Light in the Wilderness
No matter how primitive, hunting camps offer more than a place to rest.
By Henry Chappell
In dry, open country, canted light makes a good camp. My old friend Brad Carter and I pulled off a Bureau of Land Management road in the desert grassland in southeastern Arizona. We unloaded bird dogs, uncased our shotguns and prepared for a midafternoon hunt. We’d chosen camp simply by stopping to hunt. Why look further? This patch of desert would serve as well as any of the surrounding million acres.
The dogs were already panting. We put on sunglasses, rolled up our sleeves and started across a country of sand, volcanic rock, mesquite, creosote, prickly pear and cholla.
An hour later, the two dogs had drunk nearly all of their water. We’d found no birds. Our shirts seemed to be growing salt crusts.
Brad’s Brittany, Dee, came in limping. We had several days of hunting ahead, so Brad and Dee headed back to the truck. Molly, my German shorthaired pointer, and I hunted on. For the next hour or so we moved nothing but jackrabbits.
By the time we turned back, the afternoon light had taken on an encouraging angle. A mile or so from camp, Molly pointed the remains of a burned-out Ford pickup. Sure enough, a small covey of blue quail flushed out the passenger-side window. I missed with both barrels.
We didn’t pursue the singles. A staunch point seemed a perfect way to end the hunt. Besides, we were out of water.
I found Brad in camp, his camera on a tripod and fixed on the setting sun as it touched the tips of desert mountains 30 miles away. He’d gathered a few sticks of firewood. Now, in the rich light, I could see where we’d lay our tarp and sleeping bags.
About then, we noticed small flocks of mourning doves flying out of the sun, directly over our camp, heading for a tiny, yucca-ringed water hole we’d passed earlier in the day. We walked a quarter of a mile and found roosting doves in numbers I couldn’t begin to estimate. Thousands, certainly, packed in the trees thick as oak leaves. They fluttered about as we approached, but didn’t leave. We stood quietly until they calmed, and there was only the soft sound of their preening. We headed back to our own chosen roost, built a small fire and heated our chili.
A few hours after dark, we lay in our bags, hoods about our heads, talking straight into the firmament. Just before we fell asleep, we pronounced this patch of sand, sparse grass and cactus a good camp.
* * *
I suspect I’d better be getting back to Texas where I can reminisce about well-established camps on long-held deer leases, huge fire pits, sagging gambrels, beloved traditions, pranks and two or three generations of hunters sleeping in campers or bunkhouses.
I’ve known and loved such camps. I’ll get to a few of them directly.
Long before I knew anything of leases, campers and generators, there were Labor Day squirrel hunting camps in the central Kentucky hills, and weekends hunting timbered ridges around Green River Reservoir from the sputtering, moldering houseboat that served as base camp.
There was also grouse camp, in the Appalachian Mountains in southeastern Kentucky.
I cannot separate our grouse camp along the White Oak Fork of Greasy Creek from a certain brief period of my life, my last two years of college. It was a time of burgeoning competence and confidence, when a father becomes less an authority figure and more a beloved friend and fellow sufferer, when a young wife and baby daughter enlarged and enriched a family that hadn’t felt loss in a long while, when we were all together and vital.
Starting in late November, I’d wear hunting boots and old jeans to Friday morning classes. By early afternoon, I’d be heading east out of Bowling Green. Night usually fell before I turned off the winding mountain road and up Greasy Creek. From there on, it was logging roads and creek crossings — no bridges. Though I gave no thought to those crossings during the day, it took a measure of faith to drive into black water, headlights dancing on the streamside brush.
Then out of the creek and up the bank, climbing, dark ridges rising on the passenger side and falling away a few feet from the driver-side door. Sixteen miles of worsening two-track road, things not looking quite familiar as I worried if I’d taken a wrong turn at one of the many forks. Then, relief as fire and lantern light shone ahead.
One more creek crossing — the deepest, where you needed to know exactly where to come out — and there was the big blue canvas tent and Dad standing by the fire, one hand in the pocket of his jeans, the other holding a bottle of Ski soda. Foots, his Brittany, loped out to meet me.
We’d find ruffed grouse in the laurel along the creek and in poplar stands on the ridges. But I most remember the light ahead in the darkness, shaking my father’s hand, stretching my legs before the fire, pulling on my down jacket and watch cap. I’d take a Ski from the cooler and look up at those ridges and the night sky, giddy and sure, oblivious to how soon it would end.
* * *
I’ve loved wilderness camps where fires were inappropriate and the comforting hiss of a backpacker stove reminded me of my old Coleman lantern. To sit beside a one-man tent and look up at canyon walls glowing ochre in the late afternoon sun, or to stand for the first time amid the miracle of alpenglow, is to feel numinous, or to remember something ancient and mysterious.
