GREANEY, Minn. — Beryl Novak bought 40 acres of forest here in 1966 for $700, eventually moved an old one-room shack to the site for a deer hunting cabin and then liked it so much he moved in for good.
That was 1977. He hasn’t lived anyplace else since. He hasn’t slept in any other bed, not a single night away, since May 1993.
“I’m kind of a homebody,” Novak said.
He also hasn’t hunted deer anywhere else. And on Saturday morning, Nov. 6, Novak will be in his favorite deer “stand,” a 5-by-8-foot tarpaper shack with a slide-up window, where odds are he will see some deer. Whether or not he gets a legal buck will be up to the fates, of course, much like the other nearly half-million Minnesota hunters out and about.
But don’t bet against him.
The stand is just 50 yards from his house -- about an hour's drive north of Hibbing -- overlooking a mowed clearing with a backdrop of spruce and balsam about 140 yards out. He has shot dozens of deer from this spot, most with his trusty .270 Winchester, some of them just minutes into the first morning of the season.
The annual deer hunt has become part of his life’s routine, a rhythm that revolves around nature’s seasons — things like putting up firewood, tending his big garden, planting and grafting dozens of apple trees and walking hundreds of miles each autumn in search of grouse.
Already this season he’s bagged two dozen grouse by walking slowly, watching and listening on forest trails.
“But it hasn’t been easy. I figure it's about 5 miles walking for each bird,” he said as we walked and talked in his woods, shotguns at the ready, on a brisk November morning. We flushed a couple grouse that day but didn’t get any shots.
Over the years living out here, Novak has had close calls with wolves and has battled with bears, but it all seems to come in stride for an outdoorsman who doesn’t rattle easily, who seemingly has seen and done everything the northwoods has to offer.
Novak, 71, shot his first deer at age 10, in 1960, hunting alone. He still has the paper hunting license and aluminum buck tag pressed between pages in a photo album. Since then, Novak figures he’s shot 75 deer in these woods northwest of Cook.
He has a memory like a steel trap, and rattles off dates and antler counts from hunting seasons a half-century ago like they happened yesterday.
Novak was born and raised in this country and graduated from Orr High School in 1968. He liked cars, of course, and girls. But his passion has always been the outdoors — hunting, fishing and trapping.
“My dad died when I was 5,” Novak said. “But I had a mentor teach me grouse hunting … Joe Kasun. … When I was 7, he gave me a single-shot .22 to use and one .22 short bullet and took me grouse hunting and told me not to miss. … I got one.”
Deer hunting, though, “I had to figure out on my own.”
And he has.
Novak attended a vocational college and then, with a low draft number looming, enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and stayed in for nearly four years, from 1970-74. He was stationed at several bases across the U.S. and spent eight months in Vietnam, at the 483rd USAF hospital at Cam Ranh Bay, where the base would come under occasional rocket attack and where he saw the horrors of war firsthand with a parade of wounded on display.
Through his military service, he would come home on leave scheduled around hunting seasons.
“I came home to hunt,” he said. “It’s what I thought about when I was over there.”
A northwoods living
Novak’s one-room home is 16 by 20 feet, what city folks these days might call a tiny house. It has no running water. There’s a hand pump outside a few steps, an outhouse, of course, and a sauna shed, too.
“I don’t have to worry about pipes freezing,” Novak quipped. “It’s an Armstrong pump.”
A big barrel wood stove heats the place when it’s cold, and Novak has a few seasons worth of fuel stacked neatly outside. There's a gas range for cooking, a bed in the corner and a small TV that gets three stations over the airwaves.
“Why would you need any more than that? Everything on TV is all so damned depressing anyway,” Novak said.
There’s a 2017 calendar on the door still, next to a reminder note for next year’s dental appointment. Dusty CDs and DVDs and piles of outdoor and gardening magazines cover much of the “kitchen” table. A few old buck antlers, trophies from long-past seasons, are stashed in the corner. A few mounted fish adorn the walls.
