On November 22nd roughly 600,000 Wisconsinites will take to the woods to partake in the annual ritual lovingly known as “Deer Camp” or opening day of the rifle deer hunt. Deer hunting is popular across many rural regions of the USA, but for my money Wisconsin takes deer hunting to a higher level.
Workloads must be altered to accommodate the hunt due to so many blue collar workers in the woods instead of in the factories. A lesson learned early after moving to Wisconsin in 2000 was that scheduling worker related services for factory customers anytime near rifle season is wasted time and money.
In 2011 I participated in my first deer camp. My friend owns some wooded land in north central Wisconsin. Twice per year he and some of his closest deer hunting friends go “Up North” to deer camp. Once to clean up the camp and get ready for the hunt and then return the Friday before opening day to set up camp, some hunters do not return home until after Thanksgiving.
I’ve spent little time hunting over the years, not because I dislike guns or shooting, but for a dislike of getting up before the crack of dawn to trudge in the darkness through a cold field or woods and endure whatever the elements throw at me for the sake of sport.
It is however, fun to listening to the guys tell hunting camp stories and I’ve always wanted to share in the experience without actually sitting in a deer stand all day.
After a few years of turning down invitations to deer camp, and after the stories got the best of me, I agreed to participate in 2011 on one condition. Let me be the camp cook. Hunters get up before dawn, hike or drive an ATV to their deer stand and remain there most if not all day until sunset. They must get hungry right, so why not a camp cook?
In the old west the cook was considered the most important person in camp and had to be quite resourceful in providing three hot square meals a day, rain or shine, cold or hot.
We all remember Hop Sing from Bonanza, and Wishbone from Raw Hide. The TV show Wagon Train was centered round the activities of a grizzled old cook named Charlie Wooster. Most camp cooks were simply referred to as Cookie.
There is a price to pay for a bunk at deer camp. It is simple and legitimate. One weekend in fall, before it gets too cold, the group heads to camp and clears out downed timber from the trails and clears new growth away from shooting lanes around each deer stand.
To earn my bunk and to give the guys a taste of having a cook in camp, I went along.
The first morning cooking duties were eschewed to help the guy’s clear trails and shooting lanes. With any luck it would show the guys what a team player the new cook is by demonstrating an ability to multitask, plus it was great being out in the woods on a warm morning in October.
At noon it was back to camp to set up for a feast while the guys finished clearing dead trees and brush from around the trails and stands.
I was assured that the group always grilled food during deer camp and the grills that were already in camp would be more than enough to cook for the small group in camp clearing shooting lanes and trails.
Indeed there were grills in camp; one broken Weber kettle grill, one hornet infested tail gate grill, a fire ring, a 3’ x 4’ grate and a few bricks.
Babyback ribs were on the menu and ribs can’t be grilled like steak, they must be slow cooked at a low temperature for hours to break down the connective tissue until the meat falls off of the bone and the smoke slowly permeates the meat to form a caramelized glaze on top that is full of wonderful flavors.
The Weber was an easy fix, and the hornets were burned out of the little grill that I set inside of the Weber as a hot box for indirect heat. The fire ring was placed in the kettle to give the ribs safe distance from the hot box, and bricks were set on top of the grate. The Weber lid was finally placed on top of the bricks to regulate heat and hold in the beautiful hickory smoke.
What were the results of my adaptation? Let’s just say that there were no leftover ribs and I earned a bunk for opening weekend of camp. Cooking facilities were upgraded for the hunt too. We hauled my smoker to camp in a trailer next to two ATVs and I packed 2 propane fueled camp stoves for side dishes and a stew.
Was I the most important person in camp? Definitely not, but I did get invited back for the opening of rifle season every year since and been given a few new nicknames along the way. Hop Sing, however, is the nickname that stuck.
The guys have grown to like a camp cook and we are getting more adventurous with the menu. Last year I smoked a 10 pound Prime Rib with a medley of veggies including asparagus, carrots, cauliflower, and broccoli. This year we are cutting back on expenses so I’m thinking a pair of 10 pound pork butts for pulled pork with baked beans and slaw.
We are now cooking over 4 stacked wheel rims, it is a great multitask utensil. Alton Brown from the Food Network would be proud. If you need to grill at higher heat, less rims, if you need to slow cook at lower heat, more rims. Keep It Simple Stupid! Plus there is always a large pot of chili to warm a cold hunter up between rounds in the stand.
Have a fruitful, fun and safe deer hunt everybody!