Deer camp puts focus on helping military veterans

(Brad Dokken/Grand Forks Herald/MCT)
Pictured (from left) are Jack Marymee, U.S. Marines and Vietnam veteran; Al...
Story by Brad Dokken
Grand Forks Herald
November 24, 2011
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CARP, Minn. — It was the kind of thing you’d see at any deer camp — blaze orange everywhere, coffee brewing on the woodstove, chili heating in the kitchen — but there was something special happening at the Levasseur camp in Lake of the Woods County on this second Saturday of Minnesota’s firearms deer season.

The spirit of camaraderie, of sharing the magic of the hunt with others, was the order of the day.

For Steve Levasseur, who built the 24x38 log cabin that overlooks the Rapid River southwest of Baudette, Minn., about 10 years ago, there’s a lot of history here. The small town of Carp exists only in memory now, but it’s where Levasseur grew up, where he’s hunted and killed his fair share of deer since he started going afield nearly 50 years ago.

These days, Levasseur says, it’s not about him shooting a deer. It’s about helping others experience the thrill of the hunt and the simple pleasures of camp life.

Deer might not be as abundant this year as they’ve been some other seasons, but there was no shortage of hospitality last weekend.

“I enjoy having people come up here,” Levasseur, 59, said.

Five years ago, he started a tradition of hosting youth hunters and their families. The Lake of the Woods chapter of Whitetails Unlimited helped out.

“They stayed at the cabin, and they had a great time,” Levasseur said.

Last year, he changed the focus by hosting a disabled hunter. Whitetails Unlimited again assisted by providing a couple of accessible blinds, and a new tradition of sharing was born.

“He got a deer, and he was tickled pink,” Levasseur said. “I’ve shot plenty of deer, and to see that handicapped hunter last year get a deer, it was quite a thrill.”

This year, Levasseur decided to expand the hunt by opening his camp to a second disabled hunter and two veterans.

Levasseur also recruited his brother, Tom, of Baudette, to help out.

“My brother and I are both Vietnam-era veterans,” Levasseur said. “He had two years in Vietnam, and we thought it would be kind of nice if we opened it up to a Vietnam vet. We had decided to open it up to another handicapped hunter, and the Vietnam veteran thing just kind of happened, and I said ’Heck, why not? We’ve got room.”’

The morning hunt had ended, and quite a crowd had gathered at the Levasseur cabin by noon last Saturday. There was Buck Nordlof of Baudette, northwest Minnesota field director of Whitetails Unlimited, and Scott Fritsinger, who founded the Lake of the Woods chapter six years ago.

“We were looking for ways we could help,” Nordlof said, and the opportunity to assist disabled hunters was a perfect fit.

Call it a partnership — Carp style.

“As long as the local chapter works with me and provides stands that are mobile, it’s no extra for me,” Levasseur said. “They have a great time.”

Dave Esala of Baudette was the lucky hunter who shot a deer last year. He was back last Saturday, along with Grant Austin, 14, a ninth-grader from Rogers, Minn., with limited use of his lower extremities.

Esala, 60, who grew up near Alexandria, Minn., has degenerative arthritis and walks with two canes. He’d been coming up for years to visit a sister who lived along the Rainy River and moved to Baudette about five years ago.

“That’s how I got my start up here — chasing the deer and chasing the walleyes,” Esala said. “I had to move up here to God’s country.”

Deer hunting, he says, has been a tradition since the days when his dad would load up their 1954 Ford pickup and camper, and they’d head for the Iron Range.

“That was the only vacation we had off the farm,” Esala said. “Your feet were freezing and it was, ’Oh, we’re having fun now.’ But it was good. It was really, really good.”

Esala says getting around isn’t easy anymore. Pain is a way of life 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“You don’t know what you have until you lose it,” Esala said. “That’s the way it is. The only thing that helps is laughter. I’m 5-foot-3 now; I used to be 5-11 1/2. I’ve become compressed.”

Austin, who made the trip last weekend with his cousin, Tim Forseen, said he’d shot waterfowl and wild turkeys and hunted deer but had never shot one.

Levasseur had met Austin this past summer when the teenager fished Lake of the Woods with Alan Phillippe, a guide for Sportsman’s Lodge.

“He said he liked to fish but he really liked to hunt,” Levasseur said. “Our goal is to get him a deer.”

A few minutes earlier, and Austin might have shot one last Saturday morning but the deer already were in the field. They made their break before he got into the old barn Levasseur and his brother had converted into a heated stand.

Esala hadn’t shot a deer yet, either, but like everyone else at the Levasseur cabin, he was just as happy to kick back and soak in the deer camp experience last Saturday afternoon.

Somewhere in the distance, a musician in the bunch lit up the quiet with an acoustic version of Nirvana’s “All Apologies.”

“The thing about deer camp is it’s like a progression of coming and going,” Esala said. “Some guys are in a hurry, and some guys aren’t.”

Levasseur’s buddy, Al Lung, 51, and Jack Marymee, 66, another newcomer to the camp, weren’t in a hurry. Both military veterans, the California men had flown from Sacramento, Calif., into Bemidji the previous evening.

There’s a 24-hour wait for licenses purchased during deer season, so they’d have to wait until the next morning to go afield.

After their long flight, Lung and Marymee were content to enjoy a quiet Saturday afternoon in camp while the rest of the crew went hunting.

“I feel real blessed to be able to come up here,” said Lung, who first hunted at Lavasseur’s camp in 2006. “I’ve been really lucky getting nice deer.”

That night, the hunters gathered down the road at the cabin of John Humeniuk for a feast of fresh venison.

Also on the menu was Humeniuk’s trademark homemade bread — this has to be one of the few deer camps in northern Minnesota with a commercial bread mixer — fried potatoes, various garden produce and generous doses of Northwoods hospitality.

That was apparent by the large banner, “Welcome to Buttercup’s Bungalow” that greeted the hunters as they entered the cabin.

Humaniuk, 68, got the nickname “Buttercup” while working at Marvin Windows in Warroad, Minn. We’ll leave it at that.

The best hunting story of the night came from Grant Austin, the youngest hunter in the crew. Austin had come close to shooting his first deer late that afternoon while afield with Forseen, his cousin from Mountain Iron, but there was a vehicle in the line of fire.

“He had it right in the crosshairs,” Forseen said. “We were almost there.”

And so it went during a day in Lake of the Woods County, a day when sharing and generosity helped make a few hunters’ lives a little bit better.

There’d be more of the same tomorrow.

Brad Dokken

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