Archive for December, 2009

Passing of the Shack Patriarch

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

In the dim dawning of daybreak on day four, I quietly passed Humility Grove as I headed uphill with my pack on my back and rifle slung over my shoulder to my distant deer stand. The cathedral of half a dozen or so of old white cedar trees seem to demand silence and a humble attitude. They help remind me that I’m not all that important in the grand scheme of things. For years now, I have made it an annual practice to stop and pay my respects the day before the hunt. And then, several days later, I always stop again to pay my respects before heading out of the bush and back home.

It felt good. . .real good. . .to be back in the northwoods at the renowned deer shack for another deer hunt. Actually I missed the 2008 hunt, as Nancy and I were 2500 miles north in the Yukon Territory. By this time a year ago, we had one-third of a big bull moose in the freezer. A brand new freezer I might add, purchased simply because we were the recipients of this precious stash of moose meat. I had been an unarmed participant in the moose hunt but I had helped skin, gut, quarter and ferry out the big animal downriver, around numerous bends, across small lakes and down a mile or more of exciting rapids.

Though the annual event is steeped in ritual, this year’s hunt was very different. A little over a month ago, the deer camp patriarch, Ev Nelson, had failed to wake up. The day before he slipped away, he had gone to church in the morning and then as usual volunteered at The Villages, assisted living center, where he helped push residents in their wheel chairs to lunch, where he always joined them. That evening he spoke with his younger brother and two of his sons before going to bed for the ultimate rest.

Less than a month before his passing, Ev had turned 96 years old. Not only was he one of the builders of the 1940 deer shack, but also he had been hunting in the vicinity of the shack since 1932. The only time he missed the annual deer hunt was during his three years he was in Europe during WWII and a couple of years during the Korean conflict.

For years Ev’s brother Tip, another one of the shack builders, had been part of the shack brotherhood. He died in his eighties at least ten years ago but his stories, sense of humor and presence are still felt here. In fact for this hunt, I am borrowing his old 30.06 from his son and my buddy, Nels.

For over a decade Ev has put aside his old Model 94, lever action .3030. His vision and hearing were going downhill and so in recent years he has provided our camp cook, Howard, with support while fully imparting his decades of knowledge and wisdom on the rest of us. He never smirked when he would adamantly interpret a deer track. “Now this one is a doe.” Pausing, he might add, “and she has known a buck this year.” To “know” a buck is a biblical interpretation of having had sex with it.

His deer-hunting prowess was legendary. Ev’s ability to stay in a favorite birch tree for the entire day, without any nailed boards or portable stand to aid in his comfort, is still spoken about in a tone of wonder and awe. He would wrap an old rope around his waist, tying it to the birch trunk to prevent his falling to the ground, wedge his foot, alternating it through the day with his opposite foot to prevent it from going totally numb, and stay from dawn to dusk. Only at midday would he climb down and eat his leftover breakfast pancake lathered in jelly. Then he’d go back up in the tree. Ev consistently shot deer from the Medusa-limbed birch. The tree is still standing and if you want to find it, Ev would tell you, “Cross the river, head out east, past the Sugar Tit and just north of the Black Forest.”

Every deer camp has a mythical buck that never dies. Generations of young hunters find sleep difficult on the eve of their first hunt simply because that limb-antlered buck keeps weaving its way through the tangle of their dreams. At day’s end, as the hunters returned to the shack, Ev often asked if they had seen ‘High Boy.’ High Boy, named for his towering antlers, was a favorite buck that a local North Shore bachelor used to feed in his deeryard every winter.

The last buck Ev shot was in 1988, when he was 86 years young. When I asked him how far the shot was, he answered, “Oh about a five wood.” Having golfed with Ev some time ago, I translated that he killed the deer from 100 to 150 yards. . . about a five wood.

The man was fit. I recall a story when he had a bit of a heart episode years ago, sometime in his 80s. He was in the hospital and they wanted to do a stress test so they got him on a bicycle. First thing he did was to pedal briskly along. . . backwards. Turns out he had never learned to ride a bike. He was an inveterate hiker. He walked a third of a mile on his morning pilgrimage to the town bakery, post office and grocery store. Until her death he hiked four miles each day to and from Green Acres Nursing home to visit his wife, Dorothy. In the winter he would take the shortcut and snowshoe cross-country. He golfed at least one round nearly every day, spring through fall.

Three years ago, at the age of 94, he goaded one of the upper bunk sloths into joining him in a round of morning calisthenics. During his time in the army as Staff Sergeant Nelson, known by his army buddies as “Snorkie,” Ev would sometimes lead his men with calisthenics.

In recent years Ev’s loss of hearing allowed him to easily disregard the snarl of snoring in the close sleeping quarters of the shack. After one particularly explosive night, one tired hunter wondered, “Maybe we should add another story to the shack to accommodate the snorers.” Ev quickly responded, “Shoot, we have enough stories in here now!”

And while he didn’t hear the detail in words he could make out the cadence and rhyme. Two years ago I had mentioned it was twelve degrees outside. He nodded and replied, “Oh sure a little breeze doesn’t hurt.”

When I told the news of Ev’s death to an older neighbor of ours back home, he exclaimed, “Oh gosh, you don’t say? You know that’s how Irving Anderson died, peaceful like, in his sleep.” I nodded, “I remember. . . Irving was my grandpa.”

Dr. Andrew Weil, world renowned leader in the field of integrative medicine and best selling author, speaks of how we should all ascribe to living a full life, eating right, moving the body, engaging in community, reducing stress. He lectures that we should strive for “compressed morbidity.” Which basically means when you die you don’t linger, you go fast and hopefully easily.

Now as I glanced uphill at the giant cedars in Humility Grove, I wondered how their aging process was going. For years and years, this temple of trees has not openly changed. Stout trees and men like Everett teach me much on how to live and how to die. His oldest son Mike shared, “You know I never knew dad to be angry or say an angry word about anyone.” I’m not sure Ev even knew what the word ‘stress’ meant.

The hefty buck I shot later that morning died quickly. Feeling the usual mix of emotions upon approaching a dead deer, I was mostly grateful for a winter’s worth of prime meat. It had been a privilege to pause among the giants of Humility Grove. And I lived a day long prayer in sitting up in a tree watching the climb and drop of the sun’s arc.

I leaned the rifle against an old birch snag near the dead animal and silently thanked Tip for the use of the gun. I turned and walked slowly over to the buck, knelt down by his head, took off my hat and said aloud “That’s for you Ev.”