Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Walking the Dog

The day broke clear and not quite as cold and it promised to be a good day to get myself and the pup out of the house for a good long walk. I bundled into my gear, grabbed a few odds and ends, and headed out the door. The morning was dead still and the temperature hovered at about 0F. The trail into the wood line was a nice walkable packed "float" left by the snowmachine traffic. As I walked along I looked for tracks- a marten here, a squirrel there, lynx over there, a fox following the treaded pattern left by the snowmachines as they're apt to do.

As we trudged along puffing great geysers of steam with the dog sticking his head in the snow to sniff out unseen things underneath, my mind began to wander and ruminate on thoughts that had been circling for a while.

How is it in this age of more environmental consciousness than ever before can we have so many people apparently unconscious of the actual environment? If you're confused about my last statement, rest assured I was too- but I'll explain my thought process. While the whole world economy trembles and shakes on its foundations built upon cheap energy and more emerging nations compete for that energy we've entered a point in which people who care about the environment are exploring alternative methods of energy and doing things like driving hybrids and buying fridges that have the energy star on the door and all that. Let me say up front I think those are some good things but I wonder if the trend is carried on because its, well, trendy or whether these folks actually care for the environment. Or, oddly enough, even know a thing about the environment. Nothing irks me more than someone without a clue rattling on about science they know little to nothing about or taking a social stance that will apparently have no effect on themselves at all.
As an example- Southern California celebrities prattling on about wearing fur. Rest assured if I resided in SoCal; fur wouldn't have a spot in my wardrobe. All it takes is a solid month of -40F and a borrowed beaver hat to change your mind about fur forever. I think beaver hides look good on beavers and I also think they make a rather good looking and warm hat. I also think my ears look good on my head where God put 'em so when the weather gets cold the beaver hat goes on my head.

While admittedly I live in a bit different setting than most folks, I do communicate outside of my frozen domain pretty regularly and I'm always amazed that folks simply don't know how the natural world works. I don't get too worked up when it's a barely adult urbanite who's driving a Prius and is yakking on about saving the environment without a clue as to what that might even mean. I'll cut the person some slack- their idea of my natural environment is something so alien to their everyday existence that they can't exactly be expected to know any better. Other folks, however, completely surprise me. People that you'd think would know better. But even here in this wilderness setting the disconnect between man and his environment is getting larger and among people you'd think would have some basic knowledge of things beyond the front door.

For example:

I ran into a man not long back out in the low land north of the house the other day, we stopped and chatted a few moments and he talked about trapping foxes there but was dismayed that there weren't any fox tracks around. Well, there were scads of fox tracks around and when I pointed them out he declared that they were just "little dogs" not foxes. I pointed out the nearly straight line of the feet at the trot and showed him a dog track for comparison as well. Alas, my new found companion still didn't think it a good place to trap foxes. At this point I gave up because I'm pretty sure he's never seen a fox and I don't have much hope he ever will. I'm not even sure he'd know what to do with one on the off hand chance he succeeds.

Or my caribou hunting companion- (a very successful hunter I'll add) with decades of experience- who was telling me ad nauseum that blueberry picking was over for the year and how he'd missed it and on and on. He had only been wading through loaded blueberry bushes up to his knees for well over an hour. I was in the lead and every so often I'd reach a hand down and strip off a handful of the plump purple orbs and gobble them down. I now really wonder what he thought I was eating up there? He finally broke down in a surprising fit of humility and asked what a blueberry bush looked like for future reference. I replied with a purple stained hand (and chin!)- "You're a standing on one..."

Or the group of hikers I met earlier this year on the backside of Rainbow Mountain looking like something of a mix between and REI catalog and an AARP advertisement excitedly showing me the mountain goat. Only issue is that Rainbow is three hundred miles from the nearest range of mountain goats. A perplexed Dall sheep ram sat there some several hundred yards above wondering when the party would break up and move on. When I explained the animal was a 1/2 curl Dall ram I was met with large stares of unbelief. I heard one of the hikers exclaim to another as they hiked away..."...stupid yokel."

So here I am reflecting on things again and wonder how so many of us, who have such a love of the outdoors, know so little about what we love? How many of us who love to hunt and fish and explore the habitat of the natural world get involved in the politics and science of land management? Because those decisions are being made by people who very likely know much less about it than you do. Its my opinion that the outdoorsman of old- that wizened creature (think George Sears or Charlie Ren) of the wilderness just isn't around much anymore and when they are around our current land managers just aren't talking to them very much. He's been replaced by weekend warriors who can quote the ballistic table of the entire Remington ammunition line and people with a wall of trophy heads who couldn't likely name a mere handful of trees or plants at rifle point.

For shame...

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Real Cold Snap

After a mild fall it appears winter is back with a vengeance. Yesterday was in the -40Fs. This morning's temperature was a robust -54F. Needless to say that's cold in anybody's book. Vehicles frequently fail to start even when plugged in. Running equipment just stops operating in its tracks. Snow squeaks underfoot and ice groans on the lakes and rivers. Wildlife hunkers down and the world becomes a very still and silent place in the deep boreal forest. Even the driven actions of modern people turn from commerce and industry to that of warmth and survival.

The night sky is so crystalline clear it looks like you can stir the heavens with a curiously extended hand.

One of the things that makes this place such a special and endearing spot to live.

For folks who have never experienced really deep cold, rest assured that the world fundamentally changes at 86 degrees below the freezing point of water.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Hodgeman's Thoughts on Sarah Palin...

Ok, by now all of my readers have likely seen the above video of Sarah Palin hunting caribou. While I generally avoid politics in my blog I think all my readers can agree that Sarah- love her or hate her- is one of the most polarizing voices in American culture currently. Full length video of her shooting at a caribou has set off something of a firestorm with anti-hunters, pro-hunters and the rest looking to get a lick in. I've heard from several of my readers asking my opinion on the subject and I've read a few other pundits and bloggers giving us their take, both pro and con. I've actually hunted in the Alaska GMU 26 near where these critters were seen. I've also actually hunted caribou which is something most of my Lower 48 readers have not done. As a disclaimer, I have not watched the actual show and I'll try to keep my opinions out of the realm of the political and into the actual hunting events.

So by popular request I'll give you Hodgeman's take on Sarah vs. Caribou.

Much ado has been made of Chuck Heath (Sarah's father) operating the bolt on the rifle repeatedly. While certainly not good practice its not something I'm going to get wrapped over the axle about. As a hunter I fully expect folks to be able to operate their own rifle. As a Dad I know that sometimes you let your kids stop growing at age 8 whether they're 18, 28 or 48. Chalk this up to ambivalence on my part. I'm pretty sure that Mrs. Palin knows how to operate a bolt action rifle whether her Dad is working the bolt or not. I'm more concerned by multiple hands on the rifle and not having negligent discharges and the friend handing the "hot" rifle to Sarah is pretty poor form all the way around.

I also heard quite the hullabaloo regarding the number of times the caribou was fired on and missed. I am fully aware that scopes get knocked ajar and lose zero. It's happened to me in the past and it could happen to any of us in the future. Murphy is all of our hunting partners, like it or not. I'm more concerned that once the plan wasn't working they just kept shooting...and shooting...and shooting. Her form in the video is actually pretty good- not the usual "all over the place" jitters you see with new hunters so she should have been able to call her shots and say- "Give me the other rifle...this one's screwed."

She also asked at one point about the recoil of the rifle. Not that worrying about recoil is at all unusual mind you. I've shot with grown men who worry excessively about recoil at pretty mild levels without it effecting their field performance. What it does show is that she's using an unfamiliar rifle and that's bad. I think hunters should be practicing with their hunting rifle all year long and get to know it like your best friend including dry fire. Someone just taking a rifle from someone and shooting at game is poor form in my opinion although a lot of folks might disagree. Someone with as much field experience as she says she has ought to be hauling out their own beloved smokepole and they know how much it kicks.

One of the bright spots on the clip is the fact she's using a rest for all of the shots. The mantra is "If you can get closer, get closer. If you can get steadier, get steadier." Seeing her use a rest is good form. A real amateur would be blazing away from offhand. I've taught several dozen folks to shoot at this point in my life, I've been a Range Officer, a trainer, and a national level shooting competitor. I just don't get the sense that Mrs. Palin is a total amateur with a gun. I also don't think she's a frequent shooter either but would rather put her in the category- "casual shooter." I totally agree with Jack over at the Locavore Hunter that she shoots like someone who's done a fair bit of plinking with an autoloading .22 LR and very little of much else.

