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I have posted this before, but since we are coming up on a huge tradition in MN with rifle season right around the corner, I figured I would throw it up again. I am no professional, just enjoy writing stories from time to time. I am hoping to add a chapter per day until Rifle Opener.

An Autumn Tradition

Chapter 1: Suburban Ritual

A glorious pink sky serves as the backdrop as I load the truck with the last of my gear. A cool fog hovers over the holding pond just down the street. Its waters covered with the panoramic reflection of fall colors. A nice piece of set aside land required to be left by developers years back. I’m sure this area was once a wooded, swampy haven to the many critters of Minnesota’s outdoors, but now it serves as paradise for split levels, minivans, sprinkler fed lawns and a glimpse of years past. As much as it bothers me to see that set aside swamp and wonder what might have been, I’m thankful it’s there. It allows a bit of respite in this urban chaos. A place to watch the birds, listen to the frogs and lose oneself, if only for a moment while daydreaming about a flock of geese setting their wings or that bruiser buck materializing from the brush. It allows us to feel everything that is right with the world. A journey back in time when life was slower and we were more in tune with nature and its beauty.

As the last treestands are placed in the truck, I hear the “thwack” of the doggie door and watch Shooter emerge with a little less ambition then yesterday. As I watch her survey the sights and smells of the neighborhood, I can’t help but wonder where the time went. It seems like yesterday, she was just a pup that you couldn’t stop playing with and now an aged dog, who watches a rabbit hop along the neighbor’s fence. She turns, without giving the rabbit the satisfaction of beating her in another race and finally notices I am loading the hunting gear. Immediately the wag of the tail turns to that of the puppy she once was.

Like all of us, many things get harder as we age, but certain things seem timeless. There are traditions that continue no matter the age or circumstance. We may not hike as far or hunt as hard, but we cherish the moments even more than we once did. The body may not be up for the same battles, but the spirit endures the passion for this time honored pursuit. As I double and triple check everything and open the door for Shooter, I can’t help but think of the many times we have done this before.

It’s early October and time to head up to the ‘ole Shack to make sure she is still standing, fight off the mice and enjoy a few days of peace and quiet. It’s a ritual of sorts. One that must take place for us to enjoy a tradition, so dear to our hearts, we can’t imagine life without it. A tradition we experience with friends and family, that cannot be explained, but must be experienced. It isn’t just something we do, but something that is a part of us. This isn’t just any, old tradition. This is an autumn tradition.

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Chapter 2: Just as it was

The old wood door still “creeeeeeeeeeks” just as it did the day Dad and Uncle John installed it. That is the beauty of projects at the shack, perfection isn’t necessary or expected and actually not even preferred. Sure, we probably wouldn’t alert every creature within a couple of miles of our arrival if we fixed it, but that’s part of the mystique. The long oak table, sits, dust covered along the makeshift counter with a 4 burner cook top. The old pots and pans hanging from the shelf like they did in the old lumber camps of years ago. The window above the washtub/sink sits closed and unbroken like it has for over 40 years. It hasn’t opened in 20, but no one really cares. There’s a small dark spot on the floor next to it, like there has been since ’95. That pesky little leak in the roof, that we’ll get to someday. The eight bunks line the east and west walls and remain undisturbed since a season ago. The old wood stove, sits astute in the middle of the cabin flanked by an old sofa and two chairs that serves as the [PoorWordUsage]-ing hub of the place. The few racks worthy of keeping, hang undisturbed with 10 years worth of dust on them, but sure to be used as hat and coat hangers for the next couple of months. Although, one rack, old number seven, hanging off to the left, won’t be used as a hanger, just like it hasn’t for the last 30 or so years.

Old number seven was Grandpa’s buck. The story varies from year to year, but the important thing is, the story is still told and will always be told. It had a deformed rear leg and was passed on for 5 or 6 years, out of pity I guess. It was back in ’68 or ’69 that old number seven met is match. It was around high noon on the last day of the season and old Gramps was just settling in for his midday nap that he supposedly never took! He loved to sit all day and take in the sights and sounds of the woods. He never missed a chance to wander out to one of his favorite fallen trees, have a seat and take it all in. Well, Grandpa’s nap wasn’t to be that day as a “snap”, the same snap that gets all hunters hearts racing, pulled him out of his long blink and there appeared old number seven. He just stood there, staring at Grandpa, with that withered rear leg, his old gray hide and spindly, meager rack. Just stood there, soaking in the idea that he had caught the old hunter off guard yet again who was lounging back, with his gun on the ground. He gave a respectful nod and trotted off. The cat and mouse game took place all afternoon with old number seven popping out here and there, with Gramps never quite ready. At sunset, old number seven lumbered into the opening and stood there and just stared Gramps down. At first, Gramps decided not to take the shot. He decided the buck had done enough to earn his freedom. The cat and mouse game a true show to the superior skills of this buck. As the story goes, old number seven had different ideas. After a while, he walked on a string to 20 yards and stood broadside. It was at that moment that Gramps decided his time had come. It was if old number seven knew his time was running short and wanted nothing more than for Gramps to harvest him. Unbeknownst to us at the time, that would be Grandpa’s last season too. It was if two legends were going out together, one last hurrah. Another special memory to add to those of seasons past and a story to tell for many seasons to come. Each camp has stories like it and are immeasurably special to those of us that understand their meaning. While standing there, alone in the shack you I get the sense that Gramps is here with me, helping me understand what it all means and beaming with pride knowing I understand how much it all means. Yeah Gramps, I understand and Old number seven did too.

