Friday, December 17, 2010

Homecoming - For My Dad and Me

I was 15 years old when I found my place in the world. I had struggles as a geeky type kid, not adept at team sports in a town that worshipped football. My father was typical for the age. He spent more time working than I wanted him to and my mother was left to raise me and my siblings. So when he bought me my first gun and announced that we were going deer hunting – after taking a grueling Hunter Ed course – I was curious about what this expedition would mean.

Around 9pm my father went to bed and I, still dressed in my Levis and flannel shirt, stood downstairs in the “Wreck Room”, watching the snowflakes come down in monstrously large clumps as I cleaned my Winchester 30-30 for the third time. I breathed in the smell of the Hoppe’s Solvent and ran the cotton pads through the barrel again, just to make sure that there was no residue left from factory test fires. I coated all the darkly blued steel, dreaming that maybe one of my friend’s fathers had smelted it in the small steel town in Pennsylvania where we lived. Without a gun case, I placed it tenderly back into the green and white cardboard box in which I had received it.

I opened the French door to the outside and under the spotlight behind the house I could see that the white stuff was piling up quickly. I stared into the light and watched as the large flakes seemed to define the limits of my vision. It was as if the world was closed in around me and comforted me. When it snowed this hard it felt as though even a kid of 15 could melt into its largesse, like being encircled by Mother Nature’s arms. I decided that I needed to alert my Dad to the fact that the driving might get difficult and that we had better get going earlier than planned. After all, we would be driving into the mountains of Central PA and the ride, under normal circumstances, took about 4 hours. I snuck up to his bedroom on the third floor and creaked the door open. He wasn’t sleeping. I whispered to him that we might want to get going early because it was snowing “like heck” and there was already 6 inches on the ground.

He agreed! Holy cow! We were going to get started! I had already packed the Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser with both of our belongings. I had run the checklist of necessary hunting items through several times, adding a new item each time. Jon-E hand warmers. Check. Leather boots with bacon grease for waterproofing. Check. Wool mittens. Check. The list went on and on and ended with hot chocolate in thermos. Check. As we pulled out of the driveway past the cherry tree, which was barely discernible except for the branches which were bent to ridiculous positions laden with the heavy snow, I thought “This is it! Just me and Dad! A true wilderness experience.

He snaked the old station wagon through back roads North to Zelionople and on to Interstate 80 East. He drove the old Vista Cruiser like it was an 18 wheeler, plowing through drifts, and while others’ vehicles were sliding off the road, he captained that old wagon like a Captain of the Highway. There was no stopping us. He had the window rolled down and was listening to WWVA 1170 AM. I was lying down in the folded down back seat with a sea of blankets and a sleeping bag as a cocoon, insulating me from the cold air filtering in through the driver’s side window. He was singing along to old country songs from Merle Haggard, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. I thought I hated that music. I was young and rebellious. I liked Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and anything that made my ears ring. Like my 30-30 did. Hmmm. Maybe I needed to re-think this music thing.

As we slipped North through the dark night I would lie on my side and watch the heavy snowflakes in the lights of the big trucks and imagine talking to them on the CB radios. “10-4 back door. Got your ears on, good buddy?” Soon, we pulled into a truck stop in Strattonville. Big diesels with bright colors and fancy scroll designs on their cabs were everywhere, rumbling quietly with their parking lights on. My father said, “Come on Brad. Let’s get a little something to eat.” I was in heaven.

As I walked to the door of the truck stop I forced my eyelids open t glance at the tall streetlights that lit up an arc of solid white flakes.  I felt like this was the greatest adventure I’d ever been on. I was with my Dad. And it was just me and him. We walked in and sat at the overly cheerful yellow counter and placed our orders. The waitress took a keen interest in these two wayward travelers dressed in hunting attire. My father had a deer shooting outfit that was red and black and the pants puffed out at the thighs like some old English riding britches. He looked like Friar Tuck and I was embarrassed at first, but when the waitress acknowledged that we were courageous souls to be driving on a night like this, I welled up with pride. We were, after all, intrepid deer hunters and nothing could stop us!

