Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Very Merry Christmas

Just a brief post to wish all of you season's greetings and peace to wherever you call home tonight and safety in your travels.

Here's praying for safety and productivity in all your endeavors in the coming year.

God Bless and Merry Christmas,

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Taking Advantage of the Dark

As everyone knows our old lob lobed planet is tilting its axis away from the sun causing us Northern Hemisphere dwellers to make do with less and less daylight. Up here in the Far North, our daylight is currently about five hours and in just a couple of weeks or so it will be down to four. If I lived further North it would be zero about now.

What does this mean? It means we've got plenty of time with dark as the predominant condition. A great number of Alaskans use this time to sit inside, gain twenty pounds they'll have to work hard to lose next summer, and watch the television. This will never do for your intrepid writer. I'm already pudgy enough and I hate sitting inside almost as much as I hate watching television.

I've been intrigued by the LED headlamp since I saw the first one some years ago. I received one as a Christmas gift about 8 or 9 years ago and I've used it quite a bit. It has a "dual bulb" feature with a row of LEDs and a halogen bulb for serious work. Its quite a nice unit but it has some problems. First is the cord to the battery pack- in serious Arctic temperatures its a stiff as a coat hanger. Second is the LEDs- they are wonderful for reading in a tent but outside moving through the trail its just lacking and when you light off the halogen, battery life is short. I use it from time to time but for serious woods running after dark I generally carried a heavier conventional light but that was about to change.

During a foray with a good friend to the "hippy backpacker store" (my friend is at least on some levels a hippy backpacker but I don't hold it against him) I spotted a light that looked good and lacked a battery pack and the bothersome attendant cord. It also promised a ferocious lumen rating and a run time of 80 hours on high and 160 hours on low. Heck it even featured a strobe setting for landing rescue helicopters (a feature I hope to be able to ignore) and a red pulsing beacon for riding your bike in urban traffic (like I'll ever do that...). It also cost about half what my under performing older light did so I figured I could also relegate it to night time doggie duties and at least I wouldn't have a cord to fiddle with. I plunked down $50 for the light and took it home.

A few days later my buddy came over and started nagging me about going to Lost Lake for a hike... in the dark. I thought briefly about and gathered my gear and tossed the untried light in at the last minute thinking it would be a good opportunity for a try. When we hit the trail head I mounted the surprisingly feathery light on my wool hat and turned it on. As promised the immediate surroundings turned to day. Much brighter than any LED I've used before- I was impressed. On the diffused low setting it broadcasts to about 30 yards and on diffused high its good for at least 60 yards. With its diffuser flipped down I could readily spot my dog at about 100 yards. We hiked about 3 miles through calf deep snow that night and two nights later did five miles. I love hiking at night and plan to do a bunch more of it. Heck the light is so good I'm going to attempt back country skiing with it. Move over night! I gotta get outside and do something!

So my experience has proven to me that LEDs are out of the "cute to read and watch your dog poop by" category and into the "really worthy of serious wilderness use" category and I couldn't be happier. One of the few pieces of outdoor technology of the last few years that I've really come to appreciate. Maybe a trip to the "hippy backpacker store" is in order more often than I realize.

More nocturnal adventures to come.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Lynx Family and the Deepfreeze

You know you'll see the darnedest things when you don't have a camera. Today while out and about I spotted a female lynx crossing the trail with a young kitten in tow. I stopped to watch as sightings of these reclusive creatures are unusual- particularly in daylight. In my years in Alaska, I've only seen a relative handful compared to other creatures I've observed. As I watched these thoughtful predators, the mother lynx turned and looked behind her and three more kittens (likely in the 6 month range) emerged from the brush and followed her across the trail into the dense brush on the other side. A total of 1 large female and 4 half grown kittens.

I pondered a moment about the sighting because lynx are normally reclusive in the extreme and tend to avoid humans and I was very close to my home. The skies had cleared back the last couple of nights and the temperatures had plummeted to the -30F's. I had -36F on the thermometer yesterday morning and I can only guess that the deep cold has got the creatures moving during warmer daylight hours hunting hares and grouse during the "heat" of the day. Whatever the reason the lynx family was certainly an unexpected treat.
Note: the photo is a file photo from Wikipedia. Well, because I did not have a camera. Dooh!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Winter's Noon

The dawn today showed up cold and clear. The thermometer on the back deck read a robust -15F but the sky was a brilliant blue and the sun broke the horizon (admittedly at 10am...) and gave the frozen world a cheery pastel pink and orange glow. The air had a crystal clear and rarefied quality I've only experienced during Interior winters when you can feel your breath steaming in your throat even prior to exhale. The sun, now in its winters arc that only climbs halfway to apex, would soon be on its descent to the horizon. The day however beautiful would be brief.

I thought for a moment and quickly concocted some rather obtuse chore that had to be done in the back country centering around a buddy's fledgling trap line and within a few moments I was astride the machine and breaking trail on the 10" of fresh snow we had received over the last two days. I left the pup lounging in his kennel; although normally keen to go, he had vomited up the neighbor's cell phone the day prior and had felt poorly ever since. I left the beast sleeping quietly and zipped out of the drive- his penance for rooting out a misplaced cell phone and ensuring it never returned to service.

I could feel the cold air invading my face mask, pushing its way through the fibers of the fabric and attacking my moisture laden mouth and chin. I burrowed my head further down in the tunnel of my parka and eased back on the throttle to reduce the breeze. The trees held the wonderful postcard look of the winter trail- every branch and leaf crystallized and covered in rime or snow. The world looked absolutely still but it wasn't.

I let off the throttle and let the machine slow to a stop and I dismounted to check some fresh tracks in the snow that had been paralleling the trail and crossed it several times. I looked at the loping gait- almost like a North American jackal, it could only be a coyote. I looked up and not 50 yards ahead on the trail the coyote leaped from the brush into the trail and gave me a long look back over his shoulder without breaking stride as he steadily pulled away. He calmly broke right and almost noiselessly vanished in the brush and the forest beyond.

I maneuvered the sled around a few more twists and turns and hung a hard left to take me on the upper bluff trail. A simple bluff about 200 feet high jutted up from the lowland morass and dominated the local landscape. I planned to sit up there for a short while and scan with binoculars for any more creatures roaming the countryside. As I'm wont to do, my attention shifted from the lower expanse below to the forested area behind me. I could smell a peculiar odor that I had only recently became acquainted with- Labrador tea.

I quickly located a small patch of the coniferous plant and threw a couple of old dried rose hips I also found in the pot for good measure. I had the brew boiled up in a few moments on my portable stove. A shot of sugar to make the potent tea palatable and I was counting my blessings. To be here on the bluff, in the frozen sunshine with a cup of steaming tea while I watched the lone coyote lope his way unconcernedly along the packed snow machine trail was a wonderful moment and for a short moment at least all was right with the world.

Well at least my small, beautiful and unforgiving corner of it anyway.

More to come.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Perplexed About the Cycle of Life and Death

Author's note- I wrote this piece last week and held off publishing for a variety of reasons, incompleteness being the main one. I'm not happy with the piece as it swerves markedly from where I normally like to write but I'll throw it out here knowing full well its not complete and likely never will be. The piece is a bit rough as it was written rather hurriedly and ignored profoundly for a week or so. Something I wrote to basically organize my own thoughts around some very real human tragedies that occurred in the recent past.

I was checking the news today and was somewhat distraught at several of the headlines I saw. I'll ask the reader to bear with me as I'm going to detour from my favorite topic of the outdoors into some murkier things in current events I can't help but write about. I'm not seeking to pass judgement on any of these things or start yet another blogosphere debate. I'll leave comments on but I'm not really looking for any and I'll delete inflammatory ones just because they'll serve no purpose in the greater scheme. I'm merely asking questions, primarily for myself and the running commentary in my head about the conundrums of the human condition. Thoughtful and introspective comments are, of course, welcome.

In fact, reading some of the headlines it was pretty easy to self analyze why I like the outdoors, nature and animals so much- they are pretty simple to figure out as compared to humans and they don't leave you guessing about motivations, or beliefs, or politics. A bear or wolf kills to eat. A cow moose will kill to defend her young. Hypothermia will kill you just because it does.

Of course the first example is the Maj. Hasan of recent events in Texas. I have no idea why this man decided that shooting up a military base was a good idea and I'll admit I can't conceive of the idea of jihad as it's foreign to both my Western culture and my spiritual beliefs. Wrapping my head around the notion that slaughtering the unarmed (even a future combatant) is somehow going to further your spiritual cause simply doesn't compute with me. While I'm sure the case is going to be a prolonged circus as the military brass step all over themselves to keep from calling this man a jihadi or Islamic terrorist when the average third grader has already figured it out- I'm not sure of how we'll deal with the ramifications of that fact. I can't help but think how I wished the DA police officer who shot him would have aimed a bit higher (she is completely excused as her performance under fire was exceptional to say the least- this is no criticism of her) and ended his life right then and there. Bled out on the floor with a smoking gun in his hand, no arguments, no appeal, and no politics as well as achieving his obvious end goal. Now we as a community have to decide how to deal with this guy (still alive likely to his surprise as well as ours) without inflaming the populace against his religious brethren in the service(whom he is likely an aberration to) and society at large; and still somehow serve justice within the bounds of the law. If he's declared a jihadi then his trial will likely become even more complicated than simple murder (is there even such a thing?) as it begs the question- "Is he a traitor? An enemy combatant? A terrorist?" Just what the hell do we do with this guy now? And how do we do it while retaining our own humanity in the process?

