Jun 20, 2010

My first Deer Camp - The one that started it all

If I had to attribute my love for the whitetail woods to one person, it would definitely be my dad.  My dad was born and raised in Northeast PA so for him, hunting was a way of life and something everyone did when they were growing up.  The stories from all those days he spent in the field would keep me engrossed for hours.  Even today I can still listen to those same stories with the same enthusiasm and excitement.  Matter of fact during our annual Bow and Muzzle loader hunts we get the old man primed for a night of story telling and it never gets old.

My mom and dad divorced when I was very young and my dad moved from CT to NJ so I didn't get to spend lots of time with him when I was growing up.   The time we did spend together always brought a trip to the water for some trout or bass and during many summer visits even a camping trip.  It was during these visits that I would get to hear the stories from his past fishing and hunting trips and it was those stories that drove my passion to hunt someday.  Stories of hunting the big woods of PA, chasing bucks around the mountains, leaving a buck laying during a blizzard only to return the next day to pick up the rope and continue the long drag out.  Yup, that was the stuff I wanted to do.  My mom didn't hunt but she always took us fishing.  My uncles, mom's brothers, hunted but none had the stories or the experience of the big woods that my dad had.  So at age 12 when I was old enough to take the hunter education class I did and that fall I was participating in my first bowhunting camp in the Delaware Water Gap in NJ.  I still hunt the same area today, some 33 years later,  that I hunted during my first trip.

The deal my mom and dad made was that as long as I kept my grades up and behaved, I would be allowed to take a few extra days off from school to attend hunting camp.  Now I'm pretty sure that this deal is the reason I did well in school and stayed out of trouble because I had been waiting for this for what seemed like a lifetime and there was no way I was going to mess this up.  At 45 the actual details of how I had gotten down to NJ and into camp are a little fuzzy but I'm pretty sure it had to do with a bus trip into NY where my step mother picked me up and drove me up to the gap to join my dad and the crew.  My dad and his friends had been holding this annual bowhunting trip many years before I joined them so they had their usual camp site #18 along the river which include a double outhouse, a nice big tent and the usual gang of misfits.  As we pulled into the campsite that first night all I was more excited than a kid on Christmas morning, man life was good.  My dad's hunting clan consisted of many characters and I use the term characters in honor and love for these guys.  The crew for the annual trip was Harrington, One Eye Mike, big mike, Whitey, Jimmy and Freddy.  Some of the crew also had kids about the same age as me so I had company in Chris and Mike Jr on many of these early trips.  There were a few other stragglers that would come and go but this crew made up the regulars at that time.

With my dad, there is no such thing as easy, but there are shortcuts - well what he calls shortcuts anyway - so don't be surprised when I tell you that our camp was at the bottom of the mountain even though you could come in from the top of the mountain.  Every morning we would get up around 3am and start the lanterns, break ice off the bucket to make coffee and cook up a little breakfast.  Wait, nothing is ever little with my dad so breakfast was usually a full breakfast and it didn't matter if you were hungry or not because you were eating it.  After breakfast we would give that old double outhouse a workout and then gather up our gear and start our long, dark hike up the mountain.  Now because we had such a long hike we would wear very little and carry everything up in backpacks and I mean everything because to quote my dad "you can't use it if you don't have it!".

Once we got to the top of the mountain, we would strip down, dry off and change into our hunting clothes and only then drop off the back side of the mountain to hunt a hollow we referred to as The Hole - I talked about this place and the process of getting to it in an earlier post titled A Little Walk in the Woods.  Anyway, once in the hole we would split up and head into our hunting spots where we would spend the majority of the day until about 2pm before we would head out of the hole back off the top to hunt the front side of the mountain because you didn't want to be in the hole much later than that and try to get a deer out of there.  Getting a deer out of there is a chore and one of the reasons that my dad had an 8point or bigger rule which we routinely ignored.  The rule was simple, if you shoot a deer that was less than 8 points you were on your own and at our age, we didn't care about dragging our deer out with no help.   Normally after our evening hunt we would leave our bows hung in a tree near the top of the mountain so it was one less thing we would need to carry up the next day.  Back at camp everyone would pitch in preparing dinner, building a fire and getting gear ready for the morning.  We would then relax around a camp fire and discuss the days activities and ofcourse listen to some of those old stories and then hit the sack to repeat it the next day.

