BARRONETT, WIS. – Somewhere in a tree maybe a half-mile from my stand Saturday morning was my friend Norb Berg. Staring hard now at his 89th birthday, he remains as fascinated with deer today as he was more than a half-century ago when he returned from Korea and scrounged places to hunt with friends in northern Minnesota.
The shot I heard in the distance at 7 a.m. on opening day of the Wisconsin firearms deer season might have been Norb’s. Or perhaps it was that of his great grandson, Sean Thornton, cracking off a round, which would have delighted Norb even more.
A self-described champion of lost causes, Norb was a player in the corporate world when I first met him in 1980. But he carried himself with the airs of a working man. Raised in a large Catholic family in a small central Wisconsin town, as a kid he plinked coffee cans with a .22 and chased grouse with a .410. Packed off to St. John’s boarding school and later to its university, he was a quick study whether in the classroom or in the woods.
Norb’s first job was with Standard Oil in New Jersey. Whatever else he learned stationed on the East Coast, he learned that land available to do the things he wanted is scarce and becoming scarcer. The Midwest was where he belonged, and to get there he signed on with a young company, Control Data Corp. Upon returning home, he straightaway bought a small parcel of deer-hunting land. Not in Minnesota, his adopted home state, but in his native Wisconsin.
Hunting soon with Norb on his acreage and adjoining leased land were his three brothers, Dave, Marv and Tom. He also had a brother, Don, a priest, who arrived in camp on Sundays of the first weekend of deer season to say Mass.
Norb invited friends to hunt, too, and when his four sons came of age, Kevin, first, the oldest, then Mitch, Tony and Paul, they also hunted.
“I first hunted deer with Dad when I was 12,” Tony Berg, 59, said. “That was the age my brothers and I started hunting. I remember sitting on a log with Dad. He gave me a .308 to use that I still use today. He also gave me a shell that didn’t fire when a 10-point buck came by.’’
Tony’s son, Frank, of Genoa City, Wis., is in camp again this year, as is Tony’s son-in-law, Charley Thornton, of Burlington, Wis., and a grandson, Sean Thornton, 15.
This is Sean’s first year of deer hunting, and the first time four generations of Bergs have dressed in blaze orange together — a rare opportunity for any family.
“The reason we can all hunt together,” Tony said, “is because of Dad’s foresight. We didn’t have a lot of money when my brothers and I were young. But Dad could see what was happening with land and he wanted a place where he could hunt with his family. So whenever he could, he would add to the property he owned.”
Those unfamiliar with hunting might not appreciate that it begins and ends with a sense of place. Shacks often are part of this. Also, deer stands. Understanding a property’s unique composition — its trees, ridges and low areas, and how they fit together — also contributes to the bond hunters feel with the land where they pass a good time.
This is truer still if the hunters actively manage their property for a consistency of desired outcomes, the most important of which is the growing awareness by the hunters that interacting with land is as important to them as it is to wildlife.
So it has long been with Norb.
“I was interested in managing for deer because in the 1960s and 1970s we didn’t have many deer in northwest Wisconsin,” Norb said. “I knew periodic logging was needed to provide forest ‘edges’ and trees of different types and ages. I knew also this would help wildlife other than deer, including grouse and songbirds and coyotes and many other species.
“But those are outcomes of managing land for wildlife. I was just as interested in the process. Because the process is fun and rewarding. Firearms deer hunting in Wisconsin only lasts nine days. But my sons, their sons and sons-in-law, as well as their friends who hunt with us, are involved in land management year-round.”
Saturday morning, young Sean, Norb’s great-grandson, was on a stand called Ski Hill, accompanied there by Charley, his dad. Not far away were Tony and Norb, while scattered among the encircling hinterlands were another 10 of us, three of whom — Paul, Frank and Rick Battis — had bucks by noon Saturday.
The gathering was in many ways the same as in past years. But different, too. A negative COVID test was required to attend, and each of us wore masks while inside the hunt’s headquarters.
Had Norb skipped the 2020 edition of the outing, the rest of us would have understood, given his age.
But his four sons were on site, also a grandson and a great-great grandson. So he wouldn’t have missed it.
Plus, he wanted one more time to climb into a stand and look over the land that has been as good to him as he has been to it.