The other headline was the execution of John Allen Muhammad for the 2002 sniper attacks in the DC area. The author Jack White wrote a very good piece in The Root about why this case is so conflicting to death penalty opponents (here) and he is raising to front the enigma common among all of us- how to exact vengeance and not destroy yourself in the process. How can you want someone dead so much and not really want society to have to kill them? There is no easy answer to that question. While I've long been a critic of the death penalty and how its carried out in the U.S. - John Allen Muhammad defines the very person for whom most people want to execute. I also can't help but think how much more convenient for him to have been gunned down in the street by the populace he sought to terrorize. America would have been delighted to have seen him shot by police or even private citizenry- no ambivalence, no sideshow gyrations, no doubt of guilt- splattered in the trunk of the car he'd modified as a sniper's hide with his weapon beside him- closure. It seems somewhat gratuitous to see him put to death in such a manner as lethal injection a full seven years after the attacks. Is that going to give us closure? Even seven years later his motivations are still unclear, more so and perhaps even to himself at this point. A million questions left unanswered and a continuing moral quandary over the right of the state to kill someone collectively. No one would have been dismayed had one of his intended victims (or a brave person defending those he sought to kill) shot him stone dead in the act, but years later on a gurney with a cocktail of lethal drugs? That seems an unlikely and particularly sterile end for a man who had so much senseless blood shed by his hands, not that I'm advocating a more violent end, particularly after the fact by the better part of a decade.

The last headline was a confusing interview a'la confession by Scott Roeder from prison awaiting trial for the murder of Dr. George Tiller. In the interview Mr. Roeder defends his actions by stating he was defending the unborn "by any means necessary" which apparently included gunning the Kansas abortion provider down during a church service. The fact the nation's largest provider of late term abortions attended a church service is somewhat surprising (no judgement here-just surprising given most churches' stance on abortion in general) and that a man whose mantra was "Choose Life" chose instead to fire a pistol into the chest of another man is also surprising. Apparently the Kansas prosecutor's office is the only participant in this case not wanting to kill somebody- whether the unborn, or the abortionist, or the extremes of people who support both sides- because they are not seeking the death penalty. Also surprising. Several folks have expressed a quick death at the hands of a police officer would spare us all the public spectacle of a politically and morally motivated murderer's trial that the defendant himself seems intent on using as a bully pulpit. It would also spare us the discomfort of the big questions it raises as well.

So today I feel I've been treated to a parade of human depravity and moral compasses that seem to be wildly spinning out of control. A society caught in a moral whiteout and stumbling with its arms outstretched looking for anything solid to hold onto. The larger questions of our humanity make us squirm and make some of us choose the ideological "low road" and a savagery that would shock.Some take an ideological high road and excuse any behavior however aberrant in the name of political correctness or a desire not to offend. Some of us would like to avoid the questions altogether.

Whether John Allen Muhammed deserved to die or will the military court execute Maj. Hasan or even if Scott Roeder should die for his misdeeds will be the grist mill of the news for weeks to come. A part of me would like to see these men- assassins all for political ends, not folks involved in crimes of passion or some other more pedestrian crime- meet their maker sooner rather than later but a part of me recoils from the thought of an execution. Something done in the heat of the moment in defense likely morally acceptable, but not a calculated decision to take one more life when it will not spare another. Part me also feels there is value to locking people like these into cages so deep that Monday's daylight arrives on Friday- so that we can look at them and know that evil can and does exist in the flesh. Much like the headline makers of three decades past- the Mansons and like of the world if you will- now reduced to pathetic maniacs and a lesson for us all to tread lightly in this world.

One of the few things I remained convinced of is that monsters really do walk among us and I really do need to get back to the outdoors where the cycle of life and death makes at least some kind of sense and it has its place in the great scheme of things, not the senseless depravity we've seen in spades this week.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

First Snowmachine Adventure of the Winter

After a very long and relaxing hike with the pup today I decided to try out the snowmachine and check it out for the winter. I was concerned there wouldn't be enough snow to run the machine as we are snowfall deficient so far this year. With only a few inches on the ground I wondered how the machine would perform.

I shouldn't have worried as the Tundra is pretty renowned for its ability to run in thin snow conditions or even hard pack river ice. Other than maybe beating up the carbides a bit when I crossed a gravel bar I don't think the machine is any worse for wear. I must admit riding the snowmachine is something I rather enjoy beyond its abilities as basic winter transportation. The snowmachine is pretty much a fact of life in the North and with 8 months of winter I can see why. Folks up here were only too happy to replace the sled dog with the "iron dog" once the machines became more reliable than the barn built experiments the first ones were. One only has to experience sled dogs once in their life to see why Alaskans would be eager to part ways with a rowdy crew of ravenous and yelping Huskies. Alaska still has a deeply embedded mushing culture but the popularity of sled dogs is on the wane and is now viewed as quaint and traditional while all the folks with serious travel requirements in the Bush use a "sled". Perhaps the biggest advantage is a snowmachine can sit all summer and not eat a bite.

My only prior experience with snowmachines prior to moving into the Interior was the thrill seeking behavior of the "high markers" that frequented the Turnagin Pass area south of Anchorage and the endless avalanche search and rescues that our fire department ran all winter long looking for riders buried alive at the base of the mountain. I was initially really put off by the daredevil riders on machines with only slightly less horsepower than an Atlas rocket and an attitude to rival that of an outlaw biker gang. It seemed rather typical of other groups of young men I had known riding toys- whether motorcycles, jeeps, ATVs or jet skis. Someone always has to have the loudest, the fastest, the most horsepower, the quickest take-off and no one was ever happy with stock parts. Often bravado got in the way of common sense and someone was injured or killed outright. I left that kind of thing behind in my late teens in pursuit of a quieter life. I dismissed the whole snowmachining thing as a juvenile endeavor and went out of my way to avoid areas the machines frequented after nearly being ran over while snowshoeing in Girdwood one fine spring day.

When I moved to the Interior however, with its seemingly endless boreal forests and fast frozen river corridors, I was introduced to another kind of snowmachine altogether- the trapper sled. Built narrow enough to travel down the decades old forest trapline trails initially ran with dogs and light enough for a lone person to roll over or maneuver about in tight quarters, this is often a Tundra or an old Bravo. It is the complete antithesis of all the high performance sleds on the covers of "SnoWest" and "Snow Rider" magazines. Lightweight, low powered and "blue hair slow" these machines are made for but a single purpose- to carry a rider and their cargo through the snowbound forest or frozen river as efficiently as possible with the least amount of fuss while the rider went about their business of trapping, hunting, or otherwise conducting work in the wilderness. A look under the cowling reveals a power plant that is no more complicated than a standard lawn mower engine and a drive train with a single centrifugal clutch- durability and reliability are paramount over squeezing out another mile per hour on the top end. Once you're away from the cities and in the real Bush, it is imperative that any machinery be serviceable with only a handful of tools and the most basic of spare parts. Ideally it will only require minimal amounts of both- time spent servicing machinery is time not spent engaging in more important aspects of wilderness life. Life in the Bush is hard on people and machines and while tinkering with a high performance sled is an urbanite's hobby, it is extremely irksome to the wilderness dweller. Its in these areas you'll find these old sleds doing service day in and day out, in rugged conditions that would destroy their thoroughbred counterparts before the solstice.

While I generally find wilderness "infernal combustion" something to be avoided completely and gave up ATVing a couple of years ago in complete disgust (article), snowmachining seems a bit easier on the world than the ATV is. In my travels today through the low lying swamp I saw plenty of deep ruts and holes left by "wheelers" who were out "muddin'" just prior to freeze up. No two ways to look at it- the land there had deep and possibly irreparable scars. Comparatively; the snowmachine slides over the snow pack without much trace come spring. After a brief windstorm or good snowfall my presence there today will become invisible to all.

That's not to say the use of the machines is without compromise however. Most of the machines are 2-stroke and while the newer ones are much better than the old ones, they all emit a stinking pollution for an exhaust. Several manufacturers started producing cleaner 4 cycle machines at the insistence of BLM and state governments all over the West. While I've not been there, apparently snowmachining in Yellowstone is a crowded affair and officials felt the need to mitigate potential environmental damage left by honking scads of blue smoke belching machines. I applaud their efforts as the entire industry is forced to produce machines that run cleaner and leave less pollution than ever before. Sadly the bulk of this technology has proven unreliable in the extreme Arctic conditions of Alaska and lots of old trappers look askance at 4 cycle machines as heavy and balky running versions of Russian roulette. The industry will get there in time however slowly.

