Remembering Wild Places
And finding a project for spring
By Tom Bryant
“So what a man has got to do is take a little time off as he grows older, and devote the waste space to remembering the things he did that he maybe won’t never do again.”
— Robert Ruark, The Old Man and The Boy
It was one of those after the New Year, late winter, hoping for spring kind of days when the frosty wind was out of the northwest, blowing hard enough to keep most everyone, animals included, close to home. I had a pretty good case of cabin fever, so I decided to ride down to the little farm I lease, close to Drowning Creek, and check out the cold weather doings.
I’ve been using the farm to do some dove and turkey hunting, but mostly as just a getaway from civilization. I pulled the Cruiser into the pines and cut the engine near the fallow fields that the farmer was getting ready to plant. During a lull in the wind, I decided to get a little exercise and walk around the perimeter of the pine grove, a circle of about a mile. No game was moving, not even birds. Too cold. Everybody’s trying to stay warm.
I thought how fortunate I was to have had so many wonderful wild places to hunt, fish and camp, beginning with growing up in Pinebluff. Not saying that Pinebluff was wild, but a short bike ride could take you to the woods where wildlife was abundant. There was a sandpit area close to the railroad tracks where we used to camp, and farther south toward Addor were more undeveloped acres that were ideal for a young person with a vivid imagination to roam at will and imagine that he was deep in the African veldt searching for roaring lions or charging rhinos. As I grew older, I hunted the woods on either side of the tracks for squirrels, rabbits and doves.
My granddad had a fish camp on the Little Pee Dee River. It was nothing real fancy, a one-room shack with a tin roof. Inside there was a homemade double bunk bed with ropes holding thin mattresses. A small alcove off to one end was the makeshift kitchen where granddad kept a small gas cook stove. A shelf on one side held all the cast iron pots and skillets used to fry untold numbers of bream and redbreast fish. It was a wonderful place with smells of swamp and river.
One of my most cherished memories is of granddad swimming in the fast-moving river, a Mae West life preserver tied around the big girth of his shoulders and his ankle tethered to the dock with about a 15-foot rope. He floated in the river like a small whale, laughing and blowing like a geyser. It was, he said, his Saturday night bath. I had to do the same but in the shallow water where we docked his fishing skiff.
We were usually on the river for a week or 10 days. When granddad was ready to go fishing, he went for a while. He said to me many times, “It takes a day or two just to get the lay of the land and get used to the ways of the swamp.” Later, when I was a few years older, he built a first-class river house more like something you would find at the beach. I was 16 with a driver’s license, sports had entered my picture, and I had discovered girls. I put fishing on the Little Pee Dee River on the back burner.
Nothing stays the same, they say, except death and taxes. Time rolled on faster than anticipated and I was ready to head off to college. Not much chance to enjoy the great outdoors, as I was doing all I could to make the grades so I could play baseball. I was lucky, though. I was in the middle of the mountains right next to the Pisgah National Forest with miles of wild land to explore. As soon as I became acclimated to the rigors of actually studying, I began to explore Pisgah’s beautiful natural resources.
I was driving an old 1940 Chevrolet Deluxe that my dad gave me my senior year in high school, and I outfitted it to be my SUV long before some Detroit auto designer coined the phrase. If someone wanted to interpret my lifestyle, all they had to do was inventory the contents of that ancient conveyance. I kept a small backpack loaded with all the necessities required to survive a couple of nights in the woods. A good knife, a hatchet, candles, eating essentials, including a cook kit saved from my days in the Boy Scouts, and of course, waterproof matches. In another duffel bag were a pup tent half and two wool Army blankets suitable for sleeping.
During the seasons, the inventory would reflect what was happening. In the spring and summer, fishing gear would hold forth, and fall and winter would usher in hunting paraphernalia. Of course, the seasons would overlap, and from time to time, my collections of gear would have to be purged and started over again. This in itself was a monumental job.
Cold was settling in, and I decided to give it a little more time and then head home to build a fire. I had a shabby camouflage duck hunting coat in the back of the Cruiser, and I grabbed it and put it on to ward off some of the chill. I bought the coat many years ago from a good friend and hunting buddy who owned a sporting goods shop, and it has stayed with me and become part of my hunting wardrobe. It was with me while hunting Currituck, Mattamuskeet, the Haw River, Black Creek and other fields and swamps too numerous to remember. The old coat is like a good luck charm. I can put it on and it automatically brings back memories of special times and good friends.
The hazy late winter sun was beginning to settle in the west and promised a moonless dark night, so I started up the little Cruiser and drove out of the pines on the narrow sand road that passed by a miniature pond nestled back in the woods, almost out of sight. On a whim, I stopped the vehicle as silently as I could and sneaked quietly, using the pond bank alders as cover, to check out the waterhole for wildlife.
I peeked over the brush and saw that the little slough was empty, but just as I turned to leave, a pair of wood ducks, wings whistling right overhead, softly splashed down in the water under a towering cypress tree.
Wow, I thought, that made the day. I need to come down here in March and put up a couple of nesting wood duck boxes.
It’s good to have a new project, and I thought back to the not so distant past and the numerous boxes I had positioned around lakes and beaver ponds. I usually do this in March because that’s when the wood duck, in my mind nature’s most beautiful duck, begins nesting.
I silently eased up to the vehicle, cranked her and headed home to a warm fire, also maybe a little libation, and a search to find my plans for building wood duck boxes. It’s gonna be a good spring. PS
Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.