A lot of rivers run through Minnesota, and some lead to deer country.

Just ask Gary Gehrman.

Gehrman, of Stillwater, and a hunting and paddling partner, John Brach, also of Stillwater, on opening weekend of deer season immersed themselves not only in the state's time-honored quest for venison. They also sought adventure.

On Friday before the opener, they set out in a canoe on a very shallow river. Their craft was laden with food, a tent, waterproof gear bags, two rifles and ammunition, a pair of portable tree stands and enough supplies to save themselves should one or more things go wrong.

"I know the area well,'' Gehrman said. "I found it by mistake about 25 years ago. I used to hike into it, but it's a long hike in, and a long hike out, especially with a deer.''

Five times now Gehrman, who is retired after a 30-year career with Andersen Corp. of Bayport, has paddled a canoe to his hunting wilderness.

The first three excursions were with a buddy who has since opted for more relaxed forms of recreation.

Gehrman in turn made the trip once by himself, something now, at age 60, he says he won't do again.

"That year I actually passed up a buck, a fork, something that's hard to explain, even to myself,'' he said. "Being alone, I was attentive to taking care of myself. As a hunter, I wasn't as focused as I should have been.''

A chance conversation earlier this year with Brach landed Gehrman the hunting partner he needed.

"I jumped at the idea,'' Brach said. "I hunted deer a lot when I lived in southwest Minnesota, near Marshall. But since moving [to Stillwater] I got away from it. The prospect of going onto public land to hunt with a lot of people wasn't appealing.''

A mountain biker and frequent visitor to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Brach, 54, is the state engineer for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"My biggest concern was that we'd get hit by a blizzard,'' Brach said. "That would put a damper on things.''

Setting up camp

Gehrman and Brach had two primary concerns as they set off downstream on Friday:

The long-running drought affecting much of the state had left the river extremely low, with many exposed rocks.

Their canoe already lay low in the water -- and they had yet to load a deer in the craft, not to mention two, which was their goal.

Reaching their campsite by midafternoon, they pitched their tent and hung a tarp over their cooking and eating area.

With Gehrman was a vintage Browning A-bolt, chambered .30-06, while Brach, come Saturday morning, would jack a handful of .308s into an aged Remington 788.

"Except for sighting it in, I hadn't fired that rifle since I was in high school,'' Brach said. "The hunting I've done has been with a muzzleloader or a shotgun.''

Saturday morning, Gehrman climbed into a stand he had hung in a tree that had long served him well. About 160 yards away, Brach was similarly perched.

"The deal was that if I shot a deer, I would get down from my stand and John could get into it,'' Gehrman said.

Hampered by the same winds that howled throughout much of the state on the opener, Gehrman at midmorning nonetheless drew down on a nice buck.

Unfortunately, the animal, though hit, disappeared into a vast wasteland of swamp and wasn't recovered, despite four hours of searching.

The next day, early, their luck changed. Gehrman shot a doe "and was hanging up my rifle, when a buck approached, and I decided to shoot him, too.''

Both animals were field dressed by 11 a.m. and by 3 in the afternoon had been dragged to camp, separately, on a plastic sled Gehrman brought along for that purpose.

"The dragging over rough ground is too difficult otherwise,'' he said.

One last obstacle

The geese that winged overhead while the men hunted, the eagles that carved circles in the sky and the endless bubbling of moving water near their camp were rewards as valuable to them as the whitetails they swung from a tree limb.

"On a trip like this, I didn't have to pull a trigger to have a great time,'' Brach said.

Two considerations galvanized the thoughts of the outbound paddlers.

One was their heavy load: With their gear and deer in the canoe, only 3 inches of its freeboard was exposed above the water.

And not far downstream, a quarter-mile-long set of rapids awaited.

"Heavily loaded as we were, there was no way we could paddle those rapids,'' Brach said. "Instead, we got out, tied lines [ropes] to the bow and stern and 'lined' the canoe downstream along shore.''

Reaching their take-out spot, Gehrman hitchhiked to his vehicle and later returned for Brach, their equipment and bounty.

Said Gehrman: "I'll do the trip as long as I can.''

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com