Writer Andrew VanDrie takes us along on his family’s annual bird-hunting trip to a remote log cabin in the Upper Peninsula

This article first appeared in Traverse Northern Michigan. Find this story and more when you explore our magazine library. Want Traverse delivered to your door or inbox monthly? View our print subscription and digital subscription options.

Our truck hurtles through the empty corridor of Highway 28, pointed north toward quaking aspen, American woodcock and the occasional ruffed grouse. We are maneuvering through the rocky crag interior of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—a venture Dad, Chuck and I have pursued since I still had braces (middle school). We retrace these familiar routes in an annual migration, beckoned by the same irrefutable intuition that drives the anadromous steelhead upstream.

We return because we always have. Distance is gauged in the fading of FM stations as the signal weakens and another is picked up on the scanner; the radio waves of Marquette reach us much sooner than we reach it. We maneuver through slumbering outposts—Trout Lake, Christmas, Munising—until the dimmed lights of Marquette shimmer across Lake Superior. We are guided in by a corpuscle glow emitting from Huron Mountain Bakery, thankfully pulling night shift hours and open past 10 p.m. A few old-timer patrons round out the edges of this mimicry of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks.” We glean a few “gooey-gobs” (Dad’s blanket term for any bakery sweet) from the scant collection as the bakers prepare fresh dough for tomorrow’s batch in the back. I add a shot of midnight oil to my Yeti thermos for the final push and off we go into the ether.

We slingshot around the roundabouts of Highway 41 and then slide into a BP station outside Ishpeming for one last fuel-up before slipping past the contours of established civilization. We turn onto logging roads, wide dirt tracts that meander through the endless brush country and boast such endearing names as County Road CCF, and skitter over the wash-board grade, splashing mud on the running boards as we close in on the finish line. Rounding another S curve that would give a rally driver whiplash, the rusted gate materializes in the headlights. A quick jounce over a rutted two-track and we are here.

Each year we return to TM’s log cabin, situated on a clearing cut into the wildest place of Michigan’s left palm. Hand-constructed from jack pine by TM himself, it’s an homage to a mid-20th-century deer camp. The embodiment of Yooper hospitality, TM preps the cabin for our arrival and will join us tomorrow morning with his bird dogs in tow.

Inside, the woodstove hums with a pine fire and the flames cast orange hues across lacquered wood. There have been slight modifications over the years since I’ve been coming here. A new window was cut and fitted into the west wall. More antlers on plaques have marched farther around the circumference of the cabin. But the essence is unaltered—a time capsule of rustic simplicity, hallowed ground that only acquires deeper mysticism with each season that I return.

We unload and crack PBRs that have been on ice since St. Ignace to commemorate enduring the voyage, to celebrate being here. Together. We talk in hushed tones in the low light before finally wriggling into sleeping bags, falling asleep as the gathering rain begins to drum on the roof.

Bird Camp in Northern Michigan in the Upper Peninsula.

Photo by Andrew VanDrie

Bird Camp in Northern Michigan in the Upper Peninsula.

Photo by Andrew VanDrie

Bird Camp in Northern Michigan in the Upper Peninsula.

Photo by Andrew VanDrie

Bird Camp in Northern Michigan in the Upper Peninsula.

Photo by Andrew VanDrie

How many mornings have I awoken at the cabin? Too many to count, and not nearly enough. This morning is gray and rises as slowly as we do. The rain has mounted a full assault and shows no sign of fatigue. We load up the percolator on the propane stovetop for a second round and sip coffee with donuts in the kitchen.

Other years, other mornings have arrived with the whirling of bird dogs trooping inside at daybreak as TM’s towering frame fills the doorway. Sun streaming through the large eastern window as I’m shocked awake by one, or two or three hounds lapping at my face. In many ways, the passage of bird camps past is not marked in years but rather epochs of Brittany Spaniels—Jess, Britt, Scout, Bo, Daisy. A procession of pad-footed monarchs. Dogs and companions who, though they aren’t your own, you still love, praise and mourn when you return the next October and they do not.

We peruse a dog-eared copy of the “Michigan Atlas & Gazetteer” and plot out some reconnaissance. Suffice to say that many a distinguished sporting journal mercifully glosses over the slog that is truck time when hunting birds. Innumerable hours have been whiled away as we’ve traced the spider web of two tracks, logging roads and side trails chasing grainy satellite maps and wild hunches. This year, it is a little early as most poplars, beeches, birches and maples still clutch their foliage, which makes for hard shooting. Though the palette still skews toward the verdant, there is a tinge of autumnal gold blended in with a few shocks of crimson maple and a swath of poplars alight in wind-rustled yellow flame.

Today we do not have dogs with us (TM arrives tomorrow) so we will be “busting brush” unassisted. The rain has abated for a brief window and we have happened upon a promising, albeit small, stand of whip-thin poplar. Dad opts to nap in the front seat, so Chuck and I trudge along without him. Not more than a few footfalls from the gravel, Chuck flushes and fells a woodcock with a single shot, and we troop back to the car to fetch dad. We cover the stand, a mix of aspen and undergrowth, and I shoot my limit of woodcock (three) and Dad connects with one. In thematic conclusion, the front is upon us and rain begins to spatter on the windshield.

Bird Camp in Northern Michigan in the Upper Peninsula.

