THE OUTDOOR WORLD is divided into considerably more than two camps. The last "camp" I was in, just days ago, was a 107-ton ocean-going yacht anchored in a sheltered bay on the southeast Alaskan coast. From here I would put out with my guide in an aluminum boat each afternoon to glass for perfectly, even preternaturally, enormous temperate-rainforest black bear, and upon locating one substantially bigger than the Ritz, land the boat and put a stalk on him in the sub-arctic spring permatwilight. It makes no sense, though, to talk about bear camps or sheep camps, confident in the belief that you are in any sense talking about the same thing as deer camp, or any kind of hunting involving a group. Certain animals, by nature of their reclusion and remoteness, do not lend themselves to being pursued by parties of hunters, but must be hunted by one man alone, or perhaps with the aid of a single guide. There is something hermitic about some kinds of hunting, and that is their unique appeal. With other kinds, however, three is not a crowd; sometimes it doesn't even make for a halfway decent drive.
It would be hard, though, to come up with a better, more time-honored place where hunters could pitch their tents and hunt together as a group than deer camp. For a long time, for me, hunting was deer camp, period. Growing up in the Stygian balminess of Southern California, I was frequently reprieved from overpowering urges to throw up barricades and seize hostages by the autumnal thought that in six months or one month or only a week from some moment of crisis I would be helping old men load the surplus pyramid tent, cots, coolers, stoves, propane bottles, axes, and shovels into the camper shells on the pickup trucks and setting out on the non-stop 900-mile drive to the West Slope of Colorado. The last miles could mean chaining up all four wheels to furrow through muddy, black-clay roads etched no more deeply onto steep canyon walls than decorative lines scribed around a wine glass. Those miles, though, would bring us to the lean-to cabin ("lean-to" because of its distinct slump to the right) that we'd cook in and the sage draws and pine ridges and rimrock where for tens of years we hunted mule deer-and in time elk, as well, when they came into the country.
In a deer camp shared with other hunters, unlike in a one-man alpine tent pitched on a sheep mountain, there are always people to help you pack in your game, lend a hand with the dishes, cut the deck, and maybe most important, listen to your story. Hunting is, Cro-Magnon cave paintings not withstanding, primarily an oral tradition and is somehow lacking a vital element when no one else is around to hear how the day went, good or bad. It is not surprising that lone hunters confide practically compulsively in journals on their isolate adventures, much more so than hunters who occupy camps with other hunters.
Having other hunters to talk to is not limited to deer camp. As far north as you want to go, even as we speak, groups of voluble hunters are erecting drop camps for herds of caribou to click past (in places, Inuit culture still revolves around the summer caribou camp-and the winter seal and walrus camp-set up far from the permanent village), and story telling will be no minor aspect of such encampments. In September, out on the Western prairies, pronghorn camps will rise, their white billowing canvas from a distance resembling mystery trains of Oregon-bound Conestogas. Herman Melville had whaling ships to go aboard when he felt it was time for "driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation," and with the old men all gone now and the deer camp broken forever, a cluster of antelope tents is where I head in the fall (last fall I was carrying a Cabela's Sharps replica .45-120 rifle and made my way to the Wheatland, Wyoming, hunting area of outfitter Dan Artery-the hunt arranged by Cabela's Outdoor Adventures, 1-800-346-8747-where there were antelope as far as the eye could see). There were familiar faces there with whom to hunt pronghorn, and to join in cooking and eating, puffing toxic cigars, and singing: Knowing by heart a song, other than "Happy Birthday," is an essential job skill when hunting with a group, by the way; I once found myself having to hold up my end of a song fest, even though I was the only English-speaker in the midst of a gathering of Chinese and Tibetans in a mountain hunting camp on the Qinghai Plateau. They gave my song a 73.
The classic group hunt is, of course, the English shooting party, most recently portrayed in a stunning cinematic tour de force, Gosford Park (which I really do need to get around to watching, one of these days). Upper-class twits romping between the bedrooms in the stately homes of England may have precious little in common with American hunters bivouacked in tents (or just as often in rundown motels), but they do share a mutual affection for the ring-necked pheasant. Given sufficient rows of corn to drive or CRP land to cover, pheasant hunting can almost never suffer from an overabundance of hunters, to the extent that it would seem that it must be the perfect sort of camp for hunters to join forces in.
Duck hunters from the Atlantic to the Pacific Flyways would no doubt give you an argument. The hunting carried out in duck camps can seem entirely about group ritual, from drawing numbers to choose blinds and shooting positions, everybody's waiting for the birds to be cupped and set before standing to shoot, to wading in (literally) to help put out the decoys in the sleeting dark, then gathering them all back up in the gray midmorning. Dove hunting, for one or two shoots when you can hold together a large enough crowd to keep the birds trading back and forth across a big sunflower field, may be the most intense variety of hunting camp, but can there ever be said to be a best?
To me, it may be the most ephemeral and perhaps least spectacular that's better than any other. It is a camp often without shelters, that may last only a single morning or afternoon, but it will have squirrels or rabbits in hardwoods and canebrakes, and there will be fice dogs or beagles. Knee boots and mud will be a prominent feature, as will pump .22s and 16 gauges, all the bluing worn off. Four or five hunters and three or four dogs are about right. In the tangles of cover, with running dogs and game, it is not the type of hunting you would ever rashly engage in with total strangers, but only with hunters you know and trust. That's what makes it a good hunting camp; that's what may make it best. And when the dogs sound out on a rabbit or bay up a squirrel, it even sings its own songs.
Thomas McIntyre has written for Sports Afield magazine for nearly a quarter century. He is the author of four books on hunting and fishing, including the critically acclaimed "Dreaming the Lion", published by Down East Books. His newest book, "Seasons & Days: 25 Years of Hunting Stories", will be published next year by The Lyons Press. Tom lives with his wife and son in northern Wyoming.
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