There’s a special place set aside for each of us to find. A wonderful, favorite place that words just can’t describe. Phillip Flegel was lucky enough to find his own special place more than 70 years ago. He was 19 years old in 1950 when he first deer hunted in the Porcupine Mountains. He was so moved by the experience that he returned year after year for the next 62 years. He called it “God’s Country.”
“It all started with an article in Outdoor Life magazine,” Phillip told me.
The article, written by Ben East, as told by Nate Davis, described an exciting deer hunt in the wilderness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in 1947. Phillip and his older brothers were so inspired by the story that, at the first opportunity, they made a trip up north to the newly established Porcupine Mountain State Park to see the wild country for themselves.
The trip was an adventure in itself. The two-lane road passed through every small town from central Michigan to Mackinaw City. The bridge across the five-mile-wide Straits of Mackinac was only a future dream at that time. They waited for the ferry to take them to the U.P. It was a long drive from St. Ignace to Ontonagon on unimproved roads. When they finally reached the “Porkies,” they found the whole area virtually unexplored. The south boundary of the park hadn’t been established yet, so the unbroken, roadless wilderness stretched for miles inland from the rugged Lake Superior shoreline. The rough country and remoteness of the area was enough to discourage most hunters, but the seven Flegel brothers were already planning to return.
This was before cell phones, personal GPS, or walkie-talkies. A good compass and topo map was their lifeline to survival in the frigid North Country. They became woodsmen!
“Back in the 50s, you didn’t see any sign of people ever being there,” Phillip explained. “We went up before season to set up our tents and cut firewood so we’d be ready for opening day. Later, we realized that every day is opening day when the deer haven’t been hunted. Bucks in there die from old age. One buck I shot when we got him home, was aged at 11 years old.
“Later, some logging was done south of the new park, and there were more deer then. You’d see a half dozen in a bunch following the old deer trails. In the years after the logging ended, there were less deer. The old deer trails gradually disappeared. Hunting success often depended on the weather. Heavy snowfall moved the deer down toward the lake, where they were more accessible. Some years were better than others but deer were never thick in that big country. You had to get out and find them. We usually still hunted and never sat very long in one place. Every morning, we’d make a bean sandwich with a big slice of onion to take for our lunch and go out for the day. As we hunted we were always seeing new country or familiar places that brought back old memories.
“At first we hired a commercial fisherman with a boat large enough to take us up the Lake Superior shoreline and drop us off. Later we got our own boats. Sometimes it was a rough trip. Ice forming along the shoreline often made it hard to get in and out. We often had to wait for a calm morning to load the boats and get out coming home.
“We covered a lot of ground in those days. Once my brother, Donald, shot a big bear south of where the park’s south boundary road would eventually go through. Took us four full days to get him to the boat. When we came home that bear was the talk of the ferry while crossing the Straits. Everyone wanted to see the big bear. We never knew how much he actually weighed because the scales bottomed out at 533 pounds.
“We actually met and got to know the guys from that Outdoor Life article as well as several other guys that hunted there every fall, but there weren’t many. We were always on good terms with the park officials too.
“The first year I took my son in there, we had to walk in to our camp. Didn’t get an early start like we planned and by late afternoon my son said, “Why would you do this? Why come all the way up here to hunt deer, there’s deer at home.”
“He didn’t understand then, but by the end of that first trip he had the bug. He never missed a year after that. He loved that country too.
“He shot a bear his first year up there. But, after three or four bears we quit shooting them, too hard to get them out of there. There was a bear den under the root ball of a huge fallen tree along Toledo Creek. The hole was just big enough for a bear to crawl into. I saw that bear more than once. Don’t know if it was a boar or sow, but I never saw any cubs with it. Anyway, the den was in use for four years. The next year it was all fallen in and the hole was filled up.
“Our rule was to always be back to camp by dark. One night my son was late getting in. Then we heard voices coming. He’d found a woman who was lost and brought her to our camp. She wasn’t dressed for deer hunting; no hat, no gloves, and wearing cowboy boots. Turned out she was a professional photographer from Chicago! We warmed her up, fed her a hot meal, and gave her blankets for the night. Next morning we pointed out the trail for her to follow to get back to her car. She left without even a thank you for us. We laughed about that for years.
“One rainy day us older guys stayed in camp but my son was a good hunter and he was anxious to get out. He took a fishing rod with him to catch some trout for our supper. Up along the Big Carp River, while fishing, he shot one of the biggest bucks of his life. He came back wet and happy! Never let us forget it either.
“Our first year to stay in a state-owned cabin in the park was in 1963. We moved around between cabins before settling on the cabin at the mouth of the Big Carp River. We really loved that area. The surf on the lakeshore could be seen right from our window and the sound put us to sleep at night. Some November storms were fearsome though. We were there the night the Edmond Fitzgerald went down.
“I could see lots of deer right at home but sitting in a shack and shooting out the window is not hunting to me. Most hunters today have to be comfortable or they won’t hunt. Hunting is not easy up there. It’s not just handed to you. Up there I’d find a big track in the snow and follow it all day through hill and dale. I sometimes saw the buck, other times I might never even see him, but by following his track all day I learned a lot about him. I might get him another day. It was one man and one deer. Those bucks travel during the day. If you followed a big, lone track that was just traveling through, your chances of catching up to him were nil. But if a buck track is with a doe track, he might stay with her all day. I figured I had a 50/50 chance of seeing him. Those deer aren’t really nocturnal like they are around here. I got most of my deer between 10:00 in the morning and 2:00 in the afternoon. Course the days are quite short in November up there.
“Once my brother saw a buck three times but it took him three days to get him. He was far from camp so he hung the deer in a tree. When we went back to get him a bobcat had eaten his fill of venison from a hind quarter. The wildlife is really wild up there. Several of our bucks weighed over 200 pounds dressed out. I had one that weighed 212 pounds in December when we finally got him home. He’d hung in a tree since I shot him on November 15. My brother got one that weighed over 220. Big deer!
“All those years we hunted bucks, and we got bucks too, but it wasn’t the bucks that kept us going back. It was the whole experience; wonderfully wild country, clear air, tall timber, the sound of the wind in the hemlocks, the stillness of the woods when the snow was falling, golden sunsets over Lake Superior and the crashing of the Lake Superior surf in a storm. I loved it all. It’s just hard for me to explain. It has a special place in my heart. It was truly God’s Country.
“I’m the last of our hunting camp now, the rest are all gone and I’m not able to go anymore. Oh how I wish we could go back and do it all again. We didn’t know how lucky we were to experience it. I only hope that place never changes. I think about it all the time.”
“It was Robert Ruark who wrote, “The best thing about hunting and fishing is that you don’t actually have to do it to enjoy it. You can go to bed every night thinking about how much fun you had twenty years ago, and it all comes back clear as moonlight.”