The Final Chapter: Hunting on Big Mountain

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 8, 2016

By Don Flint
Special to the Salisbury Post

WEBSTER COUNTY, W.Va. — They say all good things will eventually come to an end, and it happened to the Bus Gang this year.

We have hunted Big Mountain for over 50 years. We had the good fortune to have outsmarted a few nice bucks and have had several that outsmarted us. A countless number slipped away without us never knowing that they were there.

Hunting on The Mountain was never about killing a deer; that was a bonus. Bob Cottrell once said he could go to The Mountain without a gun and still have a good time — and it was true — but he always brought one.

The Mountain was about enjoying the beauty of God’s creation, good food, fellowship, scouting for sign, details of the shot, stopping on the Centralia Bridge to put the chains on The Bus whether in was dusty, raining or snowing.

It was about the love and respect we all shared for the mountain and all the hunters we got to know down through the years.

One of the more interesting people we met was Richard “Greyhound” James. Richard lived in Ohio, retired from Ford and a taxidermist. It wasn’t until he started hunting The Mountain that he got the name “Greyhound.”

Bob Cottrell had seen him one morning in the head of Bear Run, then later in the day in the middle fork of Huston Run. By evening Bob saw his 4-wheeler near the Fire Tower, where it had been parked all day.

Richard showed up well after dark at our camp on a 4-wheeler with bald tires with chains. I teased him about getting new tires and he said, “No need to, these still hold air.”

Bob said to him, “You must run like a greyhound to be in all the places I have seen you today,” and that is how he got the name “Greyhound.” Richard was a true hunter, he would not run the haul roads but instead still-hunted. He has told me of many deer that he has slipped up on and shot or simply walked away from.

My first trip to The Mountain was when I was about 13 years old. I was camping with Kermit Evans and his family at Bakers Run, and he loaded us up and took us up to the Fire Tower. About half way up the mountain two does and a nice eight-pointer crossed in front of us. Although as a young boy I hunted with my grandmother Virgie Cutlip using a .410 shotgun, it was the sight of that big buck that got me started camping on Big Mountain.

After my brother Roger got some wheels, a Jeep, we started going there to hunt. The fall of ’66 was the first year we camped there. We had borrowed a tent from Bob Larch and camped at the top of the hill in the left fork of Bear Run.

The first day I was still-hunting and had walked completely past a huge buck only to catch his movement out of the corner of my eye. At first I thought he had been crippled to let me that close and that he also had his antlers caught in a tree top.

Taking a rest on a tree, I put the crosshairs on the shoulder and squeezed the trigger. There was a pencil-sized limb 10 feet in front of me that I failed to see, and when the gun cracked the buck jumped up with the tree top on his head — except it wasn’t tree limbs but antlers. With a jammed gun I watched the biggest deer I have ever seen take two hops and go out of sight, all because I grazed that limb with my shot.

The next day, it started raining late in the afternoon and turned to snow sometime that night. We woke up to about 11 inches of snow. We almost froze that night, and the following day Woody Payne invited us to stay in his cabin at the fire tower.

Come the fall of ’67, we had converted a ’56 Ford bus into a camper, and thus started a 50-year run of camping on the mountain. In ’74 we sold the Ford and bought a ‘65 International, outfitted it with eight bunks, gas fridge, cooking stove and a gas heater.

We were in deer heaven. We most always moved The Bus in on Thursday before hunting season, sometimes earlier, and stayed until Sunday the following week.

One year we moved out on Saturday. A group of hunters had come off the hill and stopped in front of us just as I was about to start it. My daughter Jessica walked down to ask them to move just a bit so we could get out, as sometimes the brakes weren’t the best. When I hit the starter and the motor came to life, the man was shocked that the Bus ran — it had been there for the last 30 years that they had hunted there.

She told him that we took the Bus in and out each year and always parked it in the exact same spot. He asked where was the road that we used and she pointed down the hollow. He said there was no way it could go out that way. She looked at him and said, “Stick around for about 10 minutes and my dad will show you how it is done.”

At times we would move in earlier and I would take my daughters Jessica and Mandy and wife Alma up for a weekend. I enjoyed teaching the girls about the woods and the animals. On one trip Mandy and I were working our way back to the head of a cove when I heard a deer. I told her to stop, and as we listened I told her that there were two deer coming. She could only hear an occasional noise and thought it was a squirrel, but after a few minutes a pretty doe hopped up over the bank and out into the haul road in front of us followed by another a few seconds later. That lesson led her to a nice buck years later.

One year, Bob Larch came up on The Mountain with a group of hunters and asked me where I was going to hunt that afternoon. I said, “See that point way over there? Well, I am going over there and kill a BIG buck.” The next day Bob was at work at the marina and I took in a 10-pointer that scored nearly 150 inches. It was not long after that Bob asked me “Flintstone, is there an empty bunk in the bus?” and he joined us that coming fall.

