“Not what I expected”. Never before in my life have I used that phrase with such accuracy. Never before have I felt so deeply removed from the grid. Never before have I found bowhunting to be such an uphill battle. The big woods of Pennsylvania changed all that.
Saturday, October 26. Excitement rushes over me… this is the day. I had been waiting with anticipation for the commencement of my first hunting trip. We begin to cram suitcases, bow cases, targets, snacks, coolers, and, of course, cans upon cans of red bull into the truck. All while leaving room for the harvest that we were all certain we would be bringing home. One final good-bye to the wives and fiance’ and we were on the path to PA. As we headed east, my mind quickly illuminated with thoughts of what was to come. In my best case scenario, I ended the trip with a Booner bear and a Booner deer. In my worst case scenario, I had only managed to bag one of the aforementioned. Needless to say, expectations for me were certainly high.
As we moved out of Indiana, across the windmill fields of Ohio, and eventually into Pennsylvania, I observed the drastic topographical changes that ensued. Pennsylvania’s rolling hillsides, put the flat lands of the Hoosier state to shame. The colors of fall in full bloom across the sprawling mountain sides took my breath away. PA is truly a beautiful state, and the wildlife encountered on the way to the hunting lodge, only added to the ever-developing ambiance of this great land. A line of cars in most states is not a sight that instills excitement. However, if you happen to drive up on a stopped flow of traffic anywhere near Benezette, it would be wise to have your binoculars close at hand.
Pulling up to the cabin after 8 hours on the road, I had only 2 things on my mind. Scouting, and hunting. I settled into my little corner of the cabin, and waited for the morning to come to begin my pursuit of the ever elusive black bear. I drifted to sleep, and when I awoke to the mountain sunshine, I was ready to head after my target prey. My pent up anticipation, however, would have to wait. It was Sunday. A completely unfamiliar concept to me, but one PA hunters live with yearly. There is no hunting on most Sundays in the Keystone State. It would be a day of scouting for our ragtag crew, and it got underway well before I expected.
After breakfast, one of our members was glassing the nearby mountainside, when he laid eyes on our first bear of the trip. Later on that same day, we almost hit a black bear on our way up the mountain. Two bears on the very first day?! I laid in bed that night thinking that it was all but done. We had seen two bears already, and if we had been allowed, probably could’ve killed the second one. This was going to be like shooting fish in a barrel.
As the week of hunting ensued, my description of fish in a barrel proved itself to be mostly true. That is if the fish were masters at hiding, and were living in a barrel that encompassed thousands of treacherous acres. The mountains that once seemed so beautiful and soul cleansing, now had me cursing every John Denver song I knew. My quads burned, my shoulders ached from carrying my pack, and I was perpetually hungry. All these emotions I repressed, in order to continue on my quest to bring down the biggest black bear in the woods.
I believe PA was determined to knock me down a few inches. My very first day of hunting in the state was a rude awakening to the Pennsylvania life. Rain and fog turned the already dangerous landscape into a wipeout fest for this first timer. I lost count of how many times I slipped and fell on wet logs as I descended the mountainside. One such fall alerted the nice mountain buck that I was attempting to stalk up to. Clearly I was unprepared for mountain hiking, and even less prepared for mountain hunting.
As the days went on, my understanding of the mountains grew. In my mind, the mountains would be either steep, or fairly gradual, but they would go all the way to the bottom on a straight line. What I learned about right away was something called shelfs. Shelfs are a flat break on the side of the mountain, and it turns out, they are everywhere. I don’t know how many times I came to the edge of a ridge and glassed down it, and presumed that what I saw was the bottom of the mountain. I was wrong. As I descended down shelf after shelf, I realized that the bottom was WAY down there. To a flat land Hoosier like myself, it was utterly discomforting. I chose not to venture too far down for fear of getting lost, and stuck closer to the top where I seemed to be seeing more deer anyway.
The other men in my group must’ve been having similar experiences as me. We would talk at night about the aches and pains that the chase had left us with. Regardless, we were determined. One of us was gonna let an arrow fly before the trip concluded. Nothing was gonna stop us. With that sentiment in mind, we had a saying flying around camp…”whatever it takes”.
It seems that’s what you have to be willing to do in order to harvest an animal with a bow and arrow in the PA mountains. And we were willing to do just that.
Thursday we awoke to the early onset of a daylong rainstorm that dumped water in buckets upon our region. The burning passion of doing whatever it takes, was unanimously extinguished by the unrelenting rain outside our lodge. This day would not be one for hunting, but instead we played poker and relaxed. After missing a day of hunting on Thursday, we were now on the last full day of hunting for the week. We ventured out all the way to the top of the mountain, and into an area that you could not have convinced me was Pennsylvania if I had not seen it with my own eyes.
I headed out Friday, beyond a huge clover plot planted by the state. As I cleared the plot, the land transformed in front of my very eyes. The tall red oaks, and cherry trees that I had grown accustomed to, vanished before me. Instead, a vastly huge area of what I can only describe as sage brush, covered the landscape. This area was so far removed from the mountain range that I had come to know. If somebody had shown me a picture of this expanse, I would have guessed that it was from a National Geographic documentary on the tundra land of Alaska. The short spiny shrubs and pine trees provided excellent habitat for deer, grouse, and many other PA species. The area was teeming with wildlife, and even beavers had found their way 1700 feet up. As the sun began to drop, I made my way back to the food plot in hopes of intercepting a nice buck before dark. What I encountered instead was a huge bull elk feeding on the clover stems. I sat and watched the majestic creature until the disappearing sun wouldn’t permit it any longer. Friday was a remarkable day of hunting, topped off in the most magical way I could’ve hoped for.
Saturday, October 31, was our last day in this home away from home. We all decided to hunt that morning and be on the road by the afternoon. It was certainly a bittersweet moment. I am one to get homesick, and miss my small Indiana town, but that brisk mountain morning didn’t make leaving easy on me.
As I sat on the hillside on my final day, my mind began to drift. I thought of hunting IN, and of hunting PA. I weighed the pros and cons of these wildly different places. Not another hunter in sight… but not a corn field either. Miles and miles of state game land… but how can I possibly know where to hunt? I can go anywhere I want… but can I find my way back? The latter of those is something I never even have to consider back home. I consider myself a decent woodsman, and I feel I have generally good bearings. I will admit though, I got turned around a few times, and to my shame even had to use Google maps one time to find my way back.
It’s undeniable that hunting hill country is a totally different beast. You work for, and earn every single kill that is made. Mistakes are not only frustrating, that can be life threatening. After spending some time chasing America’s favorite game animals in this wonderful state. I’ve gained a deep respect for those who make these public mountains their personal hunting space every single year. Any harvest here should well you up with pride, and ought be considered a true trophy. So for those of you about to nock, and head into the big PA Wilds with just a stick and a string… I salute you.