The other major detriment to the snowmachine is noise. No other way to say it but even the quietest of these sleds produces a loud piercing whine under power. It is a disturbance to wildlife and other wilderness users without a doubt. In areas where large numbers of the high performance machines gather, the sound of 2 cycle engines running 14,000 RPM is quite staggering. Even a basic one cylinder trapper sled will produce a noisy high speed buzz that seems all out of proportion to the rather sedate ground speed. I've always felt mine sounded kind of like a SuperCub airplane on take off while puttering down the trail at a whopping ten miles per hour (very much like a SuperCub in that respect).

So after a morning spent cruising the woods in my size twelve Sorels (no snowshoes required yet!) with a light pack and a trail axe and an afternoon spent travelling down old traplines on a modern snowmachine; which do I prefer? Not really one over the other in that they are both a necessary component of wilderness life here in the frozen boreal world, but I've got to admit I like the tranquility of snow softly squeaking underfoot as the spruce trees absorb the ambient sounds of the forest much more than the raucous hum of a snowmachine.

Author's note- for a wonderful examination of snowmachines in the Bush and a discussion on the compromises the machines require I'll refer the reader to the Conover's excellent book The Snow Walker's Companion which dedicates an entire chapter to the issue.

Monday, November 2, 2009

"Winter, For Real This Time" and "The Second Barrel is NOT for the Dog"

It was inevitable. The thermometer over the weekend plunged to a balmy -8F with daytime highs in the whopping single digits. The full moon illuminates the night landscape now covered in snow while the first auroral displays start to light up the sky.

We knew our fortunate run of warm fall temperatures would end soon although its kind of sad; I'm excited about the new dimension winter brings to the landscape.

I took the new pup out for a long walk through the woods to see how he'd fare in the cold and I was really surprised. Our new dog loves walking in snow, smelling the nocturnal passage of unseen creatures, following their tracks and is apparently not phased by cold weather one bit (at least not yet). He also started doing the strangest thing.

He would gallop along and lean his head over and gather up a big bunch of dry powdery snow in his mouth and then stop. He'd then blow the snow into a huge cloud and take off running full speed through it with his tail stuck straight into the air and a very pleased look on his face. Unfortunately I didn't have a camera along but I'll try to film this behavior. Amusing doesn't begin to describe it.

He is also determined to kill a raven. On our walk about he heard a raven's croaking cry and took off full bore after where it sat in a low tree. Only the raven's opportune flight kept him from being munched. I don't know where that came from; because to my frustration grouse and hares are perfectly safe from his depredations and he apparently has little interest in flushing them for me to shoot even sitting in plain view. He prefers to sniff around while pretending he doesn't see them, obviously trying to encourage me to ground sluice him one to eat "fresh".

He is apparently lucky at this point to have not flushed a grouse for me because I'm pretty sure on the retrieve it will disappear into his gullet whole. Other items have disappeared into his gaping maw, ie. my son's toys, sundry household items and on one occasion we thought we lost a cell phone (it was only misplaced). I'm sure I looked rather comical with my head stuck to the dog's side listening for the tell-tale ringing while I dialed the number on the other phone. Every lost item is now evaluated based on the approximation of "Will it fit down Sonny's throat?" (a surprising number of things pass this test by the way). I fear one day will find me standing at the vet looking at a profile X-ray of my dog with something ferociously expensive and irreplaceable seen in the middle. A vanishing delicate little ruffed grouse may be more than my sensibilities can possibly stand. The dog will hope that I've used both barrels on the bird.

The hunting dog must be approached with saintly patience I'm discovering.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The 'Texas' Heart Shot

I don't know the history of why this particular shot is called the "Texas Heart Shot" and I'll apologize to all the fine Texans I know right out of the gate but then again- I didn't name it. After the well received responses to my "Hail Mary Shooting" article and some consideration of the factors of wounding game animals in the field I thought I would write again on the topic field shooting and the ethical hunter.

I'll refer the reader to an excellent essay on the subject by Gary Wolfe, entitled "When Not to Shoot" in which he organizes the primary reasons behind wounding loss to be distance, angle, movement, and haste. I'll not elaborate on any of the excellent points Mr. Wolfe makes but I'll keep his general outline in which I'm in agreement with. Mr. Wolfe was the ranch manager for over a decade on a large elk ranching operation and has had more experience retrieving wounded critters than most of us will even think about. During the last essay I think we pretty well covered the distance but today I want to talk about the angle and to a lesser degree, shot placement.

The famous (or infamous if you will) "Texas Heart Shot" is any shot taken from dead astern. Any of my readers who are even slightly familiar with quadruped anatomy will realize that this is a shot the places the bullet clearly away from the vitals but in a manner that will almost certainly mortally wound your animal. I became familiar with it not in my native Tennessee where I'd never heard of the practice but rather among hunters of the tiny Sitka Blacktail deer on the coastal islands of Alaska. Apparently the technique is to move through the thick brush in the hopes of spooking a deer into bolting and then snap shooting the fleeing creature in the rear end; hoping your bullet penetrates through to something that's quickly fatal. Hunters who pursue this shooting generally use a much tougher bullet or a much larger rifle than one would normally think appropriate for deer that barely break 100 pounds in weight in hopes of getting a complete shoot through the brisket. From an ethical shooting standpoint I have to shake my head as I'm sure the number of deer wounded in this manner has got to be quite high and the number of recoveries very low.

First of all, gut shot deer tend to bleed surprisingly little and the entry wound is not in a position to rub on brush and leave a good trail. Second, the thick coastal vegetation and constant rain would make following a good blood trail challenging and a faint one almost impossible. The position of the gut and its contents puts a lot of mass between the aft and the first vital component- the diaphragm and the heart/ lung cavity beyond. Consider a moose with the same placement- there could be 5 feet of water, vegetable mass and gut between the point of impact and the vitals. It would be like shooting something several feet under pond water- that's asking a lot from even a Superfloogunboomer. Bad show. In the words of Cooper in The Art of the Rifle- "'s impolite, tends to wreck the carcass and doesn't bring the game down."

But the Texas Heart Shot isn't the only less than idea shot you can be presented with. The dead forward or facing shot is almost as bad. The forward profile contains lots of space where a bullet can wreak havoc without an immediately fatal wound. The heart is a possibility as is the spine and you may get lucky and get a lung but facing is a poor way to make a shot. In a lot of animals I've seen recovered over the years, sometimes days afterward- this was frequently the wounding mechanism. A facing or a strongly quartering too position that certainly dropped the animal at the shot but they got up and ran vigorously afterward as nothing immediately fatal was hit.

The other shot I hear bandied about is the neck or head shot. This one is often declared the preferred shot by folks using undersized rifles and who profess to be such stylish shots that they can't possibly miss a vital point. A killing shot is possible in either the neck or head and I've seen it brought off a number of times. I've also seen it blown rather badly and the result is a horrible wound that a strong deer could live with for days. A moose has a brain that's roughly the size of a man's fist and its really a rather small organ when you consider the size of the creature's great head. A good friend of mine tried this on a moose this year and his .300 Winchester magnum failed to penetrate the brain from a mere sixty yards and expended its energy in the nasal cavity- that moose was recovered but only through fortune as the head shot didn't even take him off his feet. The spine in the neck is a similarly small point and its location in the neck isn't where you'd generally suppose and its surrounded by surprisingly robust tissue. Leave the head and neck shots to the sniper wannabes and gun shop commandos; the ethical hunter darn well knows better.

What are the preferred shots then? The broadside of course is a splendid shot. Where a moose's brain is the size of a fist; a good bull or adult cow's lungs are the size of a small block Chevrolet motor. Every single quadruped has a set of lungs that are at least an order of magnitude bigger than any other vital point in their body. On most animals a broadside shot with even a modest caliber rifle will involve both lungs since the bulk of the space is air and presents little in the way of resistance to the bullet. The heart is the largest in profile as well and lies generally between the lungs. So from broadside you will likely hit both lungs and lots of times the heart as well. You don't have to be a doctor to figure out that the damage is invariably fatal and the rapidity of death will surprise even some experienced hunters. Strongly possible shots are the quartering away and quartering too but be advised the more the angle deviates from 90 degrees the more uncomfortable the ethical hunter should become. The vital zone is best represented as a cylinder which you'll want to puncture from end to end. The broadside is often presented by fleeing animals after a few dozen yards as they have the fatal habit of turning to look and see if they're pursued, a patient hunter will often wait for his quarry to look back and then pull the trigger.

A lung shot is quickly fatal and in my experience a lot of animals such struck barely move from the spot they're shot at and often fall at the shot through some means I can't quite explain but high velocity rifles do so with more regularity in my experience. I believe it has something to do with rupturing blood vessels in the brain but its simply a theory. The animal may occasionally regain its feet but usually falls again quickly. Even a bolting animal generally piles up within just a few yards and expires. The lung shot also has the added bonus of bleeding the animal rather quickly into the lung cavity and that reduces meat loss, particularly in warmer weather.

