Saturday, March 28, 2009

Rentrer Bredouille (Going Home Empty Handed)

Today was a sad day. I became very familiar with the French phrase that encompasses a fundamental of hunting better than any other; in any language I'm aware of- rentrer bredouille, or going home empty handed. For various reasons my favorite quarry- the caribou- has eluded me all season. My unpunched tags were returned today to the state for processing as per the law. I've had some wonderful times this season from high mountain passes and high tundra to the frozen passages of Tangle Lakes. I've had some frustrating times as I've glassed the endless frozen tundra for any sign of an animal, any bit of hide or piece of antler protruding over a distant ridgeline. The season ended for me today and I'm already looking forward to next year. It's disappointing, but its one of the fundamentals of hunting- there will be times you do not take an animal.

Over at Albert's "Rasch Outdoor Chronicles" a most interesting discussion on the subject of canned hunting and high fence operations is ongoing and I encourage you all to check it out. Rather than continue to pollute Al's blog with my input I thought a post was in order here on my own page. A lot of the interest seems to be in the definition of hunting. What is hunting? At what point are our activities the noble act of hunting and when do they devolve into slaughter? In all cases the laws of our land may not help as many acts are immoral or unethical and be perfectly legal. I would encourage the hunter to examine himself because what you display in the field (whether seen or unseen by all) is your character and its by your character that all in the hunting community will be judged for good or ill.

First of all hunting is a relationship between two animals (remember other species hunt- not just humans) basically one inferior to the other- the prey and the predator. In almost all genus of fauna do hunting organisms appear. I say that one is essentially inferior to the other in that hunting doesn't occur between equals. Men hunting and killing other men is called combat. Predators of equal strength fight for territory and dominance in the wild all the time. There exists also a limit in the degree of separation that species can have before hunting ends altogether and mere killing begins. A finite point at which the superior attribute of the predator species overwhelms the inferior defense of the prey. Case in point- men kill a much more inferior organism in the ant but we seldom call that hunting. Men have developed a wonderful technology that when applied to the game fields often render the ethical lines blurry. Couple that with a society becoming farther removed from the field with less experience and knowledge of wild places and you have a fine stew to ruin. Ethical hunting balances the superior attributes of the predator against the formidable defenses of the prey. If the scales tip out of balance the result is either killing or a farce, but it will not be hunting.

Can there exist a simple guide as to what constitutes truly ethical hunting? In today's world we are faced with numerous choices that skirt the ethical boundaries that hunting should have to protect its fundamental essence. Like any billion dollar industry there exists an element within the hunting community that will bend the rules for a quick buck and take advantage of the grey areas to maximize profit. Can a hunter ask himself or herself a few basic questions to find the right path? I think you can and I'll discuss a few. That said- I don't believe that regulation is the key- we are all free to follow our conscience and make our own path in life. I would much rather see the hunting society regulate itself internally and accept there will be differences of opinion. We should however not let those differences become walls of division to ultimately separate us. Case in point is primitive archery- some (not all) of its practitioners have developed a superiority complex that sneers at all other hunters in preference to longbows. At this time when all of our hunting privileges are under assault we should all be "brothers in arms" even if we're sisters and even if our "arms" are different!

The first question I would ask myself is whether or not the relationship between myself and my quarry has too great a chasm for ethical hunting to exist. Am I using a level of technology that I'm comfortable with? In a lot of cases this will be regulated in game laws- seasons, limits, restrictions are all there to balance your superior technology against what the prey animals will bear. For example, in Alaska you are not permitted to fly and hunt on the same day- the reason is the animal is readily spotted from a plane and in days past horrible abuses occurred. I think all hunters should check themselves particularly when they use ATVs or similar machinery in the field- nothing causes non hunters and hunters alike to grimace like animals being pursued with a machine. Animals simply can't compete with our ever evolving technology so the ethical hunter will cast a wary eye at his gear to see if it passes the smell test. This kind of thing is seldom found in game laws so its every hunter looking at himself. A trend among hunters shows that more experience in the field usually leads to less technology in the pack. A good friend of mine is a master hunter and seldom uses anything other than a self made bow and hunts in buckskins he made himself. If we all were restricted to such devices there would be no need for bag limits or seasons- the harvest would never reach its quota! While such a step is not practical or even advisable in itself; a look through your equipment might reveal some things you hadn't thought about before. Remember the saying from the Greek- Aquila non capit muscas. The eagle does not hunt flies!

