Friday, January 14, 2011

Recruiting Our Next Generation (and our current one too)

The other day I was reading one of my favorite blogs, Al Rasch's The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles, and came across this little gem- Safeguarding the Future of Hunting and Fishing. I highly recommend everybody just follow the link and read some of Al's work and educate yourself on the state of the hunting and fishing population today. I particularly like the words, "And it is time we cut the crap and did something."

I love Al's direct approach to the problem of the shrinking opportunity for new hunters into the sport and; rather than digress into a bunch of mamby-pamby hand wringing a lot of folks who have to bring us bad news participate in- Al jumps right in and give several practical steps that the reader can implement with a little good-old-fashioned effort.

In my middle age I find myself drawn more into the role of teacher or mentor more and more- not that I'm some great expert hunter. I'm just a guy who likes the outdoors, loves the chase, likes things that go 'BANG' and occasionally I like to write about it. I've been able to take several new hunters into the field in the last few years and I find that hunting with these folks is incredibly satisfying. When I first started inviting some of the new folks hunting, the reaction I got from some fellow hunters was downright disheartening. I was met with complaint and accusation about stealing spots (which I find laughable as heck up here in AK), being burdened with inexperienced folks, being hindered in the chase, even endangering myself and others.


So I found myself hunting with new hunters more and more and my former companions less and less and downright enjoying it. So rather than try to add to Al's work (which needs nothing added) I'd like to give some random thoughts that I've had about introducing new hunters in the field.

When hunting with inexperienced hunters, I find myself going slower and focusing on fundamentals. We often stop to look at sign and examine tracks and scat and I often find myself teaching about the habitat or the quarry or other animals we might see. I also find myself focusing on fundamentals and the fundamentals are what gets your game. By focusing on the fundamentals of habitat and habit I'm convinced when I'm hunting with newbies I'm getting far more opportunities than I might otherwise think. I believe as we get more experience the less we consciously "hunt" and instead we just go out by rote- repeating what worked for us before and the critters might just have a different plan.

I also highly suggest that you prep a new hunter before spending time with them in the field. Teach some field basics- like clothing and gear they'll need to bring to be comfortable, what to expect if you do happen to harvest something and how you'll care for that meat you might get. I also suggest you develop a hunting plan and go over it in detail with them- where, what, how, what to do in an emergency. I find that new hunters are more comfortable in the field if they've been given a few simple lessons prior so they feel they'll know what to expect. I generally suggest a hunter's education course for everyone and in many states it will be a requirement for younger folks prior to purchasing a hunting license. I also suggest that you not suggest watching hunting television or videos- they tend to portray an image that is fantastical rather than reality and overemphasize the kill over the entire experience of hunting.

For a new hunter that isn't really experienced with firearms I suggest sticking to one rifle- yours. You can always let them borrow it for a shot and you'll avoid some potential heartache/headache by having a total greenhorn packing a smokepole around you. I also like to spend a couple of range sessions with them if they plan on harvesting game so I can observe and explain gun handling rules. I've seen enough abysmally bad gun handling in my day to not want to see more of it- particularly in my camp. For shotguns hunters, I'd suggest going for a few rounds of skeet or sporting clays with your new recruit prior to heading into the field. Believe it or not, I've found many curious "pre-hunters" prefer not to shoot game at all but are quite intrigued by tagging along with you to watch and participate as you shoot game. My best hunting partner (now relocated to Texas) seldom carried a rifle and never a tag- he was an enthusiastic outdoorsman and world class field hand but he had no desire to shoot game himself. He loved the chase more than anyone else I ever met however and was a first rate packer. As much as it sounds like heresy, I'm not so sure the act of pulling the trigger defines the bulk of the hunting experience.

Make sure your new recruit is properly outfitted- particularly if that recruit is a child. Nothing bothers me more than to see a hunter complaining about taking his child because they "whine" and then see that child is decked out in the best bargain bin Wally World gear they could find. Rule of thumb when dealing with the inexperienced- make sure their gear is the equal (or superior) to your own and pay attention to the weather. When the new hunter (especially a child) gets cold and wet the hunt stops being much fun. A little judicious gear help and a small stash of loaner articles can go a long way toward keeping your recruit comfortable.

