As I approached the Lynch Road Exit off Interstate 70, there was a huge smile on my face—Columbus, Ohio, lab work and graduate school were approximately 250 miles away. I drove the last 20 minutes of my journey through town and pulled ‘Old Silver' (my trusty Chevy Silverado) into the gravel drive of my farm and our hunting lodge. Anxiously, I threw on my antique-patterned camouflaged jacket over my Carhartt bibs, stained from last year's harvest, and quickly grabbed my gear bag and shotgun—a 12 gauge Remington 870 pump action. I took in a breath of crisp, fresh air, and smiled again as I saw the familiar sights of my farm. I noticed smoke rising from the lodge—I was sure the other hunters in our camp were drying their cold, wet clothes from the morning hunt—and quickly scanned the playing field for evidence of a successful morning hunt. After another deep, excited breath, I jumped into the cab to grab the wooden box that was made by my grandfather and that which carried my deer slugs. And I practically ranto the door, knowing that just inside was Deer Camp and all its smells, raunchy stories, exaggerated tales of missed deer and most important, my dad and friends who I hadn't seen in a long time.
But before you're allowed to experience Deer Camp, you need to have an intimate knowledge of our farm and the North Fork Hunting lodge. But I should warn you: it's hard for me to describe this landscape. I'm a scientific writer trained to write in a dry, direct and concise manner, but despite my literary limitations, I truly believe words cannot describe what you'd see and feel if you were to visit our deer camp. Our farm is approximately 300 acres of corn and bean fields, hardwood forest that follows the North Fork River, restored fields of native grasses—a lot of the land that's not farmed was once mined for rocks—a 7-acre fishing pond, an outdoor archery and rifle range and a 25 station clay-pigeon shooting course. Wooden "deluxe" treestands are carefully scattered throughout the property, and the winding gravel road that leads to shooting course and Back 40 is lined with pine trees that were planted by my father and sisters and I approximately 20 years ago.
The lodge itself is an old pole barn that's been renovated over the years in a discombobulated fashion; some walls still have the original insulation, some have been covered with sheets of plywood and decorated with dead animals, flags of the colleges my sisters and I have attended and other odds-and-ends—typically things that fellow lodgers' wives won't allow to hang in their living rooms or basements. The south wall is cluttered with hunting gear, muddy boots and a large television that sits in the corner surrounded by dusty, old couches and chairs. The kitchen is in a separate room that was walled-off from the rest of the pole barn, and is equipped with a stove, microwave, sink and nine bunk beds. The walls are covered with old hunting hats, more dead animals and the signatures of every visitor—several of which profess their undying love for their significant other. However, there are several names that have been marked off or modified because alas, "Johnny" no longer loves "Debbie." Right outside the kitchen, probably one of the oldest of its kind still in operation, is a green fridge that warns outsiders and non-hunters: "Beer and Deer Piss Only."
So I stand just outside the lodge, one hand on the cold metal doorknob, and open the door into what many would consider a foreign, maybe offensive scene; yet to me I knew it would be a scene of the familiar and full of life memories and the people who I love the most. Seconds after I opened the door and walked onto the old shag carpet rug, I heard a loud "Abbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbby" and my smile widened as my dad quickly walked over and scooped me up into a hug that I drove 4½ hours to get. My dad's hug was followed by several other ones (after all, I am one of the only women at deer camp!). Again, I take a deep breath, and although the first breath inside the lodge has a musty, diesel-like smell and taste to it, I love every second of it because that smell and taste tells me that I'm finally home and that everything that was weighing me down is now 250 miles behind me and the only thing in front of me is yet another Deer Camp.
Early the next morning, snuggled in my warm sleeping bag located on the top bunk of the three-story sleeping quarters, I groaned when I heard the familiar sound of George Strait singing about heartache and hard times. I quickly pulled the bag over my head, hoping that it wasn't time to get up. But then there were lights, and even worse, my dad was singing a made-up song that went something like "Hunters, hunters … time to rise, and look up at those beautiful skies. … We're gonna kill some deer today … ." My first thought was, "Seriously, dad, you cannot even see the sky because it's pitch black and four in the morning! Plus, I'm on vacation, I'll just do the afternoon hunt." Soon, however, the kitchen was filled with the smells of bacon, scrambled eggs and yes, coffee, so I relentlessly dragged myself out of the bunk and went to the other room to put on layer No. 1 of my cold-weather hunting gear. Breakfast was devoured and everyone then went off to begin their own ritual of preparing for the hunt; packs were filled, thermoses were topped off with coffee or hot chocolate and finally, dad assigned treestands.
