This would have been the 23rd year for Camp Grouse, pitched in a small clearing among maple trees in the Chippewa National Forest, but COVID-19 got in the way.
The group of five retired biologists, all in their 70s now and who live scattered across the state, decided their fall tradition of tenting in the grouse hunting woods for a week each October — complete with campfire meals, wine in plastic cups and plenty of fireside banter — wasn't worth the risk.
Four of the guys did show up for a couple hours one day, at noon, to gather socially distanced and uphold their tradition.
Then they drove home in separate trucks.
"We each had our own lunches ... We talked about lots of things but failed to solve any problems," said Bill Berg of Knife River, the elder statesman of the group. "COVID made us think about next year's Camp Grouse. Will it be allowed to happen? Can four or five of us ever be in truly close quarters again? Of course, we hope so."
Across the Northland and the nation, annual fall hunting camp traditions are being impacted by the pandemic that's affected nearly every part of our lives, with more than 215,000 U.S. deaths so far and a full-scale second surge underway this autumn.
While some hunting camps are going ahead as usual, others have scaled-back their rosters or changed schedules. And some people are simply staying away. Older camp members seem less likely to go as usual, the opportunity for the virus to spread among people who haven't previously been together is too real, some say, for the most vulnerable.
Hunting, yes, but not staying at camp
Tim Allen of Duluth, who hunts at the McCabe family deer camp in North Star Township, said some folks in their group will be in camp this year, a cabin with traditions dating back to 1955. The exception will be longtime regulars Ron and Todd Siciliano of Thunder Bay, Ontario. With the U.S./Canada border expected to remain closed well into winter, the Sicilianos won't be able to cross.
Allen said he's planning to hunt every day he can during the season but that he will return home to Duluth each night rather than partake in the usual deer shack camaraderie.
"I'm 70 now and I'm just not comfortable staying in the cabin with lots of people at this point," Allen noted.
Rob McCabe said the camp will be down to just a few people. He's not sure how much time his father, camp patriarch Tom McCabe, 89, will spend in camp.
"He may come out for the day, I don't know yet," Rob said. COVID-19 "is definitely going to affect the season. We're down to a smaller group this year."
Business as usual for huge camp
Farther up north, the Triple B Deer Camp near Northome will probably be business as usual, said Bill Hartman of Duluth, one of the camp elders, even though they may have up to 60 people on hand at once.
"It will probably be the same as any year. Each group has their own cabin. And when we come together at the campfire for BS and a beverage, we're outside," Hartman said.
Most of the crowd already has been together at family events, including a summer golf outing with more than 50 people, he noted.
"I don't see anyone staying away from deer camp because of" COVID-19, he said.
Camp timeshares shack time
Steve Bolstad's hunting camp is on timber company leased land near Ray in Koochiching County. He shares it with his son and his brother, Dave Bolstad of International Falls, and another father-and-son duo.
This year Steve Bolstad raised his COVID concerns early with other members of the camp that was founded in the mid-1970s.
"I have asthma. I don't know what's going to happen if I get this; whether I'll have a little headache and be fine or end up with a tube down my throat," said Bolstad, 54, a Falls native who now lives in Ramsey, Minnesota.
So the camp came up with a timeshare plan. The other father and son will get the first week and the last weekend. The Bolstads will get the second week.
"We just didn't want everyone in that little cabin at one time," he said. "There isn't much social distancing in a hunting shack."
Bolstad said he will miss the camaraderie of having the whole group together, as well as visits to other camps during the season that won't happen this year.
"As much as I love the hunting experience, I was willing to not go this year," he said. "Hopefully we can make this work. But it will be different."
Grandfather, grandson may stay home
Wisconsin hunter Greg Massoglia said his Iron County deer camp near Hurley "is relatively safe" because it's just immediate family members. Still, his father remains unsure about going, a move that would break a 46-year-long tradition.
"My 87-year-old dad is hesitant about going even though our gang consists of my two sons, my dad and me. Right now he is undecided," Massoglia said, noting that his youngest son, too is "nervous about going" to deer camp and "contemplating not going." "Even though it is mostly family, we are still sanitizing and being careful.
Younger camp, no changes
The Finstad family deer camp about 40 miles south of Superior should be business as usual, too, as it has been for 51 previous seasons. Eric Finstad will be there with his teenage son and daughter and likely a couple of close family friends with whom they already have mingled.
"We have a younger-and-middle age group now — our oldest have now died off or retired off — so we won't be doing anything different COVID-wise," Finstad noted.
Separate cabins to keep dad safe
For the Zwak family, most of whom herald from the Duluth area, they expect most of the same crew to show up at their often bustling deer camp north of Duluth.
"Most of us have already been around each other so that's not going to make a big difference," said Ken Zwak.
But the camp is making some changes. The group will split up between multiple cabins rather than gather in one large group "so we're not all packed so close together," Ken noted.
The group will forgo the annual Friday-before-opener breakfast at a local restaurant. And the camp's famous Monday night party, a traditional feast that attracted hunters from other camps, has been canceled for this year, Ken said.
The deer camp and several family cabins on Bassett Lake up around Fairbanks is overseen by patriarch Larry Zwak, 86 and afflicted with Parkinson's disease. Ken said the crew is especially wary of exposing Larry to any possible problem.
"Dad's going to be up there for at least one night, I'm sure," Ken Zwak said. "But we'll try to keep him away from any trouble; keep him in a separate cabin."
First duck camp missed in 44 years
Bob Haapala of Virginia has been a duck hunter since 1963, hunting in Canada every autumn since 1976. His duck camp, Scaup Inc., is only 40 miles as the ringbill flies from the U.S. border. But like thousands of other Northlanders who usually trek north each fall — to fish, hunt ducks, grouse, bear, deer or moose — he can't across the closed border.
"I'm resigned to no hunting this year for me," Haapala said. All because of COVID-19.
Waited until camp was less crowded
Bow Owens of Duluth, an avid duck hunter and member of the historic Squaw Lake Bird Watchers Society duck camp, said he skipped opening weekend — usually a highlight of the season — because the group was going to be too large.
"A few of us declined to join the group due to COVID-19," Owens said.
But Owens isn't giving up on hunting this fall. He said he waited until the crowd scattered and went up to camp at mid-week, when it wasn't as crowded.
Retired guys can do that.