When Humanitarian Projects Aren’t

Engineers, especially civil engineers, build things.  It’s what we do, and we consider each project, large or small, “our” project.  Being a civil engineer in the Army engineer branch was especially rewarding.  We played with bridge sets, construction equipment, and building parts.  Army combat engineering also meant building structures for war: runways, fighting positions for men and tanks, and obstacles to channel the enemy.  Also, to every army engineer’s delight, the combat engineer mission takes things apart, usually with explosives.  We learned how to blow up defensive positions, bridges, roads, buildings, other weapons, and pretty much anything that would make those channeling obstacles more effective.

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The daily blast of unexploded ordinance (UXO’s) found and gathered on a construction site.

 

When I went to war in 2003 as a mobilized Army Reservist, I was several years into a civilian career building modern infrastructure standards, utilities, roads, buildings, airports, etc.  While I stayed fluent in combat engineering, my expertise was in the non-combat engineering.  Many times my mission downrange gravitated to infrastructure projects.

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The author inside the beginnings of the Darualaman Afghan National Army (ANA) base

 

Early in my tour we worked on building a small campus in Kabul that was to house a training site for Afghan National Army (ANA) senior officers.  The site appeared to have formerly been a business with equipment storage, a multi-story building, some out buildings, and a water well inside a about a 3-acre walled site.  It was downtown, about a city block from the Ghazi Stadium sports arena.  During the 1990’s, the Taliban staged hundreds of executions and amputations in that stadium, then mopped up the blood, and continued to hold soccer or cricket matches.  It made world news at the time.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/half-an-hour-after-the-executions-kabul-stadium-opens-for-football-1171749.html

As we razed some areas and rehabilitated others in our soon-to-be campus, we got to the well.  On the surface it looked, like many things in Afghanistan, straight out of ancient times.  It was a large open ring structure at ground level surrounding a deep hole.  We began excavating the well in hopes of bringing it back into use.  With the excavated dirt came some bits of clothing…then the bones.  There were too many skeletons to count.  They all had one thing in common.  We found no skulls.  These were the bodies of those who were beheaded just up the street at the stadium.  One could only guess where the heads went.

Many times since, I’ve wondered how those atrocities made the builders of that stadium feel.  An engineer tries to improve on the overall quality of life, health, and safety.  At the end of a large project like that, they can look back and think about all the joy and memories that would be made at their new stadium.  I could not imagine the horror that stadium builder must have felt upon learning that his crown jewel project had turned into a killing field.  It had to weigh heavy trying to rationalize the greater good that project must have had over the years outside of Taliban rule.  This might be in combination with the understanding that if one engineer would not have taken the job, another would have stepped up right behind him.

In 2004 I served with civil affairs (CAT-A) teams in southern Afghanistan, mainly in the Kandahar province.  We were involved in countless “civil-military” operations helping to get the country, its provinces, cities, and villages develop the infrastructure they desperately needed.  We ran the projects in the less permissive (dangerous) areas while civilian agencies ran projects in the more permissive areas.  Our project list included clinics, power plants, bridges, roads, wells, and schools.  We likened it to the Peace Corps with guns.  My vocation prejudices me, but I firmly believe the world would be a safer and healthier place if every human had a roof over their head, a safe place to educate their kid, and a reasonably clean toilet. Everything else has a way of taking care of itself.

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A new well in the Kandahar province.

 

There were a couple new schools from scratch, but most of the school projects involved doubling the size of an existing school to accommodate girls.  Under Taliban rule, women were to be hidden away and start cranking out babies once they hit puberty.  Any education of females was forbidden.  It was truly rewarding to see and help all these children get at least some education.

I’ve been home for 10 years now and the good memories overshadow the bad.  The schools definitely go into the good column.  At least they did until last month.

 

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One village anticipating its new school

 

On December 17th, 2014, Pakistani Taliban killed 141 people, including 132 children, inside a school in northwest Pakistan.  That also made world news.  Anyone who’s fought or studied the Taliban can tell you why.  Their reason is to make a point, THEIR point, about women and school and what happens if you go against Taliban teaching.  If they can wrap that point up with the families of those schoolchildren being Pakistani anti-Taliban military, so much the better.

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/asia/2014/12/fighters-attack-army-run-school-pakistan-20141216742794184.html

This made me wonder what atrocities aren’t even making the news.  A good portion of Pakistan and Afghanistan are basically the same country.  There is no “Welcome to Pakistan” sign when you get to the border.  Most people in the outlying villages couldn’t tell you, much less care, which country they’re in.  These kind of killings, maimings, point-makings are going on everywhere the Taliban are trying to stay in power and feel like they can get away with it.  They only make the news if they cross some threshold of butchery.