The second question should be this- Can the animal use its natural defenses against me, the hunter? While we automatically like to think of dramatic lion charges or bear mauling the most common defense by far is simply being somewhere else other than where you are. Most animals are naturally wary as their whole life is lived one moment from an event of predation. Most animals have senses of hearing and smell that are simply unbelievable but chief among the problems of the hunter is finding game to spook at all. I would love to have had the opportunity to spook caribou this year but they were all miles away from me. This immediately brings to question the previously mentioned "high fence" or "canned hunts" where the animals are more or less restrained into a confined area. That area may be as big as several counties in the case of large Western ranches or African concerns or conversely I've seen video of a "hunter" shooting his "quarry" in a large corral after the animal was off loaded from a cattle trailer. All I can say is to let your conscience be your guide because the law isn't going to be much help. If it seems like a "sure thing" I'd advise you to look elsewhere for a more appropriate hunting experience. If a "sure thing" is what you're after I'm not sure hunting should be your occupation. Fundamental to the hunting experience is "rentrer bredouille"- going home empty handed. Only the arrival home with muddy boots, soaked clothing, aching muscles, a full magazine and nothing to show for it makes the "hero shot" photos of you with your quarry precious.

I think the third question every hunter should ask himself is this- Can I kill this animal today and feel good about it? We have all heard the cries against the hunting community about our "blood lust" and "wanton love for killing". None of us should enjoy killing but it is a fundamental part of hunting. Its a terrible truth- without killing, there is no hunting. We should approach that moment in the field when we are about to culminate the hunt with the death of our quarry with no shortage of fear and trembling. That moment when you, the hunter, walk up and take your animal should be both beautiful and terrible. I think the final thought prior to pressing the trigger should be whether the death of this animal will improve upon the experience of the day or not and whether the hunt has warranted the death of your quarry. Surprisingly it sometimes comes back as "no" and the animal should be given a pass. A friend of mine once relayed a story about a fantastic antelope that he shot in Wyoming. The animal isn't quite record book but its an impressive specimen, in short its a trophy most hunters would be exceedingly proud of. My friend is ashamed to have even shot it. He relayed he took it while it was floundered in deep snow near a hay barn (ostensibly to feed) after a hard blizzard. Its an act that's haunted him at some level for years that he would undo if it were within his power. "Antelope hunting isn't supposed to be like that," he relays.

Sometimes "rentrer bredouille" is for our own good.

Admittedly, all of us go to the field with different goals in mind so each of these concerns will have different weighting for each of us. Sport hunters looking for that one special animal will be more accepting of higher levels of technologies than a nature hunter for whom the experience of taking the animal will be of paramount importance. A utilitarian hunter primarily looking for venison will have less care about animals using their defenses and a nature hunter will have more propensity to let animals pass but not so many as a sport hunter concerned with a specific sex or antler measurement. A relatively inexperienced hunter will be more comfortable on a smaller concern or lease than someone with more experience for whom a full wilderness setting is required. At some level however I think these are all valid questions no matter what your hunting goals are or what your experience level is.

Friday, March 20, 2009

It's Officially Spring... Although it doesn't feel like it.

March 20. The official first day of spring here in the Northern Hemisphere. Also known as the Vernal Equinox our old lob-lobed planet has spiraled its Northern Pole more toward the Sun and voila- tomorrow we'll have more daylight than dark. On this day we have an equal amount of sunlight and darkness. Here in the North country this brings about some remarkable changes- even though the temperature remains a balmy -5F this afternoon the weather has a different feel to it.

The sunlight is no longer the meek beams we receive in January with little warmth, these rays have some power as winter storms give way to blue skies and the sun climbs higher in the sky with each passing day. Our air temperature remains chilly but the snow cover and ice choked waters are absorbing those rays and the snow is getting softer and the ice on the lakes is starting to melt-from underneath. The ice on lakes will be safe to travel for some time now but the wary winter traveller will avoid river ice after the equinox to avoid being caught in overflow or crashing through eroding ice.

A friend of mine wrote today and the bears have left their dens for the first time in South Central Alaska and several residents of the Anchorage bowl reported fresh bear tracks in the snow. The bears will return to den several times over the next few weeks but they will be out and about soon enough. Here in the Interior we've likely got a couple more weeks until the snow gets drippy and drives the bruins from their dens but spring isn't far off.

