Monday, November 26, 2012

An honest American buck -- all 12 points

Stopped by some friends' house the other evening for a holiday glass or two with Debbie and Barnie Day, who live down the road from us, and heard the best deer story I've heard in quite a while. Up here on Belcher Mountain, folks take their deer hunting the same way they take their deer meat: seriously.
This one involves 14-year-old Ryan Shorkey, a young man from Charlotte who can shoot the daylights out of whatever he's aiming at. I took some photos of him and his Belcher Mountain pals on the first day of dove season in September at the Days' place.  When the first or second dove flew over, Ryan was up and on it so fast I missed the shot.  Ryan didn't.

I knew from his father, Steven Shorkey, that Ryan was an excellent competition shooter. He has hunted since he was 10. And if you give his father half a chance, he'll let on how proud he is of Ryan: "You may know he is an accomplished shot-gunner. He shoots on a competitive sporting clays team (about 30 kids aged 9 to 18) out of Richburg, SC called the Rocky Creek Clay Dusters. Their home club is Rocky Creek Sporting Clays. He shoots in tournaments all over SC, and this past year, ranged as far as Nashville, TN (Southeast Regional Championship) and Macon, GA (NWTF annual tournament, where he won a new shotgun for being high scorer in the preliminary round). Those last two tournaments are for "all comers", i.e. mostly men, not just for kids."

Ryan lives and breathes hunting. Watches hunting shows.  Works on his shooting. Turned down a ticket to a UNC football game to hunt.  But even before the season began, he was working for this day, his father says:

"There are not a lot of 14-year old boys (or men for that matter) that will sit in a deer stand from before sun-up till 2PM, peeing in an empty Gatorade bottle when needed, to hunt deer. He is a determined little man.

"Ryan put in the time on this buck. We scouted the area in late August with Alan Black to determine where to put the stands. Then went up the following weekend to do just that. Installed a trail cam and salt licks too (at a point in the season when it was legal). He moved his stand twice in the ensuing weeks to have a better view/shot at whatever might appear."

When I saw Ryan Saturday evening, warming his shins by a roaring fire in the Days' all-purpose living room, he was a little down but still excited from the hunt. Early that morning, in frigid weather hovering somewhere around 29 degrees F, Ryan was in his deer stand over on the yon side of Woolwine. When he got a good look at the deer, it was right below him -- and it was an astounding 12-point buck. Now, the only 12-point buck most hunters will ever see up close up will be in a wildlife magazine.

 Ryan shot, but wasn't sure he shot the buck where he meant to. The buck bounded off.  Ryan and his dad went after him an hour later. There were plenty of signs of blood, but Ryan and the hunting party he was with couldn't find him. They searched all day, but that buck was nowhere to be found.  It was bitter cold, his dad recalls, "with winds gusting to 30 mph, making the wind chill likely in the high teens. But he didn't say a word, he just put his head down and on he went. He was crawling on his hands and knees to follow the blood trail."

The next morning Ryan had to be in church in Charlotte, where he is an acolyte. His dad was having a little car trouble, and enlisted some local guys who can fix anything with moving parts to replace a bad alternator on the SUV.

Meantime, Barnie, councilor to many people from many different walks of this life, was thinking about that 12-point buck and the young man who shot it.  Be a shame to let that thing go, undetected down there in the bush, he thought. So he got on the horn and organized a search party to go after it -- Alan Black, Joel Honse, Darryl Conner's blue healer, Smokey, and Steven, and off they went.

It was rugged terrain, Barnie recalls:  "Rough, up and down country.  Isolated, with good thickets, ample creeks, heavy mast crop.  Prime big buck habitat."

It was Alan Black, the county attorney who, like many folks up here, can do anything, who found the deer after a few hours search Sunday. It was gut shot, and instead of heading for water downhill, the buck had circled behind and above Ryan, and laid up, Barnie said, in a "terrible thicket." They manhandled it out, rustled it into the back of a pickup truck and took its portrait.

Steven Shorkey  had this to say: "Lots of guys get 8-points, many fewer get 10-points. Fewer still 12 -points or better. That is the "Rhodes Scholarship" of deer hunting. Hopefully it isn't all downhill from here regarding trophy whitetail bucks for him. I think it will just make him a more discriminating deer hunter from here on out. The vast majority of deer hunters will go their entire lives without even seeing a 12-point, much less get a shot at one, much less kill it."


