GON Fall Fiction: White Lightning Part 3
The Good Lord was really smiling on us the first time we ever hunted up on the Knob with Coach Smart on that memorable openin’ day way back in 1961. The temperature was in the mid 40s, nothing close to as cold as we expected it to be.
“The old man of the mountain is pullin’ a fast one on you two,” Coach had said. “Next time we come up here, it’ll probably be about 15 degrees with sleet or snow and 30 mph winds.”
We hadn’t gotten 100 yards up the old logging road from Coach’s Jeep wagon before we began peeling off clothes. Soon we had worked up a good sweat. Willie and me later agreed that Coach was right. The old man of the mountain must’ve been playing a trick on us that first trip because the rest of that season, and the next two after that, it was always pretty cold most every time we hunted the mountains. By the beginning of our fourth season, it seemed like we had climbed that old logging road a thousand times. We knew every turn and switchback going up the mountain and every place where a deer or hog trail crossed the old road. We usually ended up at a small, flat opening in the woods where a loading dock had once been located about 150 feet in elevation below the very top level of the Knob. From there we would split up and go our separate ways for the day’s hunt.
It wasn’t unusual to see the temperature drop down in the teens and have those inky clouds start spitting snow on us. It was a brutal kind of wet cold, and we suffered mightily as the season wore on. We never had the kind of insulated hunting clothes available today, but we loved every minute of it. Now that I think about it, if the Good Lord smiled on us the first year, he also must’ve smiled on us during our fourth year of hunting the high country as well. That’s the year everything seemed to come to a head all at once. I’ll get to that part directly, but first I need to fill you in on a few other things.
After leaving Jake’s in Dahlonega, we’d head up Highway 19 to Stonepile Gap and stop briefly to put a rock on the pile for good luck. It became a ritual. From there we continued on up the winding highway to Charlie Turner’s Corner. Mr. Charlie owned a country store and some cabins that he rented out mostly to trout fisherman at the corner of Highway 19 and U.S. 129. But the reason people loved to stop by the store was because he kept a pet bear named Herman Talmadge that stayed outside in a big cage. Herman was famous for drinking Coca Cola. Practically everyone who stopped by that well-known landmark bought a bottle of Coke for the bear and watched him hold it in one paw and gulp it down like a human. I can’t imagine how many Cokes that poor bear drank on some days when business was booming, but I suspect all that sugar eventually gave him a good case of black bear diabetes.
Normally we’d pass by the store in the early morning hours before it was open, or well after dark in the evenings when we were headed home. But if it happened to be during daylight hours, especially when we were grouse hunting after deer season, we’d always stop by to pick up a snack and pay our respects to old Herman. We never gave him any Cokes because we felt sorry for him.
“All that sugar is bound to kill the poor beast sooner or later,” Coach always said.
A few miles up Highway 129 toward Blairesville on some of the most winding mountain roads in all of north Georgia took us to the turnoff at Vogel State Park. If you had a weak stomach, or if you’d eaten too many grits at Jake’s that morning, those roads would either make you lose your breakfast in a hurry or wish you had never been born. Willie seemed to have an iron stomach, but not me. Several times Coach had to stop in the darkness and wait for me to unload my breakfast.
After making a left at Vogel on Wolf Pen Gap Road, Highway 180 I believe it was, we’d be almost there. A few miles down that road took us to the turnoff that led to the locked Forest Service gate at the foot of Sheriff Knob where we always parked. Everything around us in every direction for miles was owned by Uncle Sam. We seldom saw any other cars or trucks at the gate, and Coach would always sigh and say, “Looks like we’re in luck… We got the whole place to ourselves today. Any other deer hunters would have been in here by now.
“I reckon most hunters who know this area know what a tough climb it is up to the top, and they prefer to go somewhere else ’cause they ain’t willin’ to make the effort,” Coach would say. “That’s good for us!”
We bumped into a few grouse hunters after deer season, but we seldom saw any other deer hunters around the Knob. That is, until our fourth year, and I wouldn’t exactly call the folks we bumped into hunters. Like I said, I’ll get to that directly.