Bird activity is picking up as well and although the migratory birds aren't on the scene yet the chickadees are making lots of noise and activity in the forests. The squirrels aren't to be outdone and are frequently seen plowing their way through the snow. The excess daylight has triggered the responses in animals and all of nature has started to awake- even the willows have taken on a different appearance as their buds have begun to form under the bark. In our human species the equinox was marked or celebrated around the globe as a great awakening and nowhere is that more dramatic than here in the Far North. Over the next several weeks a land of ice and snow will be transformed into a thriving and plentiful land of tundra, marshes and boreal forest all due to the mechanics of a remarkable planet- a planet that isn't quite round.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Short and Worth It...

Tim Smith over at Jack Mountain penned this one and I couldn't agree more...check it out.
Thanks Tim!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

To Build a Fire...

One of my first exposures to the Arctic was a familiar one- Jack London's classic short story "To Build a Fire". While a young boy reading this in rural East Tennessee, I had no comprehension of some of the concepts being thrown out. Fifty below zero, dogsleds, hands going numb and being unable to grasp a knife or use a match, and the descriptions of the terrain made the boreal forest of Alaska and Canada sound more akin to the surface of Mars than toward our own pole. I was fascinated beyond belief and his story remains one of my favorites.

I find it somewhat ironic that thirty years later I have my own young son and that we are moving through those same forests and terrains that London wrote about and at this point I've spent almost tenfold the amount of time London actually spent in the North. (As an aside London was only here 1897 through 1898 or about a year.)

But the constant of the story is that of fire and its a skill I practice and make my son practice at every opportunity. Chances are in the North if you can make a fire you're going to make it through whatever just went wrong. Falling through the ice, becoming stranded on the trail, becoming injured all can prove fatal without a means of generating warmth-so being able to quickly start a blaze is a critical skill for the intrepid person of the forest.

Evan and I went out for a quick run through the nearby forest today on the snow machine looking for various tracks and to check if the marten and ermine had went to work on the fox carcass that I returned to the woods recently. We saw abundant tracks in the fresh snow and a couple of moose stripping what they could from the younger trees. Bright, clear and a balmy 5 degrees Fahrenheit. One of those wonder days in the Interior.

We had received about a foot of fresh snow in the last couple of days and the machine was really kicking up powder and it was a lot of work to wrestle the machine through the trap line trails. After an hour or so my son asked if we could stop and build a fire. Never one to miss an opportunity for a teachable moment I decided the fresh snow load would make a nice challenge to fire making.

Evan set about to gathering materials for the fire as soon as we stopped- dead branches, birch bark, twigs and "old man's beard" among other things. I showed him how to build a base on the snow to keep the fresh flames from melting the snow underneath and extinguishing the new fire. Evan did an admirable job of gathering material and making the fire lay but insisted we start the fire with flint (ok- it was ferocium rod but close enough) and steel. He often lacks the strength in his hands for the unwieldy device and by this point the cold had already numbed his a bit so I got to do the chore of making shavings and sparking. Bummer- I was really wanting Evan to do it. Nothing gives you a feeling of success like lighting a fire when you're cold, particularly with a primitive method.

A fire lay that a person has even half a chance of lighting with flint and steel is easily lit by a more modern method so I was confident Evan could have lit his with the matches he carries in his pack or with some of the other methods in the snowmachine's gear. The attention to preparation of the fire lay required by flint and steel is exactly the reason I like to practice it so much. Experience with others in the woods has often shown a total lack of knowledge of tinder, intermediate tender, and twigs among the novice. The inexperienced often attempt the "light the log with a match" approach with the predictable consequence of failure. An instructor whose class I attended last year gave excellent advice- "...practice fire making under every adverse circumstance before you need to. If they're going to find a corpse make sure its in the aftermath of the forest fire, not frozen and surrounded by burnt out matches."

