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Every hunter I knew was gaunt about the ribs. Socially, they were inattentive. The deer hunting in the Adirondacks had been awful.
The sport long ago became another witless mass diversion automatically performed in the autumn by droves of the wrong people, a meaningless, commercialized, anachronistic, habitual indulgence, an annual all-points diddle of women, employers, the deer, ourselves. We've learned to live with the mob wheezing and hacking about the woods in search of a hood ornament.
The past several years, but this year, especially, there didn't seem to be any deer. People quit asking each other. "Got your buck yet?" They assumed not. If somebody did get one, he didn't brag. His buck only emphasized the scarcity of others. He parceled out the meat for his friends.
I waited for snow and cold, hoping the deer would start to move, thus making tracks, thus proving their existence. My old hunting area, the hills around Lake Ozonia, had been sold and divvied up—leased, anyway. I trespassed a little with the natives, leaving the posted country to the lessees on the weekends. They probably don't even know where their lines are. Ambrose Stark kept saying we would put one in the kettle. Day after day we saw nothing, not even a doe.
One man I talked to had simply quit. Said he wasn't hunting because there weren't enough deer in the woods. He is glaringly unique to react so logically. Most of us hunt deeper and longer, not less.
Earl Hazen, for example. He has 60 cows to milk night and morning, and his hunting club is an hour away. His whiskers grow, schoolboys come over icy roads on bicycles to do the chores, the corn ground goes unplowed. He sees a buck at last, misses with the first shot, and his gun, neglected, jams. He cleans and oils it, then tries it on a coy-dog pouncing after rodents way off at the top of the pasture, misses, but the weapon reloads properly. He resumes. The schoolboys milk without him.
I felt like Earl about hunting—it had to remain credible. Surely deer existed in the big private holdings hereabouts: Kildare, Whitney, St. Regis, Litchfield, Rockefeller. These tracts of Adirondack forest must provide hunting with the old coherence, craftsmanship, romance. I wanted a few thousand acres to myself, that was all. I would seek an invitation; meanwhile, not to miss a chance, Earl took me to Madawaska Club.
Until around 1940 most of the St. Regis Paper Company land that lay northwest of the town of Saranac was open hunting. But the taxes rose, and St. Regis posted its land, forcing the hunters to lease. To retain the right to hunt a little of the area they used to roam, Thurm Hazen and some local men formed a club to lease 3,300 acres bordering Madawaska Pond. They bought a demonstration Quonset off the grounds of the St. Lawrence County Fair, hired a camp cook, put in a phony telephone to see how guests react when told their wives are calling, and have been hunting together almost 30 years, fathers and sons and friends.
The older men are more cheerful, louder than the young. They have not darkened over the lack of deer. Their poker is rough. Their talk is profane and clean. They appreciate each other. This year a white leghorn rooster is at large in the camp.
Earl and I and Gary, another guest, arrive before first light. Earl slips into the dark Quonset to write down where we are hunting. The rooster goes berserk in the pitch-black bunk room. We can hear it from out there in the pickup. Earl brings out a blob of whiteness in his arms and spills it by the woodpile. Later, two miles deep along the Ross line, we hear it crow for dawn. This trail is a boundary with wealth—across it is a 23,000-acre private park. Deep in, there is a stretch of swamp and timber knolls where deer cross from Madawaska to feed on hardwood slopes.