SI Vault
Virginia Kraft
November 20, 1967
Autumn is the hunter's time on the plateau north of the Grand Canyon. The tourists have all gone home, but deer still linger in the high land as if to savor the last leaves of summer
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November 20, 1967

A Hunt In The North Kaibab

Autumn is the hunter's time on the plateau north of the Grand Canyon. The tourists have all gone home, but deer still linger in the high land as if to savor the last leaves of summer

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All deer hunting in the North Kaibab is by permit. Each year sportsmen from all parts of the country apply for permission to hunt during the two annual 11-day seasons. Of the 12,000 who applied earlier this fall, 7,500 received the little bits of computer-punched paper, prized as highly as shares in a producing well, that granted them the privilege of hunting the Kaibab deer.

The many-tined Kaibab deer, with their massive heads and huge bodies, are legendary. The Piutes and Navajos hunted them generations ago, laying away their meat and skins for winter. Theodore Roosevelt was so impressed by the deer and by the beauty of the area in which he found them that he decided, in an act of classic misguidance, to "save" both for the future. By presidential decree, he declared the entire Kaibab Plateau and most of what is now Grand Canyon National Park—an area totaling more than a million acres—a game preserve. He outlawed all hunting, began a vigorous campaign against predators and touched off a chain reaction which, before it had ended, very nearly destroyed both the game and the land of the Kaibab for all time.

As the deer herd, unchecked by the forces that normally moderate it, increased entirely out of control, the range decreased in direct proportion. Land that had once comfortably supported 8,000 deer was soon picked bare by 100,000. One naturalist surveying the Kaibab said: "Where else can you see 1,700 deer in a single meadow?"

A year later the answer was: not in the Kaibab. For by then food was so scarce the great die-off had begun. When conservationists finally began to suspect that T.R. had not been correct in his game theories, it was almost too late to do more than save the deer from extinction. They have been saved, it is gratifying to report, and the herds in recent years have begun to return to their former numbers.

The number of permits issued each year by the Arizona Game and Fish Commission is based on the number of excess deer that should be harvested to keep the herd healthy and the range sufficiently productive to support them, multiplied by the percentage of hunters who will be unsuccessful in taking deer. Because the hunting is considerably rougher than on most deer ranges, this percentage probably is higher than might be encountered elsewhere.

The most luxurious setup in the North Kaibab is at Pine Flat Camp, which belongs to G.L. Gibbons, a carrot-topped trucker from Tucson who answers to the name Rusty and who looks so much like Mickey Rooney that he finally gave up, years ago, trying to deny it, and now in self-defense he signs autographs with the actor's name. Because it is in a national forest, the Pine Flat Camp land is not actually owned by Gibbons. Rather, he holds a long-term lease on it. He pays an annual rental fee and also pays for all improvements and maintenance of the operation and grounds. The camp, in the midst of the wilderness, is an unexpectedly opulent oasis.

There is a main mess cabin, with a huge kitchen and a dining hall large enough to feed 50 to 70 people at a seating. Rusty believes in feeding them well. The pantries are stocked to the ceilings with rows of canned, dried and packaged foods, crates of fresh fruits and vegetables and cases of liquor. Outside, the cold house bulges with sides of beef and a supermarket assortment of bacons, hams and lighter lunch meats.

Surrounding the mess cabin, which is also the relaxing, drinking, tall-tale-telling center of the camp, there are five small cabins set in a semicircle in the pine clearing. Each sleeps anywhere from 6 to 12 hunters who rough it in sleeping bags spread on cots complete with springs and mattresses. Each cabin has electric light, produced by the camp's generator, and a squat, black potbellied stove to warm the frosty mornings. The stove in the cabin I shared with Gibbons, his wife Fran, his daughter and her 9-year-old son, Mark Viar, almost warmed Rusty for good.

Originally our stove was lit by one of the camp hands, who creeps around well before dawn starting fires in all the sleeping cabins. For some reason ours did not stay lit, and Rusty crawled from his sleeping bag, splendid in long Johns, to do something about it. A man who never takes the long route when there is a quicker way, Rusty's idea of a shortcut in this situation was contained in a can of lighter fluid. I was still deep inside my sleeping bag when the can exploded. Rusty went up in a burst of flame—long Johns, and all. With his customary nonchalance, he pulled a blanket from the bed, rolled himself in it and put out the fire. His startled grandson watched with an expression of horror and awe.

"You see what can happen, kid," Rusty said, brushing soot from his singed whiskers. "That's why I keep telling you never to put that stuff on an open fire." He thereupon shuffled through his duffel bag for another can, squirted it directly into the belly of the little stove and winked a blackened eyelid at me.

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