Trying to envision an Alaskan hunting camp is an exercise in futility. Stereotypical wilderness experiences usually have one imagining a warm campfire, a group of men huddled around its' radiating warmth, guns propped, a faithful dog lying at their feet and tall tales. That is the dream of many but the realities of camp life sometimes take a different path. For months I had been listening to legends and narratives from my companion about all the goings-on in a hunting camp. Wildly exuberant disclosures of near-miss shots with his .454 pistol, recounts of the distinctive camaraderie that ties camp mates together and his gleaming excitement were all part of the enticing tales he would recite to me upon his return from the hunt. This year as he prepared himself for a new season of adventure, a desire to participate in this annual "boys" event was ignited. I wanted to head for the remote and densely wooded hills, I wanted to share in some of the action, I wanted to see what this was all about! What is the allure that makes a man want to spend days or weeks in a territory where the lavatory facilities consist of whichever tree or bush is the closest target? Or where a human could very possibly wind up being a link in the pyramidal food chain?
After arriving at moose camp I spied the incorporation of a lean-to, fire pit and cabin, or my Hunter's Hilton. I was sure that my accommodations would have been the equivalent of an old, leaky and mildewed tent the size of which would barely fit two people and their sleeping bags. The surprise was a real 'lodge' that existed of an 8x10 cabin retrofitted with aluminum siding to help prevent the local brown bear citizenry from burglarizing the"palace". The look-alike shipping container cabin was connected to another ramshackle shed via covered breezeway. Two sets of bunkbeds fit in one corner and a tiny woodstove squatted in the other. Across from the woodstove was a shelf that supported a two-burner gas stove with the complement of a coffeepot. Cozy and warm, it was just perfect for female habitation. The"restroom" of course, was outside-around-the-corner-and-first-spruce-to-the-left.
Soot-covered frying pans, old-fashioned cowboy coffee pots, blackened sauce pans and a variety of cooking utensils hung suspended from support beams around the outdoor cooking arena. The best seat in the house turned out to be an old green vinyl bus bench. Burn holes from campfire sparks outnumbered the grease spots it wore and a Mexican horse blanket added a bit of decorated padding. This was where I would spend part of my time while the other half would be spent traversing heavily trafficked, mud-sloppy trails. Participating in the outdoor cooking experience was enjoyable since it was so contrary to the indoor regimen at home. Washing hands consisted of one good swipe on the ONLY pair of jeans I had brought along, then slopping a little bit of this or adding a little bit of that to the meal was the coup de gras of gourmet camp food. Washing dishes meant tossing the paper plates into the fire and boiling water in the pans to loosen the leftovers.
Dirt just didn't seem as 'dirty' out there.
A purist would have you believe that such human amenities as soap, shampoo, clean clothes, noise and cooking odors keep the wildlife on a huge margin of detour trails. The hunters I visited with washed little, made plenty of racket, bathed in bug dope and ended up dropping their targets while turning the spuds in their cast iron frying pan during a meal prep. As a complement to the ambiance of the hunter's décor, one dead and gutted moose lay a hundred yards upwind from the 'elegant' breakfast of scalloped potatoes and ham steak. As it turned out, the hunter happened to look down the trail as the animal was coming toward him, yanked the trigger only to hear the deafening roar of a click, a misfire! A rerack of the bolt action and a lucky aim brought the unfortunate creature to its end. One first-time hunter showed up decked out in brand new duds, fresh from Cabela's catalog, still smelling like the plastic bags he had removed them from. He hadn't broken them in by wearing them until they could stand up on their own, he hadn't touched them with a scent elimination system nor had he sprayed them with an artificial attractant. And he didn't bag a moose after a week of trailing but he sure looked good!
Like a revolving door, four-wheelers, custom-designed mud vehicles and road trucks drop off one human after another in the heart of moose country. "Choir practice", better known as the bull session, would begin after the evening meal settled in the stomach and the spirits began to pour. Included in one of these sessions was the tale of one particular hunter who shot his pistol in rapid-fire succession from a tree stand ten feet up, so excited that he barely missed his own head in the process! Afterward, he kept repeating, "Huh?"and something about ringing in his ears.
Nearly everyone used a two-way radio to keep abreast of animal movement and each was identified by a unique name tag. One of the rituals of hunting camp was the dispersing of call names or "handles" for use on these squawk-boxes. Monikers are earned due to an event or an instance that happened while hunting or ones' career and are as diverse as the people who inherited them. The stories behind them often make up a portion of the"campfire choir practice," time and time again. The aforementioned pistol hunter goes by the name of "Shutterbug," due to his lifestyle as a freelance photographer. This gentleman, my companion, incurred a tremendous amount of ribbing during his stay at camp due to being the sole hunter using a five-shot pistol.
The first day in camp I was informed that everyone has a call-name and sooner or later mine would be nailed onto me. Some of the names bandied about on the two-way receivers were Bearbait, Half-rack, Fester, Jester and Outfitter. Heaven only knows how those names were earned. My position in camp was more servile and observatory, staying out of the way of hunters yet making myself useful. One of my blunders was the attempt to "wash" pots and pans simply by pouring stored rain water from three barrels strategically located under the down spouts of roof corners. The fire would spit and hiss as the boiling water jumped out of the cookware, nearly killing the entire heat source. Flames leapt up through the bars on the grill while moose steaks sizzled in the cast-iron frypan. Campfire "flak," little bits and pieces of burnt paper wafting through the air, permeated the entire seating area encircling the blaze. By the second evening I was confident of my capabilities as a fire tender and keeper, using a diesel oil and gas compound for ignition. As the cold and hungry hunters trickled in and began their supper preparations, I moved my skillets to make room on the grate. When there were several vessels of varying sizes grouped on the grill and a number of chefs vying for flipping room, I picked up a few scraps of camp trash and plastic forks and tossed them into the fire. "Oh no, you DON'T do that!" wailed one disturbed mortal, "That makes them taste awful!" In self-defense, I claimed ignorance due to the fact that I was brand new at this outdoor event, I was "a camp virgin"...
My famed pistol shooter did not score on moose meat but through the kindness and generosity of "Logger, the latte server/hunter," the freezer now holds several steaks, roasts and jerky-makings of Alaskan moose camp meat. Four days of dogging and tracking moose expended numerous calories, freshened the mind and spirit and made that hot shower at home anticipated as much as the wilderness did upon arrival. Even if one does not have a hunting license, I recommend going along on a hunt, whether it be moose, elk, deer or bear solely for the opportunity to get away from the confines of civilization and enjoy nature to the fullest. Although I arrived in that remote and feral community as a newbie, in one of my last vestiges of virginity to the ways of camp life, I returned to the suburbs as an experienced and "real" Alaskan woman.