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Sam Cook column: Savoring deer season with the 'West Branch' gang

Nov 12, 2017 11:40AM ● Published by Editor

By Sam Cook from The Duluth News Tribune - November 11, 2017

NORTH OF DULUTH — It's a bright and clear Monday, the third day of Minnesota's firearms deer season. At midday, the hunters of the West Branch Hunting Club, now in its 59th year, have trundled back through the snow to their humble but well-kept deer shack.

Chili is warming on the stovetop, and leftovers from Sunday night's steak are sliced bite-size on a nearby plate. Brownies are already on the table.

The hunters, some wearing their blaze-orange "West Branch Hunting Club" shirts, help themselves to the food and sit down at the big table.

Roughly the same thing is happening at hundreds — thousands? — of other hunting shacks across Northeastern Minnesota on this first Monday of deer season. All of the hurry and anticipation of the opener is behind the hunters. They have settled into the hunt now. Rising early. Eating well. Heading out to the stand. Sitting. Watching. Listening. Hoping. Returning to the shack with their appetites and their stories.

There could be no more typical deer camp than this bunch at West Branch. Five of the camp's members are still in camp on this Monday — 71-year-old Dick DeBolt of Island Lake; son Gary, 46, of Rice Lake; Gary's son, Andrew DeBolt, 13; Bob Mattsen, 63, of Blaine, Minn. (formerly of Duluth); and his son Ryan Mattsen, 38, of St. Paul Park, Minn.

Though the camp is an all-male contingent now, women are welcome, and Gary DeBolt's sister hunted there as a teenager.

Lean years

A propane stove is throwing an even heat around the shack, a significant improvement over the old oil stove.

"Back in the day, there used to be two temperatures — 'Open the door!' and 'Close the door!' " said Gary DeBolt, a third-generation member of the camp.

So far in the young season, only Bob Mattsen has seen a deer, early on opening morning.

"It was just a dark outline," he said.

No shots were fired.

Nobody in camp is particularly discouraged about not seeing deer.

"It's hunting," Gary DeBolt said. "We still have fun."

(By evening, Ryan Mattsen would break the camp's three-year drought by shooting a buck.)

The hunters have learned to ride out the less-productive years. Dick DeBolt's late father, Lloyd DeBolt, had laid out his deer hunting philosophy long ago.

"He told us, 'You find an area. You stay there. You'll have good times, and you'll have lean times,' " Dick DeBolt said.

A creek runs through it

The "West Branch" name is derived from the watershed around the camp. A spring-fed creek near the shack feeds the West Branch of the Knife River, a brook trout and steelhead stream that flows to Lake Superior. One night long ago, a member of the camp returned from the creek with a pail of water, Gary DeBolt said. A young brookie was swimming in it.

That story has taken its place along with so many more in the lore and history of this camp. The shack is on 2½ acres of St. Louis County leased land. The hunters' stands — Porky, Bullwinkle, Ship's Ladder, Rusty Bucket and others — are on county land. Each stand's name has a story behind it.

The West Branch shack — a 16-by-30-foot structure, now with an 8-foot addition, was built from lumber procured from an abandoned home. Legally. The place is cozy and clean. Jackets and wool shirts hang from deer antlers mounted on one wall. Rifles rest in two racks on another wall. Overstuffed chairs line one wall. The dining-room table is the focal point of the room, and it's often laden with food prepared by Ryan Mattsen, a sous chef at the St. Paul Hotel in St. Paul. Nobody comes late to dinner.

"Everyone thinks we go out into the woods to shoot deer," Gary DeBolt says with a laugh.

The hunters come, he says, to tell stories and eat well — and shoot a deer if the opportunity arises.

The next generation

At lunch, the conversation drifts from grouse hunting this fall (good) to pheasant hunting out west (tough) to steelhead fishing to the absence of young hunters in neighboring camps.

"It breaks my heart," Bob Mattsen said about the shrinking number of young hunters. "Where's that next generation going to come from?"

The unspoken question is, what will become of all these deer shacks?

Young Andrew DeBolt eats his chili, taking in all of this. If you ask him what he likes about coming up to the West Branch camp, he'll tell you: "Pretty much everything."

"He shot a lot of grouse this fall," Bob Mattsen says.

Good neighbors

Several other shacks dot the mixed woods in the vicinity of West Branch, the hunters say. They all know each other, get along well and check in frequently by two-way radio.

