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Original Issue


Autumn is the hunter's time on the plateau north of the Grand Canyon. The tourists have all gone home, but deer still linger in the high land as if to savor the last leaves of summer

The North Rim of the Grand Canyon rises 9,000 feet above the level of the sea. Where its multilayered walls of rock meet the sky, it flattens into a broad, tree-covered plateau that is known as the North Kaibab. Long ago the Piutes named this plateau Kaibabits (the Mountain Lying Down). It is a mountain—a 45-mile-long, 40-mile-wide flat-topped mountain—and on it is some of the richest, most productive, most scenic land in the Southwest. On it, too, is some of the finest deer hunting to be found in the U.S.

Each year millions of people travel through the Kaibab National Forest, which stretches 125 miles from north to south, spanning the Grand Canyon itself. They get their kicks on Route 66 or Highways 64 or 89, and some even take the Santa Fe.

They fish at Cataract Stream and Thunder River, pitch tents in the shadow of the Mogollon Rim, and hike to places with way-out names like Point Sublime and Bright Angel. But only a handful of them ever really see the best of the place—the North Kaibab in the glorious, golden, game-filled autumn when the plateau is peopled by deer and the tourists have all gone home.

The plateau is only part of the 1.7-million-acre forest, which is actually three separate forests. One section is north of Grand Canyon National Park and the other two lie south of the park, where winter never fully moves in and the tourists never fully move out. Cactus, yucca, sage, agave and snakeweed, the spiny lizard and desert sparrow are all common here, typical of Arizona and the Southwest. But just across the great canyon, 10 miles away, is the world of the North Kaibab, which belongs to no geographic region so easily pinpointed on a chart.

The North Kaibab is a remarkable conglomerate forest of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, blue spruce and aspen, brightened in summer by forget-me-nots, whitened in winter by deep drifts of snow.

In late autumn, when the first snows begin to fall on the plateau, the sketchy network of roads that traverses the North Kaibab closes. The game moves down from the high places into warm havens where the woods stay green and fresh. But just before this time, in mid-October, when the plateau is a palette of bronze and yellow, the deer linger on in the high land, as if savoring the last sweet succulence of summer.

The hunters who venture into the North Kaibab in autumn are a hardy lot. They come in jeeps, pickups, trailers and turtlebacks, equipped with chains, shovels and bags of sand, ever mindful of the imminent snow that, without warning, can strand them deep within the forest. They stop first at Jacob Lake, where Routes 89 and 67 meet. This is the last outpost of civilization within the North Kaibab.

At Jacob Lake there is a combination grocery, hardware, gas station, post office, curio shop, drugstore and meeting hall, where everybody pauses to add some forgotten item to the larder or merely to check on who has been through, who is expected through or who is already there. There is even a telephone at this marvelous place—the number is Jacob Lake 1—but the phone doesn't always work. Occasionally, after cranking its rusting handle several dozen times, contact is made with the operator, but she usually cannot hear a word being said. When a message is repeated with increasing volume, the hunters, sitting around the store in their laced boots and plaid lumber jackets, halt their conversations and listen attentively, so the call is not a total loss.

Outside, dozens of notes are stuck to a big wooden board with tacks and nails and pieces of chewing gum. In neatly printed letters and crayoned scrawls they convey such vital though unofficial information as "Joe, Camped at Wildhorse. Follow trail 279"; "Larry S. Bring ice"; "For sale. Winchester Model 70, .308 Cheap"; "Anyone knowing the whereabouts of Prescott party, contact ranger"; "Ed, don't forget whiskey."

It is a good place not to forget anything, because there is only wilderness beyond Jacob Lake and the official check station that is located there. Hunters passing this point must show a special permit to a ranger at the station, where they are then registered, given a detailed map of the region, advice on what areas are currently accessible or inaccessible, a mimeographed set of forest rules containing the usual admonitions about campfires and a bit of dubious poetry about cleanliness.

All deer hunting in the North Kaibab is by permit. Each year sportsmen from all parts of the country apply for permission to hunt during the two annual 11-day seasons. Of the 12,000 who applied earlier this fall, 7,500 received the little bits of computer-punched paper, prized as highly as shares in a producing well, that granted them the privilege of hunting the Kaibab deer.

The many-tined Kaibab deer, with their massive heads and huge bodies, are legendary. The Piutes and Navajos hunted them generations ago, laying away their meat and skins for winter. Theodore Roosevelt was so impressed by the deer and by the beauty of the area in which he found them that he decided, in an act of classic misguidance, to "save" both for the future. By presidential decree, he declared the entire Kaibab Plateau and most of what is now Grand Canyon National Park—an area totaling more than a million acres—a game preserve. He outlawed all hunting, began a vigorous campaign against predators and touched off a chain reaction which, before it had ended, very nearly destroyed both the game and the land of the Kaibab for all time.

