Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Pennsylvania Deer Wars: A Different Perspective-A Life Changing Event

Today we continue our discussion of the "Pennsylvania Deer Wars".  As of yet I have written little about any war, which led one reader to ask just what the "Deer Wars" are.  This will become clear as I continue the series, but for now I continue with exploring the factors that led my brother Coy and I to develop a strong lifelong interest in the outdoors in general and whitetail deer in particular.  Along the way, both of us experienced a sea change in attitude about wildlife, with the progression being gradual at times and abrupt at others.

Coy and I were ideally positioned to become totally immersed in the outdoors as we lived in one of the remotest areas of Fulton County, Pennsylvania.  The nearest neighbors were a farmer and a hunting club, both of which were at least one-half mile away. Other than that it was fields and undeveloped mountain land from our farm to the east side of Meadow Grounds Mountain near McConnellsburg, which is a distance of many miles.

Typical Fulton County Backwoods Farmland In Early 1950s: Photo by Alma Hill
One of my earliest memories was when the farmhouse was connected to the electric grid sometime before I started school,  but we didn't have telephone service or TV while I lived there.  Our family and my grandparents on my father's side shared the same house, and my grandmother had strong religious beliefs about television and would not allow a TV set  in the house, as she believed that television was a bad moral influence and led to a lot  of "sinnin".  One felt inferior and left out of things when you went to school and your classmates discussed the latest episodes of their favorite TV shows, but the plus side to this was that one tended to to become involved in activities  that required intellectual and physical effort as one could not come home at the end of the school day and watch television for entertainment, but rather you were forced to provide your own entertainment. As a result I became a voracious reader, hunter, fisherman, and student of traditional Appalachian music.

My initial interest in whitetails came from hearing the deer hunting stories and seeing the deer that the hunters brought in, but things really took off in 1964 when I somehow came into possession of an old, ragged copy of "The Deer Hunter's Bible" by George Laycock. I read it from cover to cover and then re-read certain sections, and then read them again and again! This book really fired my interested in deer hunting and sparked an interest in deer watching.  When weather and chores permitted, it was common to come home from school, and head out for a walk through deer country in the last hour of so of the day when deer activity was at its' peak.  When I got back to the house, I usually settled down with a snack and scanned the pages of "The Deer Hunter's Bible", dreaming about the coming deer season.  In time one wanted more reading material (we also read the outdoor magazines of the day), and we came across an advertisement that was to eventually change the focus of my life, but like many life altering things, it didn't seem significant at the time and was initially very inexpensive.

It seemed so innocuous!  For the sum of 25 cents one could receive "The World Of The Whitetail Deer" by Leonard Lee Rue III, if they would only agree to join the Outdoor Life Book Club, and buy a few more selections during the year at the regular club price.  In time the book arrived, and I was fascinated by Mr. Rue's photographs and writing.  The photographs were all in black and white and some were taken in deer pens, but I was in awe!  How did one do this?  There was little or no information easily available about photographing wildlife at that time and he did not describe what equipment he used.  I may be wrong, but I feel certain that the photographs for this book were taken before 35mm SLR cameras and telephoto lenses were easily available.  From this point on it seemed a given to me that anyone would want to photograph deer "like Leonard did", but I was amazed to find that this was not the case when several years later I excitedly stuck one of my first b&w prints of a deer in my grandfather's face and excitedly informed him that here was an actual deer photograph, but he just said something like "yeah" in a distracted way and went on with what he was doing.  Obviously, deer and deer photography did not rank very high on his list of priorities.

Whitetail Doe Portrait-Grandfather Could Not Have Cared Less!: Photo by W. Hill
The book dealt with the life cycle of the deer and introduced me to the concept that deer were capable of damaging their habitat.  It had photographs of browse lines and of starving deer in winter---something of which I was not aware until that time.  I do not recall if it was in this book or in a later magazine article that Mr. Rue told about giving a presentation in this time period, and after it was over a man approached him and whispered something to the effect that Rue had to admit that he took a lot of his photographs in deer pens.  As I recall, Rue responded in a whisper, "yeah, don't tell anybody".  The point he was making was that he never tried to hide this and pointed it out plainly, yet the gentleman missed that entirely, so he had a bit of fun at his expense.  If Rue had to photograph a deer in a pen to show certain physical characteristics, or behavior he would do so, but he was going to be up front about it.  Mr. Rue almost certainly has to be considered the founding father of modern wildlife photography and has had an impact on it equivalent to that which Elvis Presley had on popular music or Bill Monroe had on traditional music.  During that period, it appeared that a high percentage of all wildlife photographs published in American outdoor magazines were taken by him.  Eventually this changed as he inspired an entire generation of followers, which to a certain extent turned into competitors, but he continued to be the leader in the field for many years.

