Monday, December 8, 2014

Gun Safety, The Remington Decision

This past week saw the announcement by Remington that as part of a settlement in a class action lawsuit, Remington would replace the trigger/safety units on what essentially amounts to almost every Model 700 rifle made. That's about 8 million rifles.

In the long, drawn out affair that is the Remington 700 trigger we've been made privy to a lot of sad stories of people who were killed or maimed by their friends and relatives in accidents that a bunch of folks have sourced back to the trigger safety. Some of the stories are heart-wrenching at the best and soul crushing at the worst. It is without judgement on these folks that I present the following. This is not a piece written as a "coulda, woulda, shoulda" type piece or condemnation of those folk's skills or even an implication that they lacked skills. I've done some stupid stuff in the field, and so have most other folks if they'll own up to it- the only difference is that we're all still vertical.

So I'll present here the "4 Rules of Firearm Handling" for about thousandth time in my career and for at least the 5th time in print. Why? Because no matter how safe you think you are- you need to read it again. You need to teach it, again. Until you recite it in your sleep. I don't take credit for the 4 Rules, they are widely attributed to Jeff Cooper, the inventor of the Modern Technique, which is really a fancy way of saying he taught us to fight and kill with something other than a musket or a Colt Single Action revolver.

So here they are.

1. All Guns are Always Loaded- this does not mean, as has been widely disseminated, that you keep all guns loaded, all the time. It means that you treat every gun, in any condition like it has live ammo in the chamber. What Rule 1 establishes is uniformity of purpose. You don't have to memorize rules for loaded and unloaded guns. Just treat them like they are all loaded, regardless, because some of them are and some aren't and the single most frequent thing heard after a negligent discharge is "I didn't know it was loaded." Rule 1 dispenses with that- they are ALL loaded whether they have ammunition or not.

2. Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy- to further simplify this rule is to say, don't point a gun at something you don't intend to shoot. This rule encompasses a prohibition against all kinds of acts- horseplay, "scoping" for game with the riflescope, and general inattentiveness to where you are pointing a weapon. It is this rule that makes the whole "faulty safety" concept so infuriating. If the weapon was managed as to not point at other people, then the material condition of the safety is irrelevant. That is not to alleviate a maker of responsibility for their wares, but guns are mechanical devices and can, for a wide variety of reasons, become broken, jammed, dirty, ill adjusted and just flat fail- but when the safety fails Rule 2 keeps us alive.

3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target- this one suffers the most. When many people pick up a gun, their finger moves to the trigger as if by forces as inevitable as gravity. I've seen this one cause a negligent discharge in an action pistol match. Luckily for the everyone around, the shooter was observing Rule 2 and the shot hit the dirt several feet downrange. The Range Master was not understanding- disqualified from the match and unable to return to the facility until he completed a hunter education or range safety course. Keep your "booger hook off the bang switch" until you're ready to shoot. You see this one so commonly broken by the Hollywood action star it has become modus operandi for the masses. Bad show.

4. Be sure of your target- even in this advanced age of safety training and an endless stream of information at our fingertips, you still hear the occasional moron talking trash at the hardware store about "brush shots" or "sound shots". Often people chuckle at such foolish, I wish it was an immediate "Get out of jail free" card to whip the bejeezus out of them on the spot. You simply must positively identify your target and, furthermore, what is behind it before you put your finger on the trigger and fire. Hunter education has done much to hammer this home and blaze orange requirements make it easier but there is room to improve as "hunting accidents" still happen.

There are the 4 Rules (with commentary by me)...can you improve upon these? Certainly, but adherence to these 4 will prevent most injuries.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Worst...and Best Shot of my Hunting Career

The fall hunting season had been an aggravation. I had sustained a substantial back injury right out of the gate by hauling an inflatable raft over a mountain goat path masquerading itself as a portage around a waterfall. Neither my partner or I had expected it to be nearly so rough but we got into a position of having half of our camp on one side and half on the other as darkness began to fall and at that time I made a terrible decision. I strapped the entire rolled up raft onto my pack and took off down the mountain. Somewhere halfway down I stepped on a piece of inclined rock and something in my lower back just let go. The pain was immense but I managed to get the raft the rest of the way to water. The rest of the trip was horrible. I even managed to yell at a bear sniffing around the camp that night in such a cross voice the bear scampered off. I was pretty happy about that, I doubt I could have even gotten up if I'd wanted.

