A Yankee Notebook, Columns

Deer Camp Musings

by Willem Lange

ST. HUBERTS, N.Y. — It was what my grandfather used to call a “Bummelzug day.” A Bummelzug is a local train that stops at every station; and when you’re having that kind of day, there are a million things you have to do before you can get to what you want to do.

I loaded up the little truck a little after dawn, threw in my hunting stuff, and ate breakfast. Then a long, much-interrupted thrash across Vermont: coffee in East Corinth; unload the stuff in Plainfield; stop at the site of the new house to see if anything had happened (nothing had); hit the Montpelier Coop for groceries (found it a little too tofu for hunting camp groceries); hit Shaw’s for sausage, bacon, beer, eggs, and crackers. An hour later, across the lake to New York; grab a burger at the top of Spruce Hill and two of the world’s best pies at the Noonmark Diner; and finally up the hill to camp.

There was no rush at all; I was still disengaging. So I shifted the transmission into four-wheel low, took my foot off the gas, and let the truck just walk up the steep pitches on her own.

Everybody was out hunting when I got there. Everybody but Greg, who was nursing a stiff new prosthetic knee and riding an exercise bike to loosen it up. We shared symptoms and stories, but an irresistible haze, as gray as the day outside, was sliding down over my eyes. “I’ll just take a little nap,” I said, “and go out around two o’clock and sit till dark.”

I woke up long after two. The hunters were just coming home, and it was time for a toot and a few hors d’oeuvres. None of us ever lasts long after supper and the dishes. Guys began to disappear into the bunk rooms shortly past eight.

The next day would begin as soon as the first one of us started the cook stove, which has traditionally been about four in the morning. But it rained hard during the night, and we’re getting older, besides, so it wasn’t till a little before five that I heard the rattle of a stove lid and the whoosh of burning kerosene. Time to shine.

I was already calculating how many eggs I’d put into the omelet for seven guys.

It’s not just our time of rising that’s changed over the years. My enthusiasm for the hunt has waned remarkably. I took one look at the mist outside – a million microscopic droplets swirled in front of the flashlight lens – and decided instead to drive downtown during the morning to see what had changed in the hamlet where my wife and I started out together in the Eisenhower years.

Not much, I concluded. Most of the buildings were virtually the same. The big difference was in the people: literally dozens of the oldtimers long-gone, and the houses they lived in inhabited by families I’ve never heard of. I could walk the length of town unrecognized by anyone, which certainly wasn’t the case, for whatever reasons, 50 years ago.

I drove around the single block, marveling at the hubris that made me believe, one late evening, that I could make it around a particular right-angle corner at 40 miles an hour in a 1946 Plymouth, and at the incredible good fortune by which we missed a particular telephone pole and only nudged old Dick Wright’s brick chimney.

I idled past our old rented apartment, which had been deteriorating badly when we lived there. It’s been salvaged and spiffed up.

Before long the nostalgia was getting me down, so I bought a paper, had pie and coffee at the Noonmark, and drove back up to camp a little after noon.

Three of the guys were “filling the woodshed” when I got there – hanging a five-point buck from the pole on the front of the shed. They were pretty happy, and after a snack, headed out again with high hopes.

Greg and I were left again, and the urge to snooze was again attacking. “This time,” I said, “I’m really going to get up around two and go sit till dark.” Greg was too kind to even raise an eyebrow.

But here I am. It’s a little after three, and I’m just beginning to feel the cold. I’m at a favorite watch spot called the big rock. The guys have put a dark green plastic lawn chair down here between a couple of trees. Sitting in it, you can see quite a long way out into an oak grove that’s been pretty heavily scuffed up by deer feeding on acorns.

With my rifle across my knees, I’ve been reading (with as few movements as possible) some fairly esoteric stuff: “The Journal of the American Chestnut Foundation.” It describes the somewhat discouraging efforts of the Foundation to develop blight-resistant strains and restore the American chestnut to North American forests. If they ever get it right, I’d love to plant a few dozen in this part of the woods.

Now and then I look carefully around the 270-degree arc I command. In spite of the mist, I can tell the sun is still above the mountains, because I can see color. I’m looking for anomalous movement and the color gray, just the shade of the underbrush. Nothing moves – except a chipmunk running left to right along a downed birch, and a few minutes later, a gray squirrel on the same trunk in the opposite direction.

A silent crow or raven, I can’t tell which, flaps by. I’m starting to do motionless crunches to create a little warmth within. I just heard a truck go down the mountain, a hundred yards away. Probably the boys taking the buck down to get it registered.

What a triumph of science I am, sitting here in my petroleum-derived chair! From the skin out, I’m Duofold, Pendleton, Polartec, Woolrich, and Filson. Vision corrected by an optometrist, with bifocals available for reading about chestnuts. Teeth corrected by three kinds of dentists. Joints replaced by a galaxy of orthopedic stars. Hearing enhanced by Phonak and an Energizer battery. Nourishment by Mr. Goodbar. Low-light target enhancement by telescopic sight. And transportation by nearby Toyota. I’m going to give it till 4:30 or until I can’t see the crosshairs anymore. There’s a horseradish dip calling to me from camp.

[This is a reprint of Lange’s classic hunting experience from the November 2006 edition of the Gazette.]

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