The remains of old Alger-Smith Logging Company railroad grades snake through the woods, allowing the hunters reference points and, in some cases, easier walking. The camp's members occasionally come across old railroad ties or even a piece of rail. They stumble upon relics of the logging era on their way to and from their stands.

Lunch is over now. A nap or two might be in order before the evening hunt.

The hunters will head home on Tuesday evening. Most will return Thursday evening for the second weekend of deer season. Under the stars in the quiet country north of Duluth, the West Branch hunting shack again will pulse with laughter and stories and optimism.

SAM COOK is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or scook@duluthnews.com. Find his Facebook page at facebook.com/SamCookOutdoors or his blog at samcook.areavoices.com.

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    Overeaters Anonymous is a fellowship of individuals who, through shared experience, strength and...


  • Lunch at the Senior Center

    11/28/2017
    12:00PM — 12:30PM

    Scallop Potato with Ham/Peas/Fruit/Milk


  • 20th anniversary exhibit, Begin | Continue

    11/28/2017
    04:00PM — 06:00PM

    A celebratory 20th anniversary exhibit titled Begin | Continue will feature the work of North Hou...


  • Trivia Night at Grandma Ray's

    11/28/2017
    07:00PM — 09:00PM

    Trivia Night from 7:00-9:00pm every Tuesday down at Grandma Ray's.


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    11/29/2017
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 6 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • YMCA Classes

    11/29/2017
    12:00AM

    Click to view our current list of Group Exercise classes, pool schedule and gym schedule!


  • Day Pass Sale

    11/29/2017
    06:00AM

    The Day Pass Sale is back! Shop Local November 24th-29th Give the gift of health and share a vis...


  • Blue Water Suite

    11/29/2017
    09:00AM

    Blue Water Suite is open for a one of a kind stay. Located above the Blue Water Café, lots of r...


  • Annual 20% off Customer Appreciation Sale

    11/29/2017
    09:00AM — 05:00PM

    Come in to Lake Superior Trading Post and save 20% off on all merchandise in stock, this includes...


  • Anxiety/Depression Support Group for Women

    11/29/2017
    10:00AM — 11:00AM

    Weekly support group for women. $2.00 suggested donation. No registration required. Please joi...


  • Lunch at the Senior Center

    11/29/2017
    12:00PM — 12:30PM

    Tatertot Hotdish/Fruit/ Dessert/Milk


  • Lunch at the Senior Center

    11/29/2017
    12:00PM — 12:30PM

    Spaghetti/Salad/Pudding/Milk


  • 20th anniversary exhibit, Begin | Continue

    11/29/2017
    04:00PM — 06:00PM

    A celebratory 20th anniversary exhibit titled Begin | Continue will feature the work of North Hou...


  • Craft and a Craft Market

    11/29/2017
    04:30PM — 06:30PM

    Voyageur Brewing is proud to host weekly craft markets until Christmas with local Cook County art...


  • Beginning Swedish language- 4 sessions

    11/29/2017
    05:30PM — 07:00PM

    Beginning Swedish Language - 4 sessions Instructor: Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux Dates: November 1st,...


  • Name that Tune Bingo

    11/29/2017
    06:30PM — 07:30PM

    Think you know music? Prove it! Join host Casey for Name that Tune bingo on Wednesday, November ...


  • Square Dance Lessons

    11/29/2017
    07:30PM — 09:00PM

    Modern Western Square Dance Schedule for November 30 through January 25. Time: 7:30 – 9:00 PM...


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    11/30/2017
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 6 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • YMCA Classes

    11/30/2017
    12:00AM

    Click to view our current list of Group Exercise classes, pool schedule and gym schedule!


  • Annual 20% off Customer Appreciation Sale

    11/30/2017
    09:00AM — 05:00PM

    Come in to Lake Superior Trading Post and save 20% off on all merchandise in stock, this includes...


  • Lunch at the Senior Center

    11/30/2017
    12:00PM — 12:30PM

    BBQ Chicken/Baled Potato/Coleslaw/Jello/Milk


  • 20th anniversary exhibit, Begin | Continue

    11/30/2017
    04:00PM — 06:00PM

    A celebratory 20th anniversary exhibit titled Begin | Continue will feature the work of North Hou...


  • Alcoholics Anonymous

    11/30/2017
    06:30PM

    Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and ho...


  • Square Dance Lessons

    11/30/2017
    07:30PM — 09:00PM

    Modern Western Square Dance Schedule for November 30 through January 25. Time: 7:30 – 9:00 PM...