 

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Thanks for the school!

 

All this circled me back to my schools.  I can name every major injury or death on my civilian projects in my 20-year career and thankfully it is a single-digit number.  Even these few weigh on someone trying to make a living improving quality of life one yard of concrete at a time.  But now I went from wondering how many educations were given in those Kandahar schools in the last decade to how many kids had been killed, injured, or otherwise became a point made by the Taliban.  I try to rationalize it.  I try to get my head around all the good that can be done by all those now-educated children versus how much pain and suffering must have gone down inside those walls.  The acid attack from a couple years ago made some news, that was one of our schools.  I tell myself if our CAT-A team hadn’t run those projects, someone else would have.  We were doing our job and had the luxury of seeing direct return on our efforts.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/14/world/asia/14kandahar.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

I try to teach my own kids how good they have it without giving them nightmares.  I pray that the unspeakable acts stop.  My rational mind knows they won’t, so I do everything possible to ensure this stuff never darken the steps of my family or my country.  I know I did my part, and so many others are doing their part, to see to that.

We engineers come to appreciate the good things our projects bring to the world.  Thankfully, most never have to contemplate the bad things.

High Comedy in Low Places

War means something different to every person, especially every participant.  We did manage a few laughs here and there in Aghanistan.  We took our missions seriously, but that didn’t mean we had to take ourselves seriously every second of the day.

A Peck of Afghan Peppers

Early in 2003, my engineer team frequently worked directly with the Afghans. On any given day we dealt with Afghan construction contractors, their laborers, Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers and officers, our interpreters, and even local officials. Thus, we frequently dined with them on all types of meals from ANA chow hauls, contractor lunches around the gas stove, or extravagant meals in officers’ and officials’ homes.

On one particular instance, five of us from our team met with a senior ANA officer in his home for a big lunch. It was a modest apartment in Kabul but he and his family pulled out all the stops. There was chicken, lamb, rice with currants, even some beef which was a rarity. Among the vegetables were, I presumed, some slices of a rather misshapen green bell pepper.

About midway through the meal I grabbed a slice of that pepper and took a bite. Now, I’m as Anglo-European-American as they come, but I do like spicy food. I can make it about 2/3 of the way down the spicy sauce list at the local wings place before I begin having second thoughts. This morsel, however, was less bell pepper than it was white phosphorus vegetable grenade.

About two seconds into chewing I felt fire growing in my mouth. Soon I felt like I had a mouthful of acid about to burn my face off like a giant match head that just touched a flame. This was the hottest pepper I had ever come in contact with…the sweat forming on my forehead, eyes, neck and palms told the story as the ANA officer grinned in amusement. Before long I had inhaled my water and my Pepsi and was doing my best to ask for more rice without hacking up a lung. At one point I’m pretty sure I saw the face of Elvis in the apartment wall.

That was all big fun for the whole crew and I just chalked it up to experience. Experience that would indeed prove handy.

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The next week, the kindly ANA officer again invited our team for lunch. We had a slightly different crew after a sergeant from the Texas National Guard had been assigned to us over the weekend. SSG Morales accompanied us to the same apartment where the same table fare was laid out in front of us all.

I warned SSG Morales about my faux bell pepper incident but he just scoffed. “Sir, let this real Chicano show you Gringos how to handle ‘hot’ food,” he said with good-natured Spanish bravado.

I gave him a palms-up “Suit yourself,” as the food started getting served up. He tried the meat, the rice, and then I saw out of the corner of my eye him take the whole slice of that thermonuclear pepper into his mouth. I stopped and stared in rapt anticipation, hoping for his sake he was right.

He wasn’t. I had never seen a darker-skinned human turn purple before that day. His eyes bugged out, he sat up straight, and I heard muffled phrases unsuitable for repeating. He sucked down his bottle of water. He sucked down his Pepsi. He reached over, stole and sucked down MY Pepsi, then did the same to the teammate to his left.

We were all laughing uncontrollably at this point as we watched Morales recover. We used to tell each other that every soldier was an ambassador. I’m not sure whether the State Department would chalk up that lunch as a plus or a minus in overall foreign policy.

That’s not a Toy

Another function of our engineer team was to help deal with ordinance (bombs, rockets, mortar and artillery rounds, ammunition, etc.) that would just “show up” at the ANA bases. The Coalition and ANA troops, when out and about on missions, would frequently find weapons and ammunition caches. We would demo-in-place (blow up) the unusable finds and bring back to the base anything that might prove useful.

