Laura Dean Bennett
Around these parts, November brings us two high holidays – Thanksgiving and deer season – and I don’t need to tell you which is more sacred.
For deer hunters, there’s no better time of the year. And for those hunters, the holiest rite of deer season is going to deer camp.
It’s dreamed about and prepared for all year long.
For old-timers and experienced hunters, deer camp evokes special memories of years gone by.
For first-time hunters, the fellowship of deep camp is like a legendary club they have waited since childhood to be invited to join.
Deer camp can have four perfectly good walls and a roof that never leaks, indoor plumbing, a fully functional kitchen and good beds or it can be the most basic cabin in the woods.
It can even refer to a tent with sleeping bags on the ground.
It’s not the specifics of the accommodations that makes deer camp special, it’s the camaraderie of the hunters who have, for years, frequented it.
It’s the stories and tall tales that have originated there.
Of course, besides the scent of gun oil, the best smells emanating from deer camp come from the cooking.
After all, the best thing about spending time in the woods with a bunch of burly hunters is the fact that you get to eat real camp food cooked by one of the deer campers himself.
There’s usually a designated cook.
This would be someone who has, in the past, demonstrated the ability to aggressively rebuff creative cooking suggestions and pointed criticism about his cooking and turn out, on a regular basis, food that has seldom caused any permanent damage.
As anyone who has enjoyed cuisine prepared and/ or consumed outdoors. knows, there’s no better food in the world.
It has only to be hot, filling and made with large amounts of meat to be acceptable on the menu at deer camp.
No worries about diet restrictions or portion control – this is food for real men who are about to go out and do battle with the elements.
Gallons of strong coffee and big breakfasts, followed by easy-to-pack-into-a-deer stand sandwiches are what’s on the daytime menu.
And, of course, evenings at deer camp are always a social and culinary extravaganza of excess.
I have heard tell that there may be a few members of the occasional deer camp who might partake of a few spirited libations on occasion.
This may or may not be true.
However, I am assured that such is the case.
Before, during and after the evening meal – which will consist of bountiful helpings of carefully prepared meat and potatoes, followed by camp style desserts – there’s bound to be lively discussion about the attributes of various hunting rifles and equipment, complete with show-and-tell.
There will also be a certain amount of creative license being taken with hunting stories from the past.
In fact, I’m told that many of the yarns spun at hunting camp bear little or no resemblance to the truth.
Young and inexperienced hunters or anyone new to said deer camp may expect that a few practical jokes might be played at their expense.
Card games will probably also follow the meal – or should I say – will definitely follow the meal.
The games, storytelling and general debauchery may last long into the night.
Of course, some folks at deer camp will take their hunting quite seriously and get out on their trail or up in their stand at first light, sit tight all day, and be able to give a credible accounting of their hunt when they get back to camp at night.
Some will even bring back a big buck.
Naturally, when any of the hunters bring a kill back to camp, everyone will gather around to inspect the prize and offer congratulations.
Grandfathers, fathers and sons – and daughters – will bond with each other as the hunt progresses, the older generation passing along the ancient tradition and culture of hunting down to a new generation.
I hate to say it, but in my family, we never really had a deer camp.
When we went hunting, it was early to bed the night before and up early in the morning and out the door on my granddad’s farm outside Clintonville in Greenbrier County.
There was no card playing, cigar smoking, rowdy guys getting together to swap hunting stories – just me and Granddad.
The preceding days, would have been spent cleaning the rifles on the front porch.
I’d listen to Granddad discuss where on the farm we’d be hunting and reviewing the safety measures we’d need to follow.
He’d drummed into me how to carry a rifle, how to load it and unload it and never to point it at anything you are not intending to shoot.
We’d have practiced target shooting out back behind the barn until Granddad was reasonably assured that I might be counted on to make an accurate shot.
To us, back in those days, hunting was less about bragging rights or bagging a trophy and way more about putting meat in the freezer.
The .22 rifle that was mine to use at Granddad’s was a symbol of the trust that Granddad was placing in me.
It was a symbol of the fact that a torch was being passed down to me; that I had arrived and was old enough now to be considered a hunter.
Hunting was a way for us to spend time with each other in an annual ritual which brought us closer together, although this was never something that we discussed.
I was never expected to bring down a deer. That was something that Granddad would do.
The only game I ever managed to bring down were groundhogs.
But, groundhogs or deer, it was all meat destined for the cook pot.
I learned how to skin and dress it and the best way to cook it.
Sometimes the weather might have been mild, but in my memories, it was always bitter cold. I remember hunkering down by the base of a tree as snow fell all around. I’d spend the day crouching low to the ground, with nothing to eat but a cold sandwich.
When it got late enough, or Granddad had gotten his deer, he’d come by for me, and we’d head back.
The lamp light in the windows was always a welcomed sight as we’d make our way to the house where a warm meal waited on the wood stove.
My deer camp may not have been as boisterous as others were, but the lessons Granddad imparted to me during those long-ago fall days of Thanksgiving week have never been forgotten.
Granddad rarely, if ever, said he loved me, but he took me hunting.