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Former poaching investigator operates hunting retreat

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John Gavitt knows the wild side of wildlife hunting.

As a 25-year employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he was involved with investigating poaching rings from Maryland's Eastern Shore to the rugged wilderness of Yellowstone National Park. 

"We infiltrated some major poaching going on in and around Yellowstone and also overseas," said Gavitt, who continued to share his expertise through an international treaty, trapping poachers from South America to Southeast Asia.

"Probably the one case I that I remember more than any other was doing an undercover jaguar hunt down in Mexico," Gavitt continued. "We rode in for two days on mules. I got deathly ill and actually thought I was going to die out there. I managed to get back, but it was a very close call. Upon returning to the border city, the guys had picked up three jaguar hides for me that had been smuggled into us by Mexican a customs agent."

While he is still involved with hunting, Gavitt now concentrates on the milder — and legal — side. He and his wife, Arlene, have been operating North River Retreat, a rustic hunting and fishing camp situated on a 437-acre farm in the Potomac Highlands. The nearest post office is in the rural Hampshire County community of Delray, about 20 miles from the border with Virginia.

The hunting camp offer a variety of outdoor activities, ranging from sporting clays and training courses to camping, fishing and hunting for quail, deer and turkey. There's a small cabin with two bedrooms for overnight guests. 

While John is leading the hunting expeditions, Arlene either prepares the meals on-site or has them ready to serve.

"I thought this was a perfect niche for me to open up a small business, attract people to it, and hopefully instill in them a love for the great outdoors," said Gavitt, who has ensured the future of his land by signing a land trust commitment. "I've seen how quickly people living in cities or suburbs are being shut off from the natural world. As the population grows, more and more land is getting posted (for no hunting). A lot of people find that they just don't have a place to go any more."

North River Retreat attracts all skill levels from beginners to experts.

"I want to pass on to future generations the outdoor experiences that I have enjoyed during my lifetime," he added. "I really do try to cater to young people because I am very focused on trying to make sure young people at least have an opportunity to get away from their iPhones and text messaging and enjoy the outdoors."

Investing in equipment is not necessary. The retreat can provide shotguns, fishing rods and other equipment at no cost. 

"All you have to do is show up," he said.

North River Retreat is open most of the year, although winters in the elevations of the Appalachian Mountains can be treacherous. Options include late season deer and spring gobbler hunting seasons.

"Mid-winter is a tough time to keep this facility open," he said. "The access road into the retreat is not the best. You need a four-wheel drive. It pretty much shuts down once the snow and ice comes. I still go up because I love being here. I'll hike on in."

Hiking, camping and fishing are popular alternatives.

"It's a lot of fun, especially if they are not doing any good during a hunt. They can come down, do some flyfishing and catch trout. I'll even smoke ‘em up if they want me to."

Gavitt said he is particularly proud of The Matrix, a multi-level sporting clay stand constructed two years ago.

"It's a very unique structure. There are five levels where shooters can shoot from different heights and you move from one level to the next. I have seven machines that release clays at different speeds and angles.

Gavitt typically limits his supervised excursions to four participants on deer hunts and three for quail and gobbler hunts.

"I restrict it because I want to give everybody a quality experience," he said. "It's an awful lot of fun. The best advertising is word of mouth. I get a lot of repeat customers. If they come back, then I know I've been successful."

With its proximity to clients in Washington and Northern Virginia, his slogan is "The Outdoors Next Door." Gavitt has enjoyed hunting all over the world, but says there's no place quite like his adopted home in the Mountain State.

"I love the Appalachians and I love this part of West Virginia. I consider this home and probably will be here for the rest of my life – in fact, I know I will be."