The Deer Camp

A Memoir of a Father, a Family and the Land that Healed Them // Illustrations by G. Odmark

This excerpt is used with the permission of Bloomsbury. Copyright © Dean Kuipers, 2019.

We got out there for Thanksgiving, and the oaks were already bare and the sky cold and brilliant gray. As we stood around the Gonzo blind, a boggy wet breeze fluttered the few gold leaves that were left on the aspens and the yellow-bronze leaves of the beech trees. Leaves were banked up against the trees in ankle-deep drifts. We wore canvas jackets and gloves and stocking caps, and our words puffed out in little nebulas.

Most of the aspens were small but we came across a towering mature aspen about fifty feet tall that beavers had chewed halfway through. The beavers had felled a whole row of them so the tops fell into the bog. They chewed them into sections bitten to pencil points on both ends and dragged them down their slides. It was only my second time on Dad’s deer camp, and I’d never seen this corner before. The twelve-gauge was heavy and unfamiliar in my hands.

I watched the remaining gold leaves shuddering on the aspens and I thought of Van Gogh’s The Mulberry Tree, which writhes before your eyes… While we talked, the leaves burst off the trees with the least touch of fall wind, and the forest constantly unmade and remade itself before us. Writhing and stripping down.

“The prime habitat is already gone in here,” Brett was saying. “Aunt Sally took a picture of me here when I shot that deer in ’91 and this was all understory as thick as dog hair and just a few old mature trees. They logged it about five or eight years before you bought it and now it’s been fifteen years and everything’s shaded out. Pretty soon you could get back in here and take them down again for pulp and they would sucker like crazy and then we’d have some really good grouse and woodcock habitat again.” He’d been talking like this on the whole walk out.

“If they screwed it up, nothing would ever grow back,” said Dad.

Brett looked at me and said, “And this is why we’ve never been involved up here.”

He turned back to Dad. “Damn, Dad, I just — look around! The guy who owned this logged it, and look at how it filled right in. The aspens are clonal, they — ”

The trees boiled over.

Drubbity drubbity drubbit. A ruffed grouse thundered out of the leaf litter. Everybody jumped out of their boots. It doesn’t matter how prepared you are; you can be staring at a bird at the end of a dog’s pointing nose, and when it flushes you’re still going to jump. In this case, we didn’t have a dog and everyone’s hair stood on end. What looked like a flying fistful of bracken fern twisted madly through the trees, and Brett and I shot simultaneously and down it went. I never got my cheek on the stock and shot over it by at least five feet. It had been fifteen years since I’d touched this shotgun and I didn’t even remember how to load it: back on the porch I had twisted the cleaning nut off the end of the loading tube and sat at the picnic table trying to figure out how the shells went in and Brett stuck his finger in the loading slot and said, “In here, dummy. Jaayzus. Want me to shoot ’em for you, too?”

He had. Brett found his bird in the dry leaves and walked toward us holding it tenderly and smiling a smile I’ll never forget. He had been waiting a full decade for that grouse. The beech tree above us roared.

“This changes things,” I said, touching the bird’s warm plumage.

“I knew they were in here,” said Brett.

A half hour later Joe shot another one as it erupted out of one of Vern’s neck-high spruce trees on the west side, over by First Field. We had two fresh grouse to go with canned baked beans and burgers Dad had brought, and Joe let him cook even though Joe actually was a cook and had worked at a hip diner on Kalamazoo’s downtown mall. We’d already had a big family meal with the Kuipers clan, but this was our real Thanksgiving. It was one of the best of my life, just the four of us sitting at the table. We left the curtains open and watched the darkness fall on the aspens and the bright red of the swamp maples beyond Cabin Field. The sweet meat tasted faintly of sandy muck and gray dogwood berries and it was perfect.

“Are we going out tomorrow to look at other places to buy?” I said. “Because I’d rather just go across the road to the federal land and do this some more.”

“Me, too. We’re just wasting our time looking at other places,” Brett barked. The words burst out of him like he couldn’t hold them back. “We got everything we need right here.”

“Okay, okay,” said Dad, calming him. “Vern and Jack found good places.”

“Not as good as this, for what we do. None of the places we’ve seen so far are anywhere near as good as this, with all this federal land here, and with this great cabin on it. We’re far from a river, but if you really look you see that this place has crazy good habitat.”

Joe agreed, saying, “The cabin makes a huge difference. Most of the places we’ve seen are either some Chicago millionaire palaces or just shit-shacks.”

“We’re not seeing lots of birds or big deer here because this place needs work,” continued Brett.

“We got pine plantations that are about useless and miles of sand. But we can change that. Dad, I know you don’t want to hear that.”

“It doesn’t matter if I want to hear it or not,” said Dad. “Nothing will grow in that sand.”

“I’m serious,” said Brett, the cords standing out on his neck. “I’m not going to commit to this place and then find out I’m not allowed to cut down a funky old Scots pine or plant a crabapple. I have to be able to come up here on my own and run the dog. It’s not a deer museum.”

“I don’t like being scolded, Brett,” said Dad, his face clouding.

“But something has to change. Today is one of the best days we’ve had in way over a decade, and there’s no reason it can’t be like this all the time…”

Dean Kuipers has written about the field of environmental politics and the human-nature relationship for decades. He earned an English degree from Kalamazoo College and is the author of Burning Rainbow Farm and Operation Bite Back. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Outside, The Atlantic, Orion, Rolling Stone and The Guardian. He lives in Los Angeles.

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