Life In and Around the Hunting Cabins

A Typical Hunting trip

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 Charles Ralph's CabinAs we pass around the Island you will see several isolated cabins in the marshes and on water. Many of these cabins were originally established as watch house for the remote oyster grounds around the Island. Today however they are typically used as hunting cabins and recreational facilities. The following is a description of a typical hunting trip to one of these cabins.  

The trip would start on the morning of the Friday, after Thanksgiving, by going to the grocery store for the food, ice and water. These items were loaded into the boats with the hunting gear, stools, heating oilBoatsatthedock and gasoline. After launching and with good weather you could pull into the dock at the cabin in about a half an hour.  Arriving at the cabin the provisions were unloaded and the bunks were made up. The first order of business was filling the oil tank and starting the oil burner for some heat. Next the propane tank was connected to the main for the gas lights and the stove. Then a pot of soup, which had been prepared at home was put on the oil burner to simmer and a pot of coffee was started. A pot of coffee was kept ever ready on top of the oil heater. Plans were then made for supper with perhaps a chicken being put into the oven. Then there would be a short discussion about the pending hunt and each group of hunters would sail to their respective blinds and set out their stools.  The image on the lower left is the view from a blind over the stools.

AA View From the Blindfter returning to the cabin, dressing appropriately for the hunt, gathering the shotguns and shells and filling the thermos you set out for the evening hunt.  You would remain in the blind until sunset which is the end of the hunting day, taking those birds as circumstance and the law allowed. You would need a dog or boat to recover those birds which the wind and current caused to drift away from the shore, otherwise picking them up at the water's edge. It was very important that the fallen birds were recovered quickly; otherwise you would find nothing remained but the outer shell of the former bird as the gulls would have picked it clean. It is interesting to note that the ducks become much more active shortly after sunset which is after the close of the legal hunting day. As you were returning to the cabin, in those waning hours of daylight, you would probably see more ducks than you had seen all day.

Returning from the hunt the game was tagged with each hunter's name. This was to minimize the difficulties that might be encountered with game wardens about individual bag limits. Back at the cabin the hunt was discussed and stories, comparing the present to the past, exchanged.

Doing the dishesThen the vegetables, potatoes, biscuits and more coffee were prepared for supper to accompany the chicken which had been in the oven awaiting our return. The table was set and the meal eaten over conversation about previous trips and the oft repeated tales of past shared experiences. These stories, which tended to get better with each telling always, had at least an element of truth buried in them. They were an important part of the trip as they provided each of us with a connection both to the group and our past. Then after dinner, the dishes, pots, pans and cooking areas were cleaned up. In the photograph of the dishes being done on the left you will notice a gas light above the sink. Gas lights were the primary light source. The water used for the cleanup came from a cistern which collected the runoff from the roof. Because of the bird droppings and a variety of other interesting and wiggly items, the cistern water was only used for only cleaning; you brought all potable water with you. In a similar vein sanitary issues were handled with The Morning Huntportable facilities with the waste being returned to Chincoteague for proper disposal. This was a change from bygone days where things followed a more natural course of events.Rolls coming out of the oven

 After supper and the cleanup, contact with the outside world was usual.  Prior to cell phones urgent communications were by CB radio which had all the aspects of a party line. Prior to that, you had to send a message with someone going back home. Meanwhile after the table had been cleared, someone would start playing solitaire. This was a signal that "the game was afoot." The next couple of hours would involve conversation, playing cards, or cleaning of shotguns. The salt air and water formed a very corrosive environment and firearms not attended to promptly would have suffered the effects of corrosion quickly. Later in the evening "Herb" would make some popcorn on the stove and add just a hint of Old Bay seasoning. Herb Daisey is a well known Island decoy carver. Sometimes he would bring freshly carved decoys on the trip so they could be "shot over" or actually used as working decoys. I was personally never allowed to shoot over Herb's decoys as I had in the past, unable to distinguish a real duck from a decoy, shot the occasional stool. That revelation gives rise to a whole host of other questions which I prefer not address here. Also the trips expenses were then distributed among the group. In later years the possibility of television did exist if the generator worked, we had gasoline and the antenna had not blown down in a previous storm. Then the day was over with an early turn in as the following morning you wanted to be in your blind at least an hour prior to sunrise.

Upon rising before first light, the coffee was put on. Stepping outside to sample the weather, preparations wereInside the Blind made for the morning hunt. For those that had blinds which did not require boat access the walk across the marsh would then begin. Hopefully there was enough moonlight available to allow you to carefully pick your way along the edge of the marsh avoiding the occasional hole, easier done when the marsh was not flooded. After arriving at your blind and laying out your shells, gun and a thermos of coffee you sat, waited, and listened. I do not have the skills necessary to adequately describe the experience as the sun slowly lit up the marsh and water around your blind, or the feel of the breeze as it shifts as the marsh and water were warmed or the smell of the salt air as it mixed with fragrance of the marsh. If you haven't experienced it, it is hard to appreciate, and if you have, no description I can give it will do it justice. You could hear the sound of the waves breaking on Assateague's beach a half a mile away and the Snow Geese starting to stir just before daylight. Shortly after the first light started to push the darkness westward the In the Blind HuntingSnow Geese would start flying and circling above Assateague. They continued this pattern gradually gaining more and more altitude while gathering birds to the flock. When the flock was finally assembled they would start their journey across the bay and over the blinds to the fields on the mainland. During their passage more often than not the flocks were well above shotgun range. The blind pictured here was quite elaborate and not typical. The majority of the marsh blinds, were rectangular plywood boxes on short poles with a door of sorts and covered with cedar or other evergreen boughs. The boughs were stuck into the mud around perimeter and fastened to the sides. Then a bench seat and a shelf for shells were installed. This particular blind included a covered and heated room with a shooting porch on two sides.

