Most of us can recall the first night we spent outdoors—vividly if not fondly. It may have been in the backyard under a play tent, a few sleepless hours interrupted fortuitously by a mother bearing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Yet, somehow, the sense of freedom and self-sufficiency from a night under canvas taps deep into our mortal roots. Like the love of an open fire or the urge to fish and hunt, camping draws out some of our primal instincts.
Despite a shrinking wilderness, our growing population apparently has some primitive need to spend more and more time in it.
Imagine for a moment the perfect landscape for producing wildlife. This hunting and fishing area could be the best of its kind—hills and hollows with mature oak-hickory forest that produces large quantities of mast, several acres of crop fields on tiny 10-acre farms that, combined, add up to miles of semi-secluded edge habitat, all of which transects streams and tributaries. Toss in a fruit orchard or two and you have a wildlife producing masterpiece—it is like having a perfect little tucked-away hunting area everywhere you turn.
Wildlife species, especially deer and turkeys, can easily traverse to and from these areas. For those of us who love the outdoors, hunting and fishing mean more than merely filling the game bag—more than stalking deer, fish, or bird.
Being an angler or a hunter is more refined and more demanding than merely being skilled in the use of a shotgun or a knife, a fly rod or a lure, a bow, or a deer rifle.
Fishing and hunting are the planning and preparation, fumbling in the dark, predawn departures, sunrises and sunsets, fog and rain, camps and campfires, woodlands, and mountain trails.
You might even find yourself astride a sturdy horse or a mule, leading a pack string into the backcountry, the clip-clop of hooves, the clattering of camping gear, the mingled aromas of birch and beech, the blue distant mountains, the weird wail of a love-sick coyote or mourning dove.
Or you might be standing beside a mountain stream that sings among the rocks, grace of a fly line arching over a mirroring pool.
It could be a mountain deer camp: a rickety shack tucked in the darkness of pines and poplars, with chopping blocks as chairs, kerosene lamps, and owls calling under a hunter’s moon, the sweet scent of green firewood, or the pre-dawn fragrance of steaming coffee.
It could be the laughter and competitive humor of Rook-playing companions seated at the card table on the night before the big hunt begins, or the lumpy mattresses, snoring men, or the fragrance of gun oil or leather.
Who could forget about stumbling through the woods, searching a path in the morning darkness for the oak attached to your tree stand?
Hunting is a moment frozen in time, burned into our memory, like a giant turkey gobbler, herding his harem as he picks acorns from the forest floor.
It is waking up in the night to the distant honking of waterfowl winging high overhead in a moonlit sky.
It is climbing out of a cozy, sleeping bag when the rest of the world is slumbering. It is gingerly traipsing through a frozen marsh or a frost-covered field in blue-gray darkness in search of the elusive prey.
Why do old hunters with stiffened joints and ancient rheumatisms abandon their warm covers on icy mountain mornings, gulping coffee and gobbling stacks of hotcakes, bacon, and scrambled eggs—before donning layers of insulation, wool socks, and goose-down vest.
Why do we sit for solitary hours, stiff in oilskins, fumbling fingers numb, nose dripping, hoarding a thermos of consoling caffeine, eyes straining, watching decoys bob up and down in a frigid gale, or searching the brush for a heavily antlered buck, alert and suspicious, warily checking the wind before advancing toward the scent of females roaming the woods like spectral flickers in heat?
And who could forget that crusty old canine companion, the velvety Labrador retriever, wet and excited, bright-eyed, and ready to share your warmth and your sandwich, or the sudden bark of a shotgun in the dark spruce woods of drumming grouse.
These are only samples of why we cannot resist the temptations of our softly waning wilderness.
Top o’ the morning!