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."

Apologetics

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.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The "Husky" Mystery...

Occasionally one stumbles across a memory that is simply too good not to share. These memories tend to lodge themselves in the rear crevasses of the mind and wait there for a good opportunity to present themselves. As I sat here this evening struggling with writer's block and a trying to think of a topic to explore, the memory burst forth from the dim and dusty recess of Hodgeman's mind and voila'! Problem solved.

Way back in the days when I was a "cheechako" in Alaska, one of the first friends I made was a fellow by the name of Tom. Tom had been in Alaska for a number of years and had homesteaded a property some miles in the Bush and eventually feeling the desire to leave hard work coupled with abject poverty he moved into the city to get a job. Tom and I became fast friends and he taught me a lot of things about life in Alaska during our time in Anchorage. During a dinner gathering one evening with our families the (inevitable around me) topic of hunting and guns came up.
Feeling the urge to show off his prized smokepole he went to a back room and brought back one of the most ill kept weapons I've ever seen. Not exactly what I expected a seasoned veteran of the Bush to be toting- a Husqvarna 640 in .270 Winchester. He was quite proud of the rifle despite it showing lots of age and "character marks" on the worn bluing and stock. "This here rifle I bought in '85 in Fairbanks...I took this, 4 boxes of ammo, an axe, a wall tent, and a kitten and got dropped off in Skwentna to start my homestead...", he replied. I sat there examining the rifle and wondered somewhat foolishly if he had eaten the kitten when the first winter hit somewhat mystified why he'd take such a thing as a kitten for serious homesteading.
After I examined the rifle a little more closely the kitten made more sense than that particular rifle did.

The rifle had started life in the era of post WWII at Fabrique Nationale in Belgium in the late 40s as a commercial Mauser 98 action and then sent to the enterprising Swedes at Husqvarna to turn into a whole rifle. Those were the days when the wheels of America's economic engine were chugging robustly and war savaged Europe was still reeling from collapse as Hitler's armies vanished and left smoke in their wake. That much European handwork is largely unaffordable today but in those destitute times these were destined to be "budget" rifles- a lower priced competitor to the big name American manufacturers. That was also before the Swedes determined that relying on one of your bigger competitors for something so basic as an action was bad for business if that business is making rifles.
This particular rifle, however, was destined to be sent to the American market and chambered in .270 Winchester, a cartridge at the very apex of its popularity in the early 50s. The "Husky" somehow wandered into Fairbanks, Alaska in the 70s oil boom and was sold in the 80s oil bust by a pipeline worker looking for a plane ticket home. It was bought by a very inexperienced drifter named Tom, who had a homestead claim in Skwentna that the ink was as wet on as he was behind the ears.

Fifteen years later he talked to me about hunting with the rifle, feeding his family and using the rifle for protection on the trail. I checked the action (smooth as glass, meticulous Swedes and Bavarians), admired the hand knurling on the sight plane of the receiver rings (reduces glare) and hoisted the old cannon and looked through the rear sight and noticed a major problem.

"Hey Tom," I asked, "Did you know you're missing your front site?"

"My what?", he replied quizzically.

"Your front sight blade. See this groove...you're supposed to have a sight blade with a bead sitting in there. You place the bead in the rear sight's notch for windage and elevation control. Surely the rifle had one." I pontificated. I had lots of experience shooting with open sights and felt very proud of my knowledge about such items.

"Nope, never recall having one of those," he replied earnestly as if all rifles had optional front sight blades.

At this point I felt like perhaps my leg was being significantly pulled by my new friend and he was showing off some pawn shop pickup prank to his cheechako friend while his "real" gun, perhaps a Model 70 Winchester or Remington 700 in a real "Alaska Cartridge" like a .338 Win Mag resided back in the closet somewhere. Feeling a little smug I replied a little sarcastically,"But did you ever kill anything with it?"

"Oh not much," came his response in total honesty," Just a moose or two every year (that's about 25 total in 15 years), a few caribou, a dozen black bears and one really pissed off grizzly."

I sat there dumbfounded now that I realized Tom was entirely serious. I had thought while I planned my Alaska move (fueled by everything I could read on the subject in the sporting press in those early Internet days) that all real Alaska rifles had to have a .338 bore or bigger or it would bounce off a bear and a .300 Win Mag was "OK" for ladies and coyotes as long as they were backed up by a real man toting a real man's gun. A real Alaska woman shot a .338 like a man though- on account of local ammo supplies consisting of nothing but .338 shells. Having to have your hubby or boyfriend import your weakling rifle ammo was supposedly considered "high maintenance". Now I was confronted by a man who'd raised a family on meat provided by what amounted to a surplus Mauser in a pipsqueak cartridge missing half of its sighting equipment...apparently a man who never knew better to boot. "How the heck did you ever hit anything with this thing?" I asked in total shock.

His reply was as deadpan as the rest of his conversation..." Well, moose are pretty big if you can get pretty close...."
.
Author's note- the rifle depicted in the photograph is not the rifle spoken of in the article. Picture the rifle in the photo after being drug behind a log truck for several miles... you get the point. The photo is one I retrieved from Google- Husky 640s being so common around the house and all... I give photo credit to whoever took it but it wasn't me.

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.

Brrr.