Sunday, November 25, 2012

A walk in the gorge

Had a big crowd of folks at the groaning board on Thanksgiving Day. We ate turkey and a wrap-cooked ham, Martha B's spectacular cornbread dressing and squash casserole, and Frannie, still cooking at 90, whipped up two great pumpkin pies.  Here are the satisfied diners:
Three generations: Front row, Jack B., Carol Strickland, Anna Palmer, Mary Minor Betts.; Second row, Xan Palmer, Jack Palmer, Frannie Strickland, Martha B.; third row, Karen Johnson, Bill Strickland, John Betts, Juta Geurtsen

The day after Thanksgiving we took a walk down the Rock Castle Gorge, a national recreation area that runs from its head in the Blue Ridge to its foot in the western Piedmont. They call it the Rock Castle because of the stupendous rock fall about halfway down the Gorge, where some folks think it looks like a tumbled-down castle with massive crystalline rocks.  Hard to see 'em in this little picture, though.

 It was a lovely stroll of perhaps 5 miles from the gate at the Rocky Knob Housekeeping Cabins operated by contractors for the Blue Ridge Parkway and the National Park Service, down to a parking area near the old Civil Conservation Corps camp not far from Virgina Route 8.  Back in the 1950s my parents took us on a long trip up the parkway, and we stayed at the Housekeeping Cabins, just a few miles from where we live now, one night. I hear the Park Service is looking for a new vendor to run the cabins but is having trouble finding one -- and that the cabins might not be operating unless some infrastructure improvements can be made. That would be a shame.  But the hiking in the Gorge will always be good.
Juta and John

Martha B., Juta, Mary and ye olde Ink Stained Wretch. Photo by JBIII

We passed, by my count, at least eight stone chimneys on the way down, indicating the narrow gorge has been occupied by a number of families over the years, and crossed the Rock Castle Creek at least three time by dancing across on the rocks.

 Crossing the creek were Mary Betts, John Betts and Juta Geurtsen, who we're turning into a farmhand back at the Rocky Knob Tractor & Yacht Club, starting with the short course in Tractor 101:
Juta tractoring along in the high field, with an academic adviser clinging to the three-point hitch

Ready to plant something, or mow it, or put down some  postholes....

Meanwhile, back in the woods, down near the bottom of the Rock Castle Gorge lies a handsome house that once belonged, according to an account I found by our Meadows of Dan, VA neighbor Leslie Shelor, to Sam Underwood and his wife, Addie Belcher Underwood.  I had heard years ago that the National Park Service had bought the land but granted the owning family a life tenancy in the house. I don't know if that's true, but Leslie Shelor's account of the Gorge and the Underwood house, still looking good after all these years, is worth reading. Her words, written for a website called Blue Ridge Gazette in 2006, follows this.  I hoped to learn more but did not find a Part Two on the website.

From Leslie Shelor:
Part One: Rock Castle Gorge

Image: Edith Underwood and Ruby Underwood in Rock Castle

Ruby Underwood was born in 1913 in a little hollow of the Blue Ridge Mountains known as Rock Castle. She was the sixth of eight children born in a time of large families and small communities of subsistence farms. Her life spanned seventy-nine years of great change in the mountains that she called home.

Ruby's father, Samuel Henry Underwood, descended from Pennsylvania Quaker stock, independent thinkers that were churched for various reasons and left Pennsylvania for the freedom of the mountain frontier. Her mother, Addie Belcher, was of solid German descent. The Belchers were some of the first settlers in the Rock Castle community, with early deeds showing their presence shortly after Patrick County was formed.

Rock Castle, now known as Rock Castle Gorge and National Park Service property, possibly was named after the quartz rocks that are found in the area. Some think that "Rock Castle" is a corruption of "Rock Crystal". Others think that the name came from the bare rock cliffs that show in the side of the mountain; looking up at them a fanciful nature might think that they looked like stone castles. The community was large enough in 1861 to appear on a railroad map printed at the time, while other communities, including Meadows of Dan, were left off. Oddly enough, there was no railroad through the area, but the 'main road' on that side of the mountain, a steep wagon trail winding up the mountain, went through Rock Castle.

