From the highway the north end of Cow Mountain is the only green zone east of the 101, save the flat lands of the Ukiah Valley. The recent Mendocino Complex Fires which includes Hopland’s ‘River Fire’ turned much of the forest and grasslands to ash. Driving east from Calpella on Highway 20, things look normal for the dry foliage of late summer, until you pass over the East Fork of the Russian River, a spot of fire here and there is evident, then at the turnoff for Potter Valley, the devastation is shocking. Crews battled the fire on the East side of 20 right down to the highway, in a few spots it jumped across to the west and quickly put out. Harrison ‘Bunny’ Comstock and I climbed up the steep road to the top of Cow Mountain in his beloved jeep. Halfway up we looked back, the vista is incredible, ash and cold cinders. Dirt colored scars etch the hillsides where the firefighting caterpillars cut access roads for the firefighting crews. Some of the deeper canyons still hold some singed green but for the most part, it is ash as far as the eye can see. Let’s hope for a long, slow rainy season to keep erosion minimal and new wild land foliage will spring up next year to begin rebuilding.
The Cow Mountain Hunt Club has been a part of the mountain for a long time, established in 1942, it has survived many wild fires and generations of hunters. Today the club is a special place filled with special people. Members past retirement age recall coming to Cow Mountain as toddlers and now bring their sons and daughters to experience the wild beauty, serenity and wholesome fun that is today’s’ club. Some hunters are old enough and lucky enough to witness grandchildren visiting for the first time. Young ones who are interested in hunting are carefully taught to hunt properly, hunt safely and experience a piece of our hunting heritage, a part of most families lives before shrink wrap and pink foam trays in the butcher shop became the norm.
Last weekend was the end of the A-zone hunting season and the close of another year of the band of brothers that is the hunt club. Time there is cherished by those who come as members and guests. Friday saw more than forty seated for dinner, the meal was austere, butterflied shrimp and squid deep fried as appetizers, a salad bar, mashed potatoes and fresh gravy, corn and Italian wedding soup served as the entree. This meager repast was followed by homemade ice cream and a birthday cake for the Palm twins, Lucky Jake and his older brother (by one minute) Jim. Dinner was preceded by an open bar with lots of crushed ice and soft drinks. A very fine Zinfandel from MacNab Ranch Winery was the table wine brought by wine steward Jim Frizzell. Card games, cussing and fine exaggerations around the fire closed the evening. The peeps of small frogs and a few crickets sang us to sleep. The moon was at three-quarters for late night-light visits to the facilities, the moonlight competed with stars close enough to touch. Some snoring and dogs carrying on helped a few campers stay awake for short periods of time.
Five-thirty is reveille, the generator kicks on to help hunters dress and prepare for the morning hunt. An austere breakfast of packaged pastries and coffee got the hunt going early Saturday morning. Three hours after the hunt a real brunch of fresh hash browns, eggs, bacon, sausage and a selection of cheeses and fruit were part of the buffet line. The afternoon is for playing cards, visiting the bar and napping except for the tiny flies that Zzzzitt! past your eyes and ears.
The weekend had a few young hunters, the Palm twins, Lucky Jake shot his first deer the year before and took a second buck earlier this season, which explains the nick-name. Older brother Jim missed a buck or two and remained hunter-in-waiting, now fourteen. They are watched over by loving dad Jay Palm a Petaluma based saddle maker. The boys attend Petaluma High School. Dominic Mertens of Windsor, also fourteen, was with his grandpa, Fred. Dominic took his first buck two years earlier making him the more seasoned hunter. He teased the others over a hand of Pedro, “I think I’ll write a book on how to shoot your first deer.” Jim blushed, the other boys did not let that slide. Jim wasn’t entirely green, earlier in the season he shot a running pig, no small feat, but no horns. Rounding out the card game was twelve-year-old Jack Young, he passed his hunter safety course within a month of turning twelve, the earliest age the regulations allow licensing. All four boys were excited to be there, when asked what was their favorite parts of Cow Mountain they said the same thing; no girls, lots of cussing and lies, you can spit or do your business anywhere you like and no one cares. The boys also liked playing cards and going on road hunts around the property. The previous week Jake set up a ‘trail camera’ a device that takes a snapshot when an animal trips the sensor. Other than the usual deer, coyote and raccoons one big, fat black bear smiled with lots of teeth and one very healthy mountain lion, displayed his fangs and unusual short tail.
Late in the afternoon the boys were off for a short hunt not far from the camp. On the drive out in Gary Mickelson’s jeep a nice buck slipped behind a tree to avoid detection, except I saw his move. Gary stopped and young Jim hopped out and took aim. The deer started to run, Jim took careful aim and shot. He said, “I hit the tree behind him!” you could hear the disappointment in his voice. He hopped back in and Gary drove us downhill to where the buck, if wounded, would go. No deer. Gary placed young Jim there in case the deer broke downhill and went back to look for signs of blood where we last saw the deer. He hiked up the hill and immediately found blood, lots of blood. He started tracking and I drove his jeep back down to Jim. As I drove past the brow of the hill young Jim was posing for Gary’s cell phone camera holding this three-pointer by the horns. Gary patiently showed Jim how to field dress a deer, guiding the new hunters hand through the process. Young Jim’s skill at shooting a running pig came through on this kill shot, one through the heart. No suffering, just a few paces and the buck flopped over dead. We drove, late to the hunt we originally were going to. The other boys went wild, high fives and ‘attaboys’ were sent Jim’s way. Younger brother Lucky Jake smiled so hard he nearly lost his orthodonture. When dad Jay hiked to the jeep he was all smiles and a quick hug as his older boy claimed his first deer. It is a proud moment when the son of a hunter scores for the first time. The older hunters back at camp were all cheers and handshakes for Jim. Sons and daughters of hunters look forward to their first kill, to be there when it actually took place was a real honor for Gary and I. That moment in time will stay with him forever.
Bill Hanson is a Sonoma County native and a lifelong sportsman. He is the former president of the Mycological Society. Look for his column each week in The Community Voice.