Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Young Hunter

Thoughts from a Hunting Journal
(Part II)

           My journey started in a classroom inside the old armory in Jersey City.  A ten-year-old sitting, with butterflies in his stomach, among men mostly twice his age.  They seemed like giants back then, but most were probably teenagers or twenty-somethings.  They were not nearly as intimidating as the true titans that lined the walls.  All of them were rugged men with beards and heavy boots, adorned in flannel, plaid, or olive green.  The session and test are a blur, now as they were then.  We filed out to mingle around the outside of the building and the men joked and planned and shook hands.  The hunters, new and old, piled into pick-ups and station wagons, a time before the modern SUV, when trucks were four-wheel-drive with manual transmissions and manual hubs, large metal beasts with rumbling exhausts that a person climbed into instead of just getting in.
            We finished the indoctrination into the hunting fraternity in the meadows.  The place has long since disappeared into the marsh, but years ago a tower stand stood above the cattails, throwing clays out into the swamp.  A shooting range was arranged nearby, but both fell victim to development and the fear of hearing shotguns too close to the suburbs.  It was at night, surrounded by those same grizzled faces.  The tower would throw clays spinning out over the cattails and into the darkness.  I stood there, stomach in knots, with a lump building in my throat.  I almost tiptoed up to the instructor and the station at which I needed to stand.  I was carefully handed an old single shot and I robotically followed the steps to safely load and handle the firearm.  I nodded my readiness and the clay flew out and froze against the dark night sky.  The shotgun thundered and the night time exploded.  This was no youth model.  It wasn't even a 20 gauge.  This was the one-size-fits-all, one-gun-does-it-all 12 gauge.  The recoil bruised my shoulder and the muzzle flash befuddled my senses.  I wish I could tell you if the second shot was better, if any of the clays were broken, or anything else that happened after pulling that trigger, but excitement, adrenaline, and a little bit of terror consumed my entire body.  I can say I vaguely recall, as if sleep walking, the slaps on the back and shoulders as I left the range and retreated to the truck.
            My body was buzzing on the way home and for days later.  I had become a hunter, or at least had taken the first major step in becoming one.  I now possessed "the card", my hunter education identification card.  I was one.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Hunter's Tale

    Thoughts from a Hunting Journal
(Part I)

              It could be said that the journey started years ago with my dad bringing home ducks and rabbits, pheasants and an occasional deer.  They were mostly taken from the meadowlands surrounding our home and the public forests of northern New Jersey.  It could possibly be said that it started with my mother hunting those same woods, pregnant, and all the stories and misadventures that go along with those sort of things.  Or it could go deeper, I guess one could suggest, to a grandfather I did not know.  A memory of pictures and stories told, of photos of old-time, black and white deer camps and meat poles, when men of the community went off to far off states to hunt deer and drink and play cards.  A time of history where deer camps had names, his was "Dogpatch" and they wore patches to proclaim their allegiance.  There were dogs, beagles in days gone by, and Labrador retrievers for as long as I have been alive.
             But this is not their journey, it is mine.  And, although my roots may have been sown in that fertile piece of history, they sprouted in an entirely different time.  My journey has brought me to a time of completely different values and views.  I am caught between two worlds, two generations, two separate mindsets, so far apart it seems that I can't even imagine where or when the split came but I know that it is huge.
             Before I speak of the present, one must know and understand from where I began.  This is my journal, my life, my journey.  It is a record for my family, by family, so as they get older the stories can be remembered and retold, so they do not fade like so many other things in life, both more and less important.  It is a hunting journal of sorts, but also a story of life and how the two are intertwined.  My thoughts and memories may meander sometimes between true hunting and merely being outdoors.  Yet are the two so different?  To me, hunting is not solely the act of pulling the trigger or releasing the arrow, it is not merely the taking of life, it is the prologue to the act that carries the heaviest of weight.  The scouting, the stand preparation, the land stewardship, the details like packing, practicing, and pictures, the anticipation, these are the important things to me; and most of all, the sharing.  What good is a story without an audience?  Of what importance is food without mouths to feed?  What is a life without a family to share it with?  In an act based largely on solitary pursuit, camaraderie plays an amazingly important role.  There is no deer camp without hunters.  There is no true family without dear companions.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Tis the Season

