A Sense of Place: A Hunter's Journal
By Dave Schad
Whenever I visit the old deer shack, I am inevitably drawn to the journal that rests high on a shelf. The typed entries, which start in 1946 and run until 1972, were compiled over the years by Eldon "Swede" Johnson, the unofficial leader and scribe for my father's deer-hunting gang.
The rustic cabin is nestled on a small ridge deep in the Nemadji State Forest, which lies along the Wisconsin border northeast of Hinckley. This cabin and the surrounding forests have been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember. And those journal entries, as much as anything, stimulated an interest in wildlife, hunting, and conservation, which eventually led to my career as a wildlife manager with the Department of Natural Resources.
While the journal tells of the camaraderie of a group of friends, it also chronicles our northern deer herd and efforts of my DNR predecessors to manage deer during the last 50 years.
My dad's hunting gang, most of them fresh out of high school and all from the Stillwater area, first ventured into the Nemadji in 1947.
Dave, Clayt, Ken Anderson & Eldon drove up in Model A and Chev Coupe. We camped north of fork in sled road, 2 1/2 miles in from Daman's corner. Used dad's old tent, lots of snow. In trying to keep tent warm with oil heater, we almost gassed our selves. Ate outside under the birch & pine trees. Clayt shot 1 doe & found another, Dave shot a doe & Ken shot a doe. Four doe for 4 fellows.
Similar camps had sprung up throughout the Nemadji and other northern forests. The 1940s through the mid-1960s are often thought of as the golden years of Minnesota deer hunting, when the rich tradition of hunters going up north to deer camp began to flourish.
After the great pine forests were logged in the late 1800s and early 1900s, wildfires such as the Hinckley and Cloquet fires burned most of what is now the Nemadji. A very young forest emerged. Mixed with open meadows that had not yet reforested and farms established by early homesteaders, it provided ideal deer habitat.
After World War II, thousands of war veterans returned home and were eager to enjoy life in Minnesota. The number of licensed hunters in the state jumped from 70,000 in the prewar years to more than 170,000 just after the war.
In those days, a $2.25 license allowed hunters to shoot deer of any age or sex. In 1949 my dad (Ronny) shot his first deer.
Clayt, Ken, Paul, Dave, Babe, Mike, Ronny & Eldon were up this year hunting. No snow to start with, but some came on Monday morning. Last year we drove model A in, almost too much water & mud, got stuck on the way out. Ken & Dave shot 1 doe each, Paul a doe fawn, Ronny a buck fawn & Mike a big buck N.W. of john deere shack. Two doe, 2 fawn & 1 buck for 8 fellows.
But the entry for 1950 indicated that the season was closed. Frequent closed seasons through the 1930s had allowed deer populations to increase to high levels, leading to severe overbrowsing of much of the forest. The high deer numbers and depleted habitat led to large die-offs of deer after severe winters, such as occurred in 1947-48 and 1949-50. Because game managers did not have the authority to limit harvest or even shorten seasons at that time, a closed season was their only option to limit harvest.
Fortunately for the gang, deer populations rebounded quickly. Starting in 1951, deer benefited from a series of mild winters, even though the quality of habitat continued to decline as the forests aged. By 1955 hunting was better than ever for the gang.
Dave, Al, Clayt, Paul, Prunes, Babe, Ronny and Eldon were up for hunting this year. . . . We had 10" of beautiful snow this year so we even had snowshoes with. Didn't use them though. . . . Four doe and Four bucks for 8 fellows.
New families, farming and business obligations, and the Korean War kept some members out of the woods almost every year, but the gang stuck with it.
Sunday, November 12, 1961. Al, Neil, Paul, Clayt & Ronny left for home at 7:30, guess it's up to Eldon, Dave & Babe to fill out, what fun. Paul said, "I'm going to be better off next year, not so much corn and NO sows with little ones. Then I'll stay the full season I hope." Back to shack by 10:30. Rain this morning & cool tonight, someone said it was going to snow, that would be nice.
After struggling for years hunting from tents and makeshift cabins, the gang decided that they needed a new, permanent hunting cabin. They found a nice site on land leased from the state. It overlooked an alder and ash swamp, just off of one of the old logging trails that crisscrossed the forest. The shack they built there in 1963 still stands.
The single-room cabin includes six bunks, a wood stove, and a beautiful, handmade rectangular table with each hunter's name stenciled in black along the edge. The antlers from bucks taken during past hunts were hung on the walls, making it possible to match up the racks with deer mentioned in journal entries. No running water or electricity here--the cabin sits about three miles from the nearest maintained road, as close to wilderness as you can get this near the Twin Cities.
Shack construction brought my first visit to the Nemadji.
Sunday, September 14, 1963. Up by 6:00 and building on the shack by 6:45. We had the wall panels, roof panels and felt roof paper down by noon. Dave, Carol, Jeanie, Sharon, Davy and Lynn K. came in about 9:00 or so. Lois, Elaine, David, Lori, Jimmy, Jean Schad, David and Greg came about 11:30. The girls had chicken with for dinner and was it good.