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    12/01/2017
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 6 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • YMCA Classes

    12/01/2017
    12:00AM

    Click to view our current list of Group Exercise classes, pool schedule and gym schedule!


  • Annual 20% off Customer Appreciation Sale

    12/01/2017
    09:00AM — 05:00PM

    Come in to Lake Superior Trading Post and save 20% off on all merchandise in stock, this includes...


  • Lunch at the Senior Center

    12/01/2017
    12:00PM — 12:55PM

    Polish Sausage/ Sauerkraut/ Potato/Dessert/Milk


  • 20th anniversary exhibit, Begin | Continue

    12/01/2017
    04:00PM — 06:00PM

    A celebratory 20th anniversary exhibit titled Begin | Continue will feature the work of North Hou...


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    12/02/2017
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 6 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • YMCA Classes

    12/02/2017
    12:00AM

    Click to view our current list of Group Exercise classes, pool schedule and gym schedule!


  • Trails Final Check

    12/02/2017
    09:00AM — 02:00PM

    We welcome you to join us at 9 a.m. at the Groomer building on Caribou Trail to do the final trai...


  • Annual 20% off Customer Appreciation Sale

    12/02/2017
    09:00AM — 05:00PM

    Come in to Lake Superior Trading Post and save 20% off on all merchandise in stock, this includes...


  • Northwoods Fiber Guild Annual Holiday Sale will be on Saturday, December 2nd from 9:00am-2:00pm. ...


  • 20th anniversary exhibit, Begin | Continue

    12/02/2017
    04:00PM — 06:00PM

    A celebratory 20th anniversary exhibit titled Begin | Continue will feature the work of North Hou...


  • Square Dance Lessons

    12/02/2017
    07:30PM — 09:00PM

    Modern Western Square Dance Schedule for November 30 through January 25. Time: 7:30 – 9:00 PM...


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    12/03/2017
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 6 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • YMCA Classes

    12/03/2017
    12:00AM

    Click to view our current list of Group Exercise classes, pool schedule and gym schedule!


  • Holiday Movies in the Brewery

    12/03/2017
    12:30PM — 02:00PM

    Are you craving some beer with your holiday cheer? We will see you at Voyageur Brewing Company on...


  • 20th anniversary exhibit, Begin | Continue

    12/03/2017
    04:00PM — 06:00PM

    A celebratory 20th anniversary exhibit titled Begin | Continue will feature the work of North Hou...


  • Alcoholics Anonymous

    12/03/2017
    06:30PM — 07:30PM

    Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and ho...


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    12/04/2017
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 6 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • YMCA Classes

    12/04/2017
    12:00AM

    Click to view our current list of Group Exercise classes, pool schedule and gym schedule!


  • Lunch at the Senior Center

    12/04/2017
    12:00PM — 12:30PM

    Chicken Stew with Dumplings/Brussels Sprouts/Fruit/Milk


  • 20th anniversary exhibit, Begin | Continue

    12/04/2017
    04:00PM — 06:00PM

    A celebratory 20th anniversary exhibit titled Begin | Continue will feature the work of North Hou...


  • Co-Dependents Anonymous

    12/04/2017
    05:30PM

    Co-Dependents Anonymous is a Fellowship of men and women whose common purpose is to develop healt...


  • Open Mic Every Monday at 6PM!

    12/04/2017
    06:00PM — 11:55PM

    Grand Marais Music Collaborative presents "Open Mic Night", every Monday at Grandma Ray's! The s...


  • Square Dance Lessons

    12/04/2017
    07:30PM — 09:00PM

    Modern Western Square Dance Schedule for November 30 through January 25. Time: 7:30 – 9:00 PM...


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    12/05/2017
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 6 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • YMCA Classes

    12/05/2017
    12:00AM

    Click to view our current list of Group Exercise classes, pool schedule and gym schedule!


  • Overeaters Anonymous

    12/05/2017
    11:00AM

    Overeaters Anonymous is a fellowship of individuals who, through shared experience, strength and...


  • Lunch at the Senior Center

    12/05/2017
    12:00PM — 12:30PM

    Tuna Hotdish/Salad/Fruit/Milk


  • 20th anniversary exhibit, Begin | Continue

    12/05/2017
    04:00PM — 06:00PM

    A celebratory 20th anniversary exhibit titled Begin | Continue will feature the work of North Hou...


