Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas...

The presents are open, the dessert enjoyed, the roast beast sliced and served.
Friends came and went and back again with gifts and fellowship and tidings of joy.
Phone calls and messages to and from distant family- goodwill over long distance.
Dishes done and put away, wrapping papers picked up, little boy tucked into his bed.

Now just enjoying some quiet time.

Peace on earth....peace in me.

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Georgia Pellegrini- Girl Hunter

I was contacted a few months ago and asked if I'd be willing to review a new book titled "Girl Hunter:Revolutionizing the Way We Eat, One Hunt at a Time"...

How could I pass that up?

So I told the publishing agent that I'd be glad to review the advance copy of the book. I've got to say that I enjoyed the book quite a bit...kind of a mix between Steve Rinella's American Buffalo meets Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma.

I really didn't know what to expect since I haven't read any of Georgia's previous work. I know quite a few chefs and more that a few female hunters so I really didn't know what to expect when all this would be mixed into a bowl and served up.

The resulting dish was really quite good and the book centered around a series of hunting adventures about the country on which she endeavors to kill game and then cook that game into meals. The recipes sound excellent, if a bit complicated for my rural taste which runs more to Neanderthal than Tres Cheval. I have a nice batch of grouse and ptarmigan in the freezer that practically begs to be used in a special meal using one of the recipes from the book. I'll keep you posted on how that turns out.

Perhaps more interestingly to me are the other characters in the book- ranging from Berkley liberals relo'd to Montana, to a driven shoot on an English estate, to hunting with the wealthy and politically connected good ole boys of Arkansas. Each hunt was something quite unique and entertaining with the exception of the creepy and unsuccessful elk hunt that centered on her interaction with a free range beef rancher and apparrent attempts at wooing Ms. Pellegrini via poaching. Without a doubt- Ms. Pellegrini runs in better heeled circles than I.

But I've got to be a bit truthful...I enjoyed the book on its own merit but the embedded video trailer portrays a huntress with a different voice, attitude and approach (as much as I can tell from a 1 minute video anyway) than the one I read and admired in the book. Where will it all go? I can only assume with a video trailer a television pilot probably is already on the reel. Since my exposure to television is limited I can only hope the thoughtful hunteress doesn't go from a Pollan meets Rinella writer to a Nugent meets Rachel Ray television personality.

Time will tell, but the book is certainly a worthy read.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Go read this...Hank Shaw on killing for food.

I've longed wanted to write a piece on the emotional aspect of hunting and killing for food; but the effort usually results in something I'm not happy with. I'm frequently asked how can I stand to kill, or field dress an animal. I'm usually articulate enough in person to have a coherent conversation about it without sounding like a defensive hillbilly but my efforts in prose fail me in that regard.

In the meantime, meander on over and read this wonderful piece by Hank Shaw at Hunter Angler Gardner Cook.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Post Hunting Season Gear Review

As promised to several readers who've contacted me regarding the performance of some of the new gear I acquired this year...

Not a detailed "gear review" per se but rather a collection of impressions I've developed using some of this stuff in the field over the last year. I generally don't like to develop strong opinions about an item until it has stood the test of several seasons. So with that caveat out of the way- bear in mind that long term durability is something of an unknown for several of these items.

Bibler Fitzroy Tent- quite expensive at full retail but generally obtainable for much less, this is now my standard for mountaineering tents. I didn't have any condensation issues over the summer and it survived a 60mph blow and torrential rain on my sheep hunt with barely a rattle and nary a leak. My only criticism is that the vestibule design seems like an afterthought but its a bad weather bunker worthy of its asking price. Kind of heavy by today's ethereal standards, its also durable and worth it's moderate weight. Two thumbs up!

Western Mountaineering Badger Sleeping Bag- also expensive at full retail and quite hard to find for less. Extremely warm and roomy for it's remarkably light weight. Despite the disadvantages of down when encountering water, I've become something of a down bag convert. It packs down unbelievably small, which is one of the main disadvantages of a synthetic. It is also good right down to the rated temperature, which is something of a rarity in sleeping bag manufacture these days. As long as you're up to the minor task of keeping it dry, two thumbs up!

Kuiu Icon 6000 Pack-  I was attracted to many pieces of the Kuiu line during their introduction and this was what I hoped to be the "crown jewel" of their product line. A serious hunting pack that didn't start off weighing 10 lbs empty but could carry remarkable loads. The carbon fiber frame had my mouth watering and the feathery weight sealed the deal. After a couple of encouraging day trips I slogged it into the mountains with a true week's load...and that's when the fun stopped. The frame pivot squeaks despite frequent lubrication and the straps slip and release under load. On our pack out in the rain I resorted to tying the "tail" of the straps in a knot as I could actually watch them slide while I hiked. A call to the company has not resulted in customer satisfaction with a couple interim fixes and an as yet undelivered promise of new straps. Company reps say this issue didn't show up during internal beta testing but every one with one of these I've talked to had the issue within a few hours of donning any respectable load. I still have hope because I want to, but at this writing- two thumbs down.

Kuiu Attack Pants- as disappointing as the pack was, the pants are equally as excellent. I've used and abused my pair for months and they are still going strong into cross country ski season. Water resistant, quick drying, comfortable as pajamas for a really reasonable price these are likely my favorite piece of new gear. Its quite likely Kuiu ought to stick to clothes given how good these are and how hard they are to obtain- the company is perpetually back ordered on these. Two thumbs way, way up!

Kuiu Chugach Rain Gear- named after the Chugach Range in Alaska, which is also the farthest northern temperate rain forest appropriately enough these worked pretty well. Fairly light and packable, they kept me pretty dry in some real torrential rains. Deeply skeptical of any rain gear advertised as breathable, they do live up to their claims. I also don't think they're worth the considerable asking price despite being in line with competing products. I had one of the cuff tabs delaminate on the first wash. The jury is still out on how long they'll retain their water proof integrity. A thumb down (value for money) and one thumb up (performance) at this writing.

Lowa Tibet GTX Boots- I picked these up on deep discount at a specialty hunting retailer in Fairbanks last year and the price was still heart stopping. That said, I'd buy another pair at full retail tomorrow if I needed them. It took a hundred miles to even break these in and the boots have unreal amounts of support and torsional rigidity only rivaled by rigid plastic mountaineering boots (which I find miserable for hunting). They are incredibly comfortable and have held up to a full year of wear in every conceivable condition from steep talus slopes to slogging through bogs. A pair of boots this good is very hard for me to find. Two thumbs way UP!

Nosler 48 Rifle- I've written about this rifle a couple years ago and the more I use it the better I like it. I had a safety fail this year just a month prior to my hunt and the Nosler folks got to flex their customer service muscles. They sent me a UPS label and I put the rifle on the truck with little hope of seeing in time for my hunt. Just 8 days later it was delivered back to my home with a new trigger, safety and a note that wished me luck. Their customer service was simply superb and they've offered me a refinish on the stock if I send it in for a recoat of the barreled action. It didn't hold up to their expectations (although it held up to mine) and they've offered to refinish it- given the beating I've given it I'm surprised the finish has held up at all. On the practical side, I've now shot several critters with the rifle and everything has pretty much died in its tracks. Serious riflemen need to look at this rifle with significant consideration and acquiring one is well worth gutting your collection of lesser pieces if you value field performance. Two thumbs up.

Wyoming Saw and Knife- field dressing tools that were a gift from my wife. Affordable, simple and effective- what more could you want? The saw is handy and sized for backpacking with wood and bone blades included and the knife, despite its unusual design, is likely the best skinner I've ever used for big game. My sole criticism is that the sheath is camouflage...which seems silly given its purpose. Nevertheless....two thumbs up!

Black Diamond Trekking Poles- fairly light and compact as well as expensive. One folded up and collapsed on me while descending a dangerous slope; at least contributing to a nasty fall and painful injury. They may be fine for effeminate Euro hikers but manly hunting men bearing manly hunting loads need to look elsewhere in my opinion. Two thumbs way down...

Minus 33 Merino Wool- the intermediate layer is excellent, warm, stink free and much recommended. The lightweight T-shirt, while warm and stink free, is much to fragile to wear as an outer layer. Both of mine developed numerous holes and loose seams. One thumb up and one thumb down.

I've bought other pieces of gear but either I've not used them enough to get a good feel for it or it was something so unremarkable it doesn't warrant writing about. So despite the claims of every manufacturer the age old adage of caveat emptor is still much in force.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Zen of Wingshooting...Hits and Misses.

After posting about my new Benelli shotgun I bought myself for my birthday last year, I had meant to post several times about learning to wing shoot. That's about where I left it. After a summer filled with work, training for a sheep hunt, hunting caribou, reviewing a couple of books and sundry other activities, I totally abandoned my efforts at learning to hit flying things. I did make a promise to myself to abandon the apparently slovenly practice of killing game birds with a .22, despite how efficient and clean it is, and instead propel my shooting to a higher plane and kill them on the wing. That frankly didn't go so good at first.