Novak worked the usual northwoods jobs over the years, including as a logger and then on a sand and gravel crew. He trapped and sold furs — beaver, otter, fisher and pine marten — until the bottom dropped out of the fur market and prices plummeted. He picked wild blueberries and sold them to grocery stores in town. He cut and sold balsam boughs and firewood for a spell, too.
Novak formally “retired” in 1995, meaning that’s the point he stopped trying to earn a living and focused on the living part.
“There wasn’t anyone left calling me who I wanted to talk to. People would say, 'But we can’t get ahold of you,’ and I’d say, ‘That’s the point.’”
- Beryl Novak
“It doesn’t cost much to live up here. I get by pretty cheap,” he said.
It’s not that he doesn’t like people, Novak said, just that he found it hard always trying to get along.
“You can’t satisfy people. So I said the hell with it, and here I am,” he said, adding that he doesn’t consider himself a hermit. “I get visitors … just not as many as I used to. Everyone is dying off.”
His last car broke down in 2005 and he hasn’t driven one since, although he does have a four-wheel ATV that can get him the mile or so down the road to another 43-acre parcel he owns and hunts on. He keeps mowed trails on his land that attract deer, grouse and other wildlife and make for easy walking. He has planted hundreds of apple, plum and pine trees along the trails.
Novak depends on the kindness of a few friends and neighbors to get him to his annual doctor and dental checkups or to bring him fresh food on occasion. In return, he shares crops from his garden or maybe a cleaned and packaged grouse breast. He stocks up on provisions in town a few times each year. Most everything else he grows or shoots on his own. Conservation officers occasionally add to his larder by dropping off an illegally killed deer.
This year’s drought cut into his sweet-corn crop. But his melons, onions and carrots did well with him carrying water from the pump. A late-May hard freeze crippled Novak’s apple crop, though, nipping the buds.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever had a total failure for apples,” he noted.
His last dog died eight years ago and he’s not planning to get another.
“I didn't feel it was right to have a dog and not have a way to get him to the vet,” he said. “It's bad enough for people to have to take me to the doctor’s, but it’s too much to ask someone else to take my dog to the vet.”
At his annual checkup in August in Hibbing, doctors proclaimed Novak perfectly fit. He takes no medications and goes years between suffering a cold or the flu because he doesn’t mix in crowds.
And Novak noted that he has been perfectly situated to guard against the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’ve been social distancing out here for 20 years,” he said.
Sometimes he goes weeks, even months, without leaving his home area. During one stretch between October 2020 and February 2021, he went 134 days without leaving — more than four months between trips to Cook, just 25 miles away.
“I didn't have any reason I had to go,” he said.
He hasn’t shaved or had a haircut since 2001, when he grew it out to spite his mom who had been nagging him about his appearance. She’s long since passed, but he still hasn’t relented.
“I don’t have to live to suit anyone else,” he said. His shoulder-length hair “falls out a lot. It doesn’t get that long.”
Novak cut off his landline service in 1995, tired of telemarketers, and went 20 years without a telephone.
“There wasn’t anyone left calling me who I wanted to talk to,” Novak said. “People would say, 'But we can’t get ahold of you,’ and I’d say, ‘That’s the point.’”
In spring 2015, a neighbor whose hunting land he keeps watch on gave him an inexpensive cellphone to report problems on.
”He got me one new one since. And he’s still paying the bills,” Novak said.
It’s definitely not a smartphone. He has no computer, no email and no Facebook. It’s as if the last 25 years of technology have passed him by. And it’s clear he doesn’t care. As long as he has his rifle and shotgun, and is fit to walk in the woods, he’s happy.
Novak keeps a tattered, dog-eared paperback of Henry David Thoreau’s essays on the virtues of self-reliant, backwoods living near his bed. It’s become a sort of guidebook for his lifestyle. It might even be in his pocket on Saturday for the deer opener.
“If people would read what Thoreau wrote in the 1800s it might help them today,” Novak said. “Simplify your life. That’s what I’ve done. … People out there working to make more money are just chasing their tails.”
John Myers reports on the outdoors, environment and natural resources for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.