Traditional Black Powder Hunting…

The station camp bustled. Like a protective shroud hovering over the weathered lodges, the breakfast fire’s white smoke hung in the upper branches of the pines and oaks. Sun streaks pierced the lush canopy and dissipating smoke, foretelling of a pleasant, 18th century morning.

Jon Bertolet’s Chesapeake Bay retriever lapped water, then watched the quiet preparations. Rick Evans donned a red blanket coat and fetched his fusil. Jeff Nieman slung a hunt-stained, linen haversack against his left hip and tucked his shooting pouch and horn under his right arm. Norm Blaker pulled on a dark-blue hunting shirt trimmed with ample rows of tan-colored fringe, all the while grumbling about Ron LaClair’s snoring.

Impatient, LaClair jerked the canvas flap of his tent closed, wished his companions success and with long, determined strides, strolled into the glade. One by one the backwoodsmen slipped into the waiting forest. Two ridges east, Evans and Bertolet struck off to the southeast; favoring a lame hip, Blaker hobbled southwest; and Nieman and I pushed farther east.

“jay…jay…” two blue jays cooed contented, yet with a hint of urgency, hoping for a chance to scream the morning’s first warning; the huntsmen gave them no cause.

Moccasins whispered. The air smelled dewy, warm and sweet. Foot-thick, white pines along with similar-sized oaks, maples and the occasional hickory peppered the rolling hills. In the solemn woodland hush, oak leaves clattered, wispy grass scratched and yellowing ferns rattled, all jostled by a butterfly’s breath of wind.

“Hear that squirrel bark?” Nieman whispered. “It’s between us and Ron. They’re finally coming out.”

We sat for another hour, basking in the sun’s warmth, our backs against opposite sides of a red oak. Then a black squirrel scurried down an angled limb of a twisted oak, 40 paces distant, and swished from sight. Nieman’s intense eyes scoured the leafy refuge. He arose and began a slow stalk. The woodsman stopped 20 paces from the oak, and never breaking concentration, signaled me to circle east, down the hill and around to the oak’s far side. Twenty minutes later, a gnarly knothole explained the squirrel’s escape.

A ways off, the distinctive crack of Blaker’s long rifle set the jays hollering. With buoyed spirits, we ventured north, skirting a cranberry bog. Two smoothbore blasts rolled through the forest. “Rick and Jon found something, too,” Neiman said with a wide smile.

Beyond the bog, our course turned west, through a thick jack pine stand and into a hilly area where oaks outnumbered pines. The still-hunt burned a long hour, and then we happened upon a wagon trail. Nieman led the way. Ever alert for unexpected danger and constantly checking the back trail, our moccasins edged north, unraveling the moss-covered ruts.

“The whole business of the hunter consists of a succession of intrigues,” Joseph Doddridge wrote of the 18th century woodsmen. “From morning till night he was on the alert to gain the wind of his game, and approach them without being discovered. If he succeeded in killing a deer, he skinned it and hung it up out of the reach of the wolves, and immediately resumed the chase till the close of the evening, when he bent his course towards his camp; when arrived there he kindled up his fire, and together with his fellow hunter cooked his supper. The supper finished, the adventures of the day furnished the tales for the evening,” (Notes on the Settlement and Indian Wars…, McClain Publishing Company, Parsons, WV, 1996, pg. 101).

Three days into August of 2009, the Traditional Muzzleloading Association’s online members’ forum breathed new life into Doddridge’s words: “Squirrel season opens here in Michigan next month,” Ron LaClair posted. “I think we talked last year about getting together for a squirrel camp/hunt…whatdaya think…can we make it happen this year?”

Founded in 2005, the TMA is a growing national muzzleloading organization “dedicated to preserving the rich and fascinating heritage of the traditional muzzleloading firearms of early America,” and welcomes individuals interested in the traditional side of muzzleloading, prior to 1900.

A few dozen posts later, the proposed traditional black powder squirrel hunt took shape. The third weekend of September five canvas tents, or “lodges,” re-created a 1760s station camp on a TMA member’s wooded parcel that backed up to the Huron National Forest, near Fairview, Michigan.

