Saturday, February 28, 2009
I had a wonderful adventure today. A new friend Bill called me last night and asked if I would like to go predator hunting with him tomorrow. Our longer daylight hours and warmer temps had him itching to get outside as well. My friend is a dedicated predator caller and has an enormous amount of skill using a diaphragm call. I checked my calendar (vacant of course) and the plan was made.
We travelled up a frozen river system several miles on snowmachines and planned a stalk and call hunt via snowshoes along a couple miles of ridge tops overlooking an area that was burned off in a wildfire ten years ago. The ghostly remnants of the dead spruce forest are quickly being taken over by alder and numerous other small trees and shrubs providing an ideal snowshoe hare habitat. The hares provide an ideal fox habitat.
After an hour or so of calling without result and seeing few sets of fresh fox tracks we decided to head back to the much lower river system. The upper burn area was absolutely choked with moose and they were ganged up in herds of a dozen of so. All told we saw in excess of 50 moose. The bison herd had recently been through the area and their path of travel looked like a highway through the snow- visible from almost a mile away. During our ride in we both noticed numerous sets of fox tracks crisscrossing the channels and paralleling the banks. The river is highly braided with numerous small islands sticking up four or five feet from the frozen creek surface. It would prove ideal to call from one of these islands.
After an unsuccessful set we hiked a half mile to another island and I settled behind some brush and reclined against the banks looking to set back and relax and wait on the action.I had a perfect view of the upstream channel for well over a mile and our expectation was the fox would come in from long distance. The wind was variable and a light snow had started to fall. This wasn't good- the wind had started to blow up the channel carrying our scent with it in the very direction we hoped to entice a fox to come out of. We looked at each other and said- "Unlikely but we'll give it a whirl anyway."
Bill started his calling from the other side of the island while camp robbers (gray jays) attracted by the noise squawked and flitted about the trees. After only a couple of minutes I heard a very odd sound from behind me. It was an odd sort of chortle- very much like the sound a cat makes when staring out the window at a bird dancing about within sight but certainly out of reach. I thought it may have been a gray jay or perhaps my friend making some kind of noise to get my attention. I slowly swiveled my head and there was a fox- a mere 40 feet away on the ice. I honestly don't know who was more surprised, him or me. I had anticipated seeing some fox but not this close and certainly not coming up behind me!
The variable wind was blowing from behind me so this fox hadn't winded me yet. I can only imagine his surprise when the brush pile's "head" swiveled around slowly and stared straight at him. He was moving at a trot but at the detected movement he stopped and became fully prepared to hit the gas in reverse. He still hadn't winded me but our staring contest wasn't going to hold for long. The seconds seemed long but in reality it was probably less than two. To get so close to such a wary and stealthy predator was really quite an honor. This had been a good hunt. The safety snicked off. The fox was gorgeous and just starting to "rub" with the longer daylight hours- not prime fur but a wonderful pelt nonetheless. I don't sell fur so the "prime" I'm looking for is the experience itself and this had been a great one.
I raised the rifle and rolled over to my right side to put the fox in the crosshairs.
The rifle cracked and I was cradling this beautiful animal in my hands.
Thursday, February 26, 2009
I've been hanging around the North for a while now and as most of you can figure out I'm basically in love with the place. Occasionally here in cyberspace I run into various folks who want to know why I'm here and how they can get here too. I'll spare you readers the tale of how I got here because I frankly don't feel like typing that much and isn't really the topic I had in mind. The story is long and complicated and I don't even understand it all myself.
Back to the topic at hand. After reading David's treatise on "Personas Among Us" I started thinking about all the interesting characters I've run into during my travels here (some were real characters) and some of the folks I've met via Cyberspace. I thought very hard about an exchange I've recently had with a young man about relocating to Alaska.
