As a young boy, deer camp was always a mysterious and sacred rite of passage, a self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuated by the addition of the adolescent males of the clan upon reaching the ripe age of 14. For many of us, this would be the first time we would be fully separated from all female influence and subjected to the intricacies of male bonding. Though forming these bonds would prove primitive and ritualistic in nature, we would all grow to learn that they were a necessary step in the development of the male mind. Lost on our innocence, were the ramifications of this extraordinary life event. With neither care nor appreciation, we the youth, would recklessly accept our first invitation, not knowing that our actions or inactions were about to be scrutinized and evaluated by the family elders. Alas our very futures moving from “gathers” to “hunters” were about to be determined.
Unaware were we that the seasoned adult males of the family would begin to get a rabid look in their eye around mid September, knowing that deer camp preparations were already underway. The importance and organization of said event, was part of an unspoken centuries old code, that’s complete understanding was reserved for the leadership. At our tender age, it was not apparent the level of planning that was necessary to insure an event of this magnitude was successful. A full appreciation of the experience, would be something not realized until many, many more years had past.
To the anointed leader, the obvious logistics associated with this most noble of endeavors are mind-boggling. Hundreds of minute details must be organized in military like precision for a deer camp to be successful. Often an almost overwhelming laundry list of critical tasks rest squarely on the shoulders of the individual offering up facilities or simply inviting everyone "upta camp”. Beyond human comprehension, the most dedicated (foolish) sportsmen among us will accept this leadership role year after year. These poor lost souls most likely enjoy punishing themselves and sinking into the depths of martyrdom.
While certainly not for the faint of heart and usually an utterly thankless job, the leader profits from the fruits of his labors in the form of small gifts or tokens bestowed by the camp rabble. These are most likely but not limited to left behind camp beahs, cans of sardines, salted meats and mason jars filled with pickled products. Also not to be undervalued is the camp's leaders first pick of place to sleep. While this may seem a trivial point, a week of sleeping under the camp's kitchen table, so you aren't stepped on (or much worse) in the middle of the night, may change your mind.
Any deer camp can be judged by its quality and quantity of food. Though some leaders will attempt to organize some degree of rough meal planning, ultimately there will end up being enough consumable food for double your anticipated stay. The discussion of food brings with it an important consideration. To technically classify any item on the deer camp menu, as "food" is likely to be a stretch of that definition. I suppose before it was pickled, smoked, wrapped in bacon, covered in cheese and then deep fat fried it may have at one time been a substance containing some nutritional value. To offer a glimpse into the depths we will sink in our attempts to clog our arteries, I will share that it is a common accepted practice at deer camp to never throw out the morning congealed mass of bacon grease. It has been determined to be a great spread on toast and biscuits should you run low on butter. Contrary to what the doctors and health professionals tell you a week of eating nothing but cheese curls, pig’s feet and sausage links will do little to effect your overall health. In fact, it will lubricate your intestinal tract and speed weight loss!
To insure that you continue to be on the "short" list of invitees asked to return to next season’s deer camp, it pays to remember a few rules and regulations related to the provisions. First, double-check your donated grocery items. It is a sad family fact, that my uncle Ned once made the mistake of bringing broccoli to deer camp . . . well obviously he was never invited back. Second, camp coffee was meant to be drank black from a mug 1/2 washed and still lingering with the after taste of dish detergent. This "party starter" is almost guaranteed to insure you arrive to the outhouse well ahead of anyone foolish enough to not be a coffee drinker. Lastly, repeat after me . . . light beer has no place at deer camp. If the sunsets and you aren't drinking the regular stuff you may as well pack up your panties and go home.
It is an accepted camp practice, that anyone who actually manages to shoot a deer immediately becomes the camp "bitch". This term is of course meant in the most affectionate sense. An undervalued but most necessary of positions, it is bestowed on the individual "lucky" enough to shoot a deer. Immediately they become the anointed person responsible managing all camp cooking and cleaning functions. Categorized as a necessary evil, we always breath a sigh of relief when this person identifies them self and the position is filled.
Age does have its privileges, as typically the younger deer camp participants are the targets of practical jokes. Jokes can range from the funny belly chuckle to the outright hysterical, tears running down my face, please stop my abs hurt, full on I am glad not to be in your shoes experience. The camp classics include, hiding a box of tampons or maxi pads in the backpack of camp "newbies", lighting bodily functions and cheating at cards. Somehow these activities have always seems to provide days of off the cuff comments and entertainment. Why cannot be easily understood and I am sure could be studied by anthropologists for decades.
Overheard at deer camp . . . “If I stay one more night, I might as well stay the winter”. It never fails that every year some poor soul has to leave the festivities of camp early. For these unfortunates, God has apparently chosen to punish, my sympathies are certainly with them. The excuses run for work to kids and everything in between. No matter the excuse, these "quitters" are always sorely missed at camp.
Eventually even for the dedicated sportsman, life will force him to return to civilization an echo of reality that states that eventually all good things must come to an end. Knowing this inevitable circumstance, Sunday breakfast always seems to be a somber affair. The once bright electric spark of excitement now seems dimmer as everyone contemplates the fact that another year will need to elapse before next season’s deer camp. With a happy yet heavy hearted hugs, back slaps and hardy handshake good byes are administered to family and friends. As the hordes climb into their 4x4s and prepare for the long rides home we long to return to this place that houses a lifetime of memories.