BARABOO - At dawn last Saturday the cloud deck hung low and dark over the Wisconsin River valley.
The mercury sagged, too, at 8 degrees Fahrenheit. The 12-mile per hour west wind made it feel colder.
But the tingling I felt as I looked out over a clearing on the Leopold-Pines Conservation Area had nothing to do with the weather.
It was opening morning of the 2022 Wisconsin nine-day gun deer hunt and I, along with 15 others in this year's Leopold Deer Camp, was excited to begin another season.
It didn't matter that it was my 41st gun deer opener; my senses were on high alert, everything felt fresh and new.
No hunt is ever the same and this one was especially unique. It took place on ground once walked by conservation icon Aldo Leopold and now owned by the Aldo Leopold Foundation, Inc.
Our hosts and chief organizers of the hunt were Buddy Huffacker, ALF executive director; Steve Swenson, ALF program director; and Arik Duhr, ALF site manager.
Rounding out the opening weekend group were: Zach Huffacker of Baraboo; Emily Iehl and her husband Jacob Zeuske, both of Arena; Ryan Olson of Forest Lake, Minn.; Soren Swenson of Baraboo; Mike Watt and his son Issac Watt, both of Dodgeville; Brian Weigel, his daughter Ella Weigel and son Sawyer Weigel, all of Sauk City; Jim Wipperfurth of Sauk City and his "grand nephew" Cameron Hellenbrand of Sauk Prairie; and me.
Our ages ranged from 11 to 60-something.
Deer camp was housed in the "seed room" at ALF's compound of buildings. Sleeping pads and bags were scattered across the concrete floor. A wood-burning stove kept us warm and heated chili and soup for Friday and Saturday night dinners.
In addition to enjoying camaraderie and adding another chapter to our Wisconsin deer camp histories, we hoped to help ALF in its efforts to reduce local deer numbers as it seeks to restore prairie and savannah habitats as well as combat chronic wasting disease in the conservation area.
The first alarms went off about 5 a.m. on opening day and Steve Swenson brewed a pot of coffee. We sipped the steaming liquid, pulled on layers of clothing and reiterated our plans before setting out into the brisk darkness.
In spite of hand warmers and heavy parkas, we were going to get cold, there was no doubt about it. Wagers were placed on who would be the first and last to come in for lunch.
"There will be plenty of time to warm up later," Mike Watt said. "But there's no time like the first hours of opening day. Let's go find out what the morning will hold."
We split up and went our separate ways. My destination was a ground blind at the edge of a woodlot and a clearing in the early stages of a prairie and oak savanna restoration.
I settled onto a stool and let the sights and sounds soak in. At 6:10 a.m. sandhill cranes called from the north, likely among the several thousand birds roosted on sand bars on the river.
Over the next twenty minutes the landscape lightened enough to know distant stumps and wind-tossed clumps of grass were not deer. I stayed on the edge of my seat, however.
At 6:30 the "pock" of a rifle report echoed down the valley and the season was officially underway.
Hunting was a natural part of conservation for Aldo Leopold, the foundation namesake who developed the nation's first wildlife management curriculum while a professor at the University of Wisconsin.
Leopold taught the importance of humans seeing land as a community to which they belong instead of a commodity which they own. It was part of his "land ethic."
In 1995, Nina Leopold Bradley (Aldo's daughter) wrote an essay titled "How Hunting Affected Aldo Leopold's Thinking and His Commitment to a Land Ethic."
"To him, hunting was an expression of love for the natural world, you might even say it initiated a kind of bonding with the land," Nina wrote.
Aldo Leopold's connection to this part of the Wisconsin River valley grew especially strong after he purchased an 80-acre farm in 1935. The farm had been logged and overgrazed. But it became a site for ecological study and attempts at rehabilitation.
That property, which housed "The Shack," the chicken coop-turned family cabin, is now owned by the foundation.
His experiences and observations on the farm formed the basis for much of "A Sand County Almanac," Leopold's collection of essays published in 1949.
With prose both lyrical and weighty, the book has become a modern-age canon for many conservationists.