Also much has been said of the fact the caribou appear to be skylined for much (if not all) of the shooting and that's a no-no. Shooting at an animal on the skyline is bad form. Period. I've been on the ground in Unit 26, which is pretty much most of the Arctic Coastal Plain or commonly "The North Slope". I can see how skylined animals are extremely common there since the ground is the flattest I've ever walked. Not at all like the rolling prairies of the Great Plains or the great plateaus of the Southwest. One of my friends in an online posting wrote, "Unless the animal is standing in a hole, its on the skyline up there." True enough but shooting at the skyline is just bad form anywhere. What doesn't come through on the camera is truly how flat the land is and that the hunters could possibly see for an extremely long distance beyond the animal. The camera does strange things turning a three dimensional world into a flat image so its possible the act wasn't in fact as dangerous as it appeared to be but shooting at a skylined critter is a bad deal whether you're in the crowded East Coast woods or the vast empty of the Slope.

Bottom line for me is that Sarah had a successful hunt but I don't think she has nearly the field experience she claims unless much of that experience is following around other hunters in her family and basically doing what she's told. I don't think the clip is remarkably bad as I've seen much, much worse but I certainly wouldn't be calling her a huntress in the class of some of the ones I follow the blogs of- ie. Holly, Kari, Emily, among others. I didn't see the video but I've heard that the family, including Sarah, did a rather good job of recovering the meat from the field and that's a really good deal. Rolling up your sleeves for field dressing and butchering chores is a thumbs up in Hodgeman's book.

Some of the noise I've heard from other pundits is so simply nonsensical I'll address those in brief.

"The meat from this hunt cost $147 per pound." Anyone who thinks hunting big game is an economical way of obtaining meat is an absolute fool. I know Sarah gives a little speech about filling the freezer but that shouldn't be taken to mean that its less expensive than purchasing beef. Anyone whose serious about hunting knows that once you factor in costs, equipment and time- hunting is a pretty expensive way to get meat. I wager if you factored in what she could have been making on the lecture circuit that week, $147 is a pretty low estimate. Successful hunting takes time, equipment and in most of the country- money for travel and logistics. Unless you're potting critters in your backyard with a borrowed air rifle your hunting is going to cost something.

I've also heard much about the behavior of the caribou implying that the animals not running at the sound of gunfire is evidence the event was somewhat staged. The behavior of the caribou is pretty well in line with what I've observed in the field. The chief problem in caribou hunting is finding the animals at all. Once found, approaching the animals is pretty easy. Caribou are not especially wary animals, not generally given to flight until you approach within wolf range. The band of caribou I fired on earlier this year did not flee until we approached on foot to recover the two we shot. Animals in more populated districts tend to move off at the sound of gunfire and internal combustion engines, but caribou in the wilderness will often just stand and look at you while you shoot at them.

After reading this post I realize that this sounds like a defense of Sarah Palin- its not. I feel a bit of transparency is in order on the author's part. I am not a fan of Sarah and I've been a constituent. I've been affected by her policies in ways that are good and bad. I would have loved to have torn into the video with a vengeance and made some hay out of it to further my own personal political view.

But I can't.

When I see the video I see an Alaskan family out harvesting game in Alaska, spending quality time in the field, making some real mistakes, and enjoying some of the real bounty that Alaska has to offer. Sure the actual hunt may be something of a sideshow given the presence of the camera crew and Mrs. Palin's affection for media publicity. But the hunt itself is something my family has done, my friend's families have done and its somewhat representative of Alaska hunting that I love so much. So I can only say- "Congratulations Sarah...nice 'bou."


Its winter again and the weather has me inside looking out at the dark and cold world. Its the time of year when on quiet nights (and most of them are) I can sit and think and wait for the aurora to show itself. Often I read and occasionally write and frequently I'll ponder. In a somewhat unusual move for me, I did pick up a copy of a sporting magazine the other day in the grocery store. I thought it would make good "light" reading for times when I didn't feel introspective enough to ponder or feel mentally engaged enough for a book. One of the themes I noticed over and over in the magazine was a topic that, for lack of better terminology, I'll call "apologetics". Apologetics is generally used in theological circles more than sporting ones but since the definition is "a defense in an argument or debate of long standing". I believe it will nicely describe the situation.

One of the things I noticed appeared frequently is a discussion of sportsman's dollars being funneled for habitat conservation and funding of state wildlife department's and a calculation of the amount of revenue sporting endeavors have on local economies. It also spoke rather glowingly of hunters being a dominant force for population control and game management activities of all sorts. You all know the arguments. You've read them countless times over and over. Dollars. Game Management. Habitat Management. Not that these things aren't true or that its not even a valid argument in the defense of hunting. Its not that its not important. Its darn important in fact.

But it doesn't move me.

I don't arise early and take my rifle and set off to do my part to manage a herd of wildlife. I don't keep tally in my checkbook of how many dollars I spend (too many!) engaged in hunting and fishing activities so I can figure out on an annual basis what my economic impact might have been. I don't shoot wolves or bears for "predator control" and the notion that I'm a dominant force in regulating game populations frightens me more than just a little.

I don't go afield to do any of these things.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Winter Weather, the Odd November

I realize I haven't posted anything in a couple of weeks. Its because we have been digging out from some of the worst weather I've seen in Alaska in a long time. Our odd winter started when our snow season was delayed by a long warm fall, which is quite unusual in the Interior. We usually go from early September to the deep freeze in late September. Not this year- persistent warm weather and a lack of snow had us all wondering if Al Gore just might be right after all...

By the first week of November we had only a scant covering of snow and temperatures still in the teens. It was still quite warm by mid November with some more snowfall but nothing like we usually have. As a reference point; I've seen Halloween at -30F and Thanksgiving temperatures of -20F are generally expected here. The week prior to Thanksgiving week we saw some below zero weather and things looked to be tracking colder when we got a weather alert from the good folks at NOAA. The forecast was something unbelievable- rain. I'm quite used to seeing my last rain in September.

As a reference for my more tropical readers, Alaskans prefer the cold dry winters the Interior is known for. It may be -20F and snow everywhere but the snow doesn't adhere to anything- even itself. Some of the finest powder you'll find anywhere. Roads are clear and walkways easily shoveled with a minimal amount of ice. A rainstorm where the air 33F and everything on the ground is below zero is a recipe for disaster.

The rain began to fall Thanksgiving week on a Monday afternoon and by Wednesday everything was coated with 2" of hard glaze ice. Road travel was dangerous and many families cancelled Thanksgiving travel. The ice had another expected result- power lines fell and we saw outages across the Interior. Trees fell and blocked roads and trails of all types interrupting ground travel and private aviation just stopped. To add insult to our injuries, immediately following our ice storm (which set all kinds of odd weather records by the way) our temperatures plunged into the -30Fs and stayed there for a week.


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Something New.

I've got to admit I was skeptical about trying the clothing prior to my last hunt. As I've written in the past, I'm a pretty dedicated wool, canvas, and leather kinda guy when it comes to outdoor clothing- you know stuff that will hold up to a fire or a sharp rock. I also fully recognize that some of these polymer miracle fabrics do offer the user performance enhancing perks but I'm not running a race, I'm on a hunting trip. As my friends at Empire Canvas say- "I measure things in seasons, not kilometers." So fully cognizant of my historical position on such matters as long chain polymers and "wonderflage", my friend and sometimes hunting partner pushed me toward a product made by a company called Sporthill.

Image from Sporthill's website.

My friend is not only a cross country skier and biathlon shooter (which is his likely introduction to the stuff) but an accomplished mountain hunter as well. I fully realize that my traditional garb is not particularly water friendly. At the time we were planning a vessel based hunt in rainy and wet Southeast Alaska coastal mountains. So it was with some trepidation that I dropped the (considerable) coin to purchase a set of the Sporthill "Expedition Camo" pants and jacket to try on a couple of hunts. After some field use I can report the following impressions.

First off is that I'm ambivalent on the camo- but I'm ambivalent about any camo including this one. Although I thought this stuff looked awfully dark, photos of me with a caribou I'd taken shows that it blends in fine. If not to the eye then by the result. I don't expect to wear it to town or the office however and I kinda wish they made it in different earth tone shades. This stuff is seriously comfortable and I'm sure I'll get some more of the skiing clothing to use for winter skiing around town. Heck I might just start skiing in head to toe camo given my natural thriftiness (usually called "cheap" by my spouse). I wouldn't be the first in town to do so.

