by Eric Vance
The great forests of upper Vermont are not called the "Northern Kingdom" for nothing. The vast woods are unbroken but for occasional farms and small towns as far as the eye can't see in the rolling hilly mountains and valleys - not like the dense briar undergrowth of my native Massachusetts that preclude easy wanderings and hunting on foot. Expansive open hardwood "old growth" broken by huge pine groves allows sportsmen and hikers to cruise uninhibited through some of the most beautiful country in the world. Frequent deadfalls give shelter to deer and other wildlife along the way. This is magnificently punctuated in hunting season by nature's phenomenal pastoral fall foliage.
Tucked away deep in these ancient hills was our hunting camp on the backside of a set of steep hills accessed by a dirt road off the main drag through a tiny farm town. The road is closed through the heavy winter, and sometimes only passable via four-wheel drive when it is open. The cabin was in the middle of a split in the road where it's "one way down" and "one way up" a steep section until the roads rejoin on more navigable ground. The cabin itself could handle about 6 - 8 hunters, with sometimes up to 12 - 14 people coming & going through the first two weeks of the Vermont hunting season. The rough bungalow, stilted on one side over the inner hill, had a 1/2-wrap porch, bare stud walls on the inside, a small kitchen/eating area, main room, and loft. Heat was via a giant inefficient wood stove (affectionately nicknamed "Bad Larry" or "the dragon") that rattled and clanked and showered us with a smoky spark-filled blast when the wind blew strong. Low voltage electrical service, cold running water, and an ancient outhouse completed the scene. A nearby power line conveniently bisects the area, allowing fast and deep acquisition to some heavy country. Although I always take a compass bearing entering unknown territory, a glimpse of the power lines will get you safely out - if you're lucky!
Over a period of about 5 years I hunted these grounds with my friends. "Team Grizzly" consisted of Butch, Giff, Mike & Jimmy, Pete, Joey, Dave, Tony, Tommy, and Rick. They all had been using the camp for many years before me. Butch was our unspoken "fearless leader" - a large man with a large beard, sometimes referred to as "Griz" for obvious reasons. It was Giff, however, who first invited me to the rustic camp. A short guy with white hair, clear perspective, quick humor and quicker temper describe his immediate impressions on me. I hadn't known these guys very long, so I was a bit hesitant that I might be intruding on this crowd. Those fears were quickly dissipated as I suffered as much abuse as everyone else to the humor of all in our turn. Following is a summary of highlights of my memories from those years.
My first trip up-country, I hitched a ride with Joey - not knowing how to get there. We pulled in to find Jimmy (Mike's bigger little brother) sitting at the table grinning with a sandwich in one hand and a beer in the other. With a hearty "Whassssup!" it was game on. Everyone else was in the woods trying their luck, so Joey & I decided to tog up and hit the woods, leaving Jimmy to happily enjoy the privacy of the cabin and keep Bad Larry the dragon fed. We ran a wide parallel up the power lines, agreeing to meet at the top of the hill and regroup if we didn't push anything between us. This should have been a piece of cake. He took the shallow cut off the power lines while I pushed from deeper in. After a tedious crunch through a vast deadfall, the ground opened up into a giant bowl of open hardwood growth. Absolutely breathtaking - nothing like that in the flat lands of my home grounds. No game here, so I headed up the bowl to meet up with Joey. What should have been a pretty clean shot to the top of the hill had brought me to a pasture far from the power lines! I could see the power lines coming from both directions toward the hill, so splitting the difference, I made a beeline for the hill & Joey best I could. No sooner had I thrown caution to the wind than I jumped a nice fat doe. Do I try for a flank & ambush, or keep heading for Joey? Better head for Joey. No Joey - he'd given up on me. I headed out on my own, quickly finding a long horse trail that brought me to a puddle of a pond that looked like a great place to wait for Bambi. With no action and the shadows growing long, I headed back to camp. I hit the road to camp as Dave, Pete, and Joey were coming up the hill discussing whether or not to mount a search - for me! I popped out of the woods with a grand "ta da!” Met with deserved chastisement, I offered up quick apologies for the scare. They had no idea that I was a fair hand at navigating the woods. So much for first impressions on the hunt!