One day the ANA came to us with a whole connex shipping container (these are about the size of a semi-truck bed) with hundreds of live artillery rounds inside. The ANA said they just found it and asked that it be stored in one of the ammo bunkers. At this point in the war, we had just quit asking where most of this stuff came from.

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So we put together a detail of about eight soldiers and officers from our team and the base support battalion and trucked this connex out to the ammo storage bunkers. We arrived and the NCO in charge, the man with the most knowledge about ordinance, gave us a quick class on handling these things like giant fragile eggs. They could not be stacked upright for fear of having the bases rust out. They couldn’t be stacked directly on the ground, so we had wood pallets along. But the overriding theme was to be very ginger with these rounds.

I don’t know where they found them, but part of the plan involved giant sheets of bubble wrap to separate each layer of shells as we stacked them. That sounded like a reasonable plan to me so we started offloading the ammo, arranged ourselves in a staggered face-to-face chain gang to pass these from the container on a truck down to the ammo bunker. The jokes about not dropping them, hearing something ticking, and slippery hands were rampant.

We got the first shell layer on the pallet so the soldier up front laid down the bubble wrap layer. During all this, there was one poor young Lieutenant that was not handling the stress and joking very well. Her eyes grew wider with every joke and I could see her shaking. This was like blood in the water to the other soldiers so the jokes kept coming. “Oooh, don’t drop it!” and “Hey, look at that camel spider on your boot!”

On went the second layer and we repeated this whole process. The second layer of bubble wrap went down and we started in on shell layer number three. It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that each shell weighed about 40 pounds. During a lull in conversation, shell number two in layer number three was laid flat. Then we heard it…

Crack, crack, cr-cr-cr-cr-ack!

The Lieutenant screamed, turned, covered her ears and jumped backwards a full six feet. We were all startled for a split second, then roared with laughter. The bubble wrap was strong, but not that strong, and the third layer of artillery shells had popped nearly all the first sheet bubbles. Our shells all remained thankfully dormant. The explosions we heard were just those tiny air bladders.

I’m not certain, but I’d say a few human bladders had just become equally empty.

Lost in Translation

We dealt with Afghan interpreters daily. Consequently, the interpreters had to deal with Americans using wildly varying English dialects on a daily basis too. Since even I had a hard time understanding some of our compadres from Louisiana and the “fahtha” regions north toward Maine, I can only imagine the difficulty the interpreters had. So, like us, you had to make your own fun in miserable situations. I’d lay even money some of those guys would mess with us periodically for their own amusement. Being, well, me, I felt it my duty to return the favor.

We had one interpreter, Ma’ah Boo is my phonetic attempt at his name, who worked with us for several weeks straight. He was a good guy and had a decent command of our technical construction-related vernacular. But he had a habit of carrying on lengthy stretches of conversation with the locals, then turning to me and saying “He said ‘Yes.’”

I probably repeated at least twenty times, “Come on, dude, he said way more than ‘Yes’, tell me the rest!” After about a week, I shortened his name to Ma Boob, partially for my own amusement and partially to determine actually how much attention he paid to what I said.

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Good translation was important

 

On about week two, when he and I were separate from the rest of the group, I think he’d had enough. “Sir, I do not think you have my name correct, I am ‘Ma’ah Boo,’ not ‘My Boob.’”

Busted. At least this guy paid attention to detail. And I didn’t get any more “He said ‘Yes.’”

Equestrian leanings

Many missions took us way out into the boondocks to meet with Afghans of varying levels of friendliness. We hoped that, by the time they met with our engineer or civil affairs teams, they were the good guys, but we always kept up our guard. I truly do not miss having to formulate a plan to shoot our way out of every single meeting, just in case.

Anyway, I was always keen to see which of the Afghans were paying attention to the conversation with the infidels in their midst. I figured, if their intentions were honorable, they’d be paying attention to us. If their minds wandered to other plans, it made me question what those plans might be.

To that end, we asked the interpreters to teach us a funny phrase or two to lay on the Afghans, just to judge their reactions. I still don’t know why, but, during a lull in conversation, when one infidel points to another, leans in and announces “Ah-spit langast,” or Dari for “My horse is lame,” it’s hilarious.

The Afghans that didn’t smile or didn’t even notice, we kept an extra eye on them.  I tried not to take it personally.

