Second in a series of three articles from Pennsylvania Deer Camp
Click here for Part I
COUDERSPORT, Pa. – What happens at Deer Camp stays at Deer Camp.Not that things were that wild and crazy at The Criswell’s 5X5 camp. The four men, ranging in age from 65 to 22, were just doing the guy thing during the state gun opener at one of the historic camps in the Allegheny Mountains.
“A midwinter getaway,” camper Steve Dahlheimer said. “We fart and burp and drink beer and BS. We get on each other. You wouldn’t think we like each other the way we talk at times.”
“Political correctness is left at home,” camp namesake Carl Criswell said. “We come back for more.”
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Criswell had two uncles, World War II veterans, who were original members of 5X5, a 10-man contingent first established in 1949. The state game lands and hills in Potter County made it the state’s deer hunting hotspot.
“This was a deer hunting mecca,” Criswell said. “They found this property, so they bought it. It was just 10 guys originally.”
Criswell, a retired science teacher from York, Pa., 200 miles away who now helps raise red stag, began coming to the two-room cabin in 1969. He bought out the last of the original members in 2011 and slapped his name in front of the 5X5.
He’s seen Pennsylvania’s management thin the deer population there while producing deer with bigger antlers. Criswell knows he hunted the good ole days. Deer were everywhere.
“These hillsides used to be just covered with deer tracks,” he said. “You’d hear a shot every few minutes. It was constant. You’d see 30 hunters sometimes. You’d hear hundreds of shots through the course of the day.”
While Coudersport is no longer like a wild west town, the deer hunting still draws Criswell and crew up for the gun opener, always the Monday after Thanksgiving.
The campers, which included Mike Malave and Matt Cozart, had their first success in years as Malave sat near the top of the mountain and killed a 10-point buck.
“It was quiet for a little while and then I heard him coming. I didn’t see him but I kept hearing him,” he said. “Once I saw the rack, I knew this one was good. He started walking to a place where I knew I was going to lose him through the bushes, and I said I got to take this shot.”
Curious about its weight, the hunters made a journey into town to enter the buck in the Potter Leader Enterprise’s Big Buck Contest. Field dressed, the nicely appointed buck weighed 140 pounds. Since it’s the first deer for the Brooklynite, Malave is going to have it mounted.
After a supply run in town, Criswell graciously returned to drive this reporter one mile up the muddy, bumpy road to camp. No small rental car would have made it to his 200-acre property north of Hwy. 6.
The cabin halfway up the mountain was an old farm homestead, the barn long gone. The 5X5 campers have plenty of hunting land, a warm place to sleep, eat and drink. It has an outhouse, electricity from a generator but no running water.
“Yes,” said optimist Dahlheimer, “you run down to the spring with the buckets.”
The 400 or so square foot building is heated by a propane furnace, and lamps over the kitchen table burn gas as well as throw out some heat. The porch railing serves as the refrigerator.
The men’s hunting clothes and gear dominate the cabin, but there are several interesting nicknacks, like old arrows hung with a toy gun labeled “Danny’s Bear Gun.” A corkboard is covered with old photos, including Criswell in the camp’s 50-year anniversary shot from 1999.
Criswell pulls out a set of journals, in which members have written accounts of their hunt. He opens the log from 1958, when 20 inches of snow forced some of the hunters walk in. They still enter several pages every year.
Snow is on the ground now, and the hunters like it. On a GPS map, they pinpointed where each would start the morning. Criswell said he likes to stand for the first hour or two before moving slowly.
“Snow, it makes them stand out so much more,” he said. “I can detect movement a lot better.”
“Plus the tracks,” Dahlheimer chimes in, “it’s just interesting to see what was there.”
What was there was a deer hunter’s paradise. There were 11 hunters each year at the 5X5 for a long time, and some even hunted from the porch when they got older.
“The most we ever had was 6, but they were small deer,” Criswell said. “A 6-point was big, and now you see deer like this. This might be the biggest deer we’ve ever killed here.”Making the most of their guy time, they even had a pool on the deer’s weight, which Dahlheimer announces he’s won.
“Yeah, so you buy the first round,” Cozart said.
“Wait,” Dahlheimer responds. “How if I win do I have to buy?”Criswell adds; “If it’s over booze, it’s important -- worth fighting over.”The guys go at it more over their first deer in years, but it seems camp is really not just about the deer.
“If we wanted to kill deer every year, we could probably make that happen,” said Cozart, relating there’s more deer now in southern Pennsylvania. “Coming up here is just as good.”
“It’s tradition,” Criswell adds. “It’s pretty deeply implanted. Gives us time to get together.”
Next: The Potter County Enterprise has held its Big Buck Contest for 55 years.
Go to 2013 Deer Camp