Here we are in the budding Alaskan summer and we've already had two fatalities in my area. The first an extremely unfortunate bear mauling and the second a drowning while fording a swollen creek on an ATV. One may think the Alaskan summer holds nothing more significant than mosquitoes, but you'd be wrong. It's a common occurrence here- summer happens and as people yield their thoughts toward recreation they often let their guard down.
Just recently my family went on a short hike up my favorite fleigberg and we saw firsthand how ill prepared some people venture into the wilds. About 3 miles in and about 2000' up we were passed on the trail by a couple of college age guys. They just looked like college guys in their polo shirts and khaki golf shorts. One of them had sweated through his shirt on the hard climb up. Neither had any water, no packs, no jackets, no bear deterrents....basically just the minimal clothes on their backs. We neared the summit a half hour later and chatted with them briefly while we watched a rain squall move our way. One of them asked me-"When will that rain get here?"
"Oh, about 10 minutes or so", I replied. "Do you have any rain gear?"
"Man, we don't....how bad do you think it will be?" he queried.
His second question showed me just how out of touch he was with weather in the mountains- you always assume the worst, regardless of season. The two companions took off down the mountain at breakneck speed (potentially literally so) in the hope of making it back to the car before the storm hit. They wouldn't make it. I spent the next few minutes watching some caribou on the valley floor below with my son before the first rain drop fell. In just a moment we had our rain gear on and our equipment packed up and got mostly moved to a small outcropping of rock to seek a little shelter from the storm.
The storm hit rather typically of the early summer squalls we get. The temperature at the front of the squall dropped from a rather nice 70F to about 30F in under a minute and the wind went from gentle breezes to a strong blow of about 40mph as hail began to fall. In five minutes we had went from postcard perfect weather to horizontal rain, lashing wind and hail. We were a little chilled but otherwise fine huddled in our rain gear behind some boulders on the otherwise barren mountaintop but it would have been really bad to be sitting here soaked to the bone and completely exposed to the elements. Under such cool, wet and windy conditions significant hypothermia could set in surprisingly quickly.
And that's how people get hurt. A lapse in judgement that says, "The weather is fine" or "It's just over there...", or "I don't need a jacket...it's summer." Surprisingly, hypothermia cases are more common during our summers than in our winters. Our winters are fearsome and few journey far without coats and gloves and hats, but the summer lulls them into thinking it's not Alaska anymore. My family has made something of a game out of evaluating the folks we meet on trail- "How prepared are they? Do they look like they could take care of themselves should something go very wrong?" At least half fail miserably.
Fortunately for us and doubly so for our ill prepared fellow hikers, the squall abated quickly. Five or ten minutes of wind and hail and cold wind yielded to warmer temps and lower winds as the squall's front passed overhead. Soon it was just raining mildly and after about twenty minutes the sun was back out. I'd be dry before we even reached the valley floor. If this had lasted longer it could have been a significantly dangerous event dressed in golf clothes but a few odds and ends and preparations and it would have been just a nasty inconvenience. Hundreds of Search and Rescue calls are initiated every year in such circumstances- a pleasant day hike turns deadly with unexpected weather. Hypothermia leads to poor decision making which yields even more peril- a fall, a slip or worse.
The number of articles and books that have been written on such topics could fill a library so I won't attempt to recreate any, but in brief.
1. Always bring a jacket. Even in summer. Waterproof is mandatory.
2. Always bring water. Always.
3. Always bring some way of starting a fire should you require one. Be proficient at it.
4. Always make a plan and tell someone else about it.
5. Stick to the plan in #4.
6. Always have a first aid kit and the knowledge to apply all of it's contents.
While certainly not an exhaustive list, that would suffice to get the majority of folks requiring SAR services off the list during the summer months.
I readily admit and have confessed in print many time before that I am a died in the nitrocellulose gun crank. And believe it or not, I believe it frequently puts me at a disadvantage to the "One Gun Hunter".
Let me illustrate- I recently helped a friend set up his first ever high power rifle (in fact, first firearm ever). After a lot of conversation he ended up with a plain Ruger 77 All Weather in 30-06, a Leupold 4x scope, and a few boxes of Federal 180 grain "Blue Box" ammunition. For those who've followed my digital scribbling on such matters, you would know that I whole heartedly endorsed the purchase and was delighted to help mount the scope, zero the rifle and provide basic safety and marksmanship instruction.
One of the questions that he asked was what other guns he needed for general use as a hunter.
