In the Eau Claire county forests there is a sleepy, infrequently trafficked road. Off that road, if you continue straight, runs an even smaller road. This one is wash-boarded, windy, and has a gravel and sand surface, instead of black top. As you drive along into relative obscurity, you begin to imagine why someone gave this road its very fitting name: Stoney Lonesome. As your truck swerves potholes and ruts, you’ll see tall, virgin white pines, thick tag alder swamps, forgotten creeks, and drive under a huge string of high voltage lines. After a while, you turn onto yet another even smaller road. It’s actually more of a trail. The trail dead ends where an un-named creek bisects it. And there, there are deer hunters.
In 2002, I was first allowed to hunt when I was 12 years old. That’s both a long time ago and not so long ago, given your perspective. At that time, we hunted down off Stoney Lonesome Road. Such is the nature of hunting public land, the timbered rises and gentle slopes down to the swamps have been logged off, and now there are primarily clear cuts where we used to hunt. But, in 2002 our hunting area was in its full glory! I recall there was a giant granite boulder, roughly the size of a Volkswagen Bus on top of an oak saddle. It was hugely out of place – not a single other rock of any size could be seen anywhere around. It was like it had been dropped there from space! On opening day, you could sit in your stand from 6:30 am until 10 am and not 2 minutes would go by without hearing a shot, such was the volume of hunters. As I previously stated, these were deer hunters, not trophy hunters, and they were good ones. Many large bucks fell in those swamps, but those were more casualties of happy chance, than targeted hunting. Our party, as well as most in the area, simply hoped for a deer. I remember the first year we hunted those woods. A member of our party, Andy, had a doe come racing past his stand on opening afternoon and he dropped her with his lever action 30-30. What he didn’t know, being that we were deer hunters first and trophy hunters second, was that there was a beautiful buck chasing her. That monster buck escaped back the way he came, only to stop 40 yards in front of my cousin Kevin. The story ended at the conclusion of a heavy blood trail. Kevin had shot a dandy 10 pointer, that to this day Andy still refers to as, “Andy’s Buck”.
We had a lot of wonderful memories hunting that roughly 120 acres of woods that consisted of our hunter “home range”. We got to know the area well, and there was one hunting group of dedicated and successful hunters whose home range overlapped with ours. I first met these hunters in person around 2004 when in early bow season, I stumbled across a beautifully placed and expertly built deer blind. You could find it by driving down the previously mentioned trail and crossing what we lovingly referred to as, “Stinky Creek” due to it’s sulfery, rotten egg smell. You hand to hand rail the creek on the Northern side through white pines that hadn’t been cut down since Paul Bunyan roamed the county. About 1/3 mile in, you crossed the creek at a 90 degree angle. It was hard to miss due to the heavy deer trail that was used year after year. In you would walk for 50 yards, and there was the blind. There were six shooting lanes cut to about 75 yards each. The woods were relatively open with nice red oaks that offered feeding, and swampy bedding cover all around. It was a natural deer haven. I decided that my Uncle Chuck, should hunt the blind, so I cleared it out a bit and set up a stool. That night on Opening Day Eve, our entire hunting party went to the locally famous Black Bear Supper Club only to run into Paul and Bobber, the protagonists of our story. As it turns out, they were the hunting party that overlapped with ours and I told them about the blind my Uncle would be hunting. They quickly told me that that was in fact their blind! Paul had found the spot and built the blind in 1983 and they had been hunting there ever since. Needless to say, we let them hunt their stand and there was no ill will between the two parties, despite my attempt to usurp their prime hunting location! The next year I walked over to the blind to check it out during bow season and found a painted, wooden sign placed there that read, “Paul’s Stand – Reserved – Est 1983”!
Over the years, we got to know Paul and Bobber. Not well, but enough that we would always say “hi” and trade deer hunting notes. They were almost always successful. They had been hunting the area since the 1960s and whether by accident or by strategic design, they had learned the small area of Stoney Lonesome Road really, really well. It was fun to recount tales with them and talk about the property and landscape. Paul and Bobber had to have been in their late sixties or early seventies then. Throwbacks and a fixture in our little hunting community, just like so many grandfathers, uncles, and friends.
