ESCANABA - In 1976, and for the next 31 years, my hunting friends and I would convene this time of year, at the camp of the late Mike Albert, and plan out our fall.
It would include cutting firewood for winter, pursuit of upland game, scouting and establishing hunting spots for deer season and all the necessary projects in between.
In the earlier years we didn't use bait for deer hunting. We either posted, still hunted, or made drives. As time progressed, baiting the whitetail seemed an option worth exploring. It seemed to work for the Lower Michigan hunters.
One year, in planning for the firearm deer hunting season, we decided to buy a good supply of potable bait. Apples were not in good supply along the county road right of way where we used to pick in season. We couldn't use cabbage as there were no ATVs around to carry the heavy heads. In fact, there were no ATV's!
We knew of a farmer up in Watson, some 15 miles or so from camp who had delivered a load of potatoes to the south and came back with his truck packed full of carrots. He was selling them to hunters by the scoop, which meant an amount he'd pick up in the bucket of his skid-steer front loader.
The price was said to be reasonable so we set a date to make the buy.
Our plan included hauling the carrots in my trailer that was fashioned from the box of a pick-up truck I used to own. We'd fill it, drop it off at camp and work for the following weeks preceding the Nov. 15 opener, to clean them of dirt, pack them into 20-pound mesh sacks, and store them in the outside shed.
On the day we were to pick up the bait, we decided I'd use my CJ5 Jeep, a small two passenger vehicle, to pull the trailer. It was bird season so maybe we'd get lucky along the way by taking in a few side detours. I should have considered what I was expecting it to do, with both Mike and I in it plus pulling a load of produce, weight yet unknown.
Once we arrived at the Mike VanDamme potato farm and caught a glimpse of what we were about to buy, I truly wondered if we had bitten off more than we could chew.
A truck leaving before us was well weighted down with a level of carrots that just crowned over the wheel wells. My trailer was made from the back half of a 1960 pick-up that was pretty tired.
I told Mike to watch me as I observed the suspension on the trailer. I'd give him the cut-off sign once the leaf springs were flat, so as not to overload the rig. Well by the time Albert finished waving him on, VanDamme had put two scoops into the bed. The springs weren't flat, they were still curved but the opposite way.
Now I know Albert saw my signal and intentionally ignored it. He assured me we'd make it back to camp okay if we took our time and drove slow. It would be easier on the Jeep and less strain on the ailing trailer suspension.
I should have known better, and by the subtle grin on his face.
On the way back to camp traveling down the Boney Falls Road, we hit a bump that dropped the trailer into a hole. It hit so hard that the front wheels of my Jeep became airborne. At the same time I heard the "ping-ping-ping" sound that springs make when they break.
Albert's response: "Geeze, you'd think the fronts of these Jeeps were heavier." And: "Geeze, you'd think they'd make these springs heavier too!"
Well the damage was done. After warning Albert that one more front end lift and he'd be riding on the hood as ballast, we limped on back to camp to the end of the journey.
The next step was to clean off the soil that still clung to most of the carrots.
We devised a plan to drill holes in five gallon buckets, fill each with carrots and rinse the soil out through the holes and then bag them up for carrying. It was a slow and tedious process and we had only scratched the surface of our load when it became dark and time to head for home.
What was left to clean could stay in the trailer until we came back during the week.
We did return and soon discovered the deer had stopped by to assist us in off loading. More than half of the carrots had been eaten. Perhaps someone stopped by and helped himself to a sample supply. At any rate, there was only enough left to fill about two dozen onion sacks for the season.
We finished up what was left, carefully put them into the outside shed and locked the door. Baiting would start within the next two weeks and the carrots should keep very well stored in the cool root cellar like environment.
Ten days later, we arrived at camp to begin baiting. After a good breakfast, we dressed for the woods and went to get a supply of bait. Never did we expect to see what presented upon opening the shed door.
As soon as day light hit the interior, I can't even begin to tell you how many hundred mice went scurrying in every direction, including directly at us. That's right, two mighty hunters went running in the opposite direction.
After regaining our composure and assessing the damage, only about half the bags were still usable. The others had been chewed open and the contents were decorated with an appropriate balance of mouse droppings.
In all, we only lost about $200 on the venture that included repair of the trailer with used springs, the cost of fuel, and of course the bait itself which only lasted part of the season. The cost did not include our labor and aging. That's supposed to be considered part of the fun experience.
We figured that a good lesson was learned for the next year and were certain the experience would lead us to have better results.
Yep, next year we'd try beets.