Canvas cabins 

Montana manufacturers make hunting camp comfortable

In the days before cell phone pics and online photo-sharing sites, nearly every household in America had its version of the picture album. Snapshots of weddings and family vacations filled the pages of these books, kept ostensibly to retain memories of bygone events and deceased relatives. But though visual and verbal recollections are assumed to be the most potent triggers of memory, psychologists recognize another, sometimes superior sense that sparks human memory. Smell, in certain contexts, can actually spawn more salient memories and associations from bygone decades than photos can.

A storefront in the manufacturing and warehouse district east of downtown Billings has nothing to commend itself as natural. The parking lot is paved, a drab concrete sidewalk lists imperceptibly in the direction of a dusty street. But once inside I am immediately transported to a lofty ridge in Montana's Snowcrest Mountains. A grassy meadow slides away to a smattering of aspen groves and a tumbling creek. There are evergreen trees here, pines and spruce. I can hear the low hush of an autumn breeze in their branches.

click to enlarge Montana Headwall - Outdoor adventure under the big sky
  • Courtesy of Montana Canvas

It is an experience repeated each time I catch a whiff of treated canvas. For over 50 years my family has maintained an elk camp in the Snowcrests. My father finally deemed his youngest son worthy of initiation as a 15-year-old. Nearly 40 years later, there is no place I’d rather be than in elk camp.

But “camp” is a term plagued with its own errant associations. For my crew, hunting camp has nothing to do with shivering all night in a sleeping bag rated for 10-below that scarcely fends the chill at 15 degrees, or worrying if a “four-season” shelter is really up for a foot of snow. We sleep comfortably on cots with logs smoldering in a wood stove gently heating the tent’s interior. We cook inside and eat at a real table draped with a red and white cloth (OK, it’s plastic). When my sweetheart first tentatively stuck her head in my deer-hunting camp east of Ashland, her green eyes widened like ripples on water after the rise of a trout.

“Wow, this is just like a canvas cabin.”

She perfectly described the wall tent in a single sentence. Buffalo hunters, prospectors and other early exploiters of Rocky Mountain resources often spent months housed in canvas tents. For hunters who take to the mountains in autumn—hell, for anyone who takes to the mountains in autumn—there is no finer shelter than a wall tent.

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