She Celebrates: Deer Hunting and Widow’s Weekend: Unofficial Holidays of the Northwoods

The wonderful thing about growing up in a place you loved and then moving away is that you are able to see the very distinct subcultures that exist in that town/city/region that you maybe didn’t recognize in your youth. For me, having grown up in a small town in Northern Wisconsin, one of the most prominent subcultures this time of year is deer camp and widow’s weekend. These are two phrases that, despite the ominous undertones of the latter, were always part of my vernacular. It wasn’t until I went to college that I realized that these concepts were very exclusive to specific areas based on proximity to open land and what I can only assume is, historically, being removed from big city conveniences and needing to hunt for survival.* Of course, the survival element is less critical in the modern age, but as someone who finds absolute joy in the outdoors and who has indirectly felt the community of deer camp, I can see why this sport and surrounding culture has lived on.

I don’t have very strong feelings about the sport of deer hunting one way or another. The benefits in my mind are that venison is a delicious lean protein, being directly connected to the food you eat is always preferable, and hunting is a humane way of controlling the animal population. The actual art of hunting, however, never appealed to me, despite the best of intentions of my father. That being said, there is an electricity about the culture of deer hunting and “deer camp” that has always drawn me in. I think it appeals to the primitive beings we all come from and the hunter/gatherer survival instincts from eras gone by. There’s a perspective to be found when you remove yourself from modern conveniences (to a point; my dad has a heater in his tree stand), and connect with nature to procure your own food. It’s a lot harder to care about your deadline at work, what outfit you’re wearing tomorrow, or why that jerk never texted you back when you’re immersed in the most basic elements of the earth. You know how, after a bad breakup, you take off on a healing vacation somewhere far away and, suddenly, all your problems seem much smaller? That’s the best comparison I can find for this feeling.

The opening of gun hunting season (the season most popular in my neck of the woods) is the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Many enthusiasts take the week of Thanksgiving off work and school and participate in the eight day season. It was an interesting realization in my adult life that not everyone’s district allowed students to miss school for hunting season as this was a completely reasonable and even typical expectation in my school. For my family, deer camp always existed on a plot of 40 acres that my family owned about 20 miles from my hometown. A modest pole barn with two bunk rooms, a full kitchen and wood-burning stove, my quest for coziness would always end here. When I was an exhausted college student and I’d be home visiting, my dad and I would pack up the dog, a movie and some snacks and head out to “the shack” for an afternoon of naps and lazy meandering through the woods. It’s no surprise that coziness, cabins, and my cuddly pup became fundamental elements of my adult life.

Deer camp, while a physical location, is also a gathering of friends. It’s a time that my dad and brother and all hunters, I’m sure, use to connect with friends and family. My dad, a longtime resident of the Northwoods, has honed his hunting tradition over many years. Each night brings a new cabin with its own community dinner and plentiful opportunities to razz newcomers and fondly remember those who have gone. My brother has lived all over the Midwest and, incidently, has made friends from many walks of life. He has always made a point to invite even the most cosmopolitan of friends to this Northwoods environment. Many of them, to this day, regale all who will listen with tales of the shenanigans they got into which often times centered on middle-of-nowhere bars and hangin’ with the boys. Sometimes deer camp has nothing to do with hunting.

The flip side of deer camp is widow’s weekend. Because of the high population of people, mostly men, who hunt in a conversely not very populated area, the business owners around town take advantage of this marketing opportunity toward the “widows” and create women-centered events for the ladies to play while the men are away. These events can include ladies’ nights at bars, shopping specials at local boutiques and special dining and entertainment options. If this screams a little too gender stereotyped to you, well, it is. That being said, I know many women who hunt and many men who don’t, and I assure you there’s a place for everyone on both sides of this long standing tradition.

On the Hunt: The History of Deer Hunting in Wisconsin does a better job than we ever could discussing the history of hunting in Wisconsin.
*  This book  does a better job than we ever could discussing the history of hunting in Wisconsin.

So, how do I fit into all this? I don’t hunt and, as I’ve grown older, any shopping that I can’t do from my couch stresses me out. For me, it’s about the spirit. Deer hunting and widow’s weekend is the kick-off to my holiday season. It brings about the same giddiness I get during the first snowfall or seeing a Christmas tree light up. It’s the beginning of a blessed month of holidays where I’ll return to my childhood home, see the people who have been irreplaceable in my life for many years, and remove myself from the stressors of my daily life that I’ve let become far too important. I’ll wear flannel, my Stormy Kromer and no makeup and cook dinner with my mom. I’ll curl up by the wood stove in the hunting shack and drink wine with friends. I’ll return to my favorite hometown bar and listen to hunters lie about the size of the deer they saw that day. I’ll remember that, despite how much I’ve gown and changed, some traditions should always be carried on.  

Yours in Adventure,