When I opened the door to this column a couple of weeks ago, I was hoping a number of you would walk through and enlighten me with insight and tales of your deep camp — Wisconsin or Minnesota version, it didn’t matter.
Yes, the physical structure of such camp and the infinite wisdom shared inside those walls.
A 75-year-old gentleman from Onalaska via Rochester via Prentice, Wis., named Dick Larson answered the call — and then some. Larson, you see, sent me a 1,700 word reply (that’s a story length that raises the eyebrows of my editor, even for long-winded me) that I simply have to share parts of. I think you’ll enjoy them.
We’ll get to that in a minute.
You can tell Larson, a salesman for Scott Paper for much of his career, has a way with words (lots of words) as he even did some freelance writing for various publications. In his “note” to me, he spun a story of a 60-plus-year white-tailed deer hunting career that needs to be shared. Or at least parts of it.
So share I will, with tidbits of Larson’s life, his travels, his deer shacks, his hunts and his kids, all interwoven into one column that hopefully is of respectable length. That, insiders know, is open to interpretation — mine.
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When you read this, we’ll be several days into Wisconsin’s gun-deer season and you will likely have shared some stories, and created new ones, of your own. I hope you enjoy Larson’s.
His story begins before he was allowed to hunt, as in when he was 10. These are his words that he wrote to me, in italics:
“As far back as I can remember my family deer hunted. We moved back to Wisconsin in 1950 from Chicago. I was 4 at the time. We didn’t have a cabin or anything, we just gathered together opening morning at one or another’s house and had plans made to drive deer for the day. At a young age, I can remember not being able to go hunting, but at home we set up a chair by the breakfast window where I could watch our north field. If I spotted something, my mother would grab the loaded rifle in the corner and shoot from the porch. I never did see anything, but I spent the entire day there until it got too dark to shoot, sitting on that chair hoping against hope for the big one to start across our pasture or field,” Larson wrote.
When I read “hoping against hope,” I knew that Larson shared an undeniable passion for deer hunting before even getting a true taste of it. For those approximately 560,000 deer hunters in the woods during the nine-day gun hunt, you understand what I mean. It’s something that’s hard to explain to those that don’t hunt, even within my own family as my grown daughters still ask if I “caught anything” when I return home from a hunting trip. Gulp.
Larson, who along with his wife of nearly 50 years, Joan, have two sons and a daughter of their own. Larson loved mentoring his kids — and others — through deer hunting adventures as much as the hunt itself.
First, however, he was just beginning on a lifetime of hunting adventures — and stories. Like this one, when he received his first hunting rifle.
“When I was 7 years-old I got a .22 for Christmas. I got up at 5 a.m. to see what Santa Claus brought us (and unwrapped one present immediately). At 7 a.m. my mother heard, “Bang! Bang!” I had went outside and was shooting at birds,” Larson wrote.
Growing up in the tiny Price County burg of Prentice (pop. 591), Larson and his cousins would hunt squirrels and rabbits, putting that .22 to good use. As the years went by, Larson started hunting deer in both the northern and southern parts of the state. Chasing whitetails near Richland Center, where he still hunts today, as well as the Prentice area was like comparing night and day.
“For a few years I continued to hunt the opener in Richland Center and then go up north for the remainder of the season. It was tough to go north as I normally would see more deer in one day down south than I would see in several years up north,” Larson wrote.
Over the years, Larson’s whitetail pursuits included a number of different venues for deer camp, including an unoccupied old farmhouse.
“My hunting shack experience started in 1984. I was invited by my best friend (Jack Unbehaun) to hunt with him and his group at their hunting spot in Richland Center, Wis. It wasn’t a shack, but an old house whose living room floor had caved in, its bedrooms inhabited by mice, but it was a roof over our heads for the start of hunting season,” Larson wrote.
That hunting shack was eventually burned down, and replaced by a travel trailer, but that proved to be way too crowded with four or five hunters, their clothing, their guns, and their food. So the hunting crew came up with a new idea on Unbehaun’s acreage near Richland Center. It wasn’t fancy, it was far from jaw-dropping on the outside, but it served its purpose then just as it does now.
Welcome to the Dead Possum Inn.
“There was a tin hay shed there that was 36 x 48 with a drive-thru. He decided to put in footings for half of it and also save the drive-thru and that was the beginning of the Dead Possum Inn. It was named that when my friend tried to put one of the wood timbers in its hole, and it would not go. At the bottom of the hole a possum had curled up and the timber took its life. Everybody chipped in to build the shack, and it’s where we still hunt today,” Larson wrote.
The Dead Possum Inn was, and remains, nothing extravagant, Larson said, as it has three sets of homemade bunk beds, a couple of couches and some old “discarded recliners and tables” that were “castoffs” from his house. Again, it serves the purpose and is part of what makes deer camp special for Larson and the hunting party.
Of course there is another, smaller but warmer hunting stand that Larson and his daughter, Erin, like to use. Larson calls it his “condo” as it has big windows to see the “turdy-point buck,” cushioned swivel chairs, a portable heater and his laptop. Yes, Larson sometimes brings his laptop to the elevated condo and uses his phone’s hotspot to bring in Wi-Fi in order to watch the Wisconsin Badgers play during the deer’s downtime. My, how things have changed.
That’s exactly what Larson thought last year when his daughter came hunting with him again after a 30-year break. His oldest son, Eddie, works for Cabela’s in Springfield, Mo., and tries to make it back as often as he can to hunt. His youngest son, Brian, lives in Madison and still hunts during the gun deer season.
“Two minutes into (last year’s) season she shot her first whitetail, a nice 8-pointer, and is now hooked,” Larson wrote.
While his kids are grown and have their own lives, and his wife being a “city girl and not into hunting,” he said, chuckling, there is hope the deer hunting tradition with family and friends will continue. That may happen in the Dead Possum Inn, the “condo” or someplace not yet thought of.
“I’m hoping I live long enough to take my three grandsons hunting there (Richland Center). They have visited, but at ages 6, 3 and 2, they have a bit of growing up to do (before hunting),” Larson wrote.
That’s quite a story during 60-plus years of hunting, Mr. Larson, and I’m glad you walked through my column door. It’s been quite entertaining, to say the least.
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Jeff Brown, a former longtime sports editor for the Tribune, is a freelance outdoors writer. Send him story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org