Our favorite memories are filled with many things. Sights, sounds, smells, friends and family, longed for anticipations and, of course, sweetest of all, those triumphs large or small.
Deer camp is all of these things and perhaps a little more. Looking back at my earliest years I can’t think of camp without remembering my grandfather, Arthur Hayes, or Pop as we called him.
Pop was an organizer and meticulous in his preparations. A week or two before the first day I’d be recruited to help prepare camp. There would be firewood to split and stacked, general cleaning, groceries and rifles to be zeroed in. As a young teenager helping with these chores made me feel included, but perhaps more important, I knew Pop was proud of my efforts.
As he grew older Pop only hunted in the morning or a few hours in the early afternoon. He loved to be back at camp preparing dinner for us. He knew we’d be half frozen, tired, stiff, and, most importantly to him, starving. Pop was our “Bull” cook and an excellent chef.
Pop began hunting whitetails in the late 1930s. His group hunted from tents for a week, miles from the closest town. Black, the camp leader, employed a camp cook. Breakfast, lunch, dinner or coffee were always waiting. This made a real impression on Pop. He knew how nice it was to come back to a hearty meal without having to prepare it yourself after a hard day’s hunting.
When I think of Pop and camp, one memory stands out. It was 20 degrees, late in the day and snowing. I’d walked many miles, was dog tired and as it grew darker picked up my pace eager to return to camp. Almost immediately I jumped a nice buck I might have shot if I’d taken my time for just a few more yards.
The buck ran down the hillside, crossed the creek and turned upstream. I guessed he’d continue up the creek, circle left and cross the road before bedding in some thick hemlock. Though tired, I hurried as fast as I could hoping to cut him off. I was 30 seconds too late, the buck was crossing the road when I turned the corner and vanished before I could even raise the rifle.
Now, I was really beat and the snowfall grew heavier. Each step was an effort, uphill of course, visibility reduced to a few feet in the darkness. Thank goodness I was on the dirt road leading back to camp. Otherwise it would have been very easy to become turned around in those whiteout conditions.
Exhausted, I plodded slowly along through the gloom until at long last I could barely discern a faint light glimmering. Back at last.
I stomped up on the porch and opened the door. A blast of bright light, the aroma of hot food and din of happy chatter hit me with almost physical force. But above all I saw Pop’s smiling face.
“Well, well! Here’s our lost hunter, dedicated to the end. Tell us your story boy!”
He was proud I’d hunted the longest and hardest. Praise was never far from his lips. He was the anchor, the cheerleader, the planner and everyone’s best friend, the heart and soul of camp, inseparable from those early memories. When you shot a buck, no matter what the size you were a hero in his eyes and he made sure you knew it.
The next day, Jim Acker and I had just finished lunch. There was a foot of snow on the ground, but luckily little wind. Still, the cold took its toll during the mornings hunt, slowly sapping your energy.
We couldn’t decide what stands to hunt from in the afternoon. The wood stove had camp toasty warm, the reclining chairs so comfortable, lunch settling nicely. Did we really have to go out in those winter conditions again? Was all this worth it just for a chance at a deer?
Well, died-in-the-wool whitetail hunters know the answer. Reluctantly, we got up, dressed, stoked the stove and headed out. The deer were still hitting the apple trees occasionally, hoping a few of the late-hanging, dried-up fruit may have fallen. I climbed into the orchard stand wearing everything I owned.
Time dragged, I forced myself to constantly keep turning my head and stay alert. Then as darkness grew a flicker of motion 130 yards away. I raised the binoculars, it was a spike, barely discernible. Then another foot appeared, a leg, a lowered head in the brush… antlers! A big buck and suddenly I was warm all over.
His body appeared, but it’s so thick! Do I gamble on getting a bullet through? He begins to move off. Pick the clearest opening, pray and squeeze! He’s hit, shoot again, he runs, he’s down, antlers sticking up above the snow.
Hands shaking I call Jim. He heard me shoot. Did I get him? Yes, yes I did! Soon the side by side arrives and we rejoice together over my trophy; he’s a beauty, a tall, heavy rack, with even points.
Back at camp, warm and comfortable once again we relive the day’s events. Time moves on, faces change, but deer camp retains its magic. May it ever be so.