Why We Hunt: Camp

Cabin Boyhood

In this excerpt from his nostalgic new book Leave Some for Seed, artist and outdoor writer Tom Hennessey says deer camp was the perfect place to come of age.

[D]eer hunters who remember wearing red-and-black-checked jackets and caps while toting lever-action .30-30s or .32 Specials will recall that, come November, absenteeism among male students increased markedly in Maine schools. The reason, of course, was deer season. Or, more accurately, deer camps. Understand, however, that young hunters whose classroom seats were unoccupied for a day or two, usually on either side of Thanksgiving Day, were not tracked by the school’s truant officer. On the contrary, their absence was arranged through parent-teacher consent, provided that compensatory homework assignments were completed before the much-anticipated day of departure.

If you bought your first hunting license at about the time the 20th century was middle-aged, you might have enjoyed such personal holidays. For the uninitiated, however, this trail of words may lead to an appreciation of what it was like for a young hunter who had just begun tracking his high school diploma to be accepted into the cultural college known as deer camp.

Although the faculty — Gramp, Dad, Uncles Bill and Harry — were masters in the ways of wildlife, woodsmanship, nature, weather, firearms, tracking, and trailing, none of them held a formal degree of any kind. Occupationally, they were mill town Mainers who often worked overtime, weekends, and holidays to make ends meet. Or, if need be, to pay the town tax or paper company lease on a camp overlooking a Beddington blueberry barren, perhaps, or perched on a ridge behind Alton Bog.

Typically, the one-room, tar-papered camps contained a woodstove, a table and folding chairs, two sets of double-decker bunks, and a galvanized sink with a downspout. An insulated, latched wooden box set outside the door served as a refrigerator that kept butter brittle and canned milk crunchy. The clothes dryer was also a low-budget appliance: a wire strung along the wall behind the stove.

For the most part, deer camps of 50 years ago weren’t located long distances from home, the reasons being that Maine’s rural landscape hadn’t been decimated by development. Suburban sprawl wasn’t a term of the times, and the anti-hunting seeds that produced the current crops of no hunting signs had yet to be sown.

But to a teenage hunter, a trip to a deer camp in the next township was an adventure comparable to Lewis and Clark’s storied outing.

Accordingly, as the week of deer camp drew near, you more than likely spent your school cafeteria money at the local sport shop. Thanks to a countertop box containing odd shotgun shells, your purchases included a few more loads of 00 buck for the 16-gauge single, plus a couple of rifled slugs for good measure. Also: a can of special gun oil that was, of course, no better than the all-purpose lubricant kept in the camp’s cupboard; probably another bore brush and a sheep’s-wool swab; for sure, extra rawhide laces and felt insoles for your leather-top boots; perhaps a container of some kind of spray-on silicone concoction, guaranteed to waterproof anything and everything; and, undoubtedly, a compass that pinned to your hunting jacket.

Evenings were spent greasing boots, oiling and polishing guns, sharpening knives, and adding to the grocery list until it would have fed a small regiment. Small wonder that on the eve of marching off to deer camp, your pack basket bulged with more gear than an infantryman would carry into combat.

[T]here were, of course, dues to be paid for the pleasures and privileges of hunting camps known as Pot Luck, Ten Mile, Hackmatack, whatever. So it was that, without having to be asked, you filled the woodbox, lugged water from the brook, helped with the dishes, and coaxed the stove’s sleepy-eyed embers into festive flames come dawn. And cheerfully you accepted assignment to a top bunk, even though you knew it meant sweltering in rising heat trapped by the rafters only inches from your face. Not to mention the odorous fog of cigar, cigarette, and pipe smoke mingled with the sweet smells of whiskey, rum, and Hoppe’s No. 9.

Suffice to say, you accepted chores as challenges to prove you could walk in men’s tracks, even though you couldn’t fill their boots. However, there wasn’t a man in camp who could match you at tucking away meals that would test a trencherman: Breakfasts included juice, oatmeal, bacon and eggs, pancakes, pan-fried biscuits and molasses, doughnuts, and coffee blacker than bear hair. Lunches offered steaming bowls of beef stew zesty with raw onion, baked macaroni and cheese with stewed tomatoes, monumental sandwiches of sliced meats, and tea the color of claret. And to satisfy your sweet tooth, homemade sugar cookies as big as saucers, or a doughnut sliced into circular halves and stuck together with peanut butter and jelly.

Suppers usually featured steaks, baked beans, and, of course, the anticipated “specialty of the house,” fried deer liver or venison smothered with green peppers, onions, and mushrooms. Topped off, no doubt, with wedges of oven-warmed apple or mincemeat pie.

Here, two things are obvious: Deer camps were well stocked with antacids, and more than a few meals were precooked in home kitchens and brought in.

Granted, hunting — especially for those “ol’ baster” bucks wearing antlers with enough tines to hang ten or twelve hats on — was the foundation on which deer camps were built, but the longevity of those simple structures can be attributed directly to the camaraderie that forged unbreakable bonds of friendship. Spirited and competitive were the games of cribbage, but not seriously; and to an all-ears young hunter, the ongoing discussions about hunting, fishing, and trapping were fascinating and informative. Particularly when simple but nonetheless clever devices were disclosed: removing the aperture from a peep sight to allow faster aiming, for example, or crimping the edges of a deep-trolling spoon so that it would turn over even when the outboard was trolled down to where you could count the strokes of the pistons.

Constant, of course, was the joking and good-natured ribbings that filled the camp with laughter: when, for instance, Bill bragged about his ability to see deer, he immediately was caught in a crossfire, claiming that he saw them best after dark. And on a day when rain was doing a drum roll on the camp roof, Harry’s reluctance to hunt in the downpour drew sage advice from Gramp: “Walk sideways and you won’t get as wet.” Such banter never brought as much laughter, though, as the morning when a certain young hunter nearly lost his breakfast while field-dressing his first deer.

[G]reat days and grand times, those — certainly more civilized — and all taken for granted. Unfortunately, as you grew older, so did the men whose patient tutelage guided you unfailingly on trails that eventually led far beyond deer camp. Consequently, the demise of many camps began when the old-timers who built them began “pegging out,” as they would say. Not only were the camps symbolic of Maine’s grand deer-hunting tradition, but within those crude classrooms a lot of youngsters learned a lot about life and living.

You may recall that the subjects taught included discipline, patience, responsibility, accountability, and respect for the environment, wildlife, firearms, and your elders. And you knew that you had achieved high ranks when Gramp, the camp’s head guide, announced that you had a bunk therein for as long as you wanted it. You’d have to climb to get into it, naturally, and sweat until the stove stopped panting in the wee hours. But it was worth it, if only to watch gray-haired men bound boyishly from their bunks when awakening to a tracking snow.

Unfortunately, times have changed. Nowadays, as anyone who signs his or her name to a hunting license is well aware, there are people hereabouts who would organize a parade of protest and write to their congressmen if they heard that a child was excused from school to go hunting.

Like deer camps, the way of life that is the foundation of the motto, “Maine: The Way Life Should Be,” is fast disappearing. So it is that today only a few young hunters are familiar with the rough comforts, unaffected friendships, and educational aspects of deer camps. Fortunate were those of us who were excused from school so that we could attend those cultural colleges.

From Leave Some for Seed by Tom Hennessey. Copyright 2014 by the author and reprinted by permission of Islandport Press.