The old shack sits just above a thick belt of alders and a tannin-stained creek, which slides and leaps on its bouldery descent. The weathered wooden shelter, built 75 Novembers ago, is the quintessential deer shack. When I return there with a clan of eight every fall, I feel giddy in this simple place of untold riches.
To bear the title shack, the small, simple building must have no square corners, electricity, or plumbing. Its outhouse requires only gravity and a hole for plumbing. A shack should have a nearby river or creek from which to fetch buckets of water to tote inside.
The shack comes alive with the annual pilgrimage of men who travel here under the guise of hunting deer. Kind of like a hard-shell tent, it is mostly a place to come in out of the weather. An ample supply of dry firewood should be stacked near, but not too near, the wood-burning stove, the shack's sole source of heat. The building should be uninsulated and drafty enough to flicker the candles. The door should never be shackled with a lock.
While we do take our hunting fairly seriously, these days the experience is about more than killing a deer. It has to be, since in recent years getting a deer has become a rare occurrence. Several hills west of Lake Superior, near the edge of Superior National Forest, this is not farmland where deer can feed on crops and waste grains all winter. This northern landscape is a tough place for a doe to raise one fawn, let alone two. Waist-deep winter snows are not uncommon. Starvation combined with the pressures of predation by wolves, coyotes, and bears take their toll.
Far From Trappings. We gather here far from the trappings of tasks, hurrying, calendars, bells, buzzes, and whistles. The shack demands that we slow down and pay attention to the land and its critters.
The broad, well-aged wooden boards of the walls have absorbed generations of stories, laughs, snores, and more. Lean close and you can practically smell the collection of essences of pounds of fried bacon and barrels of brewed coffee. You might catch the stale smell of cigarettes smoked in the 1940s and '50s.
The shack requires only a minimum amount of care. Twice, corners have been hoisted to replace rotting floorboards. Wind-toppled trees have rested on the roof. Their penalty for carelessly falling on our fortress of solitude was a sentence of firewood and cremation. For 75 winters, northwest winds have shaken the shack's sturdy bones, eliciting staccatos of creaks. A loose piece of tin fluttering noisily on the roof reminds us of another maintenance task.
Lately there has been talk of replacing the door, which was already old when installed. Years ago somebody tacked sheet metal over the rotting door's kickplate. The door, with the tonal quality of its nostalgic squeal when opened and closed, is our Stradivarius.
Wartime Retreat. The shack is a mirror of simpler times. But its construction happened when the world was simmering in violence. In early June 1940, the Nazis invaded France and by mid-month reached Paris. The war seemed a long way from east-central Minnesota, where a group of young men was running large timbers through the mill at Interstate Lumber in Chisago City. The beams being sawn to boards had been dismantled from a potato warehouse.
On July 3, while some of these Nelson men put up hay on the family farm, a son named Everett and a carpenter friend loaded the sawn lumber and $27 worth of shingles and nails onto a truck. They steered north for several hours before turning off the recently paved Highway 61 along the North Shore.
Early the next morning, another carpenter friend and Everett's mother, Miranda, and 18-year-old brother, Warren, left for the long drive north. Fred, the family patriarch, stayed home to milk cows and cut hay. The assembled crew worked hard in framing and fitting all the precut boards into place. It took a little better than a full day to complete the 14-by-15-foot structure. Warren formally christened it when he climbed into the newly constructed upper bunk that night. On the wall, in careful cursive strokes with a pencil, he wrote: "On July 4, 1940, this shack was built by Art, Raymond, Everett, Warren, and Miranda." The inscription remains to this day.
Why did they build a hunting shack so far from the family farm? To hunt deer these men had no choice but to head north. In Minnesota's farmland, deer hunting seasons were closed in 1923 due to low herd numbers, and they remained closed until 1945 when the first statewide, any-deer season was held.
Some 40 years earlier, this region around the shack had been heavily logged of mature red and white pines, and the slash burned. The result was a patchwork of aspen, birch, spruce, and fir with a shaggy layer of alder, dogwood, and willow. The forces of ax, saw, and fire removed a majestic pine forest and left ideal whitetail habitat.
More Relics. Within two years of the shack going up, two of the men went off to serve in World War II.
War or not, a crew of hunters headed to the shack each fall. During that time, a handful of local loggers used the shack while they worked in the woods, likely in winter. A small magazine photo of actress Betty Grable, a pinup celebrity of the era, was tacked to the wall for decades. The yellowed paper has only recently joined the ranks of dust.
Through the years, people penciled notes on the walls. Many read like scorecards: "1950: Ev 2 does, Ray 1 buck, Leonard 1 buck fawn, George 0." Over the next 25 years, rarely did the hunters return home without their limit of deer.
On deer shack mornings, the water buckets are often covered with a skim of ice. Three woodstoves have taken their turn in heating the shack. The current stove is a homemade affair, cut and welded from ¼-inch-thick pipeline pipe. The fire builder, never an upper-bunk sleeper, lays a scrap of birch bark and finely split cedar in the stove before touching it with a lit match. He adds more wood, and soon the woofing firebox calls the dallying men from their sleeping bag mounds.
The original tin washbasin on its plank shelf awaits a pour of hot water from the stove. Then hunters can splash the night off their faces. That act is followed by sips from a cup of night-black coffee.
During breakfast of eggs, bacon, and toast, the gang talks quietly about heading out to deer stands. We speak a language of localism that would baffle a newcomer. Place names have been assigned and put to memory by hunters intimate with the land. Long before GPS technology came along, natural features were given titles such as Raven's Ledge and Black Forest.
We are lucky to always have one or two folks who choose to cook instead of hunt. Between meals the cooks often stroll the woods. At day's end, the hunters return to a warm shack, which is thickly scented by a simmering supper. We gather around the original homemade table and benches. Mice, with their tireless incisors, etched a bevel edge on the tabletop. Long ago, a bored shack dweller took his knife and scratched a checkerboard on the table.
In the evening, all are drawn to the warm stove. Without electricity in the shack, candles are the preferred light source. Nothing softens shadows and facial wrinkles like candlelight. Under the glow, the old seem to shed the years, and the young lean in to soak in the wisdom of elders. If we need more light, we hang the hissing and smelly gas lantern above the table. Now is the time for reporting the day's happenings. Some stories merit retelling year after year. We listen again to tales of High Boy, a legendarily elusive buck. We enjoy jokes and remembrances of past hunts and wildlife encounters with moose, fishers, pine martens, mink, goshawks, ruffed grouse, spruce grouse, otters, foxes, wolves, scores of red squirrels, and, once, a wolverine.
While best recollected by the spoken word, remembrances are also scribbled in the shack's notebook. Many anonymous folks have visited and left notes such as this: "Nice shack! Like a small weathered museum of the past. Good to see people respect it. Love it here."
Falling in love with something means you will take care of it. Here, just west of Raven's Ledge, where a buck called High Boy continues to avoid us, we have become hopelessly smitten with both the deer shack and the land that anchors all.