Friday, November 11, 2011

November camp

I was the first into camp Friday evening. The sun had not quite dropped below the horizon so I was able to load my cot and gear into the tent before dark. The white canvas tent had been set two weeks before, and other than one visit from me during the week, had sat undisturbed waiting to provide warmth and shelter for us hunters who have come to rely on it. I was just about to mix myself a birdshooter when headlights rounded the corner and John pulled his truck in next to mine. Tony and Jack wouldn’t get into camp until Sunday morning, so John and I had the place to ourselves for opening day. We spent a pleasant evening warm by the woodstove and talked about the hunting and fishing we’d enjoyed since last year, and the hunt we would partake in the morning. I don’t see him often, but John knows dogs, guns, and rods and uses them whenever he can. Like me. Outside, a bright moon cast shadows on the ground while an unseasonable wind buffeted the tent walls and shook the hissing lantern hanging from the ceiling. We’re there to hunt deer, I suppose, but where else do you find like-minded companions to spend the evening hours admiring rifles, comparing new ammo, analyzing backpacks and boots? We cooked brats, drank whiskey and told stories until I finally slipped into my bag and was soon sleeping.

I’ve spent time in a number of camps over the years. Some were pretty deluxe with private bedrooms, complete baths and showers, kitchens and living rooms. I spent a week in one camp, if you can call it that, complete with a caretaker and cook that had meals waiting when we were ready for them. I’ve also been at the other end of the spectrum – sleeping in a little nylon dome tent huddled deep in a thick sleeping bag only to crawl out in the morning, shivering myself warm enough to grab my rifle and trudge through snow in my quest for deer.

I suppose we all reach a time in our lives when we need and expect a certain level of personal comfort. Some might think camping in a tent, with no running water, keeping a fire stoked in the stove is roughing it. Well, I’ve had it a lot rougher. A good cot with a pad and warm sleeping bag makes a fine bed, and I’m happy to be lulled to slumber by the wind, the hooting owls, howling wolves, and other night sounds of the woods. In fact, come opening morning I remember how comfortable and cozy I was and how I would have liked to sleep longer had I not felt the need to be in the woods well before sunrise. The portability of a tent is neat, too. While we’ve all hunted basically the same area for years, we’ve moved camp to different locales for quicker access to some new cover, or easier access in case of deep snow, or maybe just a change of scenery. We drive our trucks right to camp, but I can imagine horse-backing into western mountains with this same outfit.

We do most of our cooking outside the tent, and I’d brought some of last years venison to grill over coals Saturday evening. John and I both enjoyed the tender slices of backstrap for a true hunter’s supper. As it turned out, we could have feasted on tenderloins from deer taken that morning, but you never know it will turn out like that. There are two camp tables in the tent, one for the two-burner propane stove, and one for the kitchen. Morning coffee and hearty breakfasts are cooked inside while we finalize hunting strategies and pull on wool pants and boots for the day.

I had a ways to go to get to the high oak ridge I hunt, so John filled my cup with strong coffee and I was off. Years before, I’d found my hunting spot by accident. I was still-hunting and exploring this high scrub-oak country and not seeing much deer sign. I sat on a fallen log and leaned against a pine to relax for a bit and figure out my next move. It was mid-morning and something stirred to my left. My heart pounded when I saw the antlers, and then I made out the legs. But I saw nothing else until the deer made me and disappeared. I sat stunned and wondered how I should have handled it differently. Good bucks are rare and I figured I blew my chance for the year. Maybe a half hour later I heard a snort and bent my head around the pine to see behind me. Another buck stood looking at me perhaps 40 yards away. A blowdown blocked it’s body, but it hardly mattered – he knew I was there and bolted before I had a chance. Wow, I thought! Two shooter bucks within an hour. I’ll probably never have chances like that again in my life! I was a ways back in the woods but I looked at that pine and determined to have an elevated stand leaning on it next year, though could I reasonably expect to see deer like that ever again? I leaned on the tree and munched my sandwich with a plan in mind.

I've hunted that ridge every season since. My stand is in place and even from that it’s hard to see far in that thick, brushy country. I scout just a bit before season, and never have seen much for deer sign there, but I have a superstitious feeling about the place and leave it alone as much as I can, other than leaning my stand on that same pine tree. Others have been there to complain about the lack of view and suggest some shooting lane cuttings but I know from experience when the deer come, they can be seen. I won’t risk messing the place up thinking I’m “improving” it.

John and I met at camp that afternoon and toasted our good fortunes. John took his buck in a newly discovered cutting closer to camp and spent the rest of the day scouting and placing stands for Jack and Tony. I scouted the day away looking for sign along the hilltops where I hunt. At camp that evening I fired the grill for supper and we spent a satisfied and relaxing evening telling our tales. The day outside had worked it’s magic and we cut the celebration short trying to keep our eyes open. With the promise of sleeping in and enjoying a big breakfast we hit the cots and listened to a light rain on the tent roof for minutes before drifting off.

Deer camp stories have been written and told for many more years than I’ve been around, and I know plenty of folks who find their deer hunting enjoyment from just being in camp. Some old timers, and not so old timers are happy to hunt little and hang around camp a lot keeping a fire stoked, a stew on the stove, and an ear open for rifle shots. Some guys just want to get away from routines for awhile and would no sooner forget the deck of cards as they would the rifles. I have to admit, deer camp is fun to be around, but for me, so far, there’s a valid and logical conclusion to it all. I’m lucky and thankful to take part.

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