I went deer hunting last week with my friend Bill at his camp in the Adirondacks. The trip over entailed a beautiful ride down Route 28, then a misty boat ride across a frosty lake.
The camp sits on land that’s part of the 50,000-acre Adirondack League Club – the largest privately held preserve in the ADKs. Such clubs were the rage back in the mid- to late-1800s, as families flush with cash from the Industrial Revolution bought up land so they could have a place in the country to recreate. There was also a conservation component; as the Adirondack region was being denuded by timber interests and market hunters, these private preserves served as incubators where progressive forestry and wildlife management techniques could be practiced.
The camp itself was a gorgeous homage to the past: a modest, simple structure on the edge of a lake with exposed 2x4 framing, chamfered clapboard siding, a big screen porch, stone fireplace, wood cookstove, blue milk paint on the kitchen walls, Adirondack guide boat in the boathouse/garage. It was the kind of 1920s-era charming that warrants glossy spreads in Cottage Living magazine, though with more firearms and wet boots and wool hunting clothing hanging over the stove.
The woods around camp featured a cherry, red maple, yellow birch overstory and a wicked beech understory. I’ve heard foresters talk about the beech brush problem in New York, and always thought yeah, yeah, we have that in Vermont, too. But now I see what they’re talking about. Some of the cherry trees out there were smoking beautiful – like Alleghany cherry. And in some places it grew in pure stands, which I’ve never seen before. There was some red spruce and balsam fir, too, especially at higher elevations and around wetlands.
The land itself was this wild testament to the Laurentide ice sheet. There were all these (I think they’re called) drumlins – from the Irish droimnín: “little ridge” – these small, sheer hills with flat tops that ran parallel with one another. The land was also marked by giant glacial erratics – much bigger, a lot of them, than what I see in Vermont. Here they’re usually car- or truck-sized. Quite a few of them I saw in the ADKs were small house-sized.
The bird song was provided by the usual, mostly atonal, late fall suite of birds, but also by some loons who hadn’t left the lake yet, their cries a throwback to summer and odd to hear while walking through snow. I guess adult loons migrate earlier than juveniles, and with snow on the ground for much of my visit, I’m guessing these were procrastinating youngsters.
There were not a lot of deer per square mile in the area, as it’s in the lake effect snowband and the coldest region of the Adirondacks, but the ones I did see were impressive. In southern Vermont the deer are built like little race horses. Out there they’re built like percherons. Bill shot a fine buck with an obscenely swollen neck. When we gutted it there was a sheet of caul fat around the viscera and adipose deposits along the spine the likes of which I’ve never seen. There are no beech nuts out there this year, so I don’t know how he put on this weight. But all the deer seemed to be doing it. Even the does looked like round balls – like hogs on long legs.
When I was a kid I used to read Adirondack hunting stories, and they all seemed to end with a big rack buck being paddled across a lake in the dark. At 11 p.m. on Halloween evening we emerged from a spruce swamp and loaded one such buck into a boat, then shoved off beneath a star smeared sky. Life doesn’t often conform to what’s in the storybooks, so I made sure to appreciate every moment.