This hunt is really out there
When Darrell Spencer and Matt Norton talk about their deer camp, that's exactly what they mean.
Each November, during Minnesota's firearms deer season, they paddle and portage into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness near Ely. They pitch a wall tent. They cut wood for the stove. They hunt.
They don't shoot a buck every year. But when they do, it's a big one. Spencer, of Duluth, shot one that dressed at 235 pounds in 2007. Norton, from South Minneapolis, took a 240-pounder in 2005.
"The majority of what you see are bucks," Spencer said, "and they're all big. I haven't seen a small buck."
The two men returned last week from this year's hunt. They saw a few deer but they didn't shoot one. Norton said he passed on a doe.
"Darrell threatened that he would not assist me in dragging it out," Norton said.
Spencer confirmed that. He thinks the deer population in the canoe country is so small that antlerless deer should be passed up to help bolster the herd.
Shannon Solberg of Duluth joined Spencer and Norton on the hunt this year, as he did one other year. The men go in a day or two before the season to set up camp and make wood.
Once the season opens, they make various kinds of hunts. Sometimes they sneak-hunt, moving slowly through the woods. But dry conditions and a crispy forest made that difficult this year. Sometimes they hunt from a canoe. Sometimes they sit on a ridge overlooking a swamp.
Their own terms
This isn't a high-percentage hunt, especially because the hunters restrict themselves to bucks. But it's just the kind of hunt the men are seeking.
"The general consensus is, it might be the last place you can hunt white-tailed deer on their own terms, with no food plots, no gardens to attract them," Spencer said. "That's why all of us do it."
Norton appreciates the solitude of the hunt. More than 200,000 people visit the BWCAW each season, but almost none of them come in November.
"I like pheasant hunting. I've hunted ruffed grouse and sharptails," said Norton, 40. "This year for the first time, I went turkey hunting. This is the one hunt that involves wilderness. I look forward to it every year."
When Spencer and Norton decided to hunt the canoe country, Spencer studied topographic maps and also looked for areas where the 1999 blowdown had leveled thousands of trees.
"I followed the blowdown," Spencer said. "I felt that was going to create opportunities for new trees and more food sources for whitetails. That's been right on. We see more deer every year."
"More" is a relative term. One year the hunters saw nine deer in their three-plus-day hunt. One year they saw four, all bucks.
Getting meat isn't a priority for this hunt, at least for Spencer.
"By firearms season, I've already spent 180 hours in a bow stand," he said. "Quite often, I have three or four deer in the freezer before I go."
Taking the risk
Spencer and Norton caution that this kind of hunt comes with a heightened level of risk and shouldn't be undertaken lightly.
"I worry about someone making a trip like this and doing it solo," Norton said, "or doing it without the members of their party being pretty conservative in judging risk."
Spencer, Norton, and Solberg assume a higher level of risk and take some precautions with the weather.
"Our rule is, if we flip (a canoe), we die, pretty much," Spencer said. "So you can't flip. We're really careful. We've had rough days with big waves, so we took a safer route."
They paddle large-capacity solo canoes, which allows them to carry a lot of gear and get at least one buck out. If they shoot two bucks in a season, it would mean a second trip.
Beyond the potential risk of falling into frigid water is the risk that the water will harden overnight.
"Every single night, we're watching the forecast, watching the temperatures," Spencer said. "We use a weather radio for forecasts. If it's not going to be above 30, you'd better get out. If it's mid-30s in the day, with sunshine, you're OK. But if you have a couple days where it's below 20 (at night), that lake is going to freeze."
Two years since they started hunting the BWCAW, frozen lakes prevented the hunters from even going into the wilderness. They accept that as part of the deal and hunt elsewhere.
The hunters also have contingencies in case one of them gets lost.
"We won't go look for each other if we get lost," Spencer said. "If someone doesn't come home, we'll shoot a gun off every few hours. Luckily, it's never happened. But it doesn't make sense to have two of us lost. You have to be prepared to spend the night every day you go out."
They seldom see other people. Spencer's uncle hunts by boat in the BWCAW, but the hunters saw just one other party of canoeists this year.
"If you're not really specific about where you're going, it could be a long time before you're found," Norton said.
The hunt is a physical endeavor, the men agree, but they enjoy that aspect of it, too. "We like to push ourselves," Spencer said. "The first day you're tired and sore. The second day, you're better. Third day, you're better. By the fourth day, you feel like Grizzly Adams."