Opening Days and Food Traditions

Saturday opens the general modern firearm deer season in Washington State. We have several openers in the state – for archers, muzzloaders, master hunters and various special hunts – but this is the big one, with some 150,000 of our closest friends heading afield to make deer meat. It’s a special day.

I was fourteen when I was first invited to be part of the deer hunt on Uncle Ed’s place, up the Little Chumstick out of Leavenworth, Washington. I remember having a tough time sleeping that pre-opening night, with visions of the buck which would give itself to me so that I could help feed my struggling 1950s family. I remember being terrified that I might somehow screw up, but more than anything, I remember the breakfast Aunt Evy fixed before we headed out for each opening day from that one on – ham and eggs and pancakes. I remember savoring them until The Old Man got cranky about “burning daylight.” It was all part of the tradition.

I was twenty-one when my mom and step-dad Ray handed me the sourdough starter I still use today. I made breads and rolls that went with me on every hunt for decades. A great tradition.

I think each hunting and outdoor family has its rituals and traditions – carefully nurtured to set success in our minds – for season openers of whatever stripe.

There are many moments that tell us the time of year and the state of our lives. Times like canning and freezing and putting up meat, or places and people without whom we could not truly welcome begin an annual fishing trip or hunting season. These icons or traditions represent key aspects of our lives. They may change a bit over time, but they are always important.

I was barely a grownup when I attached to the first real tradition of my adult outdoor life…and not much older when I felt the loss of it.

“Uh, oh…” Buddy Rick muttered. “This is not good… This is a bad omen.” We were halfway down Crow Hill on U.S. 285, southwest of Denver, headed for trout fishing in South Park. Dark-thirty breakfast time on a Saturday; summer of 1969.

There was a note on the door of the darkened diner.

Rick and I had discovered the diner in 1964, a year after we met at Lowry AFB, following our overseas duty. We had quickly found each other’s outdoor spirit, and partnered up for all our hunting and fishing. At the time of discovery, we were on a pre-dawn drive to deer hunting in the hills around South Park. Our drive had been filled with youthful talk of big bucks and well-fed families of successful hunters. We planned to grab a quick bite in Bailey, at the bottom of the hill. Then we saw the lights of the diner.

The old wood-slab diner sat alone on the outside of a carved-out turn on the west side of the road. It had a clean, well-worn linoleum counter smoothed by the sliding of a million plates of eggs and sausage and flapjacks. The tall, lean old-timer behind the counter had probably cooked every plateful. We were struck by his ease and the hand-rolled smoke that somehow stayed lit while clinging to the farthest possible corner of his mouth. “Well, what’ll it be boys?”

Over the years, the Old-timer’s Diner became the start of our outdoor play – our tradition. We could pass up every food joint out of Denver, because we knew that the old boy would have the coffee and the grill and good humor ready when we got there. Plenty of others knew the place, too, but it was OUR place. “Huntin’ and fishin’ keep you young,” he said once, “and I love ta get out… But first, I gotta feed my boys and get ‘em on their way.” Some days, we had a better time over breakfast than in the woods or on the water the rest of the day – but we counted every day that started with his breakfast a success.

Then came that 1969 morning, and the hand-scrawled note. The old-timer had gone to his reward – which, we figured, could not possibly be enough to repay him for all he had given. We stood for a moment outside that worn old building with the shiny new “For Sale” sign. We wiped tears we were too manly to have, and wished the old man a happy hunting and fishing ground.

They built a bank there. Our South Park fishing and hunting was never again the same. Within a year, my grad school and Rick’s new career and crippling accident changed us, too. Still, any mention of the old timer put us back in a safe and sacred time.

We need our traditions.

Saturday, hundreds and hundreds of us will find our way to the 31st Annual Hunters Breakfast at the Swauk Teanaway Grange on Ballard Hill Road on the way up the west side of Blewett Pass (signs at SR 970 and Teanaway Road). Many will do a morning hunt, come refuel on ham, eggs and hotcakes (with homemade apple butter, coffee and orange juice), then head out to a day afield. Busloads of West Side folks will be there, too. The Hunters Breakfast is an icon – a tradition.

In two weeks, Friday the 26th, the annual Free Elk Hunters Breakfast will happen at PSE’s Wild Horse Visitors Center off the Old Vantage Highway, a few miles east of Ellensburg. In company with DFW folks and members of co-sponsor Kittitas County Field & Stream Club, hunters will swap ideas, hopes and stories over a variety of eggs, sausages, potatoes, biscuits, pancakes, fresh fruit, coffee and juice. It’s becoming a  tradition.

Welcome to the start of the primary 2018 hunting seasons.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized