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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Family Deer Camp Carries 50-Year Heritage Across Wisconsin

The Welke family’s deer camp moved from the scrub oaks of northern Marinette County to the stately oaks of northcentral Crawford County over the past half-century.

Somewhere along the way, Carl and Kurt Welke swapped their .30-30 Winchester 94 lever-actions for Model 70 Featherweight bolt-actions in the .270 cartridge. Even so, they still wear wool while hunting deer, playing cribbage and processing venison each November. And when camp members discuss when and which deer to shoot, the Welke boys still stress St. Hubertus’ hunting ethics and humane shot placement more than tine lengths, point totals and antler spreads.

At some point during opening weekend at Kurt’s cabin near Gays Mills, they also toast the camp’s Northwoods origins and their late parents, Carl Sr. and Kathleen Welke. Their parents died in their late 60s over three decades ago, about when the Welkes’ deer camp moved—roughly speaking—from the Menominee River to the Mississippi River.

The elder Welke was a skilled angler and all-around hunter, much like most hunters who returned home from World War II. He raised his two sons to be generalist outdoorsmen, too, more often taking them “bird hunting” or rabbit hunting than deer hunting. Those were practical decisions in the late 1960s and early ’70s, given that whitetails weren’t as common or within easy drives of the Welkes’ home on Madison’s west side.

Besides, Carl Sr. fully embraced the vast public forests of northeastern Wisconsin back then. Those woodlands featured abundant deer, which bounced like bunnies through tangled regrowth and brushy edge cover triggered by the logging era. Kurt Welke recalls five-hour rides northward in the family’s Ford LTD station wagon, their tear-drop Winnebago camper in tow. Once parked, Kathy Welke slept in the little camper while “the men” pitched two tents nearby; one for sleeping, and one for cooking and eating.

She did the camp’s cooking, too, but not before sneaking out before dawn for hour-long hunts from the comfortable ground blind her husband built for her. Sometimes she even shot a deer, which she coyly hid from view until surprising everyone before breakfast. Later, once her boys grew older, she often stayed home, content to await their call from a pay phone in Silver Cliff to share deer stories and when they’d return.

Their deer camp moved to the Prairie du Chien area in 1988 when Kurt and his wife, Susanne, bought a house there. The Welkes and their wives hunted from that home, returning each night from the nearby bluffs to eat, tell stories and toast their parents. Carl Sr. died in 1989 and Kathy followed in 1991.

Deer camp relocated again in 1997 when Kurt and Susanne bought 94 acres in the hills and valleys near Gays Mills. The first few years they pitched a tent in a wooded valley, re-creating the feel of their Northwoods deer camp. That romance didn’t endure, however, giving way to a rebuilt cabin they moved onto the property in 2000. Their 16-by-22-foot cabin sits atop a knoll above a row of tamaracks, and provides four bunks and an outhouse a short walk away.

The Welkes and their friends have hunted deer there ever since, still loyal to their parents’ teachings.

“Our camp roster varies year to year as friends, family and colleagues join us to hunt,” Kurt Welke said. “They know the hunting tradition Carl and I grew up in. As kids, we considered it ordinary for everyone to shoot, process and eat rabbits, squirrels, ducks, grouse, deer, and occasionally a Western elk or Canadian moose. We never forgot that 6-point bucks were a big deer in Marinette County during the 1970s. Everyone loves seeing bigger bucks, but our hunting has always been about meat, and deer provide more returns than rabbits or squirrels. We think you need other people’s help, too. We like having four or five hunters in camp, with enough of them moving around to keep the deer moving.”

The Welkes still do all the deer skinning and processing, too, typically while “bantering recipes” for prime cuts and setting aside trim for homemade sausage.

“Our parents taught us about the ‘buckpole-to-pan’ process long before we heard about ‘field-to-fork’ programs,” Kurt said. “Thanks to our parents, we always did our own ‘lake-to-table’ and ‘woods-to-table’ feasts. The payoffs are good eating, and deer really increase the volume of meat in our freezers.”

And although the Welkes’ hunting cabin lacks the wall space for shoulder mounts and other large displays, the brothers proudly display the skull-capped antlers of bucks they’ve hauled in from nearby valleys and hillsides. Antlers, after all, help share stories of past hunts and shared success.

This year, for example, the Welkes and their friends had an especially productive gun-season opener. On opening morning, Carl Welke saw six bucks chasing two frazzled does through thick brush and black raspberries near his stand up the valley from the cabin. He initially couldn’t get a shot because of the “mosh pit” of rutting deer and dense brush. But over the next hour or so, Carl, his son Hans, and their friend Tim Bakken shot four bucks from the group as the mating chase played out. And soon after that, their friendly neighbor Gary Harden shot a fifth buck.

Yet another neighbor, Keith Mickelson, shot a trophy 10-pointer later in the week. And just two weeks before gun season, Kurt Welke arrowed an 8-point buck uphill from the cabin.

The group also makes this note: Carl Welke’s buck fell to his Model 70 Winchester, which once belonged to the late “Turkey Joe” Koberstein, Kurt’s brother-in-law. Someone always occupies Turkey Joe’s stand each November, mostly out of respect, but also because it monitors a natural deer funnel.

“We’ve had an incredible deer season,” Kurt said. “We plan to take all those antlers and mount them on a common base in the cabin so the record stays clear. We realize our deer camp and its traditions have gone through some modernization. That’ll always happen.

“But for a solid 50-plus years, Carl and I have worked through all terrain, weather and circumstances to show up and do what we call ‘the Lord’s work’ each November. That never gets old.”

Tim Bakken, left, along with Hans Welke and his father, Carl Welke, pose with the bucks their group shot at their Crawford County deer camp on opening weekend of Wisconsin’s firearms season. Kurt Welke photos

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2023년 11월 28일

A great story/accounting of a Wisconsin deer camp. Knowing Kurt, a former colleague that I hold in deep respect for his land ethic, it is not surprising that he is the focal point of this camp. Keep the tradition alive my fellow hunters.

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