As children growing up in Pierz in central Minnesota, Adam Tschida and his cousin Mark Tschida were more like brothers. If one was out fishing, so was the other. Together they hunted ducks and squirrels, worked on deer stands in the fall, and spent all year talking about the nine magical days of the firearms deer-hunting season.
Things changed some in 2001 when Adam left to attend college at the University of Minnesota Duluth. But just weeks later, he got a call that would alter things forever: At age 17, Mark had been killed in a car crash on his way to school.
“That was a really tough time for everybody, certainly,” said Tschida, 33, a police officer who now lives in Bloomington. “For me, in particular, being away from home and then coming back for a funeral and all that, and then having to go back to school, it was a rough time.”
Just more than a month later, the family gathered again to hunt deer and carry on an important tradition. The void created by Mark Tschida’s absence was palpable, the events of that September day still fresh. But there really was no better place to honor his memory. There is a flagpole at the cabin where the family gathers to hunt, and that year Adam Tschida’s mother sewed a flag in his cousin’s memory. For 15 years now, it has flown alongside a blaze orange flag with the outline of a deer on it.
“The Friday night before opening day, everyone filters over to the cabin,” Tschida said. “When everyone is assembled, we walk out and do an official flag-raising ceremony and put up those two flags. They fly over our deer camp for the nine days of the season.”
Even after that first ceremony, it was clear they wanted to do more — not only begin the season but also end it with Mark Tschida’s memory in mind.
“We have lots of police officers and a number of veterans in the family,” Tschida said. “One of the most powerful tributes or salutes I’ve ever seen or been part of in law enforcement is the 21-gun salute at a burial site.”
So camp members decided to adapt the practice. It occurs each year as the sun goes down on the deer season. Adam Tschida fires four shots from his stand, then his brother, sister and dad each fire four from their stands. Tschida fires the 17th and final shot out over a meadow. When the weather is right, it’s possible to hear the bullet traveling over the open ground. Mark’s father, Paul, tries to capture the sound on his phone so another son, Mike, who lives in California and can’t make it back every year, can be part of it.
“Deer hunting always brings back lots of memories — that was just such a big part of our year together,” Tschida said. “That last day when we all head out to our stands, everyone is still thinking about him. It’s a pretty somber deal, even to this day.”
It’s impossible to say exactly how many deer camps there are in Minnesota, but it’s no doubt a lot, given that about a half-million people deer hunt in the state each year. For many of those hunters, the deer season is far more about the camaraderie and traditions of deer camp than it is about harvesting an animal. Following are some of the rules and traditions — such as the Tschidas’ — that form the bedrock of Minnesota’s deer camps, in the hunters’ words:
Make a good shot
Each Friday night around 10 on opening weekend, my dad pulls out one of his fine leather-bound books on whitetail deer. He tells us all to gather around the table, put down our drinks, and listen. He flips open to a picture of a majestic buck standing broadside and asks, “Where should you shoot that deer?” We all point to the heart and lung region in the front quarter. “Good,” he says, and flips to another page. This time the deer is at more of an angle. “What about this one?” he asks. He pages through the book for about 15 minutes until we cover all of the possible shooting scenarios we could encounter the next day. The tradition started my first year in camp when I was 12 (I’m now 33), continued when my mom joined camp a few years later and stuck around when my brother-in-law began hunting a few years after that. Somehow, it still stands. I can definitely give my old man credit for one thing — we sure don’t miss many deer in our camp. - Nick Hanson, Richfield
Show the love
As safe as hunting is, there is always the risk of something happening. So we exchange a hug as part of the good luck ritual each time we head out into the field. Getting lost, falling out of a tree, having health problems, or a firearms accident are all possibilities. Parents should hug their teenage children before parting ways in the dark woods opening morning and start the habit of saying “I love you” in this simple way. It will last into adulthood and is a small way to say a lot without speaking a word. -Ron Hustvedt, Elk River
Eat a good meal
Every year in deer camp we like to start a pot roast in the wee hours of the morning. There is truly nothing better than returning after a long and generally cold day to a warm, delicious meal to reheat the core. - Brian Dreblow, Belle Plaine
Wait on the alcohol
Bill Williams and my dad began hunting together in the 1960s. I started deer hunting in 1977. Our hunting party consists of 12 to 14 hunters and we all follow Ernie Williams’ (Bill Williams’ father) steadfast rule in all aspects of hunting and shooting: There’s no beer or booze until the guns are put away. No exceptions. If you drink, you don’t hunt the rest of the day. - Steve Sorgenfrei, Lino Lakes
Prepare your backpack with essentials like matches, lighter, flashlight, knife, at least one box of shells, compass, drag rope, spare hat, gloves, snacks and water. I also bring surgical gloves for field dressing a deer. I always tell people where I will be and for how long I plan to hunt. - Jim Buland, Bloomington
Politics stay home
There’s no political talk at deer camp. People start arguing and some people just can’t admit when they might be wrong. That’s why we have an old cook car right next to the cabin. People can migrate there if other people are getting too worked up. - Josh Britten, Grand Forks, N.D.
Draw for deer stands
We’ve all got our favorite places to sit, but on Friday night we draw for Saturday morning deer stands. We throw numbers in a hat and whoever picks number one gets first choice of stands. - Kolt Ringer, Deephaven
Shoot it? You field-dress it
I’ve never met a hunter who actually enjoys cleaning an animal, but if you’re the one getting the thrill of the kill, you must be the one to field-dress the animal. It’s one of the few things in camp we don’t do together. - Aaron Steger, Minneapolis
Don’t forget your gear
It’s usually cold during the deer season, which makes a hat and gloves necessities. Forgetting them at home means you not only have to admit your mistake and ask someone else in camp if you can borrow some, but you also have to hear about your oversight every single year. If your deer camp is like mine, it’s probably easiest to not mention that you forgot them and just be cold while you’re on the stand. - Brian King, Fargo, N.D.
Food, friends and family
We start camp by remembering the founding members who have passed on. On Friday night, the members who remain take part in a toast — for the ones who have left us and for a successful hunt — with Frank Sinatra playing. We have 24-ounce rib-eye steaks and cottage fries, along with pickled pigs feet, herring, smoked whitefish and rye crisp hardtack. After we’ve hunted opening day, we pass around a bottle of Paisano red wine and talk about hunts gone by. - Michael Anderson, Pengilly
Joe Albert is a writer from Bloomington. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org