The Aldo Leopold Foundation carries on his teachings, including by attempting to restore native habitats on private property in the river valley.
The foundation established an ecological partnership with another local landowner, Phil Pines, resulting in Leopold-Pines Conservation Area. Spanning 4,400 acres in the river valley, the parcels are managed toward the same goals.
Phil Pines tragically died in a plane crash in 2011; his descendants, including Jim and Margie Pines, Debbie Pines and Ed Pines, are working with ALF to build Phil's conservation legacy.
Staff at ALF works with the Pines on projects across the Leopold-Pines Conservation Area to remove invasive plants, conduct prescribed burns and plant native grasses, wild flowers and trees.
"We collectively want it to add up to a greater sum," said Steve Swenson, ALF program director. "We are creating a much more resilient landscape as well as exploring and pushing the potential of conservation on private land, creating a demonstration to show other private landowners what is possible."
That work includes management of deer, a native herbivore that when present in high numbers can have a profoundly negative impact on efforts to regenerate oak and other valuable, native plants.
It's no secret deer are abundant in the southern farmland region of Wisconsin. That includes the part of Sauk County where the Leopold-Pines Conservation Area is situated.
So for more than 20 years ALF has organized a deer camp and set annual goals for deer harvests.
In my experience, it's a "10" on a scale of Wisconsin deer hunting camps. The hunters are friendly and supportive of each other. Hunters are encouraged to shoot any deer they see on ALF properties.
Many of the hunters bring their kids, friends and first-time hunters.
There is no trophy hunting vibe, but if a big buck is shot, great.
It's important to take does out of the population to help reduce recruitment. But it's also valuable to take bucks, which have been shown to carry CWD at a higher rate than does, in the effort to curb the spread of the fatal deer disease.
For the first time in the history of the property two deer, a buck and a doe, were found CWD-positive in 2021.
So last weekend we set out with pockets full of tags and the intent to help fulfill Leopold's legacy.
My blind overlooked the Leopold Memorial, the field formerly on a neighbor's farm where Leopold is thought to have died in 1948 while fighting a grass fire.
At 8:15 two antlerless deer worked their way into the middle of the prairie restoration. Five minutes later the lead animal crested a rise 50 yards to my south and presented a standing, broadside shot.
My rifle sounded and the deer bounded into the woodlot. I waited 30 minutes before taking up the track.
An inch of snow cover made it easy work. The adult doe was 40 yards inside the trees. I knelt and gave thanks to animal for its life, which will feed my family, and to the ALF staff for continuing the tradition of hunting in the conservation area.
Later that day 11-year-old Sawyer Weigel took a 10-pointer while on stand during a deer drive, and his 17-year-old sister Ally Weigel would shoot a buck fawn from a ground blind.
She had success despite her father and brother sitting behind her and talking nearly non-stop during the later afternoon outing.
"But I've learned," Ally said. "All I need to say is 'deer, deer, deer" and they get quiet right away."
Mike Watt shot a blonde-colored 8-pointer on Sunday morning, and Zach Huffacker shot a doe on a drive Sunday mid-day. A little ways to the east, Soren Swenson shot three antlerless deer from a ground blind.
And the husband-and-wife team of Iehl and Zeuske took a doe and a fawn. All deer harvested will be tested for CWD.
It was progress toward the harvest goal of 30 deer. More hunting will take place over the coming days and weeks.
At the Leopold-Pines Conservation Area, it's an activity that “hits on all cylinders,” from the ecological to the cultural to the philosophical.
Sunday night, after the camp had been packed up and hunters moved out, Wipperfurth sent out this message:
"What a great group we have! It's a special privilege to hunt on the (Leopold-Pines) property. I already took a shower and am looking forward to sleeping in my own bed, but I wish we could have another opening weekend tomorrow."
I'm right there with you, Wipp. If you hunted, here's hoping your 2022 gun deer season was also safe and successful.
THANK YOU: Subscribers' support makes this work possible. Help us share the knowledge by buying a gift subscription.
DOWNLOAD THE APP: Get the latest news, sports and more
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: A deer hunt in Wisconsin to help fulfill Aldo Leopold's legacy