Traditions start at zero. Someone does something and it turns out well, perhaps better than they expected. So, they do it again…and again…and again, until it seems a part of the natural order, inked on the calendar, planned for, and looked forward to year to year.
In time, as the tradition endures, it becomes an expectation in the timeline of our lives. It’s something that is regarded with anticipation and it’s something that becomes part of the fabric, as they say. Of course, we’re going to do that; we always have. Traditions transcend time and outlive individual participants.
Here is something that is early in our tradition: our third year is upcoming. It’s our deer camp. The wall tent is snugged in the northwest crook of a squared-off U-shaped cedar and honey locust windbreak. It’s protected there from the prevailing northwest winds. It’s remote in the sense that it is 18 miles from the nearest grocery store, restaurant and other town amenities. Our deer camp is located on an occasionally maintained, rarely graveled road that passes north-south just the other side of the west windbreak. It’s remote but not disconnected.
We snake an orange extension cord under the back of the tent to feed Lion Energy battery packs that run bulbs hung from the ridgepole with green zip ties. In the distant background, as a constant but not annoying sound, is the hum of a giant grain-dryer fan positioned next to a cluster of galvanized steel grain bins. Its whirring hum is an omnipresent white noise. A couple of hundred yards up the hill to the east, near cattle corrals and a sun-faded-tan farm shop, this spot is still used somewhat but not as much as it was when I was growing up here helping Dad with farm work.
Now, our deer camp snugs into the protected northwest corner. Some 300 yards down the pasture-grass slope from camp, the now-dry creek bed wends northwest to southeast through the family farm section, through a mix of grassy pasture and irrigated cornfields. This farm has been in the family since my great-grandfather, an early promoter of the county, acquired it in the late 1800s. When my grandfather saw it, he told his family that he wanted to be a farmer and a rancher, and our family course was thus set.
We’ve hunted here forever. I hunted it when we lived here as kids. After I moved away to start a career, I came back to hunt. I did the same after I married, and as we started a family. As our three boys grew, I brought them with me as I hunted the rolling hills, knowing that there are deer (mostly Whitetails) out there somewhere. There always are. Neighbors who have let us hunt their property, which consists mostly pasture and CRP, are key when it comes to deer season.
Our hunts usually involve getting up early; our alarms show a wake-up time starting with a “3.” I’d often drive, while others slept the not-quite two hours or so it took to get there while the sun began to lighten the eastern sky. We’d hunt all day, lunching on the tailgate, and sometimes taking a post-lunch nap in the pickup. We’d hunt until dark then drive the not-quite two hours or so back. Somewhere along the way, we wised up and stayed in a motel, even though the closest one was 20 miles either east or west from the farm. That moved our wake-up alarms to a more reasonable hour. But it was still motel living and restaurant eating, except for those tailgate lunches.
Camp Right There
Jack, our middle son, who has five kids of his own now, came up with the idea of camping right at the farm rather than driving there and back and rather than getting a motel. I had acquired camping gear, (Montana Canvas wall tents being the key factor) as well as tables, a Riley pellet stove, and a trailer to haul it. The gear was the start of Arterburn Outdoors. It’s the vehicle through which our sons, Hunter, Jack and Sam, and I host hunting camps. We pair with sponsor companies (Benelli firearms, Federal ammunition, Camp Chef, ALPS Outdoorz, White Duck Outdoors, Maven optics, etc.) for all the stuff that is needed for hunting and camping) and with outdoor writers.
We all meet in camp, which includes the wall tents as a social/dining hub, and we add a small city of White Duck Outdoors tents (well, eight of them) as sleeping quarters. We hunt and camp using sponsor products. The writers write about their experiences and, hopefully, the sponsors’ products. Camps like these were the best part of my former job as a communications dude (including media and public relations) for Cabela’s in its heyday.
The opportunity came for me to acquire the remaining camping gear from those days and I pieced together the rest of it with Camp Chef stoves, cast-iron cookware and kitchen gear; ALPS Outdoorz cots, chairs, sleeping pads and bags; Lion Energy battery packs and lights; you get the picture. And just like that, media hunting camps were back. (Photos and videos on the Arterburn Outdoors Facebook page will show you what we do.)
That’s also what led to our family deer camp. With a trailer-load of camping gear at our disposal that was used mainly from spring turkey season to upland and waterfowl season in the fall, why not use it for a family deer camp? That was Jack’s idea, and it took off from there.
Camp hinges on the 14-foot by 17-foot canvas wall tent. The first year we did it, Jack, his oldest son Cogan (then five) and I squeezed in three cots, a three-burner stove, a table and chairs and the ever-present Riley stove. Its hopper of gravity-fed wood pellets helped us fight off the November chill.
Nebraska’s deer season is in November, so the weather can vary from cool to cold, to very cold to full-blown winter. Last year, with forecasts calling for nighttime lows of 17, I added a propane heater to take off the chill, just in case. (We hardly used it.)
