Published November 22, 2010, 10:14 AM

John Groninga: 90 years old, and still hunting

READING — John Groninga doesn’t see what the big deal is. While hunting in Paul Bunyan National Forest on Nov. 8, he sighted a doe 100 yards away through his rifle’s scope and shot it. He just happens to be 90 years old.

By: Daniel Kerwin, Northland Outdoors

READING — John Groninga doesn’t see what the big deal is.

While hunting in Paul Bunyan National Forest on Nov. 8, he sighted a doe 100 yards away through his rifle’s scope and shot it.

He just happens to be 90 years old.

Still, he doesn’t consider the successful kill much of an accomplishment.

“This is no lie — if you’d had a 16-year old girl that had gun training, and you had a deer standing there in the timbers like this was, just standing and looking at you, I mean, a 16-year-old girl could have shot this deer,” Groninga said. “This is no big accomplishment. They make it a big deal because I’m 90 years old. To me it’s no big deal, they think it’s a hell of a deal.”

If you consider that Groninga has been hunting in the same spot for 48 years, you can understand why he’s not bragging about shooting a single deer.

Groninga is the last surviving original member of a hunting group that has hunted the same area — close to Walker, Minn. — since 1953.

He hasn’t let old age prevent him from making the annual trip.

“Us guys that started this, we never quit,” Groninga said. “The same guys always went. The guys that I went with first were John Minders, Ray Wollenburg, Jerry Moerke and Pete Enninga. That was our first hunting crew. Now it’s their sons and grandsons.”

Among the sons and grandsons that have carried on the tradition were Groninga’s hunting partners on this year’s trip: Bob Wollenburg Sr., Bob Wollenburg Jr., John Felcyn, John Krohn, Jason Carter, Jamie Stoll and Dan Jensen.

Groninga remembers the very first time the elder Bob Wollenburg came along on one of the trips.

“Their sons were 13, 14 years old when they brought them up there,” Groninga said. “I remember going hunting with these kids when Bob Wollenburg (Sr.) was 15 years old. He was 15 years old and he shot a deer that first year he went up there.”

While members of the party have come and gone through the years, Groninga has only missed a single trip, which was around three years ago.

“That one year I went to the Minnesota/Penn State game and froze to death,” Groninga said. “It snowed ten inches. We were in Penn State, in a winter-wonderland down there, and sat there and froze our butts at a football game. I didn’t go that fall because I got pneumonia from being there. That’s the only year I missed though, I think.”

Groninga is a die-hard University of Minnesota sports fan, having adopted the Gophers after sending three of his children to the university.

“That’s why I always wear a Minnesota hat,” Groninga said. “I bleed Minnesota blood.”

Groninga also is a big follower of the Worthington high school basketball teams, and tries to get to all of the games that he can.

Groninga was born in 1920 in Sibley, Iowa, but moved to Minnesota in 1927. He was raised on farms, and grew up trapping and bird hunting before going deer hunting for the first time when the annual trip began.

Even today when he goes on the hunting trip he takes an old-school approach.

He has witnessed as the group has adapted to the times in such ways as hauling deer using an ATV rather than simply dragging them — an upgrade that he says “spoiled all the dragging fun” — but there are certain upgrades he has refused to make.

“I don’t have no GPS — I don’t need a GPS,” Groninga said. “I’ve got a compass in my pocket. I’m an old army man, I grew up almost four years in the service. You could walk at nights with a compass, you could go anywhere and come back to the same spot with a compass, so you don’t have to have no GPS to get you around.”

While not on the hunting trips, Groninga has farmed for a living.

He doesn’t recall his days as a dairy farmer much too fondly.

“In 25 years I washed over a million damn teats,” Groninga said. “The happiest day of my life was when I told my wife one day that we’re done with this… I sold everything, I just flat quit, and enjoyed life after that like you couldn’t believe.”

The annual hunting trip was a way for him to get away every year with some of his best friends — friends he would play pinochle and other card games with during the rest of the year.

It was such a special time of year for all of them that they have kept a very careful record of each and every trip.

“We have a running book — every day of hunting, every time we’ve ever shot a deer,” Groninga said. “We keep a record of everything that goes on.”

Each family that has gone on the trips has their own copy of the album. The album has records of every deer shot on each trip, and photographs from each trip.

It also documents traditions that have been established on the hunting trip, such as each member of the group taking a shot of whiskey when returning to their cabins after a day of hunting, and the yearly tradition of spending one night of the trip at a steak house, where Groninga says “we just lavish ourselves with all the food we can eat.”

However, by talking to Groninga it is possible to learn more about the history of the hunting trip than would ever be possible to put inside an album.

He has memories of past hunting trips that span right from their humble beginnings.

“The first time we went there we had a 1952 Dodge pickup, with a wooden rack and a canvas over the top,” Groninga said. “Two guys rode in the cab, and three of us rode in the back, all the way to Walker. We came home that way too.”

Groninga can tell you of the year that it snowed 22 inches in one night. Then there was the year where a member of the hunting party was lost in a dense fog for 12 hours, an experience that led the lost hunter to never go out hunting again.

Groninga even remembers the very first deer that he shot, which was also a doe.

On that trip, he was perched in a deer hunting stand that he had built himself — a stand he has returned to numerous times throughout the years

“I was looking down between two pine trees,” Groninga said. “All at once I see this fleck of brown, and this fawn walked out and stood there and looked at me up in my stand. I didn’t flinch or move or nothing. I never could shoot fawns — there’s people who can shoot fawns, but I can’t shoot fawns. I just can’t.

“Pretty soon between those pine trees, here come that big old doe. I had open sights, and I just dropped her right there. You know what, it just really felt bad. You shouldn’t feel bad about shooting a deer, but the first deer I shot I felt really bad about.”

For Groninga, going on the hunting trips has never really been about hunting deer. It merely has provided an excuse to get away every year with some of his best friends to create some lasting memories.

For Groninga, a 90-year-old man unphased by shooting a doe at his age, creating those memories is what he considers to be the big deal.

“The reason I do this more than anything else, is I just enjoy being with these guys,” Groninga said. “It’s that camaraderie you have in the cabin, and the few shots you have, and the stories you tell — for me, that’s a big deal. Shooting another deer or doe is not a big deal, not for me. For some people it is, but for me it wasn’t.”

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