Then came the big cut. In 2010, our area was logged off and with it our will to continue hunting there. The deer were still there, yes, but with such a massive clear-cut of our core hunting area, we were disheartened. I’m not complaining, but when the entire landscape that you’ve learned to love so much is changed that drastically, it can be a bit depressing. One of the few areas not cut, however, was Paul’s Stand. So Paul and Bobber kept hunting there, and with less competition, shot some dandy deer! I remember them telling me one year that on Opening Day they had shot a 10 pointer, 8 pointer, and a Spike buck out of Paul’s Stand.
That’s why it was so strange this year to go back. On Monday of Gun Season, my dad and I had a wild hair to go back and hunt our old stomping grounds. Sure enough, it still didn’t look a thing like it had before the cut. It was noticeably quiet and you could almost feel a small emptiness in the air. We walked to Paul’s Stand and found out why. In the snow from the previous week, there were no fresh tracks. The sign I had fondly remembered was mostly covered up and a few letters were peeling. I wiped them off… Paul’s Stand, Est 1983. No one had been there.
My dad and I reminisced about the fantastic hunts we had and wondered what had happened to Paul and Bobber. They were the essence of Tradition and the Old Ways of the Wisconsin Gun Season. For 50 years, a small group of friends traveled North to an uninhabited portion of the Eau Claire county swamps and hunted deer. And drank beer. And ate good food. And talked smart. And couldn’t wait for the next season to do it all over again. What had happened to these old Timers, these Stalwarts of Tradition?
The next weekend, Second Weekend, my dad came down the small trail to Stinky Creek and found a man there scouting out the area near his pick-up truck. They stopped and like public land hunters do, shot the breeze and complained about the lack of deer. They too had been hunting the area for decades. Apparently we, with our 15 years of intermittent hunting, were the babies of the area! On an off chance as they parted ways, my Dad asked him if he happened to see any other hunters there on Opening Weekend. The Hunter scratched his beard and answered immediately, “Sort of, we did.” He went on. According to his story, two old gentlemen were sitting by the creek in a happy, yet serious looking conversation. The Hunter approached them and asked if they had done any hunting. They replied not this year. They told him that they had come back one last time to say goodbye. They sat on their tailgate and passed back and forth between them a flask, and told The Hunter that they had hunted this area for over 50 years, and wanted to come back to see the creek just one last time. The Hunter said they must have been at least 70 years old, maybe older. My dad asked if he had caught their names. He hadn’t.
The story struck me as sad. Two great Hunters, men who had shot dozens of deer off this little known tract of land and had made the world a better place through their enthusiasm, zest for life, and great memories, had fired their last rounds. I thought more about it though, and realized that it was truly a moment worth celebrating. A retirement party of the most intimate and meaningful nature.
These men are very similar to the Old Hunters in your party. The ones with the best stories, the worst hunting habits, the keenest wit around the cards table. They remind us all of our own mortality as Deer Hunters and that although it seems now like we have limitless hunting seasons, there will someday be a season that is our last. It shows us that each time afield and each beer shared with friends and family after a hunt, no matter how successful, is worth cherishing. Our hunting parties will continue to evolve and change and someday we will be those Old Timers that the younger hunters learn from, look up to, and tell stories about. It reminds me that there is so much more than dead deer on the meat pole or the wall – the important thing is doing the things you love with the people you love and basking in the joy of each day and moment spent in the Great Outdoors. Especially in Orange, during Wisconsin’s Gun Deer Season.
I am not 30 years old and presumably have many hunting seasons left. My only hope is that after 50 more seasons of hunting, I get to spend my last with my best hunting buddy, sharing a drink on the bank of a fondly remembered, un-named creek, in celebration of a life well lived.