That year everyone made an extra effort to hunt and spend more time than usual in their new accommodations, and the season was their best ever. It marked the first year that one of the gang's children was lucky enough to shoot a deer. They clearly enjoyed the 1963 season.
Wednesday, November 13. Boy, did we see deer signs and deer. . . . We put Neil on a stand and made a drive to him. Neil shot his first deer, a nice buck fawn. He certainly was proud.
Thursday, November 14. For supper we had tenderloins, mashed potatoes, green beans and apple pie with Reddi Whip on top. Man talk about live like kings!! This was Babe and Al's first meal of deer tenderloins.
Little did the gang know that these good times would be short-lived. The forest was aging, and more than three decades of high deer populations had taken their toll on the forest. Severe winters in the 1960s began to deplete northern herds. High hunter numbers (now more than 300,000) and no limits on the harvest of does and fawns allowed little opportunity for the herd to recover. Just two years after their banner season, the gang saw their first evidence of problems.
Thurs., Nov. 18, 1965. Drew another blank today, in fact we didn't even see any fresh tracks. Dale, Eldon and Babe hunted east into Ash Swamp and old tumble -down shacks. Then north to John Deere Ridge. Deer had yarded up in this area last winter and you could really see it on the pine trees. Branches were eaten off 4 to 5 ft. from the ground.
In 1968 they failed to shoot a deer for the first time since they began hunting together. The next year's season was shortened to only five days as game managers struggled to reduce deer harvest. The gang hunted only two days, and saw four deer all weekend. They took two bucks, but were clearly discouraged. Prospects were even poorer in 1970.
Friday, Nov. 13. We thought last year was short, but this year it's only 2 day season. . . . Saturday, Nov. 14. Yes, you guessed it we drew a blank today. Rick & Bob hunted around John Deere country in morning and saw one. Paul & Eldon hunted west of camp, Eldon saw one, shot once with the 45-70 but didn't connect. Dave hunted on South Ridge then north to John Deere country & saw nothing. Chuck and Davie Carlson hunted east of Ash Swamp, but again they saw nothing.
Because even the short 1970 season resulted in a high harvest, the DNR was forced to close the statewide gun season in 1971, the first time since 1950. This crisis mobilized the hunting community, which began to work with the DNR and legislators to focus additional attention on the problems facing Minnesota deer. A large appropriation was provided to the DNR for habitat improvement, and was followed by a $1 surcharge on each deer license to provide permanent funding.
The 1971 season was to be my first spent hunting at the camp, and the closure was devastating to me. In 1972 the time for my first deer hunt finally arrived. Everyone seemed surprised that our first day in the woods produced success.
Friday, Nov. 24. Everyone hunted west & north of camp. Babe shot a nice 8 point buck north of camp by North Beaver ponds. Paul shot a nice spike west of camp by his old stand. No snow.
Another buck was shot the following day, and three more deer the next. To my young eyes, it seemed like a return to the good times, but the group's enthusiasm to hunt the Nemadji country had waned.
Sunday, Nov. 26. Everyone was back in camp by 12:00, we packed everything into Bergland's trailer & we were out to the white shack by 2:15. Home by 5:30 after registering our deer in Bruno. . . . Looks now like we might look into some other country to hunt deer in, possibly north of Flood Wood.
Even though they remained friends, the gang quit hunting the Nemadji after that year and eventually turned the cabin over to their children, who have maintained it since then. Most of the other deer hunting camps that used to dot the tote roads were also gone by this time, and the woods surrounding the shack became quiet in November.
In 1975 the DNR developed the antlerless permit system, which placed annual limits on the harvest of does and fawns, but not adult bucks. Though a few permits first became available in the Nemadji area in 1977, the gang had long since given up.
The antlerless permit system slowly brought populations back. Deer also benefited from mild winters statewide through most of the 1980s, habitat improvement funded by the continued deer license surcharge, and more logging of the aging forest.
In 1995, after an absence of 23 years, the gang held a reunion of sorts at the Nemadji. While the shack was still sturdy, deer hunting had changed in the time they had been away. Licenses now cost $22, and hunters had to apply for antlerless permits. The number of hunters in the state had increased to more than 400,000, and deer were now abundant statewide. Certainly, the gang could have found places to hunt closer to home. Instead, they chose to return to their old cabin.
That first morning, as the hunters moved out to their favorite stands, they found that the woods had also changed. Much of the area had been recently logged, the first harvest of timber since near the turn of the century. The cutting had drawn in both deer and new groups of hunters. However, the old stands were still productive, and though the gang no longer hunted as hard as they once did, deer once again hung on the meat pole outside of the shack.
Since then, members of the gang have continued to get together at the shack for deer hunting. The recent severe winters have dealt another blow to deer in the area. But with continued management of the deer herd and improved habitat, the deer will return to the Nemadji, just as the old hunting gang has.
Dave Schad is the DNR's Forest Wildlife Program Leader in St. Paul.