The little, spartan hunting shack was cobbled together with tamarack logs and scrap lumber nearly 50 years ago. It has no electricity, no running water and no beds — just wooden bunks.
But the dwelling brims with memories and meaning for Bill Sloneker and his family. And last weekend, on Minnesota’s firearms deer season opener, the place was warm and alive as three generations of Slonekers shared another deer hunting tradition in the treasured old cabin planted among 120 acres of woods and water near Pequot Lakes.
“It’s a really, really special place” said Sloneker, of Big Lake. “It’s hard to describe how much it means to us. It’s like stepping back in time. It’s quiet here. The stars shine. It’s basic living.”
The family patriarch is Sloneker’s dad, Leon, 93, who not only still attends camp, but bagged an 8-point buck on the opener this year.
“It was such an easy shot, if I had missed, I would have broken my gun in two,” he quipped.
Leon has shared many special moments there with his sons and grandsons over the 36 years they’ve had the place.
“I love it,” he said. “I’m going to come up as long as I’m able. I’ve been very blessed.”
The group consists of Leon, of Monticello; two of his sons, Bill, 66, and Lee, 63, of Otsego; and three grandsons, Ryan, 39, of Burnsville; Nate, 37, of Maple Grove; and Aaron, 30, of Ramsey. The six shared three days together opening weekend.
On Saturday, they bagged four whitetail bucks. “We consider it to be a really, really good Saturday if we shoot three,” Bill Sloneker said. They didn’t shoot another deer, but plan to go back.
They’ve bagged several 10-point bucks over the years. But truth be told, the deer tally isn’t that important to the group.
“We enjoy the hunting — we love to eat venison,” Bill Sloneker said. “But getting deer is just a bonus. None of us are focused on trophy hunting. It’s the family get-together that we really enjoy. The highlight is what goes on around the table. We play some cards and BS.
“We’re a really close family.”
Sloneker’s son, Ryan, has been coming to deer camp for 24 years. “I haven’t missed a single opener,” he said. “It’s not a nice building, but there’s lots of laughter and it’s warm and inviting. And there’s no shortage of grief that’s given. I look forward every year to coming up here.”
Said Bill Sloneker: “In the next generation, there might be a girl or two up here. We have five granddaughters.”
A special place
The 16-by-22 cabin was built in the late 1960s by a young couple who lived there for a while. It’s more than a mile to the nearest paved road.
“They hand-built it from tamarack logs. There isn’t a square corner in the place,” Bill Sloneker said. “The front window is made from three different windows, and that’s at an angle, too.”
The floor was built from scrap 2-by-4s.
The Slonekers bought the cabin and 120 acres for $12,500 in 1979. Besides the deer season, they use it when they come to hunt ducks and occasionally ruffed grouse. But it sits empty most of the year. They initially had some vandalism.
“We decided to just leave it unlocked, and we leave a log book telling people they are welcome to use it. We just ask them to leave it as they found it. A few people have used it, and we haven’t had any vandalism since.”
Other than replacing the roof and floor, the family hasn’t made many improvements. “We didn’t want to change it,” Sloneker said.
They did, however, build a new outhouse.
They bring coolers of ice for perishables and propane for cooking on the cabin’s stove.
“We precook meals at home and then heat them in the oven,” Sloneker said.
The menu this year included lasagna, Tater Tot hot dish, and ham-and-cheese sliders.
“We’re in our stands an hour before sunrise,” Sloneker said. “We always come in around noon. We don’t go fancy for lunch. My brother makes venison sausage, so we have that and cheese on a piece of bread.”
They used to use a propane lantern to light the place. “We finally got smart and got some 12-volt bulbs and brought some deep-cycle 12-volt batteries,” Sloneker said. “Then we switched to LEDs.
“This year, for the first-time ever, a grandson brought up a generator. We used it to plug in our coffee maker.”
Sharing and snoring
Mice are frequent visitors at many deer camps, and the rodents occasionally make their presence known. “We time-share with them; they get the place for about 49 weeks, and we get it for three,” Sloneker joked.
There is talk, too, about some possible new construction. “There are three snorers in the group and three light sleepers,” Sloneker said. “Currently, the light sleepers sleep in the back of their trucks or in a tent. We’re talking about maybe building some small 4-by-8 sleeping cabins, so we can get some quiet.”
He has a vested interest: “I’m in the ‘can’t-stand-snoring’ camp.”
Doug Smith is a retired Star Tribune outdoor writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.