EDINBURG, VA., NOV. 15 -- On an afternoon like today -- with the opening of deer hunting season mere hours away -- the rugged mountains of the George Washington National Forest bear a closer resemblance to Tysons Corner than "Wild Kingdom."
Zealous hunters streamed in all day in trucks, campers and motor homes -- many of them compensating for the hardship of the wilderness with swigs of Budweiser along with snatches of the Redskins game on their portable televisions.
This year, Virginia's sportsmen will rough it in new uniforms: blaze-orange hunting clothing.
The Virginia General Assembly, long dominated by conservatives traditionally hostile to hunting regulations, mandated the new apparel last winter, after a hard-fought debate in which supporters argued that drab clothing was causing pointless deaths.
Virginia game officials reported 92 hunting accidents last year, including 13 fatalities. Of those killed, 11 were wearing green-and-brown camouflage. They were apparently mistaken for game, officials said.
This 1.1 million-acre forest, 95 miles west of Washington, has long been one of the region's most popular hunting spots, and many sportsmen who have trekked here over the years describe themselves as advocates the new law. Bright orange garments seem to be a good idea, they say.
"I love it," said Matthew Zeikel, a Fairfax County resident who had pitched a tent with his brother and was scouting terrain in preperation for a hunting start at dawn Monday. "It's safer for everybody."
Brother Jerry Zeikel put it more bluntly. "There are too many idiots in the woods with guns," he said.
Intelligence and hunting proficiency aside, there are unquestionably lots of people in the woods with guns, shotguns and rifles. In the morning, the weapons will make the mountains resound like a fireworks display.
Under conditions like these, a complacent deer is likely to find itself among the roughly 40 percent of Shenandoah County's deer population that is "harvested" each season, according to Rod McClanahan, a biologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
Thinning the population during hunting season helps reduce deer starvation during winter months, he added.
McClanahan and John W. Coleman, district ranger for the northern stretch of the George Washington forest, spent the day driving their truck through the woods between hunting camps to remind sportsmen of various rules, including the blaze-orange law.
The law gives hunters three options. They may wear a blaze-orange cap or vest. In the absence of one of these, hunters must display at least 100 square inches of solid blaze-orange ribbon or other material attached to nearby trees or brush.
The tour of the hunting camps before opening day is an annual ritual in the forest -- one that Coleman approaches with particular zest.
Coleman occasionally broke into song while he cruised the mountain, delivering sermonettes on hunting and the forest and barking a good-natured welcome to each new group of hunters he approached: "How you doin'? Yes sir, yes sir."
Most of the hunters seemed friendly, some asking for tips on where to find the best hunting. Coleman and McClanahan responded with bits of advice.
The two officials said they shared the hunters' resentment over what they see as the sport's negative public image. Most nonhunters do not realize the contribution sportsmen make to preserving wildlife and are unaware of the wholesome camaraderie that forms among hunting friends, they said.
"People don't give enough credit to the positive things in hunting," said McClanahan.
Outlaw hunters have drawn widespread attention. This year, more than 20 overzealous hunters were caught up in a "Bambi-scam" affair in Rappahannock County. They were convicted of illegally shooting game from their vehicles or within 100 yards of a road after wardens placed a stuffed deer near county roadsides.
Most of the hunters in the forest today said that such unbridled lust for the kill is hardly what fuels their enthusiasm. These hunters -- almost all were men -- said they would be happy enough going home without bagging a deer.
In fact, that is a likely prospect for at least half the hunters, according to experienced sportsmen here.
Bruce Weeden, a Fairfax County construction worker, said he hunts "just to get away -- from the traffic, the hustle and bustle, all of it."
Deer hunting attracts people from diverse occupations. Matthew Zeikel is an executive for a department store chain. Jerry Zeikel works at the State Department.
Some of the sportsmen came from as far afield as Pennsylvania and Ohio. Others did not travel so far. Veteran hunter Arthur Ruffner pulled in from nearby Strasburg.
"I've been coming here 35 or 40 years," said Ruffner, a barrel-bellied, bearded man in overalls. "It's just friends getting together for a getaway."
For Ruffner, things keep getting better all the time. His hunting party now sets up camp in a huge tent that contains two stoves, a full set of kitchen utensils, a radio and a long table of rations, including Spanish olives and bottles of bourbon.
"We got tired of cooking on that open fire," Ruffner said.