Ruby grew up in a community of farmers that were nearly all related to her; those families not related had lived side by side for generations. Stories of life down in Rock Castle reveal a close-knit community. Gatherings at the Bear (or Bare) Rocks, a large tumble of huge boulders that thrust out of the mountains, included picnics for the entire community, singing, exploring of caves and a little courting while children scrambled over stones and into crevices with an abandon unknown in today's world. There was a cave somewhere in the rocks, or nearby in the mountains, where the local explorers wrote or carved names and quotations. There was the "Potato Hill" named for its shape or the fact that potatoes grew well there. Rock Castle Creek tumbled down the mountain, usually in sight of the main road.

Sam Underwood's two story frame house stood above Rock Castle Creek, surrounded by gardens, pastures and outbuildings. A Delco plant provided electricity for lights in the house and a large stone chimney with fireplaces and cookstoves provided warmth. Ruby and her sisters helped with the cooking, tending the chickens and gardening, while her older brothers got out early to tackle heavier chores. All of the children helped with getting in the hay, and Ruby, as the smallest, was sent atop the haystack to stamp the hay down as it was pitchforked up. The hay had to be stacked with particular care, and Ruby remembered how itchy and hot the job was, clinging to the pole in the middle and marching around on top of the slippery hay as the stack rose higher beneath her bare feet.

Apple orchards also surrounded the houses and apples were stored in cellars, along with potatoes and onions, or dried for the winter. Before the chestnut blight devastated the mountains and robbed the settlers of the rich bounty of the chestnut tree, the children were sent out to gather the chestnuts to be sold for cash money for necessities that couldn't be obtained on the farm. The money for Chestnuts provided sugar, coffee, and shoes for the children to wear to school in the winter. Thousands of pounds of chestnuts were shipped from Patrick County each year to markets in the Northern states.

Family was important to the people in the mountains, who still count kin as far away as fifth or sixth cousins. Ruby's large extended family included uncles and cousins that lived down in the mountain as well as more distant kin in the surrounding hills. Ruby's grandfather, Reed Belcher, was a Civil War veteran. When she was small Addie and her sister took turns caring for the old man, bringing him up and down the mountain with the seasons. Ruby remembered them sitting him up in his rocking chair in the farm wagon to transport him from house to house.

Reed Belcher's story was one that is remembered by the family. He and at least one of his brothers went into service with the Confederate army, but their father kept one or two of the boys at home, either because he needed the help or he felt that he had risked enough with sending the boys that had gone. There are conflicting versions of this tale, but Ruby's story is partly supported by documentation. A Confederate conscription force came through Rock Castle "hunting for Belchers", according to the Confederate captain's diary. They found the old man at home but the boys had fled into the rhododendron thickets and were well hidden. One version of the tale has the mother of the children flinging a dipper of water in the captain's face when he demanded refreshment for his troops. Most versions agree that when the troops couldn't locate the elusive Belcher boys, they 'strung up' the old man from a tree in the yard by his neck. Apparently they just pulled him up in the tree to strangle, rather than actually hanging him and breaking his neck. The boys were nearby and with their mother were able to rescue their father.

Image: Alfred Underwood family, including Sam Underwood

When Reed heard the story, he was so disgusted he quit the Confederate army and went to Ohio, joining up with the Union force. It's said that there was some family feeling about the situation. Reed received a small pension, while other members of the family that had fought for the Confederate forces didn't qualify. Ruby said that to tease the old man the older boys would sing "Dixie" to infuriate him.

Henry Dillon was a neighbor who taught a school in the area and acted as an unofficial doctor during emergencies. He said he obtained his education from reading whatever books he could get his hands on. He and Sam Underwood had a good bit in common; Sam was a reader and subscribed to the Atlanta Constitution, which couldn't be touched by anyone else until he read it. His children were all great readers, especially Ruby, who read the heavy newspaper even when she was too small to understand the stories. There were a few treasured books in the house, read over and over and shared with the children.

Another neighbor was a woman farmer who raised her children and kept the farm alone, with only the help that the neighborhood folks could spare her. She was well-respected as a hard worker and self-sufficient woman, and was called "Mrs." although she never married, as far as can be discovered. One of her sons stayed with her and took over the farm as she grew older, staying there with her until the Park Service purchased the land.