In the wee hours of that night, we woke to the lights on and some ramblings coming from Tommy. We have to understand that Tommy had a hard time in Vietnam, but very well decorated. Making the best of life as left to him, medications sometimes took their toll in dealing with simple necessities. Anyway, there was Tommy all duded up in his Kenny Roberts best ready for a night on the town! It took Butch a good while to convince him that it was time to stay in bed. The next day we watched as Tommy headed off by himself - the guys knowing was only going about earshot away at most. Nonetheless, we were cautious to keep tabs on him. He would not be left out, and his good friends would not leave him out of a good time up-country. I came back about midday from my fun but fruitless efforts to find Mike coming back with Tommy from his "spot". Mike had found him sleeping like a baby against a tree. When aroused, he'd only give his name, rank & serial number, and being startled, reached for his bow as if it were a gun. Fumbling in confusion, he proceeded to roll down the hill into a bee's nest. Mike had a hasty chore ahead to extricate Tommy from the whole scene. Poor Tommy finally realized just where he was and that he was with friends. Needless to say, Tommy did not gun-hunt anymore!
Another outing with Butch took us on different paths to the "orchard" - a place of frequent deer congregations. This day was fruitless, but amusing. I had made my way up through some tough cover to the edge of the orchard and squatted in the bush at the edge to wait for Butch. After a good while, I heard a crashing through the woods on the other side of the clearing. Readying my bow, I thought for sure Butch had pushed a nice fatty my way. Everything was wet from the night before, and instead came Butch, soaked to the gills with a "rassin' flassin' freakin' floos-a-buggerin' sonoffabee..." blasting from his hairy gob. I came out to meet him and he just stood there with a twisted look on his face and said, "How'd you stay dry through all that?” I just said, "I didn't touch anything". That may have been a little less than tactful, as a pronounced growl came from somewhere in his girth.
Back at camp one afternoon, Giff was cooking up boar sausage and thick bacon slabs from one of his other hunts. Mighty good! Some eggs, chunks of bread and beer to wash it down were hearty fare after trolling on foot all day. We all decided to head down to the local bar/restaurant for the evening meal & festivities. This place had character - and characters! A shanty bar with funky old memorabilia, a couple of pool and ping-pong tables, and a limited but tasty menu set the scene. Many drinks and full belly later, Giff and I found ourselves playing ping-pong with a few girls who had abandoned their drunken boyfriends & spousal units - passed out after that day's football game. Giff was pretty lit and eyeing one of the girls with a silly grin. I was pretty lit and having a nice conversation with another. Next thing you know, it's my turn at ping-pong with the girl Giff was entertaining. Now, this girl was playing hard and not getting the best of me. I was just volleying for fun and I made the mistake of saying so. She got pretty riled and said, "don’t do me any favors!” Fine, I'm pretty good at ping-pong and proceeded to decimate her. Later Giff says, "You should have let her win. Now she won't talk to me". I reminded him we were both married and there's no way they were going to leave that bar with us anyhoo. He chuckled and we both agreed we were done for the night.
On a solo expedition, I started off for the orchard early one morning. Sure enough, a big buck and a big doe were standing there browsing. With no shot, I tried to figure the wind and made a play for a closer shot. Bagged, they took off at full sprint down an amazingly steep hill. I pulled a judo arrow for a "what if" shot at where they had been standing. Boink! Right in the sweet spot. Should have taken it even though it was a long one. I looked at where they dashed off to and decided they were only going as far as the stream at the bottom of the hollow. I flanked around nice and wide for a chance at catching them again. The soft ground and pine bed along the stream allowed for quiet, fast movement. I found some huge moose tracks and got distracted by them. All of a sudden, snort - whoosh! The two deer I'd been tracking were just on the other side of a couple of big old pines that obscured my view. As you can tell, I'm not a great hunter and have no patience to hang in a tree. But I sure love to be out there stalking and savoring those fleeting moments of "Am I lost yet?”
