My father was very affectionate and used to take my hand in his big muscular paw and hold it, as we walked around the city of Reading. I went down to his office sometimes after my high school let out. When we saw his insurance colleagues on the street, I felt self-conscious, and naively thought they might wonder if I was his girlfriend or something lame like that, even though I was wearing a parochial school uniform and knee socks. But in the privacy of the Potter County woods, during deer season, with a 30-06 slung over my shoulder, I was deeply happy to hold my father’s hand as we walked in the snow.
There are not many things a teenage young woman can intimately share with her father. We did not discuss boyfriend problems or petty girlfriend issues, but we did talk about a lot of other things as we combed those north woods looking for deer together. He was there to share in many firsts, and if it wasn’t for the gift of Dingman’s Run Hunting Camp, I would not have so many rich, heartfelt memories, nor, more importantly, have become who I am today.
Dingman’s Run Hunting Camp is a big old white frame farmhouse outside Coudersport, that sits on only one acre of land. It was surrounded by the immense property of the Hammermill Paper Mill Company and were allowed to hunt and recreate on it as if it were our own.
Hunting Camp was where I first learned to see. My father taught me to look for shapes, forms, horizontal lines in the woods- logs with no snow on them. When we drove in the car, he would always say, “Look for deer,” and I would scope the fields as we zoomed by and focus in the patches of woods. I was amazed at the critters I would have missed had my father not taught me to pay great attention and really look; to hold them in my mind’s eye. My father taught me to be alert, aware, present, an unbelievable skill that I took to heart as a way of living my whole life; to not go back to sleep and live a foggy, complacent life.
Both my father and I saw the color in light for the first time at Hunting Camp. When the sun set one very clear evening, we raised our hands into the lowering rays and could not believe how it painted our skin a fiery orange. Tree shadows drawn on the snowy ground were actually deep blue, mirroring the brilliant azure in the sky. I took this ability to see and became an artist- a landscape painter. Still, the seeds of my profession were planted in the forest around Dingman’s Run.
Our hunting camp was also where we took our family’s summer vacations. Although my family did not camp primitively in the wilderness like I would as an adult, Dingman’s Run was where I first fell in love with the natural world. My siblings and I spent our vacations picking bowls of wild wineberries, gathering apples for our mom to bake into pies, building campfires, singing songs, laying on a blanket, and witnessing the splendor of a rare, dark sky, decorated with stars and shooting meteorites.
This was also where I first learned the power of smell to evoke memory. We would ride a dirt bike across the fields to a huge old growth oak tree in the middle of a hilltop. Far-reaching views flung the landscape wide open and we would sit quietly soaking it in, my dad quietly sharing his favorite tree with me. On the way to the oak tree, we motored through waist high hay-scented ferns cooking in the sun, an sheared them with our dangling feet as they wrapped around our ankles. The smell of their sweetness was intoxicating, and to this day, whenever I smell hay-scented ferns, it brings me back to summer days at hunting camp.
Both my parents died at a young age and my children neither knew them, nor the joys of hunting camp. So, my sister invited my teen kids up one Memorial Day weekend. As the boys sat on the front porch shooting at beer cans on the hillside, my son asked, “When do the hunting camp activities begin?” My brother-in-law laughed and said, “You’re looking at them.” Hunting camp has subtle joys.
Like most hunting camps, the living area furniture consisted of members’ outcasts- lumpy sofas, frayed upholstery, urine-stained mattresses. Mouse turds were sprinkled on the silverware when we arrived and in the cabinets, and we had to wash everything before we ate off of it. It seemed a little disgusting, but it was part of the hunting camp experience and I learned not to be squeamish.
It was also at hunting camp that I learned to think like a conservationist. Road hunting was acceptable and widely practiced then, especially on remote dirt roads along the northern tier of PA. My dad’s hunting camp buddies sucked on a few “brewskies” as they hunted and tossed the empty cans out the window. In my outspokenness, I piped up immediately and told them what a sloppy habit this was and to clean up their act. They laughed and told me to shove it.
We also took hours longer to arrive at our destination at camp, because we visited various bars along the route. I complained loudly about this too and informed the men how incredibly irresponsible this practice was, drinking and driving. My big young mouth forced them to think about it and eventually change their ways.
Community living with a group of men was very interesting for a young woman. They would sit around, and play cards, and drain beers and ask me to deliver fresh full ones. I was busy doing my own thing and began to resent this assumption that I would be a waitress for them, regardless that I was professionally trained as one. I put my foot down and made an decision to be assertive and say “NO!” As my tongue wagged, they took big hunks of paper towels and shoved them into their ears, pretending to ignore me.
This was all over thirty years ago and thank goodness, times have changed for the better. With DUI’s being enforced, women finding their voice and men evolving, a daughter’s visit to deer camp today would probably be completely different.
Still, some things don’t change. At hunting camp, I would lay wide awake in bed, listening to half a dozen men in one bedroom on homemade rough cut double bunk beds, snoring, and thinking that life with an adult male might not look all that pretty or romantic someday.
My father is long gone. My hunting camp memories have receded into my past, but I was irreversibly changed because of my time spent there. It has been all good, all valuable, and extremely influential in helping to mold me into the woman I have become…a conservationist, an artist, a lover of nature and animals, a hunter, with a deeper understanding of men.