His questions started out in the usual way- "What kind of clothes do you need?", "What kind of gun do you use?", "How much wood do you burn?" and et cetera and so on. After a few exchanges I finally asked him point blank- "Why are you wanting to come here?" He was a young guy and Alaska has a way of beckoning young men but I thought something was very different about his responses to date. Basically his desire was to relocate to Alaska, hike out in the Bush, build a cabin and live off the land. While a neat dream for a naive 18 year old he was pretty darn dead set on accomplishing this feat. While I fully support the realization of people's dreams I had to wonder what on earth sparked this interest. He didn't seem particularly interested in Alaska or even much of a woodsman or even generally interested in becoming a woodsman. His main interest in Alaska was that it was far away from his home and he could get lost here. He wanted to get so lost he couldn't even find himself. He was pretty crushed when I told him his plan was pretty well going to take a lot of money because one just doesn't wander off in the woods and build cabins (at least not anymore) and he would have to purchase land.
When I told him that a Dick Proenekke style retreat from society hasn't really been possible since Dick did it he was genuinely upset. (For a more thorough understanding of Dick Proenekke I'll recommend "One Man's Wilderness"). I suggested some alternatives- move up, go to school, go to work, get here and learn a skill, make some money and fill your noggin with what you need to know to live here or for that matter live anywhere. If being in the wilderness was a desire there's lots of work to get you there. Trappers, catskinners, prospectors, remote mining, remote villages, fishing, and so on all provide opportunity to get out there where people aren't many. Stretch out those wings and fly- write to your Mom and Dad on scenic postcards with all sorts of interesting postmarks and most importantly generate some great stories (all true of course) with which you can regale your highly impressionable grand kids. I've been all over this place in remote, out of the way spots (scenic and not) plying my meager skills, getting paid to do it, and having some great yarns to spin but that obviously wasn't on his agenda.
Aah, I see. My young acquaintance was a runner. Alaska being remote and rugged tends to attract two kinds of folks- those coming to something and those running from something. The folks coming to something generally find some kind of life here, some fortunate folks like myself find a very good life here. People coming to wide open spaces, a frontier opportunity, a new way of life, a fresh start, or even just some fantastic hunting and fishing are seldom disappointed. Unfortunately those running from something tend to find something here too- the same malcontent and troubles they experienced wherever they came from. Even in the modern era, when life is much easier than ever before, people tend to leave pretty soon and turnover is very high.
The term cheechako is basically a word for "greenhorn" and is applied to folks who haven't lived through all four seasons- almost winter, winter, still winter and construction. A cheechako in Alaska has about the same social value as warm, stale beer for the most part. I believe I was here about 10 months before anyone even bothered to ask my name that didn't want it for a job application, a W2 or a trooper report. After a decade I see why. If you make it through the first year the odds are much better you'll be around a while and so many folks don't make it through that most residents just don't have the emotional capital to spend getting to know all these people. Alaskans have a reputation of being standoffish to newcomers that is often mistaken for aloofness. Chances are you're simply standing in the spot of someone who's just pulled stakes and left town leaving behind unpaid bills, unresolved disputes, or maybe just a bad taste in their mouth. A newcomer shouldn't take it personally because come Spring if you're still around your stock will go up considerably with the local populace.
Like it or not we all start out cheechakos. Time in state is worn like a badge of honor and you're often sized up in conversation with strangers with statements like, "You remember when Mt. Redoubt blew its top in '98?" or "You remember the cold snap when it snowed 4th of July in 83?" as a way of gauging your experience. The whole thing get worse the farther in the sticks you go and time spent in Anchorage doesn't count (unless of course you're in Anchorage).
