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Brothers (from left) Charlie Dufner, 73, Duffy Dufner, 77, and Dennis Dufner, 76, wash dishes at a table inside their 24-by-16-foot canvas tent, which they've pitched near Togo during deer season for years. This was the final year they hunted from the tent. They'll pass it on to their sons, a nephew, and another generation of Dufners. Sam Cook / News Tribune

The Dufner brothers' last pitch

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TOGO, Minn. -- Dusk settles over the deer camp deep in Minnesota's north woods. A couple of does hang from the meat pole. Woodsmoke rises from the stovepipe that angles from a white canvas tent.

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This is how the men of the Dufner family have been hunting deer since the mid-1950s. Joe Dufner and his boys would drive north from the little town of St. Rosa, Minn., near St. Cloud, to this patch of Itasca County forest. They would pitch their tent under the sweeping branches of Norway pines, sleeping on straw they spread on the ground. And in the mornings, they would hunt deer.

But now Joe is gone, and the Dufner "boys" who hunt here are well into their 70s. They've decided this will be their final season in the tent.

They have gathered in the tent on this first Sunday of Minnesota's firearms deer season, still wearing their blaze orange from the day's hunt, waiting for the baby back ribs to come off the grill outside. There's "Duffy" Dufner, 77, from Grand Rapids; Dennis Dufner, 76, of St. Joseph, Minn.; and Charlie Dufner, 73, of Hendersonville, N.C.

"I'll tell you one thing. It's going to be sad leaving," Duffy said.

He knows what he'll miss.

"First of all, you're right in the Norway pines and you can hear the wind going through the pines. I'll miss the environment," he said. "And we're close to all our deer stands."

Charlie flies up from North Carolina each fall to be with his brothers.

"We have so much fun up here," he said. "You can't buy it. I don't like to give it up, but I'll be 74 soon."

"What I'll miss is the roughing it," Dennis said. "To me, this is deer hunting -- not out of a cabin."

This is the way their dad taught them to hunt, and when they're here, a part of the old man comes with them.

"Our dad was in his glory up here," Charlie said.

Tent evolution

Tent-camping, Dufner-style, is not as rough as you might think. The brothers have refined the art of the tent camp. Their current tent is a spacious 24 feet long and 16 feet wide. It was preceded by a 24-by-12 and a 16-by-16. There's plenty of room in this one for three cots, a kitchen counter, cupboards, a barrel stove and a long table down the center. A steel frame supports the tent from the inside. It's tight and square.

The tent always goes up on the Thursday before opening weekend, with the assistance of sons Mark and Jim.

"And after we pitch the tent, we have a big venison fry," Charlie said.

Inside, the place is bright and cozy. Three gas lights throw their soft glow from near the ridgeline of the tent. The hunters' clothes hang along the walls. Straw long ago gave way to carpeting on the ground.

"But it's used carpeting," Duffy said, fearing that someone might think the appointments too plush.

Water is hauled to the camp in three 10-gallon cream cans left from Joe Dufner's days as a creamery manager. Meals are cooked on a three-burner gas range inside.

Passing it on

The tent came down this past Tuesday. But that doesn't mean it won't be pitched again in years to come. The next two generations of Dufner boys, Mark and Jim and Brian Dufner and their boys, will take over the tent, pitching it in the same plot beneath the pines. Mark, 49, is from Grand Rapids. Jim, 42, is from Zimmerman. Brian, 38, is from Hopkins, Minn. Between them, they have four sons and a stepson.

"We want them to carry on the tradition," Duffy said.

Jim Dufner said his generation is ready to do that.

"This has been a part of us, growing up," he said. "Now we'll be right here."

But he knows it'll be a difficult transition for his dad, Dennis, and his uncles. They'll hunt from Duffy Dufner's modern cabin several miles away.

"Next year, that first year at the cabin, they'll be sad," Jim said. "They'll be out here a lot."

Pitching in

The back ribs are ready now. Brian Dufner, the chef for the evening, brings them in and sets a small mountain of them on the table. Charlie Dufner pours a little white wine into plastic cups. The hunters dig in. It's a safe bet no one loses weight during deer season at the Dufner tent camp.

After dinner, the three brothers do dishes and tidy up the tent. All are retired barbers and former military men. They like a tight ship.

They are all in reasonably good shape, still able to climb in and out of their permanent stands despite a collective five knee replacements and two heart-vessel stents. Charlie shot one of the two does opening day.

After dinner, they lie back on their cots and tell five decades worth of stories. About long tracking walks to retrieve downed deer. About the way mice used to scurry in and out of the straw all night. About the time Duffy and Dennis put a fully-dressed mannequin with a toy rifle in brother Roger Dufner's stand.

There are lots of memories, from both inside and outside the canvas. In the lulls between the stories, the tent grows quiet, each man alone with his thoughts. In one corner, the woodstove purrs with its belly full of birch. Outside, the north wind sings softly in the pines.

In the morning, the old boys will hunt the whitetail again.

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