Today, Woodchucks Burrow...

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By Christopher Klose

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

"Born on a mountain in Tennessee

Greenest state in the land of the free

Raised in the woods so's he knew every tree

He killed him a b'ar when he was only three

Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier!"

-- Ballad of Davy Crockett, Walt Disney Studios, 1955

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 off 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 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, you knew spring was here when you saw the old Ford parked in the morning mist by the stream on opening day.

In the haze of summer, Joe was particularly in demand. For woodchucks, by dairy farmers, who considered Marmota monax Public Enemy #1. It was gospel that their hard-to-see 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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