We didn’t know it at the time, but the grouse hunting in those days was at an all-time peak. It was the best it had ever been since the Forest Service acquired most of its land in the early 1900s. Portions of the area had been heavily cut over at various times, and it was coming back nicely in young, second- and third-growth timber. But many areas were still fairly open, and conditions were about as good as they could get for grouse in the early ’60s. Sometimes we saw those beautiful birds by the truckload.
The new forest hadn’t really reclaimed the area yet, and plenty of edge cover made it prime. It wasn’t at all unusual for us to run into coveys of up to eight or 10 birds or more! They’d flush like quail, and they were so numerous you really didn’t need a dog. I have to admit, I was a much better grouse hunter than I was a deer hunter. We came home with our limit of two birds just about every time we got after them. We saw so many birds, and we had plenty of opportunities. I missed my share of easy shots, but enough times I got lucky and a bird would crumple and go down.
Once we bumped into two grouse hunters near the top of the knob who had been willing to make the tough climb. They were coming down the trail as we were going up, and Coach stopped and struck up a conversation with them. One of the hunters introduced himself as Arthur Truelove from Gainesville. I later learned that Truelove had quite a reputation. He was one of the most respected turkey and grouse hunters in the entire mountain region. He knew where all the best places were, and he told us he’d been hunting the Knob for years. I always hoped to meet up with him again, but I never did.
The fabulous grouse hunting that we knew and loved so much back in those days didn’t last. Things started going downhill in the ’70s, and we saw fewer and fewer birds. Some of the so-called experts insisted that the birds were “cyclic,” and that they’d soon be bouncing back. But that never happened. They never recovered to those high numbers we took for granted back in those golden days.
After we parked at the locked gate, we piled out of the Jeep wagon, stretched, and loaded our rifles in the dark. We never put one in the chamber until we were close to the top of the Knob.
“If we jump one walking up the trail, it’s doubtful anybody will get a shot anyway, and if we see one standing on the side of the ridge, he’ll probably be too far off to draw a decent bead on,” Coach insisted.
His rifle of choice was an old Savage Model 99 that his father had given him. After we loaded the magazines of our lever-actions, we grabbed our other gear, and Coach locked the car and hid the keys under a nearby rock in case somebody had to come back early for some reason.
Then we slipped into our packs and started up the old winding, switch-back logging road. It was usually just breaking daylight over the shadow of mountains to the east, and we could see well enough we didn’t need flashlights. Coach liked to go in when it was just breaking light. We always traveled slowly up the trail, stopping often to look and listen and to keep from sweating too much in our heavy clothes. By the time we got near the top of the Knob, it would be good light.
“I got a good mind to bring the whole wrasslin’ team up here after deer season’s over and make you boys jog up this road to the top and back a couple of times while I hunt me some grousie-birds,” Coach threatened several times with a big smile. “That’d get the whole team in shape better than anything else I know.”
“Or kill us dead!” Willie weighed in.
“Walking is hard enough,” I muttered as I was trying to catch my breath.
Coach said our timing was perfect because the deer would be doing a little feeding right after daylight for at least an hour or so.
“Believe me, I’ve climbed this ridge many a time in the black dark, and it’s a whole lot easier to do it when you can see where you are going.”
That made sense to Willie and me. We barely made a sound going up the trail, and we knew doing that would be extra-tough in the pitch-black dark.
At one point about halfway up the mountain, Coach stopped to catch his breath.
“There never have been a whole lot of deer up in these woods, and there probably never will be ’cause the food supply around here is always scarce in the winter. Mountain deer don’t have a whole lot to eat after the acorns are gone.”
He always pronounced it “akern” instead of acorn.
“See that large hollowed out stump over there?” Coach pointed, and we looked over at a huge old remnant of a once mighty tree. The dark-colored base was a good 3 feet in diameter. The jagged, rotted out shell of the tree now stood about 8 feet tall, and it apparently had died many years ago.
“You know what kind of tree that was?” Coach asked.
“An oak?” Willie guessed.
“Nope. Try again,” Coach said, looking at me.
I started to say hickory for some reason, and then it dawned on me that a great blight had wiped out all of the chestnut trees that had one been so common to these mountains.
