30 Years at Camp, Part 1

It all began 30 years ago, soon after I married my second wife Patti, and she took me up to Tidioute, PA, where her father Warren Lary had established a modest camp right after World War II.

I caught a brook trout from Thompson Run on my very first cast there, and a few months later my two brothers Skip and Billy and I all shot white-tailed bucks on opening day of our first-ever hunt there. But more than that, we all fell in love with State Game Lands 86, a 14,000-acre tract of public land made up of steep hardwood ridges populated by deer, bears, and wild turkeys, and deep wooded valleys excavated by glaciers 10,000 years ago.

Tiny coldwater streams now run there, flanked by huge sandstone boulders and cooled by hemlock groves so that wild native brook trout can thrive in their pristine waters. And the Allegheny River, that all these streams run into, heartbeat and artery of the region, running left to right down the slope from camp’s front porch, always downstream, north to south, coming and going as sure as the sun.

We bought the camp in the spring of 1986 and began to make improvements, including painting the building and clearing the grounds. Father-in-law Warren and my father Powser were both retired and became patriarchs and mainstays in the early days of Camp F-Troop. I cannot list here all the friends and family who have visited over the years and enjoyed the wilds of northwestern Pa. and the camaraderie of camp, but it would number well over one hundred.

The best decision I made about camp was to establish the Camp Journal, into which we’ve placed notes and photos from hundreds of visits over the thirty years. That journal is now three huge loose-leaf notebooks, the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the New Millennium, all bursting with photos and comments from visitors about who was there, what we did – hunting, fishing, hiking, exploring, kayaking, swimming, campfires, food gorging, card games, and more – and what wildlife we saw. It is a family treasure. The first thing a new visitor to camp does is sit down and leaf through the years and  years of camp adventures, so that they can get a glimpse of the history and culture of this precious property.

My son Randy (camp name Fred) has lived in New England and Arizona much of his life, but that hasn’t stopped him from coming to Pa. and visiting camp multiple times, first as a teenager, later with his wife Presley and kids Zack and Kori. We have a plan right now for a fall fishing and hiking trip in October. But there was a special time from 1990 to 1993, when Fred went to college in Columbus, Ohio, within driving distance to camp, and he and I and camp founding members Gary Peterson and son Brett spent many a weekend at camp fishing, roasting hot dogs over the campfire, and target shooting. I call those the Fred Years at camp and wrote a chapter about them in my Camp Chronicles book. My Nephew F-Man, brother Billy’s son, has been going up from age two to 32, literally all his life.

Other events of the 1990s were the Terrific Spot for grouse hunting, the evolution of deer hunting, and the remodeling of camp. In 1990, we found a large clearcut the Game commission had created five years earlier that had the perfect second growth for ruffed grouse cover, and we hunted there every winter for nine years, after which the growth became too mature and sparse. You look into the camp journal and see all those hunters holding up dead grouse and remember the 25 or so flushes and 10 shots that it took to kill an elusive grouse or two, and remember what a treasure that spot was.

Also in the 1990s, we experienced the evolution of deer hunting. At first we saw dozens of deer every hunting day and shot many bucks, but they were mostly spikes and forkhorns, until December, 1997, when Brett shot a wide-racked and massive 8-point, and we’ve been getting big deer ever since. I attribute this to lower hunting pressure more than antler restrictions, which came along several years later.

We also did major remodeling in the decade. Gary’s camp name is Beautiful Gary or Master Builder, because he can build or repair anything. The rest of us are mere grunt workers, but we helped him replace the old front porch with a covered deck in 1994 and build a whole new addition with full kitchen, real bathroom facilities, and a second-story back deck in 1997-98.

Nineteen ninety-six saw the first visit of Todd Puleo to camp, which changed everything. He brought members of the younger generation (in their 20s then and 40s now), such as Digital Richard, Mo Lester, Big Game Shawn, and Mashed Potato Matt, and eventually Todd became General Manager of camp.

In 1999, Powser passed away and Patti and I split up, which brought to a close The Old Testament Camp Journal. But stay tuned for my next column, which will cover the years 2000-2016 and new camp members and new adventures.

“The Evening Campfire” from The Herald, July 3, 2016.

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