            The holiday season began in October, with Columbus Day.  We didn't actually celebrate Columbus coming to America and discovering people living here already (I guess the Indians do not count as explorers or discoverers).  As I have previously chronicled, Halloween comes early in the Great North Woods of New Hampshire.  That is the kick off to our holiday season.  Maybe holiday season isn't an accurate description, outdoor season could serve as a better label.  For it is with the changing of the leaves and the cooling of the air that we truly begin to embrace the coming months.  It is also the start of hunting season and time to be in the woods.
            Through October and into November, we prepare for the snow, and the holidays, by preserving our hard-earned garden harvests.  We finish putting up bales of hay to keep the animals through the snowy months.  The tractors and farm equipment are winterized.  Firewood is stacked, with excess piled near the splitter just in case.  The chores are many but between we fit hunting and the preparations that go with it.  It is a family endeavor, with even the kids pitching in.  Placing stands, clearing brush and downed trees, cutting back intrusive branches along the access trails, just being in the woods together. 
            During this time, we dabble in hunting, taking advantage of the cooler, sunny days.  We set aside a few hours on the weekends to take the kids out to chase squirrels in the colorful treetops, or tromp through the thickets to jump at grouse bursting out of the brambles, or try to teach patience to a seven-year-old by sitting at the base of a tree straining our eyes in an attempt to spot a turkey before it can spot us.  It is only a few short hours, sometimes not even that as the fidgeting starts early, to share, but the memories will last forever.  It is not about killing our prey but spending time outside, away from phones and video games, from work and school, just family time without distraction.  It is amazing how slowly time moves perched in a tree waiting for deer with my daughters beside me.  If I could only bottle the essence of that quality time.
            Thanksgiving marks the middle of our holiday season, the calm right before things begin to ramp up.  Opening Day is near.  Deer Camp is about to start.  It used to be a busy time for us.  A Thanksgiving meal filled with friends and family.  It has slowed some as everyone has grown older and further apart.  But this time is important to our family.  With the hustle and bustle of life pulling on each of us from every direction, we have set this time aside for family.  Raising two daughters,  I have made it a point to try to instill the meaning of these family traditions in them.  I understand that with time and life, they will eventually grow up.  They will establish their own lives and families.  Hopefully, they will remember these lessons from the woods.  Thanksgiving is a tradition of family, deer camp a place to return to each year, the forest a sanctuary to escape from the rigors of everyday.      
             I can only pray, as I sit quietly in my tree and watch the forest come alive, that along with my wife and Grandma and Grandpa , I have nurtured my daughters' love of the outdoors and their sense of pride in family traditions.  No matter where life takes them, their seat around the campfire, their plate at the Thanksgiving table, and their places within my heart, will always be here.  For now I will cherish every moment of those little hands holding mine as we walk through the woods together.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Smokehouse

            With the trees nearly bare and the falling leaves slowly giving way to gently falling flakes, it is nearly past time to preserve the fruits of this year's harvest.  My wife does her part to ensure home grown goodness through the coming cold months by canning as much as she can in the too short weekends.  Her and the kids love making applesauce, salsa, and relish.  Grandma adds to the pantry apricot jelly, pear butter, more salsa, and zucchini breads.  Mason jars quickly fill the shelves.  The dehydrator hums as it produces apple chips and other dried fruits and veggies.  My contribution, and a new sort of fall hobby, is jerky and smoked meats.
            Years ago a family friend spoke of an idea to build a true smokehouse, something reminiscent of days gone by.  It would be an old shed, a larger structure, with an outside smoke source, a firepit of sorts.  The idea never made it out of the dreaming stages, but his tales of jerky and turkey legs slowly smoked to perfection caught my interest.  I experimented with liquid smoke, dry rubs and wood chips before putting the meat in the wife's dehydrator.  Nothing ever turned out just right and recipes never made it out of the experimental phase.  And so I ordered up a real smoker.
            The Bradley electric smokehouse arrived last year and found a home on the back deck.  It simplifies the whole process by automatically feeding little pressed wood discs into the smoke chamber.  There is a control for low heat also and a digital thermometer reading.  Just set the heat timer, the degrees (up to 300) and the smoke duration and the smoker is ready.  There are six racks to hold plenty of meat.  I can usually make about five steaks worth of jerky at one time.  The wood discs come in a wide range of flavors to match any type of meat or taste.  This is the easiest, most convenient way of making jerky (or smoking fish or ribs) I have found.  And the chimney to control the amount of smoke lets out tendrils of smoke during the process to fill the nearby air with tantalizing smells of campfire and BBQ.
             At the end of the day, there is jerky and mason jars full of homemade offerings.  For me, the best part is sharing all these creations with friends and family.  We all try to make enough to not only get us through the winter but also to share.  There is no better feeling than the satisfied grins on the faces of all those enjoying the product of our farm and our work.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Non-Holiday