“Is it a chestnut?” I asked.
“You got it!” Coach said. “How did you know?”
“I read about how the Cherokees and early settlers gathered chestnuts for food,” I said, “and then all the trees died out when some blight came along… what, maybe 30 or 40 years ago?”
He smiled. “I’m proud you’re readin’ some good stuff once in a while instead of all that trash I’ve been giv’n you about deer hunting,” Coach said.
“I thought you said it was literature,” I quipped.
“It is,” Coach said. “I’m just messin’ with you.”
After we reached our usual rendezvous spot at the old loading dock, we wished each other luck and headed off to our chosen areas for the morning’s hunt. We seldom hunted the very top of the Knob, but we hunted all around it. Sometimes Willie and me would meet up around lunchtime and compare notes about what we had seen while we ate our sandwiches. Coach would often find us in the middle of the day as well and go with us to look at various sign we had found. He’d always study everything and tell us whether it was worth hunting or not.
Other times, when conditions were right, we hunted all day long by ourselves until dark. There were lots of old skidder roads going off the main logging road, and we’d usually find one wherever the trail made a sharp turn or switchback as we climbed higher and higher toward the top of the Knob. Those old skidder trails were great places to explore because you could keep your bearings and easily get back to the main road. The deer used them often because they always took the path of least resistance.
Just before splitting up on that maiden hunt, Coach pointed out several small heart-shaped deer tracks in the trail.
“Doe tracks,” he said.
“How do you know?” Willie asked.
“Because they’re so small. Buck tracks are usually a lot bigger and more splayed out because a full-grown he-buck weighs so much more.”
• • •
By now you’re probably wondering how three serious hunters could have hunted on the Knob for three seasons in a row without seeing hardly any bucks, much less kill one. There are several reasons. For one thing, Willie and me were as green as fresh-cut oak wood, but the truth is there just weren’t that many deer up there during those years, and they ranged a wide area. Coach always said they followed the food when the weather turned cold. They might be on our mountain one morning, and 2 miles away the next. But there was always plenty of good buck sign on and around the Knob, and Coach said there were probably two or three really good “he-bucks” that used that mountain on a regular basis during any given season.
“We just have to catch up with ’em and outfox ’em. Plus there are always a couple of younger bucks hanging around the big boys,” Coach added.
But we hunted like fools for three seasons without seeing much in the way of horns.
There was another reason, too. In those days, the laws were sketchy about hunting on Sunday. It had been against the law for many years, but things were beginning to change. It depended on what county you were in and how the local Sheriff felt about it. Even though we never ran into a game warden while we were hunting the Knob, Coach didn’t want to take any chances. So we hunted mainly on Saturdays, usually making a day-trip of it. Sometimes when we were out of school for several days, we’d camp over at Vogel or down at Lake Winfield Scott and get to hunt a couple of days in a row.
Coach and his mentor Mr. Shaw—the older man who loaned me the deer rifle—always hunted other parts of the state as well. They seldom ended a season without filling their buck tags somewhere. But Willie and me were just plain snake-bit during those first three seasons. We weren’t complaining though. We learned a lot, and we loved going up to the Knob any time we could. We got so good at killing grouse with shotguns after deer season was over that it went a long way toward making us feel like real hunters. By our fourth season, though, we were ready for something big to happen. We had traveled too many miles and put in too much effort not to see some positive results. We felt like it was our destiny to make something happen in 1964. And we did. But before it all played out, there were a lot of unexpected bumps along the way. Maybe I should rephrase that and use the word “earthquakes” instead. And when those quakes erupted, Willie was right in the epicenter of everything.
After three seasons of hunting the Knob, we had learned the lay of the land extremely well. Willie usually hunted a series of trails just east of the Knob, Coach went around to the west side, and I hunted in between. Sometimes I would cross over the top of the Knob and hunt clean over on the other side. The top of the Knob was several hundred yards long, and the terrain was flat in some spots and rolling in others. We found a little sign up there, but most of the best buck sign was 150 feet or so in elevation below the very top on terraced terrain that paralleled the top. Coach referred to the well-used deer trails we found as “highways.”