Above all when dealing with a new hunter in the field- whether you're on their first expedition for big game or a local squirrel hunt- use patience. I think back at my experience in learning to hunt and I can only imagine the stress I placed on my father and grandfather but they exhibited patience in dealing with me and its something I strive to exhibit with those I teach.

Those are some of my thoughts for dealing with new hunters in the field in a direct manner. In a few days I'll try to post some things I think we can all do to portray hunting as a positive experience and assist recruiting new hunters in an indirect way.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

An Alaskan Debacle...

Well my gentle readers, I've been tracking an emerging Alaskan debacle for some time up here. I've hoped that common sense would prevail and it may yet but I thought this might be an opportune time to share with you folks some of the Far North Craziness that's going on currently.

It all centers around a non-descript river on the west side of Cook Inlet called the Chuitna. Its a meandering little thing and virtually unknown in wider circles, not famous like the mighty Yukon, or the fertile Copper, or even the Susitna. But the little river supports a diverse number of critters and is home to all five of the Pacific species of salmon as well as Dolly Varden. It drains some 25 miles in its final form to dump into Cook Inlet.

Its what lies under that drainage that is causing all the ruckus. Coal.

I grew up in coal mine country so I know a thing or two about coal mines and the toll it exacts on the environment. I've seen first hand what "mountain top removal" and "strip mine" look like from on the ground. I also understand something of the politics of energy extraction and have also seen first hand some of the human costs involved in the mining industry. I understand that our nation needs energy and people need jobs and good jobs in many areas are hard to find. In areas where many mines operate a good job is as rare as hen's teeth. But what PacRim Company that holds the lease on this region is proposing to do is bordering on the unthinkable.

What the proposal calls for is the complete removal of the Chuitna watershed in one massive open pit mine. Not only will the Chuitna all but be consumed, it will alter the water table level for a region of some 30 square miles- or about the actual size of a medium US city. And to add insult to the injury they include in the proposal that they will remediate the entire area back to its original condition. That's akin (as one of my friends wrote in an op-ed piece) to disassembling a 6 layer wedding cake, moving it to another room and reassembling it...with a single spoon.

Some numbers and illustrations for you guys to wrap your noggin' around.

The mine would operate for a proposed 25 years and each of those years would see roughly 12 million metric tons of coal removed. That equates to a hole that's 100 yards wide, 100 feet deep and 10.6 miles long...every single year for the life of the mine. I don't know about you folks, but that's one big hole. How a company proposes to remediate this area one quarter of a century in the future remains to be seen and an estimate of what that remediation would cost and how long it might take have not been released but its safe to say that the remediation effort could well exceed the profit from the entire enterprise if inflation and energy prices continue to increase at their current pace. I've got to wonder if the PacRim company even intends to follow through on its remediation effort and won't just belly-up after the last of the coal is sold and burden the taxpayers with this kind of operation.

As you can tell, I've got something of a burr under my saddle about this whole thing and here's why. First of all you'll destroy an entire watershed with a questionable plan of remediation. That watershed contains salmon and salmon streams are protected as the Holy Grail of land use in Alaska. It is a crime to ride an ATV through ANY salmon bearing stream and next year felt soled waders are verboten so my fellow anglers won't transmit wee beasties between healthy and diseased fish stocks. Alaskans tend to take fish serious. Real Serious. Apparently though, if you have the bankroll of a mining corporation you can grease enough palms to get DNR to write you a permit for tearing the whole thing long as you promise to put it back.

