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Opinion

Deer hunting parties diminish, traditions continue with strength

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November 20, 2008

We all know what’s going on this weekend. If you have no idea what I’m talking about then I truly am sorry, there is no hope for you. This weekend will be the 11th installment of Deer Camp in my life.

If you’ve read any of my columns in the past and you’re waiting for a punch line, don’t worry, there isn’t going to be one. I’m not a columnist that spouts long words at people or tries to solve the world’s problems in 500 words in a western Wisconsin University’s weekly rag. My goal is to connect with people and, in the third full week of November, there is no better way to do that than to write about Deer Camp.

Paradise is a 120-acre farm that lies about 20 miles east of Portage, Wis. My grandfather bought the farm with his sister sometime around 1970 and my dad tells me that bucks weren’t always running around the way they do these days.

The farmhouse looks exactly what you think it looks like; with a wood-burning stove and water that no human should ever consume. Deer Camp has resided in that house since forever, and certainly hasn’t changed since I entered the club.

That’s the essence of deer hunting and Deer Camp for me. Time doesn’t wait for anybody or anything, but with Deer Camp it seems like it lets us hold on to the past for a little while longer. But even Deer Camp can’t escape the winds of change and no matter how bad I want Deer Camp to be what is was when I was 12, it never will be.

That first year was epic. My dad shot the biggest buck of his life and I technically shot a buck with my single shot 20-gauge slugs (emphasis on the word technically, obviously). That Saturday night of my first year marked my inclusion in a tradition unlike any others: The Kingston House prime rib buffet. Imagine a restaurant/bar packed to the rafters with hunters after an opening day full of embellished stories and corn fritters.

There were six of us; a few of the guys in our hunting party don’t make the trip to Kingston. My uncles James and Scott, my dad, me, Jim, (who had hunted with my dad and his brothers since the beginning) and Jim’s son Jake whose first year it was as well. My grandfather had passed away a few years before I started after battling Leukemia for years. Even now I see that Deer Camp to me began with that scenery, but for the older generation the changes were perhaps all too familiar.

A few years later my uncles James and Scott stopped hunting. I guess I still don’t really know why, maybe without their own sons hunting, and the absence of their father left a lack of desire, or maybe there were too many people with high powered rifles.

My brother Micah began hunting two years later and my uncle Neil from the other side of the family joined, both welcomed additions. But a couple of years later Jim and Jake got their own land and with just Neil, my brother, dad and me, the Kingston House seemed to lack the raucous nature it had in the past.

In a world that I’ve sometimes felt forced me to grow up too fast, Deer Camp seemed to also share the sentiment. At 18, I was somehow one of the experienced guys on the Farm.

Last year it was just Micah and my dad with me at the Kingston House after Neil drew a moose tag for Canada. As we shoveled in the prime rib and corn fritters we talked about the events of the day with as much excitement as ever, but it was different.

I’ll always remember what my dad said to my brother and me that night.

“You know someday after I’m long gone you’re going to drive up here and the Kingston House will be closed,” Eric Stevens said. “And that’s ok too; you’ll just start new traditions with your sons.”

I could sense that he was trying to convince all three of us that night. I remember wanting to ask him why his brothers stopped hunting and what it felt like with things so different than in the past, but I just looked down and ate, hoping that day never happens.

This year it will be just the two of us at the Kingston House, the other guys we hunt with still won’t make the trip. Neil will be coaching and will get to camp Sunday morning. Micah joined the marines and will miss this year, as I, and my dad, will miss him.

But even as six turned to four, then three and now only two, it’s still Deer Camp and it’s still the Kingston House. I wish it was the originals, much like I’m sure my dad wishes it was his original crew, but its not and it never will be, and that’s ok.

Even a weekend so sacred for many of us, so entrenched with tradition, endures the changes we all attempt to keep up with in our daily lives. But every year we go back to Deer Camp to reconnect with older generations on a primal level that is otherwise unattainable, and Deer Camp never disappoints.

For such a weekend, such an event, I could not be more excited. Though the faces may change, the lore and tradition that accompanies the pursuit and kill never will, and for that, I am grateful.

Caleb Stevens is a student at UW-River Falls.