The first game bird I took this year was a large spruce grouse who made the error of hanging out in my front yard. My son spotted him while out playing with the dog and after an attempt to brain the rooster "cave man style" with a large rock he burst through the front door looking for a better weapon. Initially, I shooed him from such an endeavor but after a couple of insistent passes through the garage looking for his bow and BB gun I decided to take it to get in a little fresh game meat for my visiting extended family. While the shotgun resided in the safe quite capably, I never even so much as thought about using it until the grouse was leftovers after having fallen to a single .22LR "CB Cap" through his head out of my son's rifle. Efficient and clean harvest? Check. Elevating my wingshooting? Fail.

The second bird came after a lengthy dry spell because generally during big game hunts I won't take the time to kill small game for noise concerns unless I really want camp meat. During my moose hunts this year I saw dozens of grouse and regrettably no legal moose. After a long and very disappointing day searching an area I mistakenly believed a hotbed of moose activity, I did see a prize of a bird- a beautiful ruffed grouse. Ruffed grouse are wonderful eating, quite a bit better than spruce hens or ptarmigan, but somewhat hard to find in my location. Typically whenever I see one of these I'll make the effort to bag it but a problem presented itself. Since I was on a moose hunt without expecting to shoot birds, I was armed with only a high powered rifle. What to do? Something that my hunting companion didn't believe I'd do... I leveled down on that grouse with my .300 and aimed very carefully. A body shot at thirty yards would leave nothing but bloody paste and feathers but accounting for the distance between scope and bore and the short range zero I was able to pull off a bit of fancy shooting and literally pop the grouse's head off while leaving the edible bits untouched. Points scored for making do with a bit of short range sniping for a tasty delicacy? Check. Abandoning slovenly practices of ground sluicing winged creatures? Epic Fail.

My third attempt came during a caribou hunt that I was endeavoring with my neighbor and new hunting partner. I was already tagged out on caribou so I packed along the new Benelli with a mixture of ammunition- low brass number 6s for ptarmigan, 3" 00 Buckshot for bear defense, and 3" "Dead Coyote" T shot for roving predators. After a long and fruitless day looking for the herd that had already left the area, I noticed a covey of ptarmigan about a 1/4 mile distance. With only about twenty minutes of shooting light left I baled out of the truck and stuffed my vest pocket with shells and then loaded the magazine. Taking a heading through the snowy tundra and low brush I set off in pursuit of proper wingshooting.

Hearing the covey's roosting calls I quickly zeroed in on one visible at the edge of a band of low brush. Readying the gun, I crept up on the bird. Just when I thought I would have to chuck a rock to get the bird to flush, he ran backwards into the brush and out of sight. Frustratingly, I realized I would have simply shot him with  a .22 ten yards ago and would now be picking up the dead bird. Undaunted I crept up to the edge of the brush and then all hell broke loose.

Fully a dozen of the white birds exploded within five yards and took skyward. Startled, I tried to pick out a single bird and fired a haphazard shot- BOOM!- that didn't hit a thing followed by- BOOM!- another miss. I swung over to one rising up to my left and pulled the trigger- BOOM!- and saw the bird dive for the brush trailing feathers. Getting my wits about me finally I swung over on one flying straightaway slightly to my right and took a clean bead- BOOM!- and the bird crumpled mid flight amid a cloud of white downy feathers.

I reloaded, somewhat amused that in just a couple seconds I had emptied the autoloader's magazine, and went into the brush to retrieve the two I saw fall. The first I found rather quickly and I hadn't found the second one when I was joined by my hunting partner. "Go on and get some more...I'll find the second one." exclaimed my partner, apparently thrilled that we finally shot something after a long day of seeing nothing.

I climbed a small rise, convinced the birds wouldn't go far, and was quickly rewarded with hearing the cackles of the alarmed birds. The fact the birds were nervous didn't bother me- in fact, upon reflection I'm sure the birds started flushing earlier giving me more reaction time to swing the barrel. On the rise a couple flushed at about 7 yards, I picked the right and- BOOM!- the bird folded and gravity brought him to earth in a beautiful sailing arc amid a cloud of feathers. I swung left and- BOOM! BOOM!- two clean misses on the fast moving streak of white. I stuck my hand in my pocket for more shells and found nothing there but lint. Looking in the magazine I saw the follower. I retracted the bolt slightly and saw a shell stuck under the extractor- one shot left. Crap, where did all the shells go?

I retrieved the bird and made my way back to my partner still searching for the second bird of the first flush. He still hadn't found a thing. I noticed from my vantage point a bird about 5 yards to his left- on the ground and moving in a crippled wobble. I called out and had him maneuver well out of the line of fire. Fearing the bird would simply run on the ground into the brush or flush and I'd miss with my only shell I raised the gun and fired- BOOM!- and finished him. We collected the remaining bird for a total of three and headed back for the truck. It was getting pretty dim with the sun below the horizon as we crunched our way over the snow, arriving there we started cleaning the birds. Within moments the covey landed within a hundred yards of our location and started their cooing, roosting cries.

"Heck! Go get some more if they want to be dinner that bad. I'll take care of these.", cried my partner. I stuffed more shells in my pocket and the magazine tube of the gun and set off. I quickly flushed a fast moving bird quite far out- BOOM!BOOM!BOOM!- and missed every time. I had to get better at this kind of shooting and judge what kind of lead was required at what distance- wondering bewilderedly what sort of Euclidean geometry and vector calculation would get me on the birds. I reloaded and continued with just enough light left for a couple more moments. I flushed a rather large hen out of the brush about 5 yards out and she appeared to hover there slow motion for a few moments in midair, twisting and turning, trying to determine which direction to take flight. She turned on the wing and headed straight away gaining momentum as the butt of the gun hit my shoulder. The bird seemed to by flying in slow motion but I seemed to be moving at faster than normal speed.

There in a brief moment, frozen in time, I finally got it. The entire wingshooting zen I had read about for years caught up with me full force as the entire moment felt right. Not calculated, not aimed, not consciously and deliberately fired. The gun, the trigger, the bird, the eye- all in alignment of their own accord. I don't remember the shot or the recoil; all I remember is seeing the bird fold in mid air and hearing the "ka-Chunk" of the action as the smoking hull was ejected and then seeing the bird hurtling to the ground streaming downy feathers with the golden, orange sunset on the white mountains beyond. It was all those things that wingshooting writers endeavor to describe in flowery language and fall (myself included) woefully short.

Firing without conscious thought at a target that presented itself unexpectedly- quite the opposite of rifle shooting. I am quite accustomed to taking deliberate shots at distance with the rifle and this whole process seemed rather haphazard. Roaming over the country, blasting haphazardly- that is until that moment when everything lined up. Not to delve too far into the sound of "one hand clapping" but the experience of instinctive shooting was rather new to me. Feeling slightly overwhelmed, I searched the brush for the downed bird and after looking for it just a moment I realized it was really too dark to continue. I finally retrieved the bird and made my way back to the truck- a very happy...wingshooter.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Making Sense of a Magnum

Its been a few years since I switched from my long held standard hunting cartridge to a "magnum" cartridge and what follows are some of my impressions I've developed while using it in the field. While the Internet is chock full of countless folks churning electrons and armchair ballisticians like to debate the minutiae between the various cartridges, I wanted to avoid that. I simply can't convince myself that a big game animal can discern the difference in a 7mm vs. a .30 caliber or 2800 vs. 2900 feet per second given a life studying such things in the field. But I've come to the conclusion that there is a difference between standard and "magnum" cartridges in the field and like everything else- there are pros and cons to examine.

First off, let's be realistic- "magnum" originated as a name for an extra large bottle of champagne and the term was applied to the early enhanced class of cartridges due to their larger case capacities. When the magnum craze hit the sporting community in the mid-20th century, the marketing departments of all the various manufacturers applied the term to all sorts of new products and cartridges whether they offered enhanced capability or not. For the purpose of this article consider any cartridge, .338 or smaller, capable of throwing a standard weight for caliber projectile to 3000 feet per second at the muzzle a magnum cartridge whether it has the title or not. For instance, all of the Weatherby cartridges easily make the cut but so does the 280 Remington Ackley Improved which gives up nothing to the 7mm Remington Magnum. The fireplug shaped 350 Remington Magnum is a magnum in name only and fails to reach 2600 fps with most practical bullet weights as does the new line of Ruger Compact Magnums despite the marketing. Manufacturers furthered the confusion by slapping belts on nearly every cartridge in the 60's and then making cartridges in the 2000s that had no belts but exceeded the belted cartridges level of performance.

Since I don't subscribe to paper theory I'll have to compare the two cartridges I have the most on game performance comparison with- the .30-06/.308 and the .300 WSM/ .300WM. I used the .30/06 and .308 nearly 20 years and if there's a difference in the field I can't determine it. I've also used the .300WSM and .300 Win Mag quite a lot and balistically there isn't a nickel's worth of difference between them either. I won't talk numbers of creatures killed since that generally devolves into a discussion that borders on the vulgar, but I've shot a fair number of representative animals with each to feel comfortable that my impressions are solid while that number isn't near what one might expect of a Craig Boddington it is certainly on the high side for the average recreational hunter today. When you add in the number of animals I've witnessed shot with the respective cartridges I become quite convinced that the data pool is big enough to encompass a few anomalies as well as anticipated results.