After a giant plate of turkey and mashed potatoes with gravy on a slice of white toast and my first cup of coffee, I knew that this trip was more than just a Sunday drive with Dad. I was being indoctrinated into the world of grown ups, where men make decisions and take chances on things that are actually thought out and not impulsive. We rolled on through the night in the old Vista Cruiser and I stared out the window of the roof and started to sing along with my Dad to the Grand Ole Opry. I would let no one know of this for decades.

Arriving in the town of his birth, Grampian, we were blasting through drifts 2’ deep and sliding sideways around old logging roads that weaseled their way through the old strip mining town and up into the hills. Just when the going got to a point that I thought the old wagon could push no further, we turned into an driveway that was nothing more than a tunnel in the snow. My father floored it up to the camp door and laid on the horn to announce our arrival.

Introductions were made to a bunch of old men who were dressed in flannel shirts and canvas pants. Many were holding glasses of beer and mixed drinks and a few were smoking cigarettes. Throughout the camp the rooms were bathed in the warm golden glow of kerosene and propane lamps. It seemed to me that here was a place that all of the rules of proper society were being shattered in a glorious cacophony of glasses clinking, raucous laughter, cussing, teasing and general mayhem. Everything that I had been being punished for at home was here, being celebrated, free of all judgment. I was being initiated into manhood in it’s most primitive and crude form. It made an indelible impression on a sensitive young man.

I remember the smell of the woodsmoke from the chimney and the pungent aroma of slightly moldy furniture, an tattered sofa with a tapestry covering over it in front of the fire. The smells are what really hooked me. Scotch. Coffee. Beer. Cigars. Woodsmoke. Bacon. My senses were overloaded with happiness. I was a man. For the whole weekend and then a few days afterward, my father and I were stranded together at this deer camp.

During the day we would plow through waist deep snow walking down to the pines, where the deer would yard up. We sat under big old spruces and peered through the mountain laurel for brown fur moving up the hillside to the wind-blown fields above.

We never saw any deer that weekend but the hope and connection to the nature that surrounded me made a permanent connection. I had found my place in the world. For the next 36 years I would harbor a dream in my heart of hearts to be able to recreate this period in my life. When I was lonely or sad I would meditate on the images of this place. When each deer season came around I would feel a deep longing for those times. It took me about 30 years to figure out that longing. I had a profound existential desire to connect. Connect to nature, my father and myself.

This deer season I realized that dream. At the beginning of this year I was offered a deer camp in the town of Huntington, Vermont for lease. It was a run-down, dilapidated and vandalized shack at the end of a nearly impassable logging road. I had gone there for a few years under its’ previous owner, Johnnie MacDonough, when I knew that I had found my home.

Johnnie welcomed me into the fraternity and I hoped that someday it could be mine. Late at night, when everyone was asleep, Johnnie would coach me on how to run the camp and tell me that someday this would all be mine. “But how?” I thought.

A few years later Johnnie passed away and I thought my heart was broken. I loved this guy like my father. The property was sold to an investor in Great Britain and was going to be managed by a forestry company here in the states. They had no interest in leasing another camp. That is until it was vandalized and they realized that it was better to lease it and have someone looking out for the place. In April of this year it was offered to me. I swooped in and took it, inviting 3 other of my favorite men to join me, Steve Osborne, of Williston, my father-in-law, Brian Hoyt of Charlotte, and Chris Thayer, also of Charlotte. We banded together and nearly every weekend during the summer and fall we worked tirelessly to renovate the place.

We put on a new deck, we removed an old non-functioning refrigerator, we re-plumbed the water system that ran from the brook. With the help of Lynn Osborne, Steve’s dad and a master handyman, we re-worked the entire gas system and added new propane lamps. We cleaned out the toilet and primitive septic, moved the shower next to the hot water heater, built bunks and put new cabinets in the kitchen. We replaced the chimney and woodstove with a used Vermont Castings Defiant. We cut and chopped wood and stacked it on the porch. And before we knew it the season was upon us.