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On the Water with Patriots

“Do you want to come on a sturgeon fishing and kayaking trip on the Columbia River with us?” Reading that email from Micah stopped me mid-click during my daily grind of paperwork. Sturgeon? The giant, sometimes 10-feet-long monster river fish? I had heard and read about fishing for those but never thought I’d get a chance to try. Sturgeon certainly don’t live anywhere I frequent. I replied that I would absolutely, positively, love to come fishing and kayaking with Camp Patriot in Washington state.

 Camp Patriot site link

For those who don’t already know, Camp Patriot is a fantastic organization that takes disabled veterans on amazing excursions. They’ve climbed Mt. Rainer, sponsored trail rides, hunts and fishing trips, and are in the final stages of setting up a ranch retreat property in Montana. I’ve followed them for a couple years now and threw my hat in. I had told them that, while I technically have a disability rating from the Veterans Administration, my issues paled in comparison to far too many veterans and I hoped all those people would be placed in line ahead of me. I would, however, happily come along to write up a story that Camp Patriot could use to hopefully further their efforts.

I strongly believe in what Camp Patriot does. I’m an avid outdoorsman and believe that the world would be a better place if more people separated themselves from our surreal urban world more often. For veterans wrestling with physical disabilities or other demons, any “fresh air poisoning” can often put things back into a better perspective and reward a person with some well-accomplished fun. I’ve written a little bit about that phenomenon in the past:

Fresh Air Poisoning

Micah Clark, himself a veteran, is the hub that makes all the Camp Patriot spokes and wheel turn forward. The guy busts his tail like few men I’ve ever met. Most of us have met that one person who truly believes in what they do and pour their heart, soul, and every ounce of energy into that mission. If you haven’t, go meet Micah.

Over the couple weeks following the initial call, we pinned down details of the travel and the trip itself. It kept sounding better and better each time I spoke to Micah. Flights, hotel, meals, river guide, kayaking guide, it was all being set up. Giddy is a pretty strong word to describe a 42-year-old, but I was getting close.
In these couple months of preparation, I came to realize another benefit of Camp Patriot’s efforts.

If you’ve ever prepared for an upcoming vacation, drew that trophy hunt tag, or planned a once-in-a-lifetime trip like this, you know the feeling. Preparing for the trip, thinking about the trip, wondering about all the things to see and do is nearly as fun as going on the trip! So not only do these trips provide a few amazing days during the trip, a lifetime of memories and friendships after the trip, but the anticipation before the trip is a blast too.

Many veterans, especially those 100% disabled, don’t get out much. One’s career options are limited. Without an extensive support network at home, there is a lot of just sitting around with a glowing screen. Anyone who’s been in really horrible situations, like a lot of days at war, knows that one of the best gifts that can be given to someone in ‘the suck’ isn’t any object…it is hope. Hope that the next day will be better. Hope that the current situation won’t be bleak forever. Hope that there are more ups than downs in the future. Giving a couple months to prepare for sturgeon fishing or climbing Mt. Rainier to a person who otherwise doesn’t have a lot going on can do amazing things for the psyche.

The day finally arrived. Against the airlines’ best efforts, I finally arrived in Richland, albeit later than the other three veterans. When I hit the ground, Micah pulled away from dinner with the veterans and a couple tables full of Camp Patriot supporters to come to the airport to fetch me. It was great to actually meet the man in person.

We had not even started rolling in the Camp Patriot van when Micah produced a coin, handshake, and a sincere “thank you for your service.” I had no words. I’ve been out of the Army for eight years now and never thought I’d see a new coin in my palm. Veterans know a good coin is invaluable, it’s a trophy in itself, a small piece of metal with a big story. This one would go under glass next to my others and their stories. It now shares the top row with the one I received from the commanding general of the Corps of Engineers, in Afghanistan, for my work at the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team in 2004.


We arrived back at the pizza joint for more introductions and dinner. There I met Domonic, Jesse, and Matt and more local Camp Patriot supporters than I can name. I would come to learn more of the stories of the other three as the long weekend played out. We were all Army veterans.

After dinner came the fishing license run to the local big box department store. If you’ve never been to one at 9:30 at night, I highly recommend doing it…once. Non-resident temporary fishing licenses can be tricky for a lot of staff and, well, at 9:30 it’s not exactly the A-Team back in sporting goods. We passed the time watching Matt do a few bored laps around sporting goods on the sale-priced bicycles (yes, we were those guys) and made it out with our licenses about an hour later.

The next morning found us four veterans rested, fed, and feeling a little out-of-place at the deluxe hotel accommodations on the river. I know Camp Patriot is setting up a ranch in Montana, but this crisp-linen and warm-cookie hotel right on the Columbia river was pretty nice for a group of guys who had spend a fair percentage of their adult lives living in a tent or B-hut in a combat zone.

