Back in 1993 my father began a search for a cabin after becoming restless on the weekends. He had dreamed of a hunting camp like the one that my uncle and he frequented after graduating college and getting a job in Pittsburgh. They spent one week a year in Karthaus, PA hunting coal company land at a raucous hunting camp where members paid for meals of critter du jour and paid a quarter per can of beer. The food was passable, if sometimes actually pretty good. It was mostly game meat of dubious origin, sometimes being masked with spices or barbecue sauce so as to taste just a little better. It was a big white camp with red trim, a hole ran through the center of the second floor to allow for the potbelly stove to heat the upper floor where the men racked out in their bunks. Everyone pitched in to do some amount of camp chores, especially if you tagged out early and weren’t otherwise assisting in a deer drive, someone always needed to haul water in what seemed like a hundred empty milk jugs held together by a rope to be thrown in the bed of a pickup to get water from a local spring. The dirt lot around the camp looked like something out of a used car lot with four wheel drives of all kinds. They hunted hard, played cards, and often found success when doe tags were plentiful and antler restrictions hadn’t yet been considered. There always seemed to be meat on the buck pole, and I’ve heard no end of stories of the misadventures of my grandfather, dad, and uncle over the years.
Our family had always been social hunters, preferring a group setting over the solitary hunter, practicing bush craft deep in the mountains without contact. My father wanted something a little more refined, a place he could use as base camp to hunt and fish amongst the northern camp counties of PA. He wanted a place somewhere not too far away, around two hours driving distance from Pittsburgh so that it would be easy to escape the city on a Friday night and easy to leave after lunch on a Sunday with minimal work. Somewhere where he could take his growing family to relax and be in nature away from the hustle and bustle of where he worked in downtown
I was five years old then, and my memories for the search of the cabin are fuzzy, but we spent several weeks driving early in the morning into what seemed like the wilderness. I slept most of the way, but my brother and I often awoke to a Coleman stove cooked breakfast of bacon and eggs, pulled in at some public lands picnic grounds. Looking at a map of the state it’s easy to figure out where you would want to spend your time away from the city. The northern third of the Keystone State is covered in a light green indicating public lands, part of the 640 million acres that you, the taxpayer, own. Buying a cabin here ensured that we’d have the biggest back yard to play in, and for my brother and I to grow up in.
My father had been looking for some time for a cabin and settled on an area in Warren County. At the time there was a newspaper strike in Pittsburgh, and predating things like Craigslist, this meant that you needed to pick up a local newspaper and browse the real estate ads, but it also meant that your competition was severely limited from outside the immediate area. Now was the time. There was an ad for a small cottage up in Tidioute, PA. The ad said it was river front and public land adjacent, listed for just under the price of the Jeep Cherokee that my father had just purchased the year prior. That couldn’t be right. None of those properties ever go up for sale!
My parents looked at it, just a little summer home built in the early in 1951, with taxes finally paid by 1953. It was built out of used and salvaged lumber from an old mill that had partially burnt and you can still see where licks of flame kissed it in the eaves of the attic. Much to my five year old chagrin, it wasn’t a log cabin and there was some crying, but when I grasped that we had a 14,000 acre front yard, and 500,000 acre back yard of public land to play on, the pain of the type of siding of the home seemed to fade quickly. Not only were we public land adjacent, we were sandwiched between State Game Lands and the Allegheny National Forest!
Our family bought the camp, and at the time it came with everything in it. The little old lady that owned the camp wanted only the pictures of her departed husband that had built the cottage so many years earlier. The cabinets were full of food, spices still in the cabinet with price stickers for 23 cents for some cinnamon! From the trout opener in April until the end of white tail season in December, our cabin was open to give us a place to adventure and for my brother and I to grow in the woods.