While I certainly don't support the idea that the standard cartridges are insufficient for most big game I do think the magnum class of cartridges (at least in the .30calibers) is an all around more effective tool for the hunter- particularly the Western or Alaskan hunter hunting large game over wide open or mountainous terrain.  In the East, at least in my experience, the magnum class of cartridges is completely over the top except in very specific circumstances. I know that piles of big critters have been killed with the '06 and I've put many of them in that pile myself but if the dear reader will bear with me I'll explain my thought process.

Over wide open and mountainous terrain the ranging abilities of even great hunters are suspect and with a .300 class rifle you simply have to put the animal in the cross hairs and shoot. Many high speed thirties are suitable for a 250 or even 300 yard zero allowing a dead on hold from the muzzle out to the limits of ethical shooting. While it may seem a trifling detail- nearly every miss I've seen in the field occurred when the hunter was attempting to "help" the trajectory and aiming high resulting in shooting over the animals back. Just a few weeks ago I helped a less experienced hunter harvest a caribou at longish range with a .300 Ultra. I've passed on shots just like that with my .308 simply because I wasn't comfortable guesstimating the bullet drop. With the fast thirty it was a simple matter of holding the crosshairs steady and practicing good shooting technique.

Another thing I've observed, and the reader will have to excuse the lack of concrete evidence, is that a fast thirty given similar shot placement almost always seems to kill the target animal quicker than a standard cartridge. I don't know why. My habit has been the broadside, behind-the-shoulder-lung shot for many years and with the .308 and '06 I've been used to uniformly dead animals. But, they generally didn't tip over in their tracks and sometimes a little bit of judicious tracking was involved. While tracking isn't the end of the world it isn't the ideal situation either. With the magnum class of cartridges, nothing I've shot moved more than three or four yards from the point of impact with the majority falling where they stood. I've heard many theories as to the mechanism of injury that causes this and I must admit they all sound suspect; but there is no arguing that the amount of shooting I've now done with the .30 magnums resulted in uniformly fast kills with little to no tracking involved. In my book that's a very good thing.

That kind of performance doesn't come without a downside, some of it mitigatible and some not. The first serious downside to using that kind of velocity is meat damage. I am foremost and always a table hunter, so meat damage is something I'm exceedingly conscious of. With a magnum class rifle you need to do a couple of things to minimize meat damage- the first is shot placement. I know that I've often heard the dictum preached that you should shoot the point of the shoulder. The thought being that once the shoulder is significantly damaged it makes the escape of the quarry unlikely. I don't know about that, since I've seen several three legged deer harvested that managed just fine but I do know that high speed bullets smashing through shoulder bones destroys a lot of meat. As a consideration, the hunter should aim behind the shoulder and strive for a lung shot that avoids the thicker bones and muscle tissue of the shoulders much the way a bowhunter would.

The other consideration to reduce meat damage is for the hunter to use a tougher bullet. The fantastic .300 Weatherby built its reputation using much too soft cup and core bullets that on a behind the shoulder lung shot detonated like hand grenades and dropped game like Thor's hammer. Those same soft bullets would also fragment on shoulder shots, destroy a fair amount of edible meat and occasionally fail to penetrate the chest cavity. Most of the early criticism of the Weatherby cartridges centered on meat damage complaints. It's no surprise that Weatherby was the first company to commercially load ammunition with the Nosler Partition bullet- the first "controlled expansion" bullet that would withstand the high speed impacts common with all magnum cartridges.

With good shot placement and a modern bullet designed for higher impact velocity the amount of meat damage can be greatly reduced. On both caribou this year I didn't lose a significant amount of meat while a companion shot one with a .300 Winchester Magnum, hitting both shoulders and he lost several pounds of edible meat in the process. Identical quarry, identical ballistics and nearly identical range but vastly different outcomes. Shot placement and bullet construction matters.

The other downside to the magnum class cartridges is sheer recoil. While I think that the primary effects of recoil are felt between the ears rather than the shoulder there is no denying that some individuals find recoil at even moderate levels distracting enough to preclude good shooting. There are a few things you can do to mitigate recoil effects- first is to wear good hearing protection on the range. Most shooters find muzzle blast more disturbing than actual recoil so minimize that as much as possible. In that vein, do not muzzle brake your rifle. Muzzle brakes increase the amount of the muzzle blast directed back toward the shooter and can be more disturbing than recoil itself. A shot without hearing protection can be disastrous to the ears almost without fail.

Another item to reduce felt recoil is to make sure the stock fits properly and avoid those endless hours of shooting from a bench where felt recoil is perhaps its worst. Almost anyone with a well fit stock can handle surprisingly large cartridges from a good field position. There certainly is a learning curve to shooting magnums and I advise anyone getting one for the first time to practice often but keep the number of shots per range session fairly low. Even as an experienced shooter I find myself anticipating recoil after a while (see flinching!) and I know its time to transition to lighter rifles or call it a day.

If a shooter simply finds they can't handle the recoil of a magnum class cartridge then the only sensible course of action is to sell it off and get something more tolerable. But, with a little judicious range work and perhaps a bit of instruction almost anybody can develop the ability to shoot the magnum class of cartridges (particularly the lesser ones, ie. 257 Weatherby, 270WSM, 7mm Remington Magnum, etc.) quite effectively in the field. For those hunters willing to put in the work to master them, it is an investment that will return tremendous dividends in open country shooting.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Hunting with The Big Eye

On a recent Sunday afternoon, a new friend and neighbor at church and his wife invited us out to lunch at a local restaurant. I didn't know him well as he is one of Alaska's thousands of remote workers- working in a remote mine for several weeks before he gets to spend a week or so at home. I've done it in the past and its tough on family life, your social life and, especially, your sporting life.

As we discussed Evan and my recent successes, he lamented that he'd been unsuccessful so far with his limited time. We talked a little of caribou strategies and locations and after a little bit of conversation I discovered that he was an enthusiastic, but rarely successful hunter. He hunted in a style that is pretty typical for a lot of folks here in the Interior- ride a four wheeler through trails, look for animals, see none, and ride some more. He was reasonably well equipped with an ATV and a suitable rifle and some other miscellaneous equipment but nothing in the way of optics outside of his rifle scope. A somewhat recent transplant from the big woods of Pennsylvania his lack of binoculars didn't particularly surprise me.

In my youth, I hunted in a similar fashion in Tennessee. I didn't own a set of binoculars until well into adulthood or even a riflescope until college. A spotting scope was something rarely seen- possibly in magazines featuring Western hunts or maybe on the odd segment on television. Truth be told, such equipment was largely superfluous until "bean field shooting" became popular. In the thick woods, visibility was so limited that the standard open sighted rifle was more than adequate for any shooting and all but the most visibly challenged could identify buck or doe at those ranges. A spotter could have you finding deer three or four farms (if not the next county) away.

Over our meal, we made a quick plan for an evening hunt about thirty miles to our south. In the interest of time, we decided to take ATVs into the fairly well developed trail system known as "Top of the World". A BLM managed trail- the trail system makes efficient use of ATVs to move people through some mountainous plateaus while limiting habitat damage that is so typical of that form of transportation. After loading the machines and packing for a quick hunt- we were off.

We arrived at the trail head to a well established camping area in a gravel pit at the bottom of a steep trail along the Alaska Pipeline pad. There were perhaps 15 camps loosely spread over the area and several of the hunters had erected meat poles- suspiciously empty given the area and season. We climbed astraddle our machines and motored up the hill- approximately 2000 vertical feet in just a few minutes. On my recent sheep hunt this climb would have taken hours. Turning onto the first trail head up the knife edge of a ridge we climbed perhaps another 1000 vertical feet and my partner was all but surprised when I just pulled off the trail on a rocky bench and just stopped.

"What are you doing?" he queried curiously as I unpacked some of my gear.

"Glassing," I replied, "we can either hunt with our feet or our machines. But either way we can still hunt faster with our eyes." I donned the binoculars and scanned the mile wide plateau below us looking for signs of caribou. There were several parties of hunters below, we could see them on their machines cruising the trails standing on the pegs looking for caribou. Apparently, the understanding that caribou are wide ranging animals- and while possible to locate near a trail, it certainly isn't a strategy to rely on. We were buffeted by a fast moving storm that pelted us with enough rain to reduce visibility and enough wind to make the machines rock. We hunkered in our rain gear, confident the lighter skies to the south would mean a short lived storm and better weather. In about twenty minutes the rain stopped and wind died down enough to restore good visibility.