A trip to the doctor confirmed what I feared- an aggravation of an old injury. He would do his best to keep me out of surgery but I had to do my part. Which essentially was- don't carry anything and take it easy. I protested to the doc (who was also a hunter) that I had a long anticipated goat hunt planned in just two weeks. He looked at me sternly and just replied, "No, you don't." So the fall just drug on... I went on some hunts, all taking it easy. In the car, close to the road, on the wheeler. Several attempts to camp just led to frustration and a long sleepless night of not getting a wink of sleep. Unable to get any rest, I pulled out of one trip early and cancelled another all together. I will say, that I have some very good friends and hunting partners. Gary was very understanding when I had to leave early from camp and he was excellent about helping me not hurt myself worse than I already was. Another friend of mine who I was mentoring volunteered to ride along on a weekend hunt and serve as chief packer in exchange for showing him how to field dress an animal should we be so fortunate to get one.

The hunt commenced pretty normally. We rolled through several of my favorite areas and seeing nothing, travelled further west looking for the herds. We came to a feature called "Crazy Notch" and on the western side of the most unlikely mountain pass you'll see we found them. We climbed a small pressure ridge and spotted several dozen caribou over the next 7 or 8 hours but none came within rifle range except for one cow. She was about 250 yards away and I believed she'd come closer, instead she vanished. I must admit I was feeling the pressure at this point. We were 6 weeks into the season, the bottom of the freezer was visible and I had a new hunter along for the ride. Sometimes when you feel that internal pressure- you don't always make good decisions.

As we made our way back through the steep sided pass just a few minutes before dark, my partner spotted a couple of caribou on the side near the top. They were traveling quickly and would soon be over the summit. I made a snap decision and made perhaps the worst shot of my hunting career. I snapped into sitting position and looped into the sling. I peered through the scope in the dim light and settled the crosshairs just as the animals stopped and peered back down the steep slope at us. Ka BOOM! I have noticed the sound our Germanic brethren call the kugelschlag several times over my life- that is the sound of a bullet striking the ribs of a slab sided animal. It sounds like a guy whacking a side of beef with a mallet or a bat, or in odd instances like a cardboard box being dropping on cement. At close range the sound of impact isn't very distinct against the report of the rifle but at about 150 yards it will stand out as a distinctly separate noise.

Except in this case that sound of bullet striking home occurred much later than I thought it should. I had made a terrible shot in the fact I had been so focused that I didn't realize that this animal was over 350 yards away. Much further than I thought- the worst shot of my career.

I worked the bolt quickly found the cow again in the scope. She was regaining her footing and started to run to the west on a course that would take her over the summit in just a couple of seconds. I applied generous lead- with the crosshairs standing out in front of the animal- and caressed the trigger again. Ka BOOM! The rifle thundered in the tight canyon we were in and I heard the sound of the bullet striking home again, this time accompanied by a sharp crack as the bullet found bone. The cow tumbled from inertia end over end through the bushes and for a second I thought she might fall all the way to the bottom before coming to rest on a small ledge.

My inexperienced partner looked at me in disbelief and exclaimed, "What a shot! That was unbelievable!". I was shaking badly, knowing that the second hit was a lot of luck and without it we'd be headed to the top to conduct a long and, likely, fruitless tracking job in the dark. We dropped our rifles and stripped packs down to just essentials given the steep nature of the terrain. I dropped my .357 Magnum into my pocket as afterthought thinking it would be a comfort packing the meat back down to the road in the dark and not wanting to haul a rifle all the way up the steep face. We made our way up quickly and had to detour around several vertical sections. My partner was a big guy and much heavier laden than I and I wanted to find the animal while we still had a little trace of light in the sky so I sprinted ahead. When I found the ledge, the caribou did the most unexpected thing- which was tried to stand.  She was unable due to a broken shoulder and spine. I grew sick to my stomach and drew the small revolver and fired twice. I'm certainly not a novice with a pistol but due to adrenaline, fatigue and lack of breath, I just flat missed despite being only a few yards away.

