It’s the most wonderful time of the year. This I say even as I look at a bleak, brown and leafless landscape and the nights grow long.
It’s deer season.
And it’s not just any deer season – it’s the nine-day Wisconsin gun season around which so many happy traditions revolve. Deer camp traditions.
Deer camp can exist even in the absence of a hunting shack. Many will haul out campers and – if they’re especially hardy – tents. Some will be travelling and using motels.
Deer camp might even be a state of mind. Your house might be your “camp” during deer season, but it’s a different place for a little while.
Blaze orange clothes, rifles, boot dryers, ammo boxes, gloves, hats, grunt tubes, rattling horns and bottles of expensive urine transform even the most boring of household decor into the appealing look of a genuine Northwoods hunting shack. Put a dozen or more empty beer cans on the table and you’ll swear you were at one of those shacks.
Maybe special guests make it a deer camp. Maybe it’s special food. Deer camp is an escape from the normal day-to-day, even if it lacks that shack in the woods.
I’m fortunate enough myself to spend deer season in the confines of a lovingly-built hunting shack. At least as my schedule allows.
Since 1990, our crew of hapless hunters has been in the warm embrace of the plywood beauty we call Muutka Lodge.
The camp, when purchased, already featured a 12- by 24-foot shack. A small addition was added right away to hold two more bunks. Skilled craftsmen with a chain saw and some soggy lumber built the little bunk room.
Four years later, a more significant addition, known as the “Beer Wing” was added. The Beer Wing is 16 feet by 24 feet. It’s now our kitchen and living room. Skilled craftsmen, by then equipped with a generator and circular saws and some soggy lumber, built the wing. The original shack became the bunk room.
Much has been salvaged to outfit the shack along the way. Windows, lumber and whatever else was useful.
Muutka Lodge sits atop concrete blocks, once all level, in sandy soil. It has settled in and remains relatively sturdy, even though it has been scarred by repeated porcupine attacks.
We’ve built more than just a couple of questionable additions here. We’ve built memories and traditions.
We have the tradition of not shooting so many deer that the load strains the meat pole, for instance. In fact, we’ve never come close. Of course, our meat pole is constructed out of four-inch well casings – I don’t think we’ve ever held enough tags to kill the number of deer required to put actual strain on it.
Last Saturday, I went out to camp to visit my dad and my uncles Loopy and Larry. They were partly preparing for, and partly celebrating the upcoming season. I took my wife Cheryl along to make sure I didn’t stay too late and drink too many beers and end up just sleeping there.
Improvements for camp this year include a new used generator that’s far more fuel efficient than the one we have previously used.
In the past, we’ve used a generator sparingly, relying on our many gas lights and occasionally a 12-volt set-up for lighting. The old generator had to be refueled at half-time of the Packers game, this one will go all night.
So my dad and uncles have installed a string of electric lights indoors. Muutka was well-lit Saturday. And I do mean the lights. It was so well-lit, in fact, that it was apparent that this upgrade will lead to us needing to upgrade our cleaning skills. Maybe those gas lights were OK.
The hunting report is the usual. Occasional big bucks show up on trail-cams late at night. My dad and Loopy have both been bow hunting a bit, but have not tagged anything. Larry reports deer moving through the area I’ve hunted the past few years.
This stuff is tradition, too. The preseason get-togethers where the shack gets fully prepared or is finally considered “good enough,” there’s exchanged information that will later do us no good in the field, boastful and fantastical claims get made and much aluminum is prepared for recycling.
Incidentally, the more aluminum that is prepared for recycling, the more fantastical the claims become.
Perhaps our most famous (infamous?) tradition, though, is Liverfest.
Liverfest was started in 1992, when we innocently hosted my then brother-in-law and his brother and father for a venison liver meal after the close of shooting hours on opening day.
For whatever reason, the liver meal became a yearly event. Most probably cite the mantra, “eat a part, strengthen a part.” Perhaps Liverfest is seen as a chance to replenish. In succeeding years, it has been held on Tuesday and then Wednesday – about mid-season – so it kind of makes sense.
I’m sure we’ve hosted a few livers that felt like they were under assault at that point in the season.
We started out by collecting livers from the deer that we and other participating hunters killed. After the chronic wasting disease scare of 2002, we began purchasing beef liver for the occasion. People had many questions about what was safe to eat.
Also, the state banned baiting for that season and the deer seemed to largely vacate the pine plantations that many of us hunted and concentrate around a nearby agricultural area, making venison livers harder to procure. My dad did do well that year, though. He was hunting near the large agricultural operation.
Those participating in Liverfest bring their beverage of choice and get treated to liver, bacon, sauted onions and fried potatoes. The feast is prepared by my dad, Bawb, and Loopy.
Luckily, our camp boasts a restaurant-size cookstove with six burners, two ovens, a griddle and a broiler. We actually built the Beer Wing around the prized stove.
For those with a more delicate palate, leftovers such as ham or chicken are reheated. We’ve even had a combination liver and fish-fry. We’ll not exclude those that refuse liver. In fact, we exclude nobody now. Once a men-only night, the often raucous get-together now occasionally includes women.
Liverfest is a night to ‘let’er snap,’ so to speak, but as our crew ages, it has become a more family-friendly event. Even kids can, and occasionally do, enjoy Liverfest.
Over the years, we have had many guests from all walks of life join us for Liverfest. We strive to provide both food and fun.
In 1996, polka filled the air within. Leo and Scott Bixby squeezed accordions while their drummer, Kevin Bixby, foot-stomped a beat. As the local polka mavens filled the air with music, the others filled it with shouts of delight.
The Bixby men would return in 1997 and ply those squeeze-boxes again. That year, Loopy somehow slept through it even though they played at the foot of his bunk. That’s an amazing amount of tired. Whenever the accordions went quiet, voluminous snores were evident.
In 2000, the liver was elk liver because Loopy got a Colorado elk just before gun season here. If you’ve never had it and you’re wondering, it tastes like liver. It was also the first year women experienced a Liverfest. They never said so, but I think they were quite impressed.
Last year, 27 crew and guests bulged the plywood walls of Muutka for Liverfest. It says in our log, “All of the liver was demolished. Only the stench remains – not all of it the fault of the liver.”
To guide guests to the proper spot, we put up a prominent roadside banner at the entrance to our driveway, though more than a few have wandered down the wrong road on the way out anyway. Usually, they’re eventually heard from again.
Of course, Liverfest isn’t all fun and games. The clean-up is a monumental chore. Also, the event led to the term “May liver” which a nice term for a liver forgotten in outside cold storage until the following spring. Still, we sally forth.
The 2012 gun deer season will bring our 21st annual Liverfest and we have very specific plans to make sure it’s a delight. We’re making liver.
Craig Turk may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.