The Tent People

Every season for the past I5 years my two brothers, my father, my brother-in-law, a few nephews, several random friends, and I have come to this small, primitive camp in the Allegany Mountains of western New York. We bought the land when a paper company sold their vast holdings in these timbered ridges, and many other groups of hunters got parcels surrounding ours. For the first few seasons everyone improvised. They hauled sagging trailers up the access road or squeezed into tiny RVs. Some even slept in the beds of their trucks. My family cleared a spot close to a spring and the road and set up a large canvas wall tent. We heated it with a wood-burning stove that my brother Frank made out of an old 55-gallon barrel. Guys started referring to us as “the tent people.”

Now all the camps surrounding ours have built cabins. They have generators, running water, and appliances powered by propane. We’re still sleeping in the same wall tent. Not that we haven’t made improvements. Over the years we’ve added a “cook shack,” a 12-foot extension from the main tent that gives us a place to prepare meals and store gear. We’ve rigged a shower from a steel garbage can and a garden hose. It’ll get you clean as long as you don’t mind lathering up in plain view of the road. We’ve built portable tables, a nifty shelving unit, and a crude outhouse. Despite all the work we’ve put into it, our camp can’t compete with the cabins when it comes to comfort and convenience.

But here’s the funny thing. At the end of the day, people from the surrounding cabins gather around the fire outside of our tent. We sit on stumps, talking about the hunt and grilling skewered slabs of venison over the coals. Guys wander into the tent, chuckling at the tarp floor and the maze of clothes hung over the stove. They joke about how close the cots are to each other and complain about the pungent odor of smoke, muddy boots, and wet wool. Yet they always sit down with a cup of whiskey, and they’re never in a hurry to head to their own beds.

Comfort isn’t the most important measure of a good deer camp–camaraderie is, and sometimes you need to strip away modern conveniences in order to get it. Whether they acknowledge it or not, every hunter on our mountain seems to agree. I know on November 22, my family will be back in those cots, enduring that old camp smell. We wouldn’t want it any other way.