Veterans return to the U.P. for turkey hunt

Courtesy photo Two veterans pose with turkeys after a past local hunt organized by Heroes’ Harvests. The group is soon to return for another turkey hunt, which this year kicks off the first weekend of May.

ESCANABA — After a happenstantial meeting in the woods out west three-and-a-half years ago, a charity hunting trip for veterans, organized with Colorado-based Heroes’ Harvests, is again coming to the Upper Peninsula. During the last two outings, vets came from downstate, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia and elsewhere to hunt turkeys on land scouted by local volunteers.

In September of 2020, Brad (“Buck”) Nelson of Ford River was hunting in Colorado when he met Mitchell Vazquez, who had recently retired from the military after 20 years of service.

“When you’re out there hunting, you bump into different people, different hunters, and swap stories,” Nelson said.

Throughout the three weeks that Nelson and a couple other coworkers from Heynssens-Selin’s were out west, they ran into Vazquez a handful of times on the trail. The last time they saw him on that trip, Vazquez, who had reportedly begun to recognize the healing power of the outdoors, said something along the lines of, “Hey, you’ve got a lot of turkeys in the U.P., don’t you?”

They exchanged numbers, and the following spring, Vazquez and one other veteran made plans to come up for what would become Heroes’ Harvests.

Nelson said that he got in touch with his friend Eric Anderson, whose brother and sister-in-law — Stephen and Tamara — own Timberdoodle Lodge, to make arrangements. The lodge north of Rapid River, often rented out to guests, has hundreds of acres of land and was an ideal base camp for a hunting trip.

“We turkey hunted the first year with Mitch and Pat … it was just to see where this goes,” said Nelson. “And then I also invited them to my cabin in Grand Marais and took them fishing for a couple days.”

The following year, 2022, Heroes’ Harvests came in full swing. Vazquez had made contacts around the country, and this time, nine veterans and a bunch of volunteers participated, including the Ensign Township Fire Department, which continues to be a major player in the now-recurring U.P. event.

“In ’22, Brad asked me if we had any turkeys out, and I said, ‘yeah, come on and hunt,'” recalled Alan Novak, the fire chief in Ensign. “So then they came and hunted, and then a couple other guys on the fire department were like, ‘hey, come on over to my place, too,’ so between three of us on the fire department and another neighbor … we started out with about six, 700 acres the first year.”

That event was called “Michigan Great Lakes Spring Thunder” and included — after the hunt around Ensign from Timberdoodle Lodge — fishing on Lake Superior from Grand Marais.

Last year, the two U.P. excursions were separated and labeled as two different outings, though still back-to-back. The hunt at Timberdoodle was renamed “SGM(R) Shawn Runkle Great Lakes Turkey Hunt,” after a veteran who had participated the year before and then was killed in a car crash.

By 2023, more local residents and organizations had heard about the event and were eager to donate to the cause. A community dinner was held at the Ensign Township Hall for vets and volunteers. Providing for that night and throughout the week were Frapp’s Meat Market, Papa Murphy’s, Elmer’s County Market, Biggby Coffee, David’s Hog Wild, Thrivent, Jasper’s Sugar Bush and more. A number of individuals cooked and baked homemade meals and desserts. Over the course of the week, the amount of land offered up about doubled, Novak estimated.

The fishing outing is smaller, because it’s harder to come by boats and lodging for as many people there, but again, the community comes together.

Dale Ross, a local veteran who both went to the turkey hunt and also bought his boat up for the fishing outing, offered up his pole building for a fish fry.

“We had a couple of deep-fryers going, a bunch of locals cooking,” said Nelson. “Quite a few people came; some (residents) in the town made baked goods and pies and stuff.”

Nelson and Novak said that the trips mean a lot to those who come, and that at each event, there’s at least one vet who’s especially reserved but ends up voicing how much they needed the outing.

The foundation of Heroes’ Harvests is to be a form of therapy specifically for vets who may be struggling, but the events end up being rewarding for all involved.

“Sometimes I wonder who has more fun at these,” said Nelson. “You know, sometimes you go to a function and it’s an awkward stance. At these, everybody’s — you just blend instantly. No one’s standing on the sidelines.”

This year’s SGM(R) Shawn Runkle Great Lakes Turkey Hunt will take place the first weekend of May, with vets beginning to arrive that Thursday, the 2nd. Friday is for scouting, shotgun sizing, and a wilderness first aid presentation by Jimmy Gruenewald of Green Bay, who was a medic in the Army. Actual hunting begins Saturday and is usually done by Monday, said Heroes’ Harvests Director of Operations Peter Bruno, though they have the Lodge until Thursday.

The social dinner at the fire hall — sort of a community thank-you and potluck, according to Bruno — is on Saturday.

Recalling some of the stories that flew between Yoopers and the out-of-town vets last year, Novak said that one of his fellow firefighters noted, “We all go out west and hunt big game, and these guys are tickled pink to come here and hunt turkey.”

Novak said that the Ensign Township Fire Department will be posting updates on their Facebook page before and during the event.

The Lake Superior fishing trip is scheduled for May 9 through 12. Applications for that outing may be submitted until April 26 at heroesharvests.org.


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