Second is the lack of ridiculous claims put out by the maker. The only two claims they make is that the fabric is made from some of the most hydrophobic yarn on the market and the weave is tight enough to be windproof to 35 MPH. Its not supposed to be waterproof- only exceptionally fast drying after water exposure. I tested that claim after I crossed the Gulkana river with a hole that exceeded my hip boot height (just love it when that happens) and managed to soak the pants pretty thoroughly. I shook them out and put them back on and in a half hour they were basically dry to the touch from wind and body heat. I also hunted in a stiff breeze that hovered near freezing most of the following day without feeling any ill effects of the wind which was nice. It was refreshing to not be disappointed in ridiculous claims like "waterproof and breathable" which is something of two lies for the price of one in my experience.

Third is the comfort and quiet factor. These things wear like my pajamas. Total freedom of movement and noiseless on brush. This is perhaps my favorite attribute about these things- the most comfortable clothes I currently own. This is where the company shows its competitive skiing roots (they also make Olympic uniforms for various winter activities for those of you going next time). Not that I'm a serious athlete but as an avid recreational XC skier these guys would make some excellent ski gear for most conditions. I can easily see how you could be sweating hard, moving the moisture to the surface, and evaporating it off very quickly. As soon as we get some decent snow base I'm going to check that out.

Now for the bad. This stuff is a niche second line product made by an already niche company and it shows in the cost. I paid something on the order of $250 in Fairbanks for the set and thats a nice chunk off retail if you check their website. Thats a lot of coin for a single task item of clothing unless my advancing age and "natural thriftiness" are showing through again. Although comparable to what hunting clothing from other manufacturers costs, I'm not impressed with their pricing structure either. Maybe it is my natural thriftiness but for those of you with disposable income and hunting in wet and cool weather you might consider Sporthill on your short list. If you're a warm weather hunter in arid climates I'd pass- these things would be too warm.

The biggest negative to me is that this fabric is very heat sensitive. Not only will exposure to a campfire be detrimental but a trip through the clothes dryer will be as well. I guess you don't get something for nothing.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Hitting the Ground

Allow me to draw you into a scenario a little bit. You've been hunting the Alaskan wilderness for a couple of days now in the early season of mid-August. You're at least a day or so from the nearest road and at least a day from anything that resembles civilization. Its unseasonably hot in the low 60s and maybe hitting a high of 70 at solar noon. The bugs are not too bad this year which means they won't drain a small dog in less time than it took you to read this far into the narrative but you're not going to sleep in the open either. Otherwise you seriously contemplate DEET poisoning as a possibility.

You look into the binos that have chaffed your neck for two straight days and there, just ambling out of the treeline is what you've been looking for- an honest 50" moose at a reasonable distance to launch a stalk. You launch your bid and a half hour later culminate your efforts in the silence between the thunder and the echo. Your comrades (and I do hope you have some along given what a bull moose weighs) pose for photographs with you and your marvelous hard won trophy but little do you realize that deep within that mountain of animal protein a complex biological chain reaction has just started taking place. The timer was tripped the moment this magnificent creature hit the ground and you have no idea how much sand is in the hourglass. Your next efforts in the field will not stop the sand but your actions can slow down the trickle of the grains allowing you to harvest all of this meat and get it safely home to grace your table and fill your freezer.

First things first- by all means pose for those photographs but please keep them tasteful, respectful and don't dally around about it. Once the eye glazes on the animal the photo will look bad- trust me on this. I could digress into a mini-tirade about trophy photo do's and don'ts at this point but I'll pass since we have more important matters to attend to.

That animal lying there is still at approximately the same temperature he was when he was alive and like all mammals has a whole host of wee beasties living inside him. Just because your well aimed bullet ended the bull's life doesn't mean those wee beasties were harmed in the slightest. In warm weather the stomach will start to distend as the flora of the gut continue to thrive upon your quarry's last meal and produce gas as a result. Now that your quarry is no longer farting subconsciously- that gas is building up pressure. Nothing is more difficult and fraught with potential disaster for meat care like attempting to field dress a bigger critter with a drum taught distended gut. So while your buddy puts away the camera, don your gloves and get out the gut hook before its really unpleasant. A lot of folks attempt to put off this step because it really is unpleasant but waiting will not make it more so and the "field dressing fairy" is away on other business. So please- using any method you find convenient, gut that critter.

And while you're gutting that critter do take all care not to rupture things you might find in there- namely the colon, bladder, and the ever expanding stomachs- you don't want any of this stuff on your plate. If you've been practicing your marksmanship and field skills properly the lungs will have been shredded as possibly is the heart. What that means is that you should have an enormous amount of blood in the carcass rolling about. Don't get freaked out but don't dawdle and get that hot blood out of the carcass right after the organs. As an aside, once you dress out a couple of critters that have been gut shot and determine that you'll have a mixture of blood, gastric juices, food matter and (God forbid) fecal material floating around in your carcass you will for darn sure practice your marksmanship in the off-season. This is where the phrase clean comes in but more on that later.

If all that came off right you will have a carcass minus the entrails but still wearing its fur and head. Back on Grampa's farm this is usually where the tractor or the pickup comes rolling up and you load the critter in the truck in the late October frost. But this isn't Grampa's farm- it's the backcountry of Alaska and Grampa's truck isn't coming. That marvelous fur coat your critter is wearing is keeping all that heat in the muscle tissue where a whole host of other wee beasties is starting the process of decay. Those wee beasties are also reproducing and the only way to stop them is cooling and the next step in that process is to get that fur jacket off.

There is more than one way to skin a moose but all of them entail a lot of moving big pieces, heavy lifting and awkward cutting so be careful. I like to take a tarp to spread out on the ground by the animal to lie pieces on and ensure meat doesn't fall on the ground. A real savvy hand can use the moose's own hide to this effect but a $9.00 tarp will work better. With a smaller animal you may be able to hang them whole for the skinning process but moose are too big and caribou tend to live on open tundra devoid of large trees so you'll work on one side, flip, then repeat. Another word about cleanliness- try to keep hair off the meat. Not only is loose hair stuck to meat a real pain when you butcher- it is also generally filthy given what animals will roll in and stomp in during the course of the day. Don't get freaked out by it but do make an effort to prevent it.

After several minutes ( OK a half hour or more) of this you'll have a side stripped clear of hide. Gather up some game bags (also called quarter bags some places) and get them ready. They should be clean and freshly laundered and prepared to have meat placed inside them. Bloodstained is a good sign they've been here before and are thus "experienced" but dirt covered is not. Remove the leg below the knee joint and cut of the quarter at the ball socket on the rear and shoulder on the front. Given the temperature you've undoubtedly attracted a number of flies and other insects by this point. Prior to bagging, spray the meat down liberally with a citric acid solution produced for such a purpose. This does a few things- it changes the PH of the meat's surface and retards bacteria growth, it slows or stops fly larvae development and it promotes "crusting" (that protective layer that forms on meat as the outer layer of meat dehydrates and the proteins leach out. This hardens into a layer on the surface. With a treated quarter placed in a clean bag then you should hang it up to promote airflow around it. Alternatively, place it upon brush so that air flows under it.

By the time you do this for four quarters on a bull moose, you'll certainly be aching and ready to take any shortcut you can. Don't fall prey to such temptations as you'll be rewarded for diligence later. A lot of folks will start boning out the neck and ribs at this point but I'd suggest not. Boned out meat has a lot of cuts and each cut is a potential place that foreign bacteria enters the tissue and promotes spoilage. A ribcage on bone can last several days under some pretty harsh conditions before spoilage sets in but a bag of boned out meat might not make the next sunrise before its turned. Not only that but meat attached to a boned structure (despite weighing more) carries and transports easier than a heavy bag of formless meat that's as impossible to strap down as a water balloon. If you bone out anything the neck meat should go into the "burger bag" where all the odds and ends pieces go but keep them as large as possible. On caribou I generally prefer to haul out the neck whole- a lot of the neck meat is simply wasted if boned out in the field.

So after several hours of backbreaking labor you should have (hung on a pole) 4 quarters, 2 ribcages, a neck, a burger bag, and a bag containing your tenderloins and backstraps hung on the meatpole. The savvy hunter will break camp and depart for civilization immediately but certain circumstances may prevent this (such as air taxi pickup). Rotate the meat in the bags to help promote even crusting and examine the meat at least twice a day and while you're at it- hit it with citric acid solution again for good measure. If it's very warm you might have reconsidered your shot but in case of hot weather submerging your meat in a creek while sealed in a plastic bag may be your only option. Be careful as waterlogged meat is ponderously heavy and very prone to spoilage. Your meat cache should also be protected from sun and rain while getting good airflow. Keep the meat dry.