            It should be right behind the Fourth of July.  It should be held in higher regard than all the rest.  There is no reason for it to be forgotten.  Parades and ceremonies and fireworks simply are not enough.  This is a day to truly be thankful, a day that should be met with football and giant dinners and family gatherings.  It is the one day that should never be taken for granted.  Today is Veteran's Day.
           The company I work for, like most companies theses days, does not recognize today as a day worthy of remembrance.  It is a normal Friday.  The union, as willing to accept dues as they are to concede recognized holidays, does not consider today a day worth fighting for.  I wear the American flag stitched upon my work clothes, but can not recognize the heroes of this country without a sick day.  The men and women who have fought and sacrificed for my rights and freedoms are not worthy of a day of recognition according to many, my company, it's customers, Local 807, and most of the rest of country included.  The beginning of Summer is more important.  The "unofficial" end of Summer is more important.  A fictitious fat man in a red suit is more important.  Watching a giant ball descend a pole while partying with friends is much more important.  The veterans of this country are not as important as these things.  However, without them we would not celebrate such frivolous matters.
            For many years, I hunted with my father on Veteran's Day.  We used to meet in the morning and drive to the Delaware Water Gap and walk the fields there in search of small game, pheasants and squirrels mostly.  We never mentioned that it was a holiday.  We just walked the woods together.  Spending time together was enough, no hoopla.  As my parents left New Jersey to reside in the slower pace of Pennsylvania, my father and I still made plans to meet on Veteran's Day to walk the same fields.  Times have changed since those youthful hunts.  The holiday calendar at work has grown lean on what is considered an important or allowable day off.  I, at one time, resorted to sick days to keep the tradition of hunting with my dad on Veteran's Day going.  Recently, I have used seniority and vacation to ensure that this day is spent with family.
            My father is a disabled veteran of the Vietnam Conflict.  He carries many scars of all kinds with him.  There were years when those scars took their toll not only on him.  I lost some years to those scars, too.  The loss was of time and chances to make memories and I refuse to allow that to ever happen again.  My children take pride in the fact that their grandfather was a soldier and fought for this country.  I will not allow them to lose the opportunity to make memories of time spent with their grandfather.  They proudly celebrate this day knowing they are, in some small part, connected to it.  It is his day and he should have it.  He has surely earned it and continues to earn it, everyday.
            My story is only one of thousands, perhaps millions by now.  My experiences of the effect of war and the cost of politics and freedom are merely a blade of grass in a meadow of such experiences.  All of those stories deserve a place, a day of recognition, a moment to reflect and remember, and a small word of thanks.  These stories are attached to lives, to families.  They can not be allowed to fade from the memory of a nation.  They have sacrificed for every American.  They have earned their day. 
            Who wants to be the one that takes their day away?  Who wants to be the one that allows their memories to fade?  Who wants to be the one that keeps their stories from being told? 

