Improbable though it sounds, my first encounter with the whitetail deer was under a bunch of spruce trees in the back seat of a Model T Ford, in what is now downtown Ottawa.
I was born in 1938, when my Mom and Dad had an apartment on Dalhousie Street, Ottawa. My sister Pauline was three years old, and my Mom had lost a baby girl between Pauline and me. Still to come were 8 more children. The same year that I was born, Dad bought 400 acres of bush on Kallala Road, behind Brennan’s Hill, Quebec. Jobs were very scarce. He had lumberjack experience, and he knew he could make money cutting and selling wood, in between carpentry jobs.
When I was still a toddler, we moved into a half-double, two and a half blocks from Sussex Drive, on Water Street, which is now Bruyere Street. Soon Rolly was born, and our household almost always included an uncle or two. My mother’s three brothers loved my dad—he was their hero, and he always welcomed them.
Money was hard to come by, but Dad did everything an honest man could to provide for his growing family and the assortment of relatives who stayed from time to time. As far back as I can remember, he hunted with my uncles until I was big enough to go along and learn the skills. They had one rifle among the three of them, and would take turns with it—my Dad’s old 44/40. They would use regular shells for deer, and pellet shells for partridge and rabbits. The 44/40 is no longer considered an adequate deer rifle, but Dad did well with it. The rifle is still with us.
Dad and my uncles all told hunting stories, and helped me make toy rifles out of branches and spare bits of wood. They also took me everywhere with them, and I grew up with no fear of the forests, hills, or animals. My deep love affair with the Gatineau Hills began when I was very young.
During hunting season, Dad would work all week as a carpenter, then head up to the camp on Kallala Road, for weekend hunts with my uncles. This involved hours of driving the old Model T Ford over forty miles of gravel roads. The hunting camp was an old whitewashed, square-timbered cabin that was at that time the remains of a 100-year-old homestead. They hauled water from a spring and used an old woodstove for both heat and cooking.
One way to bring in cash was to cut and sell Christmas Trees. My Dad and uncles would cut the trees and fill the sleigh, then drive back to town in the Ford. My grandfather would drive the sleigh, pulled by two horses, nearly forty miles to Ottawa, where we sold the trees door-to-door. I would ride with him, and we would go up and down the streets of Lowertown and Sandy Hill, ringing a bell to bring people out of their houses. It was exciting to ride the sleigh, ring the bell, and haul the trees down for people to choose. It was never hard to sell those trees, and we continued every Christmas until 1953.
Sometimes, even an honest man had to push the boundaries of the law, in order to feed his family. Even after hunting season, Dad would go to Kallala Road to cut wood with my uncles, or to cut Christmas trees, and they would do a couple of runs, looking for deer, before returning to Ottawa.
After one such trip to the camp, around 1944, my Dad and uncles arrived home with the back seat of the Ford crammed full of Christmas trees. They parked in the garage, then came into the house to warm up. Dad told me to go outside and haul the trees out of the car. I would bet that he winked at my uncles, but at age six I never noticed. I just grabbed my coat and ran outside.
Even with the door open, inside the garage was dark. I opened the back door of the car. I could see nothing but spruce and balsam branches, crammed tightly inside. I grabbed a small trunk and pulled, but it didn’t budge. I had to reach in and grab the branches farther up the tree trunk. As I pushed my hands into the bundle, I felt something furry. I grabbed tight and pulled with all of my six year old might. It was a deer—a really big doe—and when it came free of the branches, it slid out and landed on top of me. It was a lot bigger than I was. I got out from under it and ran into the house—my dad, mother, and uncles were waiting for me, and everyone laughed at my excitement. I can still remember watching them skin the deer and cut it up on the kitchen table. The curtains were closed tight, and Mom covered the windows with bedspreads, to be sure no one would see. The men used handsaws and knives, and they talked and sang and laughed all the way through the chore. Keeping the meat was not a problem: there were many hungry mouths, not just in our house, but all around us. Mom would put some of it up in jars, but most of it was spread around long before anyone could worry about it spoiling. I learned at an early age that venison was a wonderful treat, the basis for stews and tourtieres, and my taste for it has only increased over the years.