Well, uh, um.....none. The beauty of the '06 is that it's so entirely adequate for the general run of North American big game and for that matter- most big game hunted throughout the rest of the world as well. A hunter armed with the previously mentioned piece would need no other rifles to effectively hunt for a lifetime. With the addition of a known accurate load that performs at the ranges typically hunted there is no confusion as to what ammunition to reach for. In my friends case- the 180 grain Speer Hot Cor bullet loaded in the Federal ammo shot near MOA and performs superbly at the '06's mild velocity, there's little reason to experiment and a lot of reasons not to. My friend just wants a general hunting piece and isn't really into shooting as either a hobby or recreation. His rifle is intended for edible game and packing along for protection on hikes and berry picking excursions. It's not something he wants to spend much time thinking about.
On the other hand, folks like myself who generally like messing with rifles and like to spend time with different rifles in the field are often subjected to tremendous learning curves. For a guy used to hunting with a .308 and the looping trajectory with a 180gr bullet, the .257 Weatherby shoots as flat as a laser beam. Bullet performance also varies widely- a particular bullet design that performs well at the .308's mild velocity become an absolute bomb when pushed north of 3000 feet per second. A tough bullet like the Barnes TSX when slowed down to mild velocity just don't perform their best.
That's just a lot of information for a gun crank to keep floating in his noggin'. Particularly when there's a target critter in the crosshairs. After overshooting a critter with a hot magnum and seeing some sporadic bullet performance in my early hunting career, I'm of the opinion that hunters should endeavor to keep most of their hunting to a single rifle and single effective load of known performance. For several years now I've hunted nearly exclusively with my Nosler rifle firing that company's 180gr Accubond bullet. Performance has been perfect.
Not withstanding- having a variety of rifles is a lot of fun, but in the hunting field it's more of a hindrance than a help.
Will some of you (and you know who you are) please stop hogging up all the .22LR ammo?
I know you believe it may some day be the new survival currency or you'll feed your family with hunted small game in your urban backyard through Armageddon...but as of now I'd really like to shoot some of it up.
I've got to reveal outright that I've written in print that I don't really care for packing around secondary weapons on big game hunts- mostly in reference to .22s intended for small game hunting during the course of a long hunt. Fully realizing that it sounds like hypocrisy- that's not to say I don't find having a small piece available a bad thing. If I'm on a vehicle supported hunted, where I'm not on foot packing my camp on my back, I'm generally happy to have a selection of weapons at my disposal. One of my favorites is the "Kit Gun".
The "Kit Gun" refers to a small revolver, primarily marketed to outdoorsmen and woods wanderers who find the notion of a handy and lightweight small caliber piece a useful part of their "kit". The first kit guns debuted in the 30s, manufactured by the arms giant Smith and Wesson and were directly marketed toward hunters and fishermen but the appeal went further than that. Smith and Wesson has produced them in a variety of configurations nearly uninterrupted since that time. I've had a couple in .22LR, a marvelous .22 Magnum and currently my collection contains a "hand me down" in .32 S&W Long that is much too old to carry around the boonies.
Despite my long running interest in "Kit Guns" and the off and on appearance of such pieces in my collection, I didn't really have a modern example until recently. That was rectified when in my local firearm dealer's cabinet a Ruger Bearcat appeared. Ruger manufactures the Bearcat as a single action kit gun- minimally dimensioned, and they are available in both blued and stainless steel. I must admit that I prefer the single action revolvers over the more mechanically complex double actions for field use and the Bearcat found itself in my trapping gear as well as an instructional tool for teaching my son to handle a handgun responsibly.
The fixed sights are regulated relatively close to point of aim and the .22LR has all the power needed to take small game for the pot or even deliver a "finisher" to a big game animal already down but not out and for taking animals caught in traps it's pretty much ideal. I've often wondered though if I could manage decent enough shooting with the small pistol to effectively take hares and grouse in a field situation, so I decided to give it a try. A pistol is certainly not anywhere as near as effective as a rifle but at reasonable range I've found the kit gun capable of anchoring small game. Some red squirrels on a great spring day yielded just the opportunity to test out the piece on game.
It worked perfectly out to about 15 yards or so, which is readily accomplished for a lot of edible small game and perhaps a bit further on bigger small game (pun intended) would certainly be doable.
Another writer termed the Bearcat a "mechanical jewel" and it certainly is a nifty piece of diminutive arms making. After some shooting over the winter, the only real complaint I have is the lack of adjustable sights and the fact that (for some unfathomable reason) Ruger decided to make the ejector rod housing out of aluminum rather that stainless steel. It works perfectly satisfactorily, but aesthetically it's grating. Fortunately the firm of Hamilton Bowen produces a stainless version but it's aggravating to spend money correcting manufacturers "cost savings".
For the outdoorsmen concerned with having a small piece for the trail- the Bearcat is perfectly suited.
I've got to be perfectly honest. This isn't the story I was hoping to tell- I was hoping to eventually write the piece about where I finally arrived in the hunting world and unboxed my first set of Swavroski EL binoculars and wrote extended verbose praise about them, being quite sure to add all the extended technical details that make Swaro owners so annoying to the rest of us.