We put up 2 ladder stands and waited for the Opener. It was bright and crisp and warm…not exactly what deer hunters hope for. But we all saw deer and I passed up a shot on an 8 pointer that was standing behind a fallen pine tree. He never came back. But the purpose of the season was yet to come.

For Thanksgiving weekend, the end of our rifle season and historically one of the most well attended hunting weekends of the year, I invited my father, Arthur Spencer. He traveled all day by Amtrak to arrive here. After a bountiful harvest feast on Thanksgiving Day, Chris, my father and I piled ourselves into my truck and, after an essential grocery stop we headed up the old logging road, bumping the chassis and plowing through mud and rock.

When we arrived at the camp, I took a moment to stand on the deck beside the gurgling brook and the bathtub full of beer and announced “Thank you all for being a part of my dream.” After unpacking and getting the woodstove lit, I offered up the Lazy Boy recliner in front of the woodstove to my father. I toasted the crew that we would be living with for the next few days. The smell of woodsmoke and the clinking of cocktails swept me home to that place, where as a young man, I knew that I belonged, in the company of men reveling in their escape to the great woods.

We all found ourselves breathing in that divine moment of the present, content with the knowledge that we would rather be here than any place in the world. Throughout the camp the room was bathed in the warm golden glow of kerosene and propane lamps. Then it began to snow.  Big white flakes.  I watched them float down through the rustic wooden window as far as my eye could see. 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Outdoors Magazine - Never Give Up

Ducks & Geese

January 2011

January is not for quitters. While many of the Northern tier hunters have put away their decoys and hung up their waders, the hard-core are just getting going. Those of us who love the sport so much that we would travel 5 hours to shoot a limit of Canadas or a brace of thundering bluebills will enjoy this month. It weeds out the faint of heart from those who just can’t get enough. So pack up those decoy bags in the truck and load the boat. Double check those tires and axles for wear. Make sure your spare is in good condition. Dig out your warmest ducking gear and, if you have a little propane heater, bring it! We’re headed south to Long Island Sound. Fill the thermos full of coffee and fire up the old pickup. When we arrive on the CT coast we will pitch into a “Diver’s Special” motel, then check out the local access at one of the many refuge areas on the Northern shore of the Sound. Surprisingly, most of these accesses are clear of heavy ice. Names like the Norwalk Islands, Lordship Point, Salt Meadow, Great Meadows and Calf Island await late season die-hards with concentrations of hardy black ducks, red-legged mallards and lots of scoters and geese. One point of consideration: be aware of the tides in the Sound. Time it wrong and you’ll be sitting for 6 hours on a salt flat waiting for the water to come back in and let you sail off. One of my favorite late season locations is the little wildlife management area off of Stratford, known as Charles E Wheeler. Charles “Shang” Wheeler was a remarkable hunter back when there were ducks enough to “blacken the sky. ” He was a master decoy carver and conservationist. It is this little piece of real estate where I cut my teeth on the late arriving bluebills and Canada geese. We would put in at a small access on the West side of the Housatonic River and cut downstream to the main channel of the swamp, then back upstream into the tidal pools. We would try to time our hunts so that we were in the pools just as the tide began filling them and we’d wait for the birds to come in to feed on the beds of eelgrass and invertebrates. I remember hunting one January afternoon with my father in my little homemade flat bottom boat with a chicken wire blind stapled to 2x4’s and woven with local salt hay and cattails. We sat only about 2 feet off of the top of the water as it had come in. It was evening and the geese started to return to their roost. The first flight of 3 birds came in silently from behind us, out of the sun. We never saw them. At the last second I turned my head and started to stand when I heard a faint “herrrronk.” I dropped to my knees just in time and found that my father was struggling to do the same, the giant Canadas barely missing our heads. There was no time to shoot. We sat down in utter amazement that neither of us had been hit by the big birds. We laughed for quite some time until the next big flight bore down on our spread. We harvested a few nice birds and called it a day as the sun glowed a golden orange and light green behind the buildings of the city. On the way back across the river we could smell steaks being grilled in a restaurant on the shoreline. We pointed our boat toward the yellow lights of the dining room and carved our way through the darkness, home.