You would return to the cabin at about 8am or so for breakfast. This meal was unvaried and included eggs, bacon, sausage and toast. Chef "Ken" would sometimes cook the eggs to order with omelets not out of the question. However if Chef "Ken" was not available there was a chance the eggs would be floated on the grease left over from the bacon and sausage. 

After breakfast and the cleanup, discussions about the weatherDiscussing the hunt and the state of the trip to date continued. It was then custom to retire to the cabin's sitting room for more conversation and to watch the ducks as they pitched in the stools you had just left. Truly some of the best hunting was done from the cabins sitting room. Sitting in a warm room, in a soft chair, with a cup of coffee and looking out the window after having been out in the cold for 3 hours was very pleasant. While you couldn't shoot, it was very comfortable and you still had the illusion of hunting. After watching the ducks fly into the stools some of the hunters, would succumb to the call and return to the blinds and hunt through the midday. Conventional wisdom was, however, that midday hunting was not as productive as the morning or evening hunt. On the other hand those that went out for the midday hunt suggested that the rest of us were the not genuine article, but simply a cheap imitation of real hunters.

Joe Leaving BlindPrior to leaving for the evening hunt, plans were made for supper. If enough black duck had been harvested during the previous evenings and morning hunt they would provide the meal, Chef "Jack" would prepare them. I can say that the tastiest duck I have ever eaten were prepared in that cabin. He cooked them in the oven in a large roaster with onions, potatoes, carrots and then made gravy for the potatoes.

While all the social aspects of the different cabins were not created equal, some did provide anWilliam Teaching Joe to handle a firearm excellent opportunity to introduce your son to the art of hunting. These trips were considered a rite of passage by many. Pictured to the left is Captain Dan's nephew, Joe returning from the morning's hunt. On the right his father was giving him his first lesson handling a shotgun. Today, 10 years later, Joe is now able to give his dad some pointers.

The second evening's hunt and after supper activity were similar to the previous with one exception. On Saturday evening Garrison Keillor's radio program "A Prairie Home Companion" was sometimes enjoyed after supper, on the front porch, in the dark. While it may be hard to picture we would sometimes have 5 or 6 hunters enjoying the stories from Lake Wobegon. His story "Bruno, the fishing dog" was a favorite. Everyone enjoyed them until the night we heard his rendition of "The Little Match Girl". That was the end of Garrison Keillor.

You might note at this point there has been no discussion of bathing. The washing facilities were outside in a shower stall. The stall had a tank which caught roof water as did the cistern. It was painted black in an attempt to absorb heat but it was cold and I don't know of anyone that used it during the hunting season. When you returned home on Sunday a good scrubbing was the first item on the agenda.

Arising Sunday morning, if you had not recovered your stools the night before you went to get them then. The recovery was much easier and faster with two people in the boat, Boats Retuning Through the Iceparticularly if there was any wind to speak of. One person would position the boat while the other would hook the lead lines. They would be brought in three or four at a time and then the lines would be wrapped figure eight, neck to tail, to prevent making a mess in the bottom of the boat. This process would continue until all the stools were recovered. You would then return for breakfast.

After breakfast the cabin would be cleaned and trash packed away for the return home.  The boats would be loaded and the trip home begun. Usually the trip was uneventful however occasionally problems would be encountered. Pictured to the left is a trip during which the bay froze while we were away. The lead boat being the heaviest would break the ice for the following ones. On one occasion the ice was too thick to break and the trip home involved walking down Assateague beach, returning later for the boats. On another trip the fog was so thick we only had 10 to 15 feet visibility. We traveled for an hour only to bump up against the same piece of marsh we had been on an hour previous.  Captain Dan, age 9 at the time, was with us. He had a compass on the handle of a survival knife, which after he mentioned it gave us a course for home ("and a little child shall lead them"). There is more to that story but you will have to ask Capt. Dan about it to get "The Rest of the Story". If the wind was hard from the north or west it was better to make for a landing on the east side of the Island, on the other hand if it was from the south or east it could be better to make landing on the western side. If your returning location was not the same as your departure you had to make arrangements to have your trailer meet you at the ramp.

This was a fair description of the hunting trips to this particular cabin. It did not include any discussion about the preceding trip that was necessary to prepare the blinds and winterize the cabin nor did it include any description of the summer activities in the cabin. Those are stories for another day.

That's the way it was 50 years ago, that is the way it is today, and hopefully that's the way it will be 50 years in the future.

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