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Family has 51 years of hunting from Warba deer camp

Curt Johnson looks down from his stand as he talks to fellow hunter Brian Sutherland early Saturday morning. Both are from Grand Rapids and were hunting at the Johnson deer camp near Warba. Clint Austin / News Tribune

WARBA, Minn. -- Hjalmar Johnson had made it to deer camp for 50 years in a row. But he couldn't make it for Saturday's Minnesota firearms deer opener.

The Warba hunter, 95, is recuperating at the Deer River Health Care Center in Deer River from complications after a blackout in September. Johnson and his brother, the late Waldemar "Baldy" Johnson, founded and built the Johnson deer camp in the woods near Warba in 1957.

Eleven members of the Johnson and Sutherland clans from the Grand Rapids, Minn., and Brainerd, Minn., areas gathered there for Saturday's opener, and they raised a toast to the camp's patriarch on Friday night.

"He's very, very proud of the camp," said Hjalmar Johnson's nephew Dale Sutherland, 50, of Bovey, Minn. "Nothing happens there if we don't have his stamp of approval."

In an interview Friday afternoon at the health care facility, Johnson struggled for words to express his emotions about missing the opener.

"I don't know how I feel -- lost, deserted," Johnson said. "I'm wishing I could go along. I wish there were some means I could be out there with the gang."

Sutherland was with Johnson during that visit Friday afternoon. And Sutherland promised his uncle the gang wouldn't forget him.

"We'll bring you some tenderloins," Sutherland vowed.

As Sutherland shook Johnson's big hand upon departing, the old man said, "Have fun, you guys. It almost makes me cry."

And tears began to run down the big man's cheeks.

Sourdough 'cakes and more

Johnson wanted to be there in the humble shack that he and Waldemar erected on the rise overlooking a small creek 51 years ago. He wanted to be there for the sourdough pancakes, made with the same batch of sourdough starter Johnson created in 1971, maybe earlier. He wanted to be there for the big smear card game once the supper dishes were done.

And he wanted to be there early Saturday morning, when, one by one, the hunters left the vertical-log shack and ventured into the pre-dawn blackness. The temperature hung right at freezing. A raw wind blew out of the north at 18 mph. A trace of snow crusted the curled leaves on the ground like a coating of salt. Across the state, about 440,000 firearms hunters are expected to take to the fields and the woods for this fall's hunt.

At the Johnson camp, Adam Sutherland, 25, headed for the Birch Island stand at 5:07 a.m. Curt Johnson, 42, of Grand Rapids was bound for his stand on the South 40 at 5:45. Jeff Kramer, 56, of Brainerd left at 6:35 for the Birch Hills. Ray Johnson, 66, of Grand Rapids ate his sourdough pancakes and headed for the stand called Finn Shacks.

The 51st season at the shack officially had begun.

Classic camp

This is the quintessential Minnesota deer camp, perfect in every way. The squat shack. The nearby woodshed. The outhouse. The barrel of water hauled from town. The generator up the hill, powering a few well-placed lights inside.

Simple? Yes.

"To call this place rustic would give it an elegance it might not deserve," Dale Sutherland said.

The faded green shack is nestled beneath the old balsam firs, just where Hjalmar and Waldemar sat one November afternoon during a long-ago deer season. In those days before the shack, a successful hunt meant dragging their deer two miles to Warba through the bush.

"I said, 'You know, it'd be nice if we had a little hole in the wall here and didn't have to go home,' " Hjalmar told his brother that day in 1956. "Baldy said, 'What's the matter with right here where we're at?' "

And so it was. They got to work, cutting green popple and slapping the shack together. When the popple dried, there were "cracks big enough to throw a cat through," as the camp lore has it. But they filled the cracks and gradually added rooms to the place through the years.

"Now they can bed down 10," Hjalmar said.

Early success

A shot boomed through the woods south of camp at precisely 7:44 a.m. Saturday. It came from the direction of Curt Johnson's stand on the South 40.

Sure enough, Johnson, came rolling back to camp in his pickup about an hour later with a story to tell. When he came into the shack, Gary Sutherland of Grand Rapids could see evidence of Johnson's success.

"Bloody fingers!" Sutherland said.

Johnson beamed. A five-point buck lay steaming on his tailgate in the cool morning air. As his fellow camp members gathered around, he told the story.

"I heard a crunch, something a little different," Johnson said.

He looked behind him. The buck was sneaking through the woods about 50 yards away. Johnson re-enacted the sequence of events that followed -- the quick discovery of the buck, the awkward lean from his stand and finally the shot. The buck, which weighed 140 pounds on the camp scale, dropped immediately.

The gang helped Johnson hang the buck from a pole in the three-sided garage. As they were finishing, Dale Sutherland walked back into camp from his morning on the stand. He saw the buck. He shook Curt Johnson's bloody hand. A big grin came cross Sutherland's face.

"You got Hjalmar some tenderloins," Sutherland said.

By the end of the day Saturday, two more deer had been taken by members of the Johnson hunting camp. Curt Johnson shot a spike buck, and Kevin Johnson of Brainerd also shot a spike buck.

Hunting crew

Here's a list of those who are members of or hunted at the Johnson deer camp near Warba this weekend. The camp, founded by Hjalmar Johnson of Warba and his brother, the late Waldemar Johnson, is now in its 51st year at the same location.

Hjalmar Johnson, 95, Warba

Edward Johnson, 78, Warba

Ray Johnson, 66, Grand Rapids

Gary Sutherland, 56, Grand Rapids

Dale Sutherland, 50, Bovey

Jeff Kramer, 56, Brainerd

Kevin Johnson, 50, Brainerd

Curt Johnson, 42, Grand Rapids

Ryan Sutherland, 26, Grand Rapids

Adam Sutherland, 25, Grand Rapids

Brian Sutherland, 18, Grand Rapids

Donavon Johnson, 15, Grand Rapids