It’s the same deep connection when you feel the heat of an oak campfire and hear the talk and laughter of old friends and beloved family, the soft snoring of tired dogs and the flapping of canvas tents.
If you hunt on public land in Texas, you’re probably familiar with the “designated hunter camp,” usually an acre or so hacked out in the brush along a road, designed to minimize impact to wildlife habitat.
Like desert camps, these sometimes-homely wildlife management area camps are transformed by nightfall. Driving into camp sore-footed and hungry, with little to show for miles of walking, I’ve been soothed by the fires of complete strangers.
Once I’ve accepted these surroundings, the wood smoke smells just as good as it does in a picturesque camp, and the voices of neighbors and the whining of their bird dogs create a feeling of community. Conversation usually begins with something like, “You boys get ’em today?” After much laughter, prognostication and scratching of dogs’ ears, I’ll walk away and realize that we never exchanged names.
Toward bedtime, when you let the dogs out to get a drink, snuffle about and do their business, you might notice that you’ve never seen a more splendid night sky.
* * *
It’s easy to miss Donny Lynch’s camp in the big woods near Marshall, so I look for the squirrel and ’coon tails hanging from the rough pole arch over the entrance.
Usually, I arrive early in the afternoon. We’ll still be shaking hands when Donny says, “Where’s your thermos?” We don’t go afield without coffee. He’ll have made an extra pot for me.
We might have our first cup sitting beneath the arbor attached to Donny’s old camper while our squirrel dogs snort about and tree squirrels bold enough to visit the feeders scurry in. If May squirrel season is on, we’ll kennel the dogs and spend the afternoon working Caddo Lake bream beds. After dark, we’ll clean our catch at Donny’s outdoor washbasin while moths swarm the work lights hanging from the camper.
After a quick supper, we’ll load dogs and head for the creeks and sloughs to tree a ’coon. One’s enough. We’ll be back at camp by 10, sipping the last of our coffee. Squirrel hunting starts at first light.
Fall and winter, we’ll drag in after dark, build a fire and stoke the old woodstove on the little porch. Often as not, Donny’s wife, Lucille, will arrive with fried squirrel and cathead biscuits.
At bedtime, I’ll stretch out on my sleeping bag, and Donny will kick open the camper door and yell “cat check!” Two squirrel dogs will bolt from beneath his bunk and clamber outside for one last patrol before bedtime. I’ll lie there and imagine them sniffing about out in the cold darkness. I’m rarely awake when they return.
In his essay “A Taste for Country,” Aldo Leopold observed: “Some woods, perennially lush, are notably lacking in charm. Tall clean-boled oaks and tulip poplars may be good to look at, from the road, but once inside, one may find a coarseness of minor vegetation, a turbidity of waters, a paucity of wildlife … there are woods that are plain to look at but not to look into.”
So it is with hunting camps. Back in the mid-1980s, I joined a hunting lease in the western Cross Timbers. There was a fine camp among blackjack oaks, electricity, water, cold storage and a group of hunters handy with tools and energetic about camp improvements.
But after an autumn and winter of good dove shooting around willow-lined tanks and dozens of coveys pointed amid 2,000 acres of excellent habitat, I didn’t renew. I simply didn’t fit. The campfire talk didn’t resonate. I liked my fellow campers and I think they liked me, but I didn’t miss them. Nor do I think they missed me.
Conversely, I smile whenever I think of a hunting shack made of corrugated metal held together by spiderwebs and mouse droppings as much as nails and screws. Two friends invited me there for an April turkey hunt south of San Angelo. We didn’t see a turkey, but somehow the food and company more than made up for it. After supper, the ranch foreman and his wife invited us in for coffee, dessert and conversation. If I were a serious deer and turkey hunter instead of a dog nut, I’d join that lease in a heartbeat.
* * *
A few years back, Brad’s wife, Donna, decided she’d like to come along on hunting trips. Nowadays, they pull a camper, and I take advantage of their hospitality. At WMA and Forest Service campsites, Donna reads, birds, quilts and dotes over Buck, their elderly setter, while Brad and I hunt with the younger dogs.
January before last, I crossed the Red River on my way to a quail hunting rendezvous with Brad and Donna in southwestern Oklahoma. Recent ice storms had created a landscape of broken trees and utility poles. After nightfall I eased along narrow country roads, wary of debris. My cellphone was useless. Directions that made sense during the light of day now seemed at odds with my maps. For two hours I drove freezing muddy roads.
Near midnight, I rounded a curve and saw a light ahead through the mesquite. A few hundred yards on, in a perfect site, I found the familiar white pickup, camper, and Brad and Jack, his Brittany, waiting for me.
Inside the camper, Donna, clad in layers of fleece, hot water bottle in her lap, looked content as a mallard hen on a cozy pond.
We hunted the next two days. I believe the dogs found a few coveys. I can’t say for sure. But I’ll never forget those tiny lights, like campfire and lantern light ahead in the darkness.