I strongly advise all hunters to study up on the basic anatomy of their quarry, much the way a bowhunter would. There are several excellent references available both in the bookstore and on the web. In fact, I wish all rifle hunters would think more like a bowhunter in that the angle of the quarry is a very significant factor in good field shooting. While a lot of folks think the benefit of range practice would reduce game wounding (and I'm certain it would to a point) I think some basic knowledge of animal anatomy and wound mechanics would do even more so. The rifle is not a magic talisman that barks loudly and causes animals to fall (much to the chagrin of the ballistic marketeer). It is a basic instrument and its wound mechanics are rather straightforward, easy for any one to understand and vital for the ethical hunter to comprehend before going afield.

Good hunting friends!
About the Photos- this is a mature cow that hangs around the house sometimes. The first photo from aft, you'd be lucky to get a stout loaded .375 to penetrate that moose from that angle into the vitals. For reference- that is a 3/4 ton F250 in the background to give you some sense of scale. A few moments later the cow turned and slowly walked into the woodline- from profile just about any decent centerfire rifle would have completely penetrated the vitals and killed this cow within seconds.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Hail Mary Shooting...

I first heard the term "hail Mary" shots years ago when I lived in Tennessee. They referred to a long shot by regional standards- about 200 yards with a typically open sighted rifle. They were called "hail Mary" after the football term "hail Mary pass" because the feeling is that the person performing the action would have plenty of time for prayer and contemplation from the time the shot (or pass) is initiated and the bullet (or ball) gets there. It was also felt that these long shots are only doable with saintly intervention and the shooter (or quarterback) holds little hope of success. In football, its usually the act of a 4th quarter, 4th down, no time and points behind quarterback- where the usual tactics of ball possession, controlling the clock and defense have failed. Its either this or certain loss. With the hunter its typical of the last day of a long (and expensive) hunt or perhaps the closing moments of the season.

In other words its a final act of desperation.

From the hunting field this year I'm hearing more and more tales of these outrageous shots. Hunters in the field being tempted to squeeze the trigger on a moose or caribou at distances well over 300 yards. Maybe they're desperate for a moose, maybe they've watched shows like "Best of the West" and feel confident anybody can whack an elk or a moose at 700 yards, or maybe they feel its reasonable to even try. Bottom line is that I've heard of several moose taken during the early season in the neighborhood of 500 yards. While the moose I've heard about were taken (none particularly cleanly I'll add) I do wonder how many were lost? Potentially with lingering wounds? Hunters don't typically brag to each other about the blood trail that faded out or the one that limped over the far ridge. I hate to judge other hunters and their methods but this current growing trend in hunting is, at least in my opinion, simply indefensible.

Since this is quickly turning into an ad hoc op-ed piece (known as a rant), I'll explain my thoughts.

First off, I've done a fair bit of shooting on a 500 meter range. Enough so to get reasonably good at it and know that 500 meters is a long way off for anybody. With a little practice a skilled marksman can hit the 18" steel at that range with surprising regularity. But here's the rub- in the hunting field I don't want regular; I want certain. That 18" gong is going to hang right there hit or miss and a marginal hit will ring that gong the same as dead center. A miss will raise a puff of dirt and get you a ribbing from your buddy and you take another shot to redeem yourself. No harm done.

I'll give an example of a tale from the field. Two hunters are glassing over a valley and one spots and stalks a moose, the moose wanders away from the first hunter and is leaving the valley. Hunter #2 starts firing at nearly 500 yards and manages after a dozen shots to hit the moose. It turns and wanders back up the valley (to every one's good fortune) past Hunter #1 who shoots it with a .375 at 80 yards. The moose is down before the gun even comes down out of recoil. The first hit was with a .30 caliber magnum but the bullet lodged in the gut, far aft of anything vital with no exit and no blood trail. The second hit was with a .375 though a shoulder, two lungs and a huge exit behind the far shoulder. It's pretty clear that without Hunter #2's fortunate intervention this would have been a lost moose. It doesn't mean that a .375 is a better moose rifle either- it means closer is better and shot placement is paramount to success.

There are a myriad of reasons why long shots are to be avoided and its easy to see the rationale behind Cooper's dictum that the thoughtful hunter should write himself an exhaustive apology, "long hand, in triplicate", for trying such a stunt. After watching a couple of hunting shows and a few Youtube videos of such performances all I can do is manage a grimace. I'll give the contemplative hunter some things to think about.

It pretty obvious that these shows and such that are promoting such long shooting are often tied to a retail arm in the business of selling you a "super duper scope" on top of a "super duper rifle" and tell you that rifle craft has evolved to the point where "700 yards is the new 200". With special bullets, and special scopes and a really special mega-magnum rifle you too can whack elk at a third of a mile.

Pure horse apples.

When ranges get long there are a host of other factors to consider, ones that a wonder rifle won't address. First is wind- no bullet is immune to wind regardless of velocity or ballistic coefficient. In our mountain valleys, the wind is so inconsistent that no shooter is any great shakes at "doping the wind" either- at least not without sophisticated metrology. Flight times are also long and that allows the wind much longer to act on that bullet. At 100 yards the difference between a 5 and a 10 mph crosswind is negligible. At 1000 yards its measured in feet.

The second is bullet construction, bullets perform well over a pretty narrow range of velocities. I saw Hunter#1's recovered bullet from my previous example- I believe you could wipe off the gore and reload it if you were so inclined; no expansion and no upset. At 2800fps (a typical 100-150 yard shot impact velocity for a .300 mag) that bullet would have mushroomed beautifully, punched a hole clear through Mr. Moose (I'll also assume in the vitals at that distance) and he would have expired post-haste. At long range when velocities for even the mega magnums have fallen below 2000 feet per second, bullet performance is simply too erratic to count on. Most of us wouldn't even contemplate shooting FMJ ammunition even at close range (in most locales its typically illegal to boot) on big game animals; so how can we justify shooting at ranges where even the softest hunting or ultra accurate match bullets behave like FMJ ones? I don't get it.

The third factor to consider is physiology. I've said in print several times that moose are soft for their great bulk. Don't confuse what I'm saying here- soft for something the size of a Clydesdale horse is still the size of a Clydesdale horse and while not as hardy as elk reportedly are, they still take a good deal of killing no matter what. During those long flight times, animals move position and once the bullet is in flight its simply beyond prediction what will happen next. Animals with even good, solid hits at close range can run for surprising distances and many animals shot at close close range are shot again fleeing at medium ranges. If your initial shot is out past Ft. Stinky, how will you ever hit it again when its running? Bottom line is that you won't.

From a mathematics perspective all these factors are cumulative and add up to something Cooper terms the "Morning Glory Effect" in his excellent book- The Art of the Rifle. For example, my MOA rifle will consistently shoot 1" at 100 yards. Can I reasonably expect that same rifle to shoot 10" at 1000 yards, also MOA? Not by a long shot (pun intended). All those little things that add up- bullets not being perfectly concentric, variable wind, a little shooter wobble, even the darned ebb of the tide for all I know add up to a group that gets bigger exponentially as distances get farther. At some point the inconsistencies will add up to a group that's too big to shoot at a living animal with a clean conscience. I'll admit that good marksman with good equipment can extend that distance a good deal over what the average hunter might do (which isn't as far as he usually thinks) but so many of those variables are beyond the shooter's control at some point we've got to say its just over the limit.

Bottom line is that I'm sick to death of hearing stories of big game shot at ridiculous distances. While a long shot only might prove that you're a good marksman, lucky or the beneficiary of saintly grace it certainly proves one thing- that you're a poor hunter. Instead of hearing guys quote ballistic charts and tales of shooting to the next county I'd much rather hear of people skillfully stalking to bayonet range or exercising what I'm beginning to feel is the ethical hunter's most dominant trait- putting the safety on and admitting that despite your best effort you simply couldn't get close enough for a certain kill. A hunter who can stalk to good range and put the bullet through the vitals for a clean, quick and certain kill has my utmost respect. One who takes a chance and flings lead though the air in the hopes he might hit something deserves (at least in my book) nothing but scorn. To brag about it as if he's really accomplished something special?

Well, that's just contemptible.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

First Snow- Winter's Shot Across the Bow.

Here we are a mere day past the autumal equinox and winter has fired her first shot across the bow. We awoke to 4" of heavy fall snow and it continued most of the day. I'm not kidding myself because this will be short lived; but it is fair warning that this place is about winter in a serious way.
We set the pup out in it for his first foray into snow and the result was quite hilarious. Later in the morning Evan and a friend went out and built a snowman- a rare treat in the Interior. For most of the winter the snow is far too dry and powdery to form any sort of snowman or even a decent snowball. It was a stern reminder to finish up my pre-winter chores.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Better Bring Yer Own...

Just a quick update from the Farthest North...

While it has long been held that the travelling hunter is well advised to shoot a smokepole chambered for ultra common ammunition. Apparently the reasoning is such that should the hunter become seperated from his cartridges, he can obtain a ready resupply at his point of arrival. I hear this commonly when new cartridges are introduced all the time as a real point of contention and justification of why a new cartridge should be avoided like plague rats.

