Death of a Camp Man

By LW Oakley

"Every word written is a victory against death". - Michel Butor

The centre of a hunting camp, like most homes, is the kitchen table.

Our camp kitchen table is old and worn like the men sitting around it. There's an odd assortment of chairs at the table that don't match. But that's alright; neither do the members of the camp.

Hunters come from different backgrounds. Some are born on small farms and others come from big cities. Some work as tradesmen and others went from college to a cubicle. Some are part of big families and others are the product of broken homes.

In spite of all their differences, they have other things in common beyond hunting. They are all hard workers and they depend on each other. They build and maintain their own hunting camps including the trails, bridges and tree stands in the woods.

If they're not hunting, working, or sleeping at the camp, they're sitting around the kitchen table eating meals, playing cards and telling stories.

When a member of the camp dies it's like a death in the family. The camp may honour a member who dies with a plaque at his favourite watch or at a place where he once shot a big buck. They may name a landmark after him, like a swamp or a bridge. They may even have a ceremony and spread his ashes in the woods.

They will keep his memory alive by telling stories about him or by mentioning his name in casual conversation at the kitchen table. It's usually something simple like, 'this was Jack's favourite meal,' or 'Jack always liked to sit in that chair,' or 'we never would have run out of paper towels if Jack was still here.'

At a hunting camp you will be remembered for being a good shot, or a good dogger, or a good camp man, which means you were always fixing something, or cutting wood or giving someone a hand. But it's best to be remembered as a good hunter, which means that you were all those things.

Sometimes you don't appreciate a camp man until he is gone. It happens when certain jobs around the camp which were taken for granted no longer get done. You wonder why the wood box is empty, or why supper is late again, or why there's no toilet paper in the outhouse.

Eventually you realize that the person who did those jobs never went around reminding everybody that 'I did this' or 'I did that.' He did things because they needed to be done. He did things without being told. He did things without taking credit. And he did things without complaining.

When a camp member dies there's an empty chair at the kitchen table. The new member often never fills the shoes of the man who once sat in that chair, no matter how good of a hunter he is.

This story could be about any member of our camp or any other hunting camp. But it's not, because of one lasting memory that I have of Jack, when I first joined the camp. He had already been part of the camp for a long time when we went into the woods together one afternoon while everyone else stayed behind playing cards at the kitchen table. I was his passenger riding on the back of his Honda four-wheeler.

He stopped the bike along the trail and said, 'I was thinking about this spot for myself, but I'll put you here.'

Before driving off he showed me where to stand and which way to look and where the deer would probably appear.

I shot a buck before he arrived on his watch, only five minutes away. It happened just the way he said it would.

I forgot my knife that day so I used Jack's knife to gut the deer. He even had two cans of beer in his knapsack to celebrate. We talked and sipped our beer standing over the deer in the woods trying to make the moment last. But the thing that I remember most was the thing that didn't seem possible - even though it was all his doing, and even though it should have been his deer, he seemed happier than me.

The kitchen table at the hunting camp like so many other familiar places in our lives is like a waiting room. We go to the camp and work and hunt but always spend a lot of time sitting around that table. Sometimes I think it's like we're sitting there waiting for our turn to die. It's like we're waiting for that knock at the door. And when it opens the Grim Reaper enters and points at someone and says, 'It's your turn. Let's go. Come outside with me.'

And if you're lucky he will take you outside and end your life quickly. If you're not, he'll take you out to the woods and tie you to a tree where you'll spend your remaining days and nights dying a long slow death until nothing is left except maybe a dusty old piece of rope and the memories of the men still sitting around the table at the centre of the camp.

The men around our camp table will keep Jack's memory alive in the woods where he had some of his best days, and one big day in particular. A plaque will be nailed to a tree near Otter Creek not far from Kaladar, Ontario. These words will be scratched on it: Jack Lake (1943-2013) killed a big buck in these woods on November 3, 2004.

The words on the plaque will not only remind us of Jack. They will also remind us of the big buck who lived and died because his death gave us a lasting memory that day in the woods.

LW Oakley lives in Kingston and is the author of Inside The Wild, which is available at the publisher's website www.gsph.com

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