For one reason or other traditions are sometimes lost. Whether we like it or not, time marches on, things change, new faces replace customary faces and popular places are often left behind for unexplored places.
New traditions often begin without plan, but they too only hang precariously by thin threads of time. Sadly, traditions are meant to be broken.
And such as it was some dozen years ago or more when I found myself hanging a left off Highway 47 into the little hamlet of Robb, Alberta, one of two remaining communities in the Coal Branch. Realizing now, back then I too was abandoning old haunts and common faces for new faces and unexplored places. I just didn’t know it at the time.
Pulling into J & J General Store for some last minute supplies I thought it unique there was a hamlet in Alberta with my name on it, albeit with an extra “b” but my name nonetheless. The small general store proved to be a gem as most small town general stores usually do. Time has taught man what man needs in a pinch.
Following a crudely drawn map, I soon found myself meandering down a dusty, pothole-filled road, crossing several creeks that looked too shallow to hold fish while making my way to the “X” that marked hunting camp. I’d seen numerous mule deer along the way and with several clearcuts in various stages of regrowth the prospects looked good for an elk hunt. I was definitely in beautiful country.
I arrived late that afternoon and was greeted by a man fifteen years my senior. He introduced himself as John Wood and explained that Ken Colwill, my new friend who had invited me to join them, and Randy, Ken’s brother, were out hunting as legal light still remained. I never questioned why John was back in camp so early but in later years I came to realize that the actual hunting part of hunting was secondary to John, just being there was most important. I also came to learn over several hunting trips that John was either a lousy hunter or he didn’t really care about shooting anything—I suspect the latter was the truth because John never talked much about his hunting exploits. Oh the trips were always remembered with fondness but dead animals always seemed to come from the hand of others. But that was fine too; John was always a lot of fun in camp and he pulled his weight as well as anybody and nobody ever complained.
|Ken Colwill and John Wood at Robb camp.
The two of us sat around the fire enjoying a drink and conversation, getting to know each other while we waited for the others to arrive.
John had two vices. The first was a love of guns of which he had many and he would talk about them for as long as you would let him.
His second vice was Drum tobacco. John always had a can of Drum tobacco and a package of rolling papers close by. It wasn’t very often he didn’t have a roll-yer-own hanging off his lip and a cloud of smoke above his head. That was John.
I remember a trip we once took up into WMU 346 above Shiningbank Lake. John and I headed up the night before Ken and Randy were to arrive and we got settled into camp. When the work was finished we broke out a bottle and proceeded to solve the world’s problems until suddenly we realized it was nearing 3:00 in the morning. Needless to say we were late for the morning hunt. We laughed hard that night and I got to know John really well during that trip. I realized then that the man with the raspy laugh and big smile had an even bigger heart.
Over the next few years we hunted several more times together at different places but mostly we were back at Robb Camp. It was becoming tradition.
For some reason Randy quit hunting and our foursome became three but we continued to set up camp each year at Robb. Many nights we’d sit and listen to the wolves howl and once had a grizzly circle our camp while we slept, trying to get up the nerve to take a mule deer hanging from our meat pole. That same grizzly later followed me down an overgrown cutline that eventually forced me to turn around. That was when I realized I was being followed; his tracks covered mine in the fresh snow. I made my way back to camp with the hair standing on the back of my neck and a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
John always kept his Defender by his cot at night, loaded first with buckshot and then slug—he never took many chances, especially that night, and because of his concerns both Ken and I slept better.
Those old Drum roll-yer-owns eventually caught up to John and our trips to Robb ended. We had missed a year or two prior to that so the tradition had already started to feel the pressures of time but this further cemented the fact that it was over.
Ken and his wife Holly later took John’s wife Zelma up to our old camp and spread John’s ashes around while toasting our fallen comrade. Later, Ken and I spread more of his ashes behind Baptiste Lake on a hill we called the Sandhill. John loved to sit there when we were hunting because it truly was a beautiful spot. The old Sandhill is now known as John’s Hill and we still regularly visit there but the trips to Robb have never been taken again.
One evening this summer Ken and I sat around the table in his cabin at Baptiste Lake discussing our draws and reminiscing hunts gone by as hunters often do. As the evening waned we remembered our old friend and laughed at some of the memories he left us. It was then that I think we decided a trip back to Robb was in order and soon we were making plans to revisit our old haunt.
This September we’ll be back at Robb Camp, just Ken and I, which is fitting because this trip is as much about John and old times as it is about hunting. I’m sure we’ll toast our old friend every night and remember the places he walked as we once again walk them, and I’m sure he’ll be there walking them with us.
Traditions can be restored and old places revisited; but sometimes old faces can only be remembered. Never completely forgotten, old faces are often placed in the annals of time that remain hidden in the back of our minds, occasionally popping out for brief moments, reminding us of how short our time really is in this world.
This was one of those moments. ■
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