             It will not be me.  Mine is but a small inconvenience compared to their scarifices.  It will not be me.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


            We have just returned from our annual autumn road trip to Cooperstown, NY.  Every year we return to the area where the wife and I tied the knot.  At the top of Mary Brown Hill Rd, just passed the Stress Mountain sign (a sign that still hangs there), lies the original acreage purchased by my parents that started the whole quest for a place in the country.  Up on that mountain overlooking the valley, my father built the trellis under which my wife and I were married.  The mountain is a few short miles from Cooperstown, just a quick ride from Oneonta.  We always detour off the highway to meander down those country roads, chasing the memories of those young days of our time together.  We laugh at the good times we had there as we slowly drive by the old woodlot.  A little further down the road we come to an intersection and turn left.
            Aside from our special little place near Cooperstown and the regular baseball tourism making the pilgrimage to the Hall of Fame, there are some wonderful antique shops, old time candy stores, and loads of twisting roads for the two-wheel enthusiast.  There is also the destination of our road trip, Fly Creek Cider Mill.  The mill is a quaint place filled with samples of every kind.  Dips, salsas, syrups, jams, jellies, sauces, wines, and candies, all fill the shelves of the barn-turned-store.  The outbuildings hold a bakery and snack bar, as well as, an antique tractor display and chicken coop.  It is a worthwhile detour, especially for the person looking for a present or a reminder of their trip.
            Our next stop, and make sure you leave room to eat, is the Brewery Ommegang.  A Belgian brewery right outside Cooperstown.  Drive up the lane, under the arch, and find a parking spot.  Take the tour and sample some of the finest beers made in America, some of them more than just beer.  The brewers added a cafe to the visitors center.  The food is excellent, consisting of fondue and a variety of crepes, both sweet and savory.  The bratwurst paired with the Witte is a can't miss lunch.  The PB&J waffle for dessert will even have the adults fighting over the utensils.  Do yourself a favor and make sure you do not pass on any of the desserts and don't think about sharing.  I wouldn't think of visiting the area without stopping here.
            If you still need more beer, or root beer, and need some Hall of Fame souvenirs, stop by Cooperstown Brewing, just down the road from Ommegang.  This is a more baseball oriented brewery.  All of the beers are adorned with baseball names and labels.  The shop is small and deals in growlers.  It doesn't have the character of Ommegang but is worth a visit.  This also holds true for the winery a little further down the road, Bear Pond, for the wine tasters in the group. It is a little place with warm, friendly folks happy to share their knowledge and their wine.
            As always, we return from our journey down some back roads with full bellies, happy spirits, and a truckload of stuff.  The back of the truck is filled with beer, wine, jams and jellies.  The cooler holds cheeses, pies, cider and fruit.  The kids are giddy with pockets full of candy and fudge.  Grandma and Grandpa, Mom and Dad are smiling with old times and new memories.  And we all talk of our return trip next year and the places we missed or didn't have the time to stop by this year.  The area is golden brown this time of year and the farmland is the perfect backdrop for a road trip.  There's a ton of other places to find along the way, or rediscover from years gone by.  It is a region where a person needs to slow down and take their time to find all the hidden gems.  I intentionally miss a stop here and there to ensure we have something to look forward to next year.

Game Day

            For some it is the day of the week during the time of the year to look forward to most.  You have tailgating, the buzz of the parking lot and the smell of charcoal filling the air.  Parking spaces are turned into small communities that thrive on the anticipation of the coming game.  There is food and drink galore, mostly homemade comfort foods.  The place is a sea of team-colored apparel, jerseys displaying a favorite player or a nickname.  The stadium is ready to erupt with the collective cheers of the masses or deflate with their joined sighs.  This is game day.
           The bars are filled.  Most of the patrons wear the same uniforms as the parking lot crowds.  The cheers are almost as loud, the sighs just as deep.  The food is of the wings and beer kind.  There are TVs everywhere, enough to watch the game and some of the more important rivalries.  A betting man could keep track of nearly every score without leaving his place at the bar.  The beer flows and the party doesn't end until the final whistle of the final game televised for the day.  It is a day-long escape from any other care in the world.
            The final bastion of team support, the living room.  A place where folks take pride in their homemade BBQ sauces and spinach dips.  Friends and family gather to scream at the screen and taunt one another for team allegiances.  It is more intimate setting.  The menu more personal.  The beverage choice more direct and dedicated.  The jerseys are still worn, the cheers still loud, the sighs still collective, but the barbs are far more pointed.  It is a weekly party planned for all week, for seventeen weeks, with hopes of continuing the planning into the playoffs.
            In my neck of the woods, game day is slightly more sedate.  It includes buzzing through the chores a little earlier, filling the lungs with fresh, crisp air.  We still don jerseys.  We still fill the air with tasty aromas of comfort foods by the pot-full.  We plan all week and shop for months readying the menu.  Homemade salsas and chilies, artisans cheeses from local farms, fresh made bread, wine bought from a local winery, personally selected craft beer (or two, maybe three) and seasonal desserts created by little hands adorn the table.  Sometimes there is a heated discussion over the value of a player.  Sometimes our bodies sink a little too deep into the couch, engulfed by pillows and blankets and quiet snores.  Halftime finds us walking the woods in an attempt to clear our heads and eyes of  the encroaching grogginess and make room in our bellies for further indulgence.  If the flakes are flying, a crackling fire in the fireplace will accompany the game, as will thoughts of how many sick days I have remaining.
            It is game day.  Different everywhere but still the same.  An escape from the week as a new week begins.  A day of community and camaraderie and getting together with friends.  It is game day.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Place in the Country

