Every family has different traditions that define them. In my family, Deer Camp is by far one of our biggest get-togethers each year, which makes it a tradition of its own. Once November hits, we know it's time to get ready for the Minnesota Firearm Deer Season. That's when Deer Camp begins. Let me start from where it all originated.
Since I can remember, Deer Camp has been a part of my life. Before I was born, my family made the haul up to the Northwoods of Minnesota to hunt whitetails. At first, my family didn't have a cabin to stay in. Instead, we packed up our old Winnebago camper, hooked it up to my dad's truck, drove our usual spot on public land in small-town Outing, and set up our little hunting camp. November in Minnesota can be unpredictable when it comes to the weather; we'd often have to be prepared for anything from 70 degrees and sunny to 5 degrees and snowing.
Those years in that camper are some of my favorite memories. I was too young to hunt so I would stay at camp with my mom while my dad, brother, and two sisters hit the woods in the early hours in the morning. Sometimes mom and I would go into town to go shopping, but mostly we'd just stick around camp and make adventures of our own while waiting for the hunters to come back. I always had my own little projects, like writing on birch bark with coals, trying to start a fire with only a rock and a stick, or attempting to make my own spears or arrows out of wood.
Some years, if the weather was too brutal or we had some extra money, we'd rent a small cabin at "The Bridge," a room at "The Wigwam Motel," or stay at "Wood Haven Resort.” When the hunters got back from the morning hunt, we would get breakfast in town before they'd head back into the woods. Saturday nights were always my favorite. The family would head back into town to have dinner at "The Village." Dad would order his prime rib special every time. While we waited for our food, he'd take me to the claw machine by the pool tables and spend $20 cleaning out the machine of its prizes. The restaurant would send us away with paper bags to carry all the stuffed animals in. Eventually, they caught on to my dad's tactics and raised the price to play the machine.
What was really special about those early years of Deer Camp was when someone would get a deer. I was too little to hunt, but I was old enough to help track the blood trail. I would get so excited to get in the woods and help. Learning how to track deer sign and blood trails was my first taste of hunting and I was hooked. When we would find the deer, we'd haul it back and hang it on a make-shift hanging pole at camp, or one provided by wherever we were staying if not at the camper.
At age 10, I was finally able to sit in the stand with one of the hunters. My sister, Tiffany, got the luck of having me sit with her and disturb her hunts for the next two years. I guess being the 2nd youngest at the time meant you got the short end of the stick. For my 12th birthday, my dad bought me my first gun, a Belgian Browning BAR 30-06. He told me it was a 30-30 so I wouldn't be afraid of shooting it because of the kick. Talk about a rude awakening the first time he loaded it up for me to shoot. My boney little shoulder was black and blue for over a week. He also signed me up for firearm safety and by November I was ready for my first hunt.
I started out sitting in a ground blind with my dad, my mom even came out hunting with us my first year, I was shocked to see her holding a gun. She loves deer and thinks they are "too pretty" to shoot them herself but she wanted to be there with my dad and me. After a year or two in the blind, my dad let me sit in his tree stand with him instead. When I was 15, I finally got to sit in a stand by myself. Once again, my sister got the short end of the stick and I was put in her tree stand while she had to be put in a new spot.
Somewhere in the midst of all this, my family purchased a land lot where we could set up camp with the dream of building a cabin one day. We finally made Deer Camp our own place by setting up a permanent hanging pole, building a fire pit, making dinner on the grill, and telling stories about years gone by. In 2014 Deer Camp truly evolved for us. We broke ground on the cabin, which we nicknamed "Dixon Ridge Retreat."
Having a cabin of our own was a dream come true for my family. It was what really began to secure our Deer Camp traditions. We didn't have to worry about running out of propane overnight in the camper, or battling the elements to cook dinner. We could sit around the fireplace instead of sitting in the cold in front of the campfire. We didn't have to pack coolers full of food, we could put them in the fridge and pantry. While some things changed in our family, deer camp was always the constant.
Today's Deer Camp traditions are very similar to the ones from the early days. We all meet at the cabin the night before opening day of the season, we share stories, plan our hunts, and prepare for the coming adventures. Instead of going out to eat, we cook for ourselves. In the mornings before the hunt there are biscuits & gravy, bacon, eggs. and waffles. Lunch consists of different soups, stews, or dad's famous chili. Dinner is always a home-cooked hotdish with venison or bear meat. On Saturday nights we honor the memory of our days going to get dad's prime rib dinner by having a feast of our own by grilling. One night a year at deer camp we also hold a shrimp cook-off, which is now a HUGE tradition in Deer Camp at Dixon Ridge.
As our family continues to grow, so does the importance of our Deer Camp traditions. While some things never fail to change, many things will always stay the same. The gratitude we feel, the excitement of the hunt, the sense of togetherness, and the value of tradition is what makes Deer Camp special. These are the memories we will never forget and the stories we will pass down through generations.