IN KANABEC COUNTY, Minn. - By the late 1800s, most of the white pine in this part of Minnesota had been logged off. The stump-filled countryside that remained was selling cheap, and the Kroschels and Rabes were among families of German descent who headed north from New Ulm.
The fertility of the land that greeted these new east-central Minnesota residents was no match for the ground they left behind. Still, crops were planted, and what they couldn't provide in sustenance, beaver and other wild critters did. Times were tough, and even game wardens looked the other way if a family was down on its luck and jacklighted a deer or two out of season, their shots from Model 94 Winchesters echoing in the dark.
Among those who laid early claims in Kanabec County were Walter Rabe and Clarence Kroschel. Born on the same day, they married sisters and throughout the early 1900s raised mink together, often feeding the animals whatever fish, roadkill or game innards they could muster.
"They each hunted deer with .300 Savages, and it was common to see them with .22s in their hands to shoot rabbits for mink food," said John Rabe, 63, of Hinckley.
From this familial wellspring, deer hunting has been passed down generation to generation, five now in all.
Herman, August, Bill and Gus were among Kroschels who started the tradition early last century, and Heinrich and Herman were among the first deer-hunting Rabes hereabouts.
"Some creeks in this area had been dammed so logs could be floated to market," said Greg Kroschel, 64, of Brook Park, Minn. "This created a lot of water in the woods, and if they had hip boots, they'd wear them when hunting deer."
Following a very wet summer, waterproof footwear also proved advantageous last Tuesday as the Kroschels and Rabes prepared for Minnesota's 2018 whitetail season.
One hundred or more years from the first time their forebears stalked pot meat in this undulating, swampy country, members of the two families congregated in a Kanabec County shack surrounded by 120 acres of oaks, popple and swamps.
A throwback in time, the shack is accessible mostly by foot or four-wheeler from a road about three-quarters mile away, and the structure's lights are fired by gas, not electricity.
Equal parts tradition, ritual and reunion, the families' annual shack gathering is also a chance, simply, "to get away."
"Clarence Kroschel's father first bought property around here in 1898," Kroschel said. "We bought this '120' in the late 1960s for back taxes, and peeled logs for our shack in 1971."
As Kroschel spoke, he and Rabe, along with Bud Rabe, 89, of Minneapolis; Loren Rabe, 78, of Sandstone; Ty Kroschel, 38, of Forest Lake; and Trent Kroschel, 43, of Cambridge, crouched around the shack's centerpiece: a long pine table hewn from homegrown stock.
Nearby was a barrel stove whose wood-fired heat warms hunters chilled by long November days passed in deer stands, while in an adjoining room were bunk beds whose number and arrangement suggested the close quarters of submariners.
North of the Twin Cities about 85 miles, Kanabec County's tree cover differs markedly from trees commonly found in Minnesota counties much farther north, such as in Lake and Koochiching counties, both of which border Canada.
Dominant trees in the northern counties can include red and white pine, balsam and spruce. Each provides food and cover for deer. But neither is as fruitful for whitetails as the deciduous trees that dominate in Kanabec and other more-southern counties.
"In the early days around here, deer were fewer and hunting was a matter of survival," Greg Kroschel said. "Everything hunters saw in those days, doe or buck, got shot. Now we've got good numbers of deer and we're more selective. Last year I think we passed up 15 bucks."
Accompanying the increased deer numbers have been evermore sightings of wolves, and most years, one or more of the wild canines is spotted from a hunter's stand.
But mostly at day's end, when hunters conclude their dark-to-dark postings, fodder for gab around the shack's long pine table are the deer that were seen, shot - or shot at.
If at least one animal is slain, as a dinnertime treat its heart might be boiled and sliced thin, and its tenderloins seared.
This season, attention especially will be paid to the coming-of-age fortunes of Emmitt Kroschel, age 12, Trent's son, who for the first time will hunt alone, on his own stand.
Doubtless, Emmitt's time to swing a buck from the shack's meat pole will come soon enough. But it didn't happen Saturday by noon.
In fact, by midday on the opener, only one whitetail had been slain, an 8-point buck felled by Kevin Entner, 43, of Sartell, John Rabe's nephew.
So it went on this deer season's first morning in Kanabec County, as it has for more than a century.