It’s the first weekend of August and a hallowed time of year around these parts. This is the unofficial beginning of the coastal blacktail deer season. I say “unofficial” because this is the weekend we head to our mountain retreat in the hills between San Jose and Patterson to prepare deer camp. Next weekend is the actual opening of the season but it takes us a couple days to get everything dusted off and set up for the next six weeks. My poor bride becomes a deer hunting widow for the next six weekends. What a great sport she is.
Our backcountry paradise was discovered when my father and some of his long time hunting buddies saw an add in the paper in 1962 for a deer hunting lease up on Mount Hamilton. The property itself is made up of 4,000 acres of the most beautiful country I know. Rolling hills, fragrant meadows of sage and mustard, scattered ponds and forests of old oak trees make up this classic old California landscape. Wildlife is abundant here teeming with turkeys, wild pigs, deer, coyote, foxes, mountain lions, rattlesnakes and every other creeping crawling thing that lives in this state. In fact, one of the last known Grizzly bears killed in the state was killed up here – at the Smith Creek station in the 1920’s.
The road heading up and over mount Hamilton is a steep and winding narrow curvy road, occasionally sprinkled with with red faced puffing bicyclists; knee dragging, death wishing motorcycle enthusiasts and the odd tourist wondering when the road will ever end. Fortunately for those of us who have business up here, it’s pretty rare to see another vehicle on the road. At the top of the mountain (4,360 ft) the Lick astronomical Observatory, the first mountaintop observatory in the world, stands (here are some interesting facts about our little spot: http://www.answers.com/topic/lick-observatory). This was once the home of the largest refractor telescope in the world – brought up from San Jose by a team of horses. You can take a final look over your shoulder at San Jose, now a haze covered mass of buildings far below you. Here’s where I leave civilization behind and truly feel like I’m part of the landscape.
A few miles down the other side brings you to the tiny Isabel Valley. This is a little slice of heaven not so far from metropolis. The winding road gives way to a flat valley floor with a creek running through it. Great oak trees throw shade over the roadside. A picturesque bridge crosses the creek. It’s a very small valley by valley standards and I drive through it in about 3 minutes. Up and over the next ridge is the beginning of the dirt road and the gate that leads to our cabin.
This year I chose to purchase a pit barrel cooker (www.pitbarrelcooker.com), an upright drum smoker that is pretty much set-it-and-forget-it. This was a perfect addition to our usual santa maria style grill, which has ruined many an evening hunt for me – standing over it and cooking for the crowd while they get in a final evening hunt before dinner. Now I can hang the meat, close the lid and walk away until the meat is done – a few hours later.
For opening day I bought a full 7 bone prime rib roast. There were 14 of us and I wanted to impress them with my new toy.
The roast was ceremoniously unwrapped in front of a dozen wide eyed hungry men. I slathered it in Stubb’s Beef Marinade and coated it with a pit beef rub I had concocted just for this purpose. The hooks used to hang the roast in the cooker were carefully inserted into the ends of the meat.
After twenty minutes of burning the coals, they were ready to dump into the bottom of the cooker. The meat was hung carefully on the rebar rods that go through the top of the barrel and a fresh chunk of oak was gently laid to rest on top of them. The lid replaced, all we could do now was wait. It was 4pm and I got some mightily raised eyebrows from the peanut gallery. I don’t think that they believed it would be done in time, especially considering the snide “It looks like we’ll be having prime rib for breakfast tomorrow morning” comments. But I remained faithful, and put my trust in the pit barrel (with crossed fingers). When smoke slowly curled out of the holes where the rebar was inserted, I knew we were on to something.
I walked away and made myself a gin and tonic. Hunting is so stressful. At least that’s what my wife thinks. I jumped in the jeep and took a ride to the pond in the front country to check for signs of game near the edges of the water. There were several large wild pig wallows where they had rolled in the mud and coated their hides. A good sign. A small forked horn blacktail buck looked at me from the edge of the forest. Another good sign. Now if only the meat would cooperate, this could be a fantastic weekend by all counts.
When I returned to the cabin and yard, the crew were all standing around the smoking pit with their arms folded. They were all sure that there was no way the meat would be done for another 4 hours in that little barrel. I lifted the lid and smoke billowed out. When it cleared I checked it with a digital thermometer, half thinking that it would be raw. It was a perfect 127 degrees. Done! Even I was shocked. I removed the meat (dropping it on the coals but quickly recovering before anyone noticed) and brought it inside to rest under some foil for 20 minutes. I cut the tied ribs off and set them aside. I sliced the first thick cut – it was rosy pink in the middle and juicy. It had the faintest hint of oak smoke to it. I continued to slice steaks and pulled the side dishes together – mashed potatoes, a green salad, some vegetables and garlic bread. A beautiful feast for a hungry hunter. Of course I had some horseradish sauce prepared just for the roast.
As evening slowly fell, and the sun dropped behind the oak studded ridges, the sky grew a brilliant deep orange. Scents of wild sage and mustard were prevalent borne on the wind from the meadows below us. At the table, the red and white tablecloth was covered with all manner of good things to eat, but the centerpiece was the prime rib, cooked to perfection and a fitting springboard for a fine meal and endless conversation, tall tales and jokes not suitable for mixed company. I had turned them all into happy, satisfied believers.