Deer camp brotherhood keeps spirits high for Dowagiac man with terminal illness

Published 10:18 am Friday, December 17, 2021

DOWAGIAC — From September through January of any given year, a local group of hunters can almost always be found among the trophy-antler-lined walls of Deer Camp.

Established in 1987 by Dan Vanhusan, the camp is more of an adult clubhouse where friends and family gather to butcher, cook and eat their latest hunt – as well as partake in an adult beverage or four.

The camp has always meant brotherhood to the men who partake, and the bond they share has become especially important as one member has been diagnosed with a terminal illness.


Escanaba in ‘Da-wagiac’

Deer Camp is located in a garage-like structure behind the house of Dan Vanhusan along his M-51 property in Dowagiac, and it is complete with a 100-year-old butchering block, a full kitchen, a wood stove for heat, a television and a brotherhood that has spanned generations.

On any given hunting day, upwards of 20 hunters could show up at Deer Camp, and everyone is welcome.

“We’re all brothers from different mothers,” said Vanhusan and Brad Cline, nearly simultaneously. Joined by his actual brother Bill Vanhusan and Jimmie Klees, the four “brothers” sipped on beer as Cline put away the last of the meat from their latest hunt.

No matter who is at Deer Camp, one thing has been certain in recent years – the 2001 Jeff Daniels hunting comedy “Escanaba in da Moonlight” is playing on a constant loop. Vanhusan said the movie has been played thousands of times, and the group wore through one DVD already.

The group makes a whiskey drink from the film called sweet sap, which they describe as “taking the best maple syrup they can find and the cheapest whiskey,” and putting it in an old bottle of Jim Beam. On the side of the bottle, they crossed out the Beam family member names with a marker and wrote their own.

“Sometimes we sit around here and start reciting stuff from the movie,” said Klees, nicknamed “Jimmer” after one of its characters. “It’s good, and crazy.”


Jimmer gets his Wally

Participating in Deer Camp activities has been progressively more difficult for Klees lately. Last year, after a few years of declining lung health, Klees was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, a progressive illness that occurs when lung tissue becomes damaged and scarred. It is considered terminal.

“It’s progressed quite a bit over the past year,” Klees said over the hum and occasional puff of his oxygen machine. “These guys just thought it was because I had gotten fat.”

His buddies chimed in with additional commentary.

“Well, fat and old,” Bill Vanhusan said, to raucous laughter.

While Klees is mostly on dishes duty inside Deer Camp, he remains active in the hunt. Several years ago, he installed what he calls a “condo hunting blind,” which essentially is a treehouse. When breathing became more difficult, the guys built a staircase for Klees to get up to his blind.

“I had to stop like three times going up the stairs again this year,” Klees said. “We used to just sit on a bucket.”

According to Dan Vanhusan, Jimmer had been eyeing a particular buck after catching him on a trail camera during bow season. He nicknamed the deer “Wally,” because he knew it would be a wall hanger. On opening day of this season, Jimmer got his Wally – the first 10-point buck of his life.

As his symptoms get worse, Klees said he appreciates his brothers more and more for what they do for him.

“These guys took care of me,” Klees said, eyes welling with tears and lungs fighting for breath through the emotion of the moment. “They’ve taken good care of the ol’ Jimmer.”

With the end credits of “Escanaba in da Moonlight,” echoing from the other room, a quote from the film sits on a notepad stained with various butchering room liquids. Written in the typical Yooper dialect of the movie, it reads:

“Da moon is da mirror reflecting da passion wit in our soul up to da great spirit. Dats da moon, who once received and twice removed, den send It back down, guiding our lives wit de eternal light dat lives wit’in us. So far so good.”