NORTH OF ISLAND LAKE, Minn. — At 5:30 a.m. Saturday, Mike Morley of Eveleth put the coffee water on to boil at his deer shack. Then he stepped outside to check the thermometer.
“Forty degrees out there,” he announced to his fellow hunters. “It’s ridiculous.”
Most of Minnesota’s estimated 500,000 deer hunters must have had the same thought Saturday morning. But on a day that would see temperatures rise to a record 69 degrees in Duluth, those hunters had gathered with friends and family to carry on one of the most hallowed traditions in Minnesota’s outdoor heritage — the firearms deer opener.
“This is the first time I’ve woken up here in deer season and there hasn’t been a chill in the air,” Morley said. “It’s unbelievable.”
Morley and three companions had gathered Friday night at the humble shack his family has been using since 1941. The camp’s name, “Hellovahaven,” is spelled out in block letters over the front door alongside a couple sets of deer racks and a moose antler.
Joining Morley, 38, were his brother-in-law, Jim Smith, 42, of Virginia, Minn.; long-time friends Patrick Mickle, 38, of Tower, Minn., and Dan Listug, 36, of Pequot Lakes, Minn.
Well before dawn, after a quick breakfast of blueberry bagels, Morley, Smith and Listug headed for their deer stands. Mickle had already shot a doe near Tower this fall with his bow, so he wasn’t hunting. But he still had to come to camp.
“I just come for the stories and the cards and the harassment,” he said.
“Hellovahaven” is down a long and soupy forest trail in the Cloquet Valley State Forest, well north of Island Lake.
“You’ll come to a water hole that it looks like you won’t want to cross,” Morley had said in giving directions. “But it’s OK. You can get through it if you have four-wheel drive and good clearance.”
The shack, 12 feet by 22 feet, sits on 40 acres of land owned by Morley’s family and one other. His late grandfather, Duluth’s Thomas Morley, and three friends had originally hunted deeper in the woods nearby, perhaps in the 1920s, Morley said.
“They were squatting, way back in the woods,” he said.
As the story has been passed down, Thomas Morley had discovered the hunting land while riding the train north from Duluth to help build the dam that formed Whiteface Reservoir. Ultimately, he and some friends had the chance to buy the present 40 acres.
“They built this current place in the winter of 1940-41,” Morley said.
Thomas Morley and his hunting friends found an unused building and moved it to the present site, reconstructing it. Subsequent generations, including Mike’s dad and uncle, have done little to change the ambience in the past 75 years. The two gas lights are originals. Yellowed posters, maps, cartoons and outdoor magazine covers are pinned to whitewashed walls. A metal Copenhagen road sign, complete with bullet holes, hangs above the bunks.
Water is hauled in. Propane powers the lights and cookstove. The barrel woodstove may be an original — flames are visible in its belly through a hole in the top.
“This may be the last year for that stove,” Morley said.
“Yeah, you said that last year,” Listug reminded him.
Ups and downs
Hunting success has varied through the decades.
“Historically, we’ve had some pretty good luck,” Morley said. “But the last two years I don’t think we’ve seen one deer.”
No — two does, two years ago, Morley and his friends decided upon further review. But that’s it. The hunters are more hopeful about this season.
“There are actual scrapes this year,” Morley said. “I’ve seen several scrapes.”
Bucks scrape the forest floor bare in places to leave their scent for any does that might be in the neighborhood and desire breeding.
The camp’s 40 acres represent an island of private land, and with little public access to surrounding public land, the camp remains a heck of a haven. The hunters rarely see other deer hunters.
Night before opener
On Friday night, the four men sat around a campfire not far from the back door, telling stories and sipping beers. Listug had brought steaks that Morley grilled. Someone boiled potatoes and warmed green beans.
After dinner, under the buttery glow of the old gas lights, the hunters pulled down a bottle of Famous Grouse Scotch and raised a toast to their predecessors.
“To the old guys,” they hollered.
They slugged downed the Scotch, a brand apparently preferred by those who came before them.
“That’s bad,” Morley said, wincing.
The others agreed, but it was a tradition that they feel they must carry on. The hunters hold strong to the memory of previous generations.
“It’s a tangible piece of my family history,” Morley said. “You can feel the old guys here. It’s kind of a presence — so many stories, knowing we have the same feelings they did, looking forward to the hunt.”
Morley remembers how much his father, also named Mike Morley, loved hunting from this camp.
“It would be February, and my dad would say, ‘You know, deer season isn’t that far off,’ ” Morley said.
Finally — opening day
The anticipation peaked on Saturday morning as the hunters headed for 8-foot, hand-built ladder stands dubbed “The Meat Stand,” “Beaver Dam,” “Rack Stand” and the distant “Island Stand.”
“The Meat Stand,” on the edge of a growing-up clearcut, has been productive in recent years. But “The Island Stand” holds good memories.
“It’s tough to get ’em out of there,” Morley said, “but, man, are there deer back there.”
The morning hunt grew warm by midday. A loon called from a nearby lake. A few shots rang out in the distance, but nothing close.
By midday, all three hunters had returned to the shack looking for the venison Polish sausages Mickle had warmed up. None of the hunters had seen a deer.
“A gray jay landed on my stand,” Smith said.
That was as much wildlife as they had seen. But the season was still young.