Scott, Scott, Jesse, Matt, David

Scott, Scott, Jesse, Dom, Matt, Dave

Micah picked us up and drove us over to the boat launch. After a few pictures, we all piled into the two boats. Dom and I got into one boat with Scott and Scott, two professional river guides who were donating their time and efforts for us. Jesse and Matt got into another boat with Pat and George. Pat is on the Camp Patriot board of directors and just happens to know these rivers like the back of his hand. Out on the water we went.

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You know your fishing guide spends a lot of time on the water when his head looks like this!

The first spot we picked was about five miles up the river. The current was very swift. Apparently, the flow amounts were all controlled by the various dams up and down the Columbia. For whatever reason, the dam upstream had their big faucet wide open. Both boats had a hard time staying in one spot, each barely held by their huge anchor.

George, Matt, and Captain Pat on Pat's boat

George, Matt, and Captain Pat on Pat’s boat

We got set up and the Scotts set to work setting out all the poles. I’m a trout guy from Colorado used to a backpacking rod, a little fly, maybe a small spinner or worm in hopes of landing a couple rainbows or brookies for a meal. These guys broke out huge poles, lead weights the size of tennis balls, and proceeded to lace a six-inch squid or shad to a two-inch hook with loops and knots that would make any surgeon proud. I knew we were in for business.

A typical sturgeon bait setup. Only one weight here, sometimes there were more.

They set out our lines and, in this current, each line needed two of the tennis balls to keep the bait on the bottom. I could only imagine what these setups looked like from a sturgeon’s point of view. We fished for about a half hour while each boat wrestled against the current.

All of a sudden we noticed all four lines going slack, shoreline started moving upstream, and the Scotts hopped up and went to work. “The anchor broke loose!” Scott said and we all started reeling in a line. Now the challenge was to release the anchor, get the lines in, get the motor going and us pointed in the right direction all while not getting fishing line caught in the propeller. It was a bit of a rodeo for about 10 minutes until we got everything situated. The crew in Pat’s boat got quite a show.

It’s been said that one of the true measures of a man is how he handles tangled Christmas lights. I submit that another true measure is how he handles an anchorless boat rodeo on a roaring Columbia river with two newbies trying to reel in (right past a roaring propeller) more fishing tackle than several chartered fishing trips would pay for. The Scotts took it all in stride.

 

Our fishing boat for two days

Our fishing boat for two days

After that exercise we decided to motor further upstream to calmer water. The Scotts played tour guide, explaining all the landscape and the fascinating details of the Hanford nuclear site. We fished another couple spots and all met up for a shore lunch about 20 miles upstream from Richland. Micah drove to the site and supplied lunch.

 

Pulling in for a shore lunch

Pulling in for a shore lunch

We compared notes on the morning’s fishing. Neither boat was getting much fish action so we motored upstream to try different areas. We got to a spot called White Bluffs where the terrain rose spectacularly straight up some cliffs on the non-Hanford side. Apparently small landslides were the norm and you didn’t want to venture too close to that shore for the big landslides that occurred nearly as frequently.

On the Hanford side we were treated to a herd of Mule Deer bucks that would grace the cover of any respectable hunting magazine. Since there was no hunting on the Hanford site, the deer just hung out near the shore watching the boatloads of humans go by day after day.

Mule Deer bucks at the Hanford site

Mule Deer bucks at the Hanford site

We only got a couple nibbles and nothing that seemed sturgeon-y. We heard some hollering from Pat’s boat and things were getting interesting over there. Someone had a fish on and another was releasing the anchor. They hooked a sturgeon! The routine for reeling in a sturgeon is just that…set the hook and release anchor. It’s too much work and easily breaks the line to try and reel in a big one from a stationary spot. So the idea is to just let the big fish drag you around the river as you slowly close the distance and bring him in to the boat. Then, since the fish are bigger than anything you can just scoop up with a net, you work your way over to shore, get your photo op with your beached fish, and let him go. Apparently this whole performance can take hours.

We watched as they reeled in and started moving around the river, leaving their buoy and anchor behind. Scott said it looked to be a good-sized one by how they were acting. I had no idea how they could tell, but they were the experts!

Anyway, after Pat’s boat did a few slow slalom turns across the river, we heard a collective “Awwwww” as the rod shot up and it looked like they had lost the fish. Bummer. We were looking forward to seeing one.