Early that Saturday afternoon, the colonial hunters dribbled back into the tiny enclave. Blaker and Nieman brought black squirrels. Evans and Bertolet told of missing grouse. Eager to undertake his first traditional black powder hunt, Joe Brown joined the party.

After stowing his gear, Blaker knelt to rekindle the breakfast fire. Bertolet and Evans offered assistance, but Blaker scoffed, shaved thin strips off a seasoned oak split, cribbed small twigs and fanned the dormant embers.

“Sometimes it’s best to sit, watch and learn from a master,” LaClair said. The sage advice seemed non-typical, for throughout the weekend LaClair and Blaker quibbled, sniped and argued like two grumpy, cantankerous woods-runners thrown together by an ill-conceived twist of frontier fate. But the other hunters saw through the bickering and found themselves amused and awe struck by the harrowing tales of two old friends, forest legends with longbow and muzzleloader, both thrilled to share another traditional hunting camp.

“Well boys, what we’ve got here are cold-water bluegill fillets and goose breast,” LaClair said, sliding a cast iron skillet over the rejuvenated coals and adding a dollop of bear fat. At the right moment, he tapped a palm-sized horn filled with sea salt over the sizzling fillets. With thumb and forefinger, each hunter picked up a browned morsel from a tin plate, thanking the wilderness cook and anticipating the floured goose strips.

A discussion of effective smoothbore loads ended abruptly when a grouse whirred through camp. Shot bags and powder horns flew, hurried fingers tugged quills from touchholes and Radar, Bertolet’s chestnut-colored retriever, led the charge into the thigh-deep understory. But the grouse hunters returned empty handed, laughing at the woodland fowl’s bravado.

LaClair emerged from his lodge with a favorite longbow, and an impromptu stump shoot erupted among the traditional archers. Then Evans, Bertolet and LaClair lit clay pipes while Nieman and Brown admired Blaker’s latest gun-building project, a .50-caliber flintlock rifle in the style of J. Heafer, circa 1810.

As darkness fell, a mouth-watering bear roast, cooked slowly in a covered, deep-dish skillet, fed the hungry hunters. “That bear roast was given to me by Ray Lyon,” LaClair said. “He took that bear with one of my longbows, so it’s a traditionally killed bear, cooked traditional and eaten in a traditional camp. It doesn’t get better than this.”

And as Doddridge recounted, “The supper finished, the adventures of the day furnished the tales for the evening,” beginning with Ron LaClair’s enthralling recitation of his poem, “The Ghost of Armstrong Creek”

Sunday morning, at first light, LaClair’s deep, baritone voice echoed in the forest as he sang the chorus to “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” the perfect wakeup call, even if Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic wasn’t “period correct.”

A copper coffee kettle bubbled and spit on the fire. “I’ve got a venison backstrap thawed. One, two, three…” LaClair said, grinning as he counted hunters with his index finger, “but with you guys, this will only be hors d’oeuvres.”

“This is terrible that we have to eat like this,” Blaker quipped.

After cleaning up from breakfast, the knives and tomahawks came out. The casual practice throws grew serious when longhunters started tossing handmade prizes on a gray trade blanket. Bathed in sunlight, the woodland companions kidded, chided and heckled as each took three throws of hawk and knife. The winner, Jon Bertolet, chose first from the blanket, LaClair next, and so on.

But the wilderness revelry turned melancholy and pensive when we discovered the secluded station camp’s fire burned out, a symbolic conclusion to a joyous and unforgettable weekend.

For the most part, the traditional black powder hunter’s simple pursuits are solitary in nature. Rare are the opportunities to share a station camp with like-minded woodsmen, and rarer still are the chances to cross history’s threshold, to gather in one’s heart pristine moments that rival the woodland adventures recounted in the journals of our hunter heroes.

And so, as the hunting companions bid farewell, each departed with cherished memories destined to furnish the tales for another evening fire.

Give traditional black powder hunting a try, be safe, and may God bless you.