By this time I was growing more disturbed. I take every effort to prevent this kind of thing and I was only so much happier that my partner was still down the mountain. I briefly considered that I just had 3 rounds left in the cylinder so I charged the last few feet and fired a single action shot at near point blank range and caribou collapsed. Finally. Down for good. I shouted back to my partner who had no idea what had just transpired that all was well and that I had finished off the caribou with the pistol. I walked into the low bushes and though about retching for a moment and stripped off my jacket to let the cool mountain breeze dry me off as my partner made his way up and the sun's rays in the West faded to dark. I was relieved. Meat at last.

My partner was in shock when he finally saw the animal on the ground- much larger than he expected. He'd never been this close to any large, wild animal before and its size impressed him. I had regained my composure somewhat and was able to resume my role as mentor as we took some photographs. The distance would later turn out to be 356 yards and a 58 degree up angle. I've passed up much better shots than this on numerous occasions and I can't exactly pinpoint why I took it this time but thankful I was. My first shot had hit a little far back and had destroyed the liver. It was a fatal hit but not immediately so. The second had hit the shoulder blade and due to the extreme uphill angle, smashed the spine. The caribou was indeed only moments from succumbing to the wounds and unable to escape when I topped out and perhaps the time wasn't as long as it seemed right then. I was pretty happy to have the handgun to apply a quick coup de' grace and finish what I started.

Later that night after the work was done and we had the caribou off the mountain, after we had made camp, eaten a quick meal and turned in; my aching back stirred me from slumber. I painfully crawled from the tent into the cold mountain air. There was a layer of ice on the fly and built a small fire. Looking skyward and shivering, the aurora borealis blazed overhead. We had meat on the pole, a fire in the camp and an Aurora in the sky- all was right with the world.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

2014 Hunting- Mid season review....Winners and Losers

Well, hunting season has been in full swing for several weeks now and while I've got several interesting hunts to write up and little time to do it in, here's a brief review of this season's winners and losers including a few new products I've tried.

Arctic Oven Pipeline Tent- Winner. My new favorite home away from home on vehicle supported hunts. I've used this tent about 30 days so far and it's wonderful. By mountaineering standards this is like a 6 man tent, but I'm not some spooning mountaineer. You could easily do four. I've used it for three without over crowding and it's a great tent for two guys and a LOT of gear. I used it solo for four days with the wood stove installed and it's the best of field shelters. Slept dry and snug through a few bouts of torrential rain and howling wind. Two enormous vestibules provide additional storage and there's enough tie outs to ensure it only comes off the earth via explosives.

Havalon Piranta- Winner. A tiny little knife that holds an autopsy scalpel blade. Wickedly sharp to the point of scary. It goes through critters like a light saber. I skinned an entire caribou on a single blade...when it's dull, simply discard and snap on a new one. It rankles the traditionalist in me, but this thing is sharper than any knife you'll own. A couple words of wisdom here- it's not REALLY a knife, it's a scalpel. DO NOT USE EXCESSIVE PRESSURE OR TWIST THE BLADE. It's not meant for that so leave popping ball joints to another knife. For the hunter not being a ham fisted fool, this thing is the bee's knees for it's meager price tag. You must keep your wits about you because you will cut yourself to the bone before you know it (second hand knowledge, thank God).

Badlands Bino Bivy- Winner. A chest harness that keeps your binoculars dry and secure. I've used mine about 45 days so far. It's a little bit heavy and a whole lot expensive, but it works well with a pack or by itself. It has an expandable pocket on the back that fits a rain jacket, extra layer or a water bottle. It has some interior pockets that work great for storing tags, ammunition, a fire starter, a Leatherman, etc.

Zippo 4-in-1- Winner. A unique multitool that features a small axe, a saw, a hammer head and a tent stake puller. I normally shun such things as being a collection of unsatisfactory compromises but this one is ok. Don't get me wrong I wouldn't want to cut a cord of wood with it, but for busting some kindling, sawing some limbs, or driving some tent stakes its a good deal. Mine lives in my tent bag and has perform great so far. It's strictly light duty but used in that role, it's good.

Now for the "Not so Good"...