We would be hunting "Old Betsy," the double-wide treestand in the northwest corner of the property. I smiled inside because I didn't want to gloat at getting the best spot. But I wasn't surprised because my dad and I always have our first hunt of the season out of "Old Betsy." Dad started up the Dodge Ram and asked me if I had to "tinkle?" Yes, in front of 15 grown men decked out in Realtree camouflage my father asked me if I needed to tinkle, which was the same thing that he's asked me before we started a hunt together since I was 5 years old. I reassured him that I had it all taken care of, so he started down the barley distinguishable gravel road toward the pit where we'd start the hunt.
We got to the pit around 5:30 a.m., plenty of time to get to the stand before sun light. It was still pitch-black outside and the only light was provided by the stars and the faint distant glow of the floodlight outside the lodge, approximately a mile away. It was cold and the wind had a bite to it, which made you pull your blaze orange cap tightly over your ears. We jumped off the pickup truck, grabbed our shotguns, exchanged good luck smiles and then headed off into the unknown; my dad grabbed my hand as we began the walk toward "Old Betsy." Walking to that treestand, before the sun has come up, has always been one of my favorite parts of Deer Camp. The best part of the walk is the fact that you have no idea what lies ahead of you that morning. Whether you'll see a deer or simply be tormented by squirrels running from tree to tree is left completely to Mother Nature's whim. It's quiet and the only sounds heard are the muffled voices of hunters as they head off down their separate paths, sharp gusts of wind and the crunching of dirt, rocks and recently harvested corn stalks beneath your feet.
My dad and I did not exchange words because there was really nothing that needed to be spoken. I'm always flooded with 20 years of memories walking to this same treestand, sometimes with my twin sister, Emily, waddling next to me—I say "waddle" because when we were younger my dad put so many layers on us we could hardly move!. Most of the memories are good and one that I always think of us is of Emily when she was about 8 years old. Emily was hunting "Old Betsy" with my dad's good friend and she helped him shoot the largest 14-point buck ever to be shot on the property by whispering to a sleeping man, "Mr. Parise, there's the deer!" She was definitely the hero of the day. But there are also sad memories; when my heart was broken I made the 13-hour journey home from Delaware and my dad and I sat in "Old Betsy" while I cried as I imagined that I would never smile again. Good or bad, "Old Betsy," the farm and my father have been stable, comforting and permanent elements of my life. None of which I think I could do with out. And as "Old Betsy" grew near, I glanced at my dad out of the corner of my eye and knew that he'd just recalled the same memories. We finally reached the leaf- and bark-covered barbed-wire that surrounded "Old Betsy," and as we tied our shotguns to the rope, the only thing I could think of was how lucky I was to have a dad who not only has instilled in me a great love and connection for nature, this farm and the land that we hunt, but who has also taught me what it's like to love and to be loved.
After climbing the treestand, securing our packs and loading our shotguns, dad and I began the long, yet exciting wait. I was to watch the cornfields east of the stand and dad was to watch the shooting lane in the forest to our west. The sun came up and the sky was filled with bold orange and pink colors. There was a cool, yet steamy, mist over the cornfield and I could barley make out the old brown and yellow corn stalks that were left on the ground after the harvest. It was still cold and I could see my breath as I tried to sit quietly, looking for any signs of movement. I yawned as I scanned the rest of the field to check on the other hunters and saw little dots of orange scattered throughout the entire farm—an awesome sight to behold. I opened my Mossy Oak camouflaged thermos and poured myself a cup of coffee, and I'm sure that I said a little prayer, as all hunters do, that Mother Nature would send me a big trophy buck. The next few hours were spent in anticipation and reflection as I thought about everything from which movie we'd watch back at the lodge to where life after graduating Ohio State would take me.
Approximately 4 hours after we climbed into the stand, a loud shot came from a stand across the cornfield. Dad and I quickly bolted out of our relaxed state of mind and scanned the field for any signs of deer on the run—I was half-hoping that who ever shot had missed the deer and would send it our way! No such luck for us, and because it was almost 10 a.m., we decided to call it a morning and help track the first kill of the day so we unloaded our shotguns and headed down the tree.
On the short drive back to the lodge, with hunters on my left, and a good-looking 2-year-old button buck behind me, I was filled with a sense of happiness and satisfaction. To me, the first hunt of the season is always the best. Even though neither my dad nor I was able to fill a tag, we made yet another memory that I'd file away; another memory of "Old Betsy" and one of hunting with dad, on the farm that I love.