            With a respite from work looming a mere 48 hours away, I catch myself daydreaming of a quiet, country place.  Recently, I have been told that I am made up mostly of rustling leaves, the smell of damp earth, and cool breezes.  That suits me just fine.  I'd rather be known for the simple things rather than stress and drama and headaches.  I would rather be seen as fresh air than a reminder of the everyday.  The remarks about my make up were pointed more towards the contents of my thoughts and ramblings and asking if I could reference work life a little more.  I replied with a smile and a nod but also with the statement that I write what I know and feel.  For the most part I am trying to forget the mundane workday and concentrate on the more important and interesting things that make life so exciting.  This is not to say that job-related observations do not creep into my thoughts, but, for me, I try to keep work those thoughts within the confines of my time card.  Bringing work home is the fastest way to drive both yourself and your family insane.  Family time is just that.  I trade my time for money nearly everyday, so when I have a little extra to spend with my family (or an even smaller amount with my thoughts and a keyboard), I refuse to squander them with intrusions from work.
            And so I return to daydreaming of a quiet, country place.  A place my wife and I purchased, along with my parents, a handful of years ago.  My parents traded a smaller plot by Cooperstown, NY and a summer home in a lake community filled with city-folks in the Poconos, for a more permanent farm setting in which to retire.  My wife and I traded every extra dollar we could muster from our paychecks for a place in the country where our children could run barefoot in the grass.  This would be a place our kids could spend countless hours with Grandma and Grandpa.  They could chase chickens and goats, build snow forts and sleigh ride, jump in leaf piles and grow pumpkins.  We could all retreat from the hustle and bustle and breathe again.  With our combined interests, we were able to find 100 acres of magic during a snowy drive over a Christmas weekend.  A defunct farm, slowly being overtaken by weeds and the forest, was to become once again a thriving homestead.
            Over the last few years, Grandma and Grandpa have turned up the farm factor.  They have added horses, goats, rabbits, and chickens to the barnyard.  Tractors are slowly outnumbering cars.  We have repaired the barns and the fences.  Brush hogged the pastures and spread manure to encourage fresh growth.  Apple trees have been pruned and new ones planted.  Pumpkin patches have been established and the ponds have been mowed clear to allow for cane pole fishing.  Raised bed gardens have replaced rocky areas and fallen trees have been split into firewood.  Deep within the forest, a forgotten cabin has been brushed clean of cobwebs and the old woodstove is once again warming the cozy inside.  The cabin is a secret retreat within a retreat, an even more secluded spot in an already out-of-the-way locale.
            Down by the city, it is easy to look forward to returning to an area where cell phone reception is non-existent, electricity is not a certainty (and routinely is not available), and most of the traffic is of the tractor kind.  I daydream of throwing haybales in the summer (work devoid of drama), splitting wood in the fall (the cool air making quick work of any sweat), planting gardens in the spring (nothing more rewarding than fresh veggies), and plowing snow in the winter (warm, comfort food seems to taste better).  Hunting and fishing, planting and harvesting, maple and mud are seasons.  The rising and setting of the sun are the only time clock.  Working and daydreaming, and something more to look forward to than bringing work home, that is my place in the country.