My Back- Loser. I injured myself on opening day portaging a 90lb whitewater raft over a goat path of a trail around a waterfall. Only trip I'm glad to have not shot anything on. A boat load of doctor visits, pills, X-rays and a MRI. "Degenerative Disk Disease"...a misnomer that doesn't do it justice. Ouch.

Alaska Communications- Loser. Sort of. Expansions in infrastructure now mean I have cell service in a lot of my hunting area. I can no longer vanish into the wild and not be expected to stay in touch. Ugh. A bright side, I've been updated some Facebook stuff in real time. Slightly enjoyable in that regard.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Public Correspondence...the One Rifle

Time to answer the mail again. I've received a variation of this one fairly regularly over the years so here goes. "Hodgeman- if a person could only have one rifle to hunt Alaska, which do you recommend?" For starters- I recommend you ask a better question. If I asked Tiger Woods if he could play 18 holes of golf with a single club, which would he choose, I wouldn't expect an answer that made sense. Golf doesn't work like that and neither does hunting. While I have talked about "generalist rifles" a great deal, we need to realize there are limits. Alaska is a big place and the animals that inhabit it are widely varied from the small Sitka deer to moose, bison and the great bears. While Sitka deer are readily taken with a 22-250 or a .243 Winchester those rounds are hardly appropriate for moose hunters or to pursue grizzly. Likewise, the wonderful .375 H&H is a convincing "all around" big game rifle around the world but to press it into service shooting foxes or lynx called in close is more than a little egregious. So while picking a .300 Winchester or a .30-06 as a primary hunting rifle is often a good move- there are plenty of situations that call for something different.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

.308 vs 7.62x51....explained!

I received this correspondence today and found it interesting, both as a long term aficionado of the .308 Winchester and as someone who has worldwide readership. While most sporting ammo in the U.S. is the commercial version of the .308WIN, overseas it might be another matter entirely... A very nicely done infographic from my acquaintance Scott over at

Infographic by

308 vs. 7.62x51

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Outdoor Cooking....Beyond the Pouch.

 I must confess that I am not an overly picky eater. I like good food but when it comes to preferences I have very few and that typically extends into the outdoors. I'm happy to have something to fill the void in my stomach, if it's hot and tastes good then those are bonuses. I have noticed a real tendency by outdoors folks toward dehydrated backpacking meals and on backpacking trips they are pretty good. They tend to be light and convenient and taste has improved remarkably over the last few years. But; as "unpicky" as I am- I still avoid the dehydrated stuff whenever I can because after a couple days of steady dehydrated meals my digestive tract rebels in a big way. That much salt and preservatives passing through can cause something of a reflex in some folks and dealing with it on a trip can be a regular hassle.

I just returned from a 3 day float trip and while some folks would be content to simply chow down on packets of rehydrated slump,  I decided to eat well and the raft's cargo carrying ability allowed me to do just that. As an experiment we tried a vacuum sealer in conjunction with some pre-cooking and freezing and the results were pretty spectacular for camp cooking. I hate to try to make camp cooking a  big production because time spent cooking is not time spent doing other stuff that I'm there to do in the first place.

For the first sample meal we took some breakfast sausage and fried it up at home, we drained it and let it cool. The we took some frozen bell peppers and onion pieces, added it to the sausage and vacuum sealed it in a two person portion. Into the freezer it went. The idea was to pull if from the cooler and reheat it in the skillet with a bit of olive oil and then crack a couple of eggs onto it for a quick and easy breakfast scramble. In execution is worked perfectly- in fact after a couple of days it was still a little frozen. Depending on your climate you should get this to make it at least a couple of days unless you're camping in death valley.

The next meal featured a helping of hash browns. Basically a shredded potato that we dried some excess moisture out of with some paper towels. This went into the vacuum bag with some more frozen peppers and onions and back into the freezer. I cut a kielbasa into pieces and put them into a vacuum bag and froze that. On day three we  took the hash browns out of the cooler (cold but not frozen anymore) and sautéed that with a liberal amount of olive oil in the skillet. When the potatoes were just starting to brown I tossed in the sausage and heated it. It was a hearty and filling meal of real food. After a couple of cold, rainy days on the river a good meal of real food was a big boon to our spirits. Perfect!