So the basic rules are clean, cool and dry (where have you heard that before). Some additional thoughts are:

Cool the meat as quickly as possible, on cool weather hunts this is usually no serious problem but during warm weather the core temperatures of large pieces of meat can remain dangerously high for hours; promoting bacteria growth and early spoilage.

Keep the meat from freezing on cold weather hunts. Meat that has frozen in the field will be tougher than the boots on your feet. Those wee beasties working the meat to spoilage are also working it to tenderness. In the beef industry its known as aging but a deep freeze the first night brings it to a halt- particularly in small pieces or meat off the bone. A large quarter can sustain substantial low temperatures without freezing for a surprising amount of time. This process is known as cold rendering. It is something to avoid.

Keep the meat out of the sun. Direct sunlight can heat up the meat and prevent cooling.

Keep meat in the air. I once saw a photograph of a couple of float hunters who had ingeniously wrapped their meat in a blue tarp to keep it dry and I'm sure it worked great to that end. It also kept it a warm, moist mess and spoilage set in the first day. Do what you can to promote airflow around all the pieces. If you use heavy bags you may want to use cool and bug free periods (like during a good breeze) to remove the bag and let the wind blow directly on the quarters.

Use good game bags. I like heavy canvas bags that are durable and will stand up to sharp bones and heavy loads. Draw backs are sheer weight and size. A popular brand of lightweight game bag sold here tends to explode on contacts with pretty much anything and has a weave so generous that even the Jenny Craig flies can get through to work their heinous craft. These should be avoided at all cost unless you have a preference for dirty, maggoty meat. A new, lightweight synthetic gamebag is on the market that may proved the best of the breed for foot hunters but I haven't tried them yet.

Don't be afraid to pass an opportunity if the conditions aren't right. I passed on several caribou this year during some unusually hot and buggy weather. It would have made getting the meat out of the field precarious at best. I waited for a breezy day that hovered at freezing and was rewarded with perfect conditions to harvest my caribou without worry about spoilage or insects. The reward of taking an animal is the meat you carry home and to waste it is shameful in deed and may be criminal in certain jurisdictions.

So there you have an overview of field care of game meat. For a more detailed discussion I'd like to point you to my friend Larry Bartlett's excellent video- Project Bloodtrail as well as some of his other work that deals with proper field care of game meat in a wilderness setting.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Making Meat

The caribou appeared unexpectedly on the adjacent ridge and I eased forward into a prone position. Bill raised his hat in the air slowly and began to wave it ever so slightly. I tightened the grip on the forend and slid my hand toward the front until the hasty sling went taught. I was locked in and found the middle bull in the 6X scope. The crosshairs were moving more than I liked; I was breathing heavily after wading the river and sprinting up the reverse side of this slope in an effort to intercept the small band of caribou. I focused on the bull and took up slack in the trigger...

The adventure had began a couple of days prior. Hunting season had been in full swing for a few weeks and although I had spent considerable time afield and even saw several acceptable animals, the weather was simply too warm for decent hunting. An unseasonably hot fall in the Interior had rendered the animals sluggish and clinging to the higher peaks and meadows. Several acquaintances had been successful in the early season only to have their success turn into a hellish race against heat and bugs to prevent their hard earned meat from spoiling. Game wardens had been citing large numbers of people for wanton waste when they returned from long trips with quantities of spoiled and inedible meat. Just the previous weekend, Evan and I had battled gnats and biting flies in the Tangle Lake district and stalked a small band of caribou. We gave up on a serious pursuit when the temperature passed the 80 degree mark by midday. The weather forecast had record highs for several days in a row and higher than normal temperatures were forecast for the near future.
I was contemplating the coming weekend on Wednesday when my friend and frequent hunting partner Bill stopped in my office. "This is the weekend", he declared,"get your gear together and we'll pick you up on Friday. Plan to be back on Sunday night. I'll fill you in later." With that brief phrase he spun and left the office on some other unknowable errand. You see, Bill is an unusually successful and frequent hunter who's been in these parts for a long time now. I generally find it wise counsel to listen to his advice when it comes to harvesting game. The office door hadn't even shut by the time I was dialing the phone to tell my wife that I was going hunting for the final weekend of the early season caribou hunt.
Friday came and after work I had my gear all packed for a warm weather hunt. Bill and another hunter stopped by and we chatted briefly as we loaded my gear into the truck.
"Where we going?" I queried.
"Dickey Lake... and better bring your winter gear." was the reply.
I felt a little odd packing my winter gear into a duffel when the outdoor temperature was a balmy 60F, but Bill reads millibar charts the way some folks read the morning paper so I reasoned I had better comply. I replaced my lighter weight sleeping bag with my heavier winter one in the bed of the pickup. I also noticed Bill had wrangled three ATVs for the trip. As much as I like hunting from foot and dislike ATVs for hunting in general the area we were going had a number of factors. One, the Dickey Lake trail was 18 miles long- much too far to backpack and recover an animal the size of a caribou. And two, the Dickey Lake trail was a BLM managed trail system where the trail itself was well maintained and off trail travel strictly prohibited. There would be no galloping across the tundra on machinery chasing caribou; the machines were simply efficient workhorses to haul our camp and ourselves in and hopefully our quarry out.

As we travelled southward toward the trailhead I noticed the faintest change in the weather and by the time we reached Summit Lake the wind was blowing a steady 50 miles per hour. The dry silt riverbed of the Delta River was simply a thick brown cloud of airborne dirt. Bill explained that the weather was going to undergo a significant change over the weekend as two pressure systems collided and fought for dominance over our high hunting ground. Bill explained he was confident despite the weather service's starry eyed description of higher temps and clear skies. As we pulled into the Paxson Lodge for a late supper the wind in the lower elevations was reasonable. We queried other patrons of the lodge ( an odd collection of sourdoughs and visiting sportsmen), some of whom had just returned from Dickey Lake. Their report wasn't encouraging- high winds, whitecaps, airborne dust and worst of all, no caribou.
"We'll camp down at the airstrip and head up early in the morning." declared Bill, "No sense in fighting back there on quads in a windstorm."
We made a quick camp behind some windrows adjacent to the dirt airstrip that passes for Paxson International Airport. I could already tell the air temperature had dropped significantly as I wiggled my way into my bag. I placed a wool hat and a couple of other layers next to the bag in case I needed them for additional warmth during the night. Little did I know that by dawn I would be wearing all of them.
When the early false dawn arrived and the urgency of a full bladder overwhelmed the desire to stay in my warm cocoon, I was surprised at how much the temperature had dropped. I ran my hand over the interior of the tent wall in the pre-dawn gloom lit by an amazingly bright full moon and was surprised when my hand contacted hoar frost. Our collective breath had condensed and frozen on the interior of the tent, a condition frequently encountered in winter camping. I hadn't expected it this morning. Outside the tent and urologically relieved, I made a quick cup of coffee in my Jetboil while I waited for my companions to wake. The thermometer on my GPS showed 15F. Bill was delighted when he emerged from the tent.

