Some years ago, the rumor circulated that my hunting buddy, Buck Alt, was dead. It was a false rumor and Buck lived to roam the woods a bit longer. Today, however, it is no longer rumor. Buck died the day after Christmas.
It's the saddest of days when an outdoor friend, a hunting buddy of long standing passes away. There remains an unfillable place in your heart after he is gone.
I met Buck many years ago on a black bear tagging field trip with Dr. Gary Alt. (Yes, Buck is Gary's dad). Gary ran the Game Commission's black bear restoration and research program, then and for years Buck was his right-hand man. Buck piloted the plane they used to track the collared bears. Buck, in fact, helped develop the radio collars they used.
Back in that era, when Gary tracked a sow with cubs by telemetry intending to tranquilize and examine the sow and to fit her with a collar, his technique was to rush at the family group to startle them. The sow would scramble her cubs up a tree and run off a way. Gary would climb the tree to retrieve the cubs for examination.
But it was Buck's lot to stand at the base of tree and rebuff the sow as she charged the tree, huffing and clicking her teeth. Buck could not allow the sow to get into the tree or she'd have Gary for lunch. How would you like that job? Buck, however, dismissed it as just "part of a day's work." "If I had any hair it would sure have been gray," he says about that phase of his outdoor work.
When the black bear era was finished, Buck jumped into spring gobbler hunting with both feet, learning most everything from scratch. We met at one of Gary's field trips in the forest. It doesn't take long for two gobbler hunters to find each other. We may have been "working" bears but we were talking turkey.
He'd always invite me to come up and hunt gobblers with him in the Poconos.
At first I didn't take those invitations seriously but when he began to show up at most every seminar I would do no matter where it was held, I began to believe perhaps he was serious. So when he came to a seminar and invited me again I decided to call his bluff.
The first morning that I arrived at his house before dawn, he said to me, " Shirley I know where every gobbler in Wayne County is. But the calling and strategy is up to you. " Because he was so new to the sport it was a grand bargain and our first hunt together that morning was possibly our most unforgettable. An amazing stroke of luck resulted in Buck's bagging a gobbler and in my receiving a place as one of his myriad of hunting buddies.
Our hunts together were never routine. Something exciting seemed always to happen. Once, Buck was calling for me and I killed a gobbler that flopped into a deep farm creek and began to float downstream. The stream was too deep to wade so, female-like, I screamed for Buck who thought I had fallen in. He came running then picked up a long stick and fished that soaked, sorry-looking gobbler out of the creek.
Another time, we had a bunch of decoys set up on the edge of a small field. Our calling had attracted 8 gobblers that sprinted, all in a knot, across the field toward those decoys. I couldn't shoot for fear of hitting more than one bird. Finally one longbeard separated from the others and I shot.
He wasn't 10 yards away from me but I missed! As eight gobblers high-stepped it out of there I heard Buck snickering. "Maybe you better pattern that gun," he suggested between guffaws. So I leveled on one of my new decoys and blew it to shreds.
On and on it goes. My "beside-the-fireplace" memories of a good friend, the man who relates hunting tales in a droll manner that keeps you in stitches, a man as obsessed with gobbler hunting as I am. Someone I feel truly blessed to have known.
Just a bit of a curmudgeon, Buck was an old-timer in the truest sense of the word, the kind of hunting buddy with which few of us are blessed. A man who gave back to the outdoor world much more than he ever took. A man who spent years traveling to the west to trap, a sportsman who manned bear check stations for years, who chased rowdy bears through the woods in the name of science, yet who always knew where every gobbler in Wayne County was located.
He's a legend in my eyes. And so say all his many friends. The common word among the many folks who came for his funeral, he was a "character," "one-of-a-kind," "unforgettable." He lived alone and hunted right up to the day of his home-going. He bagged his last deer at age 94. I wrote him a Christmas card with a letter in it which he would have received just a day or two before family members, who went to check on him, found him lying on the floor, already gone.
I loved him, in the way all hunters love their closest hunting buddies. He loved few things in life more than chasing gobblers on spring mornings and my repertoire is filled with exciting tales of our exploits together chasing both bears and gobblers. I'll never step into the spring woods again that he is not in my mind and heart.