SPIRIT FALLS, Wis. -- Cedars stood black against a blush of orange on the horizon; still, frigid air blanketed the swamp.
As the curtain rose on the 2010 Wisconsin gun deer season, Jay Leggett was reminded of a natural truth.
"The silence is so incredibly loud," said Leggett, a Tomahawk, Wis., native who now lives in Los Angeles. "Just listen to that."
Leggett and I had ventured to the edge of a cedar swamp in Lincoln County before dawn Saturday. The temperature had plummeted to the low teens overnight; the swamp before us wore a new, crystal crown.
As we sat overlooking a clearing in a mixed stand of aspen, hemlock and cedar, a few tiny snowflakes floated from the sky, impelled only by gravity.
They were the only things that moved. And for the first hour of light, silence was the only sound.
Significant to our quest, the lack of noise meant an absence of deer and gun shots.
Leggett isn't accustomed to such quiet greetings.
"At least not on a good night," Leggett quipped.
Leggett, 47, left Wisconsin 25 years ago to pursue a career as an actor and comedian. His resume includes roles on the television shows "In Living Color" and "ER," as well working with Chris Farley in the Improv Olympic comedy troupe in Chicago.
But Leggett remains grounded in Wisconsin's culture, perhaps especially deer hunting.
He's missed two opening days since he was 12: one as a high school senior to participate in a state theater competition, the other when he was directing a play in London.
So it should come as no surprise that he's returned this year to Newwood Club, the remote hunting camp he shares with family and friends on 360 acres in western Lincoln County.
"It's my favorite place on earth," Leggett said.
The club includes eight members: Leggett, his father, Jack, and brother Josh; Graham and Curt Foster; Dan Osero Sr. and Dan Jr.; and Paul Sandry. Most live in Tomahawk.
The area was logged by the Rib Lake Logging Company and later, when the company was in bankruptcy, this piece of ground was sold for 10 cents an acre, Jack Leggett said.
The club constructed a 24-by-48-foot cabin on the property. The comfortable building sleeps 18.
It has cedar paneling, a wood-burning stove for heat, a fussball table, a propane stove and enough couches and recliners to keep the members off their feet.
One refrigerator is modified to house a keg of beer.
Newwood (named for the fresh growth of trees that dominated the area after mature hemlock forest was logged) is part of a vital hunting camp culture in the area.
Jay Leggett's experiences at Newwood moved him to embark on a project to document the camps.
"Most people in America have no idea this exists," Leggett said.
Leggett formed a team, including co-producer Charles Ketchabaw of Toronto, and began filming near Tomahawk in September 2009; a director's cut of the film, called "To The Hunt," was shown Thursday in Tomahawk.
The film takes the viewer into a dozen Wisconsin deer camps, revealing a party atmosphere but also a cohesive, productive social structure that transcends hunting.
It includes clips of Bob Norton, professor emeritus from the University of Wisconsin and author of "The Hunter: Developmental Stages and Ethics," explaining the nature of hunting camp life.
"To be part of a group, to be connected to nature, these things become more significant than harvesting an animal," Norton said.
Thursday's premiere, including a blaze orange carpet on the sidewalk outside the Tomahawk Cinema, drew a packed house and added a unique, big-screen buzz to the 2010 deer opener.
"To The Hunt" is expected to be out for general release in 2011.
Like many camps, Newwood's members and assorted guests typically arrive on the Thursday before deer season to settle in and check hunting stands.
Friday is then a day of rest and frivolity.
"I consider it my Christmas morning," Leggett said.
Friday night at Newwood featured a "game feed." Curt Foster served smoked sturgeon as an appetizer and an entree of walleye and perch.
"Fish tonight, venison tomorrow," said an optimistic Michael Sandry.
Card games, fussball, darts, jokes and stories dominated the social front.
Over dinner, Dan Osero received an e-mail from his wife. It showed a fine eight-point buck standing Friday evening in their Neenah backyard.
"Why do you have to go all the way up north?" she asked.
Indeed, it's not for deer. "This camp gives us something more than any deer could," said Foster. "We work here together, have fun together, share lives together. Even if we only see some members for one week a year, it's a huge part of our lives."
The Newwood Club harvested just one deer in 2009. The deer herd in much of northern and northeastern Wisconsin has been reduced over the last decade.
The camp is in Deer Management Unit 32. The area is classified as a "regular unit" this year; 650 antlerless deer permits were available, but sold out in less than 2 hours.
For those of us at Newwood, that means it's a buck or nothing.
"Believe me, if all we wanted was to shoot a deer, we'd probably hunt somewhere else," said Josh Leggett. "But there are still deer here. We'll hunt hard and see what happens."
Though the thermometer read 18 degrees at dawn Saturday, the fields and forests around Tomahawk were brown.
The scant flakes Jay Leggett and I saw at sunrise covered nary a leaf. The deer, at least this day, would be hard to spot among the thick, brown vegetation.
But we kept our ears trained for a tell-tale "crunch, crunch" of an animal moving through the frozen terrain.
A half-dozen rifle shots punctuated the air through the course of the morning, but none at Newwood.
The hours passed, with only a red squirrel, a blue jay and several black-capped chickadees making appearances.
We went back to the cabin about 11 a.m. to make our deer-less report.
But a slightly different story emerged 5 miles east at Beartooth Lodge, a backwoods hunt camp that includes a 1928 cabin, where 17-year-old Jared Hansen of Tomahawk had filled his tag just after 7 a.m.
By midmorning his forkhorn buck was hanging on the game pole.
I joined Hansen and a mixed group from Newwood and Beartooth for a deer drive about noon. It turned up no deer.
My only deer sighting came later, during a hike into county forest near Spirit Falls, when a doe sauntered over a knoll. It quickly retreated as I held my fire.
At 1 a.m., 30 bucks had been registered at the Department of Natural Resources office in Rhinelander. Ron Eckstein, DNR wildlife biologist, said the registrations were "running a little slow, but it was still too early to tell what the season will hold."
True enough. However, one verdict was already in.
The members and guests of Newwood Club toasted the goodness of the season Friday evening. They will host many of their wives and mothers for a Thanksgiving dinner. At Newwood, the men do the cooking.
"We're here, we're healthy, we're hunting," Leggett said. "We're home."