. There is no electric toaster or microwave, and no Mr. Coffee for java in minutes. Campfire coals or a small camp stove accomplish your cooking, which is likely to be more basic than at home. No TV to break the spell of being in a wild place. The stars seem brighter, and there is always the prospect for northern lights. You do simple things like play cards, talk politics (with civility!) philosophize, and rediscover the ability to be comfortable without a pressing to-do list.
The first morning of our hunt we were in our stands on a tall ridge well before even a pinkish hint of sunrise. Soon after those first warming rays, I heard a measured crunch…crunch…crunch from below the ridge. I wondered who had invaded our hunt, and was so lazy as to be finding their deer stand in daylight. But it was not a hunter. A forkhorn buck was following the base of the ridge, its gingerly-placed hooves on brittle frost-glazed leaves betraying it.
There are only a handful of outdoor experiences that make the heart beat almost beyond your control. But somehow composure out-dueled panic, and—without details that might offend some—with one shot the buck was mine. It was the next morning when my hunting partner, hunting at the base of the same ridge, intercepted a huge buck, far outdoing mine in body size and antlers; a real “wall hanger,” as the saying goes.
Next day we broke camp and began the trek out. We discovered just how much work it is to carry a camp on your back, and drag two deer—one seeming as massive as a small cow—out of the bush and back to civilization. Then again, as some might say: “Nice work if you can get it.”