Daddy Deer Camp

Daddy Deer Camp
I'm like a lot of hunting dads, I bet. I have access to a great piece of land, but there's no overnight option. Neither fancy lodge nor bargain-basement shack. I have a great hunting spot. What I don't have is a hunting camp. So this year, I tried an experiment. Instead of whining about my lack of a Pennsylvania-styled deer camp, I'd make the most of what I did have. I found a nifty little mom-and-pop motel just a couple miles from my lease, locked down a couple of nights when the kids were out of school for teacher workdays, and laid plans for a do-it-yourself Daddy Deer Camp. Hunting with your kids, especially when they are this young--my daughter, Markie, is 12; Jack is 9--is about so much more than pulling the trigger anyway. With soccer, swimming, and church activities blacking out so much of the calendar, I've learned you have to schedule times with your kids to guarantee that you'll get it. At least, I do. So off we went to Daddy Deer Camp, where we learned that what you wind up with on a hunting trip may--or may not--be what you were after. The plan was to take Markie down one afternoon, hunt the next morning, then trade her out for Jack at midday. (Thankfully, gas prices were dropping!) We checked in at Becky's Log Cabin Motel, straight out of Leave It To Beaver. Clean as a whistle, enough room in a standard double to shoe a horse, the gray-haired lady at the front desk called Markie "sugar," and the tab was $45 a night. This is what is still right with America.T. Edward Nickens
Daddy Deer Camp
First up: A little landowner relationship building. I leased this land for its deer herd and stunning bottomland forests, but over the years my kids and I have become such friends with the landowners that I'm not sure what they enjoy more: hanging out with Dad in a treestand or riding with Mrs. Edie Pie in her golf cart. I've learned to build in a hour or two in each hunt to go check on the chickens, pet the horses, and visit with the Wilkins. We're lucky to have found a great place to hunt so close to where we live, and doing it this way has led to a rich harvest--not only of game, but of friendships. Dang nice.T. Edward Nickens
Daddy Deer Camp
On Markie's first afternoon we took a drive through the farm, with a bonus. Melvin Wilkins is in failing health, but on this sunny Sunday afternoon he was feeling downright chipper. We were able to take him to parts of his land that he hadn't seen in years.T. Edward Nickens
Daddy Deer Camp
At the chicken house we found the persimmon trees bent over with ripe fruit. Made me think the deer might have a sweet tooth, as well.T. Edward Nickens
Daddy Deer Camp
Markie's not too thrilled about using scent-free shampoo on her tresses, but to her credit she gets into the idea that there are ways for a human to erase some of the trappings of human-ness. The scent-free soaps, cover scents, and camouflage are part of a big game to the kids. For them, it's like taking a videogame to the next level. And I'm pretty sure that a snort full of Markie's everyday scent--a mix of mango, mint, and various tropical oils guaranteed to keep a pre-teen's skin glowing--would turn a whitetail inside out.T. Edward Nickens
Daddy Deer Camp
I know this will sound crazy to rural folks, but other dads trying to raise outdoor kids in a city or suburban area will understand this completely: My kids love some of the most simple, most mundane minor aspects of spending time in the woods. Unlocking a farm gate. Waiting on a tractor to pull over to the side of a path. Riding on the tailgate. These elements of rural life are a part of the pageant of farm life that is largely alien to them. Each time I lament the fact that my kids don't live in a rural setting, I try to tell myself that at least they are learning not to take it for granted. To feel that having access to open country is a privilege, and worth fighting for. I hope I'm not deluding myself.T. Edward Nickens
Daddy Deer Camp
Here's our beloved Two Man, one of two buddy stands on the property. It's hard to describe how many whispered dreams have been shared in this stand, how many father-child connections have been made that I hope carry Markie, Jack, and I through what are sure to be some choppy waters as they grow up. Sitting up there, it feels like we're held aloft in the arms of a giant white oak. Hour after hour passes, shoulder to shoulder with my kid.T. Edward Nickens
Daddy Deer Camp
It's a sweet spot. We look out over a large field in one direction, and open woods bordered by a thicket in the other. And we've had some great success from this stand.T. Edward Nickens
Daddy Deer Camp
Markie saw this 8-pointer first, with less than 2 minutes of shooting light left. I let her call the shot, not pulling the trigger until she told me when she thought the timing was right.T. Edward Nickens
Daddy Deer Camp
She insisted on helping get the deer out of the woods. Dragging a buck out with her old man. Will there every be a time when she might understand what a thrill that was for me? I can only hope. Point is, there's plenty to look at from the Two Man. Most days.T. Edward Nickens
Daddy Deer Camp
Long moments of quiet seem to spawn some of the most meaningful conversations I have with Markie and Jack. Shoot, just driving back and forth to the farm is 45 minutes of togetherness that I've come to cherish. All right, enough treestand philosophizing. What'd we shoot? Nothing. Never saw a deer. The adrenalin highlight of the hunt came when a big bobcat scooched out on a log maybe 60 feet away. Markie goes nuts over any kind of wild cat--tiger paraphernalia makes her bedroom look a funky cross between an African safari camp and a Tiger Beat magazine cover--and she was enthralled with this up-close-and-personal look at a predator. For 20 minutes that bobcat stretched and yawned, basking in the sun, giving itself a bath, lolling about. Very cool.T. Edward Nickens
