Longstanding tradition dictates that every fall, in the middle of November, we go to hunting camp. I’m a rural Midwestern girl at heart, so this doesn’t seem strange to me, but I do understand that it might seem strange to many of you out there. When I described going to hunting camp to several of my coworkers they all seemed surprised that hunting whitetail deer is even a thing people do, and they were doubly shocked to find out that it’s something I’m interested in. For this, I have to credit my father, who has been an outdoorsman his whole life and introduced it to me at an early age.
This post will both detail our adventures on this trip and explain a bit more about what hunting camp is and isn’t for the uninitiated.
Previously, my husband (Curtis), his father, and his grandfather all attended hunting camp at the same lodge every year near Alpena, Michigan–his grandfather was a founding member, in fact. In an effort to include more of my family we’ve since moved on, and have been trying out various lodges and camps around the state of Michigan each fall. This year I found a stunning lodge near Grayling using VRBO.com. Grayling is a about a five-and-a-half hour drive from Chicago in the best of traffic and conditions, so we decided to drive halfway up and spend the night somewhere rather than do all the drive at once on the first day of camp. Curtis found the Coyote Crossing Resort after some scouring of the Internet. It seemed quaint and charming–the kind of place skiers take their families in the winter. We arrived late, but not too late to have a local beer (Curtis) and a local cider (me) at the bar/restaurant. Coyote Crossing is a collection of private cabins. We rolled into ours, turned up the heat, and wore our warmest PJs to bed–the temperatures were starting to drop.
Heading out from Coyote Crossing bright and early the first day of camp.
Wellston, Michigan, about 20 minutes from Coyote Crossing, is the kind of town that’s got one gas station and one convenience store, and that’s about it. Growing up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I felt right at home. Coyote Crossing had a huge binder of various things to do in the area stashed in the cabin. Between flyers for snow mobile rentals and ski resorts, I found this: an advertisement for world famous jerky. Curtis and I are both jerky fans, so we decided to check the place out–it wasn’t too far out of our way.
The Dublin General Store really was just that–a run down building that was part hardware store, part grocery store, and part jerky emporium. Not only did they have every kind of jerky under the sun, like python (yuck), and rabbit (quite tasty), they also had a friendly attendant there to give you samples of anything you’d like to try. After trying nearly everything, we landed on barbecue elk and duck jerky.
After our jerky tasting we got back on the road, heading for Grayling. Things started to feel progressively more and more rural. We even passed this Amish (I assume) horse cart.
We met up with Curtis’ parents in Grayling at Paddle Hard Brewing–a local micro brewpub. After sampling several of their beers I landed on the habanero stout, which was pleasantly spicy. Pretty much all of us ordered the fish tacos for lunch, but they were sadly underwhelming, I have to admit. After lunch we stopped quickly at the grocery store for provisions and started on the 30 minute drive out to the lodge, situated on the delightfully titled Thunder Mug Trail.
Lets pause here to chat a bit about hunting camp. Normally, camp is reserved for hunters only. When we rented this lodge, we had anticipated it would be filled up with various friends and family members who are into hunting. Due to a few drop-outs and my dad not being able to make it because of a family matter, we decided to change it from being “hunting camp” to being “family hunting camp.” We invited my husband’s whole family and his aunt who lives in the area as well as one of the other hunter’s families. We were the first to arrive.
Here’s the info we received on the lodge before we got there: “Bear Creek Lodge was originally built in 1927 as a rustic hunting camp, with no running water, bath facilities, central heat or electricity. Folklore tells us that in the early years the lodge served as a brothel for the hunters and fishermen of the north woods! What we now call the bunkhouse was the original cookhouse in the early days. Heat for the lodge was provided by the fireplace and a large wood burning stove situated in the middle of the great room. The river was the principal water source and the outhouse (a 2 holer) served as the lodge bathroom. Over the years the “old barn” has undergone many changes and updates to become the luxurious north woods retreat that you see today.”
The lodge was perfectly rustic in every way. These pictures were shot from the second level looking down into the great room. All of the bedrooms were situated off of the second level, and each one had its own rustic theme. Apologies for the low quality of the photos–the light was pretty low and my shaky hands weren’t doing me any favors.
As soon as we finished unpacking, Curtis, his dad, and I all headed out to explore the 120 acres attached to the lodge. Let’s talk about hunting for a minute, as there seems to be quite a lot of misconception about it among those who don’t hunt. Most people I talk to seem to have gotten most of their information about hunting from watching Bambi, which makes it seem particularly gruesome. So lets clear a few things up. First, you’re only allowed to hunt deer with a rifle for about two weeks out of the year, and this always occurs in the fall, when–due to their reproductive cycles–mother deer are no longer feeding and protecting fawns. The fawns are all grown up. Second, the Michigan DNR strictly regulates hunting to ensure that the deer population is stable. Third, when we shoot a deer, we make good use of it. We take it to a slaughter house that processes it into meat we will eat throughout the year (I’m a big fan of venison). And finally, consider that the majority of the meat we consume comes from factory farms in which animals live terrible lives. They’re fed weird things. They’re pumped full of hormones and antibiotics. They hardly see the light of day and they’re not even slaughtered particularly humanely. Sure, there are organic and free range farms that do things differently–and I encourage you to patronize them–but I think you can see my point. When we shoot a deer, we’re humanely killing an animal that has had a perfectly wild and decent life. I think it’s important to understand and respect just where your food comes from, and I think with hunting we do that. Alright, hunting lecture over. On to more pictures.
