A Week in Hunting Camp: Escape from Illinois
Sometimes, what makes a great day in hunting camp so memorable is the rotten day before it
Editor’s Note: All this week, through Sunday, we are bringing you a series called A Week In Hunting Camp—seven stories in total, each one about a single day (or night) in camp, featuring both original works and a few modern classics from the archives. You can read the first four stories here: Day One, Day Two, Day Three and Day Four.
Day Five: Escape From Illinois
To paraphrase Tolstoy: “All happy days in camp are alike. Each unhappy day in camp is unhappy in its own way.”
My unhappy day in camp began in its own way, not to the sound of my 4 a.m. alarm, but a half hour earlier to that of a lunatic screaming outside my second-floor window: “That’s right you son of a b*tch, you’d better be afraid of me. I’m going kick your ass!” I peeked onto the lawn. The farmhouse had old-fashioned bulkhead cellar doors, and Dan, our outfitter and host, stood in front of them in the dark, quivering with rage.
We were there because mistakes had been made by a certain turkey hunting legend. “I met this nice guy [that would be Dan, the one screaming] at a sports show,” Ray Eye had told me two months earlier. “It’ll be a small camp. Laid back. Just two or three of us in old farmhouse.”
Also, Ray had to pull some strings with the Illinois DNR to get the licenses we hadn’t drawn in their lottery. Eventually, tags were issued, along with an admonition: “Someone had better write a good story about this hunt.”
That someone was me.
After the commotion died down outside, I crept downstairs and joined our group in the dining room. It was Ray, our mutual friend, Peter, and two guys named Tim, who had a TV show. Dan appeared in the doorway, knuckles skinned. He had been fighting with…the water heater. “You know how it is in these old houses,” he said, stepping into the kitchen.
Some old houses also have old refrigerators, which have to be closed just so, as Dan had demonstrated the night before. Otherwise, they swing open. Dan charged back into the dining room, again screaming: “Who didn’t close the g*d d**n refrigerator? It’s not that f***ing hard! Is it? IS IT?”
We tried not to look at the incriminating freshly-opened Diet Coke can in front of one of the Tims.
Ray’s eyes met mine once Dan left the room. “This guy’s got his mother stuffed in the basement,” he muttered.
We finished breakfast as quickly as possibly and then left to hunt the Quarry Farm. Dan would call us if he heard gobbling behind the house. The Quarry Farm, like so many places I have hunted, was advertised as “full of turkeys and hardly ever been hunted.”
At dinner the night before, Dan had given us the rest of the story. “Watch out when you get the gate tomorrow. The tenant has two mean dogs. They bit me last time I went through there. See?” he said, pointing to a large rip in his jeans. Then he added: “If you hear an explosion in the quarry next door, get a big tree between you and the sound of the blast, because it’s about to start raining rocks.”
We made Ray get the gate. He ran, kicking at dogs, swung the gate open, and dashed back to the truck. As we drove in, we could see a shed in the headlights with the words “Danger Dynamite” painted on the side. Cantaloupe-sized rocks littered the ground.
The TV Tims had a sponsor that sold a bullet-resistant Kevlar turkey vest (nothing about this camp wasn’t odd), and they took Ray off into the dark, trying to talk him into letting them film him hunting in it. Peter and I would hunt together. I would shoot, he would call.
The farm was not full of turkeys. Nor was it big. It was a couple of cornfields, cut with wooded draws. Late in the morning, Peter called from one draw and struck a bird in the next. We set up behind a knoll that blocked our view of the cornfield separating the draws. The turkey wouldn’t see us, nor we it, until it was in range. Normally, this isn’t a bad way to set up. But nothing was normal this day.
The tom gobbled hard at everything Peter threw at it. Then a machine started up in the quarry. At the same time, the turkey stopped responding. The silence freaked Peter out: “That bulldozer spooked him, man. We’ve gotta go!” He stood, yanking me to my feet. Now we had a good view of the field, and, very briefly, of the gobbler that was strutting across the stubble right to us. Apparently, it had been unconcerned by the sound of bulldozers—you know, the ones it heard every single day. Before we could react, the tom was running away, taking with it the chance for a hero shot in the magazine story that would spare us the wrath of the Illinois DNR.
Hunting closed at noon. The Tims, having gotten their footage, took their cameras and their Kevlar vest and, not unwisely, left. The three of us had a despondent lunch at a local café, steeling ourselves for the prospect of another night in the lunatic’s house and another morning of hunting the same few birds in the rock-strewn quarry field, hoping that it wasn’t a blasting day next door.
That was my unhappy day in camp, and the reason it’s important is because it’s the bad days in camp that make the great days seem so much sweeter by contrast.
After lunch, Ray remembered that he knew a guy, and the next morning, we joined our new host, Mike, on a bluffside farm overlooking the Illinois River. Mike didn’t bring us to just any farm, either. It was beautiful—truly the mythical farm full of turkeys that acted as if they’d never been hunted.
I shot one of five gobblers surrounding me first thing. Ray killed a bird half an hour later, then went to help Peter and Mike. I stood by the truck, fooling with a box call, and three toms stepped out of the woods to look at me. It was the kind of hunt the Illinois DNR wanted people to read about. I had my story. It was time to escape from Illinois.
The only catch was, I hadn’t thought ahead. My things were still back at the farmhouse. If Dan was there, it might get awkward when I rolled up with a dead turkey in the car. I nosed the rental down the lane, saw that Dan’s truck was gone, and dashed inside to pack and make a clean getaway. The DNR people loved my story. But for their sake, I thought it best to leave my unhappy first day out.