American Deer Camps: A Dying Tradition

American Deer Camps: A Dying Tradition

Tom Heberlein never missed a deer camp from 1973 through 2019, but COVID-19 concerns caused him to break that streak in November 2020.

Heberlein, 75, stayed home rather than risk his health by confining himself with his buddies for five nights inside his northern Wisconsin shack along with a nine-hour, 550-mile roundtrip in a compact SUV. But the retired professor brushes off that disruption to his 47-year run as a camp regular and longtime boss. He thinks his deer camp faces bigger, less obvious, and more enduring threats than a virus.

Heberlein knows those forces won’t get lost in the surrounding Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest or be deterred by the 2-mile gap between his shack and the power line. The shack built by his Uncle Carl in 1948 with wood from an abandoned lumber camp stands strong, yet  change subtly approaches Heberlein’s 40 acres.

Sustaining Ties
When Heberlein looks eastward down Conley Road from his shack’s driveway and its faded blue “Heberleins” sign, he notes the Matuszaks, Graunkes, Hansons and Perdiews all have family-based deer camps within the next mile. In contrast, time has rendered Heberlein’s family sign inaccurate. “Heberleins” is no longer plural, and he sees the irony and symbolism. He’s the last of his bloodline, and few traditional Northwoods deer camps survive without a family at their core.

Heberlein has kept his “Old Tamarack” camp alive mostly through friends and colleagues since his father, Charlie, transferred the shack and its land to him in 1976. Since Charlie Heberlein’s final deer hunt in 1986, only two Heberleins besides the professor have hunted deer at Old T: nephews Jim Simonson in 2004 and T.J. MacFarlane in 2010.

Since ’86, the camp’s deer-season roster has fluctuated unpredictably. Friends and colleagues, after all, have their own family obligations tugging them elsewhere, and they don’t shrug off frictions that inevitably arise inside a shack’s cramped, isolated quarters.

Heberlein, a retired rural sociologist from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, often studied hunters and hunting trends during his career. He assumes his neighbors on the Conley Road will sustain their camps long after he’s gone, but concedes he lacks the data to back it up. Universities and wildlife agencies spend more time and money studying deer herds and their habitats than they do researching deer camps and those who sustain them.

“I suspect we know far more about the social dynamics of wolf packs than we do about the social dynamics of deer camps,” Heberlein said. “But family binds make it easier to hold deer camps together. My closest neighbors, the Matuszaks, have like 26 cousins who hunt or have some interest in hunting. Meanwhile, I’m trying to hold my camp together with three friends who work in Ohio, New York, and Wisconsin.”

Even blood ties, however, can’t thwart every social threat to American deer camps, which rose to prominence in the mid- to late 1900s. Ironically, their decline started about when whitetail numbers peaked in the late 1980s through the 1990s.

Obvious Threats
A principal driver is declining hunter numbers the past 30 years across whitetail country as hunting’s biggest population—baby boomers, those born from 1946 to 1964—aged out of the group. Wisconsin’s gun-deer hunters peaked at 694,712 in 2000, but sagged to 569,203 by 2020, an 18% decline. Michigan fared worse, sending 837,000 deer hunters afield in 1998 but only 554,000 in 2020, a 34% decline. And according to surveys by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the nation’s overall hunting population peaked in 1982 at 17 million. The 2016 survey estimated that number at 11.5 million, a 32% plunge.

As Heberlein notes, however, deer camps aren’t named, numbered, and systematically tracked in county, state or national registries. Some camps pass down through families, some sell to unrelated hunting families, and some simply fade away as new landowners put the property to other uses. Therefore, we can’t chart deer-camp numbers or plot their decline on a timeline.

We can, however, pinpoint what ails them. In Wisconsin alone, large private forestlands open to recreation declined by nearly 33% from 1999 to 2015. Why? As the forest-products industry increasingly marketed pulp and wood globally in the late 1900s, companies nationwide often found it more profitable to break up and sell their vast corporate forests. Those sales ended longtime deer-camp leases by transferring land to entities that forbade hunting or creating conservation easements which kept the land open to hunters but not their tents, campers, or deer shacks.

Bow Season Impacts
Meanwhile, many hunters now prefer hunting closer to home in nicer weather by choosing to hunt their state’s lengthy archery seasons. In Ohio, bowhunters using crossbows and compounds matched the seven-day gun season’s harvest in 2011, and have exceeded that traditional gun-season kill ever since. The National Deer Association’s 2021 report shows archers took 24% of Ohio’s deer kill in 2002, but their contribution jumped to 39% in 2012 and 48% in 2019. Ohio’s numbers are hardly unique. That autumn, archery deer hunters accounted for 63% of the kill in New Jersey, 53% in Connecticut, 48% in Massachusetts, and 44% in Illinois.

“In 2015 we surveyed those who quit gun hunting to learn why they got out,” said Mike Tonkovich, the deer program administrator at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. “In many cases, it’s older hunters avoiding colder conditions. Each reason might sound small, but when you add them up they created a snowball that became an archery-season avalanche over the gun season.”

Tonkovich also said few Ohio gun-hunters hunt more than four days, while those using crossbows and compounds have four months of opportunities. Further, bowhunters can hunt the rut, and they enjoy greater access to nearby rural-suburban lands, where they feel safer and face less competition.

“Our hunters basically asked us why they should go to deer camp in December when they can get all the deer they want close to home in October and November,” Tonkovich said. “Plus, they can hunt before and after work, they don’t burn vacation time, and they might get a crack at a mature buck.”

Chris White, Pat Durkin, and Tom Heberlein at their Wisconsin deer camp.