Sounds like good advice to me.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Confessions of a Rifle Crank

Ok, I’ll admit it. I am a dyed in the wool rifle crank. I love rifles; I love messing around with rifles and have for three decades since that first Red Ryder on Christmas morning. So its no surprise to me that I’ve had a truckload of rifles over the years of varying degrees of quality, most of which have long since gone down the road.Some of them were safe queens and some saw genuine hard use but with the exception of the few that I have still; they all went to new homes while I pursued something with the elusive quality of “better”. I hate to think about all the money that I’ve spent pursuing that “better” rifle and some of the strange roads I’ve been down. It’s been educational and maybe that’s not a bad thing. The money would have been better spent on a mutual fund or mortgage and it was better spent than on booze or some other vice. So what follows are the confessions of a person whose spent thirty years popping primers and sending lead downrange. As a caveat let me state that my opinions have been formed during field use- primarily as a big game and small game hunter. A serious prairie dog shooter or bench rest competitor would have arrived at different conclusions than I have and that’s OK. I’m coming from the perspective of someone who carries a rifle by hand and shoots from a field position.

On caliber selection so much ink has been spilled that I hesitate to add to the deluge but I’ll give it a whirl. The odd thing about caliber selection is the overwhelming choices we have in the marketplace. We have a plethora of available cartridges all being sold or marketed in some form or another, so much in fact that collecting cartridges is something of a hobby by itself. Most of these are marketed as being in some way superior to all other similar cartridges generally based on some technical detail that qualifies only as minutiae. Let’s be honest, we all (at least rifle shooters) have some favorites and campfire arguments can almost break down into fistfights over which one works. After a long while in the field I’ve come to this conclusion- they all do. Given similar shot placement and a decent bullet, caliber may be darn near irrelevant on the majority of North American big game animals.

Don’t confuse what I’m saying. I’m in no way advocating that .22 caliber center fires are adequate for bison and bears or that a .375 H&H should be your primary rifle for all North American big game despite that there are those who espouse those exact views. What I’m saying is that the majority of cartridges between those two extremes perform so similarly in the field that caliber selection may be the least important factor in the equation. A million magazine articles, chat rooms and failed friendships have churned this topic endlessly while all but ignoring one salient fact- all of these rounds kill game very dead indeed. In that respect they are surprisingly equal. A quick check of my journals indicate that nearly all of my big game animals were taken with a .30-06 Springfield or .308 Winchester but I’m not kidding myself, there’s nothing magical about either of those numbers and the results would have been identical with any of dozens of cartridges. These days I tend to pick cartridges based on logistics- can I find a box in Moosejaw, British Columbia or maybe more importantly on deep discount at the box store sporting goods counter in Fairbanks, Alaska. I’ve chased the strange fire of “improved ballistics” long enough.

The other thing that tankers of ink have been spilled on is accuracy. No hunter is satisfied with an inaccurate rifle and whole industries have emerged to provide the hunter with a more “accurate” smokepole but I think we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns. I’ll readily admit I’ve chased the gilt edge of accuracy as much or more than anyone but the pursuit was generally in vain. Colonel Townsend Whelen once scribed the idea that “only accurate rifles are interesting” but that was the turn of the last century when manufacturing was much less refined and a genuine two minute of angle rifle was an heirloom to be treasured. The industry standard was probably closer to six or eight minutes of angle; but don’t take my word for it- round up an old rifle and ammunition and go see for yourself. One starts to wonder “How did Grandad ever kill a deer?” I think we’ve oversold the idea of accuracy to generate sales to the point of ridiculousness. Let’s face it- when you manufacture a product with a life span of generations and a diminishing market, the only sure way to generate sales is to make you dissatisfied with what you already have. Many new shooters are incredibly unsatisfied if their new rifle doesn’t shoot into a minute of angle with bargain basement ammunition. We should expect that very thing when nearly every article in the sporting press includes an incredibly unscientific accuracy test whose results are generally “exceptional” to say the least. This may sound like heresy but I’m blowing the BS whistle loud and clear.

