The cabin sat alone on the edge of the mountain. For most of the year it stood unused and empty: its roof stacked heavy with snow in the winter, its weathered sides fading to gray in the spring and summer sun. Yet the cabin was not forlorn; it was not abandoned to simply decay and collapse, its remains consumed by the forest surrounding it. No, it was cared for. The cabin was loved. Every autumn its chimney began to breath smoke once more. Its darkened windows would fill with light when I pulled into the driveway on those cold November nights. Its walls reverberated with laughter and voices telling tales that had been told a thousand times before. This was deer camp, and for me and thousands of hunters across the country, it is the greatest place on earth.
Deer camps have a long and storied history throughout the country. They’re found almost everywhere, from the thick pine forests and hardwood ridges of New England; to the agricultural fields and spotty tree lines of the Midwest; to the open prairies and high, rugged peaks of the West. A place where hunters go to hunt. The camps themselves may vary in construction from cabins to trailers and even wall tents, but deer camps have some near-universal commonalities. The checkered tablecloth, the old photo albums and logbooks, and the long meatpole out back are ubiquitous, as are the traditions. Deer camps are often owned by one family and frequented by their closest friends or hunting partners. They play the same games, tell the same stories, eat the same meals, and hunt the same areas year after year. Like sailors at sea believing that some failure to abide by tradition will cause a voyage to fail, hunters view any deviation from customs as bad luck for the upcoming hunting season. Tree stands and hunting spots at deer camp are used time and time again, so often they get their own names like “Old Faithful” and “10-Point Ridge.” And everyone knows who’s going to what spot before the sun rises on opening day.
There is a grace to deer camp—an almost holy reverence for the camp and the land around it that goes beyond just the deer. The hunting at a particular camp doesn’t even have to be very good for a hunter to still want to go there. In longstanding camps, the places hunters go were once walked by their father or grandfather, once hunted by men who passed on long ago. Yet the trails they walked and the deer they hunted remain, a monument that remains at the heart of the deer camp. It’s a place where filling your freezer becomes less important than simply being in the woods. A place where filling your tag is less important then helping kids and old men fill theirs. Deer camp is a place where what sticks with us the longest are not the successful hunts but rather the time with our family and friends. It is a beautiful thing.
Deer camp is a prime example of how hunting is much more than just killing. It is a place where a successful hunting season has nothing to do with the inches of antler harvested or the pounds of meat gathered. No, deer camp is about camaraderie and enjoying the bonds we create through the sport of hunting. If you don’t have a deer camp, don’t have a place to share traditions and hunting stories with like-minded individuals, then you should go out and make your own. If you have the means, get yourself the land, build a cabin, and start your own traditions. If you don’t have the means, then improvise. Deer camp doesn’t have to be anything special. It can be made using an outfitter tent, a repurposed shed or fish house, or even a buddy’s den. Fill it up with some good friends, cold beer, and good food, then plan on going hunting the next day. The rest will take care of itself. Wherever hunters gather, wherever they come to break away from the monotony of the everyday world to share in and form traditions, a deer camp will be born.