"Sure the .375 Super Floogen Boomer is a great cartridge, but just try to buy shells in Africa or Alaska!" is often the cry you'll here from those predisposed to such things. Well my friends- I've got news for you.

No Longer Applicable.

Recently a travelling hunter became seperated from his baggage and was mere hours from stepping onto a bush plane bound for Middle of Nothing, AK. His rifle was a pretty common chambering- 7mm Remington Magnum. While admittedly not the most popular sporting caliber in Alaska, it is a popular Western hunting cartridge. Local hook and bullet store was fresh out given our timeline in moose season with the closest place having any a whopping two hours away in Fairbanks, and they only had two boxes. The enterprising pilot put out the call on the hunter's grapevine for a Good Samaritan to bring a box to the airstrip to get these guys on their way.

Well the word spread and the oddest thing happened- no 7mm Magnum anywhere in town with any of the local hunters. I'm sure some folks were hold outs but I was pretty amazed.

Looking at the small pile my friends and I established- he could have had a rifle chambered in any of dozens of calibers deemed "unusual" or uncommon and we could have helped him out.

Any flavor of .30 Magnum. Any flavor of Weatherby including .338-.378. Any of the Ruger boutique cartridges. Any of the .35s (including .358 STA and Norma) An off brand box of .25-35. .257 Bob. A few loose rounds of .280 Ackley Improved. Prodigous quantities of .270, .308 and .30-06 but not a round of 7mm Remington Magnum to be found. A Good Samaritan did lend our desperate hunter a rifle and cartridges but I'm still wondering about the original rationale.

So here's the question. Any of you readers ever lose/ forget ammo and had to resupply locally at your destination? Where was it and how'd that go?

Given the current state of ammunition availability in Fairbanks and locally you're apparently well advised to make doubly sure to bring your own.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Fall in Interior Alaska

He we go again...a season in Alaska that is as stunning as it is short. Fall. That last burst of activity before winter- time to build that addition you've been planning all summer while you've been goofing off fishing. And tune that furnace that limped along through spring. And pump the septic. And paint the house. And kill a moose. And- well you guys get the point already. I've been walking around the property doing a clean up and ticking off chores the responsible homeowner doesn't wisely defer up here.

Alaskans tend to go into overdrive during this time of year with one eye on the ball and one on the mountain- watching as "termination dust" works its way lower and lower down the slope. A period of frantic activity while the trees turn a vibrant blast of yellow that is less than a week old with less than a week left at this point. Amid all the work there are some fun things to do outside this time of year- stalk through all the bright colored foliage with a .22 or shotgun and look for ruffed grouse feeding on the now sweetened high bush cranberries. As the morning frosts become more frequent and the hares start to turn white it is a fine time to go looking for them as well. Getting after the fall rainbows and grayling are a delight as are the last run of silver salmon. The moose are entering rut during this last week of the season and the bulls are losing their minds in testosterone driven oblivion- responding even to amateurish attempts at cow calling with a gusto that defies imagination.

My big game hunting has sadly suffered this year; as an ill father, mandatory out-of-state training and a high priority emerging project have all but eliminated my much anticipated 5 day float hunting trip. I tell myself, "Next year." But its a small consolation. This was to be my year to try for moose. Or so I thought. I launched my hunting partner down the river with another hunter Friday afternoon. I wish them luck but I'm a bit envious as well.

Sometimes being responsible sucks.

As a bonus the caribou migration is off kilter again and no one is seeing animals and very few have been taken to date in the local ranges. Way up north of the Brooks Range the animals are only now moving south from the Arctic coasts. I anticipate good snow cover by the time the caribou move locally (tune up the snowmachine is one more item to add to the to-do list) as well. As a bonus, caribou are usually easier to hunt from a snowmachine because the frozen tundra and snow base opens up huge expanses of country previously accessed only by foot and the colder weather ensures a bug free experience and easier meat care. Hopefully I can gain control of my schedule enough to hunt them through the early winter months.

In all the autumn here is a beautiful, busy and this year, a somewhat melancholy, time as well.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Maybe It Was All A Bunch of Hooey...

In a spirited discussion with a friend the other day at the range, we discussed the long held belief that handloading for rifles allows the shooter to "tune" ammunition to his specific rifle and make gains in accuracy not allowable with factory ammunition. I don't know about you but I find factory ammunition these days to be ridiculously accurate, some of it unbelievably so. I personally have 2 rifles that will consistently shoot under 1 MOA with several factory loads, one of which is "guaranteed" to shoot 3/4 MOA with the manufacturer's factory loaded ammunition. That rifle and that ammunition is darned exceptional but let's be honest- it is in no way "tuned" for my rifle; it is simply a high quality mass produced product. "I don't know about you Hodgeman, but I'm beginning to think this whole 'tuning' business is a big bunch of hooey." remarked my friend as we sighted in rifles for the upcoming season.

I'll explain- for decades ammunition was made one way. As cheap as Remchester could crank it out. My good friend (significantly older than I) says that in the days past there was simply no such thing as "premium" ammunition. It was all made on bulk machinery and frankly quality control just wasn't that good. I'm fortunate to still have a supply (dwindling but still some) of late '40s vintage Winchester Silvertips and I'll admit they don't shoot worth "sour owl jowls" in my equally old Marlin 30-30 levergun. The same rifle is much more accurate with modern ammunition.

Only in recent years have we seen "premium" ammunition come on the scene and at least among my hunting friends; interest in handloading is on the decline. My elderly friend recently sold the entirety of his reloading equipment and just bought several cases of .30-06 Federal Premium ammunition loaded with 180gr. Nosler Partitions. "Why bother loading- this stuff is better than anything I can put together anyhow" he reports. I've got to take him seriously as he was a follower of P.O. Ackley's work before it was even cool to do so. If a guy's been loading longer than I've been alive and still has two eyes and ten fingers I figure he knows his business.

So what the devil is all this handloading business about anyway? How did the old school (not calling anyone old, relax) get these incredible gains in accuracy and performance by reloading and moving stuff around? "Consistency" replies my octogenarian friend. "In those days the big companies valued manufacturing speed over precision; everyone thinks old guns are why lots of American ammo is downloaded to weaker pressure levels- baloney! They simply couldn't build 'em (cartridges) fast enough and maintain quality control to keep from popping a few primers along the way." Indeed, if the reader will grab an older reloading manual (I have a Nosler one from the 70's) it often shows chronograph tests of lots of factory ammo and they frequently clock 150-200fps less than the published velocity from the factory. Handloaders had no problems getting those published velocities and often beyond. "Call it engineered liability insurance", quips my friend.

Case in point is Weatherby ammunition; loaded by Norma in Sweden. This ammunition is generally hot as a firecracker and few handloaders can even match Weatherby velocities and darn few ever exceed them. Also look at some of the newer, high performance cartridges; pressures in excess of 60,000 PSI are now pretty common and factory rounds are priced accordingly. The machinery those are made on is relatively new, relatively precise and allows for manufacturing to higher pressures levels and tolerances safely. It's what handloaders have been doing for years "tuning" their handloaded ammunition. Simply being more consistent and putting together a more uniform product.

I'll admit I've handloaded comparitively little rifle ammunition but I do value my friends point of view. I have reloaded a vast amount of pistol ammunition in days gone by but I was certainly more interested in quantity economy than quality for competitive practice (IPSC and IDPA burns a pile of ammo...). Is consistency really the missing element in most factory rifle ammunition? I've got to admit my friend has some compelling arguments and a body of experience to lend credence to what he's saying. I know that my rifle will shoot factory ammo as accurate and as fast as anything I could put together so I personally don't see the point anymore. As a hunter how much more accuracy do I even need or even be able to use? I'm talking about 1 MOA as a baseline. Not too many years ago that was the end all be all goal of the marksman.

Today its a starting point.

What are some of your thoughts on the subject? Keep in mind I wanted to keep variables other than performance out of the discussion. Ie. Logistics (loading for unusual or hard to obtain cartridges) or economy (shooting cheaper) are somewhat removed from the discussion of getting the best quality ammo you can buy or build. I also wanted to leave out recreation- some folks enjoy handloading as much or even more than shooting the ammo they produce- and that's a good enough reason to do it by itself. But is handloading going to give modern shooters ammunition that is more accurate and higher performace than available premium factory loads or is it all a bunch of hooey?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Camping at Octopus Lake

My beloved spouse was taking her (well deserved) semi annual retreat to the BOW (Becoming an Outdoors Woman) Workshop this weekend, leaving me and the boy and his dog with some unsupervised time on out hands. I asked Evan what he would like to do.

"Take Sonny camping" was the reply, "and go hunting too,"quickly followed.