Ruby's early childhood years were spent deep in Rock Castle, where she was surrounded by family and friends and wealth in the form of a large and loving family to protect and provide for her. Necessary chores were done, even by small children, but there was plenty of time to play with cousins from up and down the mountain and to explore the creek and surrounding hills. Children invented their own games, toys were few and treasured but imagination was boundless.

To Be continued....

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Dancing bears and other mountaintop critters

Just the other day I glanced out the window while running through the 12-bar blues on my 53-year doghouse bass and saw a bear scampering along in our side yard. It was a revelation. I'd been hearing about bears on this property for years but never had seen one on our acreage before.  Well, OK, once a friend and I were taking a pre-dawn walk on the road out by the mailbox when we saw something darker than the surrounding dark cross the road.  We're both ex-Army, and executed an immediate to-the-rear, march movement.  We decided it was either a Buick or a bear, and given that Buicks usually make more noise, it probably was a bear.

We've seen them down the road over by U.B. Handy's old cornfield, and once walked up on a bow hunter in our woods who said a bear had just passed by a few minutes earlier.  But never saw one on this property until the one that walked by.

Except, of course, for Tom McCraw's wildlife pictures, taken from a camera he strapped to a tree down in our woods. Tom and his family live down in Mt. Airy, and during deer seasons we know we'll see him or his dad or his brother or all of them at once pretty regularly. They keep several deer stands in our woods, and they're good about keeping a watch on the place pretty much year round. Sometimes they come up in the summer with the kids just to walk around and see if they can catch sight of something.

 Tom's camera surely has.  In these pictures, taken within the last couple weeks, you'll see shots of bears, deer and turkeys from that automatic wildlife camera.  You'll note from the trees in the foreground that it's the same spot in the woods.   Not long ago Tom got a shot of an unusually exotic -- our dog Sadie, a French Brittany Spaniel nosing around the in the same place the deer and the bear like to come.  We're going to have a keep a closer eye on her.

 Check out the bears:

 And the turkeys:
And the deer:

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The election and the Wabash Cannonball

Last night was the first Election Night I haven't covered as a newspaperman in at least two decades -- and I'll have to say there's something to be said for not having to instantly analyze an election based on insufficient data, on deadline, after too much coffee and not enough thought, and turn in 800 words on a topic that could very well turn out to be overtaken by events before it hit the streets.  Those nights when there was barely a trickle of results before the presses made their first runs were intense. Staring into a computer terminal, nerves and phones ajangle, I could feel the blood popping out on my forehead and my heart rate rushing along the tracks with roughly the noise and velocity of the Wabash Cannonball. -- "Listen to the jingle, and the rumble and the roar," as that old bluegrass standard put it.

Last night was different.  Drove over to Mitchell Music Co. in Floyd, hauled out my 1959 Kay upright bass and sat in on a jam session with 9 or 10 musicians playing old-time songs of heartbreak, lost youth, mournful blues and a fair amount of semi-sacred gospel tunes.  There were four guitars, one fiddle, one five-string banjo, one mandolin and two basses -- mine and something I'd never seen before, a U-Bass, a ukelele with fat polyester strings and an electric pickup that sounded fine -- and the fellow who played it was good, too.  I didn't give the elections a thought for nearly three hours.  All in all, a much more pleasant evening than trying to figure out what meant what on a too-short deadline with too much caffeine flowing in old veins.  

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Don't know if this tree made noise when it fell

So yesterday I noted that the howling wind from Sandy's remnants was still with us, as it is this morning, but that no trees had fallen.   Yesterday afternoon, I rolled in from a trip down to Winston-Salem and saw that I was wrong -- that a three-stemmed (but long dead) locust tree had capsized after taking on too much wind.

 If it blew over in the night or the day, no one heard it above the screech of the wind -- maybe because it's not big at all. I expect we'll get out the chain saws to make firewood billets and the splitter to bring it to size and the tractor to yank the stump this weekend.  At least we shouldn't have to wait for the wood to season. I think it's ready now.  Come to think of it, the storm did us a favor on this old tree.