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Duluth hunters gave up fancier rigs to hunt deer from a canvas wall tent

FNS Photo by Sam Cook Harry Aro and Robbie Lemire, both of Duluth, Minn., work outside their deer camp tent in the woods north of Two Harbors, Minn., on Nov. 10 during the opening weekend of Minnesota’s firearms deer season. This is the second year that the party’s seven hunters have hunted from a heated wall tent during deer season.

By Sam Cook

NORTH OF TWO HARBORS, Minn. — Evening in deer camp. The deer hunters return from the woods.

They come shuffling back on heavy feet, rifles slung over their shoulders. They come rumbling in on four-wheelers on this second day of Minnesota’s firearms deer season.

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Full darkness has enveloped the pines and spruce, but in the clearing where the hunters gather, an oasis of incandescence glows soft and white. It’s a large canvas wall tent lit from within. A wisp of woodsmoke twists from the chimney, promising warmth.

For a week or more in Minnesota’s firearms deer season, this tent will be home for seven or eight hunters. The hunters in the Lemire and Aro and Wakefield gang, all from Duluth, have been hunting these woods for 35 years. For years they camped in pickup campers or trailers, but last year they borrowed a friend’s canvas tent and pitched it here. They liked it so much that they bought their own.

The tent lets them feel closer to the woods and a nearby stream.

“You can hear the sounds of the night,” said John Lemire, 56. “You can hear the river.”

The tent takes Harry Aro back in time.

“It’s like being a kid again,” said Aro, 56. “You build a fort, and you build the fort as cool as you can.”

Oh, it’s cool, all right, 14 by 16 feet with the mini-barrel stove in one corner, industrial mesh cloth for carpeting, a table along one wall and cots jammed edge to edge.

In the woods out back, a generator sends electricity down an extension cord and into the tent. Regular light bulbs bounce white light off the tent’s white walls. There’s a porch light out front. The hunters’ smartphones are plugged into a power strip. Some evenings, the hunters watch movies on television.

“It’s not like we’re roughing it,” said Scott Johnson, 56. “No matter what we do, it looks like the Clampetts on vacation. We try to make it comfortable.”

A sauna, too

A few paces away from the tent sits an aging green U-Haul trailer now converted to a portable sauna. The hunters pull it north to camp each fall.

Seppo Kukkaro, 73, the elder Finnish statesman of this camp, built cedar benches for the sauna, which features a new stove this year. Over the years, some evidence has arisen that a U-Haul trailer was not meant to be a sauna.

“It’s caught on fire three times,” Kukkaro said.

On the bright side, all of the fires were extinguished, and nobody was hurt. Only part of one interior wall remains charred.

“It’s fantastic,” Aro said. “You come out of the woods, sometimes on a cold, wet day. You come out of that sauna, and you feel like a new man.”

While Lemire gets steaks and baked potatoes going on the gas grill outside, the hunters settle in for the evening. Orange clothing festoons the tent’s frame. Someone moves cots and sets up a round table for dinner. One at a time, the hunters grab their towels and head for the sauna. Snow falls outside, adding to an inch or so already on the ground.

Before supper, Dusty Wakefield, 19, heads up the hill behind camp, and the next thing the hunters see is the white beam of his headlamp shining from 20 feet up a jackpine. He wanted to text his girlfriend, and cell reception wasn’t good enough at gravel-pit level.

“I got three bars at the very top,” Wakefield said upon returning.

Deer scarce

The deer hunting has been tough. The hunters trade reports after their second day in the woods.

“Did you see anything?” Scott Wakefield, 50, asks Kukkaro.

“Absolutely nothing,” Kukkaro said in his heavy Finnish accent. “Not a bird. Not a squirrel.”

Nobody has seen a deer, and few have even seen tracks. Nobody can figure it out.

But the group has taken some nice bucks over the years. Lemire shot a buck that dressed at 245 pounds a few years ago. It’s on his wall at home along with shoulder mounts of a 210-pounder and a 230-pounder.

The hunters concede that Lemire takes bucks more consistently than the rest of them.

“It’s because he’s always the first one up and chooses the primo stand,” Johnson said.

Aro added: “Plus, he has patience. He can sit.”

At least a couple of storied bucks, including the 10-pointer with the “pierced ear,” are shot again over supper, along with at least three moose from Aro’s and Kukkaro’s hunts in Ontario. Aro’s late father, Aimo, loved to hunt moose up there and probably killed 25 over the years, Aro said. Seppo has shot 11.

Aro shot one himself at age 17.

“I haven’t shot any big game since,” Aro said, “but I’ve hunted deer for 30 years.”

Unlike others in the camp, who sit on stands, Aro goes for long walks during the day. He used to bring a handgun, and he can tell you about the deer he encountered. But he had no desire to shoot them. This year, he left the handgun at home.

On a long walk, Aro talks about when various stands of pine were logged, where some of the hunters once constructed a little sweat lodge with some wood and tarps and a fire. He points out the place where a visitor to camp once got lost. He was sleeping on a bed of spruce boughs along an old railroad grade when they found him in the middle of the night.

All of these events are woven into the history of the camp and through the hunters’ long-time friendships. As at any deer camp, the stories are part of the lore, part of the bond that forms over decades of shared experience in a place.

So, when Kukkaro leans back in his chair after supper and said, “If you listen now, I tell you da story,” everyone listens up.

Ready for morning

Late in the evening, the snow tapers off and the sky begins to clear. The tent walls billow and flap as the northwest wind picks up. The forecast calls for a low of 16 and gusty winds.

The hunters pull out their cots and crawl into their bags. Someone pulls the light plug. The tent goes dark except for the moonish white glow of one LED flashlight. Mark Knopfler sings low and easy on a battery-powered radio.

Now, without the amenities, the tent has become simply a tent. A thin skin of cotton is all that separates the hunters from the snow, the stars and the hoped-for whitetails. It’s simple and primitive and old-timey.

Two coffee pots are set on the floor by the stove. About 5 a.m., someone will get up, feed the stove and put the coffee on to percolate.

The jackpine snaps in the stove. Its walls glow red. Lemire flicks off the flashlight and turns off the radio. All is black now. If it weren’t for the wind, the hunters could hear the rapids in the stream.

Within minutes, someone is snoring softly.