A certain group of folks move here with the idea that they'll just bypass the whole cheechako thing and go straight to "sourdough" or "old timer" by just moving straight to the Bush and having a go of it. There are some folks who've pulled it off and they admit its more dumb luck, protective angels, and the like than Jeremiah Johnson skills. They type of folks I'm talking about are the Chris McCandlesses of "Into the Wild" fame (or infamy as you wish) only most are not so nearly interesting or haven't had the benefit of good storyteller to tell their tale. Sometimes the story ends with a rescue of an emaciated drifter or more frequently they just call it quits and hitchhike South or move into Anchorage for a more civilized wilderness experience. Sometimes they end badly, as in the case of McCandless, a statistic of hunger, exposure, some fatal accident or most frequently hubris, the fatal flaw of pride that keeps folks going much longer than horse sense would allow. Sometimes they just end- a missing person report that ages in the Trooper system until no one cares anymore. A friend of mine and his wife found a human skull while picking berries in the Talkeetna range a few years back. They filed a Trooper report and the coroner came to exhume what was left which wasn't much. The remains were most likely a couple of decades old and nothing was found to identify the deceased. When they ask the coroner what would happen next he simply replied-
The little out of the way spots at the end of the road tend to be magnets for these folks and a few of them manage to do more than just harm themselves. Alaska has had its share of folks who've drifted in and committed mayhem in the middle of nowhere after losing whatever precarious grip they had on reality. If you take one marginal grip on reality, subtract sunlight, add in -40F, stir in equal parts desperation and alcohol you usually wind up with disaster. I've certainly met my share of fruit loops in the out of the way places up here. A few actively seek out these places to commit acts that are generally frowned upon or actively prosecuted in places with more law enforcement presence. The recent Pilgrim Family saga comes to mind as do the shootings in Chena several years ago.
So every time I speak to someone who wants to come to Alaska I'm careful to listen to a motive. The folks looking to leave behind their worries, flee their responsibilities, and turn their backs on society have all of my sympathy but none of my support. Alaska has tremendous appeal to the desperate loner but I can think of no other place less suited to their long term survival. Alaska is a great place to come to but a terrible place to run to.
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Monday, February 23, 2009
It was then in my random wanderings through the outdoor mega mart wondering how to live without a camp stove drip coffeemaker that I found a product so obnoxious it stopped me in my tracks.
That, gentle reader is something called the "Butt Out" tool. Its intended purpose is to "assist" the hunter in removing the alimentary canal in an efficient manner while protecting our presumably squeamish hunter from touching
Now if you own one of these and have used it in the field I'd love to hear from you. Particularly, why you felt the need to spend $20 on this thing. Not being offensive, but I just don't understand.
It looks a little small to use on a moose- maybe they need to produce a 2x version. Heck, they could call it the "Magnum". Only twice the price!
Perhaps for the "tacticool" among us they could make one in black (or better yet the new and trendy 'Dark Earth' color) and ship it in a Kydex holster for only $40 more! The "Butt Out Tactical!" will be the must have accessory from coast to coast.
I must apologize to the gentle reader but I'm having a bit of fun with this. After field dressing scores of animals from moose to mouse I readily admit field dressing is not the most pleasant task one performs in the field- but come on. It's an animal, its bloody, it can be gory (like a .300 hitting too far back in the gut) but its not all that. It's not like your playing in a 3 day old roadkill. Suffice to say the innards of a deer are likely to look like (biologically speaking of course)a surgery ward compared to a domestic beef cow rasied in a feed lot.
Decent technique makes it much easier and all you need is a knife. Buy a video or find a friend who knows how and buy him lunch to show you how. It will be money better spent.
I won't delve into the ethical complaint I have about the total disrespect I feel this shows an animal. I'm not all misty eyed about it but I really feel subjecting an animal you've just killed to this thing is pretty damn crass. But I'll digress before I get on a tear...
Gentle reader- if field dressing makes you squeamish enough to buy this thing how on earth do you stand to kill something. I really think this is American capitalism at its best- find a non existent need and brand the crap (pun intended!) out of it.
While breakup is still months away; winter is tolerable once again. Cabin fever has taken its toll and its time to get outside again. Ice fishing, snow machining, running the remains of the trap line, and trying to polish off that last caribou tag are some of the activities that beckon.
Evan and I are out enjoying a run through the birch forest looking for lynx tracks. Found several sets of lynx tracks as well as many fox, ermine, and martin. The unusually high snowshoe hare population of the last three years have enabled the larger predators to get more plentiful than in recent memory. The winter has given us a snow base of a couple of feet and the temperatures in the 20Fs have settled it into perfect snowmachine and snowshoe terrain.
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
In 30+ years of packing, using, abusing and being abused by knives I’ve developed a standard sort of speech about knives, a treatise if you will. It will come as no small surprise that I’ve developed some strong opinions about knives over the years that I’ll share them with you now.
