FAIRBANKS, Minn. — Larry Zwak was in his element, surrounded by friends and family, everyone wearing a little blaze orange, everyone eating, everyone with a beer in their hand, everyone paying homage to the patriarch of the Zwak family deer camp.

It was the annual party at the camp and the place was buzzing with laughter and back slapping, face-stuffing and finger-licking and, well, plenty of B.S.

“Hell, they didn’t come to see me — they came for the food,’’ Zwak said with a smile. “Wait until the brandy and beer start flowing, then it will get pretty loud in here.”

Zwak, 85, presides over the family deer camp that includes his sons: Ken, Paul, Mike and Bill (although Bill doesn’t hunt deer). His grandsons, Wyatt, Joey, Adam and Darren, hunt here, too. (Great-grandpa Frank Zwak has been gone a while now, but he also hunted here.) All live in Duluth.

On the first Monday of each Minnesota firearms deer season, the Zwaks host a big feast. Hunters from other camps drive up to an hour to attend, like the guys from the Liars Den camp over by Meadowlands.

(John Myers / jmyers@duluthnews.com)
(John Myers / jmyers@duluthnews.com)

“We used to shoot a little deer the first weekend and put it on the spit,’’ Paul Zwak said. “But now it’s bucks-only here. We can’t get any little deer.”

So this year it was spaghetti and meatballs, but only after hours of hors d'oeuvres, with homemade pickled eggs, smoked salmon and crackers, and grilled goose tidbits with cream cheese and peppers wrapped in bacon and skewered with a toothpick.

“You won’t go hungry around here,’’ Larry said before forcing another pickled quail egg onto a guest.

Larry Zwak grew up in Duluth’s Gary neighborhood and has been hunting all his life. He’s been deer hunting around Bassett Lake since the early 1970s, when he bought an old boat-to-cabin on the east shore. That cabin is long gone, replaced by a newer model. And joining him now are his sons, all with cabins on the same lake.

The family deer camp has moved from Larry’s cabin on the east shore to the west shore, where Paul Zwak has built a fancier place with all the modern amenities, like indoor plumbing and wireless internet. But little else has changed about the deer camp tradition.

Like so many other deer camps across the Northland, the annual Zwak deer season is about so much more than deer. It’s a chance for generations to come together, to rekindle old friendships and reconnect family relationships. (Longtime family friend Joe McGaver came all the way from Houston, Texas, to spend the past week hunting with the Zwaks.)

“Hell, I can't even see them — how can I shoot one?”

“It’s good for us to get together for this, with Dad,’’ Ken Zwak said, but added quickly: “We’re a tight family … but it’s still family, so we‘re all glad we have our own places to go to.”

On a bone-chilling cold night outside, inside the cabin there was classic rock radio station playing in the background, a cribbage board on the table and a growing pile of crushed Busch Light cans in the recycling wastebasket. Blaze orange was everywhere. Stuffed deer heads hung on the walls. A gas fireplace was pumping out heat and ambiance.

(John Myers / jmyers@duluthnews.com)
(John Myers / jmyers@duluthnews.com)

Cuss words are nearly mandatory in this camp atmosphere, but keep it legal: The place is crawling with cops and retired cops from other deer camps. The local game warden even stopped by to eat.

Some deer camps are raucous, party-time affairs where little hunting gets done. Others are stark serious, with hunters in bed by 9, hunting clothes left outside to avoid picking up scent and hunters in the woods from dawn until dusk.

Put the Zwak camp somewhere in the middle.

Larry got out on opening day, he kept the tradition going, more than 70 years of deer hunting. But he’s got Parkinson's disease now and his arm shakes some and, while his attitude is strong, his sense of reality is, too.

“Hell, I can’t even see them — how can I shoot one?”’ he said. “But they’re (his sons and grandsons) good to me. They get me out there. I’m hunting.”

Larry complains about the lack of deer in the area now, compared to 20 or 30 years ago. And he complains about too many wolves. But it’s also pretty clear he doesn't much care if he shoots another deer or not. It’s a stage they say all hunters get to, some sooner than others, when bagging a trophy buck takes a backseat to the camaraderie and family and friends and food and fun.

But the Zwaks do hunt. This year they put 10 hunters into the woods on opening weekend. Success came the first Sunday of the season for Ken and Wyatt, who each scored on nice seven-pointers. Wyatt’s will probably win the friendly camp wager for biggest buck.

(Photo courtesy of XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX)
(Photo courtesy of XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX)

“They aren't trophies. But they were the only deer we’ve seen, so we feel pretty lucky,’’ Ken said.

The bucks were hanging in Paul Zwak’s cabin garage, waiting to be made into steaks and chops and sausage. The racks were just big enough to keep and maybe put up on the wall. Not quite big enough to warrant a full head mount, but, then again, the cabin already has plenty of those.

The temperature had dropped to zero by 8 p.m. as the party started to wind down. Light snow was falling. But Larry was still making the rounds, making sure he said goodbye to everyone before they left. Larry would spend the night before heading back to Duluth.

Some members of the Zwak camp already had gone back to town for hockey tryouts or jobs or school. Others would come and go as the season went on. But everyone made a point to spend as much time with Larry as they could.

"You have to make accommodations for Dad, but it’s worth it. He’s the reason we’re all here, all able to do this," Ken said. "Hunting has been a big part of our family — huge. He gave that to us. I wouldn’t miss this for anything."