by Patrick Durkin - Friday, October 31, 2014
West of Ishpeming, Mich. — Kevin Swanson burst through the cabin door an hour past dusk, smiling and calling to his father while hustling past the kitchen and toward the sitting area. George, 84, snuff cup in hand, turned and answered from his chair near the wood-burning stove.
The son obviously had a story to tell, and it featured the buck lying atop the pickup's tailgate, now dripping slush and mud outside their deer camp in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. With the exception of George himself shooting a buck, this was the best news possible for the Swanson clan of Ishpeming. The November 2013 deer season would be George's last after 77 years of hard hunting, and they wanted it to be memorable.
Wish granted. They now had at least one buck to hang on the camp's buck-pole. As George set his snuff cup on the floor and stood, his son caught him in a bear hug. "That was the most exciting hunt I've ever had," Kevin half-shouted. "But Dad, this buck is smaller than the one that got by me. The big one got by me twice before this guy came through! Can you believe it?!"
Kevin, 40, had left the cabin before dawn that day to drive about 25 miles southwest to hunt his own land with his friend Timm Abel of Appleton, Wis. He sat six hours in his ground blind without seeing a deer before the action erupted in the gully below. The wide ravine, choked with poplar trees and beaked hazel brush, is good deer cover, something that's shrinking these days in the Upper Peninsula—or the "UP," as everyone in the region calls it.
The UP has never surrendered deer easily, of course, and no one knows that better than Kevin, a habitat biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. During his adulthood, Kevin has watched the UP's forest grow steadily older, much of it converting from short-lived poplar (aspen) and jack pine to thick, mature birch and maple.
As these hardwood canopies fill in overhead, the shrubs, brush and poplar saplings that deer prefer lose out to pole timber and bracken ferns. In other words, it's a tough place for whitetails to make a living, especially when they must also contend with blizzards, snow squalls and arctic blasts blowing in from the north across mighty Lake Superior.
As Kevin stood beside his dad and excitedly told his story to everyone at their deer camp, "Hort's Hide-Away," he divided his thanks and gratitude between father, friends and forest. This seemed appropriate, given the setting. The Swansons, after all, are true "Yoopers," the nickname for those residing in the UP.
The Yooper Legacy
You must do more than simply live in this vast land for residents to consider you a Yooper. You must be born here. In fact, it's even better to be like the Swansons, and boast parents and grandparents with Yooper birthrights. They trace their roots to the nearby Swanson homestead west of Ishpeming, which their ancestors built in 1857.
Besides its inhabitants' strong Scandinavian heritage, the UP is enriched by its woods and waters, its iron and copper ores, and the legacy of its most famous hunter and angler, Ernest Hemingway. True, Hemingway wasn't officially a Yooper, but perhaps no man more deserves the honorary title. Hemingway, after all, regularly hunted and fished the UP, and would have understood the excitement and satisfaction in Kevin Swanson's deer story.
As Hemingway wrote in one of his Nick Adams stories, "Fathers and Sons," a man must be sound in matters of the outdoors: "Someone has to give you your first gun or the opportunity to get it and use it, and you have to live where there is game or fish if you are to learn about them. And now, (as a man) he loved to fish and to shoot exactly as much as when he first had gone with his father. It was a passion that had never slackened and he was very grateful to his father for bringing him to know it."
And so Kevin showed that gratitude as he stood beside the woodstove and relived his hunt. He imitated the sounds of breaking brush, swept his arms to show the deer's leaping flight, centered the crosshairs of his imaginary rifle on a suddenly cautious buck, and—finally—accepted the camp's congratulations for the accurate shot and clean kill.
As his son's story ended, George smiled, turned to the group and performed a passable rap verse while busting a few celebratory moves: "Sit, sit, sit! Stand, stand, stand! Stay, stay, stay! Chase, chase, chase! And that's how you hunt up here, Lad!"
The Old Ways
Until the past 30 years, however, George Swanson wasn't much of a sitter, stander or "stayer." He was mostly a chaser, making slow walks through the forest while keeping his eyes and ears alert for browsing or bedded bucks. That's what he learned while tagging along on his first hunt at age 7 in 1936, and seeing an uncle "dig in and shoot a spike-horn" a few hours into the hunt.
George killed his first buck in 1942 at age 13, and shot three bucks and a bear between then and 1945. By his late teens, he was one of the Swansons' most serious hunters. In 1950, mostly on his own and using lumber from trees he cut and hauled himself, he built his family's first hunting cabin on the land they've hunted ever since.
George hunted with his brothers Robert, Dick and Wilburt for many years at the original cabin. All along, however, he was the most dedicated hunter among them. Still, he doesn't reveal that fact until asked to tell the story behind a large framed photo in the cabin, which shows Wilburt and Dick with a buck they killed after a heavy snow.
"I shot a 6-pointer earlier that day, hung it up and came back to the cabin," George said. "Dick and Wilburt were inside talking. I kicked them out. I said we were there to hunt. They went out back to a spot that's all grown into big jack pines now. They shot that buck, and then two guys came along who'd been trailing it. They kept following the other deer that were with the buck, and then we dragged it out with a snow machine."
