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THE RITES OF AUTUMN
Bil Gilbert
November 27, 1978
Getting up to Pennsylvania's Potter County for Opening Day is an annual imperative for 50,000 faithful who journey to this deer-hunting mecca
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November 27, 1978

The Rites Of Autumn

Getting up to Pennsylvania's Potter County for Opening Day is an annual imperative for 50,000 faithful who journey to this deer-hunting mecca

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At 6:43 a.m., which is precisely when the laws of Pennsylvania permit hunting to begin in Potter, Cousin Sam is walking down a snow-covered woods road behind the farmhouse, carrying his Ruger across his arm. He follows the road a few hundred yards and then stops in the shelter of an oak in a spot that commands a view of an open ridge above. "I didn't see any point in wearing myself out in that snow," Cousin Sam said later. "I figured I'd save my strength and let the other boys get the deer moving."

About 8:30 six deer appear on the ridge 100 yards or so away. "I'm pretty sure one of them showed some antler [a buck must have three inches of spike or a fork antler to be legal quarry!, but I wasn't dead sure, and then I got thinking if it was a spike and I did hit it I'd have to wallow-through all that snow to get it and drag it back to the farm. I said to hell with it, let it go and kept my record intact."

By five p.m. on Opening Day, Cousin Sam has had a large lunch at the farmhouse, a refreshing nap, won $64 in the afternoon stud game and is back at the Roaring Buck and the vodka and Squirt. "Some of them may get more deer," he says jovially, "but nobody has more fun hunting up in Potter than I do. Who needs a stinking old buck when you got a sweet little doe around," and he makes a slow, unsuccessful lunge at Joan.

Things go almost as predictably but much differently at Tod's Kin-Kan. "Once in a while somebody drinks a bottle of beer," George Raffensperger says, "but we're not much for playing cards or staying up late. I guess we were all in bed by nine. We save our fun for daylight."

By daylight the Kin are up, have done their chores around the Kan. and are well back into the woods. "I worked my way up on the ridge above that section the timber company has clear-cut," says John Raffensperger that evening. At 68 he moves through the rough terrain with ease and assurance. "I'd scouted the day before, and I could tell from the sign that deer were moving there." Around 10 in the morning three deer show up about 120 yards below Raffensperger. Motionless and downwind, he waits until the animals settle down and he can determine their sex. Then he drops a seven-point buck with a single chest shot. As required by law, he fixes a big-game tag on the buck, efficiently field-dresses it and drags the carcass down the ridge, across Meeker Run and up the far side of the ravine to a secondary road.

"I guess the years are catching up," he confesses. "I was puffing by the time I got back to the road. A young fellow from one of the other camps in the Hollow came by in his truck, and we loaded in the buck and drove it back here. I tried to give him $2 for his trouble, but he wouldn't take it. You meet some awful nice fellows up here."

Gary Horst, a 22-year-old steel welder from the Lancaster area, had one of the more active Opening Day hunts. Horst is an all-round Potter buff, coming up regularly to God's Country to ski, snowmobile and fish, usually staying at the Potato City Motor Inn on the edge of the Black Forest, the largest resort in the county. He is also a deer hunter but, as he admits, a fairly green one who in four previous seasons had been skunked. "Something always happened. Either I wouldn't get a shot, or I'd have one and choke—miss it. Once it was the old excuse, a shell jammed."

After a bit of rendezvousing, Horst was up at 4:30 on Opening Day and got a Thermos of coffee and pack of sandwiches from the hotel kitchen. He drove his Jeep up Dry Hollow Road, parked and worked his way back into a white-pine plantation. At eight, three does and a spike buck appeared about 50 yards in front of him.

"I started shooting as fast as I could." Horst says. "I knew I hit him someplace, but he kept flying toward the pines. Then there was a click. I'd fired the whole clip, five shots. I reached in my pocket for more shells, and my hand came out all covered with some thick, sticky yellow stuff. I was so excited I thought at first I'd hurt myself, but it was egg salad from my sandwich. There I was with my mittens off, my hands freezing, trying to scrape egg salad off the shells. I dropped most of them in the snow but I got two cleaned. By that time the deer was gone but I was damned if I was going to let him get away.

"There was a blood trail, and I started following. I followed over three ridges for about an hour. I caught up just as he was going in some more pines and shot again, but he still didn't go down. I had only one shell left, so I went above the pines, which looked like the way he was heading. He came out 30 yards away and I shot him in the neck. He staggered into a hollow and died there. I had to figure out how to gut him by trial and error because I'd never done it before. Then I dragged him about a mile and a half to the road and from there walked back to get my Jeep. After I got him loaded in I remembered I had dropped my Thermos and binoculars in the snow where I first shot, so I hiked back for them. It took me about five hours to get that deer, and when I got back to Potato City I just flopped down. I was dead to the world for three hours."

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