Joe Van Steenburgh shows off his latest woodchuck to an admiring, aspiring would-be hunter, circa 1951.
Joe Van Steenburgh shows off his latest woodchuck to an admiring, aspiring would-be hunter, circa 1951.

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck…

...None, once Joe, our hero, spotted him

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“Born on a mountain top in Tennessee
Greenest state in the land of the free
Raised in the woods so’s he knew ev’ry tree
Kilt him a b’ar when he was only three

Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier!”

— Ballad of Davy Crockett, Walt Disney Studios, 1954

Back when cows ruled the landscape and Fess Parker as Davy Crockett was firing the imaginations of little boys everywhere, almost everyone hunted and fished. Passionately. Spring, summer and fall. In winter, they’d trap.

No one was keener, more adept than Joe Van Steenburgh, Red Hook’s real-life Deerslayer.

There wasn’t anything Joe didn’t know about this or that animal, fish, bird, tree, ridgeline, pool or eddy. He even had his own live bait box, anchored in the Sawkill just near Teator bridge on Echo Valley Road.

Of middling height, Joe was quiet, soft-spoken. Though piercing blue, his eyes had a certain wry twinkle to them: you knew that he knew much and would tell you what he knew — but not too much — about that dark stretch of water over there, or if the trout really did gather under the old log at the end of the swimming hole.

The secrets of a lifetime roaming Red Hook, kept as securely as the “brooks and brownies” in his worn wicker creel.

He drove a pale-blue late-1940s or early ‘50s Ford sedan, its trunk at the ready with whatever rod, reel or rifle the season of the moment called for. As faithful a harbinger as a red-winged blackbird, the car told you spring was here when you saw it parked in the morning mist by the stream on opening day.

Joe was particularly in demand in the haze of summer. For woodchucks, by dairy farmers, who considered Marmota monax Public Enemy #1. It was gospel that hard-to-see woodchuck holes broke the axles of heavily loaded hay wagons. Joe rarely missed with his .22 Hornet.

Today, woodchucks burrow in back yards…

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