We broke camp by the setting moon and headed for the high country and our waiting trailhead. As we unloaded the quads Bill explained that the high pressure system had generated a high altitude windstorm, cleared the upper atmosphere and dropped temperatures dramatically. The cold temperatures would push the caribou to lower elevations during the night (conveniently lit by a huge moon) where we would find them herded up into larger groups and not the singles, doubles and triples we had been seeing for weeks. He replied that this would be the triggering event for the rut, during which the animals would assemble into vast herds, fight for dominance, mate and begin the winter migration in a few weeks.
At the trailhead the day broke clear. Stark blue sky and an odd absence of wind for the high mountains and unbelievably cold for September- even in the Arctic mountains! As I sat warming my machine I briefly scanned the mountain face to the west, I was surprised when as the sun climbed into the sky I saw not one or two- but a gathering of forty caribou! A good omen to be sure. Over the next several hours we saw several bands of caribou on the Swede Lake flats as we motored to the Gulkana River ford. We crossed the river and continued to the northwest, gaining elevation as we did. The going was slow as we picked our way up the rocky trail with the machines. The sub freezing temperatures yielded a trail surface that was hard as concrete but with numerous ruts and boulders protruding from the early season thrashing it had received.
Upon arrival at Dickey Lake we ate our lunch at a protected gravel bar where the lake becomes the headwaters of the Gulkana. After I finished up, I climbed the ridge behind me to glass the wide plateau to the north to look for signs of caribou. I was surprised to find the plateau (that the hunters last night had declared a "desolate wasteland of wind") had become sunny, albeit cold, high tundra plain teeming with dozens caribou! My companions joined me a few minutes later and we began to count herds and watch as the bulls started competing for dominance. The older bulls were already corralling their harems while the younger ones tried to make inroads into the action behind the backs of the larger bulls.
We had expected to have to venture onto the plain on foot and that the resulting harvest would require a long pack back to the trail of several miles. I was surprised when on the far side of the lake a young bull cut a band of four cows from an old bull's harem and lead them straight into the water and began swimming for a point of land some mile away. He was trailed by a slightly younger bull as well. We made a hasty plan to don hip boots, ford the shallow river and make a sprint for the ridgeline apex some three quarters of a mile north east from our location. With any luck we would beat the caribou to the ridge top adjacent the point and ambush them as they emerged from the water. We decided that we should try for only two animals since that would be a lot of heavy packing over the rough terrain; even though we had a total of four tags among us.
After several minutes of fording, hard hiking up inclines and sprinting through meadows and small valleys we arrived at our destination. We planned to split up and take several points along the ridgeline to intercept the small band of animals because they had arrived at the shore before we had made the observation point and were no longer visible. We had just started to separate when Chad made a quite hiss. I turned and he was pointing at a line of six caribou glistening in the sun with wet coats as they climbed the adjacent ridge. We assembled slowly on the ridge top and watched as the animals, oblivious to our presence, moved single file down a well worn game trail along the top of the adjacent ridge. Their path would bring them to about 250 yards from our position.
I moved slowly into prone position and concentrated on the larger bull currently in position number 3. The smaller bull brought up the rear in position number 5 with a cow right behind him. I had the first shot and Chad would back me up. Typical protocol on a meat hunt would be a primary shooter (who was typically meatless for the season- that's me) shoot first and he would be backed up by a secondary shooter to quickly anchor any animal badly hit. Mass uncontrolled shooting in these situations had often stuck unlucky hunters with more meat than they needed or, even worse, with more than they could legally tag. Chad had scored on a moose just a week earlier and he gladly handed over "designated hitter" status to me. I placed the animal in the scope as Bill slowly displayed his hat and created a small amount of movement. Following a reflex wired deep into the ungulate brain- the caribou stopped dead in their tracks and faced us broadside. Target angle just doesn't get any better.
I placed the crosshairs just behind the shoulder and took up the trigger. BOOM! My .300 thundered from the ridgetop but the animal gave no visible indication of a hit. I don't recall hearing the report of the bullet striking home either but a brief second later, Chad (who believed I had made a clean miss) fired his .338 as I cycled a live round into the chamber and the bull went spinning and thrashing over the edge of the ridge and out of view. Bill called his shot as a solid hit through his binoculars and cried out, "Mike, take the second bull!"
I swiveled the gun 20 yards to the north where the younger bull was still standing stationary but tense on the game trail. I concentrated on the crosshairs and anchored my left elbow solidly into the alluvial gravel. The adrenaline dump of seeing our quarry so suddenly had rendered my muscles rock hard and I didn't realize the muzzle braked .338 being fired 10 feet to my left side had rendered my near side ear a ringing mess. I was focused so intently on the bull I don't recall feeling the sear break or the rifle even go off. My position was wonderfully stationary and I remember a feeling of extreme confidence even though the distance was pushing my limit for field shooting. BOOM! My .300 rang out again and I cycled the action from the shoulder to have a fresh cartridge ready. I distinctly remember hearing the sound of bullet striking flesh.
When I found the bull again in the scope, his rear quarters had collapsed and his neck arched downward over his locked front legs. I knew he was hit well but I kept the crosshairs resting on his shoulder, ready to fire a second time and immobilize him should he regain his feet. Bill, again watching through his powerful binoculars declared,"Don't shoot him again! He's hit very hard!" As if to add punctuation to his words still hanging in the thin mountain air, the bull fell over and was stone still.

We quickly reloaded our weapons, checked the safeties and made our approach. The shooting had only lasted 3 or 4 seconds and was decisive in both nature and execution. We had achieved our goal of two bulls without undue shooting or wounded animals escaping. We found the first bull just a few feet over the far side of the ridge in a slight defilade. He was still struggling ever so slightly although hit fatally. Probably entirely unnecessarily, Bill humanely dispatched him with a point blank shot to the spine. The tenacity of these animals is simply amazing; when we field dressed him we found that my first shot had drilled through both front shoulders and destroyed the lungs and Chad's second shot had ruptured his aorta and destroyed any remaining lung tissue. That he moved at all is testimony to the incredible toughness and tenacity the Alaska wilderness breeds into these animals. We then proceeded just 20 yards further down the trail and found the second bull in a heap- he had died nearly instantly from a textbook perfect double lung and heart shot.

We had made our meat for the winter. Now the real work would begin. We camped that night on the gravel bar after 7 long hours of field dressing, quartering and heavy packing from that ridgtop.
We didn't realize it but it would snow heavily that night and the remaining caribou would vanish by morning.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Getting High or....What the devil is a Fleigberg?

I stopped for a moment to rest on what passed for the trail up the scree slope. The trail started somewhere far below and to the east and at the highway as a jeep trail and had become somewhat smaller and less used as the altitude climbed- now it was a barely discernible goat track headed up the steep slope with innumerable switchbacks. We had met a couple of other hikers who had turned back several hundred vertical feet ago- too steep to continue they said. I fancy myself a rather passable hand at wilderness navigation and I had totally lost this thin trail several times over the last half hour- not that it made much difference; the only real way was up and all the terrain appeared universally steep. I adjusted my pack straps and stowed my sweaty hat in a pack pocket and dug in- making vertical progress a mere six inches per step.

We had been climbing this local terrain feature (known as "Donelly Dome") for about an hour and a half and by my dead reckoning we were about 300 vertical feet from the summit. We had set out to climb this loaf of rock but had found the usual access route up the northern edge closed due to Army training. I knew the location of the southern access route, or at least the beginnings of it, from our rabbit and birding forays in the area but we had never climbed it. I had seen other climbers perched there like mountain goats from the valley floor below but the route looked too steep to encourage a casual climb. I had always used the northern route which followed a much gentler ridge edge that was entirely due to the formation of this peculiar loaf of rock.
Donelly Dome is what geologists call a "fleigberg" or roughly translated into non-geologist parlance- a mountain overridden by ice. At some point in earth's distant past an ice age occurred and a massive glacier had scraped and plodded its way down the Delta river valley, making mountains into molehills and leaving the ground up debris smoothed out on a large valley floor between the Alaska and Granite Mountain Ranges. That debris is called "alluvial till" and most of it is the consistency of sand or small chips of granite to give you some idea of the destructive power of a glacier. But for some reason when the ice sheet contacted the feature that would become Donelly Dome the sheet split in two- sending rivers of ice down the Delta river valley to the west and the Jarvis Creek drainage to the east and no small amount of ice up over the top, like a round stone barely submerged in a rushing trout brook. No one really knows why the irresistible force of a mile deep river of ice spared whatever geologic feature lies beneath this mountain.

The resulting formation was a huge rounded dome standing quite alone in the middle of an alluvial plain with a trailing edge that tapered gently back to the valley floor over some three miles. The leading edge of this dome was a rounded feature that was uniformly steep (approaching 45-50 degrees) to a summit that was not quite a couple of acres in size. I had been up the trailing edge trail to the north which was much longer but only approaches 30 degrees in a couple of spots. The south access starts at about 1000ft above sea level and climbs to 3910 feet in just over 1/2 mile horizontal distance. Any steeper and one would need to use technical climbing gear- this was about as steep as "walk ups" tend to get.

This particular trail seemed to switchback from rock formation to rock formation as it climbed steeply up the face. The entire south face of the dome is littered with what geologists term "erratics"- giant pieces of rock that the forming glacier had deposited in this unlikely place when it receded. Car and house sized chunks of granite haphazardly strewn about like a toddler's Legos on a set or stairs. The trail seemed to track to these boulders and I didn't complain- the uphill side of the giant rocks offered the only horizontal space to rest on the entire mountain face. Evan named one such feature "The Crack"- a house sized square boulder with a near perfect notched cut right through the middle. It was easy to imagine a Native hunter or perhaps an early explorer crouched away, out of the fierce wind, using the perch as a look out for the carribou and moose that roamed the brushier and fertile river flats that stretched for miles beyond.

Somewhat abruptly we topped out on the mountain and walked slowly to the summit marker as a cool wind hit us from the north west. We had been shielded from the wind while climbing the sun beaten south eastern face and had worked up quite a sweat. It only took a few minutes in the stiff breeze to dry that perspiration and give us a chill so we broke out a light jackets to offer some degree of protection and took some photographs. Our intrepid canine companion found a couple of milk bones among the usual cairns and sundry mementos that often mark the summits of visited mountains and ate them with delight. I felt quite fortunate since we had neglected to bring along a dog snack and had only brought a few items for ourselves.