As a word of caution- some of my opinions are rather strong and they may not necessarily align with yours. That’s OK. Really it is. This is a topic on which we are allowed to disagree. I will tell you that the opinions I’ve formed were done so during field use; not a manufacturers catalog so that will flavor my opinion to a degree
Blade steel- since man first alloyed iron to make steel I’m sure folks have argued about what type of steel makes the best knife. On the market today we have a bunch of steels that vary considerably in their usefulness for knife making but I think the most critical one is this- avoid stainless steel.
I know it’s pretty.
I know it resists rust.
I know it can be made into lots of knives and lots of manufacturers only use stainless.
I know all that and I don’t really care anymore.
Stainless is wonderful stuff and you can make a knife that will resist saltwater, moon dust, electrostatic discharge, radiation and all that and more. The reality is this- a good carbon steel blade is simply more usable in the field because of re-sharpening. I own a drawer full of stainless knives made out of every type of exotic blade steel known to humanity. All of them are markedly inferior to carbon steel blades for re-sharpening. A stainless blade typically is hardened to a much higher degree than carbon and is much harder to put an edge on. It will generally retain an edge for a good long while but once it goes good luck.
I have a very fine knife made out of wonder steel that cost a ridiculous sum and it lives its life in a drawer because under field conditions it simply can’t be made sharp again. I’ve used diamond impregnated stones, EZ lap, the works and nothing will touch it. The factory can put a wicked edge on it using a buffer wheel but that does me little good if I’m elbow deep in a carcass or cutting fuzz sticks to start a fire. Simply put its a knife that has a big cool factor and a pride of ownership benefit but once you hit the woods its a "one trick pony!"
Conversely I have a carbon steel blade knife that appears to be made from a butcher knife and ground down. Likely made by my grandfather and probably prior to World War 2 although it would be impossible to tell. During the butchering process of a deer it will likely need sharpened a couple of times, but it can be accomplished by any whetstone or other sharpening implement at hand. I'm guessing about any appropriate rock you'd find would work in a pinch. It takes only moments and the edge is really wonderful. I carry it a lot in the woods.
Now that we’ve discussed blade steel let’s discuss something else- price. As a person who’s invested a small fortune in knives I feel that I can discuss this with aplomb. Bottom line is this- lots of cheap knives will outperform expensive ones and you’ll cry a lot less if you lose one. I’ve got knives that cost well in excess of a couple of Franklins that are positively horrible knives although their maker commanded a premium price for purchase. I’ve also got a few knives that I paid very little for that work many times better than their purchase price. Knives are one thing that price is not really a good indication of future performance at all. Case in point is the Mora- often obtainable for under $20, these are practical and functional in the woods. In a lot of cases I wish I’d just bought a couple of Moras and been done with it. When I made a custom knife I found a source for carbon steel Mora blades. It cost a whopping $11 and made one of the nicest light knives I’ve ever owned. You can spend a lot on a knife and not really gain anything at all. Please don’t misunderstand me- the custom knife maker is an artisan and can make you a piece that is functional, practical and useful that you’ll be very proud to own and a joy to use. But just because you pay a premium price don’t expect quantum leaps in functionality!
On the subject of use I like to remind people that size matters. During my adolescent years it seems that everyone wanted a “survival knife” and large designs dominated the market. I’ve had several large fixed blade knives that I’ve parted company with as I’ve gotten older and (hopefully) wiser. A large knife is a pain to carry and an even bigger pain to use. I much prefer a simple 3.5-4” fixed blade knife in a practical pouch sheath for all around use. A 10” blade is heavy and it makes for an intimidating appearance but I’ve got to say despite popular press a knife is a pretty poor weapon. I realize that Bowie and Rambo will disagree but thats just my opinion. For the woodsman a knife is a tool first and foremost and a 4” blade will accomplish most anything you’ll practically accomplish with a knife.
A knife is not an axe or hatchet.
A knife is not a shovel.
Thursday, February 5, 2009
A study done several years ago by Yale professor Dr. Stephen Kellert reveals that there are generally three types of hunters in the American woods. For lack of anything better I'll use Kellert's broad categories of what drives hunters in the field. The "why..?" if you will.