Our methods were simple and primitive compared to today. We still-hunted some, moving very slowly along a trail or old skidder road, but mostly we would find a good spot, usually on the side of a ridge above a well-used trail or crossing where two trails met, and we would trail watch for hours at a time. Sometimes we hunted over fresh scrapes. We usually changed spots from morning to afternoon.
Often we did some scouting during the middle of the day to try to locate new buck sign. The best advice Coach gave us from our very first hunt was, “Sit still and watch the wind.” We heeded that advice above everything else. Coach explained to us that the mountain wind currents were drawn uphill during mid to late morning and early afternoon as the sun got higher in the sky, and then they would reverse and start settling downward on the slopes when the sun started going down or on cloudy days when the sun never appeared. We hunted accordingly, either above or below the trails we expected a buck to be using.
Coach always worried about us getting lost, but we never did. Willie and me seemed to be blessed with a good sense of direction, and we could usually find our way back to the spot where we had started out after a long day in the woods. That first year, Coach had told us, “Just try to stay on the skidder roads and trails, and you should be okay. If ya’ do get hopelessly lost, and there’s plenty of ways that could happen, try to keep yer’ wits about you and start walkin’ downhill. Try to work around to the southern slope and go due south or southeast. You’ll probably hit the old loggin’ road sooner or later, but if you don’t, you’ll eventually come out somewhere along Wolf Pen Gap Road. If you work your way southwest or west, which’ll probably be a little easier going, you’ll come out on West Wolf Creek Road. You can follow it south out to the main road.
“If you hit a creek or stream, follow it downhill until you get to the road. Take your time, and use your noggins. If you come out too far from where you think the Jeep is parked, try to hitch a ride over to Vogel. There’ll be plenty of hunters and local people on the main road who’ll be glad to give you a lift. If you’re hopelessly lost, and it starts gettin’ dark on you, build yourself a good fire and spend the night by it to stay warm. Make sure you gather plenty of wood while it’s still light enough to see, and don’t let your fire go out. If I can’t find you and I suspect you might be lost, I’ll drive up and down the paved road or look for you over at Vogel. You each got a compass?”
“You know how to use ’em?”
“Good. You got plenty of matches?”
“Good. You’ll need them to build a fire at night if you get lost. You boys just might become deer hunters after all. Like I said, try to work your way south or southeast or in a westerly direction.”
He paused and smiled.
“You know what they say about gettin’ lost, don’t you?”
“You can only be lost if you’re concerned about where you are. If you don’t give a hoot, you’ll never be lost. You’ll just be millin’ around in the woods out in God’s great outdoors somewhere.”
“Then I’ll never be lost,” I said bravely.
“What if you’re hungry and you do care?” Willie asked.
“That’s a horse of a different color,” Coach Smart answered. “The most important thing is to keep your wits about you, and you won’t stay lost for long. After all, we’re only talking about a couple of hundred thousand acres of some of the most rugged, up and down wilderness mountain land in the entire Southeast!”
He grinned wryly.
• • •
Strange things started happening toward the end of our third season. Nothing you could put your finger on, but a little unnerving for sure. Like I said earlier, we seldom saw any other deer hunters on the road going in or up on the mountain after we were in the woods during deer season. But once or twice during the ’63 season I got the strange feeling that someone was watching me when I was by myself hunting. It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Coach said the same thing happened to him more than once. When you’re alone long enough in the woods, that sixth sense we all have starts to speak to you. It’s like a little voice deep inside that is trying to tell you something. And it was talking loud and clear.
One evening we came out of the woods at dark and gathered at the usual spot where the Jeep was parked. Someone had left a strange calling card on the ground behind the Jeep. Whoever it was had killed a wild hog, gutted it, and left the pile of entrails so close to the back tires that Coach couldn’t backup with running over them. The pig’s scrawny black tail was on the windshield under a wiper. We knew whoever it was could have done much worse, like slit the tires or break out some of the windows. Was someone trying to tell us something? Was this some type of sick warning? It was a mystery that would be resolved soon enough during that fourth season on the Knob.
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