We explored over the rock strewn summit for perhaps a half hour. The ground was covered in short lichens and several species of low bush berries- the wind was too fierce here for anything to grow very tall and anything over an inch tall seemed wildly formed by the prevailing winds. Rocks that the retreating glacier had left behind were scattered about- granite, bowling ball size pieces of pure white quartz, flint, and all kinds of other mineralized debris. We climbed over boulder piles that housed enormous colonies of arctic ground squirrels and another that had a colony of collared pikas- fascinating creatures that build hay barns among the rocks for a winter food supply. We also stumbled upon what appeared to be an old, small bear's den that foxes had taken over and turned into a home of sorts- I hope they aren't disappointed if the grizzly returns to his denning site for another winter!

After a few more minutes of lingering at the summit we turned and headed back down the trail. I dreaded the climb down as I believe more climbers and hikers are injured or killed on the descent than the ascent. When tired muscles and sloppy reflexes make holding back gravity more difficult. On the climb each foot of vertical was a hard won and laborious process but the descent was effortless- controlling the rate of that descent however was not. I had made the climb down the more gently slope north trail in long bounding leaps at a jog in a mere 20 minutes. Here, just fighting the sliding effect of the loose scree required intense concentration with every step.

It took well over an hour to descend the southern face. Exhausted and wind burned, we turned the jeep toward home.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010 Alaskan Photo Essay.

All Images Copyright Christy Rogers 2010

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

No Explanation Required....

This ranks up there with the "Butt Out" tool... but I'd probably try the bacon.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Perfect Practice makes Perfect- Part 2

In my previous effort I decried the declining state of field marksmanship among Americans but I feel some apologetic words are in order. One, America remains one of the last places on this spinning orb that an average man can go out and for an average weeks' wages, purchase himself a high powered rifle and cartridges and then take that rifle hunting for a large game animal with a minimal amount of government intrusion. I think that is a very good thing. Two, the declining state of riflecraft in America is notable because we have the masses out in the fields shooting game.

While I don't pretend to know many European hunters, the few that I've met in Alaska seem to be a very serious sort of rifleman indeed. A couple of Germans and an Austrian in particular were quite savvy and their guide reported them excellent marksmen and wonderful field hunters. But, I'd wager those gentlemen were the exception to the rule and a random cross section of Europeans would likely have as equally bad field marksmanship as Americans- if not worse. It seems that Europeans have many more restrictions and provisos on the purchase and shooting of high powered rifles than Americans have and the men who pursue hunting there must be very dedicated indeed. When a rifle subjects you to the level of hassle and expense the average European endures to own a smokepole, I'd wager a weekend warrior you are not.

But, take heart- the average American for a few shekels in ammunition and some spare hours of time can regain that status of marksman that our frontier heritage suggests. When we talk field shooting, we need to define what we mean and for me that means at variable targets at unknown ranges from a variety of positions. It's the positions I want to refer to today and for a more exhaustive volume I'll refer the reader to Cooper's Art of the Rifle for a detailed discussion of the various field positions (as opposed to the competitive rifle positions). A survey of hunters shows that many have simply rudimentary skills in shooting the rifle from any position but standing or benched and virtually no one uses a shooting sling of either the formal or hasty type. Indeed a quick search of shooting catalogs shows a lack of slings that are acceptable for field shooting. So here is a run down of the field positions from the least to the most stable.

Offhand- sometimes referred to as standing is simply raising the rifle and shooting it while standing erect on two feet. This is frequently used in the hunting field and almost no one does it well. It is my least favorite position because of its inherent instability- the body being a collection of bones and joints and muscles held in balance by a wonderful bio mechanical mechanism. In short the offhand shooter will notice their crosshairs wobble in all manner of directions after the briefest of moments holding the rifle on target. In the ye olde days a lot of shooting occurred from offhand but the reader will remember that shooting a black powder piece or lever action woods rifle the shooting typically occurred at very short range and frankly the meat hunters of yesteryear missed... a lot if their journals are to be believed. Standing is useful if intervening foliage is high or an animal stands suddenly from very close range (snap shooting). I'm not inclined to attempt offhand at more than 100 paces and even then if a rest is handy I'll use it. Folks tend to hold their trigger side elbow too low to the side which fails to seat the butt of the rifle in the shoulder pocket. On the African scene the PHs tote a system of shooting sticks to help the sportsman fire from offhand with tripod support since the grass tends to obscure the shot from other positions. I've played around with shooting sticks but I've found them a bother in North America since I don't employ someone to carry them for me. I carry enough stuff already.

Kneeling- reportedly the favorite of none other than Teddy Roosevelt but we must avoid the "stained glass" approach and realize that while Teddy was a conservationist and sportsman of the highest order- he was in real life a mediocre shot with terrible vision. On his African safari he typically shot from rock throwing range and still littered the bush with wounded animals. Within my realm of experience, I don't find this any more stable than offhand. Although the left elbow is supported, I don't find that its particularly useful with a shooting sling. I would only rate this useful for a sportsman attempting a quick shot under something- say low hanging tree branches or such. I believe that kneeling became standard practice within marshal environments where things shot back, shrapnel filled the air and your comrades behind you could very well be shooting over your head from standing position. As a hunting position I can honestly report to never having shot anything from kneeling and that isn't expected to change anytime soon.

Sitting- the classic position of the mountain hunter is likely my favorite and one every western hunter should practice exhaustively. With you posterior on the ground, legs spread about 90 degrees and knees bent so the thighs or shins contact the triceps you can get remarkably stable in a hurry while the elevation allows you to shoot over sagebrush and tundra alike. The position also allows for a lot of elevation adjustment making it perfect for the mountains. Pitfalls are folks trying to rest the elbows on the knees but the joint on joint contact makes for a slippery platform. Since the left elbow (assuming a right handed shooter) is resting on something solid its perfect for the shooting sling. A good shot with experience in sitting can make some remarkable shots and gives up very little to a neophyte on a benchrest. This was reportedly Jack O'Connor's favorite position and he extolled its virtues in print frequently. If I could only choose a single position to shoot from the rest of my life- this would be it.

Prone- lying flat on the stomach with the legs spread well apart, both elbows planted solidly on the ground this is the most stable of the field positions. Its pitfalls are that its slow to assume and slow to discontinue but the hunter tucked into this position can rival a benchrest with a little practice. Intervening vegetation can be a serious hindrance since any vegetation up close will obscure the target completely. Since the elbows are supported, a shooting sling can be very effectively employed and a roving hunter who carries a day pack can use this as sort of front rest for exceptional accuracy. I've used this position from rock outcroppings above arctic valleys to devastating effect and routinely shoot sub-MOA groups on targets and can ring steel gongs to well beyond 300 yards-much farther than a shot at an animal can be justified. This should be practiced every time you go to the range. The average mountain hunter may be able to employ it perhaps 1 time in 5 but most experienced hands will take a 250 yard shot prone over a 75 yard shot offhand every time.

There are a lot of other positions that have been written about but most are an adaptation of one of these four such as the "jackass" positions and frankly too numerous to discuss in detail since the pros and cons of the original position tend to apply to the "jackass" as well. Many had their origins within the military community such as the rice paddy prone or Hawkin's Fist and are of limited scope to the hunter. A hunter who rarely fires from rice paddies or from behind battlements and foxholes or the like, that they aren't worth more than a passing mention. The exception I'll make is "jackass prone" which is frequently executed when hunting from vehicles (or ATVs and snowmachines for that matter) and often seen at gravel pits and other informal shooting ranges nationwide. The common position is the hunter spread out over the hood of a vehicle with the rifle supported by both hands and both elbows firmly planted on the hood's surface. The waist is bent to accommodate the height of the vehicle and the feet are firmly planted on the ground and spread as far as possible. My only advice is to ensure that the piece's muzzle is well above the painted surface since the muzzle blast of a magnum is generally sufficient to peel paint. Don't ask how I know.

