Three families who have shared homecomings for 38 years in the same northwoods deer shack will break up this season to sidestep COVID-19.

John King, 69, said he'll miss the fried deer hearts, wood stove fires and storytelling in remote, northern Becker County It's painful to put the traditions on hold, he said. But with seven of the camp's most faithful participants now in their 70s, they decided not to take the risk.

"It's a big disappointment and everybody hates it, but you've gotta do what you've gotta do,'' said King, who founded the lakeshore camp with two of his friends from the Detroit Lakes area. As their families have grown, so has the size and the importance of the deer camp.

With daily coronavirus numbers in Minnesota spiking to unprecedented levels this week, the cherished traditions of hunters who gather in camps for the firearms season are taking a major hit. Minnesota's COVID-19 death toll surpassed 2,500 on Wednesday and the virus has spread dramatically since the fishing opener.

To be sure, many Minnesota deer camps will carry on without disruption and make new memories this year. Other groups will still meet in some reduced fashion to reminisce and catch up.

Jamie Becker-Finn of Roseville, who won re-election Tuesday to the state House of Representatives, said her extended family will meet as always at her aunt's house in Bemidji. But they'll alter the main Saturday night dinner that revolves around soup and storytelling.

"We'll probably be outside on folding chairs. We won't be eating our meal together indoors,'' she said. "But I'm looking forward to it more than I ever have.''

As long ago as Becker-Finn can remember, she tagged along on family deer hunts on public land near Pennington, Minn. Her father and grandfather, a World War II veteran, were hunters.

"I remember getting dragged out of bed at 5 a.m.," she said. "I'll never forget tromping through the woods in the dark."

Becker-Finn is a Leech Lake Ojibwe descendant who grew up eating venison all year long — a tradition she has carried on. She and her husband, Gabe, will attempt to harvest three deer this year to stock the family's freezer, sharing with Jaime's mother. Their 10-year-old son will join them in the field and scout for deer with binoculars.

For them, the cherished camp aspect of deer season kicks in most heavily Friday night before the opener and again Saturday when all the cousins and other family members return from the woods to rekindle their bond and recall all the dramas from past hunts. They travel to Bemidji from the Twin Cities, the Duluth area and around Cass Lake.

"We all have elementary age kids now, and it's the one time all year that we hang out together," she said. "It's definitely a tradition."

Another one of the family's concessions to COVID-19 will be to skip the collective deer butchering event in the garage of Becker-Finn's cousin a week or two after the hunt. Jamie and Gabe will do their own cutting and packaging at home, guided by a Modern Carnivore seminar.

Keeping tradition

For Shawn Moss of Cottage Grove, the 2020 version of his family's deer camp will follow the same script established in 2001. That's when his dad purchased a rustic cabin deep in the woods near Orr. The place sits on the doorstep of public land that the family hunts almost exclusively for bucks. They let the does go by to conserve the breeding population.

Moss, one of eight or nine adults who share the cabin for most of the deer season, said no one is sitting out this year because of COVID-19. The camp will include a smattering of children like always, including Shawn's 13-year-old son, Gavin, who shot his first buck two years ago.

"We're not worried about coronavirus," Moss said. "It's just one of those things about life. If someone gets sick before it starts, they'll pull out."

He said a couple of the adults who attend deer camp are in their mid-60s and others are in their early- to mid-40s. No one is trying to make a political statement, he said, just making time to be together.

It's a clear-cut rule at the Moss deer camp, no matter the size of the buck, for the antlers to stay at the cabin. Spike buck or 12-pointer; shot by a guest or family member, each rack is hung on the cabin's knotty pine interior — on what's known known as the Wall of Death.

Other rituals are carried out at meal time. Everyone brings a signature dish and none is more traditional than Shawn's grouse wild rice soup.

"Opening weekend is always nuts, but then it settles down," Moss said.

In late October, an outbreak of COVID-19 around Orr and Cook closed the Echo Trail Tavern and a couple of other local bars. But they've reopened for the firearms deer season. On Friday night before the opener, visiting hunters make the rounds to join each establishment's buck board competition. The entry fees make up the prize. At season's end, each board pays cash to the shooter of the biggest buck.

"On that first night at deer camp, we're usually out signing up for the big buck contests,'' Moss said.

Going separate ways

In normal years at the northwoods camp co-founded by John King, the older guys draw up the menu and buy enough groceries for the duration. The younger hunters usually don't have the opportunity to stay for long, so they pay a daily rate for food. Sleeping quarters are in the shack and a separate bunkhouse. The camp has electricity, a hand water pump and an outhouse.

Hunting takes place on nearby public lands between Detroit Lakes and Park Rapids. King said no one comes to camp expecting to shoot a trophy buck. "We're basically meat hunters," he said.

By tradition, evenings are spent together inside the shack. There's card games, but conversation is the main event.

"We give a lot of advice," King said. "There's a lot of opinions."

But not this year. A few younger members of the deer camp will use the shack at their own risk, King said. Others will go elsewhere to hunt and hope to reunite in 2021.

"It's our gathering place,'' King said. "Deer camp is a reason for everyone to come home and get together."