By Drew YoungeDyke (Originally published in the November 2020 issue of Woods-N-Water News)
Many Michiganders, especially Yoopers, have heard of “sisu.” Sisu is a Finnish word with no direct translation into other languages which is roughly like combining grit, resilience, fortitude, and stubborn determination in the face of hardship over the long term. Though I grew up in the northern Lower Peninsula, I learned the term from the Finnish side of my family at our cottage in the western Upper Peninsula. I’ve often thought about what that term means to me and have often found it tested in the outdoors.
The Finns had to have sisu to survive the harsh, cold climate of their country. Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula mirror that climate, which is part of what drew so many Finns to the Upper Peninsula, northern Wisconsin, and Minnesota to work in lumber camps and mines in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, as it did for my family. The northern Michigan outdoors can test sisu in large and small ways.
In 2014, when I was running the On the Ground (OTG) wildlife habitat program for Michigan United Conservation Clubs, we had a musky spawning structure project planned for March 1 on Chicagoan Lake in the Upper Peninsula. Seventeen volunteers signed up, but on the morning of the project the temperature was -16 F, not counting the wind chill on a frozen lake with no trees to block it. I was sure that most would be no-shows, and I would have understood. But then George Lindquist arrived, followed by all the others, and we spent hours on that ice assembling telephone poles like a tic-tac-toe board, securing steel mesh to the middle square, and filling them with fieldstones to sink them to the bottom of the lake when the ice melted. Every one of those volunteers showed sisu.
I’ve also had it tested in physical endurance events. Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, has been quoted saying, “It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong,” and I kind of consider that to be when sisu kicks in, too. Cramping up in mile 12 of a 31-mile (50K) ultramarathon was when something went wrong; sisu was finishing the remaining 19 miles limping, cramping, slow, but not giving up and finishing anyway. In deer hunting, there are endless ways sisu gets tested in Michigan. Our weather conditions in late November – and our ethics as hunters - often require it.
From where we set up our deer camp in the Pigeon River Country, I often still hunt routes that take me in a two or three-mile circular route through hilly wooded terrain, and at many points along it I can be up to a mile or more from camp. In 2015, I was fortunate to shoot a 3 ½ -year-old eight-point buck shortly before the close of shooting light. I was up on a ridge I’d still hunted to where I’d sat against a tree watching a trail. The buck was cruising the valley below and I shot him at a distance of about 70 yards. He ran up the opposite hill, back down, and collapsed less than 50 yards from where I shot him. I waited about 20 minutes, and it was dark by the time I found him. I was looking at close to a mile-long drag of a heavy-bodied deer in the dark after I field-dressed him.
I could have marked my spot, gone back to camp, and returned in the morning with help. With coyotes around, though, I didn’t want to leave him so I grabbed an antler and started dragging him uphill. Luckily a pair of flashlights belonging to my dad and cousin shone from the top of the hill before I got too far, so my cousin and I each grabbed an antler and dragged him up the hill. I thought we could cut across a valley as a shortcut, but as it turned out it took us out of the way and we had to drag it back up a hill to get back on course, across a stump-and-slash covered clear-cut plateau, and down through the woods to our camp.
There’s nothing particularly unique about this deer drag, but we had to show some sisu to complete it. When something went wrong (we went the wrong way) we had to gut through it with stubborn determination despite adding an extra hill and probably an extra quarter-mile to our drag. In Michigan, I suspect sisu gets shown by hundreds of thousands of deer drags in cold weather across rough terrain every year.
Similarly, I think it’s sisu to gut out the discomfort and stay on stand when the weather is cold, when the seat is uncomfortable, and when every urge is to head back to camp for a hot meal. And maybe the most important way it shows in Michigan’s deer season is when a hunter loses a blood trail but doesn’t give up. Losing the blood trail is just the part that goes wrong; sisu is persisting in spite of that and making the small and widening circles to cut for tracks, to search for broken branches, and to find the deer no matter how long it takes.
Part of sisu is being prepared. For instance, you can’t drag a deer out if you don’t have the physical conditioning to do it without a heart attack. You can’t stay on the stand when you’re cold and uncomfortable if you don’t have the cold-weather clothing to prevent frostbite and hypothermia. And you might not find your deer after losing a blood trail if you didn’t bring extra batteries for your headlamp. I train with trail-running and CrossFit to be in condition to drag deer and I camp out in the snow in the winter to know my limits and how to keep warm in the cold. Don’t try to drag out a deer if you have a heart condition or are just not in condition to do so or risk frostbite or hypothermia because you didn’t layer up. Sisu isn’t being reckless in the short term; it’s being determined in the long-term.
Sisu is a special quality but it doesn’t have to be unique. Any person can show it; Michigan’s hunters just get more opportunities than most. When something goes wrong or gets hard this deer season – you shoot a heavy deer in a valley a mile from camp, you get cold and uncomfortable on stand, you lose your blood trail, or the million other things that can go wrong in deer hunting – don’t give up. Just look at it as a chance to show your sisu. Make the drag, stay on stand, find your deer. That’s sisu.
Drew YoungeDyke is an award-winning freelance outdoor writer and a Director of Conservation Partnerships for the National Wildlife Federation, a board member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, and a member of the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers and the Michigan Outdoor Writers Association.
All posts at Michigan Outside are independent and do not necessarily reflect the views of NWF, Surfrider, OWAA, AGLOW, MOWA, the or any other entity.