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Lange: Hunting Camp

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Hunting camp as a cultural ritual extends in a swath across most of North America. This week I’m in a camp in far northern New Hampshire. Folks who haven’t been, often imagine it a scene of bacchanalia. But I’ve never found that in any camp since my first deer season in 1957.

Sure, there’s usually whiskey in a cupboard, and icicles on the eaves to cool it, but it’s used sparingly. My first evening ever in camp, however, Jim Brown, who owned the place, was pouring, and asked if I wanted some. “Sure!” I said, in my best manly tones. He poured me half a porcelain coffee cup of Jim Beam.

I finished it, and didn’t feel any different; but when I sat down to supper – venison chops, mashed potatoes, and green peas – I could cut the meat just fine, and scoop up the potato, but I couldn’t keep the peas on my fork. So I waited till no one was looking, hooked them into my left hand with my fork like a pharmacist counting pills, and popped them into my mouth.

I thought I was getting away with it, till Jim grabbed my fork and mixed my peas and mashed potatoes together. “There!” he said, “I guess you can keep ‘em on your fork now, eh?”

For fifty years I went to the same camp, on the eastern edge of the high peaks of the Adirondacks. The patriarch of the place set the tone, and planned campaigns worthy of a field marshal. Meals were serious, too (He muttered a Roman Catholic grace before each supper), and the conversations were of plans of the next day’s attack. He alone kept things stable; and when he died, changes led inevitably to the sad dissolution of the whole enterprise.

Here at Hellgate in northern New Hampshire, tradition runs deep. This old cabin was rescued from disintegration, moved to its present location, and rebuilt and modified. It’s named for a famous hunter from the Dartmouth class of 1925, whose nephew is the current patriarch. Early mornings, we celebrate Uncle Pete with a mixture of grapefruit juice and Brugal rum. Then the old guys do the dishes and usually go back to bed.

For me, it’s a chance to get away from the constant reminders of tasks undone. A chance to listen to rain, sleet, snow, or wind beating upon a metal roof; the rumble of firewood being stacked in the box beside the stove, and the squeak of the stove door during the night as somebody feeds the fire.

The stars shine as brightly here, almost, as they ever have anywhere. The muted roar of Hellgate Falls fills the background. Gray jays come flitting to the porch to see what we have for them. They took away the bread chunks that Jack put out for them; I held up a cashew. One flew to it, gripped my fingers with his claws, and pulled the nut free. I felt like a priest sharing communion – not inappropriate at all, in this almost holy place.

This is Willem Lange at Hellgate, New Hampshire, and I don’t have to get back to work – today.