One day we all headed out for a "Team Grizzly" push. There were two favorite spots, one called the "5 minute piece" and the other called the "20 minute piece". The 5-minute piece was a logging road that went up a hill to a pasture at the top. Four of us lined the road, while Mike and Giff drove further down to jump in for the actual pushing. This was a first for me. I had the station second up from Tony at the bottom, then Joey, with Rick at the top. In a blaze of gray fur, three deer came screaming out of the woods between Rick & Joey up the hill. I stared bug-eyed as Rick swung his bow at half draw past Joey, and he doing the same toward Rick! I thought fer sure someone's going to the hospital, but it was actually under pretty good control with these guys quite used to how a push can go. The deer got past us, but we found them in the pasture at the top. Again, we lined out at the edge of the woods and tried to flush them back in. Rick and I saw them first. He was standing in a ditch and I was up on a rock with a nice clear 25 - 30 yard broadside shot. I raised my bow to shoot, and Rick brought his hand up and pulled it down. I was furious! I still don't know if he simply wanted the shot himself, or did not trust my marksmanship. I got him good later on the 20-minute piece. No deer were flushed out, but he was one of the pushers, and I had the top station. He came out of the woods toward me. I had good bark camo on top and gray jeans on the legs. I sat nestled between two trees with my legs along the roots and a head net on as Rick walked right up on me. He turned the other way and I gave a light whistle. He turned back to find me and couldn't. This went back & forth until I decided it was enough and moved so he could see me. He tipped his hat and said "Not bad, Eric". I got Giff the same way while standing still in a little "whippit" grove. He walked to within 10 feet without seeing me. When he did, I could see the adrenalin push his eyeballs out. That was cool...
Of the times I went to the camp, only Giff tagged a little deer. It was consumed as camp food almost immediately. It was a heck of shot, though, from a tree stand at sunset. He had no idea just how big or small it was, but had a bead on the critter and it went down in 30 yards. Successful hunts can be elusive, but it's not the taking of game that necessarily makes or breaks it. The camaraderie of camp life and the release of primal instincts suppressed by the demands of urban survival leave us appreciative of nature’s gifts and the desire to return and try again. It's a most rewarding experience.
Butch & Dave have since moved south to warmer climes. Pete & Joey now have kids and don't get out to play much anymore. Mike & Jimmy both have bad shoulders and have backed off the archery for the time being. Rick was actually first to leave our merry band, absorbed in his own set of issues and requiring extended private contemplation. Tony sold his archery equipment and disappeared somewhere. I don't know what became of Tommy - I didn't know him well. Giff was buried on a gray Sunday after a sudden heart attack while playing basketball. He was quite fit, but you just never know. Our hunting camp, along with 6 others, fell to arson by extremist anti-hunters. Only the old outhouse survives - lovingly transported via front-end loader to Mike's new hunting camp, and now enshrined in reinforcing stones.
When I think of those days, it's with a fondness toward a time that shall not be repeated. The punctuation of the burned-out camp leaves a bittersweet taste with the memories, but I wouldn't trade those days for any other time of my experiences. I guess the moral of the story is that nothing is what it seems, and never take anything for granted, for it may not be there tomorrow. There's a hole in my life where Giff once occupied along with wistful thoughts of rough camp life when the sights & smells and voluntary trials & tribulations gave us time to ponder our very existence. An old Indian saying sums up the long epitaph of "We will meet again where the streams run full with fish past the forests of plentiful game and join the mighty river of life under the full moon of the Great Spirit."
“ Sty-ute," Giff.