After dusting of old number seven’s rack and recording my arrival in the old thick log book, I began unloading gear with thoughts of what is really out there this year. The woods look the same as it has for as long as I can remember. A mixture of pine, aspen a few oak ridges, a big cedar swamp and some pieces of tangled mess no man would think of trying to venture through. It isn’t a picture postcard wildlife paradise with lush river bottoms and shimmering blue ponds. It is however, hunting paradise to me. Just the thought of heading out to see what’s about is enough to speed up the unloading. Not to mention Shooter running around like a 5 year old chasing chickadees just to stay busy while peering back at me with that “aren’t you done yet,” look. Yeah, yeah, I know. I’m excited too. There is really nothing like that first walk of the year.

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Chapter 3: Timeless in Nature

The aspens are already the brilliant yellow portrayed in thousands of calendar type images every year. I never seem to get used to seeing that splash of color in a place usually reserved for drab greens and browns. As Shooter and I make the bend by the old Bear’s Den, I can’t help but remember the first time I made this walk. I think it was ’70 or ’71. I was wide eyed and bushy tailed just to be there. My first trip to the shack and I couldn’t control my excitement. I was so happy to be there, I can’t remember seeing anything. I was too busy feeling good about being considered one of the guys. I wasn’t able to hunt or anything, but I was part of the group. I was a “man,” or so I thought. I ran through the woods scaring every creature off the 120 acre tract of land that fine October day. I couldn’t tell a deer track from a bear track. I’m not sure I knew the difference between and pine tree and an acorn, but I was there. I was soaking in that first experience. I was doing what my father had done 30 years before. I was becoming part of the tradition, part of the sacred venture we all anticipate every year. As I meander down towards the cedar swamp, I can see the old rub line from last year. A bunch of young cedars still scarred by the rut filled buck who thrashed them to shreds last year. I never had the luxury of seeing that buck, but his tracks seemed pretty evident each morning on the same trail I used to get to my stand. A mature buck can be like a fugitive on the run. You know they exist and you know some of their habits, but you can’t seem to put your finger on that one mistake. Or when they do make that one mistake, you aren’t there to capitalize. The more I think about it, the more I understand why they call pursuing them a “manhunt.” As a law enforcement officer, I’ve been in on a few, but the humans are never as cunning as mature whitetail. Humans are too quick to give in to temptation and be consumed with distraction. Sure, whitetail bucks go nuts for a few weeks a year, but you have to catch them in their backyard. You don’t have the luxury of pursuing where you have the advantage. Their movements, calculating and efficient. Always thinking survival and instinct. Moving under the cover or darkness and taunting us with evidence they leave behind. Sure, some slip up each year and find themselves hanging over fireplaces all over this great land, but many remain. They carry on the mystique of those gone before them, much like we as hunters do. A ongoing circle where everyone or everything has a place that someday will be taken by another. As the thought brings me back to Gramps, Shooter flushes a grouse and almost gives me a heart attack! While watching the grouse glide away, I notice the shiny orange and yellow in a mass of brown. A nice fresh rub. The kind of rub that makes every hunter dreams of thick, long tines. A little further ahead, another and another. These aren’t on 4 inch saplings either. These are shredded trees the size of fence posts. As I admire on of the rubs, there below it I see a track. It sure looks like the same track as last year. A couple inches longer than any other track you’ll find out here. The track of a legend. The track of a buck, never seen or heard, but always around, always lurking.

The old cedar swamp holds that legend somewhere among it. As I walk the oak ridge overlooking the swamp, I wonder if he’s looking up at me. I know he’s out there somewhere. A place so secure and impentetrable he has no worries. Even if I went in after him, he’d here me coming the second I enter. Not to mention the standing water and ankle breaking terrain I would have to cover to get there. It’s a place you find everywhere in Northern Minnesota. A place where man has had no choice but to leave it alone. A place that maybe the Native Americans once walked, stalking game to provide for their tribe. A place where the creatures are no different then they were a 100 years ago. A place void of progress and evolution. A locale where dollars and cents mean nothing and the laws of mother nature rule supreme. It’s a place we all hold special. We’ve all had that thought when out and about of what living off the land would be like. Would we be able to survive? Do we have what it takes? Maybe we do and maybe we don’t, but as I descend the ridge and spot the old shack, it really doesn’t matter. I may never live off the land, but I’ll always come here to try and be a part of it. As I open the door to the shack, the old “cccrrreeeeeeeeeeeekkkkkk” is drowned out by the blaring of a horn. I don’t even have to turn and look. I can tell by the decrepit sound of the horn and the chugging of the truck, that old Uncle John is here. And so begins another rite of fall, the tales of exaggeration.

