Dennis Anderson: 100 years on, Minnesota family's deer camp endures

A Korean War-era tent now serves as base, duct tape and all, of the 100-year-old deer hunting tradition of the Malvig family descendants.

Tradition often dictates a deer camp’s cadence and rhythms, and the Malvig camp in northwest Minnesota is no different.

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Dennis Anderson COLUMN MUG

Dennis Anderson

Before this year’s firearms deer season opener, its members have gathered in a ritual that bonds them in common purpose.

“Once a year ahead of the season,” said Doug Robbins, 64, “we get together to patch our tent with duct tape. Duct tape works better and lasts longer than anything else we’ve tried.”

Unusual in many respects, the Malvig outfit might be the longest continuously running deer camp in Minnesota.

Founded in 1917, the camp this year celebrates its 100th anniversary.

And at a time when most Minnesota whitetail hunters cozy up in shacks and cabins during what can be a very frigid November season, especially in the northern part of the state, the nine or so sportsmen who make up the Malvig camp, eat, sleep and play blackjack in a tent.

And not just any tent. A Korean War-era tent.

“The tent says ‘U.S. Navy’ on it,” Robbins said. “Originally, it didn’t have any windows or a door. That’s one improvement we’ve made over the years. We cut some windows into it, and installed a door.”

The Malvig bunch hunts on public land north of Four Town in the Beltrami Island State Forest. Nowadays, their tent stands nearly alone among canvas structures in that part of the North Woods during whitetail season.

But decades ago, tents were scattered all over that country during deer hunting, as would-be whitetail slayers attempted to place themselves as near to their quarry as possible, as cheaply as possible.

Camp founders Julius and Selmer Malvig — Robbins’ great-uncles — moved to northwest Minnesota in 1912, looking to farm. Five years later they started what this year became a century-long tradition when they hooked a horse team to a sleigh and headed toward the Red Lake Indian Reservation to chase deer.

Stout Minnesotans each, Julius and Selmer.

A few years later, seeking more game, they switched hunting locations by boarding a train in Gully, Minn., and traveling to Bemidji and then on to Kelliher, Minn., where they holed up in a hotel during deer season.

“After that they moved around a little more to hunt, but they always stayed in a tent,” said Robbins, who grew up in Minneapolis and now farms near Gully. “They were all farmers, or nearly all farmers, and their one vacation each year was during deer season.”

Records dating to the camp’s beginning are incomplete. But the Malvig crew made news in the 1930s when member Pete Rutkowski felled a huge buck that was said at the time to bear the largest nontypical rack ever recorded in Minnesota.

Robbins joined the camp in 1973, not many years after graduating from Southwest High School in Minneapolis. By then, Selmer Malvig was in ill health and had quit hunting. But Julius entered the woods that year, aided by a cane. The next spring he died, and a short while later, Robbins took over as the camp’s head honcho.

Today he and his brother, Rich Robbins, 54, a Minneapolis Realtor, are the camp’s only blood descendants from Selmer and Julius.

“We’re pretty much meat hunters,” Rich Robbins said. “There have been some lean times in the last five years or so. But generally, anyone who wants a deer will get one.”

In addition to the tent-patching party, the group makes a scouting trip to their hunting area about two weeks before the opener. Then the whole bunch arrives on the Friday before the season’s first day to pitch the tent and organize the camp.

“It takes about 3 hours for four of us to put it up,” Doug said. “But if there are six people helping, it takes five hours. Too many opinions slow the process.”

Among equipment hauled by pickup and trailer to the camp site is a barrel stove that dates back decades. Also brought in are a gas stove for cooking, chairs, a table, a barbecue grill, cookware and three bales of straw.

The straw is spread on the ground under what will be the rear of the tent. Plastic is laid over the straw, and the area becomes what in the tent passes for a bedroom.

Many times over the years, Malvig camp members have suffered subfreezing temperatures. To ward off the cold, insulation has been added to the walls and ceiling.

Occasionally, a camp member suggests replacing the tent. In continuous use since about 1960, the 16-by-16 enclosure is only the second such structure deployed in the camp’s 100-year history.

“We talk about buying a new one, but we never do,” Doug Robbins said. “Everything we do is built on tradition, and the old tent is part of our tradition.”

Year to year, not everything stays the same, however.

Camp members who in the 1950s and ‘60s arrived in sedans and two-wheel-drive pickups pulling trailers have been replaced by hunters who today pilot four-wheel-drive trucks and SUVs — and who get stuck less often.

Also different is the evening entertainment, which commences after dinner dishes from the tent’s lone table are cleared and washed. It’s then that adult beverages are poured and cards are dealt.

“That much has changed,” Doug Robbins said. “In the early days of the camp, the hunters played poker and drank whiskey. Now we play blackjack and drink wine.”

Wine. Wine.

Pray Julius and Selmer never hear of it.

“It takes about 3 hours for four of us to put it up. But if there are six people helping, it takes five hours. Too many opinions slow the process.” Doug Robbins, on setting up the deer camp tent

Dennis Anderson is a columnist for the Star Tribune.

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Colten Bartholomew is a reporter and columnist for River Valley Media Group. Colten is the college sports coordinator for the La Crosse Tribune.

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