My second big qualm (in a fit of nationalist fervor) is that the coal mined there isn't going to be bound for the good-ole US of A to help us in our energy needs. Nope- its all bound for Asian markets, primarily China. In China it will likely be stuffed into a power plant Western engineers and authorities would have regulated out of existence in the 1950s. So while we all like to think "green" we'll be slitting our own throats by encouraging foreign nations to burn cheap coal in a cheap power plant. Heck, CO2 emissions stop at their border don't they? While we like to think about clean energy, green energy, and alternative energy- we'd be supplying a nation that's demonstrated little environmental consciousness with 25 years worth of black energy.

My third and perhaps biggest fear with this endeavor is that we are about to set a precedent. A precedent that allows a private company to invade our wilderness areas, rape its treasures and essentially take the money and run; all in the name of "best use" and "energy stewardship". In the future, any company could make a case to destroy any wilderness area they deem necessary as long as they promise to make it all better in the end. So I think in the long run without citizens intervention, the Chinese will get the coal, PacRim will get the money, a handful of folks might get a job, and all of us will be left with one big hole in the ground.

A scar where a river once was.

Chuit River Watershed Lands Unsuitable Petition
AK Dept of Natural Resources
550 W 7th av suite 920Anch, AK 99502
or email to

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Littlbug Stove

My wife, being of the practical sort, is always on the lookout for gear that she thinks I'll enjoy. More than anyone, she knows my bent toward items that are simple, practical, and effective. On our skiing trips earlier in the season I was quite frustrated by our canister gas stove. In my experience, utilizing these stoves in temperatures below freezing is a trying feat. Even using the suggested "winter mix" of propane and isobutane I got spotty burner performance and short canister life as the propane vaporized and burned at temps the isobutane didn't- leaving a half full canister of butane. Useless below zero. I also have a sordid history with liquid fuel stoves. All the models I've used have been finicky, prone to failure and impossible to adjust.

So this year my wife surprised me with an item I must confess I never knew existed. Something called the Little Bug ( 4 pieces of die cut stainless steel that fit together in a remarkably simple design and breakdown into a very small semi circular package. Not meant to be a stand alone stove- you must add fuel and that fuel is something literally growing on trees. The LittleBug is powered by a handful of dry twigs and branches placed in the bottom of its burn area. After unwrapping and examining this thing I was sure I would like it. Just quirky enough to be enjoyable and very practical for the uses I have.

On a ski trip on New Year's Day we stopped for a quick rest break and gave the stove a try. I assembled it in all of 20 seconds and another minute beneath a black spruce yielded a handful of dead dry fuel. I stuck to branches that were easily breakable by hand- say no larger than 1/2" in diameter. No tools were required to either gather fuel or assemble the stove. My wife struck a spark and ignited the tinder and in a moment placed the stove over the tinder pile and added fuel. A few seconds later we placed a 1 liter pot of water on the stove and I (being the nerd) looked at my watch to check the time. 3 minutes later we had a liter of water at a roiling boil, much faster than my canister stove is capable of heating 1/2 that amount of water at these temperatures.

We made our tea and hot chocolate and enjoyed the remaining warmth from the stove. As the fuel burned out we simply rolled the stove off of the fire and cooled it on the snow. It was cool to the touch in less than a minute and broke down quickly into its included stow stack.

Some real pros to this stove is that fuel is available pretty much anywhere below the tree line and I was surprised at how fast and efficient the stove was compare to cooking over an open cook fire. I was also surprised at the lack of smoke compared to open fires. I believe the heat building up within the confines of the stove and beneath the cook pot yields a much cleaner burn than in the open atmosphere. I've done a fair bit of cooking over an open fire and over a backpacking stove and I've got to say this combines the best of both worlds. The stove is also very lightweight and compact for easy transport- there is even a smaller version for lightweight backpacking. I'm not sure how locales where fires are not permitted will treat the Little Bug but up here for my cold weather trips with our ready supplies of dry black spruce it is nearly ideal.

I don't think this stove is a good choice for my high altitude trips because there simply is no fuel up there to burn and I don't consider adding an alcohol burner to be a weight or complexity savings over my existing canister stove. But for my trips through the boreal forest I couldn't ask for anything better.