I scanned the plateau below. Nothing moving except our fellow hunters. I explained the tactic I was using to my new friend. "Scan with your naked eye- don't look for caribou. Look for things out of place- movement, odd colors, odd shapes. Then repeat with the binos- looking for something that doesn't match." I instructed. After scanning the plateau out for about a mile and satisfied that I couldn't detect anything, I handed the binos to my neighbor with instructions on their use. "After you get used to using them you'll feel naked without them on a hunt." I joked.

It was time to pull out The Big Eye. A spotting scope. I had picked one up a couple years ago and since then it became and indispensable part of my kit. As a foot hunter, I could cover more ground with the spotter in a few minutes than I could walk over all day. I began by scanning the far edges of the plateau, looking for out of place shapes and colors. Finished, I looked at the next plateau from which we were separated by a deep canyon a mile distant.

In a few minutes I found what I was looking for- a caribou. The lone bull was prancing and feeding about a half mile from the pipeline trail, on the north side of a lake. I reckoned the bull was about two miles away. I called out, "There one is. Over there." Setting the ball head lock to keep the bull in focus and stepping back to allow my companion to look through the eyepiece.

"Well I'll be..." he exclaimed, "that's just impossibly long to find an animal." He stared a little longer, switching between binos and the spotter to compare the views. "You'd never see him, even looking right at him with the binos and the naked eye- forget it." he remarked. We were both amused when another  hunter rode right past the animal on the pipeline trail without seeing it across the wide open tundra. I could see the animal's breath steam as it stared at the distant machine and snorted.

I warned him, "that's a long way off for a stalk to start this late. Let's go to that knob for a better look." I said, indicating a low round knob on the near lip of the canyon between us and the bull. "Maybe we'll see something closer in."

I was somewhat doubtful of our ability to pursue the bull, he was at least two miles and two plateaus and one canyon away. About two miles by ATV and about a mile hike along the far lip of the canyon to skirt three small lakes and the attendant bogs. Even using the machines it would be a long stalk and take a lot of time. We only had a little over an hour of shooting light left. We departed our high ridge and after several minutes of riding, climbed the knob trail. This halved the distance to the bull and gave us a great chance to observe the bull and confirm we had no game closer. It also gave us good opportunity to plan the stalk in detail and get an entirely different perspective on the terrain. The route to the bull would be just under a mile and would take a circuitous route to take advantage of natural features and avoid the obstacles.

We took the ATVs alongside the pipeline pad and ditched them on a gravel siding pad where perhaps during the construction days three decades ago a generator shed or a foreman's shack had been. In the darkening gloom the alders beyond looked foreboding, but we knew from our earlier observation that they would soon give way to lower brush. After crashing 50 or so yards  through the dense alder, we spooked a flock of ptarmigan out of the edge that nearly gave us both heart attacks. We both knew how much bears love holing up in alders until night when they prowl and hunt.

Along the pressure ridge, we kept a low rise between us and the caribou. My partner, despite my reassurances that the bull would still be there, fretted about it since it was largely out of sight. We arrived at the head of a drainage that emptied a small lake and from our previous vantage point knew he was on the hill beyond. Quiet as thieves we picked our way up the drainage and after several exhausting minutes in the thickening dark we arrived at the edge and there, on the far side, was the bull. Unfortunately, at 500 yards we were spotted and the bull's breath exploded in the a visible cloud as he snorted loudly. The sound carried across the water. Crap. Busted.

We tried to retreat into the thin brush and skirt the lake to our north, despite the stealth our quarry matched our move to the south. A reverse of several hundred yards to the south and the cagey little bull matched our move to the north. While not scared enough of us to bolt and flee across the ridge, he simply was determined to keep the lake between us. On our southern feint, we stopped at the toe of a long point that jutted out into the lake a good distance, perhaps a hundred yards or so. It wouldn't put us on the far side of the lake but it just might put us within shooting distance, albeit long.

We stalked along as best we could  in the low brush while the caribou fed and intermittently looked in our direction. The light was failing quickly and at some point when we stopped moving the caribou lost visual acuity of us completely. He panicked somewhat and after several minutes of running in circles- determined he was safe enough. We evaluated our situation; more or less stuck on a peninsula sticking into the lake with a bull prancing across the water at what we reckoned to be three hundred yards. About as long a shot as I'm comfortable with. My partner's rifle was a .300 Remington Ultra (for once magnumania worked in our favor) about as flat shooting as shoulder fired rifles get. At my insistence he stretched out prone across the top of a small beaver lodge while I spotted his shots with my rifle scope. I would fire only if he wounded the animal and I was needed to prevent its escape.


I was somewhat shocked by the ferocious muzzle blast of the rifle when he took his first shot- I saw a clod of tundra fly up behind the bull and I called the shot, "High." He cycled the bolt and ejected the smoking hull onto the grass and lined up for his next shot. Boom! The rifle rang out again and I clearly saw the impact of the bullet high. He was shooting over the caribou's back as is often the case when novice hunters attempt to shoot at extended ranges. "Where are you aiming?" I queried tersely.

"I'm aiming a foot over his back!" he said quickly racking the bolt. Clearly nervous the bull would bolt.

"Aim dead on! You're shooting over his back! And while you're at it, calm down and breathe " I replied. I looked at the bull. He was standing there, clearly alarmed at the sudden thunderclaps that had echoed over the tundra. Without a visual cue he was clueless as to which way to run- so he stood there broadside scanning furiously for danger. He was puffing like a locomotive and in the chilled air his breath flashed to steam instantly. Boom! The big rifle rang our again and I saw the impact of the bullet behind the shoulder clearly through my rifle scope, shock waves rippling over his flank. I saw an explosion of steam on the far side of the animal as his breath escaped the exit would.  I ejected the shell in my chamber, there would be no need to back that shot up, as the bull fell to the ground.

My partner was in shock, overjoyed at finding success after so much disappointment. Introduced to a new kind of hunting unique to the west, he was hooked.

"Nice shootin' partner...we've got a caribou to skin." I said as I dug my headlamp from my pack. It would be a very long night as dusk turned to dark. We had to gut and quarter the bull and then haul him out the varied terrain to the waiting ATVs and then a short ride out of the mountain to the waiting truck several miles away. The growing dark was accompanied by a cold rain.

It would be a miserable pack out.

By the time we arrived back at the camp the storm had grown into a full blown gale. Darkness, strong winds and cold rain had driven the other hunters into their tents and RVs to drink beer or coffee, tell tales or swap lies with their companions as we unloaded the meat in the dark. I wonder how many of them went to bed that night convinced there was no game there on that high plateau.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Evan, the Hunter.

After returning from my successful hunting trip, my son became pouty and sullen. I had abandoned him to the confines of school and learning while I went out and harvested game. I could tell from his disappointment that I was going to have to try to make it up to him. After chores the next morning, the family conferred and decided that we would take a Saturday trip down to the Denali area to enjoy the weather, pack a picnic, pick berries and take our Lab for a much overdue swim. Evan kept chattering about hunting for caribou so he could "do his part" to feed the family. At his insistence, I threw the hunting and field dressing gear in the back of the van to placate him. I figured that this hunting trip would be like others I'd taken him on- he'd either quickly tire of the endless glassing or back off from his determination that something should catch a bullet.

We pulled into our favorite spot at Octopus Lake (where we had camped a couple years ago) and got out to stretch after the long drive. We saw several parties of hunters working on caribou they had down and after a few moments with binoculars spotted several small bands of caribou moving through the drainage. As we ate our lunch a gunshot punctuated the fact that the caribou were still in the area. Evan was, of course, delighted at the prospect. We left the wife and dog at the van with the spotting scope. She would follow our progress down the drainage and watch the animals intermittently while she picked berries, played fetch with the dog and worked on her sewing.

I shouldered my pack and we moved out, Evan pressing ahead eagerly through the rough terrain and we followed the creek as it drained out of the lake and headed for the Gulkana some miles away. He was undeterred by bands of alder and bushwacked his way through with abandon. After a mile or so of hard won progress, I decided we should cross the creek to get on a low rise to the east that split the drainage into two irregular shaped canyons. Evan approached the water tenderly- clearly reluctant to get his feet wet. I waded out to the other side and dumped my gear, waded back and retrieved the boy high and dry. He'd only be little once and my feet would dry- eventually.

Arriving on the low rise, we pressed binoculars to our eyes and watched several bands of caribou further down the canyons as they fed and moved. Evan wanted to chase the closest group and shoot one immediately but I reminded him that chasing caribou like that was a fool's errand. The creatures wouldn't bolt and run- they'd simply continue browsing and outpace you. A much better tactic was to simply wait in ambush until one wandered close enough to shoot.

Evan's patience was certainly growing because after an hour of steady glassing I'd not heard a peep or grumble despite a slightly chilly wind and light drizzle of rain. We watched as a band of caribou had moved from one canyon to the other several times without getting close enough to launch a stalk when on the last move a small bull separated himself from the herd and began moving through the bottom of the drainage toward us. Still about a mile away we crept forward perhaps a hundred yards to the limits of our cover. With extreme patience we sat with baited breath as the bull moved to within 400 yards of us and simply stopped approaching and began feeding intently on some morsel he found growing there. Evan remarked to me in hushed tones- "I know what happens now...he's separated from the herd...that means he's gonna die, all the nature documentaries say so."

