As you might know I’m a Pennsylvania native living elsewhere for work, moving wherever they need me to be in order to do cool jobs in cyber security. We’ve had a cabin in the PA Wilds northern camp counties now for 26 years, and I make a point of getting there every year for at least hunting season.
It’s become more difficult recently moving to Denver for work, meaning that I have to drive 24 hours via I-70 or I-80 depending on the route I want to take in order to make it to our little slice of heaven on the Allegheny River. I usually conduct my gear checks in the weeks and months preceeding my trip, but the last few years I’ve been thrown off my game with either work or life attempting to get in the way. This year was no different as our house in Maryland was under contract for the fourth time, and e-mails and requests were flying back and forth between my wife, me, and my realtor while trying to negotiate. I was distracted, but thankfully I didn’t forget anything like my license.
I packed light this year, reducing the amount of my synthetic UnderArmour type poly-propolene based in favor of my new Merino wool kit from FirstLite. I’ll be honest, I’ve stress tested their gear a little last season and all of this season and I’ll say that during my two and a half week stint between the truck and woods I used two Merino wool T-shirts and averaged 1.5 showers a week at our cabin. Our septic system is a “Don’t ask don’t tell” model that’s common in the area that might be two 55 gallon drums, then again it might not be and as long as our back yard doesn’t reek of raw sewage we’re not about to go dig it up. All we know is we need to keep showers and toilet flushes to a minimum over the course of the time the cabin is open for the season. With that in mind, scent control freaks are generally not pleased when they come to our camp, with two setters running amok in the small cabin. Small game season abuts the whitetail season by merely a day since you cannot hunt on Sundays in the Keystone State the pups just want to be loved — and make all of your clothes smell like bird dog.
With nearly four days of travel added to my trip I had to trim the overall time spent in PA, this meant packing deer, small game, bear, and pheasant hunting all into two weeks. With a four day bear season, and a 70 pound Gordon Setter I had to sit her out while we hunted bear and left the long-tailed bear cub at home. I brought the 30.06 and the 35 Whelen for deer, having had too many experiences at camp where someone’s one and only firearm malfunctioned, and brought two doubles for small game and birds, in hindsight perhaps a little overkill but I wanted a chance to run my Ruger Red Label if the weather was decent. Hindsight being 20/20 I could have saved the 35 whelen and exchanged one of my double guns for my Ithaca 37 Deer Slayer Police Special. While not exactly practical for birds (it does swing well though) I would be able to shoot both small game and a chance bear if I brought slugs. That way I could hunt grouse in the thickets and load a slug as the last round as I’d done seasons before.
Bear season was uneventful, seeing neither track nor shadow of a bruin. Five minutes into opening day of bear I watched as a coyote skulked past me on the hillside. Quickly and nervously he looked around, but I hadn’t even chambered a round — nor did I want to shoot in the first several minutes into the season. I had bigger game on my mind. Hours later after seeing nothing on our stand, and hearing very little in the lines of shooting another coyote ran past heading the opposite direction downhill from my stand. I took aim with my 35 Whelen hoping that I’d have a hat or some gloves in my future, flicked off the safety of the Remington 700 and heard the loudest click I’d ever heard in my life as the firing pin struck home with no primer to pierce. In an effort to achieve some semblance of safety on my ascent to my stand I’d never chambered a round. That was the second and last predator I saw for all of bear season.
This year the weather didn’t really hold, and we had a lake effect snow warning what got us a little unnerved when NWS State College issued a warning that up to 16 inches of snow would perhaps fall in less than 48 hours running up to Thanksgiving. Like many weather predictions in the area it was horribly inaccurate, going to sleep the night of the 20th we fully anticipated waking up to the natural silence the insulating power of 16″ of snow on the outside world provides. Our borough’s one plow truck ran valiantly through the night, but it wasn’t necessary save on the one extremely large incline that comes straight down to the river valley with no guardrail — that probably needed a little anti-skid. We were left with a coating of snow not even besting two inches, and a little light flurries after that, just enough to mean that the remaining hunting for small game now that bear season had closed would be treated more like late season.
