Column: I’m Back in That Adirondack Deer Camp

Wednesday, October 08, 2014
It was the rustling of leaves around my feet that did it.

One of the great joys of being old (and there are many, in spite of what you may have heard or read) is the easy access to memories. Probably the main reason old folks spend so much time recalling them, in the manner of the Ancient Mariner, is that the lode is so rich, compared to what veins may or may not lie ahead. And somehow the most disagreeable of them, though never forgotten, fade in significance, while the happy ones remain, often in minutest detail.

Much of my normal walk in the local park is through hemlocks; not much rustling there. But when I’m passing through birch, maple and red oak (acorns hitting the ground like tiny meteorites), the desiccated leaves, ankle-deep, produce a very satisfying swish; and memories float up from them as evanescent and fertile as spores from dry puffballs.

That swish was once the sound of cross-country season. You could tell if anyone was close behind you by his footfalls in the soft maple leaves: how tall he was, and who it was likely to be. But the leaves hid a multitude of hazards — roots and rocks — and after a rain were slippery.

But today it was the sound and smell of deer season, a sacred liturgy in the high peaks of the Adirondacks, whence I had retreated about 60 years ago to get over puberty. With the leaves off the trees, we could see farther into the hardwoods, where deer and bear rooted greedily for acorns and beech nuts. But the rustling also betrayed both prey and predator to each other, in spite of how carefully we tried to tread.

The old man and I first met during the execution of an illegal escapade, and took almost immediately to each other. He invited me to his deer camp, from which I hunted for 50 years, even long after his death. The memories of that camp that I carry with me remind me sadly of the adage that when an old person dies, a library burns.

There was a beautiful open grove of red oak on a ridge about a quarter-mile above camp, and the deer loved it. The trail to the mountain behind the ridge passed right over it, and gave easy access to a view into the oaks. But the leaves underfoot made it almost impossible to approach noiselessly. So the old man leaned a grass rake against a tree beside the trail, and every day or two swept the trail clear, leaving us bedrock granite and soft, brown duff to sneak over on the way up.

I think he lived to hunt. Perhaps that was because, during the Depression, he’d hunted to live, and never got over it. Trivial matters like game laws were mere nuisances; his reputation was notorious, but his record, as far as I know, was clear.

In those days long before laser sights, electronic motion detectors, game cameras and drones, the old man’s gadgets — and the energy he put into making and deploying them — were inspiring. For hunting in what he called “poor light,” he’d made a tubular device that clamped a five-cell flashlight to the barrel of his ancient Savage 99.

A long-abandoned logging camp just above his camp had a birch tree that he designated an apple tree. He scattered crushed, smelly cider apples around its base and enclosed them with a circle of piano wire about 18 inches off the ground. The circle was connected by another long wire to a tin can hanging in his privy and holding a few pebbles. Between the privy and the cider apple tree, he’d cut an almost indiscernible clear field of fire. Sitting snug in his privy, he waited for the rattle of the pebbles and then switched on the deadly five-cell.

By tacit consent, all of that was his business, not mine. I remember better the little details of camp life: the cold water faucet left running all night just before the hard freeze killed it; the glorious aromas of fresh-perked coffee and frying bacon in the darkness before dawn; the ticking of the box stove warming up in the morning; the hair-raising brook crossing —five men in a 1947 Jeep, bouncing like Keystone Cops; old Bob, not-long-for-this-world’s terrible early-morning ritual of coughing and clearing his throat outside on the porch, followed by the metallic click of his Zippo lighter and a deep drag on his first cigarette; and the old man’s high-speed Catholic grace before each meal: “Bless us, O Lord, for these thy gifts. ... May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercies of God. ...” It all ran together at the end, before, “Ay-men.”

Over it all brooded the snow-coated mountains, utterly silent except for the occasional squawk of a blue jay, the cackle of a pileated woodpecker, soft tapping of a downy on a dead beech, or the tiny chatter of a band of chickadees foraging through the brush. I trudged to my assigned beat or watch. I would stand at the old beech log (after a few years, rotted to only a memory, but still a place to go to), trying my best not to move a muscle and yet not freeze to death till somebody or something came through.

That’s the joy of old age I was talking about earlier: that I can enjoy those memories now at least as much as I did while making them. And all because of a few oak leaves rustling about my feet on a cool, quiet afternoon in my favorite park

Willem Lange’s column appears here every Wednesday.

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