Hanford in the background

We fished up and down this same spot for a while and Pat’s boat went back in. A couple of their crew were getting pretty sunburned. The Scotts, Dom, and I decided to stay out longer. It was still fun and we really wanted to get at least a little one.

We picked a few spots on our way downstream back to Richland. We stopped at one little cove where Scott had seen people have good luck and he always wanted to try. We got set up and had a few nibbles right away, things were turning up. One rod kept getting weak little nibbles, then quit, then nibbles, then things petered off. As we reeled it in it felt like we had a small snag or pile of seaweed on it. But as got it to the boat, we saw the bait had actually grown.

Attached to the hook was a tiny sturgeon! He was just a baby at maybe 10 inches long. But, that was our first sturgeon of the day and we were thrilled. They’re weird looking, they had spikes like big rose thorn along their back. Their head and face look like a shark, except the mouth. It’s not where it should be, it’s set back and more like a sucker’s mouth. Apparently they like to just troll along the bottom and vacuum up their food. This one wasn’t even picture worthy, but we knew that where there were small sturgeon there usually were big sturgeon!

After we let the baby sturgeon go, we looked over and a boat was heading right at us. They weren’t coming full throttle, but they were definitely heading to our spot. Then we saw the name of the boat…that name for which every single person has a story…”POLICE.”

 

Our new friends

Our new friends

It wasn’t a big deal, it was just the fish and game officers. Scott said they routinely checked river fishermen and he knew most of them. They typically checked the hooks to ensure they weren’t barbed, our fish, and our licenses.
Sure enough, they pulled up next to us and asked to see all the hooks. While we were pulling all the rods in, they checked our licenses and chatted a bit.

They said nobody was having much luck on the river that day for sturgeon, or any other fish for that matter.  But, I figured if they were anything like Colorado fish and game officers, they always said that.  I think it’s to keep everyone feeling good that either A) they weren’t alone in getting skunked or B) they were catching more than other people.  Either way, you’ll feel good and come back another day.

We resumed fishing in our little cove, chuckling and speculating about our new uniformed friends.  Before long, another rod twitched and this time there was no question.  Scott set the hook and Dom began reeling it in.  It was no monster but was a fair fight nonetheless.  Dom got it up to the boat and we netted it in.

This time it was a real sturgeon!  Not big enough to keep but still between two and three feet long.  This was good for some photo ops and smiles.  Our day on the river had proved fruitful!

We fished until dusk without any further event and then motored back down to Richland.  We met up with Micah and all ate dinner at a nearby restaurant.  Once again, it was a blast comparing everyone’s stories.

The next morning we all met in the lobby at oh-dark-thirty so we could drive to a different boat launch on a different river.  Matt was feeling ill so it was Jesse, Dom and I again, but this day Micah was able to tag along too.

It was about an hour’s drive there, I think we were even in Oregon for a while.  We arrived at the boat launch and called Scott and Scott who, even though it was still dark, were already on the river.  They motored over, picked us up, and we were off.

Since it was Saturday, there were boatloads of fishermen on the river.  Scott knew and chatted with several of the regulars and other guides.  It’s always fun to observe the delicate dance of fisherBS-ing, sharing a little bit of fishing intel… but not too much!  Just like hunting secrets, there are friends, there is family, and then there are those with whom you share fishing secrets.  Each group is respectively smaller.

We each pulled in several shad that were fun to fight and made for good sturgeon bait.  Into the livewell they went and we motored off to go deeper for sturgeon.

One of the many bridges we fished under

One of the many bridges we fished under

We tried a few places up and down the river with a few nibbles but not much else.  But the time flew by quickly.  At a couple days into the trip, none of us were strangers anymore and the stories spun out from all of us.

It was fascinating to hear of Micah’s time in the Navy as a corpsman attached to Marine units and his plans for Camp Patriot.  We all learned more of Dom’s and Jesse’s experiences, not just at war, but life in general.  I told a few of my Army headslappers that have stayed with me over the years.  We barely noticed the few bites we got on the fishing rods.

Scott and Scott each had no shortage of stories either.  They each grew up and have spent most of their lives around the area.  It was a verbal Scott-opedia unfolding for us giving details of the river, fish, poachers, the community, and of course, each other!  Those were the best ones.

Good times

Good times

We bagged it in the mid-afternoon since the early morning was starting to catch up to us.  The drive back to the hotel was pretty quiet as most of us caught some Z’s.  We got in touch with Matt, who was feeling better by now, and agreed to all get cleaned up and meet back up for dinner.

