SOUTH OF PATTISON STATE PARK — Gaylord “Googs” Palm peered out from among a tangle of fallen cedars, gazing over the same country he’s hunted since 1962. His .30-06 rifle, the one he’s shot since he was 15 or 16, leaned against one of the cedars.
Like more than about 600,000 other Wisconsin deer hunters, Palm, 73, was hoping to see a buck come sauntering his way on Saturday morning, opening day of Wisconsin’s gun deer season.
Palm, of Superior, wasn’t sitting in a deer stand.
“I’m a stander,” he said, his eyes sweeping the mixed forest of cedar, maple and ash.
Palm is the elder statesman of this camp tucked deep in the woods of northwestern Wisconsin. Somewhere in these woods are five other hunters — Matt Markon, 50, of Poplar and his son Justin, 25, of St. Paul; along with Randy Markon, 45, of Maple and his sons Joe, 21, and Steve, 19, also of Maple.
Through the course of the sunny but cool morning, they would see several deer but none that offered a good shot.
They hunters are part of a camp with a long and colorful history, and Palm can tell you all of it. Their deer shack is a cabin built from cedar logs in 1954. It’s a half-mile walk or four-wheeler ride from the nearest road on 40 acres of land the original hunters here bought in 1954. The property is surrounded by Douglas County land the party also hunts.
The humble cabin, a roomy 16 by 32 feet, is still mostly square. Inside, a couple of sets of respectable antlers hang on the beams. A barrel stove in the main room and a woodstove in the kitchen pour out heat that dries gloves and warms meals. Water comes from the well, pumped by hand in the kitchen. Gas lamps provide illumination.
“My old man started hunting here in 1915 when he was 15 years old,” Palm said. “They came in here (from Superior) by train and horse-drawn sleigh. They squatted in an old horse barn. Later on, they built a shack east of here and squatted on the land.”
In 1954, they went legal and bought some land from a hermit-like character, Andrew “Black River” Johnson, who lived and hunted here, Palm said. Johnson, so the story goes, hunted deer in homemade camouflage, wearing a long brown gunny sack from which he had cut two eye holes and two arm holes, Palm said.
The country has been fair to Palm, the Markons and others who have hunted here.
“We’ve had some really good years and really lean years,” Palm said. “The deeper the snow, the better the hunting is.”
On Saturday morning, with minimal snow cover on the ground, the hunters didn’t hear many shots, they said.
Like Palm, none of the other hunters sits up a tree in a stand. Sometimes, they simply stand. Or they might push some snow off a downed tree and sit there. They might sit for a while, get up, walk around the land. They know roughly where each other is going to be and sometimes bump into one another on their walkabouts.
The hunters have landmarks that they all know — the Yellow Pan, the Red Jug, the Big Cedar — named for notable trees or relics they have found on their land.
“That yellow pan has been here since before we were born,” Randy Markon said.
Returning with reports
At midday, the hunters began trickling back to the warmth of the cabin, filing their reports.
“I saw a flock of chickadees,” Randy Markon said. “Takes a lot of them to make a meal.”
Sign was plentiful. The trails they walked were pocked with deer hoofprints and deer droppings. Along one trail, the hunters had seen a buck rub and a fresh scrape.
Matt Markon and son Justin had seen two deer fleeing as they walked in to where they sat. Early on, Joe Markon had seen a doe with a fawn. Steve Markon had gotten “half a dozen glimpses of deer.” Randy saw one at a distance, on the move.
As hunters returned, the cabin began to fill with blaze-orange gear hung from bunk-bed posts. Palm shuffled in, shed his heavy coat and lay back on his bunk talking of back spasms.
Joel Markon and his daughter Natalie, 13, of Parkland, neither of them hunting on the opener, came out and made the hike in to see how the hunters were doing.
Joel has shot plenty of deer out here, his brother Matt said.
“Some people, animals just come to them,” Matt said. “That’s Joel.”
Ample wood heat radiated around the room.Conversations overlapped each other, and laughter rolled around the room. Randy Markon warmed soup and hotdogs for lunch.
The scene was no doubt being repeated in modest shacks and comfortable homes around the countryside. Few days across the Badger state are as eagerly anticipated as the gun deer opener.
“The biggest thing for me, coming out here, is just getting away from everything else,” Randy Markon said. “If you want to lie on your bunk and smoke a cigar, nobody cares.”
During rare lulls in the conversation, the hunters could hear meltwater dripping from the eaves and a southwest wind humming in the trees.
This will be a tough season for the patriarch of the camp among the cedars. Operating without both of his kidneys, Palm must return to town three times during the hunt for dialysis treatments.
“Brutal,” he had said earlier Saturday morning, standing among the cedars.
Not the treatments, he said, but being away from the hunting camp. Not standing in a tangle of cover with his old .30-06 at his side. Not being there if one of the younger men takes a buck.
“I hadn’t missed a day since ’62,” Palm said.