The first type are "meat/utilitarian" hunters. Hunters who are primarily in search of meat for their table. I'll briefly excerpt Dr. Kellert- "Hunting to obtain meat was the most frequently cited primary reason, accounting for 43.8 percent of persons who hunted ... Utilitarian/meat hunters were significantly more likely to have been raised or presently living in rural, open-country areas. Utilitarian/meat hunters also reported much greater experience with raising animals for either slaughter or non-slaughter purposes, and had fathers employed in farm-related occupations. This hunting group includes a disproportionate number of persons over 65 years of age and significantly more respondents earning less than $6,000. "
"Utilitarian/meat hunters appear to perceive animals largely from the perspective of their practical usefulness ... The utilitarian/meat hunter views hunting as a harvesting activity and wild animals as a harvestable crop not unlike other renewable natural resources."
To this group I would personally add a couple of other groups- subsistence hunters and fur trappers. I think subsistence hunters don't fall cleanly into the "meat hunter" group despite food being the primary goal of their hunting activities because a significant amount of their hunting is socially driven as well. I would also add trappers to the list because they are utlilizing animals in what is commonly a commerical venture (I will acknowledge there are some recreational trappers) even though meat from trapping activities is seldom eaten by people.
The second most prevalent type is "sport hunters". Hunters for whom hunting is a form of recreation and sport complete with a scorecard in the form of a recognized system of classifying animals and so on. Again I'll quote Dr. Kellert-
"Sport hunters constitute 38.5 percent of all those who hunted ... They were significantly more likely to reside in cities, and to have been in the armed forces. Additionally, they differed from utilitarian/meat hunters in reporting far less experience raising animals for a product, and from nature hunters in reporting significantly less backpacking and bird watching activities. One outstanding characteristic was their low scores on the knowledge-of-animals scale. Interestingly, only anti-hunters, of all animal activity groups studied, had equally low knowledge scores. "
"It appeared that competition and mastery over animals, in the context of a sporting contest, were the most salient aspects of the sport hunter's interest in the hunting activity. This group did not reveal strong affections for animals. "
"The hunted animal was valued largely for the opportunities it provided to engage in a sporting activity involving mastery, competition, shooting skill and expressions of prowess. They were not items of food but trophies, something to get and display to fellow hunters. For the sport hunter, hunting was appreciated more as a human social than as an animal-oriented activity."
The third category of people were defined as "nature hunters" and it appears to contain a substantial number of people who are difficult to categorize. For a final time I'll let Dr. Kellert define this category-
"Hunting for the purpose of close contact with nature was the [least often] cited primary reason for hunting, accounting for some 17.7 percent of those who hunted ... Demographically, nature hunters included significantly more persons under 30 years of age and far fewer over 65. These age characteristics may suggest possible trends in motivation for hunting. Nature hunters were also of higher socioeconomic status, as indicated by more college-educated respondents and more fathers employed in professional and business executive occupations. "
"Nature hunters reported by far the most adult and childhood wildlife interest, more backpacking and camping-out experience, and more bird-watching activity. Importantly, nature hunters had far higher knowledge-of-animals scale scores particularly in comparison to sport hunters. "
"[Nature hunters also] ... indicated strong concern and affection for all animals ... [However this affection is] ... somewhat generalized and not specifically directed at pet animals or manifest in the feeling of ‘loving’ animals. The desire for an active, participatory role in nature was perhaps the most significant aspect of the nature hunter's approach to hunting. The goal was the intense involvement with wild animals in their natural habitats. Participation as a predator was valued for the opportunities it provided to regard oneself as an integral part of nature. The hunt was appreciated for its forcing of awareness of natural phenomena organized into a coherent, goal-directed framework."
It is this third category containing about 1 of 5 hunters in the U.S. in which I solidly fall. While there is continual debate about the ethics and morality of killing animals for meat or for trophy this minority group is something of a conundrum- even among the hunting fraternity. While I cannot speak for the rest of this 17%, I can reveal to you some of the things that motivate me while in the field.