If you find yourself appreciating some of the articles you’ve read here in the past year, I’d like to invite you to join us at the Yankee Sportsman’s Classic at the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex Junction, VT on January 14-16. This is one of those true wonders of the winter. It’s a lot like being in a candy store the size of Walmart, but for families. There is every possible kind of booth and seminar. Last year there were over 15,000 attendees and this year there will be more than 45 seminars on everything from turkey, deer, bear, icefishing, trophy heads, tracking and raptors. But my favorite is still the Duck and Goose Hunting Vermont seminar, where I get to meet my readers and compare notes on our seasons. We put on a slideshow/movie, display new equipment, talk about new strategies, what worked and what was just a gimmick. We exchange comments and opinions about the seasons, bag limits, best and worst days, weather impacts. Heck, we even share some of our time-proven secrets and locations. We will be giving some calling demonstrations and if you want to join us bring your own calls and let’s rock the house!

Outdoors Magazine - Adding Fuel to the Fire

Ducks & Geese

December 2010

When we enter the swamps and lakes that we hunt, what do we feel about the space we occupy? Is there a reverence for the area, or do we just “use” it to get what we want out of it? Most of us spend an extraordinary amount of time thinking about how to become better hunters – we seek out the most advanced decoys, guns and boats. We put enormous energy into grassing our boats, practicing our calling, building our blinds and perfecting our strategies for high and low water. It would seem that these things that mean so much to us would garner considerable respect since we seem to love them so much. We profess that we respect and admire all that is wild and beautiful, yet some of us still behave like children, who when they don’t get that spot that they want, act in an immature and jealous manner. Here is what I mean. My partners and I have built and maintained a blind in a legal manner for the past 8 years. It takes us approximately 30 hours of hard work to build it. We enjoy the work and value the challenge. We have planted wild rice in the spot and always welcomed others to use the blind when we are not there. It holds plenty of ducks and has been a very productive location for us. Some of you may know that I run a mentoring program ( for at-risk young men in an attempt to teach them the previously mentioned respect and appreciation for nature. I thoroughly enjoy taking these young men out and showing them how waterfowlers hunt. We talk about values and how they can use them in their everyday lives – dealing with problems at school and home – and what it means to be a part of a brotherhood of duck hunters. These boys are deeply influenced by what they see and hear from us. So when we rounded the bend in the creek last Saturday to find that someone had burnt down our duck blind, I bit my lip and decided that rather than get angry I would use the episode as a lesson in how to respond to the ignorant and maladjusted element of our fraternity. Instead of expressing anger we tried to understand what would have motivated someone to do this. Could it have been an anti-hunter? Doubtful, because most anti-hunters don’t carry a can of gas in their canoe or kayak. Could it have been someone who was jealous of our spot? (When I say “our” it goes without saying that we do not “own” any real estate in this place – we just stake out a claim by building there on the first Saturday in September each year – according to VT law) We do shoot a lot of ducks from there in most years and I’m sure that others who have witnessed it might wish they could be there instead of us. They COULD wake up earlier and build there – no one is stopping them – but typically people who do this kind of thing are lazy and angry about others “stealing their opportunities.” Truth be told, the majority of us are mature enough to seek the next best spot and make the most of it. Or, in my case, if I’m not there, go ahead and jump in my blind and use it. Just leave it like you found it and enjoy yourself. From that point the day became about teaching how karma works. It can be simplified like this: It’s a scientific fact that all energy never dies or ends – it just changes into other forms and continues to return to its source. What kind of “energy” did those who burnt down our blind put out into the world? Was it anger? Resentment? Jealousy? Now, if energy does indeed return to its source, it’s just a matter of time until these individuals receive it back – in one form or another. And instead of feeling defeated or angry I will revel in the knowledge that it will indeed come back to them. And next year my blind will be bigger, better and more productive. A little jealousy never kept me from my passion. And a little gas just adds fuel to my fire.