For snacks and lunches we took nuts, jerky and dried fruit and vacuum sealed it into serving size vacuum bags- it made grabbing a quick bite easy and convenient.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Ultralight Gear and the Curse of the Were-Goat

Sometimes I sit down to write out a piece and it's formed out perfectly in my mind. I just sit down and the words, thoughts and ideas flow from brain, to fingers, to keyboard and to you- the reader. Sometimes the idea that I want to convey has already taken crystalline form long before your ever click onto the url or read it in your feed.

There are other times, however, that I sit down and wrestle with thoughts and opinions in print as if the act of writing were some form of catharsis and you, dear reader, are mere spectators to the inner workings of my thought. I must report that this piece is much more that latter than the former.

Among activities this fall, I am joining a hunt with my friends John and Gary in pursuit of Rocky Mountain Goat and Black Bear and to access that rugged country we will require the assistance of a bush pilot and the standby of bush aviation- the Super Cub. I must admit that even though I have some experience in light aircraft I never really used one to support a hunt before even though it's a  fairly common occurrence here. We'll leave a dirt strip in a nondescript field somewhere south of Glenallen and about 45 minutes later we'll be deposited one by one on top of the Chugach Range along a long spine of a ridge at 5000' above sea level. With any luck we'll look down on the goats and spot bears for miles.

The restrictions placed on the access by Cub are that we each can take ourselves and 70 pounds of equipment maximum into the hunting area. While that doesn't present any significant challenges with some good planning and discussion of who will bring what with them. It does somewhat complicate things in that certain sacrifices have to be made. Vehicle based hunts that I do tend to veer heavy since I usually have the family or a new hunter along. We go for comfort and why not? The vehicle carries the weight and we day hunt from a fairly luxe camp. Float hunting or ATV hunts are just slightly lighter versions of the same. I do comparatively little backpacking these days but the durations are shorter and I tend to stay within a day's march of the road system in any case so planning for every possible contingency just isn't required- a Spartan camp and we bail if the weather gets bad or someone falls ill.

Not so much in the big mountains. None of us really have substantial goat hunting experience in this area and goats tend to live where sheep fear to tread. Every year more Alaska goat hunters perish in the field than in all other hunting excursions....combined. Even within my fairly small circle of friends I count two who have been evac'd after bad falls that broke bone. Bad weather is common and hampers those efforts, so with that in mind we get to work planning our gear and the trade offs become apparent. Most comfort items are out, more safety items are in and we're always right on the razor's edge of weight limits.

It is working within those limits that have caused me to realize exactly why so many remote hunters and backpackers are so weight fixated and veer toward the lightest such equipment available. But I wonder...Does that always make sense? I will admit outright that UL gear is better than it's ever been and far more available. In the olden days when UL backpacking was basically Ray Jardine and a couple dozen misfits, we hiked the Appalachian Trail with 50 pound base loads and those guys in sneakers carrying a knapsack with a sheet of visqueen and a  tin of peanut brittle seemed to be on a stunt or a dare more than anything else. These days a base load for a 7 day backpack hunt can be under 40 pounds including your rifle and as I age the idea of walking around on a day hunt with a feather light load appeals to me and I've messed around with the ultralight gear off and on with a confusing mixed bag of results.

When I drew my sheep tag I bought some UL gear in earnest since that was a 7 day walk in hunt. I bought the "State of the Art" carbon fiber framed uber light pack and it was such a miserable P.O.S. that I nearly burned it on the mountain and hauled my stuff rolled up in my tent like a giant hobo pouch. That state of the art has now been upgrade/redesigned three times since then even though that was only 2011. I went back to my Mystery Ranch 6500- which is a huge and nearly bombproof pack that weighs 10.25 pounds...three times more than the wunderkind new kid but it works and has hauled a literal "ton of meat" off of the mountains. I gotta admit though, when working within tight weight restrictions such a heavy pack seems a bit egregious.