I do fit the classical model of the "nature hunter" that Kellert so aptly defined. My father was a businessman and I have had the benefit of an education. I demographically fit on the youthful side of Kellert's scale as well. I am compelled by conscience and law to utilize the meat of any animal I take and I enjoy eating game meat but for me it is at best a fringe benefit to hunting. My family neither depends nor craves wild game for sustenance or satisfaction of their palette and I would be nutritionally sound if I never consumed a moose backstrap or carribou steak for the rest of my life. That is not to say that eating game meat is not an important part of the hunt, only that the nutritional value is more for the soul than the body. Something very humanizing exists in eating something you've killed with your own hands on its terms.
Neither am I a sport hunter comparing the relative antler size, weight, girth, height or any other measurement of any animal I take with those of another hunter. While I thoroughly enjoy the companionship of other hunters and love to discuss hunting, I find the whole idea of scoring an animal based on the measurement of some physical attribute rather macabre. For one an impressive mount or entry in a record book tells little about the hunt on which it was taken, the beauty (or lack therof) of the area in which it lived, its cunning (or lack therof). In short, a complete amateur could step out of a pickup and kill an abnormally large deer and win himself a place in the record book. I think game records have some value as historical documents about game animals themselves but as a record of hunting achievement they fall woefully short. Horns for me are only a rather interesting artifact of a hunt and other than carrying a memory of the hunt itself within their beams serve no useful purpose.
So why go at all? If meat is not what I'm after and I have little interest in the sport of hunting why would I do it? If pressed I would have to quote extensively from Ortega's excellent work "Meditations on Hunting" that is worthy reading for anyone interested in the subject. the subject is why and I guess the short answer is that I am a predator by design and the only way I can truly interact with nature in a natural way is to be that predator. Not to say that I want to artificially skew the hunt in my favor- quite the opposite, I actually hamper myself so that the hunt is truly that. Often the act of hunting ends with an animal being seen and not taken- once the quarry is sighted a seperate decision is made to fire or not. Once the prey has been in the crosshairs the hunt is successful whether the cartridge is fired or the rifle lowered. If the experience has been good and situation is right the animal is taken in an ethical manner. Last year I passed on a carribou that I practically drove over with an ATV. Although the animal was legal and could have been cleanly taken- I passed. The hunt was over and I was merely on the way back to the road to end the day. Our meeting was a complete accident and the animal was released. I wouldn't have felt right about it and probably shouldn't have as it would have been little more than a road hunt.
Some years earlier I pursued a deer for several hours through the hills. Although the hunt lasted hours the quarry and I played a cat and mouse game that only covered a half a mile at best. Finally only minutes before sunset the buck moved from behind a tree into full view- the rifle boomed and the hunt was over. It was a memorable experience although I don't remember the points, the weight or anything other than that animals ability to move silently among the oaks much more so than I.
Sunday, February 1, 2009
I must admit when I read the above quote from "The Snow Walkers Companion" I was a little taken a aback and not more than a little ready to disagree. Upon a little more reflection I think my ire cooled when I realized that my dander wasn't up over Mrs. Conover's observation but rather the article had started by extensive quoting of Stephannson of "The Friendly Arctic" fame. His reputation as an explorer was only exceeded by his reputation as a shameless marketeer and scoundrel (the latter is up for debate I realize). So my ire was up from Stephanson's treatement of Ada Blackjack and her ill-fated companions but I'll digress. If the reader is interested in early Arctic exploration and the characters surrounding it I heartily suggest the volume "Ada Blackjack" which details the entire affair rather thoroughly.
The subject of adventure is of keen interest to me and by Mrs. Conover's definition I've never had one. I've been in some jams and a few instances of excitement but I'll admit the most serious consequence was likely inconvience or lack of attaining some goal. I've often been fascinated by this entire notion of "Wilderness Survival"- a subject that intrigued me from my earliest exposure as a Boy Scout some 25 years ago and I've been an avid reader and practitioner of wilderness skills ever since.
I've often been perplexed at the entire notion that we are at war with the wilderness and I believe we are certainly not. That is not to say that exposure to wilderness won't kill you- the unprepared, the foolish or the unlucky prove that statement false nearly daily. I don't believe that most of us go into the woods looking to intentionally flirt with disaster in order to say we've had a good time although we realize that disaster is certainly possible. I think we go out there because at some level we enjoy it or as Mrs. Conover states- "for the romance of it."