By Mark Kenyon
“What’s the point of you going up there? It’s never going to be as good a use of your time as going to Ohio, or Indiana or somewhere where you could actually kill a deer.”
This was a question posed to me by my wife recently over dinner, as I discussed the merits of spending time at my Northern Michigan deer camp during the opening weekend of firearm season each year. From my wife’s perspective, my trips up to “Deer Camp” aren’t a worthwhile investment of my time and energy. The deer population is treacherously low and if you do see a buck, nine times out of ten it will be a spike or fork horn. I can’t argue with the fact that “Deer Camp” isn’t going to be the place I kill my next monster buck. But what I had a hard time explaining was that none of this really mattered to me.
You see, Deer Camp, for me, isn’t really about the deer at all.
As a “serious” hunter in today’s day and age, it’s easy to get completely wrapped up in big buck mania; obsessing over trail camera images, tweaking our hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of gear, and over-analyzing every plan, tactic and strategy that might allow us to cross paths with “the big one”. I spend an inordinate number of days each year preparing stand locations, scouting new properties, searching for sheds, hanging trail cameras, planting food plots and doing everything I possibly can to increase my chances of “success”. But sometimes in this all-consuming mission to become some kind of ultimate hunter, we lose a bit of our hunter’s soul. When hunting becomes work, when a “failed” encounter spawns anger and frustration, when seeing your friend’s success causes jealousy rather than shared excitement; a bit of who we are as a hunter erodes away.
Deer Camp is where I go to mend these wounds. Deer Camp is where I remember why I hunt. Deer Camp is where my hunter’s soul is once again replenished.
In the beginning, for most of us, deer hunting wasn’t about big deer. It was about an early morning radio station piping George Strait, as wafts of fresh brewed coffee aroused you from your sleeping bag. It was about a dim-lit cabin, or an old barn, or a trailer on the back 40 where you knew there would always be laughter, a cold drink, a friendly smile and great stories. Deer hunting was about the people, the places, the tastes and smells, and the memories. The many, many memories.
This year, while enjoying a midday snack and the warmth of the fire, my father once again regaled me with the story of “the good ole days” when Grandpa would sit in his chair and watch out the big picture window towards what was once an open field. You could see clear across the opening, now plugged thick with young conifers, and catch any crossing deer making their way from the creek to the next block of timber. When Grandpa or Gerry would see a buck enter the clearing, they’d jump to their feet, grab their guns from the back deck, come around the corner and take aim. I’d heard tales of the “window hunting” for years, but still it brought a smile to my face and memories of my grandfather’s firm grip on my shoulder, his steady advice and his wise words. It reminded me of Gerry’s chili dogs, of the days I stood for hours next to the buck pole staring at a slowly swinging carcass, of the late nights sipping hot chocolate and dealing cards around the table.
Experiences like this, from yesteryear, eventually become stories, then legend, and then just a part of this place we call Deer Camp. Ultimately, becoming a part of us. And it’s what brings us back year after year.
At our Deer Camp, on the back of an old wooden door, my grandfather began taping up photographs from each year’s adventures during hunting season. A sleeping uncle on the couch. A smiling grandson in front of the wood burning stove. A son frying venison on the propane stove. A buck hanging from the pole with an orange clad companion standing nearby. Now, nearly 30 years after those photos began finding their way onto that door, this past weekend I stood there again, revisiting each of them, just as I’d done for the past two decades that I’ve ventured up to Camp myself. And in those photographs, I saw myself and my predecessors, who I was and who I am now, and how that person came to be.
Deer Camp made me who I am. And every time I return, no matter how far I stray in between, I can always find myself there again.
I may not be able to justify my trips up to Deer Camp with big antlers for the wall or venison in the freezer, but each year I come home with something much more important.
My deer hunter’s soul refreshed, born again, healed.