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Tales of Exaggeration

“I remember back in ’86 when it took me half a day just to get to the shack from the road. I think we got over a foot of snow that day and the wind was howling and it was snowing so hard I couldn’t see the outhouse.” The entire time Uncle John rambles on with the story I can’t help but think of what it really was like that day. It probably took him 30 minutes to get from the road to the shack because he probably slid off the driveway a couple times and had to get out and “lock ‘em in.” We probably got a solid 3 inches of snow that day. I wasn’t up here that weekend, but without checking official weather data, I’m sure my approximation is closer to reality than John’s. Even though he likes to “exaggerate” I can’t fault him for it. Like any good story, the more you tell it, the better it gets. To keep it fresh you have to add extra details to “dress” it up a bit. Every deer camp has a hundred stories just like it. The small forkhorn that eluded a young hunter on his first hunt, that turns into a “booner” by the time the weekends over. The days when the old timers used to hike in 10 miles and drag the 300 lb bucks out by hand, when we really know that they shot a lot of deer from the logging roads and spent most of their time getting their stories straight! Oh, tales of exaggeration are just part of deer camp.

As the fire crackles in the wood stove, John continues rambling about this big buck and that missed opportunity. There was the “Phantom of ’77.” As John would say, “he was a moose of a buck. Huge body, probably over 300 lbs. Had a rack solid like a moose. You could hear the brush busting from 100 yds away.” This buck had a part missing on one of his hooves, so his tracks were easy to distinguish. I’m not sure on all the details, but the real story ended when my Uncle Tom, harvest a nice 9 point with a funny antler on one side. Instead of sweeping up and out, the deer just had a mass of antler hanging with a few points on it. It was a neat buck, but when Uncles’ Tom and John were dragging it out that day back in November of 1977, it was during a short break, that Tom noticed a small piece of the left rear hoof missing. Tom instantly knew what it meant, he had shot the “Phantom.” He didn’t have the heart to tell old John and to this day, he doesn’t know, but my Dad relayed the message to me years ago and I’ve hung onto it ever since.

Its those “pieces” of deer camp and the tradition of the pursuit that are so special. The characters like Uncle John. A big, burly former Marine who talks little about the past 40 years of his life, but relives those precious moments as a young “Stud” as he likes to say chasing girls while in the service, like a buck chases a doe during the rut. The stillness of the woods on a dark, November morning with snowflakes slowly falling and shadows emerging. The laughter around the fire as the stories of the past are told. The “crack” of a rifle to break the silence of an autumn afternoon. The rustling of leaves as a squirrel fights for the last of the acorns. They are all pieces of the world, when on their own, mean something, but when encompassed in the realm of Deer Camp, mean a whole lot more to many of us. Just like the stories of Big John.

“So what’d see out there today,” John snaps me back to the present. “Well, I found evidence of some deer at least and there was a nice rub line started near the one from last year down by the cedar swamp. The tracks look huge like the set from last year.”

“Well, maybe we’ll actually get a shot at him this year,” John says. “It would be a shame for him to disappear like the Phantom did.”

Yeah, John it would be shame. For stories like the Phantom to not exist and for the tales of Big John to not be told. “Well, son I think I’m gonna turn in. Maybe tomorrow we can find a few of those illusive grouse for lunch,” John says. “Sound like a plan Uncle John.”

As we settle in the bunks for a night of restless sleep, I can’t help but think of the season that lies ahead. It is still a few weeks away and it will feel like years while I wait for it to get here, but in a flash it will be gone. We will always have the memories of seasons’ past, but those memories seem to few and too far between. Maybe that is why they are so special? It is because they are so few? Is it because the opportunity we have to chase these creatures is much like it was hundreds of years ago? I’m not really sure. I’d venture to guess the reality lies somewhere in the middle. Well, wherever it lies, I’m just glad it lies. For even though we may exaggerate a story or two or two hundred, there is no exaggerating what this tradition really means.

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great read...I think a lot of deer camps are the same but with different characters.

I do think that some of the "legends" are actually even made up on purpose. I know that when my nephews started hunting I made up a legend based on a deer track that we continually saw that was very big but also kind of goofy shaped. Heck, it could have been a scrubby racked deer that had big feet but it's the legends that can fuel the fire to keep hunting on those days that it sounds like everyone is getting shots at deer and you are watching squirrels.

I'm glad we all hunt with characters and the guys we hunt with probably think we are one of the goofy characters too!!!

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