After scoping out the property I ran around the lodge taking pictures.
The first night at the lodge was hectic and lovely with all the families arriving and exclaiming at how beautiful and the place was. When Curtis first described hunting camp to me back in our early days of dating, I remember teasing him about how luxurious it seemed. I grew up with my dad taking me on hunts after which we would eat a can of Dinty Moore beef stew and crawl into our sleeping bags in a big army tent. That said, I think I like Curtis’ way better. The traditions include: eating nice dinners every night (including steak, prime rib, and lobster), martinis before dinner, single malt scotch after dinner, and playing cards by the fire until your eyes start to droop. I crawled into bed that night full and happy in my warmest pajamas (click the picture for more details) ready for the morning hunt.
We didn’t see anything on the first morning hunt, though that may have been because we didn’t get out there quite early enough. Deer move most at dawn and at twilight, so you usually leave the camp around 6 AM or so–before the sun comes up–but we had a mix up on sunrise so we left a tad later than we should have. After our uneventful hunt we headed back to the lodge to watch the Michigan football game (with Michigan beers, of course). We had heard a snowstorm would be rolling in and it was just starting to float down as the game started.
We started a fire in the enormous fieldstone fireplace and watched the snow keep falling and falling…
… and falling …
… until it was pretty much a winter wonderland outside.
At this point neither the kids nor I could stand to stay inside any longer and we bundled up and headed out into the snow. I snapped these pics of my new camel coat while they sledded down the hill in front of the lodge.
For the evening hunt that night we parked our pop up blind–think a squarish tent that sets up in about 30 seconds–right on what we dubbed “deer highway.” Paths that are frequented by deer eventually get tamped down enough for humans to spot, and this one was particularly easy to find because of the snow. Snow = deer tracks. Sadly, we didn’t see anything that night, but we did enjoy some hot cocoa while we watched the sun set in the forest. That night was lobster night, so we quickly forgot our woes about not seeing any deer as we prepped the lobster–martinis in hand–and washed them down with melted butter and white wine.
The next day I slept in while Curtis buddy-hunted with our friend Mitch. In the evening, Curtis’ sister decided to buddy-hunt with him, so I was freed up to run around and take way too many pictures of the snow.
Eventually I went back inside and thawed my fingers with a cup of hot cocoa.
And then I warmed them further with a nice martini and helped my father-in-law, the self-elected camp cook, prep the prime rib for dinner. Curtis and his sister rolled in after dark elated that they’d seen an enormous doe. They had decided to park the pop-up blind further into the property near a swamp with a bait pile near it. The doe wandered up near dusk and ate from the pile for nearly 30 minutes. I’m totally jealous but also extremely happy that they got to have such a cool experience.
Everyone but Curtis, his mom and dad, and I left on Monday, so the lodge felt strangely quiet. We spent most of the day hunting. That morning was my first day hunting in the swamp and I really enjoyed it. There’s something really amazing about sitting in a hunting blind. You wake up super early, blearily drink your coffee and eat your eggs, wrap yourself up in a ridiculous number of layers, and plunge out into the 30-degree weather. Then you hike out to your blind–for us that meant hiking through about a mile of thickening forest. Most of the way we used the moonlight to guide us, but by the end we needed our flashlight since the swamp was pretty dense. You hunker down into the blind and sit there in the quiet. Your own breathing sounds like a freight train. Your breathe rises visibly before you. You peer into the trees, anxious for any sign of movement. And slowly, over the course of an hour the forest around you becomes more distinct–you see trees instead of blurry outlines. Birds and squirrels begin their daily activities. Snow slips from branches. Icicles drip. And you search for a deer, any moment, to come wandering into view. It’s a moving experience. Having said that, we didn’t see any deer that morning. We did, however, see a bunch of fat blue jays attacking the bait pile over and over along with a skittish squirrel. The most interesting thing we saw was what was likely a pheasant–it looked just like a small chicken–that came barreling down to the bait pile around mid-morning. Eventually, as our toes began to numb, we decided to head in. The evening hunt was bizarrely quiet. We hardly saw anything that moved–just a few errant birds. We guessed that something about the weather had all the animals bedded down. To the right, I have a picture of me in most of my hunting gear. I have on: snow boots, Under Armor leggings, thick fleece pants, a base layer shirt, an Under Armor funnel neck top, a pink down coat, and a hunter orange down coat on top of it. When I go out I also add huge gloves, a fleece hat, and a giant alpaca scarf over my face. Pretty much my only exposed skin is my eyes.
Our final night at camp was a fun one. Instead of martinis, when we got in from the hunt we had squiskies–my dad’s invention. They’re just cheap whiskey and Squirt. Sounds simple, I know, but try it sometime. They’re delicious. My father-in-law made duck breast on the grill (delicious) and then we goaded my mother-in-law into playing poker with us, which she turned out to be quite good at.
The next morning we packed up and left, headed for Ann Arbor for Thanksgiving. I dare say we’ll be back.