F&S Classic: Good Deer Camps Never Die

You can’t break up real hunting buddies, even after the last buck comes off the mountain.

gooddeercamps
Good Deer Camps Never Die
Many authors and prospective authors send unsolicited manuscripts (or attachments) to Field & Stream, hoping that the editors might like their story, might even publish it. This is one of those - a rare gem that simply appeared in the mail one day. The editors thought it was a strong story and published it in December 2006; readers, in turn, also loved it, and sent letters of praise to the New York offices. Many readers had similar stories. Perhaps you do to. This is the only piece Dave Mance has ever sold to Field & Stream; it's heartfelt and compelling. If you belong to a deer camp, and that camp is on leased property, Mance's story hits a special nerve. Click here to read Mance's "Good Deer Camps Never Die."

Vermont has seen its share of change in the past 40 years, but Glastenbury Mountain is still wild enough. I have hunted there, out of Ed Colvin's camp, since I was 14. The camp is a 16x20 shanty constructed in six hours in 1969, built on a 30-inch hemlock that was felled for the foundation. Time has eroded the slope and the hemlock, causing the structure to list inward until it looks as if the mountain is slowly swallowing the cabin whole.

The way in is an old skid road more vertical than not. On good days, the ride entails dented skid plates and abused suspensions. On bad days, you need winches and manpower. Around the camp is a forest full of wilderness. There's not a lot of forage and so there's not a lot of deer; then again, there's not a lot of people, there's not a lot of noise, there's not a lot of problems. You could lose yourself up here, and I mean that both ways.

We opened camp last year on the third Friday in November after a trip in that didn't go so well. Old Ed, now a whisker shy of 80, had driven in alone and blew a tire somewhere before the forks. On account of a boulder-strewn ride and ears that weren't quite what they used to be, he rode another half mile or so before the crumpled rim finally snagged enough to make the problem apparent.

Andy Crosier, Ed's son Eddie Jr., and I pulled up behind his jeep. Ed had been idling for half an hour or so, too cold to get out of the truck. We'd told him to wait for us before heading into camp, not realizing then that he had something to prove. Blowing out a tire and waiting helplessly was not a part of the plan, and as we approached his vehicle, his sour face let us know this.

A curt exchange followed, Ed stubbornly insisting that he resume the journey on a donut tire, which soon became a mutilated donut tire. Ed Jr. and Andy headed down the mountain in search of a spare, while Ed and I walked the rest of the way to the cabin.

We managed it slowly, his left hand tight against my forearm, his right hand white-knuckled around the barrel of his .30/06 that he wielded like a cane. It was an old Model 721 with a cut-down barrel and a peep sight--a jump gun, for hunting bucks like rabbits. The gun had probably slain 20 or so deer in its day, but I was quite sure it hadn't been fired in the last 10 years.

"There's nothing in the chamber, is there?" I asked, trying but failing for a tone that was unmotherly.

He shot me a what-do-you-think? look and said, "No. But when that big buck deer comes running off that hill there will be."

In camp, the air smelled like mice and lamp oil and cold. Ed donned his old-man slippers--corduroy with hard soles--then unloaded the pack basket I'd carried in for him. On the metal nightstand near his bed he placed his .38 pistol, a fifth of single malt Scotch, a Monday through Sunday plastic container filled with horse pills of every color, a collection of newspaper clippings he fancied, and a bottle to pee in during the night. We got the fire going, and I left to shuttle groceries from the vehicle to the cabin.

A few hours later, snow began to fall against the day's last light. The boys were still in town, struggling to get a new tire when most men were in the hills deer hunting. The camp was warm, the woodstove gulping air and popping like a two-cylinder engine. Ed fumbled with an AM radio, settling on an oldies station, and soon faraway voices crackled through tiny speakers. When the groceries were in and the water gathered and the onions and the chicken livers fried and the coffee perked and the stew set to simmer, Ed began to tell stories about Werner and Sam Sanbourne, Bear Cub Don, and Ray Crosier, all of his old hunting buddies. Above each bunk still hung a placard adorned with these men's names, even though some had been gone for 20 years, even though all were ghosts relegated to -existence through tall tales.

Ed told me about the time he and Ray shot a big 8-pointer and tracked him up and over the Dome, then dragged the buck for half the night back to camp. When he finished the story, his look was a long ways off. On the wall was a hand-carved sign that commemorated their years of deer hunting and playing cribbage together. It read LOSER DEALS, 1940-1990, ED & RAY.

"Take it down and look at the back," said Ed. There was a note scrawled there: "When I die give this to Edwin Colvin." I didn't know if it was funny or sad or both. I didn't know if I should smile.

In the morning the wind buffeted the camp with hard, pointy snow as black yielded to a cold blue. Andy and Eddie, after a tire-fetching debacle too lengthy to repeat, had gotten into camp well after dark. Both would snore loudly well past sunup. Beneath my bunk Ed stirred restlessly, the chill like a parasite in his insulin-thinned blood. He would wait until the camp warmed before rising. I slid gingerly to the floor and rekindled the fire, then lit a gaslight that cast a soft halo upon the cookstove.