Jack and Cogan came back for the second weekend and brought Lincoln, then aged four. That’s when we added the 12-foot cook shack extension and moved cooking equipment, tables and chairs into that space to provide more living and sleeping space in the main tent. We have a propane fireplace for sitting out front on nice evenings, making S’mores (or sometimes just eating the chocolate, marshmallows and graham crackers individually and unheated).
The hunting? It’s still familiar. It features all the same landmarks we know: the big hill, the broken windmill, Dead-Dog Road. But Jack said from the start that he wanted deer camp to be about the whole experience: the camping and the adventure. Yes, we hunt. But it’s not the main thing. Jack has killed some nice bucks here over the years. Now, he’s just as happy shooting a doe as long as his sons are along to share the experience. It’s also about walking, stalking, waiting and learning perseverance and patience. It’s about learning to sit still, to be quiet and how to field-dress a deer. Take a kid hunting, they say.
Last year’s camp was the best so far and I expect them to go upward from here. Cathy, my wife, has been a part of our deer hunts for years. She’s braved cold and wind to scan from high points with a spotting scope, though she still opts for a motel room. Hunter and Sam each have a series of shoulder and European mounts from past hunts and are also here. Hunter’s girlfriend, Avery, new to the tradition, agreed with Cathy on the motel option, so Hunter made back-and-forth trips to town with them. That left more room for Sam to squeeze in another cot alongside Jack, Cogan and Lincoln. It was a full house. Other family members are still at home: Emily has her hands full with Cogan and Lincoln’s siblings, Quentin, Josie and Maddox. So, this tradition has many more steps—and years yet—to grow. Fortunately, I have an ace up my sleeve: a larger, 16-foot by 20-foot tent with a 12-foot cook shack extension.
No More 3 A.M.s
Alarms set for 3 a.m. something? Not anymore. We’re right there, able to step out the front door and start glassing. We don’t need to be out in the pre-dawn darkness, so we let the kids sleep in. We don’t mind the extra sleep either, though we’re usually in bed fairly early if Cogan and Lincoln wear out. Cocooned in good sleeping bags, they stay warm. That’s usually the first question Grandma Cathy asks in the morning: “Were you cold last night?” “No,” they say, their heads poking turtle-like from puffy bags.
If Cogan and Lincoln were in charge of grocery shopping for camp, the main staple would be hot chocolate. That’s my fault. Over the pre-grandkids years, I would set my alarm 30 minutes earlier to allow for filling individual Thermos bottles with hot chocolate for each of us. When you drank all yours, you were out for the day, so rationing was self-taught, though I usually brought an extra Thermos as a backup.
Now, I make hot chocolate on the spot. Meals are simple, as camp food should be. Bacon is a favorite, as it should be. Pancakes are easy. Cereal as a breakfast standby is standard; maybe oatmeal if it is requested. Pre-made sausage-bacon-egg breakfast burrito concoctions can be easily warmed. Cathy makes sandwiches for lunch and there are chips and Halloween-sized candy bars. There’s also last year’s deer jerky and sticks with cheese and crackers for snacks. Kid-favorite macaroni and cheese is easy to make in camp; while adult favorites of tuna and noodles, chili and stew are easy to make at home and re-heat in camp. We keep it simple.
The farm provides space for Cogan and Lincoln to roam and explore during daytime lulls in hunting. Cogan, who wears an orange hat year-round, shot his BB gun at pop cans. Jack brought their little motorbike. And we make one concession to modern convenience in deer camp. Deer season in Nebraska starts the second weekend in November, and November weekends mean Husker football. By extending his phone high on a tripod on the roof off a pickup, Hunter was able to get internet service. He streamed the game to Sam’s iPad, which was propped on the wheel well of the trailer and pulled the trailer to the front of camp for viewing. It was easier to see the small screen in the subdued lighting inside the tent, so we moved lock, stock and barrel. My brother John, who now owns the farm, and his son Tom stopped by to watch the game, but they declined the invitation to stay the night…something about warm beds at home.
Got a Doe
Before long at camp, Jack texted a photo of a deer, a doe. Cogan, wearing orange from his waist to the top of his head, beamed as he kneeled by the doe. (Lincoln was in camp with Grandma.) It was just what Jack wanted! We loaded up and headed out to help with the dragging and field dressing.
Jack had said if they found a nice, big buck they’d go after it, but they weren’t in the market for a mid-sized buck. However, he’s past that now; he wants to let them grow. It’s not about a trophy, he says. A doe hunt for the freezer and for Cogan to experience would be fine because it’s more about the experience, and the learning from spotting, stalking, using the wind and concealment. It’s also about sitting still and being quiet. There’s so much that comes into play in deer hunting, and all of it is worthy of being passed to the next generation.
That’s why, overall, it’s really about the experience and the tradition. It’s deer camp!