I asked him back in low tones, "Well how do you figure that Evan?"

Deadpan he replied back, "...cause we're gonna shoot him."

I informed him that he was still too far away to shoot and if he wanted me to shoot the bull he'd have to find us a way closer in. We backed slowly off of our advanced position and realized that there was no way to get off the hillside without the bull easily spotting us due to the dearth of cover available. Evan exclaimed very excitedly, "I've got an idea..." and laid out his plan.

I've got to confess its something I would have never considered in all my years in the field. We simply stood up and walked off the hill away from the plain sight. Evan had explained his plan- he didn't think that the bull would spook if he saw us walking away from him, getting further away instead of closer. Skeptical of the plan but feeling it might work we did just that- walking a quarter of a mile away as the perplexed caribou watched us retreat. I saw a couple of guys on ATVs at the top of the hill with a sense of dread. They likely thought we'd called off the stalk and would soon swoop in on their machines and shoot the bull. As the caribou disappeared from view behind a fold in the terrain Evan cried out "Let's go!" and took off for the creek at a dead run.

Arriving at the creek there was no hesitation this time, he plunged into the icy water up to his waist and forged across. I followed and we made our way up the slope past the bank and hooked back to where the caribou had continued feeding. We crossed several smaller streams and rivulets draining into the swollen creek and I hate to disclose I had a hard time keeping up with Evan through the alders- his smaller body contorting as he passed easily through the gnarled and twisted branches. I hadn't heard the ATVs yet and hoped the hunters had decided this small bull was a good one to pass up. We soon topped the small fold in the terrain that had held us concealed from the bull.

There he was! Evan's unconventional approached had halved the distance to something like two hundred yards. Evan was down on hands and knees now moving over the tundra in a scramble carefully keeping some low growing foliage between him and the bull to conceal his approach. I followed the best I could. Finally arriving at the last dwarf willow between us and the bull I was quite proud- we had followed the hunter's dictum to a 'T'. If you can get closer, get closer. If you can get steadier, get steadier. Evan beamed with pride as he looked at me with a smirk..."How's that for close?" his eyes said merrily.

I looked at the bull. He was feeding unconcernedly a mere hundred yards away. I cast a glance over my shoulder to the van back at the head of the drainage- a mile and a half. It was going to be a long evening packing this critter back that far. I crept around the willow and raised the rifle. Not wanting to stand offhand and risk startling the bull but unable to assume either prone or sitting due to the sloping, tussocky terrain; I simply crouched in an unconventional position that's best described as "Rice Paddy Prone meets Saturday Night Fever." I looked through the scope at the bull- he was huge in the 6x scope at this range and wonderfully steady. I glanced over at Evan, he was practically vibrating with excitement with his fingers in his ears to shield them from the muzzle blast. I slipped off the safety, looked through the scope and took up slack on the trigger as the crosshairs found the fold of flesh immediately behind the bulls shoulder.

Boom! The gun practically fired itself as I applied the final fractional pressure to the trigger when the crosshairs found their mark. The bull staggered at the impact. The shot was too close for the kugelschlag to sound separately from the muzzle blast but the shot felt good. The bull took a wobbly step forward, a good sign. Evan yelled out, "Shoot him again!" but there was no need. He took several more wobbly legged steps before his brain succumbed to the inevitable- he was hit hard but stubbornly stayed on his feet. I explained in quiet tones that additional shooting would only frighten the animal and that he was already as dead as he'd ever get at this point. I've always hated shooting a second time once an animal has been fatally hit. Besides, where do you shoot an animal you've already double-lunged?

After perhaps 5 seconds  the bull tipped over on his nose and was stone still. I stood up and looked back at Evan- he looked triumphant and a little bit sad. I had apparently done that bit of parenting right.

"Good job Evan, that was a great stalk. You got us so close I just couldn't miss."

I approached the animal from the rear and looked him over. Dead. I took off my pack and jacket and looked at the shot placement- perfect double lung shot at fairly close range. I knew there would be a matching hole on the other side and there would be little meat damage on this small bull. We started the butchering process, intending to quarter him. I would be packing meat most of the evening, he looked like he would take at least two and likely three loads to recover. Some shooting across the drainage reminded me that other hunters were taking advantage of the herd's proximity to the road system and were busy filling their tags and freezers as well. I told Evan, "Why don't you put your yellow rain coat back on? Probably a good idea."

We had just removed the second quarter when the rumble of an approaching ATV reached my ears. Taking a break from my task, I stood up and a young man approached and introduced himself saying his partner would be here in a few minutes with a meat trailer and their caribou. He told us they'd watched the whole thing from the edge of the overlooking rim of the drainage. They'd contemplated pursuing this one when they saw Evan's yellow rain coat emerge from the brush in a totally different spot so they elected to leave us to our bull and took a cow in the next canyon. They'd thought we'd broken off the pursuit but we had appeared out of nowhere.

"That was the best strategy and stalk I've ever seen. You guys are awesome hunters! You worked in so close and smoked that guy with one shot! We'd be happy to haul that guy back to the road for you if you like." he said, much to my relief.

I pointed at Evan and said, "He's the guy who planned that one. Now if I can just teach him to shoot the big rifle and grow him big enough to pack meat,  I won't even have to leave the house." We all shared a laugh as Evan beamed proudly with the small antlers in his hand.

Days just don't get much better than this.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Scoring Fast Food...or the Caribou is Down.

I was just recovering from my week of on- again/ off- again foul weather sheep hunting when one day at work my frequent hunting partner Dan came by my desk and asked about a weekend trip on his new boat. It sounded marvelous frankly- cruising the lakes looking for caribou or moose with a fishing pole in the water and a cup of coffee in my hand. All the while kicked back behind the console with a canvas top and Buddy Heater if the weather went south. It took me all of five seconds..."I'm in." I replied.

Dan arrived at the appointed time of 0'dark hundred and I quickly loaded my gear and away we went. We stopped off at the gas station and I fueled the boat and the truck while Dan went for coffee and doughnuts. A few adjustments to the tie downs and windshield cover and away we went  in Dan's big Dodge truck pulling the boat. We had a great trip down the highway and spotted numerous animals milling in the dawn light near the edges of the highway including a caribou who ran directly down the road in front of us for a half mile before veering off into the brush. It just felt like a great day to be hunting and I could taste success in the fall air.

As we turned down Denali Highway, the mists began burning off the numerous pothole lakes and patches of blue sky shown through the intermittent gray as the sun began its creep over the horizon. As we motored down the narrow and twisting highway we conversed about the coming fall season and goals we had for hunting as well as observing the changing fall colors of the blueberry bushes and willows. As we passed the boundary marker that announced we were now entering a "Subsistence Hunting Area" and validated the numerous tags we carried, I casually looked west at a rugged mountainside covered with several rocky benches and intertwined patches of moss...and caribou.

"Bou out the port side Skipper!" I announced and Dan quickly slowed the truck and pulled off the narrow shoulder. Finally feeling the momentum of the ponderous boat subside and the truck roll to a stop we jumped out to see the animals. This was ridiculous. We weren't even hunting yet. I had mixed feelings, this wasn't much of a hunt if we connected here on these caribou but then again- I had plenty of air in my freezer at this point.

"What do you think?" I queried as I heard Dan stuffing shells into the magazine of his rifle.

"I'm gonna put one in the freezer!" he answered and started across the road to line up a shot. Its illegal to shoot from, across or to a roadway in Alaska but you don't have to be very far from it to be legal in this location- just off the driveable surface. Dan stepped a couple dozen yards off the road to be on the safe side as I was foraging in the cab of the truck for my rifle shells and hurriedly playing catch up at this point. I had been caught unawares and this seemed almost surreal given the effort I'd expended the week prior for a mere photograph of a sheep, a mile away, through a spotter.

I was midway across the road when Dan, several dozen yards across the other side,  pulled up his rifle and fired offhand at a nice plump cow caribou at the edge of a small stone ledge- perhaps a hundred yards distant. I was trying to do too many things at once and this event was unfolding at high speed- running, observing, the animals, loading the rifle, watching Dan in the brush. I glanced up at the crack of the rifle and saw Dan's caribou fall headlong off the ledge. The sharp crack of the kugelschlag indicated the round had struck bone and the reaction of the animal indicated it was stone dead, even in mid fall.

The small band of caribou now exploded into action.

Finally drawing up to Dan I looked up the hill, the caribou were running confused- dodging left and right, pouring up the narrow approaches to the ledges and back down the far sides. Sometimes with herd animals a hunter is often confused by looking at the mass of animals rather than individuals and I fell solidly into the category at this time. I raised the rifle and looked- the crosshairs wobbled with my ragged breathing. I probably hadn't drawn a single breath since rounding the truck and burning lungs demanded air, right now. Animals were piled thick into each other and it was entirely possible to shoot through one and kill or wound one behind it. A disasterous situation.