As for me, I was on fire to photograph deer, but I didn't know what equipment one needed, didn't know how to find out, and didn't have the financial resources to purchase equipment anyway.  Out of desperation I tried to work with the equipment at hand, which was an Ansco 120mm roll film camera and a small point and shoot camera of unknown name, which took 127 roll film.  Both had a fixed shutter speed and aperture, and wide angle lens.  I knew up front that one had to get close and the results were disappointing to say the least as the wide angle actually made the subject appear to be further away.  In the next two photos we see just how impossible, with the first being a deer some distance away.  The photo is severely cropped, but the deer is just a small speck at the tip of the white arrow. (It had its' tail up as it prepared to run).

Deer At Distance With 127 Roll Film Camera

I tried to get closer and spent some time stalking deer along the edges of cornfields and meadows in late evening, but soon found that this didn't work either. This camera took flash bulbs, which plugged into a socket on the front of the camera and one only got one shot before the deer exploded in flight.

Doe And Fawn In 1969: 127 Camera with flash
The fingerprints and scratching in the print above was done when the film was commercially processed, which says something for the quality control of that particular lab. (after scanning I did crop and enhance the photo, but the damage is still there.) At any rate, it was now clear that these cameras were not an option and my interest in photography was put on hold for a time.

Today in the information age, if is hard to comprehend how difficult it was to attain certain types of information at that point in time.  None of the outdoor magazines had any information about photography that I could find until about 1973 when I read an article in Outdoor Life where someone explained the concept of film speed, which was then known as ASA instead of ISO, as it is called today. I began working at Central Fulton School District in late winter of 1973 and at one point noticed one of the teachers reading a magazine which turned out to be "Modern Photography".  I soon learned there was another called, "Popular Photography" and in no time at all I was devouring everything I could find in these magazines.  The magazines provided the long sought after information and it became clear that one needed a 35mm single lens reflex camera known as an SLR and an assortment of telephoto lenses to get those long sought after portraits of whitetails. Now I did have funds to purchase equipment, but at the munificent salary of $4,200 per year one had to buy the most economical lenses and cameras possible, and one didn't buy an entire outfit, but rather bought it one piece at a time.  The story of how I built my initial outfit is mostly for another day as it is quite interesting in and of itself, but for now suffice it to say that I acquired a Minolta SRT101 35mm camera in the spring of 1974. The camera with normal lens sold for about $250 and I also bought a Spiratone 400mm f6.3 telephoto lens (a store brand lens sold by Spiratone of Flushing, NY., which I believe was actually made by Sigma), which cost $50 for the standard version and somewhat more for a multi-coated version.

Minolta SRT 101 & 400mm Spiratone F6.3 Telephoto(37 years Old): Photo by W.Hill 2011
This rig could not begin to compete with the equipment that we use today, but it finally gave me the means to photograph wildlife, which in turn  led to a complete change in my view of wildlife and wildlife related issues, but at the time I had no idea as to where this interest in photography would lead. I had not yet heard of  any great controversy about deer or "Deer Wars".  Little did I realize that in a few years I would be a foot soldier, so as to speak, for the Pennsylvania Game Commission and as such would be involved with deer and deer issues for the remainder of my working life.

Originally posted at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.


FAB said...

Excellent post Willard. I'm hooked by your recollections and can't wait for the next episodes.

Unknown said...


Great story. We had the same "idol" when we were young and what a coincidence that we started along the same lines.

Thanks for sharing this treasure!


Camconative said...

Lovin' the story...but especially the photo of that ole Spiratone. I saw one of these in a yard sale many years ago...wish I would have bought it. Can't wait til the next chapter!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed so much your recollection of the path that led to your passion for wildlife photography!

V.L. Locey said...

Wonderful post Willard!

Kritter Keeper at Farm Tails said...

i am chuckling willard, i too had no tv as a kid and you said the very same thing that happened to was indeed tough to go to school and listen to all the tv talk...sigh...we ended up getting tv later but during grade school, forget it...i was on the outside both figuratively and literally. during the summer, we had to stay outside and play so cabins were made, trails were named (one being bone hill where the neighbor dumped his deer carcasses) and 'ecology clubs' were formed. so funny...

i remember dad's outdoor life's too. your post is great and i look forward in the next one...deer wars sounds intriguing...oh how i wish dad could be here and read your blog! btw, bill monroe and my hubby's uncle ezra fox hunted together and his cousin charlie played with him. huey's book came out in case you wanted to read it. if you email me i will give you the link as it would be rude to link on your blog...take care!!

Ritchie said...

The white-tailed deer is undoubtedly one of the most influential species of wildlife in Pennsylvania. You have done a great job by taking the photo shots of this deer. The experience you have shared while taking these is very interesting. Thanks a lot.

Birth Of a Manta Ray

Ken Conger Photography said...

Great read. Enjoyed catching up. I started with a Minolta SRT 101 as well. Blue Skies.

Peggy said...

Great story Willard! I loved it!

It reminded of my first rig: Pentax k1000 manual ($100 used) with a no-name 500mm manual lens ($50 clearance)& no tripod. A floating meter in the camera which I thought was brilliant technology and no knowledge of how to use it all. It got me here though, and I wouldn't ever trade the experience/knowledge it gave me, or the satisfaction of knowing I was self-taught!