Using brother Robert's camera, George photographed Dick and Wilburt with the buck. Robert liked the photo so much he got it enlarged into a poster. Then he removed the frame from a large photo of his mother-in-law, and used it for his brothers' big-buck photo.
"Robert threw away that photo of his wife's mother," George said. "His wife didn't know anything about it until she came out here on Veteran's Day and saw what he'd done with her nice picture frame."
Fire and Tragedy
The Swansons' original cabin was destroyed by fire in the winter of 1979, soon after George built on an addition. He was hunting rabbits nearby and ran to the cabin when he spotted smoke. "The fire was rolling when I got there," George said. "I opened the door, and got blown off the porch when that fresh oxygen hit the flames. All I could save was my stack of firewood."
With some help from friends and family, George rebuilt the cabin in 1980. Among those who helped were Robert as well as George's son, Kenneth, both of whom died soon after the second cabin was finished. Kenny was captain of Ishpeming's state championship football team in 1979, but apparently suffered from depression. In a tragedy that still haunts the family, he committed suicide on the cabin's porch not long after finishing high school.
To help cope with the deaths of his brother and son, George built a small cabin in their honor along a nearby trail on a rise they call "Norway Knoll." He occasionally still uses it as a deer stand, watching the surrounding woods for bucks while thinking of Robert and Kenny.
"Life goes on," George said resolutely. "When you lose a son, you have to be tough. You have to show strength to get through it. If you have to cry, you better go into the closet. I had enough strength to get through it. That's where I come from—the good ol' days."
George's other two brothers died long ago, too, but he continued hunting the past few decades with Kevin and his other son, Keith, now 52; and his daughter Kristen, 50.
Keith now lives in Colorado, but comes home when possible for deer season and brought along one of his sons for the 2011 hunt. When he retires, Keith plans to return to the UP for its hunting, fishing and family. Kristen still lives in Ishpeming and usually hunts the family's homestead property with her friend Julie Gravedoni. They stop in most nights to visit, tell deer stories and play cards with "the boys," whom they usually beat.
Also joining them regularly is Johnny Swanson, 52, Dick's son, another relentless hunter who is seldom discouraged by tough conditions and slow deer activity. In camp logs that Kevin has kept since 1993, it's documented that Johnny is often there as the state's 16-day firearm season ends each year on Nov. 30.
Other regulars are Kevin's father-in-law, Harvey Wise, who grew up in Pennsylvania but fell in love with and married a "Yooper girl" while stationed at K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base in the early 1960s; and Don Abel, father of Kevin's friend Timm.
Deer Camp is Everything
George and Kevin can't disguise their love for the Swanson deer camp. "I love everything about this place; the camp, the land, the trees—everything," George said. "I was born and raised here. I always say the homestead is my right arm; it's where I was raised. And this land (deer camp) is my left arm. I need both of them."
Even so, George said he had no choice but to make the November 2013 deer season his final hunt. His eyes have grown dry and sensitive from glaucoma, and he struggles to watch the shooting lanes that poke like spokes into the swamps and forest surrounding his stand. "These days, it's hard to watch for very long," George said. "I can't see like I used to."
Besides, he isn't fond of sitting on stands, watching shooting lanes and tending bait piles. Baiting isn't part of "the tradition." He only baits because everyone else baits, and deer seldom follow natural patterns because of bait's prevalence during hunting seasons. Before baiting became the standard hunting method in the 1980s, George liked to slowly walk the forest all day.
"I'm a woodsman," he said. "I know all the trees, and when I could walk around, I knew all the nooks and crannies of every marsh and woods. I knew all the landmarks. When I made a drive, I was always kicking up deer. Baiting changed all that. It's the worst thing that's happened to deer hunting during my life. It changes everything for deer."
Kevin, meanwhile, hopes his father will be able to visit the camp during deer season. He has seen many old-timers come and go at their camp the past 30 years, and struggles to think what it will be like when the camp's founder, his father, no longer shares stories there.
In some ways, his father's situation takes him back to 1993 when, at age 19, Kevin began keeping the logbook and noticed his dad's family and friends getting old. Kevin wrote: "I realize that my time with these guys is getting limited. I like learning about morals and the way things should be, but aren't."
Then again, Kevin also realizes his father's legacy will live on through deer hunting at the camp. As Kevin wrote in September 1996, "Soon deer season will be here. I pray to God I'll never have to miss a deer season. The closest thing to heaven on earth is deer camp."
Through it all, George's support for hunting, the camp and what it represents never wavers. "I believe man was put here on Earth to balance nature," he said. "We're allowed to eat the game and the fruits that are here. I accept that. We're supposed to manage things here on Earth. Will we leave all this in good hands? I don't know right now, but that's why we're here."
That commitment still showed during the November 2013 deer season. Each day George rolled out of bed in deer camp and sang a few lines from the Stuart Hamblen song "Open Up Your Heart" (1956) to awaken his hunters: "So let the sun shine in, face it with a grin. Smilers never lose and frowners never win."
And why not? As George well knows, no one is more optimistic than a serious deer hunter.
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