The Camp

With apologies to Thomas Wolfe, you can go home again

© Andrew Hetherington Photography

The gravel crunches underfoot. I know it seems crazy, but there’s a certain quality to the sound, a sort of resonance, that kicks my heart rate up another gear or two. Even when I’m far from this place, I can close my eyes and conjure up the specific timbre of knee boots on this particular spread of gravel. That’s some pretty heavy stuff to glean from a parking lot, I’ll admit. But this is no ordinary place.

Smoke trails from the chimney of the old country church, long since turned into an Arkansas duck camp, and I take a big breath. I suck it all in—the woodsmoke, the wet smell of duck dogs, the scent of hot engines from the side-by-sides parked out front, the crisp metallic edge to cold air. I step up to the door. The sign always makes me smile: Snake Island Hunt Club “Can’t Have Nothin.”

It’s a funny tagline. Can’t have nothin’ nice or somebody will tear it up or lose it outright or leave it hanging in a tree in the Hummingbird Woods, and once that happens it’s as good as gone.

Can’t have nothin’. How I love this place, even though I’m here but once a year.

I’ve been a frequent guest at Snake Island for a decade. Four generations of a single family form the core of the club, anchored by Fred Silverstein. Fred is 81 years old and hasn’t missed an opening day of duck season for 74 years, even when that meant bumming a ride and a shotgun to sit by a South Korean rice field on the date of the Arkansas opener just to keep his streak alive. His sons and grandsons, and now a great-grandson, are the sinew and tendons that keep Snake Island humming year after year.

Photo © Andrew Hetherington Photograph

The low-slung cinder block building is nothing fancy. The walls hold gun racks and plaques bearing corny little duck-camp sayings and inside jokes and duck mounts. Of the latter, a few are gorgeous. Others are some of the godawfullest ugly stuffers you could ever see. A pop-eyed Canada goose that may be the world’s oldest mount. A swan that could make a living as a zombie movie extra.

There’s no putting on airs here. The 5 a.m. biscuits are fresh from the freezer. There’s always a big breakfast after the hunt, but when I’m about to pull on chest waders there’s something about a two-pack of frozen Tennessee Pride sausage biscuits that puts me in the right frame of mind to kill ducks. “A minute in the microwave,” laughs Jimmy Robinson, “and buddy, you don’t even deserve it.”

The hunting here swings from epic to meh and everything in between, but the hunting has long been secondary for me. I return, year after year, because

I love everything about this camp. The old art on the old walls. Lying in my bunk and listening to the heavy wind whipping outside. The carnival-sized popcorn machine that I have never seen employed in over a decade. Bags of snacks lined up like library books—Dot’s pretzels, honey buns, Nutty Buddy wafers, and Swiss Rolls. Little Debbie would go belly-up if it weren’t for Snake Island.

But mostly I love the friendships I’ve made here. How once a year I hug Fred and Jimmy and Jimbo and Alex and Will a big hello hug, and the 51 weeks that have passed since last we met fall away in an instant. Welcome home.

Snake Island is no different than duck camps everywhere. No different, perhaps, than yours.

My gear stowed, I head for the kitchen. Beside the coffee maker is a tall stack of white Styrofoam cups. I choose one and scratch out my initials with a Sharpie. TEN. In duck camp the simplest habits take on rich meaning. Writing your initials on a Styrofoam cup is a camp tradition here, a Snake Island shibboleth that marks you as one of their own. You keep track of the cup during your stay, and over the next few days I’ll fill it, at various times, with coffee, water, bourbon, sweet tea, and Cheese Nips. Like this camp itself, my cup will overflow with good cheer and warmth. And nourishment, for both body and soul.