Daddy Deer Camp
And what the morning lacked in deer, it more than made up for in sweet potatoes. I was a little bummed about the lack of ungulate action on our first Daddy Deer Camp hunt. All we shot were a couple of fire ant nests and a pine cone with her .410. When I next checked my email, though, Markie had sent me this note:"hey daddy i had sooo much fun on our hunting trip this morning! Can we get our pinecone head stuffed? it was huge and tons of people will want to see it, i know for sure : ) Pretty sweet, huh? And Markie did tell my wife that seeing that bobcat up close "was worth about a million 10-point bucks." I'll count Day One a success. Pine cone quartered and in the cooler, we blasted back to Raleigh. Jack was tapping his toes, ready for his turn at Daddy Deer Camp.T. Edward Nickens
Daddy Deer Camp
Jack's an altogether different kind of hunter than Markie. While she's in the game for the unexpected surprises, he's all about traditions and rituals. He loves "pinning in" at the Hog Barn, the old farm shed where we keep an aerial map of the lease. He wants to eat BBQ at the White Swan every trip. No other place will do. He's practiced quick-releasing his seat belt buckle so he can squirrel into the front seat the instant the front tires hit the gravel road.T. Edward Nickens
Daddy Deer Camp
I'm not too worried about the long-term health of the hunting gear industry as long as there are guys like Jack around. He's into gear, big-time. Every widget and whistle. He thinks he's the captain of Team Realtree. I sure wish he'd let me use my binoculars every now and then.T. Edward Nickens
Daddy Deer Camp
We have a 3/4 mile hike through big bottomlands to get to our first stand. I'm slowly weaning the kids to get used to walking in the dark. We use flashlights only when we have to. Otherwise, full stealth mode. It's as much to keep from busting deer as it is to help Markie and Jack understand that the woods, dark or light, are nothing to be scared of.T. Edward Nickens
Daddy Deer Camp
I'm deer hunting, but here's what's on Jack's To Do list--an eastern fox squirrel, like this bruiser on the left. Look at the size of that thing! When you're a kid, fox squirrel hunting is like gunning for warthogs in the trees. They look like they could carry you off into their leaf nests and keep you like slaves, forcing you to pick fleas off their young. Jack wants one so-o-o-o-o bad. I shot this one a couple years ago, and that's Jack's first--and only--gray squirrel on the right. I wish he weren't so goal-oriented, but it does make it fun.T. Edward Nickens
Daddy Deer Camp
In the blind, we take turns shedding our vests for a quick scent-killer tune-up. Jack insists on a near full-body rubdown every time. "We're hunting, Dad," he says. "This is serious."T. Edward Nickens
Daddy Deer Camp
He's come a long ways since his first hunt, on this same farm, in the snow. He fell dead asleep clutching his Daisy BB gun.T. Edward Nickens
Daddy Deer Camp
But even then I told him that hunting and fishing were tickets, of sorts. For parents and their children, chasing fins and feathers can open doors to some pretty far-flung places. Even if they're close to home. On any other snowy morning, we might have been floundering around the house in our PJs. But in the two hours since sunrise we'd tracked deer and rabbits and squirrels and seen the woods dressed up like never before. Even home ground can be an exotic place. It's a matter of perspective.T. Edward Nickens
Daddy Deer Camp
On our first afternoon we watched two does feed in the open woods. Right at dark, a nice 6-point buck strutted in. I had to laugh. He looked just like some starter quarterback in high school, ripped and bulletproof, strolling into the chicks like God's gift to the animal kingdom. If only he'd known I had his heart in my crosshairs. But I passed. He'd better smarten up before next year, Jack said. Yep. And that was it. Dark and darker. We headed back to the motel for a night of lounging in the sack, watching WWE Smackdown till the Sandman put us both in a sleeper hold. Overnight, gullywashers swept in. Still, we hunkered down in the morning stand as buckets of rain poured, only to clear out right as we had to leave.T. Edward Nickens
Daddy Deer Camp
Walking back to the Hog Barn, as the clouds opened up to blue skies, we knocked out a few glamour shots. I gasped when I saw this picture. In one snapshot I could see at once the little boy who has already changed the way I hunt and why I hunt and how I measure a day in the field. And I can see the outlines of the man who I hope walks with my through untold woods to come.T. Edward Nickens
Daddy Deer Camp
We wound up with exactly nothing to show for our three-day hunt except for memories of the first annual DIY Daddy Deer Camp that will last forever. And reservations at Becky's Log Cabin Motel for next year's hunt. Markie and Jack agree: This is one tradition to keep going.T. Edward Nickens

When you can't bring your kids to a deer camp, try bringing the camp to them. Editor-at-Large T. Edward Nickens reports on the creation of a family tradition -- and how it's helping his son and daughter grow up to appreciate the outdoors.