Well, that's just not happening.
I used and abused my last set of binoculars pretty hard for the last seven years- a pair of Leupold 10x50s and they gave me yeomen service. I hunted hill and dale, bog and mountain top and they were a critical element in harvesting a bunch of game as well as just recreationally viewing items from afar. I dropped them several times, they went down the scree chute with me during a rather nasty fall and they've seen rain and severe Arctic grade cold more times than I remember. They certainly don't look new anymore, but all things considered they survived a lot of Alaska until late last year.
I ran over them.
In a mudhole.
The setup was really quite spectacular. We'd been hunting all day in the rain and were on our way to camp just after dark when I jammed my wheeler in a particularly soft piece of trail. I buried the front end to the frame. I habitually wear my binos around my neck to always be ready at hand to spot game but for the task of reaching down shoulder deep into the muck to retrieve my winch cable they'd certainly come to harm- so I did what any sensible man would do....I took them off and set them on the front rack out of harm's way. Well the pull out went well and as soon as the wheeler cleared the hole with a loud sucking sound, my partner asked, "Where's your binoculars?"
Off course they'd been on the rack and as soon as the ATV started to lift they'd promptly took a nose dive off the front rack right under the front tire where they were squished into the bog with all the weight of the machine. Then the back tire came by and did it again. I had to reach down into the sloppy mess and managed to feel the strap and pulled my binoculars like Saruman pulling the orc from the mire in the "Lord of the Rings".
When we passed the next stream crossing I thrust them into the current to clear the goo, watching with my headlamp until the water ran clear downstream. When we hit camp I dried them off and cleaned the lenses the best I could. The next morning I worked on them some more and managed to get a functional set of binos for the remainder of the hunt. They worked well enough that I finished the season on them and managed several animals between myself and my companions, but something was off. After using them for a couple of hours I'd get ringing headaches and I believed something was out of alignment between the barrels yielding enough disparity between views to give me a splitting eyestrain.
Several months later, my wife pulled her usual "It's your Birthday" trick and pushed me through the doors of the Hook and Bullet Superstore in the big city of Fairbanks to go pick out a gift for myself. I immediately thought of binoculars to replace those and made my way over to the optics counter. I went to the Swarovski end of the cabinet (which garnered instant response from the clerk) and undeterred by the generous MSRP the darn Bavarians demand for their wares, asked to see a pair of 10x42 ELs.
Holy smokes what a view. I stood there with my wife, feeling her hot breath and icy stare looking at the price tag. I've got to admit that I've been blessed enough that I could swing a pair if my heart so desired without taking food off the table or spending my next mortgage payment. My wife is gracious enough that I'm pretty confident she'd eventually let the eccentric purchase pass. The clerk, seeing indecision and pure sticker shock asked the question, "Would you like to see something a little less expensive and just about as good?"
Somewhere back in my family past was a Scot. And like all good Scotsmen his genes contained the genetic code for the "frugality gland". Well he beget someone who beget someone and so forth until my Daddy begat The Hodgeman- who stood at a sporting goods counter in Fairbanks with a pocketful of hard-earned bucks looking at binoculars apparently produced in an optics factory somewhere deep in the Rhine powered by fairy magic and unicorn flatulence.
"Yes I would." I replied as my frugality gland spasmed.
"Give these a try." the clerk proffered as he handed me a set of Vortex binoculars in the same size and power as the Swaros in my other hand. They were a set of Talon HDs (HD standing for High Definition, apparently the new optics marketing buzzword). I placed them to my eyes and made a few adjustments to the focus adjustment. Not bad. Not bad at all.
I then pulled them down and looked back through the Swaros....I won't be untruthful and tell you the Vortex had a better image. I won't even report the image was as good. But what I will tell you is that the two didn't have that much difference when you consider the price point the Vortex is sold at is something like one-fifth of the Swarovski. I stood there looking at the two, having dreamed for years of finally owning something like a nifty pair of ELs, then I thought of all the rainstorms, the rocks, the falls, the bumps and bruises my old binos suffered...that that gland spasmed again.
I handed the Swaros back to the clerk and said, "That's enough of these, I'll take the Vortex."
From time to time I like to discuss various pieces of equipment I use in the field and illuminate some of my experiences with them. Good or Bad, you get to hear about it. As a disclaimer to any sort of "review" concept let me state... all of the gear I talk about is my personal property, acquired through normal channels of commerce generally involving me laying down cold hard cash to a retailer. If a manufacturer or third party has provided any form of equipment for review I will specifically note that in the post in which it appears. Everything else is mine.
Also be aware the I am not some corporate mouthpiece accepting cash or other consideration to promote their products...yeah right. Like they'd consider me for that gig and you (gentle reader) deserve better.