Photo by Andrew VanDrie

Bunching rainclouds yield an early dusk as we arrive back at the cabin. Damp canvas shirts and brush pants are hung by the woodstove to dry. Shotguns are broken down, oiled and returned to their cases. The fire is stoked and a lantern-lit in the kitchen as we prepare for dinner. The meal is preceded by venison summer sausage, dill cheese spread and grapes—a rudimentary charcuterie board laid out on paper plates. On the propane stove, a pot of homemade chili thaws and begins to burble. I tinker with the FM radio to pick up some Bob Seger before the signal is lost and I have to settle for country-western. Headlights sweep the inside of the cabin as my brother arrives, having hightailed it from Wisconsin. He nudges the door open—the latch regularly sticks—and shakes the rain off his Carhartt. We each give him a hug and usher him into the kitchen where a hot bowl of chili is placed in his hands.

Dad serves as the unofficial though undisputed camp cook. Each year we are treated to a multitude of hearty meals— chili, lasagna, pork chops, and this year even biscuits and gravy—entrées fit for a U.P. supper club and catered to satisfy gnawing appetites carved out by a day afield. It’s a taste of home in the middle of the woods. Each meal is complemented by a plethora of libations—PBR, Coors Light, October Fest from a certain Wisconsin brewery (courtesy of my brother).

Saturday evening is the masterful feast, a supreme celebration of the tradition of this nimrod pursuit—the joining of friends and brothers, the pleasant joys of a crisp autumn day in a wild place. Heads are bowed, a quick and eloquent grace bestowed. Salads, mashed garlic potatoes, slabs of buttery pork chops, are all hefted onto a real plastic plate (the china of any deer camp). The finest bottle of $5 grocery store red is uncorked and poured with a heavy hand. The dogs circle the table lapping at their chops, overwhelmed by the savory aromas and jovial commotion. Their diligence is rewarded with hunks of pork gristle that disappear into pink mouths before even gravity can have its say.

Table cleared, dishes heaped into the bin for tomorrow’s washing, we recline on the sofas to listen to golden country twang out on the FM radio. Our digestion is assisted by an evening toddy (ginger ale and Seagram’s) and we talk in low tones that later crescendo as the whiskey loosens tongues. Fun is fun and whiskey turns to water. The talk peters out and now only the fire whispers and cracks. Then sleep has the final say.

Bird Camp in Northern Michigan in the Upper Peninsula.

Photo by Andrew VanDrie

Now is the time for leaving. At least the preamble. The initial items are packed and stowed—plastic totes, duffles, sleeping bags. But there is still one more hunt. The clearing is awash in morning’s golden hues and the maples return the favor with an orange salute. We don the canvas and bird vests once more and load up the trucks. We venture somewhere nearby (a relative term—20 minutes is the minimum). We traverse over tag alder-choked streams that I am convinced hold leviathan, primordial brook trout that have never conceived of the concept of a dry fly. I salivate. Another adventure for another time.

We wend along a dirt track, too narrow for logging that one year (the exact year is lost to the annals), stamped with the print of moose hooves. We park in a roadside cutoff and suit up. Daisy and even old Bo squirm with anticipation.

We divide our party. My brother and TM will follow after the finely tuned nose of Daisy. My dad, his friend and I will follow the wavering bubble compass on our vests. We depart in opposite directions in the poplar thicket and agree to convene in an hour. The morning is cool, and despite the sun, my fingers feel like cold stone. We tromp through the brush in a picket line, checking one another’s pace by the bobbing of a hunter-orange hat in the quivering poplar leaves. A woodcock flushes in a whirling panic to my far left and I pivot toward the sound, shotgun leveled and safety reflexively flicked off. It is exercise alone, as she has long since escaped. A bird flush is often like a steelhead strike in that it occurs exactly when you expect it to, and exactly when you do not.

We clear the plot having roughed up a few poplars with 71⁄2 birdshot, but not much of anything else. Off to the south, we hear a few dull coughs of a 20-gauge and hope our companions are connecting with more than empty air. We swivel back toward the trucks and rouse a few more indignant denizens of the poplar stand. A grouse flushes in a thunderous spurt like a motorcycle trying to kick over. She too is only heard and not seen, and I save the shot for another day. I clear the tangles and snarls of regrowth saplings and hit the dirt road. I break open my shotgun and sling it over my shoulder. My brother, TM and Daisy join us shortly and we are pleased to see my brother’s game vest is a few ounces heavier. We case our shotguns, then Daisy is stripped of electronics and put in the crate. We pass a hip flask of butterscotch schnapps, take a nip and toast the hounds! Our hunt, and our trip, is at an end.

Bird Camp in Northern Michigan in the Upper Peninsula.

Photo by Andrew VanDrie

We are outside of Marquette going in the wrong direction. Correct in the navigational sense but all muddled elsewhere— with the allure of the open skies and empty days to fill as you see fit at odds with the tug of a hot shower and your own bed. Even from this distance, I can see the rusty hulks of the city’s ore docks, and Superior is whipped up to a rippled sheet. We are once again hurtling through space, zipping through the corridor of rocky outcrops and hard-scrabble towns. We are returning to earth and I am jarred by the reentry process.

I consider the benefits of the civilization to which we return. Clean clothes. A firm mattress instead of a sleeping bag. But I am not yet ready to surrender my feral tendencies. I am not yet ready to yield my hours of uninterrupted thinking as we jounced over rocky logging trails. I am not yet ready to concede the smell of cool fall air mixed with the sweat on my canvas shirt. I am not yet ready to capitulate the wildness of quarry you can pursue for the duration of your existence and never fully comprehend. But despite my selfish, stubborn resistance, I am overflowing with gratitude and a quiet contentment that can only be achieved through several days of hard walking in places without names. And for that, I can wait a whole year.

Photo(s) by Andrew VanDrie