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As you may or may not know, “opening day” (ie. the opening day of whitetail deer season) is an unofficial holiday in the Upper Peninsula. Schools shut down. Businesses run on skeleton crews. And thousands of people take to the woods in search of a trophy whitetail buck.
For many of us, though, the real reason we love hunting season is because we love hunting camp. And when most Yoopers speak of “camp,” they’re not just referring to a shack in the woods. Hunting camp is a state of mind.
The term brings to mind memories of good friends, good times and hopeful expectations of even better times to come. It means a few days off work and time to reflect. It means spending a time with family members you may not get to see as often as you’d like.
Of course, there’s also usually plenty of good food and tasty beverages waiting for you when the hunt is over, and the conversation at camp is never dull. I’ll give you a glimpse into our own Yooper hunting camp by examining three cornerstone elements: the camp, the crew, and the food.
If you’re not at all familiar with “camp,” let me get you up to speed. Essentially a quaint cabin in the woods, the camp is sometimes owned by one family, but often more than one, and it typically gets passed down from generation to generation. Some camps only see a few weeks of use each year (during hunting season) while others are used year round as a place to get away.
Our camp is a collection of nineteenth century logging shacks bundled together to form a bunkroom, a kitchen, living room and a small bedroom. A river (the Big Cedar) slices our swampy eighty-acre plot down the middle, and there are always plenty of deer, turkeys, ruffed grouse, squirrels and other wildlife to see.
Inside the camp, a collection of misfit furniture allows for most of the comforts of home. There’s the faded green couch that was once in my parents cottage, the bunk beds that came with the camp and the heavy oak kitchen table my parents got after they were married in 1976. A retro restaurant stove anchors the kitchen, and my great-grandmother’s 1920’s era china hutch proudly displays a bunch of random coffee mugs and shot glasses.
In other words, it’s perfect.
There always seems to be an ebb and flow of hunting camp patrons as the years go by. Some of the guys who used to come to our place each year have either moved away or purchased their own camps. Once in a while someone brings a friend to show him what a real Yooper hunting camp is all about. And a few of us have been there since the beginning and will be there until the end.
Aside from myself, my dad, Paul and John, we’ve had a few additions in recent years in the form of Dave, Jeff and Eric.
My dad owns a machine shop. Paul runs an insurance agency. John is a retired government employee who jokes constantly, but doesn’t hunt. Dave is a friend of my Dad’s from Madison, Wisc. who loves to cook, but also doesn’t hunt. My brother-in-law Jeff skips away from his job as an engineer at Kimberly Clark once a year to spend some time at our camp. And this year, Eric, one of my best friends from Madison joined us and ended up getting his first buck! He’s a pro photographer and took the shots you see here.
Hunting camp, like Thanksgiving dinner, always comes with a few regular menu items. The fun thing about it is you could walk into twenty different Yooper hunting camps and see twenty different spreads of food.
At our camp, Paul always brings some awesome Chili made by his wife Lori. I make pickled eggs. Dave brings a pot of homemade Jambalaya. My dad usually picks up some steaks from a local butcher and we’ve always got plenty of pickled herring, cheese, sausage and bleu cheese-stuffed olives to snack on. This year, we had some whitefish caviar that my uncle bestowed upon us from a local fishery. Next year I’d like to do braised lamb one night.
As for drinks, our camp tends to lean toward spirits. Bottles of Kettle One seem to run empty fairly quickly, as do bottles of good whiskey. However, more and more microbrews have been showing up in the fridge. That’s a trend I’m happy to support!
And there you have it, folks. There’s more to hunting camp of course (like hunting, cribbage, the sauna, etc.) but I hope that if you were clueless before, you now have a general idea what goes into the soul of a Yooper hunting camp. And if you’re familiar with the camp experience I hope this brought to mind a few good memories of your own.