We all decided that the down time was another great thing about this trip.  It wasn’t go, go, go for every spare minute.  Going to a new location, meeting a whole new group of people every day can be a bit stressful for some people.  Especially people who are used to hanging out in their comfort zone and small circle of people… like many veterans.

We all reconvened for dinner with Micah and Pat and talked about about the kayaking trip planned for the next day.  It sounded better with every detail.  A local kayaking outfitter, along with a couple more veterans from a nearby VA Hospital program, would all meet up in the morning and drive upriver to a dropoff point.

From there we would kayak down to the halfway point for a shore lunch set up Micah and Pat from Pat’s boat.  After lunch, we would kayak back down to a point just above Richland, load up, drive back up to the dropoff point to get our gear, then drive back to Richland.

This made sense to me but all the “go here, then go there, then go here” drew a couple blank stares.  Proving that old habits do die hard, before I knew it, I had laid out a sand table on the dinner table with packets of sugar, Splenda, Equal, and creamer along a trail of silverware designating our overland travel, water travel, start, drop off, lunch, and pickup points.  I know, I know…@#$% officers.

At dinner we also met Gail Wood, a writer for the Christian Science Monitor.  He follows veterans issues and had written about Camp Patriot before.  He would be floating along with us on Sunday’s trip.

Gail’s story from Christian Science Monitor

Sunday morning arrived and we indeed had a van full.  Also coming along was Tim Adams from the local NBC affiliate plus a two-man video production crew.  Those guys were all pretty fun.  Tim would kayak with us but his crew sounded relieved that they would be in Pat’s boat shooting video.

KNDO video journal with Tim Adams

The kayak guide knew his business well.  We each got set up with a kayak appropriate for our size and ability.  The outfitter “crew chief,” gave us all a quick class on the basics of kayaking to have fun.  Kayaks are pretty simple but there are some basic rules to follow in order to ensure the experience is pleasant, especially when navigating around bridge piers.

Before we knew it, we were all on the water paddling downstream.  This was the same stretch of water we had fished on Friday but it was fun coming at it from upstream.  We were now going much slower so we saw things we missed on Friday.  Plus now Dom, Jesse, Matt and I, brains sufficiently filled with Scott’s info, were old hands at the Hanford site, its giant Mule Deer, White Bluffs, the tasty (albeit possibly radioactive) mulberries on the shore, and the countless details of this area so we became impromptu guides for those who had never been on this stretch of river.

Photo courtesy of KNDO

Photo courtesy of KNDO

This day was not without rodeos either.  Both Matt and Tim got to experience firsthand the technique for getting back into your kayak mid-river after you have been dumped out.  Matt’s dunking was particularly loud due to him losing his smartphone to the river.  He was not amused by our offers to call it in hopes that a big sturgeon would pick up and answer.  Egos and phone bills were the only permanent damage and we floated on.  Note to phonemakers, waterproof is dandy but a floating phone would be the bee’s knees.

Last known photo of Matt with his phone.  He sure did love that thing.

Last known photo of Matt with his phone. He sure did love that thing.

Once again, the shore lunch was awesome.  Micah and company outdid themselves, we ate like kings, and each got interviewed by the news crew.  Turns out Tim Adams was a veteran too and had some good stories.

Micah and Tim

Micah and Tim

Pat brought his boat partner, Jerry, yet another veteran, out for this trip too.  It was obvious that this trip was good for everyone.  We discussed the similarities, and the differences, of our war experiences.

At one point Jerry called us over and offered up a good cigar to each of us veterans.  Although a good fishing trip, or card game, or any day with the guys is a good setting for a stogie, I hesitated like I have done for years.  But the “No, thanks” that I’ve been using didn’t come out.

I used to smoke on rare occasions to calm my nerves, mainly in college and during my twenties.  While deployed to Afghanistan, it hit me about halfway through my tour that the several times I had smoked were only after those rougher days where we had to deal with dead bodies of one nationality or another.  After that realization, I never lit up again.

Never, that is, until this day on the river with these men who I am now honored to call my friends.  I don’t know if it was the 11 years that had passed since seeing the last Afghan body, these men with whom I had shared part of my life and they had theirs, the beautiful outdoor setting, or just a need to smoke out the mosquitoes.  But on that shore I savored my first cigar in a decade… and it was fantastic.

Our country is so much more than lines on a map or dot.gov on a web site.  It is an idea.  It is people.  Being a patriot means more than carrying a flag or charging a hill under fire.  Being a patriot can also mean caring for those people and that idea.  I cannot thank Micah and Camp Patriot enough for what they have done and what they continue to do for our nation.

