Deer Camp

I wanted to relay my recent experience at deer camp to my readers. It had such an overwhelming impact on me that I feel compelled to tell about it.

One of my relatives is a member of a small sportsman’s club that owns property in the mountains of southwestern Pennsylvania. I have had several occasions to make some brief visits there and every once in a while in the summer we, as a family, might spend a weekend there.

After a few visits, I fell in love with the place. Talk about pristine; the place is out of this world. It is surrounded by a couple of other camps, large swaths of uninhabited private property and state forest. They own about 75 acres smack dab in sort of the middle of nowhere, but it is close enough to the nearby town to go back if you forgot something. Once you’re there you don’t want to leave the mountain for anything, so you tend to plan and pack carefully.

The road coming in is private, not very long, but it takes you about 20 minutes to go 5 miles when you leave the pavement as the road is pretty rugged. Four wheel drive is the norm, not necessarily for the traction but more for the suspension, unless it is slick. I have heard it is quite an adventure with snow on the ground. I don’t think much short of a Subaru or something similar in a car could make it.

The temperature is typically 10 degrees cooler than in the nearest town. Even in the heat of summer it is always pleasant, especially at night for some good sleeping. In the summer, late spring and early fall, I make it a habit to sleep out on an old sofa on the covered porch. There is nothing better, but the old timers like to tease me about the bear that hangs out up there coming to get me. I haven’t seen it in person yet, but I have seen a couple of trail cam pictures of it and it’s pretty big.

It was my good fortune to be invited up to camp for the fall work weekend in September. Basically the whole weekend is in preparation for the first week of buck season. All systems are checked. Wood cut, split and stacked. A thorough cleaning takes place from top to bottom.

When I say all systems are checked, let me be clear there aren’t too many systems per se. The whole camp is a wonder of self sufficiency and Spartan existence. There is propane which runs the two camp stoves. There are two propane fridges, propane lights, two propane heaters and a propane water heater. There is a kerosene heater in the main room. Running water is piped in from a spring higher up the mountain and there is a full bathroom with sinks, shower and toilet on the basement, but I much prefer to be out in nature at the outhouse. There is a bunk room upstairs off the main floor with 14 twin beds.

In a minor concession to modern technology, 12 volt marine batteries are used for a few small lights, to charge cell phones and to connect to a power inverter so that televisions can be run in the kitchen and main room to watch the news, a football game or, as is tradition, a Charley Brown Christmas.

When I was invited up for hunting season, I seriously doubt that anyone figured I would take them up on it. I was no hunter to speak of. Other than the traditional Friday after Thanksgiving kickoff party, I had never spent any time at camp during hunting season. But this year was going to be different, I was actually going to try my hand at deer hunting and made plans to spend that Friday through the following Wednesday afternoon at camp. I figured if I was given an invitation to participate and stay at camp, then I had better respect the entire purpose of the week and go hunting.

We went up a couple of weekends before the season to do some last minute work and to sight in our rifles. I was instructed to bring mine. I followed my instructions and brought my rifle, but I did leave out the small detail that I had nothing to actually sight in as I had iron sights. My nephew took a few pops with his gun and his pap’s gun and they were pretty much on and I was told to take a crack with mine. I sheepishly got mine out, loaded a round and took a crack at the metal disk 120 yards away. Bang, dead center, followed by the remark, “that will work.” I smiled inside. Little did I know that would be the one and only shot I took at camp.

Previous to this season, I had only tried my hand at deer hunting a couple of times and didn’t really like it all that much as I was uncomfortable hunting on public land and seeing blaze orange and firearms everywhere I turned. I felt like I was in a war zone rather than hunting deer.

This potential experience was different as it was on private property with a limited number of hunters in the woods. I would know where everyone would be and I would do my best to stay out of their way and limit my intrusion into their perennial hunting spots. Some of these guys have staked out the same spots for over 30 years or more on opening day.

I have to admit that I was pretty optimistic about my chances of success. At my home in Greensburg, and my home in Ligonier, we see tons and tons of deer on a regular basis and seeing a nice buck is not that uncommon. Not to fail to mention the countless deer we encounter on roadways and milling around in farm and field.

From midsummer to just prior to buck season the camp has a trail cam set up and there was a lot of activity with many nice bucks showing themselves. When we go up in the summer and on Saturdays in the fall, getting ready for the season, it was pretty common to catch sight of many deer. I figured I would find a spot and they would come, which is probably one of the reasons I had never spent too much time deer hunting. I just assumed it would be like shooting fish in a barrel. Call me what you will but killing for the sake of killing never has appealed to me.

