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.