When Jack turned up at deer club for the annual season-opening squirrel hunt and feast a couple of weeks ago, he rode in on his latest acquisition -- a six-wheel, camouflaged, all-terrain vehicle that looks like something off the Sinai Desert.

The buggy is fired by an air-cooled engine, seats four and barrels through anything, if the path is wide enough.

Even when he gets to a creek or slough, Jack keeps trucking. The big, doughnut-shaped tires keep the rig afloat like a boat and their rotation keeps it moving.

Big expanse to cross? Just increase flotation by adding six more tires outside the original six, he said, making it a 12-wheel double-wide that could conquer the ocean on a calm day, with enough fuel.

All I could do at the sight of this $5,400 backwoods marauder was to shake my head in wonder.

Then Robert rolled in on his four-wheel ATV, with a .22-caliber squirrel rifle and scope mounted on a special rack. Five 4-wheel-drive trucks and cars already were scattered around the rough old cabin. The place looked like a showroom for the ultimate squirrel hunt.

I'd rolled in the day before in my own aging 4-wheel-drive, worrying all the way that it would break down or bog down and my afternoon would be shot straightening up the mess.

Standing in the clearing, surrounded by these mechanical marvels, I pondered the modernization of the outdoors and wondered how much of a help all these conveyances were in the enjoyment of the wild, and how much a hindrance.

The week before, Slim Jim and I had rumbled into camp in his new Isuzu Trooper, which proved an able stump-jumper. But standing water was deep in the ruts of our woods road, so he inched up on the shoulder.

"Poof!" went the left rear tire. The wagon lurched. The sidewall had been punctured by a sapling someone failed to snip close enough to the ground.

We spent more than an hour hassling in the marshy wet ground, finally digging a hole around the truck to get the ruined tire off and a new one on. Meantime, the afternoon wore away, along with our bow-hunting chances.

The season before, I'd spent a half-day worrying a Ford Bronco out of one of the deeper ruts where it had bogged down, and the club members as a group had spent many days grooming this road just to get it this good.

I started thinking: It's only about a mile from the county road down the track to the cabin, a trip that couldn't take more than 15 or 20 minutes at a swift walk.

I wondered: Why do we need this road at all? All it does is invite lazy intruders to trespass, make a perfectly nice hike unnecessary and expose us to the risk of breakdown in our expensive vehicles. You could park at the entrance and walk in!

This, of course, is un-American thinking. Yet, I persisted.

Of the memorable times I'd had in this place, I wondered, how many were abetted by machinery?

The time I found four eagles bunched in the trees, swooping and diving after fish on the creek, I was paddling my superannuated, patched and leaky kayak.

The time I fooled the crows for a half-hour, cawing at them from deep cover until they wheeled and caterwauled practically atop me, I was on a quiet afternoon stroll.

The night we were lost in the woods and took three hours to find the road, the only gadget we had was the compass, and it didn't help much. That was some night, with dark closing in, the woods growing mysterious and unfathomable, and nothing but the howl of owls and your own labored breathing to listen to.

Or the day the huge buck deer came crashing through the brush, knocking limbs off low trees with his incredible rack of horns. Stuck, I was, that day, on the seat of my pants at the base of a gum tree, heart pounding like a drum.

The other day I was out pond fishing with Ebbie Smith and Jim Allen, both of whom grew up on hardscrabble farms in the country. I asked them if they had their firewood in for the winter yet.

"No," Allen chuckled, "I don't haul any wood anymore. I did enough of that growing up in West Virginia," where he said his first job every day on arriving home from a one-room schoolhouse was to carry in enough wood for the next 24 hours.

Allen and Smith said they appreciate the comforts of home like central heat now, but they still fish from an old flat-bottomed skiff and hunt on their own two feet. No noisy motors or fancy electrical gadgets for them, not when they're in the wilderness, anyway.

I think that's a fair compromise. Take your comforts at home, where they belong. For hunting and fishing, the rough life is best.

Gadgets will always be around, trying to seduce you. But now, when I see something new I want, I'll think about those days wrestling with the disabled cars on the woods road. And I'll think of the advice my mentor, Manuel Munoz-Carrasco, advanced when I considered buying a bigger boat to replace the fishing skiff:

"Bigger boat," he said sagely, "bigger motor, bigger trailer, bigger car, bigger insurance, bigger bills, bigger headaches."