Remember that old nursery rhyme from your childhood, A-Hunting We Will Go? Well, a-hunting is exactly what a large proportion of the male population (and a few members of the female population too) in our neck of the woods are currently engaged in. Which is why you won’t see all that many men around for the next couple of weeks; they’re in hunting camps in various corners of the back of beyond, shivering in the cold, tracking deer, and generally enjoying the camaraderie and having a whale of a time. It’s not my idea of a good time; in fact it’s pretty much the extreme opposite of my idea of a good time. But it’s a highlight of the year for many people, and I am pretty sure that the camaraderie part is much more the reason for that than the actual hunting part.
You know hunting season is approaching when the flyers for Canadian Tire and similar stores feature spreads like the one in the photo atop this post. Guns, ammunition, camouflage and bright orange jackets and caps – all the stuff a person needs to go hang out in the bush and try to nab some game. On the weekend before the season starts – which would be this weekend just past – the streets of the local towns, Madoc and Tweed, are practically jammed with heavy pickup trucks hauling trailers bearing one or more all-terrain vehicles; those ATVs are what the intrepid hunters use to get to their particular corner of the back of beyond. (When I was talking to my mum the other day about the hunting-camp tradition in the Queensborough area, she cast her mind back to the days when our family lived here in the Manse and recalled how the air would be filled with the sound of tractors rumbling out of town as groups of men headed for the hunt camp. Tractors and wagons are indeed how people used to cross the rugged terrain to get to their camps, but the invention of ATVs has made it moderately easier.)
Also bustling in town on the weekend before the season starts are the grocery stores, where the designated camp cooks are loading up on supplies, and the Beer Store and the LCBO. Hunting can be thirsty work! (As can camaraderie.)
Now, humour me for a moment while I show you this YouTube video for kids featuring the above-mentioned nursery rhyme. Don’t bother watching more than 30 seconds or so of it; I wouldn’t. But I wanted you to see a bit of it because of the funny contrast between the cartoon hunters and the pastoral landscape in which they’re hunting, and the real thing here in the wilds of Hastings County. Okay, here we go for half a minute or so:
Now I want to show you some photos of what the hunting experience really looks like when you’re in the rocky wilderness of the Canadian Shield:
Kind of a stark difference, isn’t it? The area where those photos were taken is an amazingly lonely, barren and forbidding section of central Hastings County immediately north of Elzevir Township, where Queensborough is located. It is called Grimsthorpe Township, and if you think that’s an ominous-sounding name, well – the place lives up to it. Grimsthorpe Township pretty much defines Canadian wilderness. There are no settlements and no permanent inhabitants (as far as I know – aside from the wildlife, notably the mosquitoes and blackflies, that is). When the hardy 19th-century surveyors who helped open up the Ontario backwoods to settlement and farming tried to survey Grimsthorpe, they gave up, deafeated by the terrain and the bugs. It is, as my friend Grant Ketcheson aptly puts it in his book The Camp at the Hayrake, The Land God Gave to Cain.
Which of course makes it perfect for a hunting camp!
And that is what the Camp at the Hayrake is; and in his book (which is available here) Grant lovingly tells the history of that camp, which he and his group have been going to every late fall for many decades. The book is a delightful collection of history, humour, reminiscences, light-hearted poems, photos – and sketches of the leading characters (and they are characters) by Lloyd Holmes. Even as someone who will never ever go hunting, I enjoyed the book thoroughly. (Of course, it helps that I know, or remember, many of the main players in it.)
Here is one more set of photos from The Camp at the Hayrake that I think gives a sense once again of the ruggedness of hunting-camp life, but also that camaraderie that I’ve been speaking about:
I thought I’d leave you with one of Grant’s entertaining poems from the book, which nicely captures the adventure, the fun and the bonding that this group of hunters, and many others like them in our part of the world, experience as they go back to their cherished pieces of wilderness year after year. Take it away, Grant!
The Heroes of the Hayrake
The heroes of the hayrake are known throughout the land
As men whose woodland skills are nothing short of grand.
These gallant guys in Grimsthorpe are mighty men and tall,
They shoot a buck of twelve points or they don’t shoot at all.
They never shave the whiskers from off their thorny hide
They just pound them in with a hammer and bite them off inside.
They eat their meals a’running as through the woods they go.
The weather bothers not these men, rain or sleet or snow.
When they shoot a giant buck, one with a mighty rack,
They go right on a’hunting with it slung across their back.
Meals are taken on the run, they never stop to sleep,
And when they’re done with deer they pile partridge in a heap.
So if you meet a Hayrake Man in that northern land,
Say you’re pleased to meet him, go shake him by the hand.
Then you can tell a story your children sure will keep
Of how you knew the giants from the hayrake by the creek.
– Grant Ketcheson
I don’t know about you, but I’m glad that I know many of the giants, past and present, from the Camp at the Hayrake. And you know what else I’m glad about? That it’s them, not me, who have to spend two weeks in the freezing wilderness stalking those deer.