I had no illusion that big game hunting with my 8 year old and his 18 week old puppy would be a successful venture (at least in the meat hauling sense) but being outside with the family is certainly a core value. From a hunting perspective I probably stood a much better chance hitting a caribou or moose on the road; but time outside with my kid is absolutely priceless. We loaded the van with fishing rods, a cooler, my tiny Jet Boil (who needs a real stove when you're just roasting weenies?) for coffee and rambled down the road to just the spot I knew.
Octopus Lake is a tiny little thing within a long chain of alpine lakes interconnected by small creeks. The whole length eventually drains into the west fork of the Gulkana River several miles away. The lake is located a short distance down the world famous Denali Highway. Just about a 1/4 mile off the highway on a couple of very passable Cat track roads, are some great impromptu campsites that have been in use since the Highway was constructed. Tourists with RV's seem to eschew these wilderness campsites in favor of more established campgrounds. I tend to value privacy (and the avoidance of weekend partyers) over the "convenience" of a really dirty, over-used pit toilet and a camp host that will sell you a double handful of kindling for $5 and call it firewood- so we established our camp on a simple gravel vein that stretched off into the tundra.
Our first realization of error was when we saw a group of beavers swimming across the lake and wanted to take their picture. No Camera! Then it dawned on me- of course, Mom has the camera (and the bincoculars!). My second realization is that we were camped beside a large covey of ptarmigan, on a beaver choked pond without my .22 rifle. For shame! We forwent sniping at the beavers and the ptarmigan with my .300 as the results of anything other than a perfect headshot would generate a tremendous mess. That and the shells are $50 a box!
Our little lake was a real hotbed of activity- other than the beavers and ptarmingan, we had several muskrats swimming around, a family of Trumpeter Swans (Mom, Dad, 8 cignets) and some ducks (Mergansers) preparing for their southern departure. We went on a hike from the lake side and made a plan to walk a few miles by following the exit stream of the lake around a series of small hills. We immediately found a well worn game trail with moose tracks and large piles of scat- the kind moose leave when they've been diving and feeding on aquatic vegetation. Think green. Think gelatinous. Get the picture? Moose will eat this stuff until they look like brown hairy tanker trucks- flanks swollen and distended and jiggling with every step. It looks ridiculously uncomfortable. A hide water balloon on long gangly legs.

I let my son take the lead and follow up on the tracks. Soon we crested a small rise and started following a pressure ridge to overlook the next in the series of downstream lakes. As we topped the hill we saw a large cow moose and her two yearling calves. They regarded us for a few moments and spooked- bolting up the hill and gaining altitude out of the water side vegetation for both visibility and speed. I snapped up the rifle and checked them out in the 4x scope- a great big cow, her flanks swollen with water and vegetation followed by a small yearling cow and finally trailed by a good size yearling bull just sprouting paddle horns still covered in velvet. He was perfectly legal on my any bull tag but I passed on him anyway. It was a bad shot presentation on a quartering away moose and he was pushing over 250 yards pretty quickly. A marginal hit and we'd be trailing this guy for miles. Some guys would have taken the shot and earlier in life I might have myself but I was in no position for a long follow up. On foot, late in the evening with a kid and dog in tow- no thanks, sounds like a cocktail party horror story in the making. I clicked the saftey back on and watched them meander on out of sight. Evan was just as proud knowing he had "tracked up" the moose and Sonny was the "best hunting dog ever" although his canine contribution largely consisted of staying out of the way.
As the sun was starting its final decent behind the Amphitheater Mountains and the shadows grew long we made our way back to camp. A cool wind began to blow from the North and stirred the yellowing leaves on the alders- it felt like fall and a melancholy one at that. We fed the dog and stoked up the fire to cook our supper. I had brought a jar of homemade vegetable beef soup and Evan pillaged through an envelope of tortillas and burned a hot dog on a skewer. He looked over and poached a few pieces of beef from my stew and declared it "man food" and tried to do his best Tim Allen impersonation (which was odd since we don't watch TV, maybe it's genetic?). Soon the fire burned low and the dog started snoring and Evan crawled into his bag. I heard a sleepy voice from somewhere deep down in the hollofil, "This was the best camping trip ever, you're a great Dad..." and a few minutes later he started snoring too.
I sat up by the dying fire for a couple more hours watching the sunlight fade totally out of sight and drank a little more coffee. The wind was growing colder and I caught that first feeling of winter chill. I had hoped that a moose or caribou might wander down to the lake in the evening for a drink but I was caught out here alone with my thoughts. The little blue flame of my stove hissed and spit as the fuel canister ran out signaling the end of the coffee and time to sack out myself. The cold wind and yellow leaves signalled the end of summer. Our little spring puppy is now over forty pounds and looks very much like a dog. The boy in the bag is oddly much older and bigger now than I thought he should be, no longer being carried afield on my shoulders or waited on patiently. Now he sprints ahead of me and waits on me at the top of the hill. I guess it signals the beginning of the end of his childhood as well. I sat there sipping my cooling coffee and felt today's miles in my legs and back signalling what I guess is my own advancing years too.
It felt good to be sitting there feeling older and (maybe) wiser. Watching over a fast growing boy and thankful to see that spark of wonder in his eyes when he sees animals or pours over tracks and plants on hands and knees intrigued by the world around him and taking it all in.
I was also thankful for the times I had as a kid doing the same thing with my Dad and doubly thankful that pushing my own age I still feel the same awe and wonder despite the heavy burden of responsibility adulthood lays on us all.
I flipped the last of the coffee into the hissing embers and crawled into the worn sleeping bag, glad for sleep and warmth to come in the midst of heavy thoughts and the cooling wind.
Author's Note:here's a couple of photos Evan snapped with his Nintendo DS- our only camera at the moment.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

First Foray of the Season...

I sat and watched the rain pool up and trickle off the sleeve of my jacket and make its way down my pants leg and onto the toe of my boot. We were about 4500 feet above sea level and the skies were a variegated pattern of rain, hard rain and mist. I looked back up in the binoculars that I had perched on my pack frame as a makeshift rest and glanced back up on the distant hillside.

A few moments later I called out in a quiet voice- "Movement."
The day had started the previous evening, a Friday, when my frequent hunting partner called up and asked me just when I planned to unwrap myself from around the axle of work and family pressure and finally go hunting. After all, the season had already been open a whole week and I certainly wasn't getting it done. Several of my friends (darn lucky friends, or maybe unlucky) were already tagged out for the year.
"I don't know, sometime, maybe this weekend," I replied; barely looking up from the blueprints on my desk.
"How about tomorrow morning-5A.M.?" came his query. It was statement and question and social commentary all in one. "Anything you can't pawn off on one of your crew will surely wait till Monday," he added as a barb to firmly set the hook.
I was had and I knew it. "What did you have in mind?"
What he had in mind was a trip down the road to the Denali Highway. From there we would set off on a series of lakes and portages in his favorite new toy- an inflatable whitewater canoe- and search for caribou or perhaps a very lost moose wandering around on the high alpine lakes and tundra. The trip got off to a good start and we arrived on the lake shore launch at 0'dark hundred. Unfortunately, the moisture laden low pressure system arrived just about the time we got the raft inflated and in the water- a cold rain began to fall and the ceiling came right down on the nearby hills.

Undeterred, we launched the raft and made decent time to the first portage about a mile and a half from the ramp. The weather was worsening the entire time and in addition to the mist falling with the rain drops a cold wind started blowing down the lake channel making forward progress difficult in the raft. Inflatable white water rafts are good for a lot of things but rowing on a wind blown lake is not one of them; so we abandoned the raft at the far side and began an arduous climb through the alders looking for the summit hidden somewhere in the mist.