Its funny how at times like this you mentally do the strangest things. I can only imagine that what I had practiced took over on autopilot as the hunter's dictum ran through my mind- If you can get closer, get closer. If you can get steadier, get steadier.

Closer? Unlikely given the speed at which the animals were moving away. Steadier? That I could do and plopped down on the rough gravel and assumed my favorite of all shooting positions- sitting. I looped up in the sling and drew tight as the animals finally slowed on top of a rock ledge at a distance we would later measure with a GPS as 255 yards. The caribou were still ganged up as I started tracking them through the crosshairs. A nice, fat cow caribou stood out in this small band but I held fire as I could see the legs of another caribou behind her. This was finally slowing down to a pace my brain could handle. The animals traversed the ledge south to north, headed for the lee of the drainage and safety.

"Got one picked out?" asked Dan. Obviously wondering if I was here to hunt or just watch with my mouth agape.

Through the scope I could see a phenomenon that I had observed countless times with all sorts of quadrupeds. Because ungulates have eyes on both sides of their heads they don't see particularly well forward or rear and since they have such limited depth perception with their visual arrangement, they almost always do the most peculiar thing. After an initial burst of speed when startled and a short mad run, the animals will simply stop to look around and see if they are pursued...generally broadside.

I tracked the mature cow and watched as she stopped on the ledge and looked around oblivious to our presence far down the hill. I also watched as the caribou behind her moved clear, providing an ideal, if somewhat long shot. Although it takes some time to write, the actual event took less than 10 seconds in reality. I evaluated- the crosshairs were marvelously steady with the rifle locked in with a taut sling and my forearms firmly on my shins and knees. The distance, albeit slightly longer than I normally like to shoot, was well within the capability of myself and the rifle. I looked carefully, flicked off the safety and took up slack on the fine trigger.

I applied the final fractional ounce to the trigger. Boom! The rifle cracked and I rocked back in recoil. I clearly heard the sound of bullet striking flesh, what the German hunters refer to as the kugelschlag. As I brought the rifle out of recoil I cycled a fresh cartridge into the chamber. I quickly found the ledge again in the scope but I couldn't find the cow again. The herd continued moving north and was soon around the ridge and out of sight.

All business, I calmly asked Dan, "Where?"

"Down!," he replied, "She flopped backwards at the shot and hasn't moved."

I scanned the area through the scope where I believed the caribou had fell, watching for the cow to recover from the initial shock and run off. Many hunters who follow up on game too quickly are surprised when their animal jumps up and runs off as they approach unprepared.

Nothing moving. I was nervous that one of the caribou now putting distance between us was carrying one of my bullets.

"Let's go," I said and we got up and started our climb up the hill. We quickly reached the base of the ledge that Dan's bou had tumbled down. The ledge was perhaps ten feet high and the cow was piled up right at the base. She had never felt the impact at the bottom. His .300 Winchester with a 150gr. bullet had hit the cow at somewhere near 3000 feet per second velocity at 100 yards. The impact force had broken the onside shoulder turning the shoulder blade fragments into secondary projectiles through the lungs. The bullet had punctured both lungs as well and still had plenty of momentum to completely shatter the offside shoulder and punch a large exit wound. Death had been instantaneous. We moved the cow onto a flat patch of ground on the steep hillside, marked it with flagging and got our bearings to continue up the hill to where mine hopefully lay.

We spread out about 50 yards apart and worked our way through the shin tangle and rocky ledges. We went up the steep hill slowly and looked out the ridge- there, perhaps 500 yards away, the rest of the herd had stopped and watched as we made our way up. I had just looked back and thought that I had surely went too far and passed the caribou in the brush. I also had the nagging voice in the back of my head- wondering if I had just wounded the animal and it made an escape as we had climbed up here. It had certainly taken long enough, perhaps ten minutes, to get here and the terrain had enough variation that a discreet escape unseen by us approaching from below would have been possible. I looked at the distant herd, watching for tell tale signs of a seriously wounded one- they all moved with the grace and posture that caribou normally display.

I pushed on and climbed a small, rocky chute to the next rocky ledge to get a vantage point to scan the brush below. The stones had been freshly dislodged as caribou had recently scrambled up this access to the bench above- a good sign. As I pulled myself over the edge of the ledge there was my caribou, stone dead where she fell. I felt a rush of relief as I examined the animal with the distinctive smaller velvet covered antlers. She was in excellent condition, plump and healthy- prime sustenance and wonderful table fare for my family this winter. I examined the wound- the bullet had entered just behind the shoulder, penetrated the vitals and after rolling her over saw it exited high lung through the ribs. Death would have been exceptionally quick and given the myriad of ways caribou die out here in this harsh land- maybe merciful to an extent since old age is not one of them.

While the act of killing isn't something I particularly enjoy, I do take great satisfaction in being proficient at the task. If I cause an animal's death, I strive to do so with minimal suffering. I reflected for a moment here on the mountain with my animal- the caribou had went from alive and living free to quite dead in mere seconds. I wondered a bit about my own eventual death. Would it be as merciful or as quick? After seeing my father's lingering and prolonged suffering bout with cancer my views on death had perplexed me somewhat over the last year. I tired of such melancholy and dark thoughts in such a beautiful setting. Dan rounded a point a short distance away and we had lots of hard work ahead to do given our unexpected and quick success.

"Hey Dan...she's over here. Down in her tracks..."

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sheep Hunting...Weather's Remission.

continued from "Sheep Hunting...Weather's Finale"

On Thursday morning, at about the second pot of coffee and something like the twenty-fifth check of the NOAA website the change occurred. It took me a minute to pick out the small change after days of viewing it with the same repetitive forecast that accompanies these huge, slow moving low pressure systems.

"Rain, with low lying clouds and decreased visibility in the Eastern Mountains" became instead, "Partly Cloudy with clearing in the afternoon and increased chance of rain in the evening". In other words- sloppy just became partly sloppy.

Before my browser could fully load the page I had already cut and pasted the forecast into a text message and forwarded it to my partner. We had a single day left to hunt and it appeared that our weather lock down was being given by a rogue high pressure system that moved farther to the East than anticipated and would (at least temporarily) push the low pressure monster back over the mountains into Prince William Sound. I received a text from my partner almost immediately- "Tomorrow? What are you thinking?". I replied, " Day trip- pack light, essentials only, hike fast for search and destroy. Leave at 7a, back at dinner."

The reply came back quickly- "Cool."

As we motored south down the highway toward the mountain valley that held our hunt area the weather forecast didn't look accurate as the wipers slapped in rhythm on the windshield. Looking to the north, behind us, the sky was clearing with some blue patches showing so there was some validity to the premonition of the weatherman. As we parked the Jeep, the rain had slackened and we were able to begin our climb in rain gear to protect us from the water pouring off the foliage we had to pass through.

We had packed light- I only had my pack, rifle, spotter, rain gear, lunch and a few survival essentials along- probably a pack weight of 15 pounds total including my heavy tripod. My partner had packed similarly and we moved quickly up the trail toward the tree line. I was weary from the earlier excursions this week but I quickly had the soreness hiked out of my muscles and we broke treeline sooner than expected. We had covered five miles and several thousand vertical feet in just over two hours. We were moving fast over the broken terrain in anticipation of finding the broomed ram still hiding away in the cliffs at the head of the drainage. After being burned earlier in the week, we kept one eye on the weather, and as we gained altitude we could see the dark clouds of the low pressure system being held at bay on the summits of the mountains to our south. Once our current high pressure passed to the east, this system would reclaim the mountains with a vengeance.

Moving through the rock fields we spurred the cries of hoary marmots, collared pikas and ground squirrels (all preferred food for grizzly bears). Each made a distinctive noise that signified their intruder alert for their colonies. As we crossed the high tundra to our over watch for the ram we found our resident caribou- still parading around like an energetic pony. Apparently he was living in anticipation of the coming rut. Every few hundred feet we would slow and scan the surrounding hillsides for any sign of sheep. The sky now perfectly clear, the sun grew intense and hot. Remembering our frigid and soaking experience earlier, I had only a wool watch cap in my pack- my beloved baseball cap forgotten at home. I was going to get a sunburn in one of the weirder twists in my hunting career.

After a hard slog to 5500', we approached the ridge summit cautiously and peered over. We were both giddy with anticipation to see the ram in his favorite spot- hanging out with his two youthful sub legal buddies munching a favored plant that grew on the benches there.

The ram that wasn't there anymore.

We looked very hard and over the next couple of hours picked apart every glen, glade, nook, cranny and crag with the spotter; desperate to get a look at the broomed ram. What we found was disheartening- all the sheep were clinging hard in the escape terrain. The steepest, most difficult and inaccessible parts of the mountain. Ewes, lambs, young rams- stuck on pinnacles and spires looking watchfully over the drainage below. But none was the mature ram or his two partners, they had vanished in the rising mist.

