No other U.S. state may be as strongly associated with hunting as West Virginia, says a Canadian writer who's fallen in love with the Mountain State.
Years ago, while writing for hunting and fishing magazines, Larry Oakley says he became aware of the state's unique relationship with hunting and has been writing about the outdoor experience in West Virginia since.
"I realized how important hunting was in West Virginia," Oakley says. "Usually more so than most other places—possibly because of the strong mountain traditions and the need for access to food in an area that's so rugged."
Youth in West Virginia learn to hunt early, he says, and that deep-sown relationship put him in mind of a hunting game played in Canadian woodlands similar to those in West Virginia.
Students would never be allowed to play such a game now, he says, but he's interested to hear of similar youthful experiences from West Virginians themselves.
"Many years ago, at a one-room schoolhouse in the village of Croydon, Ontario, 25 miles northwest of Kingston, young boys played a game that would not be permitted in this day and age in any school across Canada or the United States; they played a hunting game.
"When I asked a friend of mine where he learned to hunt and why he was such a good hunter, he told me all about the Croydon schoolhouse hunting game.
"They played at lunchtime and after school. The older boys from the upper grades were the deer, and the younger boys from the lower grades were the hunters. At the time, in the mid-1900s Croydon was a farming community with several hotels, a general store, a church, a post office, a gristmill, and, of course, the schoolhouse.
"The game started on the first day of school in the fall and was played into the winter over frosty fields, across frozen swamps, and through snow-covered woods.
"The deer left the schoolyard first running together before splitting into smaller groups, or breaking away alone when hunters followed. There were no guns in this hunt. A hunter had to run a deer down and touch him with his hand to be successful.
"Once after a long chase, Paul told me that he was the only hunter left in the woods chasing his older brother, Eugene Fowler, who was the last deer being pursued. When Eugene tried to cross thin ice on a shallow creek he broke through and stumbled to the ground wet, cold and exhausted. When Paul ran up and touched him on the arm, Eugene reached back, made a fist, and drove Paul in the face, knocking him flat on his back.
Like all games, they didn’t just play for fun, because all games have a serious, competitive side. So sometimes you came home from the Croydon schoolhouse with a black eye, but it didn’t bother you, because you knew you earned it the hard way, like a badge of honor. Black eyes are another thing you seldom receive at school any more.
"Eventually, Paul got a little older and wiser too. He knew the woods from playing the hunter. He knew where the woods opened near the meadows and fields, and where they closed in the thick tag alders. He knew where the woods got steep on granite ridges, and where they disappeared beneath cedar swamps. He knew where the woods got dark in the tall pines, and where they narrowed at beaver dams and on game trails. But most importantly, he knew where the woods came together and finally began to make sense, at a quiet place located somewhere deep inside his mind. Even as a young boy, he felt at home in the big woods, a timeless and sacred place unknown and feared by most people.
"But now it was his turn to be the deer. He began to think and hide and act like a wild animal in the woods until, eventually, he would discover that he had a wild animal spirit of his own.
"Paul was rarely even seen by the hunters from the Croydon schoolhouse. He would run through a swamp to get away. He would circle back and follow the hunters through the woods from behind.
"Once, a large pack of hunters was spread out trying to push him through the woods into the open fields. He hid from them by crawling under the low hanging boughs of a large pine tree where he rolled himself into a ball and covered his face with his hands as the hunters walked by within feet of him.
"Paul shot his first deer when he was 11 years old. He got so good at hunting that he eventually only hunted spike-horn bucks, because he said they were the best eating deer.
"At 66, he was still hunting at our camp near Kaladar. But now he only liked dogging deer through the woods, He no longer even brought his rifle. Instead, he carried a wooden walking stick.
"After all these years, Paul Fowler is still out there, playing the hunting game, that he learned long ago as a young boy, at the old schoolhouse."