Finding a well worn trail on the summit of the pressure ridge we began picking our way slowly and quietly along the spine, using the technique for crossing tundra that the caribou themselves employ. There is often a narrow band of firm rock and gravel at the apex of these pressure ridges that makes for much easier travel than through the tussocks and marshes of the valleys.
Several hours and several miles of hunting along these ridges brought us to the crest of a tall hill where we could see the entire lake system and vast expanses of the surrounding mountainsides. The rain hadn't let up all day and we were both chilled as we discussed the vagaries of caribou migration and the unpredictable nature of these wide ranging animals. That's when we saw the distant movement. At first we were excited at the development as we watched the single animal a half mile distant turn into two then three. Something wasn't clicking right as we watched the faint, dark blobs romp around in circles on the mountainside. Then it dawned on me- caribou don't play and romp. Ever. Cross 50 miles of hellish tundra in a single day- sure. But I've never seen them display anything resembling wasted motion.
We decided to investigate further by crossing the valley floor and climbing the intervening ridge. That would bring us about a quarter of a mile from the forms and put us in perfect position to launch a stalk should we see something worth going after. After several long minutes of rushed quiet and scrambling through the soaked alders to the apex we quickly spotted what we were looking for. Our animal was none other than a large sow grizzly with her two nearly grown cubs. It was the cubs we had seen playing with each other and romping while the sow was busily snacking on blueberries by the mouthful. This was a great grizzly encounter- not close enough to spook the sow and the potential unpleasantness that may bring; but close enough to watch in total amusement through 10x binoculars. I tried a few photos through the binos with the predictable blurry worthless exposure.
After a half hour of watching, the bears began feeding further down the hillside; bringing them closer to our position. Neither of us were sure if the bears were aware of our presence or not; although the strong wind in our face probably kept all the scent behind us and our noise would have been masked as well. Discretion being the better part of valor we decided to back down the reverse side of the ridge and leave these three to their berry picking and playing. A rare treat for sure.
Working our way back through the maze of pressure ridges and gravel veins to our raft took a couple of leisurely hours. We stopped often to eat handfuls of rain washed blueberries that looked ready to pop and glassed frequently for caribou that for all we knew were eating white gravy on french fries somewhere in British Columbia.
The endless rain had put our resolve and equipment to a test. My waterproof boots had failed prior to noon and only my wool socks were keeping my soaked feet from freezing. Dwight's "hydrofleece" more resembled a sponge and served only to warm the water a little as it soaked through. His (formerly) remarkably light jacket must have held several gallons of water. I was happy to have real rain gear as I was mostly dry considering I'd spent hours thrashing through head high alders in a blowing rain. Our binoculars were rain soaked and had a variety of leaves stuck to the lenses. The walnut grip of Dwight's .44 had turned a sickly white from all the moisture and I was happy to have my fiberglass stocked and ceramic coated .300 instead of my pet .308. The stock would have never been the same after this trip. Wood stocked guns are a joy but this wouldn't be the place I'd want to enjoy it.
We discussed the (relative) success of the trip as we rowed the raft back into the main body of the lake, letting the big raft catch wind for the first free ride of the day. We had eaten handfuls of berries and had a great grizzly encounter. We had not seen a caribou over dozens of square miles and Dwight had missed a grouse three times with his .22 revolver. Nobody got hurt but we sure got wet. Very typical caribou hunting in my experience. We had a mile to drift through a lake filled with grayling and a couple of lines with white spinners. Maybe the trip wouldn't be a total loss after all.

More to come...

Monday, August 10, 2009

A Hearty Suggestion and a Couple of Random Thoughts

Dear Readers,

I've recently finished one of the books on my reading list- Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food". Do yourselves a favor and pick up a copy somewhere and read it. Fascinating is all I can say and I'm pretty well in tune with natural eating and several themes discussed in the book; as well as being an enthusiastic fan of things like CSAs, locally grown produce, grass fed local livestock, and (of course) wild game. I was simply amazed at some of the information presented in the book and as a bonus Mr. Pollan is an engaging and talented writer.

Just for grins here is a recent project from the kitchen (!)- locally raised bison turned into burger this morning, grilled and served between two warm, whole wheat,homemade buns with the fixin's I like. Go ahead- be jealous. I am and I ate the thing!

On other notes- several of you will notice that ads have popped on and off on my site lately. I've been experimenting with the "Monetize" button but I'll call it for what it is at this point- an abject failure. I thought that a few ads of appropriate content might be of use to some of you and it might even net me a few meager shekels in the process. Call it compensation for putting out content at risk for poaching as witnessed by Mr. Rausch's efforts of late.

Well- I was wrong. About all it did was show me the shortcomings of automated content scanning and ad selection (how did they ever link Trojans and the .30-06?- that would make an interesting article...) and goof up my visual layout (no matter how austere it really is).

So reader- here's my public apology.

Sorry. The ads are off for good. I'm sure somebody can make blogging a paying gig but I'm pretty sure its not me. If you're needing Trojans or are simply dying to contribute to the World Wildlife Fund (an equally bizarre association when you think about their mission...) I'm probably not your guy.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Good Enough to Not Fade Away

I‘ve been tending other concerns during our busy summer construction season and I realize I haven’t posted anything in a while so I’ll offer up something I’ve had percolating in draft for a good long while now. I’m not totally happy with it but I doubt I ever will be so I’ll fling it out there "as- is". It may be a "clunker" but those are worth cash these days...

Let me know what you think.

Looking back over some older posts and recalling some conversations I’ve had with fellow hunters over the last few years, I’ve come to notice I appear to be a huge fan of the 30-06 and given my record on game with it I really should be. I’ve used the .30-06 in some form or another for about 20 years and I’ve always been perfectly happy with the results as well as recommending it to others.

In truth however, the .30-06 is not really one of my favorite cartridges.

Now that I’ve identified myself as one of the unwashed infidels I’ll explain why. I’ve always been curious as to why the .30-06 has taken on near mythical status in the minds of hunters, particularly in the light of the excellent cartridges the .30-06 has outsold or doomed from the start over the years. It’s been equally recommended as suitable for such diverse species as coyote and brown bears and I just can’t see how that should work out right.
I won’t bother disputing the track record of the .30-06 on game. That would be foolish- it’s been used successfully on all kinds of game to the far reaches of the earth for over 100 years. It’s taken just about one of everything on every continent and that’s including some stuff that you’d think was entirely out of its league. For an account, read Hemmingway’s Green Hills of Africa where he abandons the large double in favor of the Springfield and knocks some pretty big critters spinning. A pile of brown bears have also fallen to the .30 caliber 220gr. RN over the years, including some real monsters.
I’ve also said in print that I don’t think cartridge selection is terribly critical when it comes to hunting most of the deer family and shot placement has much more to do with harvesting game than the cartridge used. I’ve also said in print that I prefer the .308 Winchester over the .30-06 because I tend to like a lighter rifle and a shorter action. I also have a definite preference for a heavier rifle for game bigger than whitetails or caribou. No one really took me to task over any of those statements either.

I also made the comment that I think the .30-06 became as popular as it did based on things other than its technical merit; and that friend brought in some hate mail. I’ll explain further. When the US Army adopted the .30-06 and World War I broke out, thousands of young men from all over the nation went to fight and were equipped with a bolt action rifle in .30-06 Springfield. Until that time, the sporting arm of choice was the lever action rifle and while today only the Marlin remains (since the demise of Winchester’s 1894) in those years there were lots of variations of lever gun floating around. Most were chambered in .30-30, 32 Special, or something of equivalent ballistics. Pressures were low due to the lever action’s weak primary extraction ability and velocities were relatively low (at least by modern standards). I can only imagine the first experience with a Springfield’06 on a 300 yard range to a kid used to a ’94 in .30 WCF.

There were other high velocity cartridges around in those days. The .30 Adolph Express (aka .30 Newton) as well as 7x57 and 8x57 Mausers from Europe and some dandy rounds from Britain like the .303 and .318 Westley Richards. Even the Canadians produced the 280 Ross and it was a legitimate hot number for its day. The .30 Newton died during the Depression and neither the metric nor the British numbers became all that popular over here and God only knows what happened to the Ross. But the folks hunting post World War I latched on the .30-06 Springfield with a passion and began knocking down game from coast to coast. It’s my contention that you could have chambered the Springfield rifle in any number of rounds and we’d be talking about that cartridge today instead of the .30-06.

None of those statements should be construed as criticism of the .30-06. It’s a fine hunting cartridge and a world standard for almost a century. I’ve killed a pile of stuff with the several I’ve owned as have many folks I’ve known. I’ll probably own another one eventually since my taste in rifles seems to be cyclical. I’m just saying that it’s good but not good enough that if it were introduced today we’d be all that excited about it. It’s not that much better than the .270, 280 or 7mm Magnum and for certain (big) things it’s certainly slightly inferior to the .35 Whelen. A lot of guys wax poetic about the .338-06 these days and they should; it’s a great cartridge. The 6.5-06 and .25-06 are both excellent in their respected category.
None of them beat the .30-06 to the punch though.

To get to the crux of this post I’ll confess- I really wanted figure out what makes a cartridge popular and a commercial success and what dooms one to obscurity. I wish I could determine that, because I could make a pile of dough working for Winchester or Remington. We compare everything to the .30-06 because, well, it got there first. Take for instance the .280 Remington- a fine all around cartridge in all respects and a lot of knowledgeable gun cranks pick this one over the Springfield cartridge every day. Commercially though, it’s a disaster. It’s been through two name changes (the brief 7mm-06 and the 7mm Remington Express) and its just sort of sitting there today relatively unnoticed.

The .270 Winchester made a serious dent in ’06 sales largely due to Jack O’Connor using a tanker of ink extolling its virtue from various magazines on a monthly basis. Interestingly, since O’Connor’s passing the .270 has been steadily slipping in sales. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe it will ever fade away but for the only cartridge that ever gave the ’06 a serious run for its money it’s starting to wane a bit. As good as the .270 is; it would appear that its sales depended on a guru to some degree. I can’t figure that one out either.

If we look at cartridges that appear stillborn you can find some interesting numbers. We’ve already discussed the 280 Remington/7mm Express thing but the greatest cartridge flop of the 70’s is without a doubt the 8mm Remington Magnum. Even its parent company has given up on it and makes a single load (plus one seasonal) and only chambers a rifle through the custom shop. An 8mm bullet perched on a voluminous case that really never took advantage of the cartridge’s powder capacity was something the market ignored profoundly. The dimensionally much smaller .325 WSM will match its ballistics without breaking a sweat. It also suffered from bad bullets- made for 8x57 Mauser velocities not 8mm Remington Magnum ones and component bullets suffered as well. Today we have such good 8mm bullets but it’s too late- the toe tag is already on the 8mm Remington Magnum. It’s a pity; we could have had an American version of the European 8x68S. Most folks that used one said it killed game like a freight train; there just weren’t many of them apparently.