Prior to camp I had finagled a pretty good spot or so I thought, but on the Saturday prior to opening day it was determined that within my field of fire was one of my camp hosts’ blind and I needed to find a new location. My nephew assisted me in locating what we both thought was an ideal location, not far from camp but in area unfamiliar to me. Because I was unsure I could find my tree stand after relocating it, we decided to mark the trail with discretely placed blaze orange ribbons placed approximately 25 yards or so apart. Sort of a modern day Hansel and Gretel approach.

The next day, in anticipation of having to walk through the woods in pitch black aided only by my head lamp, I decided to hike out to my tree stand to make sure I knew its location. It was rainy and foggy and visibility was poor. Just 50 yards out of camp, I looked back and couldn’t even see its telltale red metal roof. I headed confidently in the direction of my first ribbon and found it relatively easily. From that point, I couldn’t see the second as I had the day before, so I trusted my memory and internal compass and headed towards where I anticipated the second.

After scrambling around the mountain through greenbriers and around rocks and boulders for 20 minutes or so, I concluded I was lost. I wasn’t quite panicked but let’s just say I was pretty frustrated with my lack of wood craft and navigation skills. Luckily, and I do mean by sheer luck, I came upon my tree stand a few minutes later.

I climbed upon into my stand, took a swig of water and did what any savvy amateur would do, I opened my GPS app on my iPhone and pinned the location of my stand. Looking at the pin on the map and at the end of the road on the map, I took a look at the compass, shot an azimuth back to where camp should be and headed that direction promptly. Upon my return I didn’t say much other than it was really pretty hard to see out there.

Oh the joys of naivety.

Despite some pretty crappy weather (fog, rain and high winds) at the start of the week which finally improved, I logged some pretty long hours in the woods. I never did have to use my GPS again, although since then I have made the investment in a detailed topo map of the area, with the intent of marking everyone’s hunting location and other points of interest on it eventually, should I be invited back.

Initially because of my lack of familiarity with the property, I stayed pretty close to the ladder stand I had been assigned, in what I was assured was a prime location. As the days went by I tried my luck in different locations and as a guy would fill out his tag, I would try my hand at their stand or spot.

Eventually, I figured out the smart ways and the dumb ways to get from point A to point B on the mountain. In the future, I am really looking forward to spending more time up there, with map in hand, to piece it all together in my mind.

I did not manage to see a single deer during shooting hours until the last Saturday of buck season when my nephew and I went out together with him as my guide, since he had already gotten his buck the Saturday prior. It was a doe we startled when we were walking up a trail to a different location to check out. I didn’t have a doe license and I wouldn’t have taken the shot anyway; it was on the run.

So after many hours in the woods, this newbie came up empty handed. Am I disappointed? Yes. But realistically I have come away with a whole new appreciation for the sport, and sport it is. I actually have a clue where as before I was clueless, so that is progress. More importantly, I am really embracing this new found challenge.

As a group we did very well.  Out of the six of us who hunted beyond the first day, four got bucks.  One seven point, two eight points and a ten point.

Many people’s naïve expectations of it being an unfair pursuit and a virtual slaughter are totally unfounded. Deer are very smart and very intuitive, getting lucky enough to see one, get your sights on it and getting off a good clean shot are hard won. You have to be in the right place at the right time, but as I have come to understand place is more important than time.

Over and above the experience of getting out into the woods, into nature, I really came to love and appreciate the entire camp experience. I don’t know about other camps, but the camp I was at is filled with time honored traditions. Many racks from trophy bucks festoon the walls of the camp. Just as honored are the bits of shirt tails placed with in a frame, cut from the shirts of those unfortunate enough to take a shot and miss.

Every member, during a visit, makes entries into a log book or diary of sorts, making note of the day, the time, the weather, the companions or guests who made the journey to camp. This is every visit, not just during deer season. What you are left with, as a result, is a journal of over 75 years or more of the foot prints of your predecessors. This is where traditions are built.

Meals are consistent over time. Friday night before the season is steak night, everyone brings their own steak. Saturday is spaghetti. Every year it is the same and each meal is looked forward to in anticipation and many recipes are time tested being utilized for decades.

You eat three squares a day if you’re so inclined and not in the field. I joked to Misty I felt like I gained 10 pounds despite walking several miles a day through hilly and rugged terrain.

Evening beers and poker games. Stories repeated from the past. Shining a spot out the window to see the big bucks too smart to see the light of day. Family and friends, a fraternity of brothers. Older, wiser men passing on the skills, techniques and traditions of times gone by. Work being shared eagerly. A week away from the rat race. A time machine.

Honestly, I can say this past deer camp was one of my fondest memories in life and I didn’t even take a shot. Hopefully I will be invited back next year and will be given my chance by the ghosts of members past. Maybe, if I am lucky, a piece of my shirt tail will end up being on the wall, I am willing to take baby steps.

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