We hunted out of the International for many years and hunters started referring to us as the hunters in the bus and thus the “Bus Gang” got its name. As the years passed, our group got as high as a dozen and eventually it dwindled down to three. It was me, Bob Cottrell and Bob Larch. Twenty eight fantastic years later, the Lord called Bob Larch home and left a gigantic hole for the Bus Gang.

The Lord had a plan that I couldn’t see at the time and only came clear when the following fall my daughter Mandy, who was living in Detroit, called and asked if she could come down and spend a few days at camp. She was concerned about Bob and I hunting and being by ourselves without Larch. She was the first girl to hunt from our camp and I hope not the last. She was a perfect fit and that started a new threesome.

She got her first buck the following year and a nice 7-pointer a couple of years later thanks to the lesson she had learned years earlier. Most importantly it brought us closer and started a new kind of relationship that has continued to grow.

A few years later she started a family. When their first child was born, Heath, her husband, was concerned that I would be disappointed that I had a granddaughter and not a grandson. I told him I was tickled, because they didn’t allow girls at their camp but I did. Mandy has since given us a grandson and has gone back to school to get a physician’s assistant degree at the age of 40. It was back to Bob and I.

2005 started a new era as we sold the International and I built a 10-by-24-foot camper with four bunks, a toilet and a shower, along with a complete kitchen and no mice. My son-in-law, Heath Lockard, officially named it the Buckwagon, but the new camp carries the “IH” emblem from the ’65 International and a bus-shaped sign with “The Bus Gang” carved in it attached to the front.

The Lord was not finished with us. Coming off to camp one evening I noticed that we had company — it was my nephew Rob Flint. We invited him in and after a long visit, looking the camp over, having a snack and drink, he said, “You don’t have an extra bunk?” Thus we were back to a threesome the next season.

A couple of years later Rob asked if a friend of his could come up and hunt with us one day. I told him that would be fine. When I first met Matt Rollyson, I said to myself “What have I got us into?” The Lord was there once again as this half crazy kid turned out to be a perfect fit with us.

Down through the years, many people have hunted The Mountain, and the land has changed hands several times. In the last few years, the two current owners have come on the scene.

Since we camped on the portion owned by Criss Polino, I visited his office and talked with Fred Waugh, his real estate manager, about the possibility of buying a quarter-acre of land at the forks of Bear Run in order to build a camp. Although he wouldn’t sell any land, he told us that we could hunt and camp all we wanted, but we couldn’t do anything permanent. I told him we would do as requested and thanked him for allowing everyone to continue to hunt The Mountain.

We had camped at the forks of Bear Run from ’66 till ’12 when a slip in the road forced us to move down the road about a mile. Then this year, Beckwith Lumber Co. leased the land they owned on Big Mountain. Although we did not camp on them, we used the road through them to get our camp moved in and out. With the leased land came the gates and a price tag to hunt, camp, access the river or to ride four-wheelers. When I talked with one of the group about traveling the quarter-mile through them, I was told that it would cost $100 this year and $200 next year for every man in the camp. This was just for a camping permit on land they didn’t lease and didn’t give us the rights to hunt or anything else. It was for passing in and out only.

I visited The Mountain many times throughout the years, as it was a place I could go to when the pressures of working or other things got a little heavy and I needed to take a break from it all. I would always throw a shovel in the truck because I knew there would be a mud hole that needed to be drained or a pipe unstopped to prevent the road from being washed away.

Each year on Friday of the first week of deer season, I would do “Trash Day.” I would take a trash bag and pick up all the beer cans and litter thrown out by thoughtless people. Some would go to the trouble of standing on their ATV or the back of a pickup in order to place a can or a six pack container up in a tree. I have seen a large limb lay in the road for months because they were too lazy to step off and toss it out of the road. These people were takers only — they didn’t have any respect for the land owners or The Mountain. Our campsite was always cleaner after we left than when we arrived.

The last two years I have been busy building a home in Salisbury, and was surprised to find that I was not the only one that cared for The Mountain. This year, I ran into a hunter who told me he had picked up over $40 in beer cans and recycled them.

I, along with the many other people that have hunted The Mountain, am thankful to the many owners who have allowed us to hunt The Mountain down through the years. We will now camp down by the Elk River on the property of a gracious Holly Elmore. We will continue to hunt and enjoy The Mountain and will respect the line of the land they lease, but it is The Final Chapter of us camping on the mountain.

Sincerely, The Bus Gang

Writer’s note: My name is Don Flint and I am building a home in Salisbury in order to be near my daughter, Mandy, and the grandchildren. It also puts me within five hours of my other daughter, Jessica, who lives in Atlanta.

I have lived and hunted in West Virginia all my life and as my Final Chapter in life is being written I am trying to be near those that I love.