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  • Writer's pictureAllen Crater

The Table That Dad Built

Updated: Dec 26, 2023



Lantern, book and glass of bourbon on a table in a cabin

I've recently found myself traveling deep down a rabbit hole of historic Michigan deer camp images since being introduced to a Facebook group dedicated to the topic. I love scrolling through the old pictures of these places – these seasonal gatherings in the Northwoods – some dating to the early reaches of the 20th century.


Black and whites of grizzled, tough-looking men posed with levered sporting rifles in their thick, woolen mackinaws. Heavy antlered bucks sagging the communal camp pole. Some groups sharing log cabins constructed from what the land gave up: heavy timber walls, rustic bunks, pitcher pumps, and fieldstone fireplaces. Others constructing elaborate wall-tent villages with utilitarian cots, community privies, gas lanterns, and smoky wood stoves.

 

While each camp is different from the next, one thing common to them all is a large table. A central place of gathering.

 

It might have been a cast-off from Aunt Ellie, a deal nabbed at a yard sale somewhere along M-37, or a simple folding or picnic table. Sometimes it's a surface you can tell was clearly crafted by hand, in varying degrees of extravagance – from a sparse sheet of plywood strewn across two old sawhorses, to masterpieces of form and function.

 

By most measures, a table is a modest piece of furniture of utilitarian use. But, without exception, when the hunting parties in these yellowed photos gathered around one, stern-looking expressions faded like daylight in the fall, replaced by smiles and laughter. Faces of younger men.

 

The table as a gathering place is nothing new. They were made and used by the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, Greeks, and Romans. Though table arrangements in most deer camps probably more closely resemble those from the Middle Ages, when European nobility dined in great halls on long trestle tables with benches, or the more common man gathered around similar structures in the local tavern.


a grandfather and two grandsons eating lunch at a picnic table outside

When I first purchased the property that would become our camp in 2012, Dad, the boys, and I started in a dilapidated Shasta trailer from the early 70s. It leaked, lacked insulation, smelled like moth balls, and sported brown shag carpet and lacy, white-and-pink, grandma-curtains. The designated "dining area" was folded into Dad's sleeping quarters, and the benches around the larger table up front were the beds that Kyle and I used, with Blake sleeping on a fold-down bunk above. It didn't stop us from gathering around for food and games. When the weather cooperated, we spent our time outside around a beat-up, peeling picnic table I'd picked up for 25 bucks. It sat near the fire ring the boys built on our very first day.

boy eating a snack in a camper

We passed three seasons in that Shasta camper. Cooking, eating, sleeping, laughing. In our fourth summer I had saved enough that we would construct a simple, small cabin with a main living area on the first level, and a sleeping loft above. One thing I knew for sure was that I wanted a proper table this go round. One that would be large enough to fit the four of us comfortably, with room for an additional guest or two when the occasion presented itself. But the store-bought variety wouldn't do. The new table, the centerpiece of our camp, was made by Dad.


This new table was built from Douglas fir. Much like the man who crafted it, the planks are straight and sturdy. Solid, but not flashy. The rose-colored wood has a fine texture and smooth grain. Dad spent hours designing it, then carefully cutting, planing, and joining before meticulously brushing on a coat of MINWAX then sanding and re-coating four more times before burning his maker's mark into the bottom. The end result was a long, heavy surface supported by thick crossbeams that extended down as legs, with two matching benches for seating. It was the first piece of furniture in our cabin.


I imagine the building process much like Leopold described in his infamous work, A Sand County Almanac: sawdust falling in “fragrant little chips of history,” the saw “biting its way, stroke by stroke, decade by decade, into the chronology of a lifetime.” The great tree that provided the lumber taking in years and years of sunlight, and now releasing that energy on to us.


hand made table and benches  loaded into a trailer

Above the table in the cabin hangs a board pinned with photos from times together - deer, and fish, and fires. Misguided mishaps, game that got away, the old camper and picnic table. Quads and bows, knives, and guns. Boys with painted faces. Younger men with happy smiles. Friends and relatives.


Nearby is a piece of art gifted by a buddy, a homemade lamp from another, and an antique ashtray from a third. A trout plucked from a nearby stream, antlers from previous harvests, turkey feathers. A lucky horseshoe found on a backcountry fishing trip in Wyoming. Arrowheads from across Michigan. Embossed pint glasses from an uncle. Red-and white bobber Christmas lights from my brother. A stirrup cup to toast beloved dogs that have passed. A leather-wrapped flask that has celebrated every special occasion.

 

They're all here. Reminding us of moments we hope to hold on to. Of what this place is and why it exists. Bringing us together for another season.


guys eating breakfast around a table at deer camp

In the center of it all is the table.

 

Our place to reconnect. The desk we journal from; the coffee shop we start our mornings in; the tavern where drinks are poured, and songs are sung. The church pew where we seek forgiveness and offer thanks for our many blessings.

 

This table has supported countless card games, replete with savvy bluffs, agonizing losses, and monumental wins. It’s a station where meals have been shared, jokes told, and stories born. Where we remember the drafty camper that we could never coax above 45 degrees, Blake sleeping outside to prove he wasn't afraid of bears, Dad getting lost less than 100 yards from camp, Kyle climbing circles by headlamp around the tree that I screwed the steps in, and me needing a tow truck after framing-out the 4-runner in thigh-deep snow.


a black dog by a table with a grandfather and grandson

Over the years the surface has accumulated its share of bumps and dings and scratches and stains. A deep gouge here from a game of Yahtzee that got a little too heated. A brand from an errant pipe left too long. Here's a ring where a forgotten coffee mug sat on opening morning. And these marks on the bench are from Butch's gone-to-soon pup, Titan.

 

Like people, it's these accents that add interest. That build the story. This table has watched boys grow up, dogs pass on, men get grey, and seasons slip by. It's soaked up laughter and tears. It's shared its sunlight and energy with us in our own great hall.


brightly colored cribbage board and deck of cards setting on a table at a cabin

It reminds me so much of Ruark's Old Man: "The best thing about hunting and fishing, the old man said, 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."

 

Every time I step into this small cabin fragrant with cut pine, coffee, and pipe smoke, sit around this simple table, and run my hands over its worn surface, I recount every moment. I relive younger days. I recall friends who've shared time here and remember those now gone. I reminisce about past hunts and lay plans for the next.

 

I ponder the old tree that gave us these boards. The chronology of its lifetime. The sunlight it absorbed. The storms it endured. The rings that made up its seasons. And how here, as we gather around, it lives on, like our memories, in the table that Dad built.

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4 Comments


Guest
Dec 25, 2023

A truly beautiful story, full of nostalgia and poignancy. May many future campers find joy and comfort there while absorbing the ambiance and awe of the camp experience.

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Allen Crater
Allen Crater
Dec 25, 2023
Replying to

Thank you so much 🙏🏼

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Guest
Dec 22, 2023

Perfect story and a blessing to remember. This piece of furniture is a legacy. A gift in time for a family intact!

Loved it bud.

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Allen Crater
Allen Crater
Dec 22, 2023
Replying to

Thank you so much 🙏🏼

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