ALONG THE WHITEFACE RIVER, Minn. -- A couple of Coleman lanterns hissed from the rafters. Soft light flowed through the shack. The aroma of red wine sauce and mushrooms wafted its way among hanging boot liners, sweaty socks and camouflage orange coats.
Darkness had enveloped the little green shack on the river. Another day of deer hunting had tapered quietly to its conclusion for the three hunters.
"This is good," Duluth's Dave Rous was saying. "This is good." Rous, 47, was talking not about the day's hunting, or about the hunt in general.
Sitting there in his gray chamois shirt and his pajama bottoms, he was talking about much more than that.
He was talking, one suspected, about 24 years of tales the little shack had heard. He was talking about the friendship he felt for Duluth's John Hayden, 55, sitting at one end of the table in his red-and-black plaid wool shirt, and for Jamison "Bear" Ugland, 30, who was just now adding a bit of flour to the wine sauce at the Coleman stove.
Rous was talking not about hunting, but about having hunted. He was describing, in simple terms, the feeling that comes with having spent three hours standing on a platform in a tree, waiting and watching, seeing no deer, growing cold and now being warmed by a fire in the wood stove.
He was talking about naked aspens caressed by moonlight, about the gossiping of the rapids below the shack and about venison on the charcoal grill.
He was talking about an island of time in November when none of the bizarre events of the real world matter, when life is a few acres of the North Woods, the possibility of taking a whitetail and a world so quiet the whisper of a lantern seems loud.
This was Monday night, three days into Minnesota's deer season, which will continue through next Sunday. No deer were hanging from the pole between two aspens outside the cabin. Hayden had seen a deer on opening day. He hadn't been able to identify it as buck or doe, and had no shot at it anyway. Rous had seen "part of one" Monday afternoon, but that was all.
That didn't bother them. They have shot deer. They will shoot more deer if it is meant to be.
Ugland, who hails from Le Center, Minn., and came to this camp by way of a friendship with Hayden's son, Mike, had seen nothing. He was, without doubt, the most intense hunter in the shack. A devotee of scent Zen, he does not leave the green tarpaper shack without dollops of Tink's No. 69 Doe-in-Heat Buck Lure, Buck Stop 200! and his invisible cloak of Scent Shield.
Ugland has been specifically bamboozled this year by a buck he calls the Gray Ghost, a monster whitetail whose presence Ugland has felt for a couple of seasons now. Ugland has rattled antlers and breathed buck talk into his grunt call, both techniques reputed to coax bucks from afar. But he has failed to elicit so much as a fleeting apparition of the Ghost.
A chef by occupation, Ugland was preparing a feast worthy of the finest metropolitan restaurant, and he was doing it almost absent-mindedly. He seemed to be far more concerned about the whereabouts of the Gray Ghost or any other sizable bucks, which he referred to collectively as "the big-gun."
It would be some time before the venison reached medium rare on the grill. The broccoli and onions and the beginnings of spaghetti alfredo were warming nicely atop the woodstove. Conversation drifted around the shack like whitetails gliding through the woods under the waning half moon.
The hunters retold the story of the mouse that drowned in Ugland's chicken soup. They debated the merits of Boston Whaler boats. They recalled Herman the Ermine, the weasel that fed on the inside of a deer carcass.
Hayden, by virtue of seniority, had heard the stories most often. He and some friends built this 12-foot-by-16-foot tarpaper Taj Mahal on the river in 1966. Hayden had hunted the country near Cotton since the late 1940s, and when he and his friends decided to build a place, they paddled canoes up the Whiteface River until they came to rapids. On a small ridge above the quickening of the current, they slapped used lumber into a relative rectangle, peeled and laid the popple beams and tacked on a roof.
Over the years, it has accumulated characters but not conveniences.
"I call it a hard tent," Hayden said.
Until 1989, the hunters had to canoe upriver a couple of miles to get here. Then aspen clear-cutting changed the countryside and left tote roads behind. With a chain-saw and hard labor, the Hayden-Rous Memorial Highway was extended from the last tote road almost to the door of the green shack.
The hunters said they miss canoeing to the shack, but they haven't missed hauling out gear and deer and canoes nearly a mile through the bush in the years the river froze during deer season.