Deer Camp: A Northwoods Tradition

There is always a certain level of heightened anticipation when that morning rolls around—the Thursday morning before the Wisconsin gun deer season. I’ve spent the last several days putting all my hunting gear together—most of it last night—and the past three shopping for all the food for the week at deep camp for the guys. Last Sunday, I walked out to my range and shot my rifles with my wife a couple before the Packers game. Lisa will spend opening at home with her own “deer camp” while I head out this morning for Florence County to get our Woodside Sportsmen’s Camp opened up with the help of my dad and John.

The gun deer season is a special time in Wisconsin, and carries memories. Growing up, deer camp was a place in the woods you went once a year to and spent the season or part of it with a group of guys in a little cabin. White-tailed deer hunting in Wisconsin dates all the way back to 1851, and with tradition that old, it’s no wonder with only nine days until the gun season there’s a sea of orange heading to that special place.

As the day to leave for camp finally arrived, my truck was loaded to the top of the cap with hunting gear and camp provisions, always more than what is really needed for the nine-day season. After a final check of my load and a quick rundown to make sure my wife’s own deer camp is ready for her guests (most don’t hunt, but look forward to opening weekend without husbands), I say my last good-byes, and the journey begins.

I was only a couple miles out of town when my phone starts ringing.

It’s my dad.

“How far are you?” he asked.

“Just left town—have a quick stop at Mills Fleet Farm. Where are we meeting for breakfast?”

I always know the answer, but traditions start on the way up to camp so we both know we meet about 25 miles short of camp in Goodman at Stony Ridge for a good breakfast before we finish our journey to camp and begin unloading food.

The ride to camp is three hours, but the entire ride is full of questions and a heightened sense of anticipation: What did I forget? Will there be snow for tracking? Who’s going to shoot a big buck this year? Who’s going to be the first?

I’ve made this trip 100, but the trip is still the best of all and full of the same anxieties. This year though will be a little easier, as I drew a bear tag this year and my wife, Lisa, and I made many trips up to the cabin this fall and when not in the woods and had time to do little projects that normally don’t get done, including cleaning and stocking a few items. I knew that at least the camp has been open for hunting for months and will make settling in quicker.

One of the most exciting aspects of the camp is the diversity of hunters, as we have a group at Woodside with individuals ranging from ages 28 to 83. Everyone comes together to share in the moments and spend time hunting and eating together in the woods.

Since the cabin was built in the ‘50s by a group of men from Algoma and surrounding area, they’ve shared ownership. Besides the names of the original members written in the concrete stoop, many have come and left us, but the memories of their times here are evident by the many pictures, mounts and items donated to the cabin over the years. Many reminisce with the many stories shared at the dinner table, which is a special focal point of each day.

Those special times stay with us and I often reflect—Zeb telling stories about times he had in WWII in France, Pete sharing his baseball playing days, Wilfred telling us about the time he discovered two bear cubs inside a hollow tree on a ridge near where we hunt, Bo sharing stories about the years they tented back in the woods before the cabin was built, Homan sharing a moment about a tussle at a school event in his younger years, etc. These gentlemen have all left us, but those memories will last forever and will be passed on to the next generation of Woodside hunters.

We do manage to do a little hunting too.

We head into the woods in the darkness of the early a.m. and return later, after sunset. The tradition of a midday lunch of hot dogs and soda though, sharing what deer movement we saw and where we may be heading for the afternoon, comes in between. Often, what is perceived as a strategy session, in all reality is yet another moment to make memories by sharing stories with great friends sharing a common bond in the wild.

Do we shoot deer at our camp? Sure we do. And over the years, some dandy’s too. We’ve had some tough years and we’ve had some terrific years, as far as scoring venison goes. But over time it’s not the harvesting that keeps me coming back to the little cabin by the woods, but the camaraderie, the aforementioned stories and the special moments forever etched in my heart. In my opinion, it’s these bunch of guys who make this deer camp something special.

This year, I’m hoping for another “double”—I want to see my dad (grandpa) and my son both score. And who knows, maybe I will too. But I do know one thing: There will be lots of good food and plenty of good stories to make this yet another special year for the Woodside Sportsmen’s Camp up in Florence.