Deer Camp Memories
When I was a kid, I was a Boy Scout, and I had many adventures as a result of my association with that wonderful organization. We had a great scout master, Lyle Rexford Huyck, but we all called him Rex. He had been a drill instructor in the navy and he transferred a lot of his knowledge and abilities into his role as our leader. He was a no nonsense sort of guy when it came to scouting, but he tempered that with a good sense of humor. Thanks to him, I could hardly wait for the meeting to roll around each week to see what we were going to be doing.
When I turned 14, I became an Explorer Scout, and scouting got kicked up a notch. We went on a number of trips, and we attended jamborees. We went to the east coast several times. We went to Boston and did a tour of the historical sites there including touring the USS Constitution. We took a side trip to Lexington and Concord. But the thing I liked best each year that we went to the coast was we would go out on a party boat to do some deep sea fishing. We caught a heap of fish that none of us had ever caught before. It was fantastic.
In addition, most of us Explorers took our hunter safety training together and got our junior licenses. Often several of us would get together with an adult to go hunting. It all seemed to be a natural outgrowth of our scouting experience. Many times some of us would hunt with Rex and his son, Dale, who was also an Explorer, but hunting opportunities abounded in those days, and there was always an adult that was willing to get us out. Once we turned 16, we often hunted together in groups of two up to as many as six at a time.
Thanks to Rex and Dale, I had the chance to hunt deer out of an honest to God deer hunting camp located on a farm near Deposit, New York. Rex’s in-laws owned the farm, and there was a small cabin that had been built near the woods in the back lot. For three years, Rex and several of the Explorers transformed the cabin into a deer camp. I was 16 the first year I hunted there, and it was where I shot my first deer. In my mind, I can see that deer as clearly today as I did the morning I shot it, but what I remember most is the camp.
The cabin was small, roughly 16 feet by 20 feet, and there was nothing fancy about it, no insulation, no running water, and no electricity. It had a metal covered roof that kept out the rain, and the sides, though uninsulated and unpainted, were sealed well enough that the wind never found its way in. There were three small windows, and there was an even smaller window in the door. It was possible to look in every direction for any deer that might come wandering by while we were enjoying the relative comfort of the inside of the cabin.
There were six bunk beds along two walls. I always seemed to end up with an upper bunk, but I didn’t mind. There was a wooden table and four wooden chairs; if we had a full complement of six in camp, there were a couple of folding chairs under one of the bunks.
We had an old kitchen wood stove that we cooked on and it doubled as our source of heat when the weather was cold. It was often also the reason for sweaty bodies when the weather was warm. The stove was part of the reason for the cabin being a hunting camp, not just some quaint little getaway in the woods. It was the odors that tagged the camp for what it was and they remain indelibly etched in my memory.
Here’s what I remember. Once the deer camp was up and running, the first thing that hit you as you came through the door was the overarching smell of wood smoke (when you came home from deer camp you usually smelled for all the world like a ham). It didn’t matter what time of day or night it was, there would also be the lingering smell of bacon that had been cooked each morning before the eggs were slipped into the hot fat. Coffee that had been boiled on the stove added to the aromatic patina of the camp. Those were the good things.
As the days went by, sweaty long underwear, which doubled as pajamas and was seldom changed, began to radiate cosmic rays as well as a strangely sweetish addition to the atmosphere of the camp. Boots drying behind the stove and wet socks draped over the end of bunks in hopes they would dry before time to go hunting in the morning each did their part in creating an odor that is hard to forget.
Once those things were flavoring the air the hunters were breathing, a few other items could be added. Most years someone would bring a brick of limburger cheese, which if eaten up quickly only added a momentary spike in the toxicity of the camp vapors, but the wrapper with the scrapings from the rind often ended up in the paper trash bag in the corner, and for days hunters would comment how the smell of that cheese had lingered on. If a deer was shot early in the season, liver and onions frying in a cast iron pan on the stove would add another layer.
The variety, quality, and volume of the food and drink being consumed often led to intestinal problems which were often relieved in the evening, producing gasps, groans, shouts and inane chuckling as one more gaseous substance was added to the already burdened air. Fortunately this addition quickly dissipated, unfortunately it could be pretty much counted on to be reintroduced each ensuing evening. You have to remember, we were just boys.
By the end of just the first week, a deer camp would have usually taken on enough olfactory markers that any deer hunter with deer camp experience could identify it blindfolded just standing outside the door. I will say, leaving camp for my stand in the morning, I hardly noticed any odor in the building, but upon returning later in the day after hunting in the fresh air, I became acutely aware of what would eventually find a forever place in my memory. I wouldn’t want you to think that was the only thing that impressed me; I have other memories of deer camp as well, but I will come back for them another day.