This weekend, tens of thousands of Minnesotans will retreat to places that are as much a state of mind as they are physical structures with surrounding acreage.
Sometimes centered by mouse-infested shanties, other times by canvas wall tents and still others by cabins that boast luxuries such as indoor plumbing, beginning Fridaythese bivouacs, thousands of them statewide, will welcome blaze-orange-clad hunters whose ostensible purpose is to hunt deer, but who in equal measure seek respite and rejuvenation.
Freedom from the humdrum of daily life, the rancor of political rivals and the tickertape of bad news that the media waterboards us with every day.
Freedom also to observe, and to learn.
"I've been in a deer camp every November for 71 years,'' said Dick Myers of Warroad. "The first camp was an old pulp cutter's shack near Cotton, Minn. Every morning in the dark when my Dad and I walked to our stands, he'd tell me to pay attention to what I saw. Then in the evening, after hunting, also in the dark, he'd tell me to lead us back to the shack.''
Opportunities like these, to learn experientially — by doing — have been critical to human development since time began, and were centerpieces of Native Americans' social structure, as one generation learned from another how to hunt, fish and gather, and to relay this knowledge through storytelling.
In the last few hundred years, these learning opportunities have been replaced by educational systems that configure silos of knowledge that students cherry-pick to prepare for life in the trades or, more recently, for "careers.''
Deer camps offer valuable, and rare, opportunities to dabble in the former.
Guns must be loaded and unloaded safely. Stands must be climbed into and out of. Shots must be taken — or not. Animals must be tracked. Dead deer must be field-dressed and hung.
Also, someone has to cook, clean up, do the dishes and set an alarm clock for early the next morning.
In each case, kids and other newcomers to deer camp learn from the behaviors that more experienced hunters model.
When a deer is felled, for instance, there's a difference between a hunter's pride of achievement and gloating — between an understated fist bump and a raucous high-five.
An animal has died, and the sacrifice should be respected.
In these situations, seeing elders up close and personal offers young people opportunities to learn, grow and mature in ways they might not have at home or in school.
"Our deer 'camp' is a canvas wall tent that my brother, my son and other relatives and friends move around every year,'' said Gary Stay of Longville, Minn. "Usually we pitch the tent in the woods near Warroad, not far from Dick Myers' camp. One day during every deer season, Dick and his gang come to our tent for supper. The next year, we'll go to his camp for dinner. He'll have his son and grandkids with him. It's a good time.''
So good, in fact, that in some instances the tradition of attending deer camp in November carries on even when deer are scarce.
"For me, deer camp has never been about hanging up a deer at the end of a hunt,'' said Twin Cities resident Jess Myers, Dick Myers' son. "It's more about getting together with my dad and my sons and daughter, about having the same goulash I make every Friday night before the season, about toasting my grandfather who first took my Dad deer hunting. . . about just being there.''
Bob Harris of Maple Grove shares Jess Myers' reverence for the experience of retreating to Minnesota's hinterlands in November. Harris heads a deer camp near Fergus Falls that has hosted four generations of his family.
"For opening weekend, our daughter and her husband will drive with their black Labrador from Utah to be in camp. Also my son and my son-in-law's sister will be here to hunt deer,'' Harris said.
Helping the younger camp members find their stands and otherwise enjoy their outings is as satisfying for him as hunting, Harris said.
"If we need to tag another deer, I'll hunt in the muzzleloading season,'' he said. "Otherwise, I saw a bumper sticker the other day that pretty much sums up my approach to deer camp. It said, 'Into the forest I go to lose my mind and find my soul.' ''
From the time they could legally hunt, my two sons accompanied me to deer camp on opening weekend. In Minnesota, we rented a North Woods cabin and hiked long distances to our hunting property, where we stayed all day, warmed only, as necessary, by a noontime campfire. In Wisconsin, we headquartered in a small shack loaned to us by a hunting partner. Heated by wood, and flanked by an outhouse, the shanty welcomed us on snowy November days in ways only deer camps can.
On one of his first Wisconsin hunts, my older son shot a pretty good buck, an understandable source of delight that morphed in camp that evening to youthful chest-puffing.
Which prompted my friend to offer advice my son has never forgotten.
"Say little when you lose,'' my friend said, "and less when you win.''
I was reminded of this the other morning when I received a text from the same son, now 29 years old, who had been backpacking for four days in the Montana mountains by himself, hunting elk.
"Got one,'' he said via his inReach handheld satellite communicator. "I'm about 2 miles from my truck. Should be able to get it cut up and pack it out by dark.''
Through the ether, the message hadn't originated from a deer camp. But the words nevertheless represented a deer camp state of mind.
And I read them as such.