Thursday, December 24, 2009
Here's praying for safety and productivity in all your endeavors in the coming year.
God Bless and Merry Christmas,
Sunday, December 6, 2009
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
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.
Monday, November 16, 2009
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
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
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
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
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- "...it'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!
Sunday, October 4, 2009
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
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
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
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
Sunday, August 16, 2009
Monday, August 10, 2009
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
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
Saturday, July 18, 2009
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
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.