The midnight sound of pattering mouse feet across the rafter board above my head didn’t bother me as I slept on the top bunk of our deer camp chicken coop.

    The midnight sound of pattering mouse feet across the rafter board above my head didn’t bother me as I slept on the top bunk of our deer camp chicken coop. Yes, you heard it right. We built a rustic cabin out of a chicken coop, and it was a mystical palace in our minds, a big improvement over the brutally cold army tent used for many years before. And, the mouse became our unofficial mascot lunching on left-out cheeseburger buns and potato chips. If the mouse was happy, it meant time for deer camp, and therefore we were happy too.

    It was 1999, and I was 19 years old, a camp veteran at that time having enjoyed the coop with my dad since the spry age of 12. The corner wood stove warmed our socks and souls and gave our clothes that classic smoky smell. The wall’s wood-framed pictures celebrated deer camp stories of days gone by, honoring our forefathers for the traditions they bestowed upon us. The stories told within these walls were sacred, not to be repeated elsewhere.

    At least, “Don’t tell mom,” was a rule us kids learned real quick.  

    It wasn’t the mouse that woke me from a not-so-deep sleep, but my uncle Brad’s bellowing from inside his sleeping bag, “Cheeseburger! . . . cheeseburger! . . . cheeseburger!”     See . . . it was Friday night before opening day, anticipation was rampant, and we had all finally just gone to bed. The Canadian whiskey was surely talking, and Brad knew our friend Clyde would give in through some extra ribbing. Others joined in the late-night cheeseburger chant until it was a constant rumbling throughout the cabin.

    And Clyde did give in, “All right you savages . . . I’ll make burgers . . . who’s in?” He arose from his cot and lumbered out the coop’s front door to start the grill. On the porch in the 20-degree Minnesota cold wearing nothing but a NASCAR T-shirt, tighty-whities and bare feet, Clyde made us all cheeseburgers after midnight . . . Because, that is what friends do for friends, especially at deer camp. And, it was the best cheeseburger of my life.

    My deer camp confession this year is that these simple memories are what I cherish most about my hunting experiences. As I grow older and hopefully wiser, I care less about bringing home a deer. I focus on sporting traditions, bonding relationships and memorable stories that stand the test of time.     

    Truth be told, I brought home the biggest buck of my life the same weekend I ate that midnight cheeseburger, but it is this story and those people that I remember most. That opening day, I was on stand having no luck through the morning. My dad and I had trekked a couple miles from the nearest road, and we decided to sit all day. Just before I dozed off, basking in the sun for a midday nap, I saw a 4-wheeler in the distance coming down a trail. It was peculiar to see this activity in that area and at that time. After the vehicle parked, I could see Donny from our deer camp furiously waiving to me. I knew I had to go.

    When I got there, he said my good friend David had gotten sick the night before and was in the hospital. He didn’t know details but the concern on his face told me it was serious. Again, I knew I had to go.

    He gave me a two-mile ride back to camp where I learned the grave diagnosis. I was in shock, having just spent time with David a week earlier, telling deer hunting stories, laughing and joking as we always did. I jumped in my car and headed to the hospital in Fargo, where I saw David for the last time. He died that day from a sudden illness. He was 19. The next day, I didn’t know if I should hunt or not. My mind struggled, and I finally decided to go. Maybe it was divine intervention, but that day I brought home the biggest buck of my life.

    I often reminisce about that weekend, and I think less about the big buck now hanging on my wall but more about how I lost a good friend, the good times we had and the relationships with special people my hunting experiences have brought to my life.

    My uncle Brad who started the cheeseburger chant passed away from a long battle with cancer at age 48, and we lost our friend Clyde from a sudden illness at 62, all way too young.     But, I think about all the good times we had with these gentlemen, and it was these outdoor traditions that brought us all together. I dare anyone to challenge the validity of these moments and people we hold dear in our hearts.

    I hope deer camp confessions like this are as important to you as they are to me – cherish the people, stories and memories because life is so short. Most importantly, make sure to bring your son, daughter or grandchild with you to enjoy the outdoors so these moments and people live forever.  

    Matt Soberg is the editor and director of communications for the Ruffed Grouse Society. Please send questions and comments to mathewsoberg@yahoo.com. For more, visit www.mattsoberg.com or on social media @mattsoberg.