When you move after many years in the same house, as I did a few years back, you run across all sorts of old stuff. In an old shoebox stored in my previous home’s basement I found a treasure chest of old, dog-eared black & white photographs. My favorite, circa the early 1950’s, shows me at about age 2 or 3 standing with my grandfather alongside a stream. Grandpa is wearing a fedora and starched long-sleeved white shirt with sleeves rolled up over his forearms, his creased pants held up by suspenders. I have on a ragged T-shirt and some sort of diapers. In the picture grandpa is patiently showing me how to use an old “el cheapo” spincast rod and reel setup as I try my best to fool a rainbow trout. With love and support like that, it’s no wonder I became hooked on the outdoors at such an early age.
This time of year fills memory with similar pictures, only these are of old deer camps. You know the kind I mean. Or do you? I am talking about classic old cabins that have graced the deer woods for decades, whose insides have been improved annually with everything from fresh store-bought lumber to garage sale bric-a-brac. There’s a dog-eared deck of cards on the table and a bunch of 10-year old hunting magazines, and an outhouse with more holes in the walls than Swiss cheese. It might be a place in the woods where a wall tent has stood every season for decades. Those who hunt the place can walk without thinking to a nearby stream for water. For some it might be a mom-and-pop motel or lodge with small cabins that doubles as a fishing lodge in summer, the kind with kitchenette rooms and a nearby restaurant that makes the best dang pancakes and strongest coffee you’ve ever had. All of them have a special place in the yard for a meat pole.
These camps are where bowhunters annually gather and spend a week’s hard-earned vacation trying to get within spitting distance of “the thirty-point buck.” Where each individual hunts long and hard from a favorite stand, and some seasons the gods of the hunt smile and a nice buck or a fat doe is cleanly taken and the meat evenly divided among all the hunters in camp. It’s a place where young hunters are treated like men, even though when it comes to camp chores they are expected to do the heavy lifting. It’s a place where a lifetime of memories are made.
Today, in many places the old deer camp is slowly fading away, being replaced by more sterile hunting trips to fancy lodges that last just a few days where someone else does all the work, weekend trips to a local public land spot often hunted hard by others, or hunts taken when busy schedules permit a few hours before or after work. Young bowhunters pressured on many levels to go faster and do more with their lives and their parents high expectations don’t have the time to spend a week with the old guys anymore. They’re too busy staying connected in a Twitter world that, it seems to me, is starting to spin a little out of control.
That doesn’t mean there are lots of young folks out there who do not love bowhunting deer. It’s just that in today’s go-go world, they have a difficult time understanding that by slowing down and taking the time to hang with dad and grandpa and that crazy Uncle Joe instead of their buds at the mall, they may actually learn a few things about deer hunting – and more important things as well.
Deer camp can teach these young bucks a lot about life. Perhaps the best lesson is the fact that life is about choices. In deer camp you can choose to cover the firewood, or not, but if it rains you won’t have any heat this week. You can choose to spend the time before season to get your bow tuned, shooting skills honed, and gear squared away instead of spending all your free time goofing off – or miss the buck of a lifetime thanks to a wobbly arrow or squeaky stand. It’s also about learning to share space and responsibilities, respecting others, lending a hand even if you’re not asked to. It’s cleaning up after yourself, not eating the last candy bar, not cheating at cards. That you, and no one else, is ultimately responsible for what happens to you. That in life, no matter how hard you work or how badly you want something, sometimes it just doesn’t turn out that way. And that to be successful, when bad luck knocks you down you get up, dust off your shirt, hitch up your trousers, and try again, because winners never give up.
Just this last fall I visited an old deer camp I had known as a runny-nosed kid. In those days I had the energy of a young bird dog and the patience of a bolt of lightning. It was where I was lucky enough to have met a man I later called The Sage. He never said much, never bragged on himself or strutted around like a bandy rooster, but he sure could have. The Sage was a veteran of World War II, a man who was captured by the Japanese and survived the Bataan Death March, who later became very successful and wealthy yet continued to drive an old pickup, wear jeans and well broken-in work shirts, and help a lot of less fortunate people behind the scenes without taking credit. He took me under his wing and taught me a whole lot about deer hunting – and about life.
Old deer camps are special to me thanks to guys like The Sage as much as they are about filling the freezer. Will you help make those memories special for a young up-and-comer in your camp this season?
Old deer camps are where memories are made for both young and old hunters alike.