BY ART BUKOWSKI
TRAVERSE CITY — Kevin Wells has a hard time sleeping the night before opening day.
Wells, a Kalkaska County resident, said he’s “like a little kid at Christmas” on the annual opener of firearms hunting for whitetail deer. He plans to be deep in the Kalkaska wilderness tomorrow, and his eyes lit up as he thought of the first moments of the season.
“When you’re walking out there, and there’s maybe a little snow on the ground, and you see that first break of daylight, it’s almost a magical feeling,” he said as he shopped for supplies this week. “And when you see one, your heart stops.
“I still get the same feeling every time I see one.”
Thousands of Michigan hunters will take to the woods and fields tomorrow for a tradition with deep roots in the state. Local hunters spent the past week readying blinds, buying supplies and anxiously awaiting daybreak tomorrow.
On Wednesday morning, down in a secluded area off Hoosier Valley Road in Blair Township, Kingsley resident Ray Cepeda, 21, sighted in a new deer rifle he bought on Tuesday. It will be his first time hunting with his own rifle.
“I’m usually borrowing from family,” he said. “I figured it was time to buy my own.”
Cepeda planned to hunt in Grand Traverse County today, and he couldn’t wait to get in the field.
“It gets my heart pumping really fast,” he said. “It’s just one of the things I really like to do.”
The Grand Traverse region qualifies as “Up North” for millions of Michigan residents, but plenty of locals head farther north for a shot at a big buck or doe.
Cedar resident Pete Stark and a small group of friends travel to a spot near Newberry in the Upper Peninsula each year. They set up a deer camp and always cook a big, hearty breakfast on opening day.
“I love the first morning,” Stark said. “You’re finally out there. It’s the culmination of all of that waiting.”
The deer camp setting is a fun one, Wells said. Hunters in a group are familiar with where their buddies are set up, so when they hear a shot they know right away who may have made a kill, he said.
It’s nice to earn bragging rights with a big buck, but in the end it’s not just about the hunt.
“Even if nobody gets something, you’re still making memories,” he said.
Wells will be taking his 78-year-old aunt with him tomorrow. His uncle died last year, and his aunt — who’s hunted for decades — didn’t want to miss opening day. For Wells, hunting is about connections with family and friends, but it’s also about self-reflection.
“When you’re out there, and you’re concentrating on one thing, the entire rest of the world is a million miles away,” he said. “All of your troubles and your woes, they’re gone.”
Those sentiments were common among others who prepared for opening day.
“Just being out there is great,” said Kalkaska-area resident Brad Shellenbarger, who will hunt near Central Lake with a buddy and his father. “The peace and quiet, being away from traffic and work and all of that.”
Leland resident Terry Martin has hunted for years, but this opening day is extra special. He’ll have his daughter Allie, 11, along for the first time.
“It’s going to give us a new way to spend time together, and that’s the bottom line,” he said. “And she likes it, I don’t have to twist her arm. She wants to go.”
The influx of hunters from downstate and activity of local hunters also gives a boost to local businesses and restaurants during what otherwise would be a slow season.
“This time of the year when there’s not a lot of summer people around, it’s a bit extra for us,” said Jodi Jensen, who owns Jodi’s Tangled Antler restaurant near Honor. “And a lot of people bring their deer by and everybody ‘ooohs and aaahs,’ so it’s a lot of fun.”