The Pratts now question the future of a culture deeply rooted in family land and traditions passed through generations.
The woods are silent at 4:30 in the morning.
Like every year, the hunters are out as the sun creeps above the horizon.
Like every year, the hunters wear blaze orange and camouflage, wrapped in layers to brace against the Wisconsin cold that penetrates their bones.
Like every year, they hold their guns ready, senses attuned to what nature tells them. They listen to the birds and squirrels emerging from their nests and hear the forest start to come alive.
Like every year, the family is ready for another deer hunting season, finally in the woods after a year of excitement and anticipation for opening day.
But unlike every year, one face is missing.
Mark Pratt passed away July 6, 2011. This is the first deer hunting season on the Pratt family land in Wiota, Wisconsin, without his hilarious demeanor, vibrant spirit and contagious personality.
Mark was unlike any other person, living on the outskirts of society for most of his life, passionate about becoming more in touch with the earth and continuously learning about the ways the land could provide for him.
A brother, a cousin, a friend, my uncle, Mark was the man who brought the family together to hunt the land that has been in our family for generations.
Looking at the wooden deer stand that Mark and my cousin Ryan built years ago, the hunters feel Mark’s energy surge through them.
This is the story of the Pratts. Hunting has tied my family to the rich Wisconsin land for three generations. Starting as a means to gather meat and sustain a family of eight children, the annual hunt continues to preserve our family’s connection to the land.
The land in Wisconsin is the most important part of deer-hunting culture. From the family land passed from generation to generation to the woods themselves that create the environment in which the hunt occurs, every step on the Earth forms an interconnected story, a unique path and a timeless connection for avid hunters in Wisconsin.
With public, huntable land becoming more difficult to find, my family, along with hunters across Wisconsin, is worried about whether future generations will be able to wander the woods in the same way. The Pratts’ story represents similar family traditions all over the state.
Following Mark’s wishes, the hunters spread his ashes in the calf pasture forest at the base of the deer stand and salute his memory so he can always remain a part of the land.
“I carry him with me whenever I hunt,” says Terry Pratt, 66, Mark’s brother.
In fact, the entire group carries his ashes with them on the hunt, some in leftover bullet casings in the stock of their guns, others in their jacket pockets.
“I still carry a vial of ashes with me when I hunt and sprinkle some wherever I go,” says Kevin, 55, Mark’s brother. “He wanted to still be with us hunting. His ashes are all over the Wiota area.”
My grandfather, Kenny Pratt, was born on this Wiota land in 1921. Now Tim Pratt, Mark’s cousin, lives in a house just down the road from where Mark’s father and Tim’s father grew up. Tim still owns the farmland that my great-grandparents owned before him. He sold about half of his own land in 2008 when he retired from farming.
“When my parents sold the farm, they kept certain parts of the calf pasture so that my dad could always have a place to hunt,” says Ashley Pratt, 30, Tim’s daughter. “Especially now that Mark’s remains are spread there, hopefully that land will never leave the family.”
Tim lives in a house perched on top of a knoll overlooking the rolling hills and farmland of southern Wisconsin. Scattered throughout the land are small timbers, groups of trees, usually home to white-tailed deer.
Just behind Tim’s house is a timber he has hunted since he was a little boy. Just down the road are several wooded pastures, housing the old deer stand and Mark’s ashes.
These woods are so familiar to the Pratt family, they know every plunging valley in the earth, every path through the trees, every acre’s unique story. Looking at any given hill swelling above the land reminds the Pratt hunters of years past.
“My dad has grown up hunting that same land,” Ashley says. “If you want to know how to hunt a certain pasture, he’s going to know the right way to do it.”
“You feel like you’re part of the land, like you belong there,” says Tim, 55. “There’s something about being out in the timber that makes you feel more alive.”
Although this land is still in the Pratt family, hunting in Wisconsin is not the same as it used to be. Those without private land are finding it increasingly difficult to hunt in a place where families used to be able to walk for miles and “cross fence after fence,” as my uncle Kevin remembers.
“We used to be able to use most of the land around here,” Tim says. “Now, more and more people tell me that we are not allowed to hunt on their property. A lot of the land around here is being bought up by corporations.”
“Back when we were kids, farms were passed on from generation to generation,” Kevin says. “Now farms are being sold left and right to people usually not from around here. Tim is probably the only one still out there who owns the original family farm.”
