ORIENTA, Wis. — Not far out of downtown Oulu, down a gravel road they call "Tarpaper Alley," you’ll find a deer camp tucked into the ash, oak and aspen forest of northern Bayfield County.
In some ways, it’s like a thousand other Wisconsin deer camps, but bigger, and with a certain ethnic flavor that’s hard to miss.
Welcome to Camp Nukkumaa, a muddled interpretation of the Finnish word for "sleep."
“Every time I’d show up to visit they would all be napping. So I named it "Sleepy Camp" — "Nukkumaa,'" Carol Kangas said.
There are Finnish flags flying here and giant posters for Finnish beer brands, and of course, a big "saw-nah" out back.
“We have two kinds of people in our camp: those who are Finlanders and those who wish they were,” said “Windsor” Willie Kangas, Carol’s husband, one of the camp’s founders and, at 69, now the senior member.
Their son, Nathan Kangas, also is a camp member.
The guys have been deer hunting here for 31 years, on about 240 acres now, at first with a couple decrepit mobile home trailers stuck together. They demolished that mess and built their palace of a deer shack’ back in 2007. Willie Kangas cut all the logs at his sawmill. Kurt Mehtala, one of the camp founders and a retired bricklayer, made the huge stone fireplace.
The log structure is 30 feet wide and 50 feet deep, with two sleeping quarters that can handle more than a dozen hunters, a big stainless steel kitchen and a rectangular bar in the center that would put many Wisconsin taverns to shame.
“This was always our dream,” Kurt Mehtala said. “But when we started, none of us could afford it.”
The main cross beam is festooned with a couple dozen buck racks — prizes from past hunts that remind all who enter what all the fuss is about.
Throw in a foosball table, a giant-screen TV for watching Packers games and a walk-in cooler for keeping provisions cold — deer or beer — and any Cheesehead hunter would feel at home here. They might not want to leave.
“So many people stop by to visit that this is basically like a bar during the season,” Nathan Kangas noted.
The place is so nice they could probably rent it out as an event center.
“We had my wedding reception here,’’ Chris Mehtala said.
Camp culture runs deep
While there are reports from across northwestern Wisconsin that the deer camp tradition is fading, that many camps have scaled-back their hunting, have fewer members or have even been abandoned entirely as old hunters age out and few young hunters join in, the clan at Camp Nukkumaa won’t hear of such talk. Their camp culture is as strong as ever, with a third generation of hunters coming up through the ranks.
“This is what we live for. We’ll be here for 10 days straight during the season,” Kurt Mehtala said.
There will be practical jokes played and replayed, stories told and retold, huge meals prepared and eaten and then reheated and eaten again. There’s a killer traveling cribbage tournament that moves to other camps as needed.
Willie Kangas is a local singing legend and Nathan plays guitar.
“We still have some good sessions out here,” Willie noted.
And, of course, there are beers to be quaffed once the guns are stowed for the day.
“I brought a scale to camp once just to see how much weight everyone gained,“ Kurt Mehtala said. All camp members weighed in on the Friday before camp and again on the last day of camp. “I took top honors. … I gained 19 pounds in 10 days.”
In addition to the Mehtala and Kangas clans, Ken Mattson is a founding member and still an ardent hunter. Debbie Mikkola, whose late husband, Raimo, was a founding member, is still active in the camp. One of the camp’s core tenants is that wives, daughters, girlfriends — all are welcome. It’s part of the camp culture. That includes “ladies night” each year, on Wednesday of the firearms deer season, when the women are served a big meal by the men.
“It’s sort of our way of thanking them for letting us stay out here for 10 days,” Kurt Mehtala said. “But we’ve always had women and girls out here. … They’re part of what this camp is.”
For the members who don’t go home for Thanksgiving afternoon dinner (everyone returns that night), some camp members have Thanksgiving dinner at the camp.
“It really is a family affair. Everyone is welcome here,” Carol Kangas said.
Almost everyone in the group is from the greater Brule-Iron River-Oulu-Superior area, and they like having their camp close to home.
“It’s great we can be out here whenever we want. … We come out for dinners and New Years parties and birthday parties. … We have a winter fun day for the kids,” said Kurt Mehtala, who lives just a few miles away.
Chris Mehtala moved in next door to the camp.
And there have been many deer shot here. Dozens of nice bucks. They average two or three decent bucks each year, depending on how many hunters are out.
“It’s still pretty special when someone here connects with a big buck,” Chris Mehtala said.
“We are serious on opening morning, and then after that it goes downhill,” Mattson said.
Most of the group agrees the deer population — at least the number of big bucks — has slipped a bit in recent years, maybe because of wolves or snowy winters, maybe because a few more hunters have moved onto adjacent lands. While some hunters nearby will shoot anything they see, Camp Nukkumaa has a mature-bucks-only rule, except for its young hunters.
“We try to do eight (points) or better or let it go,” Chris Mehtala said. “But that’s hard because the guys on the next land are probably shooting the deer we pass on. We don’t really have enough land to manage the deer population much.”
Camp members have planted some food plots to help the local deer thrive, and to draw them in.
The Trailer in the Sky Stand
The camp has seven big, enclosed deer stands to choose from, most with heaters, including one that needs to be seen to be seen to be believed.
They call it the "Trailer in the Sky Stand," and that’s exactly what it is. Several years ago, a few camp members and their buddies decided that an aging, pull-behind camper trailer would make a great deer stand, if only it was raised up off the ground.
At first they brought in a forklift, but that wasn’t powerful enough to raise the trailer up onto stilts. So they found a neighbor with a boom truck who raised the camper up and placed it on its new supports, about 10 feet off the ground. Word is one of the crew rode the camper up as it was set in place.
The camper still has its wheels and tires on even though it will never hit the road again. Hopefully, it doesn’t ever hit the ground again.
“A lot of Finlanders were involved in this effort,” Chris Mehtala said with a laugh as he climbed up into the trailer. “And a lot of beer.”
But, Mehtala quickly noted, there also have been many bucks shot out of the Trailer in the Sky.
“The deer are still the draw. It’s why we’re out here … and some of us are pretty serious about it,’’ Chris Mehtala said. “But, really, this deer camp is just so much fun. … There are so many stories that most people wouldn’t even understand. They all become part of the camp tradition. It’s just a great place to be with friends and family.”
John Myers reports on the outdoors, environment and natural resources for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.