Jamie Crosier, Andy's son, had also gotten into camp late but was a serious enough hunter that sleep would always wait. He rose groggily and padded stiffly across the worn wooden floor. We threw together a batch of drop biscuits and fried them in bacon grease, then ate a quick breakfast and slipped quietly into the breaking day.

Standing together before the inclement dawn, we discussed the day's hunting plans. Then Jamie told me that young Eddie had put the camp on the market. He'd only just learned. It was news that didn't surprise me but was still unexpected.

"Why?" I asked, already knowing the answer.

"He said his dad's too old for this, and he doesn't like hunting enough to justify the taxes," Jamie replied, snow already sticking to his green wool flannel, brow furrowed in the half-light. He filled his lip with tobacco and spat darkly into the snow. I didn't know what to say so we left it at that, each of us trudging into the blue on a hunt that suddenly felt like one last hurrah.

The Glastenbury wilderness is big country, thousands of acres of yellow birch and pine, stone and sky. You track deer in country like this--there's really no other way to hunt them. Despite icy gusts of wind that felt like birdshot against my face, it was a perfect day for just such a hunt. Six inches of snow coated everything, bending the tree limbs to the ground. The bucks, which had been running does all night long, made one last move.

I came across a track about a half mile north of camp, ragged and ambiguous in the fluffy snow. The gait seemed decent and it was lone, perhaps a good buck. It was worth following, at least until it clarified itself or led to something more sure.

An hour into things, with a head still dwelling on the news of the camp being sold, I jumped the buck from his snowy bed and watched helplessly as he bounded off. He was a wide-racked 8-pointer with tannin-stained horns, his neck swollen and round as a hog's. He stopped in a thicket of saplings and moose bush, showing only his nose, eyes, and the slightest bit of neck. I didn't want to chance a shot through the brush, so I opted instead for a prayer shot at his exposed throat. I missed him clean and he ran for the top.

I ran with the deer as he bounded up the mountain, then slowed my pace as his tracks became more measured. He led me through cathedral fir forests, birch glades, and soggy mountain bogs, up rocky cobbles and down sheer hillsides. He zigzagged, circled, backtracked, leapt at right angles over fir tangles to lose me. We spent the day this way, him waiting for me to tire and give up, me waiting for him to make a mistake.

Hours into the chase, I felt the deer, a sensation that only a hunter can understand. The hair on my neck tingled. I tensed, ready. A long-dormant instinct glowed in a largely unused corner of my being, and for a fleeting moment I became a true predator, more animal than man. The buck had been watching his backtrack, waiting for me. He took off fast and flat, head down. I took the shot I'd visualized throughout the day. The bullet caught him on his third bound, and he didn't leap again.

Evening falls hard and cold in Glastenbury, especially with underwear soaked with sweat and blood drying on bare arms. Viscera removed, prayers said, I drained the cavity one last time, sat back in the snow, and wiped my knife clean. The wind promised more snow and carried the shrill cry of a night bird. The reality of the drag set in. Aided by snow and a largely downhill course, I made decent time for the next hour or so. As I struggled, I thought of Ed and Ray dragging an 8-pointer like this down the same mountain 45 years ago. It seemed like the beginning of this end.

Night fell and I rested against the deer, heart pounding in my chest, the glow of the kill still there but tempered by the drag. The scent of sweat, tarsal glands, and blood tinged the mountain air. Three signal shots rang in the distance. I pictured Ed in the doorway, concern etched on his weathered face. For some reason I thought of my own crow's-feet that I'd recently noticed for the first time. An hour later, I was back in camp to the whoops and hollers of all the boys. By lantern light we hung the buck from a gnarled beech. Jamie gave me a hug and a bemused look that said, Perfect moments like this don't happen in real life. Ed removed the kill chart from above the doorway and dutifully enshrined my accomplishment. He changed my name to "Second Chance Mance" and wrote "8-pointer" in trembling script. There was a toast to the fallen deer and a moment of silence, then, pretty much constant noise well into the night.

Such nights are fleeting if incomparably joyous. As the hours passed, drink swirled and cheerful voices rose and someone danced an impromptu jig, and every time we went outside a heavy-racked buck deer hung against snow drops like so many falling stars. We were six months from the camp being sold, major medical issues, someone getting laid off, and a number of other real-world ills. But on this night, the inescapable feeling of time marching on was irrelevant.

"Tell me how you jumped him," said Ed as we all sat around the table, his eyes colored with Scotch and pride, his voice youthful and bold. I looked into the faces of my friends and hunting partners. I've hunted with these boys for 16 years. "Tell me how you jumped him," repeated Ed, and behind him I saw Ray and Bear Cub Don and Werner--black-rimmed glasses and glowing cigars--all of them standing patiently in the background, waiting for me to speak. It was the last time we'd all sit in camp together, but this memory will survive. In a way, we'll be sitting there forever.