A Real Maine Hunting Camp
By Brodie MacDearmid, Sales Representative and Registered Maine Guide, Hunting & Fishing
The sights and smells of a 100-year-old Maine hunting camp are as equally unpleasant as they are welcoming to hunters. Decades worth of hunting stories resonate through the walls. Tales of a hunter’s pursuit of a wary buck, the journey of finding one’s way back to camp in the middle of the night without a flashlight after getting lost, and the debate over a favorite camp meal resonate throughout the walls of deer camps throughout Maine’s north woods. It takes years of chewing tobacco, Captain Black pipe tobacco, Jim Beam whiskey, Budweiser, Marlboro reds, unwashed hunting clothes, dead mice, grease stains, burnt coffee, dirty laundry, hunting scents and lures, and countless smoky fires in the wood stove to create the smell of deer camp—a distinctive smell that every sportsman enjoys.
Every year, November 1st marks a special time of year in Maine, known simply as deer season. It is during this time men and women choose to drive hours north to their favorite deer camps in hopes of shooting a trophy Maine white-tailed deer. It is not uncommon for men to take time off from work, fake illness, and dodge other obligations in order to escape up to deer camp for a few short days. It has been said that more divorces between couples in Maine happen as a result of wives not wanting their husbands to go away to deer camp than infidelity itself. I know my mother welcomes deer season, because she gets some personal time away from my father and me around the family farm.
The camp that I hunt out of, known as “Van’s Camp,” is located two hours north of Augusta, Maine, in the middle of a cedar swamp in the heart of big buck country. In the early 1970s, more deer were tagged at the local tagging station two miles away from camp than at any other tagging station in Maine. In addition to deer, the vast corn fields that surround the cedar swamp provide excellent goose hunting. Along the edges where the corn fields meet the mixed hardwood forest, there is an abundance of grouse, squirrels, coyotes, and turkeys. Bear and moose encounters are not uncommon in the deeper woods, where the forest meets the cedar swamp. It truly is a sportsman paradise.
Most people wouldn’t think 288 square feet is enough room for a normal person to vacate for any given period of time, but for the group of eight men I am lucky enough to know, camp is a place that couldn’t be traded for any other place on earth. A new cabin couldn’t measure up to the character that Van’s Camp offers.
Owned by Robert Van Brunt, a master woodsman, hunter, and fisherman of more than 50 years, Van’s Camp is only accessible using a 4×4 truck, and it’s located off a road that is often mistaken for an ATV trail. The 16-by-18-foot footprint is simple in design, with an open concept that includes four bunks, a pullout couch, a dinner table for four, a 24-inch propane stove, and a wood stove. The stove pipe on the wood stove itself is patched with years of coffee tins that glow red when heated. The exterior is half-inch plywood covered with 3/8-inch chicken wire that serves two purposes: porcupine control and it physically holds the structure together. The roof is comprised of tar paper, pine needles, and miscellaneous sections of blue tarp.
An outhouse that is 100 yards away down a path also doubles as the 100-yard gun range. There is a fire pit that has cooked hundreds of camp meals over the years and a game pole for hanging and dressing out deer. The 4-by-6-inch game pole itself sags from the countless 200-pound deer that have hung from it—a testament to the quality hunters who have passed through camp.
On Friday nights, we stumble into camp from all corners of Maine. When guys get out of work on Friday, they get into their gear-packed pickup trucks and head to camp—a journey known in Maine vernacular as “upta camp.” It is not uncommon for guys to show up to camp three or four beers deep. Once, a “responsible” hunter who frequents camp had his 13-year-old son finish their drive halfway to camp after he deemed he was too inebriated to drive. Upon reaching camp, coolers are placed outside, rifles are placed on the gun rack, and sleeping bags are unfolded on the bunks. As the wood stove roars, whiskey drinks are sipped, and Skoal rings are chewed.
The same deer stories are told year after year. The deer always seem to get bigger as the stories get older. They are always exceptionally detailed and never boring. New generations of hunters are always welcome at camp, and there are youth hunters who have grown from children to men in front of their fathers, just by listening to decades-worth of camp tales, which often hint at past encounters with late night camp visitors.
Bedtime coincides with the end of a card game and when the whiskey drinks run dry.
As the coyotes howl in the night’s air the mice begin to run throughout the rafters of the camp. The 4:15 a.m. alarm is set and the local AM news radio is played from the 20-year-old receiver radio. We all make our way into the bunks donning our favorite union suits.
Seniority rule dictates the bunk you sleep in and morning hunting locations are claimed before everyone dozes off. During the night the old-timers in the group snore loud, keeping light sleepers awake. Being one of youngest guys in the group, I get the dirtiest, bottom bunk in the corner. Top bunks are sought after as it is always warmer at the top. Most nights I fall asleep by 2:00 or 3:00 a.m., only getting an hour or so of sleep before the alarm rings and anticipation of getting out into the woods gets us out of bed.
It is not uncommon to be wakened in the middle of the night to the sound of a mouse trap going off. Many mornings in late fall there is snow inside the cabin which has blown through the cracks and gaps in the walls during the night.
The first guy up always starts the coffee. The decades-old percolators are aged black from the coffee they have brewed over the years. As hunters sip their morning coffee, people take turns warming up next to the wood stove. Soon everyone slips into their morning routine of getting dressed for a day of hunting. Long johns, Johnson woolen pants, Woolwich flannel shirts, wool socks, and L.L. Bean boots are layered on, and soon, everyone grabs their favorite rifle or shotgun, and slips out of the camp bound for their favorite stump, stand, or blind.
There is always a camp lunch at noon, but many hunters don’t return until well after sunset. There have been many deer shot at Van’s Camp over the years, and one lesson I have learned is that it’s not always about shooting a deer at camp, but rather the stories, experiences, and companionship that is shared inside the walls at camp.
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March 24, 2014 / Brodie MacDearmid / 0
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