Because Tim still owns 145 acres of land, the Pratts have some area to roam. But many of the landowners in the surrounding area have changed and won’t let them hunt on their property anymore.
“There isn’t nearly the territory that is open for hunting anymore,” Terry says. “When we started out near Wiota, Dad knew everybody and we would go from property to property without a word said. If you had property, everyone knew that there would be deer hunters on there. You can’t do that today.”
The Wisconsin Deer Hunters Association is also concerned about this trend, Vice President Clarence Plansky says.
“The cost of the land is so high, and people that own the land are locking it up,” Plansky says.
The state works to preserve land through the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, but hunters are concerned that the quality of public land, specifically woodland, is deteriorating, making it difficult to sustain white-tailed deer.
Half of Wisconsin is covered in forestland, nearly 15 million acres, but 56 percent is privately owned, according to the American Forest Foundation.
According to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Survey from 2011, just 31 percent of hunters in Wisconsin use public land to hunt.
“It’s getting to the point where if I want to hunt, or I want places for my son to be able to hunt, we’re going to have to buy or lease the land,” Kevin says. “That’s not something I want to teach the next generation.”
About 30 miles west of Wiota is Buck’s Landing, an 80-acre plot of land in Belmont, Wisconsin. Buck Runde, 85, Mark’s maternal uncle, bought this land in 1987 so his family would always have a place to hunt.
At the center of the property sits a small, wooden cabin, built by Buck Runde and his sons. Looking like a life-sized Lincoln Logs construction, the cabin overlooks a small pond, forest surrounding it in all directions.
“The land is a very valuable commodity,” Buck says. “To keep land like this, to keep the woods, is very important so they don’t take it all and plow it up. You’ve got to have some woodlands.”
After Kenny married my grandmother, he introduced her brother Buck to hunting. Like Kenny, Buck passed the tradition to his kids.
“He made it pretty easy [to keep the tradition going],” says Sam Runde, 53, Buck’s son. “He bought a piece of property and granted it to the family to preserve it for hunting. We’re really lucky that we have a place like this to go.”
Family land gives the next generation a place to gather and learn from the family. For Kevin’s son, Hunter, named after the hunting tradition itself, the legacy continues.
Hunter Pratt was born on Thanksgiving Day in 1995. Kevin had to leave the group hunt that year to go to the hospital.
“It was basically destiny that I become a hunter,” Hunter says, laughing. “It’s not just for the shooting of the animal. It’s for gathering and carrying on the tradition. I love being out there with everybody, being able to relate to them and spend time with them. Having them teach me what their parents taught them.”
Hunter and his cousins continue primarily because the tradition has been ingrained in them since childhood.
According to a study from the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology at UW-Madison, the millennial generation is being recruited into hunting at lower rates than previous generations. The study projects that the number of male gun deer hunters will decline in the future.
“Hunting doesn’t have much chance of moving forward if you don’t keep it in the family,” Tim says. “If the kids won’t do it, it can’t go on any further.”
Family tradition drives deer hunting in Wisconsin. In fact, it may be the only thing that keeps the sport going. It has sustained a culture in my family for three generations. Hunter hopes to continue it for more.
“It reaffirms that if [I] die tomorrow, he’s probably going to carry this on,” Kevin says. “What my father instilled in me, I’ve instilled in him. Hopefully when he has [kids], he’ll instill that in them.”
If this land, so integral to my family’s history, were to ever leave the Pratt name, we would lose more than just hunting ground. The land holds the remnants of the wooden stand Mark and Ryan built, Mark’s ashes spread all over the timbers, a place for future generations of Pratts to gather and a family legacy.
Last year, as the hunting day was coming to an end, Hunter waits at the edge of the woods. A large buck runs over the hill. Without second thought, Hunter picks up his rifle, once used by his grandfather, Kenny, and more recently used by his uncle, Mark.
He aims and shoots. The deer falls instantly. No pain, no suffering. A single bullet to the heart kills the animal.
“It kind of reminds you of something Dad would have done,” Kevin says, thinking of Kenny. “Dad was probably the best shot at running deer. It’s exciting to see Hunter do that also … [he] shot this deer with his grandfather’s gun.”
“Hunter killed this buck on the same property we’ve been hunting on for 40 to 50 years,” Terry says.
“It does take on a special meaning when it comes off a piece of property that is so close to the family,” Kevin says, pride shining on his face.
“That was the first deer I really got by myself,” Hunter remembers. “It was a surreal moment. I definitely felt like Mark was there.”