I managed to get out of the house on Thanksgiving, usually with a pre-and-post lunch jaunt because giblets as a lunch time treat are just too hard to give up! I stayed close for the hunt prior to dinner knowing that most items were just on cruise control, so I worked a thicket on our hillside. Oddly enough I rarely name my grouse coverts until they get marked in my GPS, and even then they don’t have elegant names that seem to pop up in literature chasing Mr. Ruff, my names are more like “Rhonda Grousey”, “Pokey Stabby”, and “Wild Grapes?”. I worked the front hillside on old skidder trails used during a decades old select cut timber harvest. Often I can do double duty checking for buck rubs as I slowly walk through the blackberry, multi-flora rose, and grapevine tangles playing a game of nature Twister praying for the explosion of wing beats. Suddenly it happened. I was just taking a rest, readjusting my coat that had caught on some of the aforementioned pokey stabbies when two grouse burst from the underbrush, a third waiting a half second more as if waiting for my barrels to be emptied. As often happens, I was caught by surprise and didn’t even take the safety off of my SKB, but now the chase was on. I marked the birds and began the awkward chase bending at both the waist and knee to move through small brush portals towards where they went down, this time at the ready for the shot. It was tough walking both with the slight elevation change and the wrist thick saplings that barred my passage to the way I knew the birds had flown. I was able to get two more flushes sight unseen but in the general area I knew there would be more birds, and the direction I was heading. It was reassuring that even a blind squirrel finds a nut some time, I often was caught wandering in circles in the woods hoping for a re-flush that would never come as the bird juked off into a valley or hung out way up into a tree. Mr. Ruff is a trickster, choosing when to make his explosive takeoff at the point most inconvenient for the hunter. I made my way to another clearer path as my visibility began to improve, no more flushes in my last several hundred yards. I caught my breath and took in the scent of the pine trees around me, happy that with the rapidly changing weather I could still breathe at all. Just as I decided to take my first step after a few long moments two birds flushed again, and this time I was almost ready. I flicked off the tang safety and took a hip shot before fully shouldering my gun for a follow-on I never had to take. The second bird had become obscured but just a few yards into the brush where I’d just come from lay a juvenile grouse, a prince among kings. While that was the only grouse I bagged in several outings of mixed bag hunts it’ll be treasured and shared with my wife. When I took it home, I bagged it to clean after a Thanksgiving dinner, I couldn’t be more thankful.
Deer season began the Monday following Thanksgiving, as much a part of the holiday season in northwestern Pennsylvania as turkey day or Christmas. If there’s a war on Christmas going on don’t tell the radio stations there, they were peppering 90’s country Christmas hits into their playlist probably since Pumpkin Spice Lattes came back. We had a couple of first timers at camp this year and one of my friends back for his third hunting season ever. We strung folks out along our usual spots but did not come home victorious on the day with the most hunting activity. In fact, both the Monday opener and the Saturday when doe season started were cold and rainy to the point of being miserable. I don’t suppose very many folks were able to hang meat on the meat poles those days. The amount of shots I heard opening day numbered almost a dozen on the thousands of acres we hunt whereas normally it sounds like an defense force fending off brown fuzzy invaders.
I’d seen a three point while bird hunting that got within 8 feet of me, and he wandered into my view once more during the opening day. He had a dagger spike on one side and the faintest fork on the other, and didn’t pay me any mind at all on Thanksgiving, merely four days before he’d be fair game to some hunters. He might make some junior hunter very happy, but alas he did not meet the three-point-on-one-side minimum for my neck of the woods. We hunted hard for a week and only were able to put eyes on several more does. On the last hunting day that I was in town I decided to still hunt back to camp from the location we’d dropped in while my dad drove. It gave me the most time to walk back slowly until legal shooting hours, and what little was left of my season drained away like grains of sand in an hour glass. I crested a small rise between two different aged clear cuts and saw a group of deer stand up and slowly walk off, tails raised but no snorting. I did the best I could to walk in to where they were and tracked them in the fresh snow and moist ground, following the tracks they’d left as quickly as I dared. It took another thirty minutes of stopping, starting, looking, and studying tracks but I eventually caught up with them. Embarrassingly, they walked right past the stand I’d used on opening day, but it was only a heavy bodied doe and two yearlings by the looks of it. I tried in the fading light to put antlers on the deer at 9 power, but they just didn’t materialize. We used some of the stands I’d previously marked with a GPS based on the winds being forecasted and played the weather as best as we could, we just couldn’t get an encounter with a legal buck this year.
I went back to camp humbled but not defeated. Somehow I’d managed to get a job in Denver and still come back for three weeks worth of adventure in the Pennsylvania Wilds, racking up more time in the woods than perhaps any year I’d ever hunted. Sure, I didn’t have much game in the bag at the end of the day, but that is not the only measure of success. My father will soon retire to the camp, probably in under two years. We’ll have more up to date scouting available as we no longer swoop in for two to three weeks as our distant jobs allow. This year isn’t even over yet, but I already can’t wait for next season at the cabin.