I'm also a proponent of light rifles. Or used to be. Never mind- I'll illuminate. In the way back when, when I was learning to hunt, rifles were heavy. An average scoped sporter weight rifle of average dimensions tipped the scales at about 10 pounds or more. One of the first serious attempts by an American maker at a "lightweight" was Winchester's beautiful Featherweight model. Even then. It weighed 7.5 or so pounds without a scope and ready to hunt it's closer to 8.5 or even 9 pounds. So when the more recent crop of rifles came out that could deliver a 'ready to hunt' '06 or .270 at an honest 7.5 pounds that was something. My Steyr Scout at 6.8 pounds was among the lightest production rifles available when it was released and even then the gun press howled about the fierce recoil. It's now regarded as chunky by the UL crowd.

My friend John just bought a new Kimber 84L....scoped it weighs exactly 6.5 pounds in .30-06. I kicks harder than I thought an '06 could. John named it "the angry little gun". But beyond recoil, it's a difficult rifle to shoot. Every slight twitch is magnified and every stiff breeze seems to sway the muzzle. It's an accurate rifle but you really have to work your butt off to put it to use. After sprinting up a mountain or thrashing through a bog I wonder how it will shoot with the hunter huffing and puffing? I'm betting it'll be tough to settle down in the field. Back in the day O'Connor wrote about not dropping a rifle below about 7.5 pounds- he might have been on to something with that but it's common now. Playing around with an even lighter Mountain Ascent at under 5 pounds makes me think we've hit diminishing returns in that department. It felt like shooting a high powered soda straw.

Lightweight tents are another area. Some of what passes for shelter gives me the heebie jeebies...especially when you go into the mountains in fall. A good tent is a make or break piece of kit and while I totally get the awesome weight reduction by using a tipi or a tarp supported by a couple trekking poles, what do you do when the wind hits 75 mph? Could be trouble of the hypothermia kind. Another acquaintance of mine was rescued after spending 3 days rolled up in his super light weight tent that failed under wind and snow load during a late summer blizzard. I'd have no issues skipping along the AT with one of these tarp tents in the summer or even fall but in the mountains you might need a more durable shelter. I've got friends that swear by them, but I've not come around to the idea yet.

I'm all for carrying less pack weight but I still need the equipment to do what I need it to do. A tent has to protect me from crappy weather, a pack has to both carry and stabilize a reasonably sized load off a mountain, and a rifle has to be able to shoot accurately under field conditions. It also can't weigh so much that I can't get it to where I'm going.

On the ultralight front I will say that most of the gear is reasonably good but often misapplied in the north but several of the ultralight gear adherents that are friends of mine seem to never take the same setup twice. One friend of mine spends 100+ days a year in the field but he's constantly changing tents, packs, rain gear, etc., I truly believe that he hasn't taken the same basic gear on two trips in a year yet. There's nothing wrong with that of course, but it doesn't tell you much about the longevity of the equipment either. A justifiable retort would be that heavy gear can wear out or fail just like UL gear can and that's true. Some heavy gear is no better and sometimes worse than a UL counterpart that weighs in at two or three times less.

Longevity and durability though tie directly to price. Most of the UL gear is priced according to its niche market status. That means that the UL 1 pound down sleeping bag rated to 20F is likely going to cost you well over what a generic synthetic 4 pound 20F bag is going to cost.  How much? maybe something like 20X more. The majority of the UL gear is priced like that- some of it has production numbers in the dozens and a lot of it is produced domestically which is something of a bright spot for me since mass produced goods in Asia typically have quality control issues but you are going to pay for that.

The other part of outdoor gear in general and UL gear in particular is that it seems that the industry is very fashion oriented. Everyone is producing gear and changing specs and materials year to year and many of the enthusiasts just budget to replace substantial portions of their kit annually. Nothing wrong with that but I'm a slightly frugal guy too. I can't justify a $500 pack every spring or a "new and improved" tipi shelter or titanium spork for every season. It seems though that for the true UL enthusiast that is the price of admission and many are willing to pay it. On the counterpoint, many of the traditionally minded folks scoff at such dainty gear and those who like it and will say that a hunter should just "man up" and carry a real gun and sleep in a canvas tent, etc, etc, etc. I primarily see those guys, however, hunting from trucks and huge ATVs. Once I walk a mile or two from the trail or road I seldom see any of that crowd.

So I'll close this out no wiser than when I started. Only realizing that a balance is required and that's true of most things in life.