The shooting sling is a poorly understood device and while formal rifle competition has pretty much solidified what the shooting sling is, this is of little consequence to the hunter. For the hunter the sling is used to carry the rifle and then to "loop up" for extra stability whenever the position allows for the left elbow to be supported (again, right handed shooter). A study of the "hasty sling" is greatly recommended. In positions where the left elbow is not supported the sling does no good whatsoever. It amuses me greatly when in the sporting press we see some great Bwana attempting to look "professional" while looped up in a sling while standing offhand! The largest hindrance to the shooting sling is the slings themselves- a cursory look at rifle accessory catalogs have slings of every persuasion- mostly unsuitable. The shooting sling should be of an inelastic material, materials that stretch, so vogue in use today, are largely useless since its tension within the sling is the mechanism you use to promote stability. I also prefer slings be of uniform width- the "cobra" type slings are not exactly idea for the purpose. My favorite is an adjustable sling of canvas or nylon, about 1 1/4" wide with rugged swivels.

A 150 yard group from sitting without a sling- 3 and 1/8" or just slightly more than 2 MOA. Adequate for all but the smallest animals at long range.

A group fired from the same position with the same rifle and ammunition... this time with a hasty sling. 1 and 3/8" or slightly less than 1 MOA- very good shooting from a field position and just about the limits of the rifle from a benchrest. This is adequate for any field shooting you might do.

How much difference does the sling make? About 50% decrease in group size which means a 200% increase in stability. Remember the hunter's mantra: If you can get closer-get closer. If you can get more stable- get more stable. The intelligent hunter will commonly practice assuming these positions even in non range settings (with an empty piece or drill rifle if you've got one) at home several times per week. In the hunting field is not the time to be fidgeting trying to figure out a sling adjustment or which leg points which way. I'm also an advocate of living with your rifle on a frequent basis. Work the action. Practice engaging and disengaging the safety. Work the bolt. Dry fire (again with an EMPTY piece observing all directional constraints) so that the break of the trigger is well known. Incidentally, I've never known a shooter with extensive dry fire practice to develop a flinch or have a negligent discharge. I've known numerous shooters have negligent discharges by this point who seldom handle their rifle outside of hunting season. I've often heard the adage that familiarlty breeds contempt but I'm not sure it applies to rifles. Many hunters fail in the field every year simply because they aren't familiar with the basic mechanism of their rifle. An intimate familiarity with your rifle and a developed repertoire of field positions will put you at the top of your class among fellow hunters.

Good luck and good hunting!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Perfect Practice makes Perfect- Part 1

We've all heard the old adage that practice makes perfect but nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is that perfect practice makes perfect and nothing else. Imperfect practice does nothing except solidify bad habits and instill a false sense of confidence in shaky abilities. Being a person interested in the shooting sports, I've noticed a few things regarding practice and some critical elements that I think we're missing very badly in the 21st century. African PHs (professional hunters) and Alaska guides share many things in common and one of them is the opinion that clients tend to overestimate their shooting ability by factor of (at least) ten. Both have gotten used to the practice of consoling a client who's shooting poorly by saying that "the light is different down (or up) here... you'll get used to it." Both have also gotten quite terrified of letting a new client shoot much past bayonet range until the client has proven himself a competent hand with a rifle and the pre-hunt ritual of "rifle zeroing" conducted under the pretense of calibrating rifle scopes after shipping is as much for checking to see if the client is "calibrated" as for the stated purpose. Sad to say but the American sportsman these days is largely a pathetic example of field marksmanship.

Why would this be? The American sportsman at the turn of the previous century was a marvel to the sporting world with good aperture sights, early scopes and smokeless ammunition. Those early adventurers to Africa and Alaska were often men who spent considerable time afield with a rifle in their hand as well as men with more than a passing interest in riflery. The reputation of the Yankee marksman soared. These days a visiting sportsman is assumed a clod until proven otherwise.

I believe one of the reasons for this radical shift in field shooting ability is the way the typical hunter approaches rifle practice. These days we tend to fixate on mechanical accuracy and I see a lot of shooters firing little bitty group after little bitty group from a shooting bench without ever checking to see what they're capable of from a field position- that is assuming they even know how to get in a field position! Unless you drag a shooting bench to the hunting field (and indeed the shooting rail in a treestand or a hotchkiss is just that) that is a form of practice that has little value beyond confirming that your scope and rifle are roughly in alignment. I actively advocate the idea that once you install a scope on a rifle, choose a load, and get the two to shoot into alignment; that you never shoot that rifle off of a bench again. Rifle ranges frequently frustrate this in that shooting from anywhere but the bench is frowned upon if not outright prohibited. Given that so many of us are now urban dwellers forced into static ranges- that may have a lot to do with our collectively abysmal field shooting.

For those of you with appropriate access to vast wilderness or exceptional real estate here is an exercise to try out with a partner and it can be great fun, Take a standard paper plate (about 8" dia.) and staple it to a cardboard box (do not give it a center or 'bullseye"-animals are not so equipped) in front of a proper backstop but avoid a well cleared shooting lane. Start with a zeroed rifle, three rounds in the magazine and empty chamber, and whatever accoutrement's you typically hunt with. For myself that means a windbreaker or rain coat and a loaded day pack but only take what you routinely carry in the field. Start with your back to the target and start jogging on the go signal away from your target and toward your partner. Your partner (his back to you from well beyond the maximum shooting line) sounds a signal at some random interval of time (about 10 seconds is a good place to start) upon which you turn, take whatever field position is appropriate for the distance and terrain and fire three rounds into the plate as fast as you can accurately place them. You can make it more challenging by having your partner sound a second signal after 10 seconds (more or less) to cease fire- after all, animals won't give you all day to make the shot! The goal is to simulate a target that appears at an unknown range with intervening vegetation under physical stress and time constraints. Sounds a little like hunting doesn't it?

After running this drill a few times in a row you'll see why the shooting bench is totally unlike anything you'll encounter in the field. I ran this a few times this morning with my son acting as my partner- on my first run, the range wound up being 130 yards (measured later via GPS) and I scored 2 of 3 hits from standing. Standing is the worst position imaginable by the way but I was forced due to a large clump of willow between me and the target that prevented even kneeling. On my second run, I fired from prone on a small rise at 180 yards. Prone is wonderful if intervening vegetation and terrain allow and I scored 3/3. My last run was stopped at 270 yards and I fired from prone position again but this time using my day pack as a rest and scored 2/3. Its amazing how much your breathing affects your accuracy (particularly prone) but its common in mountain hunting to shoot when out of breath so mountain hunters best be familiar with the phenomenon.

For those of you unaccustomed to this type of shooting, be prepared to have the old ego bruised a bit. I considered that a very good performance but from the bench I could have fired much smaller groups and fired with more accuracy. But the purpose of the exercise was to practice field shooting- not see the limits of mechanical accuracy that my rifle is capable of.

Once you get the idea you can run this scenario with endless variation but one of my favorites is an unbleached paper plate on a brown cardboard box- have your partner affix it off center to make it more realistic of hitting a kill zone on a similar colored background.

Good luck and good hunting!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Moose at Castle Rock

"Daddy, isn't that a moose?" queried my young son from our perch he had nicknamed "Castle Rocks". The Rocks were a series of abrupt rocky spires and scree jutting from the ridge face about halfway to the 3500' summit. The spires and their connecting cliffs and scree fields made a roughly continuous wall, some 1/2 mile long and 300 feet above the more gently angled lower slope that led to a wide Arctic Valley a mile across. It was easy to see how his young imagination could fill in the blanks with a buttress or two and a shallow pond at the foot could easily be a moat. For our mission this evening we couldn't have been in a better place.

We had climbed up here some two hours earlier to glass the broad valley for moose. While crossing the valley floor we noted some respectable sign that moose inhabited the valley- several tracks, a denuded spruce tree that had provided a rubbing spot for a bull's velvet, several piles of scat. In two hours of glassing methodically we hadn't seen much except a pair of hawks hunting over the valley- diving sporadically and emerging seconds later with an unknown mammal in their talons. Between glassing the ground over and over and restless fidgeting, Evan had discovered a sparse campsite with a 6' diameter shallow pit ringed by a 6" tall wall of broken rock- its purpose unclear and its age (modern or ancient) imperceptible. Humans didn't generally camp here on the exposed spaces and expanses of high tundra, preferring the friendlier river valley some mile and a half distant. A search for artifacts revealed nothing except a Great Grey Owl pellet that Evan seized with relish- his school curriculum called for finding and dissecting an owl pellet this year and this was his first find. I was impressed he could even identify an owl pellet- so much older than I think he should be.

"That's a cow, Ev- we're looking for a bull." I replied. With my subsistence tag I could shoot any antlered moose instead of relying on the sport hunts more complicated system of antler width and brow tine counts. I was hoping for a young bull; a spike or yearling before the rut. With a small family, a small bull would provide a year's worth of excellent table fare with minimum waste. It was also preferable since I was hunting in a non-motorized zone- all the meat would be carried out of here on my pack frame via the heel-toe express. One doesn't get trophy greedy when you have to haul it out by yourself.