We have with us now a plethora of “short magnum”, “super short magnums” and a host of boutique cartridges that seem to have little commercial merit other than a rifle maker’s name on a head stamp. That’s not generally a bad thing mind you although a lot of traditionalists will cry out that each is inferior to something created prior to World War II. There only partially right but still somewhat right nonetheless. I’ve played a bit with the .300 WSM and the .375 Ruger- two cartridges I like very much indeed although I’ve given up on the Ruger as too much trouble in my location. I’m still working with the .300 WSM and although it’s a hot number it follows the tradition of not delivering quite up to the hype it’s sold under. Whether a cartridge fires a 180grain at 3010 or a more realistic 2900 feet per second matters little to the caribou whose lung you’ve just blown out. But I guess it makes us feel better thinking we own a real .300 and not just a hot- rodded 30-06 (which is pretty much what a .300 magnum is…).

I view most of these creations as stillborn and give the .300WSM and .270 WSM some chance of commercial survival based on sheer numbers out there. The .375 Ruger is selling beyond their expectations and the case is spawning equally boutique offspring of its own but the lack of genuine need for a .375 in North America will (unfortunately) eventually doom this one to failure. Let’s face it- we like the ’06 so much because it’s so completely adequate for most everything we hunt on this continent and most stuff other places as well.

A couple of unfortunate casualties of this decade long hoopla of ballistic creation are some genuinely good cartridges. The .338 Federal comes to mind and seems like an updated .338x57 that O’Connor bantered about some 50 years ago. Mild recoil, good velocities and good bullet weight on a short action case make this one a real winner and loved by most who’ve tried it. Commercially I don’t think this one will make it and that’s sad. Another is the .370 Sako Magnum as marketed in this country by Federal. In Europe it’s the 9.3x66 Sako Magnum but whatever you call it- it’s good. The ’06 case blown out to take 9.3mm bullets, loaded to the gills with miracle powder and the ballistics are off the chart for a standard length and case diameter. You get full magazine capacity (4 or 5 in most rifles) and a standard action rifle. Unfortunately the public couldn’t seem to care less and it’s just kind of lost in the shuffle. That’s a real pity because this one really has some potential if it were to become successful.

All this talk about various cartridges is making my head hurt. Maybe I should just take a .30-06 and go hunting instead. It may not have been the best of its era or even our present age but at least it was good enough not to fade away on us.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Adios Dennis...

A blogger who's content inspires me very much has decided to take a much needed hiatus. Dennis over at Montana Elk Hunting has decided to pull the reigns and give it a break for a while for a variety of reasons. Putting out consistently good content takes a lot of work and his is better than most. To see that content poached by laggards is enough to tick off the most patient among us and the loss is all of ours collectively. The breadth and depth of his elk hunting knowledge is going to leave a vacuum that won't be readily filled and I for one will miss reading his material. His experience with elk and hunting with horses is something I can't hope to replicate here and reading his experiences gives me the momentum and desire to travel down there to do it myself one day.

Hopefully Dennis will return one day with more to share.

Vaya Con Dios.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

No Chew!

Occasionally I do things that surprise myself but rarely do my wife and I do things together that surprise both of us.

Here's the latest from July 4th weekend.

That friends is Sonny- our new Labrador Retriever puppy. After a decade and a half of being a consistently canine free family we went out on a limb and decided to get ourselves a dog. We decided for several reasons that a dog was just the thing to accompany us on our outdoor pursuits as well as having more personality than our aloof cats.
Of course, our son has wanted a dog for a couple of years now and has consistently asked for one about every 5 minutes. After talking to a bunch of our dog loving friends, it was quickly evident that Labs are the Alaska family dog of choice.
Huskys and Malamutes, while supremely developed for ridiculously cold weather require a level of exercise that is simply unbelievable. I wanted a dog- not a sled team. A friend and coworker has a Mastiff- I don't need (or want) a draft animal. Several acquaintances have minature type dogs- I've always regarded them as beanie babies that bark. A visit to the animal shelter revealed a couple of things- if you want a Husky, they have plenty and they are not the pup for a first time dog owner. If you want a purebred Lab, be prepared to open your wallet because they don't have any. In fact, no shelter in the state had any. In fact, they never have any.
In a couple of ways i looked at that as a good sign- folks with them must be keeping them. The hyper active Huskies- not so much apparently. At least that's a good sign with used cars...
A couple of calls around the state located a breeder a mere 350 miles away who had a suitable pup ready to go. It was a holiday weekend and the family was ready to camp. It appeared the stars were in alignment so away we went. The next day found us in Wasilla, Alaska smelling like wood smoke with me plunking down cash for a 11 week old puppy we were simply starstruck with. I didn't even notice when the governor resigned a mere 1/2 mile away. I barely noticed when he ate the seat out of our van. I've never met a more lovable animal than chewed everything in sight. Including your socks. While you're wearing them.
A few hours later it dawned on me- I'd just driven 700 miles and paid money for a DOG.
The best darn dog I've ever met- sometimes temporary insanity is a wonderful thing.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Success! In a different way.

"Dad, how well do you know this guy? It's late and I hope he doesn't get pissed for showing up like this..."

I'd heard the sound of the truck pulling in the driveway moments before and was in the process of getting dressed in the twilight that passes for dark this time of year when I heard Evan (my bear partner's son, not my son also named Evan) express concern about knocking on the door of the darkened rural house that late at night. I looked at the clock- it was 11:00PM.

I went to the open second floor window and asked Dwight how it was going. He showed me a red palm and a big bright white smile in the dim gloom and said I needed to come down and check out the bear they'd taken just a half hour before. My wife muttered in a sleepy voice, "..better put on your old clothes...". She knew that when there's stuff to dress and butcher I'm a sucker to lend a helping hand.

What I found waiting was a beautiful dry sow (without cubs) of quite reasonable size in the back of the truck. "I needed a knife," explained Dwight, who had apparently forgotten all of his field dressing gear in my garage after our last foray together. They'd been hunting bear and fishing all week together on Evan's vacation prior to starting college in Texas and enjoying the Alaska wilderness together. On the night prior to Evan's departure the persistence of hitting the area we'd been seeing sign paid off handsomely when they spotted this lone sow feeding on a sandy river bottom at about 150 yds off a defunct logging trail.

A well placed bullet from the '06 broke both shoulders and put the bear on the ground preventing a harrowing follow up through the thick dark summer foliage. A quick follow on second shot (an insurance shot if you will) through the lung and heart area ensured a quick finish to the bear's struggle although a post mortem during field dressing proved that one entirely unnecessary. Bone fragments from the near shoulder had wreaked havoc through the boiler room and that bear was dead on it's feet but just hadn't succumbed to the inevitable. Dwight's second shot had rang out as soon as the sight picture settled back from recoil. What the heck, bullets are cheap and I'll buy a case of them before I follow another wounded bear through the dark tangles by choice. Been there. Done that. And it ain't any fun. My policy is shoot till they're down for good.

We wrestled the bear out of the truck and my wife took a few photographs including a stellar father/son shot that I intend to blow up and frame for Dwight as a gift. I'd love to post it here but out of respect for his privacy I'll digress. You'll have to take my word for it that its a great photograph that captures the spirit of hunting in Alaska perfectly. We pulled out the skinning and butchering gear and got to work taking great care to skin the bear carefully for making into a rug. I told Dwight,"You take the tricky parts (the head and paws) and I'll take the big parts." I'd much rather skin a bear's whole carcass than skin a single paw. It's time consuming, tricky and one wrong cut will result in a mount the looks goofy in the extreme.

We whet our knives and went to work on opposite sides of the bear, Dwight working with a scalpel to skin the delicate parts and myself with the large curved skinner my wife got me a few years back. Evan pulled and tugged and held tension on the hide. The warm bear skinned easily but it took several hours to complete the task. We wrapped the quarters in butcher paper and took them to my freezer for a quick chill before Dwight decides how to process it. At 2:00AM we pulled the tape to check the size and the bear squared 6'6". We lacked a scale but we guessed the bear had a live weight of about 300 pounds or so in her lean spring condition. Not a record book bear (you all know how I feel about that topic) but a beautiful trophy and some delicious meat for the table as well as a truly unforgettable memory for Evan.

Although the kill wasn't mine I celebrated Dwight's success as my hunting partner and was proud to participate in the harvest with him and his son. It was a special week as his son experienced Alaska and prepared for embarking on life on his own. Seeing the excitement on the young man's face as he pulled on the hide and learned how to skin a bear's skull from his Dad was better than pulling the trigger on my own this year. Congratulations you guys.