A Pennsylvania hunting camp takes on a new life
by Teresa Mull
During a recent work trip to Philadelphia, I had an out-of-my-element dinner with an acquaintance at a swanky spot in center-city that involved a dress code and curious mesh bags covering the lemons to catch insubordinate seeds during squeezing (heaven forbid!) My new friend soon put me at ease, though, conversation flowed, and mid-meal, I was relaxed enough to bring up something personal: My hunting camp.
“What’s a hunting camp?” he asked. “You mean like one of those tents people put up in the woods to shoot at stuff?”
His question caught me off guard. I had taken for granted that he—a well-educated, worldly type, and a fellow Pennsylvanian, no less—would naturally know what was meant by a hunting camp. But then again, he probably also assumed I’d know the proper etiquette for eating shrimp (turns out it’s more knife-and-fork than hand-and-incisor).
Afterward, when I recounted the exchange to my sister-in-law, she admitted that before my brother explained it to her, she didn’t quite know what a hunting camp was, either. Surprising, again, as she is from rural Michigan stock.
How, then, to explain a huntin’ camp? Sitting in that upscale restaurant, with its dim mood lighting and thick brocade curtains and velvet furniture diffusing the clink of glasses and silverware and chatter into background noise, my mind drifted far away to a very different sort of place. Or places, rather, as what I imagined was more of a collective mood than an archetype.
Deer camp, I reflected, is such a familiar concept in central Pennsylvania that these outposts are usually just referred to as “camp,” since the hunting part, paradoxically, is both assumed and not required.
Camps have in common a few basic attributes, which, in my book anyway, include: At least a semi-remote setting that visitors—camps stop being camps when they become primary residences, which they sometimes do—periodically use as a base for hunting expeditions.
Beyond that, in my experience, camps can come in just about any shape, size, and level of modern utility, from off-grid, rundown shacks with outhouses and maybe a generator to luxury lodges with every imaginable amenity (none too common in my neck of the woods). I recently read of one, dubbed “a little piece of perfection,” that “wasn’t much more than a big plywood box with a woodstove in the middle.”
Because my camp falls into the in-between category, I figured describing it would serve as a helpful baseline for the uninitiated. “Does it have electricity?” my friend wanted to know. I confessed, somewhat ashamedly, that it does, along with a real (flushing) toilet; though I was quick to note my camp also has its own well and no cellphone service, which I think scores it a few points on the rustic scale.
I bought the 1970s-era camp a little more than three years ago from the estate of a man from Harrisburg who, according to local lore, won it in a poker game (though that’s a popular rumor about several camps around here). He used the place, some two-and-a-half hours’ drive from his home city and less than one mile from Black Moshannon State Park, to unwind — and reportedly, sometimes, even to hunt.
That this camp was used often and with relish was relayed to me by neighbors and confirmed in what its late owner left behind: a bacon-greased cast-iron pan atop the old wood cookstove, walls stained brownish-yellow with cigarette smoke, a can of Busch beer in the fridge, a couple of taxidermized birds that had seen better days, and a worn-out, shockingly heavy sofa that seemed to have been implanted into the floor through many years of kicking back beside an oversized spittoon. A woman had evidently been allowed on the premises at least once, as dusty lace curtains hung from most of the windows.
When I acquired the camp, I set about making it my own while trying to retain its homespun coziness and respect the legacy of my predecessor, who had given it so much character. Early on, however, when I used the term “rustic chic” in conversation with a seasoned hunter I know who belongs to one of the area’s most revered hunting camps, he accused me (less than half-jokingly) of ruining the place by making it “too nice.” Feminizing it is what he meant. So I decided before doing anything more than freshening up the exterior paint, and throwing out a stained Astroturf “rug” that proved the huge spittoon wasn’t always big enough, that my camp needed a name to act as a standard, upholding its integrity as Pinterest tempted me more toward chic than rustic.
Since it’s at the end of Indian Lane, a stone’s throw from Squaw and Chief, and bordering Moshannon Forest, which derives its name from an American Indian word for “moose stream,” I thought an ode to our Native American brethren was in order. “Camp Kickapoo” came about easily, since my beloved Norwich Terrier, Pitkin, came from an Oklahoma breeder not far from the Kickapoo Reservation. All the best camps seem to have memorable, story-laden names. Plus, the alliteration was just irresistible.
Camp Kickapoo’s identity took further shape when my twin brother—and trusty outdoor adventure buddy—gifted me a camp mascot: an “authentic” taxidermized jackalope mounted on a wooden plaque carved by a Brooklyn hipster to look like a Bavarian cuckoo clock. Only “Jack” isn’t really a jackalope, but actually a jackdeer, I guess you’d call him, as he appropriately sports our native whitetail deer antlers instead of antelope horns.
Over the course of Kickapoo’s refresh, I was ever conscious of the old hunter’s needling. But I couldn’t help myself. My enthusiasm for interior design won out, and with colors painstakingly picked to reflect those found in nature and cutesy bear- and fish-themed light fixtures everywhere, I feared Kickapoo had become “too nice” to be considered still a quintessential Central Pennsylvania hunting camp of the old school.
I looked to Jack for counsel. He has a stern, stoic look in his coal-black eyes. But beneath his pursed mouth and silly whiskers, there’s a hint of a smirk. He’s telling me I’m overthinking this, and reminds me that if Kickapoo offers a suitable base for hunting, the rest can be as eccentric as all the other camps around with their playful names, practical jokes, and storied traditions, regardless of how “nice” it is.
Thus “the cabbage” was born. Like “jackalope” (and spork and brunch, a couple of my other favorite things), it’s a portmanteau word designating a blend of two things—in this case, camp and cottage.
Now Jack, a rabbit from the west wearing an eastern four-point who’s mounted on a European-style panel, and three white and purple winter cabbages planted out front, have become the symbols of what I hope my little camp has in store for its next life: an eclectic mix of influences, subtle sophistication, and countless amusing legends.
Three years and three months since Camp Kickapoo, or “the cabbage,” depending on the season, became mine, I’m at last satisfied that its slow but steady transformation has captured the vision I set forth in naming (and renaming) the place and hanging Jack on the wall. And my city friend seemed satisfied that it wasn’t a hunting blind I was so excited to finish putting in order when I got back to the backwoods. Later, when I sent him a photo of Kickapoo, he even expressed interest in visiting.
When he does, we’ll drive to the cabbage’s quasi-remote setting, remain there temporarily, and either consider, reminisce about, or actually go hunting. Beyond that, the camp experience, like camps themselves, can be almost anything, and are at their best when they develop organically. (Though a little help from a mythical creature doesn’t hurt.)
Teresa Mull has learned she is a reckless painter, but what she lacks in precision painting skills she makes up for in creative solutions for covering drips, splashes, and errant brushstrokes. “I tend to shrug and resort to hanging pictures or placing rugs over my mistakes.”