For many Wisconsin families, hunting is an annual tradition rooted in customs and love. But what happens when those traditions are disrupted, when members of that deer camp are no longer with us? Ron Weber shares his experience with this in a hunt to remember.
There was no doubt about it, I was lost. In 35 years of hunting the Chequamagon National Forest near Clam Lake I had been turned around many times, but never lost.
Earlier that morning I said goodbye to my older brother Rick and Terry, a long time deer camp compadre. Their departure left me the sole occupant of the small cabin on the crooked shores of Lake Namakagon.
Just 3 years earlier it had been its usual cluttered self as we gathered for those 9 special days in November. As that season unfolded, none of us could have conceived that this would be the last time we would all meet here and that for this deer camp it was the beginning of the end.
For my brother Jim, next season never came. In April he was diagnosed with lung cancer and by November was too weak to make the pilgrimage to deer camp. Jim’s absence hung heavy on everyone’s mind and heart. As we closed camp none of us were thinking about next season. Jim passed away just after Christmas.
I wasn’t sure if the pain would be healed by the next season. We never got a chance to find out. In September, just as Mother Nature dusted off her palette of crimson and orange to paint the shoreline of the lake, my brother Gary was diagnosed with a tumor on a major blood vessel in his lung. After he left Tuesday morning, there was a pall over the camp the rest of the season. It was understood by all that deer camp would never be the same. Gary passed away in early December.
With the heart and soul gone, a couple of the usual campmates did not come for the next season. Now with Rick and Terry gone, I was on my own and I was truly lost. Like my two brothers, my mentors, my best friends, deer camp was dead.
Driving to camp the Friday before the next opening day I still wasn’t sure how the season would unfold. I knew I would be hunting with ghosts, but I was not ready for the haunting quiet in the cabin. Like most nights before opening day, sleep did not come easy but it was not because of the excitement of the moment. It was that discontenting quiet.
Opening day was pleasantly uneventful. I saw the usual denizens of the woods, red squirrels, blue and gray jays, ravens but no deer. Sometime during the day, however, I found my compass. I knew what I had to do.
Each day I would choose a different area to hunt. Over the rest of the season I would be able to make it to places where we had hunted most and where the trophy memories and good times lay. It had come to me in the solitude of opening day that to go forward I had to go back. There were goodbyes that needed to be said.
What a season it was. I sat in Jim’s stand south of Lake Ree where he had shot several bucks, including a hefty 11 pointer. Then Porcupine Lake where I pushed a 10 pointer to Gary, his buck of a lifetime. At every spot I thought, I smiled, I laughed, I cried, I remembered.
The last morning of the season I was up early. Walking in the predawn darkness I could again sense that feeling of excitement which had been missing. I knew I was no longer lost. Over the course of the morning I sat, I listened, I watched, I tracked, I hunted.
As I walked out of the woods just after noon to close camp, I couldn’t help but notice that though there was the familiar sadness the season was ending too soon, I was already looking forward to next November.
SONG: “Lewis & Clark” by Tommy Emmanuel