As we picked our way off the mountain the high pressure that gave us such fair weather was starting to wane and the first clouds off the storm began to pour in over the high passes. By the time we reached the jeep a light drizzle started to fall. I had been on one of the hardest and most rewarding hunts of my life despite not harvesting an animal. I was ready to call it quits and give my battered body a rest and turn my attentions to caribou season now starting to pick up in earnest and look for moose in the lowland bogs in order to put some delicious meat in the freezer for the winter. By the time we reached my home, the view south was a solid wall of cloud and rain and wind. We had spent the only precious clear hours of the early season where we wanted to be- on the mountain among sheep.

Sheep season was over for me. It was my first experience seriously chasing sheep but it would not be my last. My partner and I are already discussing next August's foray to chase rams among the clouds.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Sheep Hunting...Weather's Finale

After donning what was left of our dry clothes and shaking out our rain gear we began to pack up our camp. Few people have any realization exactly how much a wet camp weighs in comparison to a dry camp but on your back it feels like several hundred pounds of water trapped between the layers of your high tech, gossamer fabrics. In reality, it's probably about 15% more weight due to water. After packing up everything the best we could in the drizzling mist, we began the long descent.

The initial terrain was waterlogged tundra interspersed with rivulets of water recently deposited on the mountaintop now headed for the seas. Walking across boggy tundra with a heavy load is exhausting for those who haven't tried it but after a couple of miles and  roughly a 1000' feet of fall in elevation we came the steepest part of the descent- an 800 foot drop in as many horizontal feet. A fall here would entail a long tumble to very nearly the bottom of the mountain. We adopted the mantra "slow and safe" before we started down the broken shale face, now slickened by the rain. If the temperature had fallen another ten degrees and resulted in a light snow or ice storm this face would be suicidal to descend.

Things were going pretty well with all things considered- we made good time attempting to beat the setting sun prior to getting to the final part of the hike, a descent through a thick black spruce forest interwoven with impenetrable bands of alder. Navigating past a scree chute, I planted my outboard trekking pole and as I transferred my weight from my foot to the pole the dreaded happened. The pole collapsed and folded under me. Suddenly I was caught off balance on a steep slope with a 60 pound pack on. I was exhausted from several days of hiking and little sleep. I reacted the only way I really could and I sprawled out on the rocks rather ungracefully and attempted to catch myself on something solid before gravity took over and pitched me headlong into the misty abyss below.

My right hand found a jut off rock just as I started to slide and I managed to dig my pack in as well. Thankfully my unintended momentum stopped and for the moment I was safe. I noticed a tremendous pain in my thigh, I had fallen rather hard on my right side and my thigh had impacted a sharp piece of granite protruding from the face. That hurt. I quickly assessed my condition and determined the bone probably wasn't fractured but I did have a small cut and a rather large scrape on my leg that burned like fire. I would bleed a little but I'd live. I managed to work my way to safety where I could rest and regroup with my partner who lagged several hundred feet behind me for safety since we didn't want to fall into each other or dislodge a rock onto the hunter below. Already I had noticed several rocks plunging at high speed from his struggles and I had sent more than a few bouncing down myself.

We at last came to the large rock ledge where our descent transitioned from open cliffs and high alpine tundra back to the forested slopes. We had about a mile to go and about 1500 feet to descend back to the highway where our vehicle was parked. It was 8:00p and we looked like we had just been on a forced march. I had a visible limp from my swelling thigh and my partner's boots had stretched to the point he had to walk gingerly or the whole boot would roll under his foot causing a fall. We drank some water and powered down a couple of candy bars each. We had descended below the thick cloud layer and looking up the sky and mountainside were just a huge wall of grey water trapped in the atmosphere.

I transitioned my trek poles for my rifle. I did this for a couple of reasons- first, encounters with bears would be at rock throwing distance in this thick wood and (maybe not so obviously) walking through the alders and spruce with a rifle barrel sticking two feet over my head would ensure a lot of snagging and fighting an already heavy pack down the mountain. I tightened my straps and found the faint line of the trial in the now darkening forest and plunged in.

I wish I could say our descent down the mountain was a graceful walk down a thin line of a trail through the brush, but it wasn't. The trail was little used and had the habit of vanishing in the brush periodically. We were so tired and exhausted we just plowed though. Like human bulldozers, we knew the way was down and as long as the next step was lower than the first we pressed ahead. Every contact with the trees or the tall alders would dislodge hundreds of collected raindrops and it would pour down on us, soaking us to the bone despite our raingear. Not that it mattered, despite temperatures in the mid 40s we were sweating heavily under our heavy packs; when we stopped in a thicket the prevented the breeze from moving through we steamed profusely. After two hours of this hellish hike we emerged out of the trees, just a few hundred feet from our vehicle. We were battered, bruised, exhausted and soaked, but we were down. It was 11:00pm.

The next day I awoke to the smell of strong coffee permeating the house. My wife had let me sleep in and it was 10:30, hours later than I usually sleep as an early riser. I tried out a few moves while still horizontal. Yep, everything hurt. Despite weeks of training the only thing to prepare you for sheep hunting was sheep hunting. I managed to stagger downstairs and filled my mug with coffee. I looked out the window at the torrential late summer Alaska downpour. The Granite mountains, normally visible from my home, were just a mass of cloud and water. I checked the NOAA site and a couple of FAA Weathercams in the hunt area from my PC. No break in sight in the forecast and just a gray blur on the webcam from the thick fog. That set a pattern that would repeat itself for several days. Drink coffee, watch rain, check forecast (no change from 30 minutes ago), send email to my partner back at his home, restlessly read a magazine, drink coffee, watch get the idea.

Then on Thursday, after checking the weather for the fourth or fifth time that morning, I noticed a change in the forecast...

to be continued.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Sheep Hunting...Wolverines and Weather Pt. 3

continued from Pt. 2....

As I peered down the ridgetop, I saw immediately what my partner was referring to- a brown/blond animal moving toward us at high speed! As I looked closer it didn't have the lumbering gait of a grizzly bear but rather the characteristic lope of a wolverine! Some 100 yards away it did have the appearance of a bear, especially in the frontal profile- but this creature was closing the distance rather quickly and was bearing down (rather determinedly) toward my partner. I was partially obscured by a small pile of rocks and only after we both moved laterally did the wolverine see there were two humans and break off to the other side of the rock pile. Hearing the animal scrambling over the loose shale behind the scree pile, what it did next surprised me greatly. It popped up behind us. I'm used to seeing wildlife and occasionally animals do things that surprise us. I fully expected this wolverine to scamper off down the hillside, happy to escape the presence of two other much larger predators- not circle around to flank us!

Being in the presence of a creature with the panache and reputation of a wolverine had my rifle at my shoulder- not that I expected trouble, but the wolverine's behavior was already surprising at this point. I must say at this point that wolverine attacks on humans are exceptionally rare and most serious research into such degrade pretty quickly into stories and legend. But there are several documented occurrences and a few more that fall into "likely" wolverine attacks but the events are not even remotely common. There are also several local stories of wolverines that have exhibited stalking behavior toward humans. Would the wolverine have had a go at my partner had he been alone? No one could say with any certainty, but I think so given the determination he exhibited in the charge. What he did next surprised me even more.

As he came around the scree pile he came to a full stop a mere 20 feet away- much closer than I've ever been to a wild wolverine. This was, in fact, only my fourth sighting of these creatures in 12 years. Looking at him over the top of the rifle scope with my index finger resting on the trigger as he emitted a low growl standing on his rear legs, we sat "eyeball to eyeball" for what seemed like an amazingly long time. He seemed genuinely irked that he rounded the pile looking us in the face rather than seeing our vulnerable backs. I must admit that the thought of tangling with this guy was as appealing as juggling running chainsaws (with similar results) and I gave serious thought to killing it right then and there. In fact, I planned that if it dropped to all fours facing me I was going to blast it off the mountain with a .300 magnum shell. I've never been seriously challenged by a wild creature that weighed perhaps all of 30 pounds but here I was...and I've got to admit I didn't like it.

Much to my relief, gulo gulo (the glutton) dropped to all fours headed away from us and speedily galloped down the ridgetop in the direction of the knoll we'd just rested on. I'd hate to think of what might have happened had I napped a bit longer and had this thing wander across me dead asleep. We scouted around the ridgetop, thinking we might have disturbed it in its den but we found nothing but barren rocks for hundreds of yards in every direction. Slightly shaken, but undeterred from our sheep mission, we continued along the lee of the ridge toward the head of the drainage. Stopping periodically we looked across the top of the ridge beyond the drainage to our ram, still resting on his perch chewing his cud with a couple of other immature rams for company.

After a couple more miles, we could visually scout a route across the drainage and onto the opposite ridge above the ram. We held a "council of war" as O'Connor would have written and made a plan to begin our stalk at first light (about 4:30am). We'd make a long, arduous hike up and around the head of the drainage and climb the opposite ridge to a point where we could hopefully get a clean shot at the ram without him spotting us or falling down the cliff that he presided over. We glassed the terrain and looked for potential obstacles, consulted the map and reckoned the stalk would entail a 5 mile hike from camp and a vertical ascent of an additional 1000 feet. Unfortunately, the 1000ft climb would only be possible after a 1000ft descent through the drainage and an equal ascent to our level on the opposite side. It looked exhausting after our activities of the last few days.

