Whitetail Weekly, Deer Camp – Tradition Above All Else

On a sunny summer day in 1985 a pickup truck rattled its way down a dusty truck trail in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The truck’s passengers, two brothers and their two young children, gazed out the windows at the magnificent scenery that the area is known for as the sun danced between the trees. After watching deer after deer cross the road in front of them the two brothers knew they had found what they were looking for; a place to bring some buddies to for a deer camp during the upcoming bow season.

That fall the two brothers, along with more than a dozen of their friends returned to that dusty truck trail to set up camp. With all the deer they had seen on their initial trip the consensus was that the deer hunting would be done in a day or two so several of the trucks arrived with boats in tow to pass the rest of the week’s time once the hunters were tagged out. I don’t know the final deer tally that first year but it’s safe to say that the hunters (many of whom had bow hunted very little, if at all, before arriving at camp) left camp with a bit less confidence than when they arrived.

Two housing tents and a mess tent make up our bow camp in Michigans Upper Peninsula.

Despite the lack of success that first year, the trucks returned to that same dirt road and that same camp site the following fall with just as much excitement and anticipation. I doubt that many of the guys at those first few camps really realized what they had set in motion but from those humble beginnings sprung a deer camp tradition the likes of which evokes thoughts of a Fred Bear quote or a Hemingway story.

The camp, now 28 years strong, is based around two large canvas Army tents and still sports many of the same core members that first started the tradition all those years ago. Several members haven’t missed a single year since things started and act as the unofficial historians when questions concerning the events of years past are raised. While the location of camp may have moved a few miles down the road from that original location the basic philosophy of the camp hasn’t changed a bit: come to camp and enjoy the company of friends and family while honoring and respecting the “sanctity” of deer camp, if you happen to get some hunting in and manage to bag a deer than all the better.

As one of the small children in that truck back in 1985 (I was 5yrs old at the time) I can honestly say that I had no idea of how much that trip would affect my life in the years to come. It would be several years before I attended my first year at camp but I can still remember watching my dad pack things up and get ready to head up to camp and the excitement I had when he would come back home. I don’t know how much I really knew about deer camps at that point in my life but I definitely knew it was cool that my dad got to go somewhere far away in the woods and camp in a tent for a week.

The scenery in the area combined with the abundance of wildlife is what drew the camps original members to this area.

When I reached college I was able to adjust my school and sports schedule around enough to provide myself the opportunity to finally make it to my first deer camp. Those first few years I could only stay for a few days but the tradition took hold and I am now proud to say that I have been able to attend camp each year for 14 straight years now.

Camp is a simple place, devoid of the rules, responsibilities and schedules of day to day life. It’s a “do as you please” environment full of people who all enjoy doing the same things. Whether you simply want to hang out around the campfire or you want to spend the entire day in your stand you won’t find any complaints or criticism from those around you. Do as you please so long as you do it with a smile and no complaints.

When you are at camp you are part of a family and over the last 2.5 decades plus our family has begun to resemble a well oiled machine. Thanks to many years of trial and error our camp has managed to overcome some of the early year growing pains and has worked out the kinks and sticking points that come along with setting up home sweet home in the middle of nowhere.

In an act rivaled only by the Barnum and Bailey circus we can arrive and have camp set up in the blink of an eye. Without much guidance guys start putting out tent poles, putting together the ridge poles and laying out stakes. Before you know it the tents are up and what moments before was just a small opening in the woods is now home sweet home for 20 or so happy hunters. Those same hunters work together to provide firewood, cook meals, track and recover deer and make sure that everyone goes home healthy and happy at the end of the week.

Thanks to the years of experience the terms “roughing it” don’t generally apply to our camp anymore. A cook tent with all the amenities of home (aside from a dish washer I suppose) puts out meals fit for a king, the wood stove (or fuel oil stove depending on which tent you’re in) puts out plenty of heat to fight back the coldest of mornings and a good cot accompanied by fresh air and the sounds of coyotes in the distance makes for some of the best sleep you’ll ever get.

Nothing is perfect though and as with anything some years certainly seem better than others. In the end thought even the “bad” years have a way of endearing themselves to me and always seem to end up just another happy memory.

Like how the year I introduced my truck to a local tree I also managed to arrow my biggest buck ever, or how the year my Jeep’s starter died in the woods turned into some great memories with my dad as I fixed it, the year that it just wouldn’t stop raining was a year I got to spend a lot of time in camp enjoying the company of my fellow camp-mates, or how the year following my knee surgery was the year my brother and I scouted together and found some decent hunting close to the truck that we had previously overlooked. Life is what you make of it and at camp you always find a way to make lemonade out of your lemons.

Aside from the occaisonal debate over which horseshoe is closer, camp is usually a place devoid of arguing or complaining.

Camp is a place usually pretty much free of complaining or ill will but the last few years there has been some honest talk about the idea of moving camp to a different part of the state. Talking about changing camp isn’t something new as there are always talks of how we could improve things for next year but talk of major changes isn’t nearly as common. So when talks of moving camp arose, and were garnering some pretty good attention from some of the camps founding members, it created a bit of a stir.

As I talk with other members about their thoughts on the subject I love to hear their thoughts and emotions about our camp. Our deer camp has become so ingrained in me, and many other members, that it is no longer about the hunting or about going to a camp. It’s about going to this camp. Most of us (myself included) have other camps or property’s closer to home that provide better hunting and are also full of their own traditions and history but for some reason something makes this “camp”.

Camp is making the 9hr trek every year and driving down the same old dirt roads that you know so well. Camp is going to that same opening in the woods year after year and watching the shooting stars as you talk, reminisce, and truly enjoy time spent with your friends. Camp is bellying up to the same bar in town for a burger and a beer as you chat with the owner and bar tender who know you by name, and talking with the same locals that you see every year. Camp is carrying on the traditions that were started so many years ago while also adding new ones to the list. Camp is knowing that anything you didn’t get to this year you can put on the list for next year, or the following year, or the year after that.

Your home is your home and while you may not be fully able to describe that emotion or pinpoint what creates it, you certainly know it when you feel it. Our camp is home; not just because of the people or because of the hunting but because of a blend of all the things that have happened over the years. All the things and people that have come and gone are just as important as the current members and long standing traditions. All the good and all the bad are what come together to make pulling into that drive such an awesome feeling each year.

Camp is pulling out of the drive to head home and knowing you don’t have to say “good bye” because a simple “I’ll be back” is all it takes. To me, regardless of what else happens I will protect that tradition above all others because that tradition has been the same since that dusty pickup ride back in 1985.

Take care, and thanks for reading!

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