Thanksgiving in the Mountains-Mountain Man Apprentice

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DFH Volume 1 Issue 24

By Jim Dayton

From 3rd grade until I was a junior in high school, my dad, Paul Dayton, took me deer hunting on Thanksgiving morning.  We’d drive one or two hours far into the heart of the Adirondack mountains, park the car by the side of a logging road and wait for dawn so we could find our way. 

Dad would hunt like the Iroquois Indians did.  He went to the deer, instead of waiting in a blind for them to come to him.  He found their bed and then he would track them, trying to stay down wind so the deer wouldn’t catch our scent.  We used to walk miles, climbing over mountains and ridges, around swamps, across streams and creeks, through thickets…he’d stop every so often and survey the terrain.  Then he’d tell me where the deer probably were based on weather, topography and vegetation.  Then he would explain how we would get there based on wind direction and noise factors… we’d sneak up on them.  We always whispered or used hand gestures.  His two-hundred-pound frame walked silently, but my hundred- and twenty-pound footsteps thundered through dried leaves, and twigs and small branches which snapped underfoot. 

He always carried a compass, but he hardly ever took it out of his pocket.  He depended more on observing nature to “get his bearings.” He was a master at reading the sky, but the frequent cloudiness made following the sun undependable.   So he relied on the tell-tale signs of vegetation to get his orientation.  The density and location of moss and fungi, the “pointing” of the forest canopy, and the species of trees growing in that location were all tell-tale signs of north, south, east and west. 

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It used to scare me half to death when he would say to me, “I’m going to go over that ridge over there.  I want you to go around the ridge in that direction and meet me at the other side.  Maybe you’ll stir him up and I can get a shot off as he’s running away from you.”  I immediately pictured myself getting lost, but my dad always had confidence that I could find my way.  He never carried binoculars or a rifle scope, so I was truly on my own.  I think he was testing me.

After walking for hours in unfamiliar forest, we would came out of the woods within a quarter mile of the car.  I could never understand his precision.  I think it’s instinct.

He was at home in the woods.  He wouldn’t dare drive a car in Irving, TX, because he would get lost driving from O’Connor Blvd. to Grawyler Ave, two miles away with one turn. He was very uncomfortable in cities and urban sprawl.  But if you dropped him, by parachute, onto an unfamiliar peak in the Adirondacks mountains, he would find his way back to civilization before the plane landed (a slight exaggeration).   He taught me to follow a stream downhill if I was lost.  I wish I could remember a tenth of the survival skills he taught me.  He couldn’t pass by a winterberry without stooping to pick two—he’d always expect me to eat one whether I wanted it or not.  “No thanks, Dad”, was not a part of his vocabulary.  I’ve eaten dozens of different kinds of berries, nuts, grasses, and roots, but I don’t remember most of them anymore.  He always called it hunting, and it’s taken me sixty years to realize that the actual hunting part of the Thanksgiving ritual was just an excuse to get his young apprentice in the woods for a day of mountain man indoctrination and training.

Sometimes he’d stop and gaze at something on the ground.  He’d say, “Look, a wolf has been here in the last 24 hours.“  I didn’t even see anything.  He knew the footprint of every animal that roamed the Adirondacks.  His deductive reasoning told him how old the track was.  He often pointed out bear paw tracks, but we never hunted them.During the few hours we had spent in the woods, I had stepped out of my childhood and had become a man.  By the time we got home, I was a boy again.   We always made it back home in time to dry off, warm up and sit down to a Thanksgiving feast that was made better because of the huge appetite we had worked up.  Those Thanksgivings in the woods were some of my dad’s most precious memories.  They are mine too

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