At that magical moment in time, when all the moose's internal alarm clocks went off, they began to slowly rise from their beds and moose began to appear throughout the valley like stars appearing in the sky at dusk. We scrutinized each one, looking for the bull that we knew would be here. Seeing a large moose in some scrubby timber we launched a stalk on what I supposed to be a bull- a half mile of progress would reveal a very large cow standing near a dead alder tree. We stopped in mid descent and glassed some more. One moose after another appeared until at last I saw what I hoped. A bull had stepped out into an alpine clearing some two miles distant and through the 10x binoculars I could see his antlers clearly skylined every time he raised his great head. The hunt was on!

Evan and I quickly made a plan. I desperately wished we hadn't made a false start after the cow on the opposing drainage- we had given up the high ground advantage and we were out of time to make another ascent given the rapidly vanishing sun. What lay between us was two miles of open tundra interspersed with several drainage creeks; each a thick tangle of alder and willow- impossible to cross quietly or quickly. Up high these streams are smaller and the brush beaten low by the fierce wind, but on the valley floor these streams created small marshes and quagmires, much wider, with alders that were as impenetrable as an African boma and some 10 feet high. Evan is very new to hunting and this would be just his second stalk. I considered abandoning him here- to watch as I crossed the valley at speed; but I erased that thought quickly. He had performed to perfection in a practice stalk on a caribou just last week and we closed to 75 yards with a dozen shooting opportunities before calling it off.

As we started moving behind a screen of low bushes I felt a breeze on my face- that was one thing in our favor -at least our scent would be going the opposite way. I stopped at the first drainage course, the brush was lower than I expected and we crossed in a moment. I studied the bull through the glass- he was unalert but had been joined by a young cow in his clearing. In the rut that would have been a good thing, something to occupy his apple size brain while we snuck death upon him. But now she represented another set of ears and eyes and a nose to detect our presence. We made a steady and determined move across the valley in the failing light, the moose apparently uninterested or unaware of our movement, and arrived at our next obstacle- another drainage.

Here is the moose at about 800yards. I've circled him for you.

I studied the bull now- we had closed to something on the order of 800 yards in the last hour and a half and his antlers were now fully visible to the naked eye. The white of the bone and shredded velvet visible in the glass. I'm no great shakes at field judging moose but I guessed him in the mid 40s and very big in the body- probably a three or four year old just hitting his mating prime and we were stalking him through his harem. I desperately searched the wall of alders to the front looking for a passage and found a faint trace of a game trail. I checked the moose and the wind one more time, adjusted my daypack to keep it from snagging on the brush and with Evan eager on my heels, plunged into the brush as quietly as I could. We belly crawled and picked our way through the head high tangle as quietly as possible. I couldn't tell how far we'd go but this drainage was marshier than the previous ones and supported more robust alders and several willow thickets. Visibility was mere feet and I desperately hoped we didn't spook a lounging moose in this jungle or worse yet, a bear. After a half hour we emerged on the far side, soaked from the marsh and shivering from adrenaline.

I surveyed the landscape ahead and looked at the moose. We had 200 yards of relatively open ground to cover until we hit the next drainage and the bad news was those alders were fully 12 feet tall and the expanse was a true quagmire in a deep ravine some additional 200 yards across. The pair had been joined by another cow- this one older and they were still feeding in the clearing. I could detect a rise on the far side of the ravine and the bull was about 200 yards from the far side of the alder band. 600 yards to go and Evan was wired so tight he was practically vibrating. We took a moment and prayed for success. A mosquito bit me on the back of the hand and I gently blew it off. "A mosquito?", I asked myself. "They don't fly in the wind."

And then I noticed it. The wind had died as the sun had set behind the western mountains and we had dead calm. The bugs emerged and flew around us as we stared at the bull through the glass. This was not good.

We crossed the remaining 200 yards as quietly as time allowed- one eye on the moose and another on the terrain ahead. Whenever one of the moose would raise its head we'd freeze in place, afraid to even breathe. Evan was reasonably concealed at a scant bit over 4 feet tall and wearing a camouflage jacket; I was not so well dressed at six foot in blue jeans and a blue windbreaker. I remembered I had a brown shirt on underneath and I quietly shed the windbreaker, my bare arms becoming a buffet line for the bugs. We stopped at the wall of brush on the ravine edge a little over 400 yards from the bull.

This is where most stalks get tricky and this one was no exception. I was pretty sure the younger cow had spotted us because she looked in our direction every few minutes. I looked hard at the bull and eyed the ravine nervously- no way I could cross that 200 yards of green hell and not spook the moose. I might as well have played a trombone or fired a revolver in the air for all the noise I'd make getting through there. I only had about 15 minutes of useful light left and we were quickly running out of options. I looked at my son, still hanging tough for a nine year old, and then at my watch, 11:50pm. We had been stalking this bull for nearly three hours.
\I was sitting there pondering the "what to do of it" when I knew we were in trouble. A slightest breeze started cooling the heavy perspiration on the back of my neck. Mountain hunting often sees bizarre, swirling wind currents and this was pretty common. As the sun set and the earth cooled that all-day steady easterly breeze was replaced by doldrums and as the earth radiated its warmth away further the cooling, contracting air of the mountains began to pull the air westerly.

Right toward our bull.

We were about to be busted and when our scent reached the already skittish cow I was pretty positive she'd vacate and take the bull with her. I contemplated the unthinkable, shed the daypack and pushed it in front of me. I slowly assumed the prone position, flipped up the lens caps and chambered a round as quietly as the mechanism would allow. Firing a 180 grain bullet from my 300 magnum with a 200 yard zero I would be about 20 inches low at 400 yards. The bull was 400 yards, right? I looked through the crosshairs and held the horizontal wire right on his backline, estimating that the round would drop into the realm of his vitals. Evan was now lying down with his fingers in his ears waiting on the shot and holding his breath, he wanted this bull so bad he could taste backstraps for breakfast. I watched the bull react through the scope as our scent filtered through the brush and reached his nostrils.

His head snapped upright and he looked straight at me while broadside, suddenly aware that the meat-eaters had come calling. I could see his gears turning and his flanks rippling, this was going to be over in a couple of seconds one way or the other as I slipped the safety off and took up slack on the trigger.

"What the hell was I doing?", my mind raged. "You don't shoot past 300 yards."

The bull was wonderfully large in the 4x scope and I was confident from years of practice at extended ranges. The classic "angel and devil scenario" was being played out inside my head at high speed. If the wind hadn't shifted he would have likely fed closer allowing a solid 200-250 yard shot. If we hadn't wasted time stalking a cow we'd have come in on this old boy from above and hammered before he knew we where there. If I had been alone instead of taking the kid with me I could have made better time... If I had a rangefinder...If....

I would love to tell my readers that I made a single, stunning shot and anchored that bull in the clearing. But that's not what happened. I'll leave the lie telling to the paid gunwriters, they apparently need the money more than I do. A last light shot, at long range, at a good size bull, surrounded by heavy brush while escorting a nine year old? Not hardly smart. Discretion became the better part of valor and I put the safety on and rolled over on my back- exhausted from hours of stalking this grand animal. As the adrenaline drained from my system, my legs turned to rubber and I dug through the pack to retrieve my canteen and eat a handful of blueberries I hadn't noticed I was lying in. I couldn't imagine how awful the feeling would have been to be stumbling around up there in that brush, in the dark, with a single LED headlamp. Looking for a wounded bull with one of my bullets in its guts; explaining to my child how Dad had rightly lost his mind for a minute and shot at a set of horns.

I felt better as we sat there and the sky turned its last stages of orange and pink from the setting sun. We talked a little about ethics and hunting and what it means to kill responsibly. Why Daddy hadn't start banging away like an artillery barrage over a set of antlers that nobody ate.

What it means to hunt.

What it means to love what you're about to kill.

What it means to give your quarry a good death.

Not some abstract lesson from a book or a lecture from a teacher about doing the right thing. But something played out in the wilderness, written in sweat and wind and tension and oddly enough disappointment. A lesson for my son to carry through life about what it means to tell yourself, "No". It had been a long day as we shouldered our packs to start the long hike back to the Jeep in the dark, our feeble lamp lighting our way.

"This was the best hunting trip ever Dad.", remarked my son, "Do you think that bull will stay here so we can try again?"

"I'm betting he will, the season has just begun." I replied as we wound our way down the far side of the ridge. "I'm betting he will..."