Inside the 'West Branch' gang
NORTH OF DULUTH, Minn. — It's a bright and clear Monday, the third day of Minnesota's firearms deer season. At midday, the hunters of the West Branch Hunting Club, now in its 59th year, have trundled back through the snow to their humble but well-kept deer shack.
Chili is warming on the stovetop, and leftovers from Sunday night's steak are sliced bite-size on a nearby plate. Brownies are already on the table.
The hunters, some wearing their blaze-orange "West Branch Hunting Club" shirts, help themselves to the food and sit down at the big table.
Roughly the same thing is happening at hundreds — thousands? — of other hunting shacks across Northeastern Minnesota on this first Monday of deer season. All of the hurry and anticipation of the opener is behind the hunters. They have settled into the hunt now. Rising early. Eating well. Heading out to the stand. Sitting. Watching. Listening. Hoping. Returning to the shack with their appetites and their stories.
There could be no more typical deer camp than this bunch at West Branch. Five of the camp's members are still in camp on this Monday — 71-year-old Dick DeBolt of Island Lake; son Gary, 46, of Rice Lake; Gary's son, Andrew DeBolt, 13; Bob Mattsen, 63, of Blaine, Minn. (formerly of Duluth); and his son Ryan Mattsen, 38, of St. Paul Park, Minn.
Though the camp is an all-male contingent now, women are welcome, and Gary DeBolt's sister hunted there as a teenager.
A propane stove is throwing an even heat around the shack, a significant improvement over the old oil stove.
"Back in the day, there used to be two temperatures — 'Open the door!' and 'Close the door!' " said Gary DeBolt, a third-generation member of the camp.
So far in the young season, only Bob Mattsen has seen a deer, early on opening morning.
"It was just a dark outline," he said.
No shots were fired.
Nobody in camp is particularly discouraged about not seeing deer.
"It's hunting," Gary DeBolt said. "We still have fun."
(By evening, Ryan Mattsen would break the camp's three-year drought by shooting a buck.)
The hunters have learned to ride out the less-productive years. Dick DeBolt's late father, Lloyd DeBolt, had laid out his deer hunting philosophy long ago.
"He told us, 'You find an area. You stay there. You'll have good times, and you'll have lean times,' " Dick DeBolt said.
A creek runs through it
The "West Branch" name is derived from the watershed around the camp. A spring-fed creek near the shack feeds the West Branch of the Knife River, a brook trout and steelhead stream that flows to Lake Superior. One night long ago, a member of the camp returned from the creek with a pail of water, Gary DeBolt said. A young brookie was swimming in it.
That story has taken its place along with so many more in the lore and history of this camp. The shack is on 2½ acres of St. Louis County leased land. The hunters' stands — Porky, Bullwinkle, Ship's Ladder, Rusty Bucket and others — are on county land. Each stand's name has a story behind it.
The West Branch shack — a 16-by-30-foot structure, now with an 8-foot addition, was built from lumber procured from an abandoned home. Legally. The place is cozy and clean. Jackets and wool shirts hang from deer antlers mounted on one wall. Rifles rest in two racks on another wall. Overstuffed chairs line one wall. The dining-room table is the focal point of the room, and it's often laden with food prepared by Ryan Mattsen, a sous chef at the St. Paul Hotel in St. Paul. Nobody comes late to dinner.
"Everyone thinks we go out into the woods to shoot deer," Gary DeBolt says with a laugh.
The hunters come, he says, to tell stories and eat well — and shoot a deer if the opportunity arises.
The next generation
At lunch, the conversation drifts from grouse hunting this fall (good) to pheasant hunting out west (tough) to steelhead fishing to the absence of young hunters in neighboring camps.
"It breaks my heart," Bob Mattsen said about the shrinking number of young hunters. "Where's that next generation going to come from?"
The unspoken question is, what will become of all these deer shacks?
Young Andrew DeBolt eats his chili, taking in all of this. If you ask him what he likes about coming up to the West Branch camp, he'll tell you: "Pretty much everything."
"He shot a lot of grouse this fall," Bob Mattsen says.
Several other shacks dot the mixed woods in the vicinity of West Branch, the hunters say. They all know each other, get along well and check in frequently by two-way radio.
The remains of old Alger-Smith Logging Company railroad grades snake through the woods, allowing the hunters reference points and, in some cases, easier walking. The camp's members occasionally come across old railroad ties or even a piece of rail. They stumble upon relics of the logging era on their way to and from their stands.
Lunch is over now. A nap or two might be in order before the evening hunt.
The hunters will head home on Tuesday evening. Most will return Thursday evening for the second weekend of deer season. Under the stars in the quiet country north of Duluth, the West Branch hunting shack again will pulse with laughter and stories and optimism.
SAM COOK is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Find his Facebook page at facebook.com/SamCookOutdoors or his blog at samcook.areavoices.com.