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  • Writer's pictureDon Toothaker

The Importance of Hunting Camp

Updated: Mar 6, 2020

Hunting camp is about so much more than hunting. Beginning many years ago, every November, my Dad and my Uncle would head to Maine for their annual deer hunting trip together. They would "rough it" at my Grandfathers camp on Little Ossipee Lake in Waterboro. Even as a boy I somehow knew that hunting camp was a special occasion and every November, prior to him leaving and upon his return, I would ask when I would be allowed to join them. Each year his answer was simple: "you can't go until you understand why we go".

Each season I would anxiously wait for my Dad to return, smelling wonderfully of wood smoke and the outdoors, to bombard him with questions about what he did, what he saw, and why he didn't shoot a deer - again. Dad answered my questions and shared numerous stories about the traditions of hunting, the ethics of hunting, hunting with my grandfather many years before, crisp, cold mornings in the rugged woods of Maine, nature, my grandfathers rifles, gramps prowess in the woods, wonderful food, wildlife, and, of course, beautiful deer. The stories thrilled me, but, honestly, it was confusing why he and my Uncle would go deer hunting and never shoot a deer even though, according to the stories, they often saw deer. Wasn't that the point? We would often spend many days after his return talking about hunting. It always made me feel close to him.

I was a poor high school student. Easily distracted, lacking focus and confidence, and ridiculously unsure of everything meant school was a struggle for me. My junior year, 1982, was particularly bad; I was literally failing out of school. My Dad, trying to help, offered me a prize; a prize with stipulations. That November I would be allowed to go hunting, but I had to bring my grades up or there would be no more hunting camps for me ever again. I was 16 and with such a worthy goal I worked hard to bring my grades up to join my Dad and my Uncle that November for my first ever hunting camp. Needless to say I was beyond excited.

My very first morning in the field with my Dad will be etched in my mind forever. We were awake before dawn to have some coffee and an English muffin before grabbing our gear and heading out. I had walked in the woods of Maine with him many times before, but never like this. We were both dressed in blaze orange jackets, thick wool pants, warm boots, hats, and gloves. A full moon was setting as we walked in the early morning light across frost covered fields toward a large track of woods that I knew would be full of deer. I was carrying my grandfather's pre-64 Winchester 30-30 lever action rifle with my Dad right beside me carrying my grandfather's scoped Remington semi automatic 30-06 rifle. I remember feeling very nervous, but determined to get a deer on my first day of hunting. The feeling was electric and I was beyond excited.

Once in the woods my Dad had me sit with my back against a tree and the Winchester across my knees with a round in the chamber and the safety on. He had already long ago taught me how to safely handle and fire a weapon, but now he quietly reiterated that patience, observation, and being ready were a huge part of hunting. He then walked many yards away to my left and sat down with his back against a tree as well. I watched him lean the Remington against another tree and light a cigarette. I remember thinking two things: he was not ready if a deer walked up as he instructed me to do and no self respecting deer would come near us anyways because of the cigarette smoke. We sat in the cold woods, quietly, and waited. About a half hour later three does came trotting along the footpath about 50 yards in front of us. They were beautiful and moved gracefully and almost silently. If you had not seen them move you would have never known they were there. Too nervous to do anything, I instead gripped the Winchester tightly and looked over at my Dad. I was expecting to see him drawing a bead on the largest doe, but, instead, he was watching with his hands in his pockets and the Remington still leaning against the tree. Moments later the deer were gone. I rushed over to my Dad as he stood up and frantically asked why he didn't shoot a deer! He smiled and said "that was great, now lets go find George and get some breakfast". I was bewildered and urgently asked again why he didn't shoot a deer. He looked at me and simply said "we are not here to shoot them; we are here to see them". I was even more bewildered.

As we made our way back across the frost covered fields I asked my Dad a whole new set of questions about deer hunting. I was very confused. He patiently began to fill me in on what hunting camp was really all about. We talked about appreciating nature and understanding its cycles and its many beauties. He explained the camaraderie, the tradition, and the family history revolving around hunting camp. He emphasized that we carried my grandfather's rifles that he too once hunted with in Maine. He spoke of bonding and togetherness and the value of time spent together having meals, doing chores, sharing stories, and sitting together, undistracted, talking. He explained that seeing the deer, like we just had, was beautiful and far more rewarding than killing one. He stated that because he didn't shoot we might luckily get to see them on another morning that week. I listened. Over breakfast my beloved Uncle George reinforced all of the same sentiments that my father had, but I still didn't see any point in going "deer hunting" if you were never going to shoot a deer. In time, I got it.

Hunting gave birth to my love of the woods, my admiration of nature, my appreciation of wildlife, and, in many ways, my photography. I carried my grandfather's rifles every season, but during that week, knowing I was not going to kill a deer, I began to carry my camera too. There, hunting in the woods of Maine with my Dad and Uncle, the foundation of my photography took hold. Over the years, with my back against many different trees in the woods of Maine, I spent more time thinking about nature and photography which, thankfully, fed my growing hunger for knowledge and skill in both. Today, I owe a lot to the principles and comfort of hunting camp.

My Dad and Uncle hunted in Maine together for over 50 years and neither ever shot a deer. I hunted with my Dad for over 30 years and, I too, never shot a deer. We saw many deer over the years, as well as many other animals, and each of us would always talk with false bravado that this was the year one of us would get that one big buck. It never happened. However, much more importantly, I shared over 30 hunting camp seasons with my Dad. It was always magical to me. I was never closer to him than I was for each of those weeks every November. He was my Dad, but hunting camp gave us something more - for a week we were friends. It took a few years, but soon I was no longer bewildered about not shooting a deer and instead looked forward to the things my Dad and Uncle pointed out that first morning in Dixmont that made hunting camp so special.

This morning I set out for Solon and The Cabin. My son, 16 years old, will be with me. Along the way we will stop and pick up my Dad who is now 88. It will be my son's first hunting camp ever. He will carry no rifle. I will carry no rifle. My Dad will carry no rifle. But, together we will do all of the things that make hunting camp truly special. Later this afternoon my son and I will walk the woods carrying our cameras. There, in the woods of Maine, I will begin to teach him the value of nature and hunting camp. Over dinner my Dad will share stories with my son, ones that I have heard a thousand times, to grow their bond as he once did with me. This will be one of the best days of my life.

Yes, there is much, much more to hunting camp.

Photograph What You Feel

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