Thursday, January 29, 2009

Dressed for the Occasion...

There are few things more important in the outdoors than your clothing. Humans have, unlike other members of the animal kingdom, not become terribly adapted to life north of the tropics. Even the furriest of us are unlikely to survive a night exposed in the frozen sub arctic forest. Thus humans adapted using our superior intellect and created clothing to keep us warm, dry and protected. Clothing is our mobile shelter, keeping us alive.

The funny thing is... or maybe not so funny depending on your point of view and circumstance, that clothing suitable for wilderness use is regressing. Even a mountain man or plains Indian of two hundred years ago was quite likely more suitably dressed than a dapper model from North Face or Columbia. Humans have developed such a marvelous system of transportation and living arrangement that very few of us are exposed to the elements for very long and if exposed we are at recreation and leisure- not exposed to the typical rigors of bush living.

We have some marvelous textiles available, GoreTex, PacLite among others. The so called "waterproof breathable" fabrics seem to appeal to the surburban. Lightweight and generally affordable these adorn ever growing numbers of humans on a daily basis. While poly based clothing may be supremely comfortable for walking from the car to the mall or riding the downtown bus on a rainy day it is not particularly attractive to the serious wilderness user.

Ever see a cowboy in a Gore Tex coat? Or a construction worker? Maybe a logger?

I doubt it and here's why. Gore Tex type materials are pretty dependent on cleanliness to maintain their water resistance. A good coating of woods grunge and that garment will wick water like a sponge. Good rain gear is generally rubber or heavy poly coated cotton. Helly Hansen and Grundens make good examples of this. A popular outiftter on the Aleutian Island of Adak will refuse to take any client not appropriately attired in rubber gear- Gore Tex need not apply. My time in the Aleutians certainly hold true. A torrent blowing at 60mph will make waterproof a relative term- my Hellys never let me down.

The other shortcoming of most of this gear is its ability to not burn. It doesn't burn easily but it does melt readily. Several years ago I was camping in my new "wonder coat". A brief moment of inattention and a good size piece of the sleeve had melted away leaving a large hole. I doubt my decade old Carhartt would have even smelled of smoke after such a brief exposure to flame. Don't get me wrong, cotton canvas, wool and the like will burn- but not readily and it certainly doesn't melt from a distance. For the serious woodsbum exposure to flame is a certainty on a daily basis.

For cold weather clothing wool is wonderful and long wearing. Down also makes a pretty good insulator for deep dry cold but its typically wrapped in polyester these days. The new synthetic pile clothes that are so popular are usually warm enough but the pile tends to collapse with wear and even a good appearing garment can lose a lot of insulating ability. Then there is the melting factor. Cotton canvas also makes a good garment as heavy canvas is nearly windproof and almost bulletproof. I tend to wear canvas when I'm going to be in brush. It's true that cotton- even canvas will not insulate when wet and wool is a better choice for a cold, wet environment.

Sunday, January 4, 2009


One of the great joys of living in the wilderness is the sense that you live in a zoo without bars. Our home is regularly visited by moose, fox, all manner of small creatures and even bears. When you get outdoors here encounters with wildlife are not terribly uncommon for those folks who'll step outta the car and not even so uncommon for those who don't.

During our recent visit to Tennessee we visited a place called "Bays Mountain Park" that for whatever reason has a collection of animals living in pens outside of the nature center. And part of that collection included wolves.

I know that many among you consider wolves to be ravenous and marauding creatures that lurk in the dark to steal children and cattle and generally absorb the personage of the bogeyman. But in reality in most of the Lower 48 there simply are no wolves. In the Rockies, Yellowstone and a few other places you can have wild wolves but they're not terribly common and pretty well protected.

I've been privileged to be living among wolves in Alaska for some time and have come to have some different and strong opinions on these creatures and while my soapbox has been put in the closet after our last election (I won't bore you with aerial shooting topics) I have come to have a deep sense of respect for these animals.

