I knew I’d done my job as a father right when my 3-year-old fearlessly stepped out the door into the inky black night, stomped to the designated tree, and attempted to piss the letter “E” into the snow.
One of the more unsung challenges of parenting is the inherent lack of validation. There’s no report card for dads. No gold medals. No performance reviews at the end of the quarter. But here, at my son’s very first deer camp, I could see a tiny glimpse of what a job well done might look like: A curious young man, comfortable outside and confident in his growing capabilities and interests, all set against the simple backdrop of a log cabin in the woods.
When I was growing up, our family deer camp was more than just a place. It was a concrete representation of our family legacy and shared values, a teaching ground for life’s greatest lessons, and a launching pad for me as a man. It was also home to some of the fondest memories of my life.
Driving the truck north 12 hours earlier, with my son and father alongside me, I quietly prayed that today might mark the beginning of the same for my son.
A deer camp, first of all, requires a building. This one has four log walls and no electricity, a cement pad, an ancient wood burning stove, six hissing, wall-mounted propane lamps, two cots, an old leather couch, and 37 years of mildew, smoke stains, and stories. Mostly stories.
I first saw this little log cabin in the woods, Kenroven as we call it, when I was about 3 years old. I don’t remember that first trip, but what I do remember from those early days comes back to me in little snippets, fuzzy yet vivid, like old home videos on tape.
I remember hopping out of my grandpa’s Explorer, the smell of pines overwhelming to the senses, and immediately urging GP, as we called him, to walk with me to the nearby field. As I knew he would, my grandfather pointed out each sappy rub or kicked-up scrape on the ground, each new scrap of sign further exaggerating my wild hopes for the upcoming hunts. I remember anxiously waiting at midday for the other hunters to return and the tightening in my chest when the sound of boots on the deck finally materialized. I remember sitting close to the fire, a small boy among men, and reveling in each and every tale—Steve’s sleep walking, Grandpa’s big 7, the infamous slap from Aunt Susie after Dad shot his buck.
I remember listening to this circle of stories for hours and marveling at the antlers on the wall and staring at the photos taped to the doors. The old saying goes, “If these four walls could talk…” Well, these ones did. The question now was whether my son would hear them.
Everett had heard plenty of these stories too. Now he could create his own.
We arrived that late December afternoon to a scene straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, the quaint log home tucked into a fold in the green forest, the cabin roof and pine boughs draped in a blanket of snow. I lifted Everett out of his car seat and before his feet touched the ground he was running. Off into the pine rows first, then to the old plywood blind, and finally to the tall rectangular building he quickly and unpleasantly came to realize was the outhouse. All of this before I finished unpacking the truck.
I let out a deep breath, looked around, and smiled. “Man, it feels good to be back,” I said to no one in particular. We say this every single time we return, so frequently it could come off as cliche if it weren’t for the fact that we’re so goddamn earnest in our affections. Deer camp, I realized then, was just as much a feeling as a place.
We got our gear situated, a fire kindled in the stove, and the standard deer camp lunch of salami, cheese, and mustard sandwiches into our bellies. Priority number one then was to set off for our first tour of the grounds.
We walked the field, no rubs or scrapes to be seen, raced through the pines again, and finally ended at my father’s old blind at the edge of the swamp. Everett hopped in, tested the chair, and pretended to aim a gun out the window. “Let’s play hide and seek Grandpa!” he shouted much too loud for hunting season. I cringed.
My son ran squealing into the woods and hid behind a tree, right next to the main trail my father depends on deer to venture down. This would be a first for our deer camp and likely not conducive to hunting success. I raced to a tree of my own. You’ve got to play the long game, I reminded myself.
Several hours later, with the sun starting to fall on the horizon, we set off in the other direction for the evening sit. This would be Everett’s first “real” hunt, with Grandpa carrying his crossbow and the rest of us tagging along to watch. If somehow the miracle of all miracles occurred and a blind, deaf, and dumb buck appeared in range, an arrow would fly.
Everett wore a blue down parka, black snow pants, and a men’s large camo vest draped over top like a dress. He shuffled through the snow, practically swimming in his outfit, as we side-stepped across a bridge and over to the small food plot we’d carved into the pines. “I see deer tracks!” he exclaimed. We high-fived and I pointed out to him where the deer had fed the night prior and where a buck had rubbed his antlers on a sapling along the edge of the clearing. Everett practically glowed with excitement. I did too.
The three of us crammed into a nearby pop-up blind and settled in side by side. Before we knew it, it was primetime. If there was going to be a miracle, it would be now. I coached my son to move his head slowly when scanning the woods, to keep his hands beneath the walls of the blind, and to whisper quietly if he had to say something. “Any minute now, it could happen buddy,” I reminded him. He nodded with an eager smile as thick white snowflakes drifted down around us.
Then, in a flash, he leapt to his feet, stuck his head completely out the front opening of the blind, flipped his face up to the falling snow with his mouth wide open, and stuck out his tongue. “I got one!” he screamed.
We sat later that night around the wood burning stove, George Strait crooning softly on the radio, propane lamp casting antler shadows across the walls. Everett was wrapped in his sleeping bag on the couch, while his grandpa regaled him with one tall hunting tale after another. Everett listened intently then asked for more, and more, and then just one more, until finally his tiny eyelids fell shut mid-punchline on one of my dad’s favorite standbys.
I was still awake an hour later, lying on the couch next to my son, listening to that same hiss and pop and crack of the fire that I’d fallen asleep to so many nights before. I wondered if Everett would remember this someday. Would he love it as I had?
Looking back on it now, I have to wonder, why is it that we want so desperately for our children to follow in our footsteps?
Is it because we want to somehow relive these things again for ourselves, reaching for a thread of our own lost youth? Is it a selfish desire for our own future, a parental push in the direction of what we in fact want to do moving forward? Or is it that, in a world filled with so many uncertainties, these moments from our past are one of the few things we can trust, the one gift we can give our kids with full confidence?
I didn’t have an answer then. I don’t have one now. But what I did have was my son beside me and those four cabin walls wrapped around us both.
It was enough.