  • Trivia Night at Grandma Ray's

    12/05/2017
    07:00PM — 09:00PM

    Trivia Night from 7:00-9:00pm every Tuesday down at Grandma Ray's.


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    12/06/2017
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 6 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • YMCA Classes

    12/06/2017
    12:00AM

    Click to view our current list of Group Exercise classes, pool schedule and gym schedule!


  • Anxiety/Depression Support Group for Women

    12/06/2017
    10:00AM — 11:00AM

    Weekly support group for women. $2.00 suggested donation. No registration required. Please joi...


  • Lunch at the Senior Center

    12/06/2017
    12:00PM — 12:30PM

    Meatloaf/Baked Potato/Beets/Dessert/Milk


  • 20th anniversary exhibit, Begin | Continue

    12/06/2017
    04:00PM — 06:00PM

    A celebratory 20th anniversary exhibit titled Begin | Continue will feature the work of North Hou...


  • Craft and a Craft Market

    12/06/2017
    04:30PM — 06:30PM

    Voyageur Brewing is proud to host weekly craft markets until Christmas with local Cook County art...


  • Square Dance Lessons

    12/06/2017
    07:30PM — 09:00PM

    Modern Western Square Dance Schedule for November 30 through January 25. Time: 7:30 – 9:00 PM...


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    12/07/2017
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 6 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • YMCA Classes

    12/07/2017
    12:00AM

    Click to view our current list of Group Exercise classes, pool schedule and gym schedule!


  • Lunch at the Senior Center

    12/07/2017
    12:00PM — 12:30PM

    Linda Johnson's Treat!!!


  • 20th anniversary exhibit, Begin | Continue

    12/07/2017
    04:00PM — 06:00PM

    A celebratory 20th anniversary exhibit titled Begin | Continue will feature the work of North Hou...


  • Light Up a Life

    12/07/2017
    05:30PM — 06:30PM

    The 9th Annual “Light up a Life” offers community members the opportunity to celebrate the life o...


  • Alcoholics Anonymous

    12/07/2017
    06:30PM

    Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and ho...


  • Square Dance Lessons

    12/07/2017
    07:30PM — 09:00PM

    Modern Western Square Dance Schedule for November 30 through January 25. Time: 7:30 – 9:00 PM...


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    12/08/2017
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 6 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • YMCA Classes

    12/08/2017
    12:00AM

    Click to view our current list of Group Exercise classes, pool schedule and gym schedule!


  • Caregiver Coffee - Tofte

    12/08/2017
    10:00AM — 11:30AM

    Caregiver Coffee Join us to get to know other caregivers in a casual setting. Take part in a d...


  • Lunch at the Senior Center

    12/08/2017
    12:00PM — 12:30PM

    Beef Stew/Salad/Biscuit/Dessert/Milk


  • Legends of the Wilderness

    12/08/2017
    01:30PM — 02:30PM

    Experience the wilderness through reenactment of the 1800s with French Canadian Voyageur Jacques ...


  • 20th anniversary exhibit, Begin | Continue

    12/08/2017
    04:00PM — 06:00PM

    A celebratory 20th anniversary exhibit titled Begin | Continue will feature the work of North Hou...


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    12/09/2017
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 6 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • YMCA Classes

    12/09/2017
    12:00AM

    Click to view our current list of Group Exercise classes, pool schedule and gym schedule!


  • 20th anniversary exhibit, Begin | Continue

    12/09/2017
    04:00PM — 06:00PM

    A celebratory 20th anniversary exhibit titled Begin | Continue will feature the work of North Hou...


  • In the spirit of gratitude, pride, and recognition of the community that has valued and fostered ...


  • Square Dance Lessons

    12/09/2017
    07:30PM — 09:00PM

    Modern Western Square Dance Schedule for November 30 through January 25. Time: 7:30 – 9:00 PM...


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    12/10/2017
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 6 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • YMCA Classes

    12/10/2017
    12:00AM

    Click to view our current list of Group Exercise classes, pool schedule and gym schedule!


  • Holiday Movies in the Brewery

    12/10/2017
    12:30PM — 02:00PM

    Are you craving some beer with your holiday cheer? We will see you at Voyageur Brewing Company on...


  • 20th anniversary exhibit, Begin | Continue

    12/10/2017
    04:00PM — 06:00PM

    A celebratory 20th anniversary exhibit titled Begin | Continue will feature the work of North Hou...