I've had several close range encounters with wolves this year during my hunting and berry picking activities including a fantastic encounter where a small pack watched my family gather berries on the tundra from a small grove of trees a mere hundred yards away. They made no threatening behavior and struck me as rather curious and actually quite shy. Another encounter occurred during carribou season when I cut a set of fresh tracks on a snow machine. I watched in fascination as a large pack ran across a mountain face about half a mile away- the Alpha wolf stood and regarded us for quite some time.

These animals were different- living in a pen and totally habituated to people they weren't, well, for lack of a better expression wolves at all. They looked like wolves but certainly didn't act like wolves and it made me more than a little sad. Don't confuse my emotion with an extreme view because a fair chase hunt for wolves is about one of the best feats a hunter can hope for. If you can't stand the thought of a prime wolf pelt on a wall or parka ruff then you've not arrived at how the world really works. Neither can I stand a wolf in a cage or shot from a plane and if you can I wonder if you've a heart beating in your chest.

I must confess that I only felt that way for the wolves. The deer seemed as adapted to their confinement as cattle and a number of the animals were there being rehabilitated and such. But the confinement of wolves seemed so strange and so wrong that it made me have a deep sense of guilt for standing on the outside of the fence looking in.

I much prefer encountering these creatures in the wild, many mile from any fences.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

You Can't Ever Really Go Home.

Its early January and the temperature is somewhere between ridiculously and ludicrously cold. About -54F to be precise. Not that even one person out of a hundred that may read this has any sort of idea as to what temperatures that cold even mean. But I'll digress to the heart of the matter.

My family and I returned from a recent Christmas trip back home to our home state of Tennessee for a couple of weeks with the folks and a well deserved break from the Alaska winter. I have a lot of fond memories of Tennessee and I guess I've not been gone for all that long- about a decade. Not a great deal of time if you're a tree or a Galapogos tortoise but for a young man approaching middle age it can be a rather long time.

During our absence a couple of things happened. It appeared that automobiles started mating and reproducing like rabbits on crystal meth and that everyone from the Northeast retired and moved to Tennessee. It also seems that everyone who had more that a half acre sold it and developed it into some sort of retail franchise or housing development. Now that I've been living in Interior Alaska for a few years (pop. 3500 over several hundred square miles) the population density was shocking. Cars apparently weren't the only thing reproducing like rabbits.

I had a sense of melancholy as my Grandmother's farm was sold off by her estate, happily to horse farmers and not a real estate developer although it is only a matter of time until the ground is worth more as tract homes than horse pasture and the inevitable will happen but until then its good to see the place intact. I looked out at the big spooky wood were as a young man I learned to hunt squirrels and fell in love with wild places. Where the boom of a shotgun or the crack of a small bore rifle was as natural as breathing. I spent long hours in the creek wading for crayfish (crawdads in local parlance) and catching box turtles

That big spooky woods is now reduced to a few acres as the surrounding properties were developed and the squirrels are still there but not as thick and the boom or crack of a gun will alert local law enforcement and generally piss off the populace. The creek is now a concrete lined drainage and God only knows what happened to the crawdads. The crooked two lane macadam road has been replaced by a newer version just as twisty and twice as dangerous as before due to the abundance of cars speeding down it.

The old home place had surely changed as had the surrounding countryside. The comfortable feeling of being home was replaced by a subtle and eerie sense that something had seriously changed. The main throroughfare and shopping district looked like every other shopping district in every town I've ever been in. National chain stores in cheap boxy buildings lined both sides of the road for several miles further than town had ever gone before. I guess the city planners and politicians call this progress but for one I'm not so sure. Most of my old haunts were long gone- the burger joint where the teenagers hung out-bull dozed. The family restaurant that marked our spot on the State Highway and served as both Sunday dining and truck stop was in the process of being demolished in favor of a new Walgreens drug store chain. A row on condominiums now lined the golf course that I remember as a pasture full of cows.

I keep wondering if the place has really changed that much or if I have and have a resultant sensitivity to development and progress. I for one was glad to go see family but our return to vast Alaskan wilderness felt wonderful and freeing- something akin to a cicadia shedding it's skin. I think that returning home is a fine endeavor but don't be surprised if its not there anymore.