We crept up the ridge to peer over and I was surprised again to not see the ram, but a solid wall of thick cloud had blown up the drainage. The ram was perhaps a 1/2 mile away and now swathed in fog. The sporadic rain that had fallen since I woke up from the nap turned into a more steady rain. The ceiling which had been unlimited yesterday had steadily moved down to our level and continued to drop. By the time we had hiked a half mile on our route back to camp, visibility had fallen to a mere 20 or 30 feet. Out on the barren alpine tundra, without a visible landmark to guide is back to camp we would have certainly become lost without a GPS. Even with a GPS we'd get off course within a few minutes if we didn't make a conscious effort to follow the indicator. We quickly abandoned the concept of getting a bearing and then turning it off in a bid to save battery life. The hike back which had taken a mere hour on our way out took over three to get back. To make matters worse, a torrential rain began to fall soaking our boots and running through any chink in our rain gear armor.

Arriving back in camp, we piled into our respective tents and I stripped off whatever wet garments I had (which were nearly all despite serious rain gear), made an effort to mop up the residual water in the tent with a handkerchief and then I climbed into my bag to warm up. I must admit, the thought of the weather turning sour like this was deeply discouraging and given the exceptional weather we'd enjoyed so far in the hunt, put a cramp into my spirit I was having a hard time overcoming. I ate a little food and peered out from the door at the steady rain and obscured peaks that surrounded us.

The high pressure system that had given us blue sky and fair breezes had finally given way to the low pressure system pouring over the peaks and through the passes to our south. We didn't know it at that moment but the snow line was now creeping from 8000 ft to just a few hundred feet above our camp at 5500ft. But we couldn't know that- the ceiling had dropped to just 2000 ft., nearly to the valley floor far below. Without visibility, sheep hunting in this weather was useless. Just useless. The only way we'd bag a ram is if he wandered into our camp and became entwined in our guy lines. Busted.

At this point, I did something most unusual on any Alaska hunt. I pulled out my Blackberry and fired it up. Given our elevation and proximity to an AT&T microwave station, perhaps I could get a signal. Surprisingly I did- its becoming more common to get such signals as our communications infrastructure grows- a few years ago this would have been impossible. I navigated to the NOAA website and checked our forecast. Days of this weather without change as the low pressure system became the dominant climatic force in the region. That low system brought heavy rain, low cloud, no visibility and a broken spirit. With just a week scheduled to hunt and no break in the weather in sight our useless turned into hopeless.

Like broken men we donned our rain gear and began packing our soaking wet camp for the long descent off the mountain. I couldn't help but feel like we were throwing in the towel but given our current situation our only other option would be to hang out in our tiny mountaineering tents, try to stay dry, try to stay sane and think about rams. We planned to hold our schedules open in the event the weather broke we would make another assault up here after the ram.  With a heavy pack and a heavy heart, I walked off the mountain.

to be continued....

Author's note- wolverine photo credit Wikipedia Commons.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Sheep Hunting...Wolverines and Weather Pt. 2

continued from Pt.1...

As the sun continued to set we realized just what an exhausting day we'd had- a long, hard climb with heavy packs followed by more mileage searching out a ram. I've got to admit that getting in the bag felt good. Shedding heavy boots, jacket and outer layers; I nestled myself into the warm down cocoon and within moments I was dozing contentedly.

A short time later I was jolted awake. The cooling earth to the south was causing the air to contract- generating a stiff breeze. The conflicting weather systems consisting of the low pressure cell moving off the Gulf of Alaska over the pass to our south and the stationary high pressure parked over the Interior were competing for dominance and that competition resulted in wind... a lot of it. Sheltered as we were behind our fortress of broken shale we were spared a direct onslaught of the wind but the williwaw blasts still managed to generate a random pattern of gusty blasts that rattled our tents unmercifully. I'd estimate the winds at elevation to gust in 60mph range. I had utmost confidence in my single wall mountaineering tent to survive such a blow without damage but there's a huge difference between surviving a windstorm and sleeping through one. I'll be the first to admit that I'm a light sleeper in the wilderness and the windstorm partnered with my new partners snoring ensured that I slept little and what little I got was fitful. Only after daybreak with a warming Interior helping that high pressure system regain the upper hand did I manage to get a couple hours of sleep.

Waking for the hundredth time about 8:00am finally did it- an aching back and bursting bladder finally convinced me to wake up and stir around. I gathered my water bottle and filter and walked the short distance to a small seep of water running across the alpine tundra. It only took a few minutes to pump 48oz. of water and just a few moments later I was back at camp making oatmeal and coffee in the Jetboil. Hot food and caffeine never tasted so good after a long restless night. I reflected that last night's wind was precisely the reason a couple of my mountaineering pals read the isobar charts the way other folks read their email or morning paper. As the elevation increases the margin for error in predicting the weather gets perilously slim. A thunderstorm that presents a stiff breeze and inconvenient rain a couple hundred feet above sea level will be much more dangerous at 5,000 feet and perhaps generate fatal conditions at 10,000.

With my partner rousing a few minutes later, I passed the stove to him so he could eat his breakfast and we could get moving for the day. He ate a quick breakfast and we packed daypacks in anticipation of spending the day exploring the adjacent drainage several miles from camp where we saw the legal ram bed down yesterday. Setting off on a easterly course, we found the hiking much more pleasant if we plotted a course along the pressure ridges of gravel and rock near the high points of the saddles and along the spines of the ridges. These firm surfaces made much better terrain for walking that a straight line course across the alpine bowls filled with tundra. An extremely rainy summer had left the spongy tundra full of water with many seeps and tiny ponds with vegetation that was soft. Tundra is often described as walking on a soft mattress covered in bowling balls and the description is as apt as any I've heard.

Distances across the wide open tundra were also very different than those at lower elevations. For instance, the straight line distance across an alpine bowl might appear to be a few hundred yards but in reality would be a mile across. Without substantial vegetation to give size reference we found estimating distances beyond a couple hundred yards nearly impossible. A short distance away a large bull caribou followed us curiously appearing every few minutes. A couple miles along the ridge and we were arriving at the round topped peak where the ram was feeding the evening before.Taking our time and moving slowly we found a lot of sheep sign and a colony of exceptionally vocal hoary marmots. Making our way to the edge to look over the main drainage of XXX Creek we found ourselves staring at the ram, just a 1/2 mile away. With a catch- there was a 3000 ft deep chasm between us.

We kept low and out of line of the rams keen eyesight. At this range, with the rams already bedded in escape terrain we were unlikely to spook them but we were certainly likely to change their movement patterns. Eyeing the deep canyon between us, reaching the ram would either entail a hair raising descent and an exhausting climb in a direct line or a long arduous walk several miles up the ridge and crossing the drainage where it was shallower. The first option was foolish- chasing sheep in their escape terrain was ridiculous. One whiff, one inclination and that ram could spook and leave us sucking wind while he effortlessly sprinted over the ridge where we'd be unlikely to find him again. The second option looked better although longer since sheep rarely look for danger from above them and getting above the ram from the east and approaching down the spine of the ridge would be relatively safe although a hike measured in miles. We decided to just hang tight and quietly shadow the ram from here. We took several photos and the ram finally gave us a good look at that right horn. Broomed and he was legal. We'd found our first target.

Exhausted from a long night, I found a soft patch of grass out of the returning wind to lay down and take a nap in. I've got to admit that the nap was something I needed desperately. I slept very deeply and after a couple of hours I looked up- just a few feet away a collared pika (a small member of the rabbit family) was looking intently at me. I'm quite confident that had I not woke up, that little guy would have climbed right up on my chest and foraged my jacket pocket for trail mix. I roused up and immediately noticed what had broke my nap- a few small drops had fallen on my face.


I quietly made my way down to where my partner was bivouacked. He'd gotten a short nap and eaten some lunch while keeping periodic eyes on the ram. Looking around I noticed the ceiling had moved in and no longer did we have a bluebird sky but the entire sky was the color of matte stainless steel- dark and impenetrable. The ceiling had also moved down considerably and was now obscuring the higher peaks at 8,000 feet. While we watched the ram we saw the occasional low flying cloud sail up the drainage. The weather was deteriorating more rapidly than we had thought. We decided the ram with the deteriorating weather would be unlikely to move from his perch. We thought we would take a look at the head of the drainage where we would have to cross tomorrow in a bid to take the ram. We placed the ridge spine between us and the ram and headed up the drainage to the northeast toward a dramatic looking bluff of soft mineral that was obviously breaking down rapidly turning the glacial stream flowing through the drainage a green-gray color.

As we were walking out the ridge my partner pointed and excitedly called out, "Hey look! Is that a bear?"

To be continued...