What kind of accuracy does the hunter need? Despite the perplexing commentary among hunters about shooting 300, 400 and even 500 yard shots; the number of animals taken under 100 yards is at least an order of magnitude higher than those in excess of 200 yards. If you encompass all animals taken under 200 yards you have a very high percentage of the animals taken in North America annually. At ranges of 200 yards a 4 minute of angle rifle will place every shot within an 8” circle. An 8” pattern is well within the kill zone of almost all big game animals. I’ve not encountered a factory rifle that shot worse than that in at least a decade by any manufacturer. Conversely, I’ve encountered dozens of hunters that couldn’t shoot an 8’ pattern at 100 yards from a field position with any rifle whatsoever. Not to be the squeaking wheel or the kid pointing out that the emperor has no clothes but I think we are concentrating entirely too much on this idea of a genuine “minute of angle rifle” when as a group we are genuine “minute of barn door” shooters. I do own a couple of exceptionally accurate rifles- neither have killed anything requiring their accuracy whatsoever. In fact the last game animal I killed with my “MOA” rifle was at a range more suitable for a bayonet or slingshot- a mere 40’ and I’ve only taken a single animal past 200 yards when I was much, much younger. Even with my MOA rifles I’m confident it’s not a shot I’d even attempt today. These days I’m concentrating on my skills more and my rifle’s intrinsic accuracy less- a lot less.

The third and final leg of my stool of confession is that of optics and sights. I am a big fan of optics and I’ve owned nearly as many scopes as I’ve owned rifles. In fact it’s safe to say that among the hunting fraternity we are a nation in love with the telescopic sight. That is a good thing, but I believe the pendulum has swung the other way. If any of you have made do with the “buck horn” sight often found on rifles of the past era; and you’ve searched in vain for that front sight at the ragged edge of dawn on the shoulder of a deer easing through the big oak forest- you know exactly the advantage a scope sight offers. But for those of you who’ve lugged a scope as big as a Meade telescope mounted ponderously high on your rifle action up the sheep mountain to finally punch your tag at midday and spitting distance you also know what I mean about the pendulum leaving us behind.

A casual look through sporting literature of 50 years ago reveals something interesting. Variable power scopes were rare and often mistrusted, a 2.5X was common, a 4x was considered a “mountain scope” for long range shooting at big game and a 6x was considered a “varmint” scope- suitable only for prairie dogs at long range. The few 8x and 10x scopes manufactured were considered a “target” scope and completely unsuitable for field use at all. If you fast forward to today you’ll find variables outnumber fixed powers by a fair margin and the upper limits on power often exceed 10x. These higher powers require bigger objectives to provide any clarity or brightness and that adds weight. I readily admit to owning several of these “moonscopes” for only one reason- shooting tiny little groups from the shooting bench. While seeing a cloverleaf pattern on the 100 yard frame is very gratifying it has absolutely no bearing on being successful in the game fields whatsoever. At magnifications over 4 or 5x from a field position about all I see is myself shaking and at 8 or 9x my field of view is so small that an animal must be nearly out of shooting range to track it on the move. Large power has in my mind a single field use- very small targets that are relatively stationary, like woodchucks, groundhogs, prairie dogs and the like. High powers, large lenses, long tubes, weight- these are all things that hamper rather than help a hunter in the field. The more field experience I gain the more I realize the simple fact- large variable scopes encourage fiddling and smaller fixed power scopes encourage shooting. Rememeber the reputation of the American as a rifleman overseas was built on shooting big game with a .30-06 or .270 and a 4x scope.

So the question then becomes “why?” It’s the question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately while I replay the past seasons over in my mind and look forward to the opening of the next. Why do we buy new rifles year after year? Why do we put on scopes more suitable for viewing lunar craters than moose? Why do we shoot rifles that fire expensive ammo and generate recoil only the most stoic of us can withstand? Why are today’s deer cartridges considered yesterday’s bear cartridges? Have the game animals changed that much?

I think the answer is fairly complicated and I’m sure each of us have a variety of reasons but I think for me it’s an attempt at controlling those limited things I can. We go afield and we can’t be sure of seeing game, or getting a shot off or whether the climate will cooperate. So in our minds we subconsciously think about the things we can control- our rifle, our equipment, our hunting areas, our cartridges. Our own insecurities- our shooting ability, our stalking skills, our tracking skills, even our dumb luck encourage us to purchase equipment we don’t need. Those among us whose trade is sales at times are willing to exploit those insecurities to make a profit and at times our clamor for a better mousetrap results in something different but usually not better. So as a confession of a rifle crank I realize that it’s the carpenter and not the hammer that builds a house. I’m committed to doing those things that increase my likelihood of success- practice, spending time afield, scouting, and studying my quarry in the off season when the pressure is off to learn its habits and its haunts. In short, building my skills to make up for whatever perceived deficiencies are in my equipment and not the other way around.