UNION CREEK — Six inches of mushy snow ring the muddy ground around Tom Luttrell's feet, where a series of impromptu ditches keep runoff flowing around the coolers and past the parked travel trailers.

UNION CREEK — Six inches of mushy snow ring the muddy ground around Tom Luttrell's feet, where a series of impromptu ditches keep runoff flowing around the coolers and past the parked travel trailers.

Water pools on a tarp stretched like a canopy between the trailers. Luttrell, the Rube Goldberg of his group, smiles at the contraption and wrings out his sweatshirt, confident he wouldn't want circumstances to be any other way.

Luttrell and seven of his friends have claimed this muddy bowl high in the Cascades as their hub for a week of eschewing their Rogue Valley responsibilities while sleeping in the woods and stalking Oregon's largest big-game animal.

This is elk camp, where hunters embrace the miseries of winter camping to join in time-honored traditions that are tantamount to seven straight Boys' Nights Out sandwiched around grueling days trying to put wild meat in the freezer.

"Elk camp is all about getting back to nature and being with your friends, getting back to how your forefathers hunted," says Luttrell, a 42-year-old Medford resident who works for a beverage distributor.

"Life is so difficult and so hard now," Luttrell says. "This gets us back to simpleness. In elk camp, nothing really matters."

Thousands of hunters like Luttrell will huddle this week around hundreds of backwoods fires in elk camps across the western slopes of the Cascades. The general Roosevelt bull elk season for rifle hunters lures more than 2,000 hunters to the woods around Union Creek, Prospect and Butte Falls, their makeshift outposts dotting forest roads during the weeklong season that ends Friday.

This isn't pup tents and s'mores. In elk camp, everything is super-sized against a testosterone backdrop.

Huge whitewall tents with tarps keep out the rain. Carpet remnants soften the floors. Wood stoves keep the hunters cozy, and camp coffee rejuvenates bodies weary of trudging through the woods after those phantom bulls that rarely present themselves.

With only 5 percent of the Prospect-area elk hunters actually shooting a bull each year, most of what they take back to town is what they get from a week together in the woods.

"It's a guys' bonding moment, and that's what 90 percent of the guys are there for," says Ed LaFerriere, a Central Point hunting veteran in elk camp this week far above Butte Falls.

"You say you're going camping with a bunch of guys and one of their wives will start talking about 'Brokeback Mountain,'" LaFerriere says. "That's just not acceptable. But you say elk camp, that's acceptable."

Many other aspects not only are acceptable, they are virtually ritualized. Most swirl around poor hygiene and alcohol.

No shaving, no bathing. Playing in the mud. Shooting guns. Wearing the same clothes day after day.

John Seabourne of Wilsonville, who is hunting this week in the Mount Thielsen Wilderness Area, is a classic slave to elk camp rituals.

Before heading to camp Friday morning, Seabourne took his last shave and shower until he kills a bull elk. He and his seven hunting partners all bring the same food, eaten on the same day in camp every year. Only Seabourne touches the eggs each morning.

Each hunter in Seabourne's camp carries an airline-sized bottle of bourbon, their "kill bottle" saved exclusively for toasting a fallen elk.

They stick to their plans without discussing them. No deviations. They can't take chances.

"I personally would like to have something different to eat in elk camp for a change, but you get into these habits because you did something and something good happened," Seabourne says. "So you just stay with it. It might not matter, but you don't want to risk it."

Elk camp isn't elk camp without a really big fire. If you're not standing around that fire eating and drinking things normally banned by doctors and spouses, then you're not trying.

And don't worry about repercussions. Your buddies have got your back.

Elk camp was Vegas before Vegas was Vegas.

"What goes on in elk camp stays in elk camp" is so entrenched a credo that even stories about the stories never leak outside.

"It's great to be with the guys without having to make excuses, let your hair down," LaFerriere says. "If you get an elk, that's an added benefit."

All elk camps aren't backwoods he-man retreats that sport enough testosterone to grow beards on babies. Some elk camps are as familial as a Fourth of July party.

For Don Hall of Central Point, it's a chance to repeat what generations of family members have done — congregate in the woods in a tent-and-trailer city sprung beneath lush Ponderosa pines.

Thirty-two of Hall's closest family and friends, right down to the Elmo-slipper-wearing granddaughter, are camping together this weekend. Some will sleep in an old Army tent heated with a wood stove. They will eat over camp stoves and swap stories by the nightly bonfire before the hunters prepare to head off with rifles at dawn.

"If you get an elk, it's gravy on the plate," says Hall, 51. "It's nice to get out, sit by the fire. Everybody's telling each other lies. Some of them we've already heard."

By the end of this week, most hunters will be ready for reality. Then it's back to heart-smart diets, zero-proof refreshments, proper hygiene and mouths worthy of kissing their mothers.

Seabourne says he doesn't expect even a peck on the cheek from his girlfriend of six years when he returns to Wilsonville.

"I come home, there's no hellos, no welcome homes," Seabourne says. "It's just a finger pointing to the bathroom."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.