There are a few things i will never forget from that first trip.  One is the need to collect small pieces of throwing wood.  throwing wood, yup that is what we call a Curtism - It's just the way my dad talks and it doesn't make sense to normal people but we understand it completely.  Anyway you needed throwing wood to use when the skunks came into camp every night.  So when a skunk would come into camp and he wouldn't leave after yelling at him, you threw a piece of wood at him.  The next evening you would gather up your wood again for that nights visit from the skunks.

The second thing I remember is the first time I ever heard a deer bleat. It was the last day of camp and I had stayed in camp that morning to help my dad clean up from breakfast so we would get a little later start which was fine seeing we were going to do an early morning push for the guys.  So after cleaning up from breakfast we headed up to the top of the mountain and found us a nice dead fall that was just on the edge of the mountain and looking down into the hole.  We took a seat on the dead fall and planned to stay there for a bit before starting a push.  I remember it was cold and we even had some snow flurries as we sat on that dead fall enjoying the coming of a new day.  We sat there scanning the woods and talking when all of a sudden I heard it.  Yup, it was a sheep....atleast that is what I thought it was and I even said so to my dad...Then I heard it again and once again asking my dad "Did you hear that sheep?".  He told me to shush and proceeded to tell me that it wasn't a sheep but instead a deer.  Being the young smart guy I was I told him that no it was a deer and that maybe he was getting old.  I've heard sheep before and this was definitely a sheep and I started to laugh at his insistence that it was a deer.  He shushed me again, but this time he put his hand over my mouth and I damn near fell off the dead fall I was sitting on.  Now we were both laughing a little bit but he did his best to quiet me down and convince me it was a deer.  Now you have to understand that I grew up in the city and I really did swear it was a sheep and then all of a sudden out steps this doe just bleating away.  I sat there totally motionless with my mouth wide open.  I can still see that little deer today walking across that flat making her best sheep sounds.

Now I've come a long way since that first hunting trip and we continue to hunt the same area every year including our week long archery trip and our annual muzzle loader trip.  My dad is the only one still hunting with us from his original crew and now me and my friends are the regular crew enjoying time with our kids as well.  Camp has changed a little bit, no tents anymore but pop-up campers instead.  No outhouse, but indoor plumbing and showers.  We still camp at the same campground just not along the wooded sites.  We still walk up the mountain every morning even if we don't hunt "The Hole" every day.  And the best part of all is that I get to continue sharing my love and passion for the whitetail woods with my dad.

Happy Fathers Day dad and thank you for taking the time to tell us those stories and for sharing your passion of hunting.  By the way, did I ever tell you the story about the time...............  :)


  1. Great story.
    We have hunted for 25 years in Pike county PA.
    My son and 4 other buddies, the crew has dwindled down somewhat, with health issues but my son and I still make it there every Monday after Thanksgiving, climb the mountain and have taken our guy for as many years. No closer bonds are made than that made in the deer woods.

  2. What an awesome tribute to Dad! Being the girl in the family obviously makes me dad's favorite, but the bond you and Steven share with him in the woods or in the river is pretty great too!

  3. Brk trt - We hunt the NJ muzzle loader opener on Monday/Tuesday after thanksgiving so you will have to swing over for a visit and some dinner.

    Cheryl - You could've joined us but you'd have to deal with the bugs, dirt and actually getting up way to early...wait, sounds like the same things your niece hates....I'm seeing a trend here.

  4. What a great post! I can relate to a lot of what you wrote. Unfortunately our "deer camp" days seem to have come to an end for now. Hopefully we can get it going again in the future. Excellent post once again and I enjoyed the pictures!