Matters of Convenience
In addition, deer camps continue battling complex, wide-ranging, more subtle threats from society’s myriad conveniences. Whether it’s in-home entertainment, faster highways, smoother backroads, or reliable cars and trucks with automatic four-wheel-drive, the more conveniences people have, the less often they gather regularly or for long outside their home.

Those forces aren’t exclusively impacting deer hunting. Robert D. Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard University, cited similar convenience-driven factors in his 2000 book “Bowling Alone” in explaining Americans’ growing preference to stay home weeknights and weekends. Putnam documented a nationwide decline in volunteers and memberships in civic organizations and religious groups between 1965 and 2000. Those declines hit nearly every organized group, including the Rotary, Kiwanis, labor unions, veterans’ organizations, Boy Scouts, Red Cross, Knights of Columbus, and his book’s namesake, bowling leagues.

Putnam cited technology as a main driver in that change—especially televisions, computers and the internet—all of which “individualize” leisure time. And that was 20 years ago. Those forces are likely stronger today, given the saturation of mobile devices like tablets and smartphones, and on-demand, live-streamed programming.

In contrast, Northwoods deer camps 40 to 80 years ago were seldom convenient. Reaching them was often an adventure. Heberlein’s uncle and friends rode a train to northern Wisconsin until the late 1940s because they couldn’t rely on roads or their automobiles to get there. Even after state Highway 13 went through 3 miles east of the shack, a trip down the Conley Road remained so treacherous that Carl Heberlein and his buddy Jerry Simonson often parked near the highway and rented a horse to drag their gear into camp.

They typically arrived two days before the opener and packed out a day after the season. Heberlein said those getaways typically lasted a week to 10 days through the 1960s, with the shack at full occupancy. Deer camp meant long holidays and extended vacations. And because reaching the shack required a long, slow, laborious journey, few hunters rushed to retrace their routes home.

Transient Hunters
By the 1970s, however, hunters in distant cities could leave work late Friday afternoon and hit the road, typically reaching camp before midnight. They could also quit hunting by early afternoon Sunday, and listen to an NFL game on the radio while driving home in time for dinner. Then they’d get a full night’s rest and return to work Monday morning.

Better vehicles and highways also lured hunters to Western states or Canada, where they spent vacation time and gas money chasing elk, moose, mule deer, or pronghorns. Convenient travel and recreational alternatives also hastened turnover rates for deer-camp members. Heberlein’s camp logs reveal at least 26 different deer hunters at Old T from 1974 through 2019. Only eight individuals showed up over 10 times, and another eight were one-and-done. His camp averaged four to five hunters through 2008, but only three since 2009.

Cellular phones also connect deer hunters so reliably to the outside world that they can’t escape its demands. Heberlein recalls a friend being summoned home to clear his driveway 180 miles away soon after a 2014 snowstorm.

“His wife worked at the hospital and had to get to work,” Heberlein shrugged. “He hadn’t shown her how to operate their new snowblower. If that had happened before cell phones or the new cell-phone tower up there, he could have kept hunting. We even have internet at the shack now. The isolation we knew before cell phones gave Old T a timeless quality. If not for the blaze-orange coats and hats, 1995 seemed no different than 1975 or ’55.”

Just down the road from Heberlein’s shack, Ron Matuszak, 48, co-owns his clan’s 100-year-old deer shack and “back 40” with six family members. Matuszak said they never felt cut off from the outside world. It just wasn’t handy.

Before cell phones, the camp’s 12 to 16 hunters drove 8 miles to Mellen to wait outside a pay-phone booth to call home. He also recalls a sheriff’s deputy driving into camp to tell them a family member had died. And his father recalls a hunter stopping by Nov. 22, 1963, to tell them President Kennedy had been assassinated.

The Matuszaks have also long tuned in local radio stations, which devote time each evening for “deer hunter roundups.” Before cell-phones, radio hosts routinely broadcast messages phoned in from home, including birth announcements, death notices, birthday wishes, bad poetry, and grocery items to pick up on their way home. Today’s hosts still read big-buck and deer totals scribbled by deer camps and individuals, but modern roundups are mostly entertainment, not lifelines to home.

Recruiting Memories
Matuszak and Heberlein said deer camps also changed with the times, especially when members noticed threats to their existence. Their forebears, for instance, generally didn’t bring youngsters to camp. Heberlein, however, regularly invites young and old alike to camp, and the Matuszaks have an open-door policy for their clan.

“My dad realized in the mid-1980s that they had to bring me and my cousins along or the camp would die out,” Matuszak said. “My grandfather’s generation considered deer camp their vacation from everything, including their kids. Even my dad just went to have a good time. I can’t remember him ever bringing a deer home. They’d play cards, smoke cigars and cigarettes, and drink some beer. They hunted a little bit, but they never sat for hours on stands like we do.”

Heberlein doesn’t expect deer camps to vanish from America’s deer woods, but thinks each one needs multiple generations sustaining them. He described those needs in the foreword of the 2001 book “Legendary Deer Camps” by Robert Wegner:

“(Deer camps need) old men to tell the stories and young men to sit and listen with wide eyes. It needs some serious hunters to make the new stories, and some camp men to make sure the floors are swept and the dishes washed…This is the time once a year when a group of men—and now and then, some women—come together to tell stories of the past, and to talk of deer and of snow and the forest. To brag. To share…And then the old men die, and the boy who just last year it seems shot his first deer becomes the lead hunter, making the plans, and walking up on a deer in the thick forest when all else fails. The old cabin is replaced by the new, but the camp remains.”

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