As the deer herd, unchecked by the forces that normally moderate it, increased entirely out of control, the range decreased in direct proportion. Land that had once comfortably supported 8,000 deer was soon picked bare by 100,000. One naturalist surveying the Kaibab said: "Where else can you see 1,700 deer in a single meadow?"

A year later the answer was: not in the Kaibab. For by then food was so scarce the great die-off had begun. When conservationists finally began to suspect that T.R. had not been correct in his game theories, it was almost too late to do more than save the deer from extinction. They have been saved, it is gratifying to report, and the herds in recent years have begun to return to their former numbers.

The number of permits issued each year by the Arizona Game and Fish Commission is based on the number of excess deer that should be harvested to keep the herd healthy and the range sufficiently productive to support them, multiplied by the percentage of hunters who will be unsuccessful in taking deer. Because the hunting is considerably rougher than on most deer ranges, this percentage probably is higher than might be encountered elsewhere.

The most luxurious setup in the North Kaibab is at Pine Flat Camp, which belongs to G.L. Gibbons, a carrot-topped trucker from Tucson who answers to the name Rusty and who looks so much like Mickey Rooney that he finally gave up, years ago, trying to deny it, and now in self-defense he signs autographs with the actor's name. Because it is in a national forest, the Pine Flat Camp land is not actually owned by Gibbons. Rather, he holds a long-term lease on it. He pays an annual rental fee and also pays for all improvements and maintenance of the operation and grounds. The camp, in the midst of the wilderness, is an unexpectedly opulent oasis.

There is a main mess cabin, with a huge kitchen and a dining hall large enough to feed 50 to 70 people at a seating. Rusty believes in feeding them well. The pantries are stocked to the ceilings with rows of canned, dried and packaged foods, crates of fresh fruits and vegetables and cases of liquor. Outside, the cold house bulges with sides of beef and a supermarket assortment of bacons, hams and lighter lunch meats.

Surrounding the mess cabin, which is also the relaxing, drinking, tall-tale-telling center of the camp, there are five small cabins set in a semicircle in the pine clearing. Each sleeps anywhere from 6 to 12 hunters who rough it in sleeping bags spread on cots complete with springs and mattresses. Each cabin has electric light, produced by the camp's generator, and a squat, black potbellied stove to warm the frosty mornings. The stove in the cabin I shared with Gibbons, his wife Fran, his daughter and her 9-year-old son, Mark Viar, almost warmed Rusty for good.

Originally our stove was lit by one of the camp hands, who creeps around well before dawn starting fires in all the sleeping cabins. For some reason ours did not stay lit, and Rusty crawled from his sleeping bag, splendid in long Johns, to do something about it. A man who never takes the long route when there is a quicker way, Rusty's idea of a shortcut in this situation was contained in a can of lighter fluid. I was still deep inside my sleeping bag when the can exploded. Rusty went up in a burst of flame—long Johns, and all. With his customary nonchalance, he pulled a blanket from the bed, rolled himself in it and put out the fire. His startled grandson watched with an expression of horror and awe.

"You see what can happen, kid," Rusty said, brushing soot from his singed whiskers. "That's why I keep telling you never to put that stuff on an open fire." He thereupon shuffled through his duffel bag for another can, squirted it directly into the belly of the little stove and winked a blackened eyelid at me.

Rusty Gibbons approaches most of life the way he approached the stove that morning. His general philosophy could probably be summed up in three phrases: move fast; live hard; have fun. All of them apply to a hunt at Pine Flat Camp. The pace is fast, the hunting is rugged and the sport is rewarding.

Before the season Rusty brings in several loads of horses from his ranch near Tusayan. Like everything else about Pine Flat Camp, Gibbons' horses are all first-class. With them it is possible to hunt considerably more ground than on foot and to penetrate some of the most inaccessible and remote parts of the North Kaibab.

This is wild country—a profusion of rock walls, broad slides, thick brush and tall timber—laced with sandy-bottomed creeks and the trails of old rivers now dry. It is one of the few remaining places in this country where a hunter can look over a dozen heads before choosing the one he wants.

However, it is not the deer but the hunt itself that evokes the strongest memories of the Kaibab. The firelighted dusk, the gold-brown griddle cakes at breakfast, the muscle-cramping moments early on the trail, the sharp, sour smell of gunfire, the grandeur of the grand Grand Canyon—all of these things are part of the magic of this great unspoiled and unpeopled place.