  • Alcoholics Anonymous

    12/10/2017
    06:30PM — 07:30PM

    Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and ho...


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    12/11/2017
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 6 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • YMCA Classes

    12/11/2017
    12:00AM

    Click to view our current list of Group Exercise classes, pool schedule and gym schedule!


  • Lunch at the Senior Center

    12/11/2017
    12:00PM — 12:30PM

    Boiled Dinner/Biscuit/Fruit/Milk


  • 20th anniversary exhibit, Begin | Continue

    12/11/2017
    04:00PM — 06:00PM

    A celebratory 20th anniversary exhibit titled Begin | Continue will feature the work of North Hou...


  • Co-Dependents Anonymous

    12/11/2017
    05:30PM

    Co-Dependents Anonymous is a Fellowship of men and women whose common purpose is to develop healt...


  • Open Mic Every Monday at 6PM!

    12/11/2017
    06:00PM — 11:55PM

    Grand Marais Music Collaborative presents "Open Mic Night", every Monday at Grandma Ray's! The s...


  • Over 75 talented Cook County singers and musicians in the Borealis Chorale & Orchestra continue t...


  • Square Dance Lessons

    12/11/2017
    07:30PM — 09:00PM

    Modern Western Square Dance Schedule for November 30 through January 25. Time: 7:30 – 9:00 PM...


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    12/12/2017
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 6 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • YMCA Classes

    12/12/2017
    12:00AM

    Click to view our current list of Group Exercise classes, pool schedule and gym schedule!


  • Overeaters Anonymous

    12/12/2017
    11:00AM

    Overeaters Anonymous is a fellowship of individuals who, through shared experience, strength and...


  • Taco Tuesday Fundraiser Luncheon

    12/12/2017
    11:30AM — 01:30PM

    We are raising money for our dear friend & co-worker, Jennifer Rue, who is dealing with long term...


  • Lunch at the Senior Center

    12/12/2017
    12:00PM — 12:30PM

    Sweet & Sour Pork/Broccoli/Rice/Dessert/Milk


  • 20th anniversary exhibit, Begin | Continue

    12/12/2017
    04:00PM — 06:00PM

    A celebratory 20th anniversary exhibit titled Begin | Continue will feature the work of North Hou...


  • Trivia Night at Grandma Ray's

    12/12/2017
    07:00PM — 09:00PM

    Trivia Night from 7:00-9:00pm every Tuesday down at Grandma Ray's.


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    12/13/2017
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 6 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • YMCA Classes

    12/13/2017
    12:00AM

    Click to view our current list of Group Exercise classes, pool schedule and gym schedule!


  • Anxiety/Depression Support Group for Women

    12/13/2017
    10:00AM — 11:00AM

    Weekly support group for women. $2.00 suggested donation. No registration required. Please joi...


  • Lunch at the Senior Center

    12/13/2017
    12:00PM — 12:30PM

    Fish/Baked Potato/Corn Pudding/Cake/Milk


  • 20th anniversary exhibit, Begin | Continue

    12/13/2017
    04:00PM — 06:00PM

    A celebratory 20th anniversary exhibit titled Begin | Continue will feature the work of North Hou...


  • Craft and a Craft Market

    12/13/2017
    04:30PM — 06:30PM

    Voyageur Brewing is proud to host weekly craft markets until Christmas with local Cook County art...


  • Square Dance Lessons

    12/13/2017
    07:30PM — 09:00PM

    Modern Western Square Dance Schedule for November 30 through January 25. Time: 7:30 – 9:00 PM...


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    12/14/2017
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 6 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • YMCA Classes

    12/14/2017
    12:00AM

    Click to view our current list of Group Exercise classes, pool schedule and gym schedule!


  • Lunch at the Senior Center

    12/14/2017
    12:00PM — 12:40PM

    Swedish Meatballs/Potato/Green Bean/Dessert/Milk


  • 20th anniversary exhibit, Begin | Continue

    12/14/2017
    04:00PM — 06:00PM

    A celebratory 20th anniversary exhibit titled Begin | Continue will feature the work of North Hou...


  • Alcoholics Anonymous

    12/14/2017
    06:30PM

    Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and ho...


  • Square Dance Lessons

    12/14/2017
    07:30PM — 09:00PM

    Modern Western Square Dance Schedule for November 30 through January 25. Time: 7:30 – 9:00 PM...


Minnesota Fire Danger
Boreal Ship Spotter - larger view here