ELBA, MINN. — In an encampment of several hundred Hmong hunters nestled amid the valleys and bluffs of southeastern Minnesota, Kong Lor helped his dad and uncle unload firewood from their pickup Friday in preparation for Saturday's Minnesota firearms deer season opener.

For generations, white hunters have gathered at deer shacks and camps around Minnesota. Now Hmong hunters have embraced that tradition -- and made it their own.

"Hopefully, we'll get at least one deer,'' said Lor, 21, of St. Paul. "But we come mostly for the fun -- and to get away from work.''

Said his uncle, Nhia Her, 38, with a grin: "I want a buck, but I'll take what I can get.''

They were among the mostly Hmong hunters from the Twin Cities who jammed the small Trout Valley Trail campground Friday near the sprawling Whitewater Wildlife Management Area.

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of Hmong hunters will be in the southeastern bluff lands early Saturday, among nearly 500,000 orange-clad hunters who will fan out statewide for the opener.

Of 50,000 Hmong Minnesotans, an estimated 10,000 now buy state hunting licenses, easily making them the largest minority group in the state to do so.

And in the years during which the Hmong have made the state their home, the Whitewater Wildlife Area -- 28,000 acres of pristine woods, valleys, ravines and streams -- has become ground zero for legions of Hmong hunters. Another 45,000 acres of state forest is nearby. That's more than 100 square miles -- a gold mine of public hunting land to roam. The area traditionally holds many deer, including some big ones, in a landscape reminiscent of the Southeast Asia.

"Up north is too flat, and there's private land,'' said Doua Lee, 26, of Cottage Grove, whose group also made camp Friday. "Here, there's deer and lots of public land. And we don't mind the crowd. We feel safer. And if we get deer, we can help each other.''

Lee's group included 10 to 12 relatives ranging in age from 17 to 59. He's been coming since he was 17. "We just come for the fun,'' he said.

Roger Vang, 55, of St. Paul, will hunt with a group of nine relatives -- uncles, nephews and cousins. They also know many of the others camping nearby. He's been coming for 30 years.

Whatever deer they shoot will be divided among the group and consumed in short order. "It goes fast,'' he said. "We don't save it.''

Said Lee: "We like it fresh. We might eat deer here Saturday night.''

A shot in the arm for tradition

The deer opener for many Hmong, just as for other Minnesotans, is more than a hunt. It's an event. A celebration.

"It's almost like a vacation; they bring their kids and relatives,'' said Oudone Xiong, 36, of St. Paul, who used to hunt in the Whitewater area, but Saturday will be deer hunting near Red Wing. "It's a big holiday, a big tradition -- just like in the American culture.''

Said Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association (MDHA): "Their heritage and our heritage are so similar. It breaks down the cultural barriers a little bit.''

Xiong is an active member of the MDHA and an officer in the group's chapter in St. Paul, which is heavily populated with Southeast Asians. He was born in Thailand and raised in the United States.

Southeastern Minnesota resembles Laos, he said. "The rolling bluff country kind of reminded us of home,'' he said. "And it's such a big public area. Word ... spread, and everybody started hunting down there.''

The Hmong have a long tradition of hunting and gathering, so it's no surprise that many elect to hunt deer as well as squirrel, waterfowl, pheasants and other game.

"In our country, we've always hunted and gathered. It's part of our culture; part of our life,'' said Xiong.

Johnson and others, including the DNR, welcome Hmong hunters. Facing a decline in the percentage of the population that hunts because of time constraints, access issues, urbanization, an aging baby boomer population and competition from computers, the DNR has sought to boost the number of women, young people and minority group members who hunt and fish.

Hunters historically have paid for much of the conservation work in Minnesota and around the nation. "The more who get involved in our natural resources, the better it is for everyone, and for generations to come,'' Johnson said. "They have a huge passion for continuing the hunting tradition.''

A family affair

Tong Vang is one of two DNR Southeast Asian coordinators who work as liaisons between the DNR and the Southeast Asian community. Some 400 to 500 Southeast Asian youths complete firearms safety training yearly.

"The Hmong like to hunt in groups together -- brothers, sisters, cousins and friends,'' Vang said. "They don't like to hunt alone. And I see more and more couples hunting together.''

In the past, Southeast Asians hunted primarily for food. But that, too, is evolving, Vang said. "Now many hunt for sport more than meat,'' he said.

Said Vang, who will hunt deer Saturday in the Red Wing area: "The young are following in their fathers' footsteps.''