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Elk Hunting, Sometimes it’s Ugly

I debated with myself a long time about posting this one.  Not every hunt turns out like you’ve planned.  Most are far from it.  Some hunts are downright ugly.  I normally like stories about the animals, but the stupid human tricks were the most interesting part of this hunt since the elk were few and far between. My shooting was shameful, but I figured I might as well let my dirty laundry out there right off the bat. Let he who is without misses or bad shots cast the first stone.  And believe it or not, all of these guys have come back to hunt with me since this 2008 hunt!

Bottom line up front:

Dead elk—1
Missed elk —1 (same elk, see story)
Elk sightings — 4
Bear sightings — 1
Game warden sightings — 1
Game wardens cussed at through the camper door when de-icing the pipes (“Ha, ha, very funny @##$%ers, claiming you’re the game warden when I’m up to my neck in PVC pipe…oh, sorry Officer, I thought it was my buddies messing with me…”— 1 (same warden)
Amount of crap Dan received for missing the elk in a spot that would have been a nice easy pack back to the trucks —- Not nearly enough
Amount of crap I received for killing the elk about as far away from the trucks as we could get in one day — Probably more than Dan
Total elevation change in a 48 hour period (by foot)–4800 feet (1200 up & down each day)
Range at which Nick, Steve and I were easily plinking rocks—650 yds
Cool points lost due to my inability to drop an elk in half that range — most of them

So three friends from the Front Range came out elk hunting to the wild and wooly lands north of town second season to hunt with Steve and me. The Denver crew’s elk hunting experience ranged from pretty green to one elk. Friday got a late start as I had to put in nearly a full day at the office. Blown trailer tires notwithstanding, the Denver guys made it over Friday just before dark and we got settled into camp.

Saturday was pretty uneventful. We drove and glassed around all the usual spots where the wiley wapiti like to hide. All we saw were deer. The excitement came when we were loading up our ATV’s back onto our trucks (in the dark) and Nick neglected to tell us he’d never ridden one before today, much less driven one into the bed of a truck on two skinny little ramps. The laws of physics quickly took over as we turned our heads to sounds of “CRASH!…Oh @#$%&!…CRASH! There was Nick on his ass and the ATV on its ass behind Nick’s truck. After thanking God that nobody was killed and a quick class on actually tying the ramps to the truck during loading (the ATV wheels spun and shot the ramps backward off the tailgate, leaving only thin air to hold up the Polaris 700 and the Nick 275), we got loaded and headed back down the road to camp.

Sunday came with about the same routine, except for looking in different drainages. After planting ourselves on a high ridge to glass around for about 10 minutes, 3 cow elk got up out of the pines right below us and ran straight down the valley. Armed only with my binoculars and rapier wit (“Why take my rifle off the ATV, surely the other guys will take theirs, right?”) I could just watch as the critters bailed to deep dark forested nether regions below. All we could do was look down the valley and grouse about how there’s no way we’d pack an elk back up to where we were sitting. And getting around to the road at the bottom was 25 miles by truck and another 20 miles by ATV, not something we were quite up for just then.

Nick took some awesome pictures of the country

Because lack of elk wasn’t enough of a problem to overcome, Dan discovered later that morning the friend from whom he’d borrowed his ATV had not been giving his regular sacrifices of time and money to the Polaris maintenance gods. His ATV threw a rod…or shaft…or belt…or whatever it is on those Polari that break on regular intervals. From then on, Dan’s ATV sat idle and he was relegated to ride with Steve in his Jeep. Although I didn’t hear too many complaints from him as Nick, Shawn and I all blew out Herculean dust boogers every night.

Day three took us to yet another set of drainages. Nick, Steve and I picked one basin, Dan and Shawn hiked into another. After taking about an hour deciding there were no animals in our drainage, Steve and I coached Nick in long-range rock-plinking. He discovered the wonder of laser rangefinders combined with scope turrets and smacked a defenseless rock at an impressive 650 yards with Steve’s .30-06AI. I killed the same 650 yard rock with my .300 UltraMag, but couldn’t get any takers to shoot mine. I tried telling them it only hurts for a while. It kills from one end and maims on the other. Nick’s WWI-era .30-06 proved to be a nice piece of history, but not exactly a precision instrument.

Meanwhile, Dan and Shawn were watching a Black Bear at the bottom of their basin. After we all met back up at noon, Nick, Shawn and I went back down to try and get in on Yogi and punch Shawn’s bear tag. We hiked down…down…down further through the oak brush to position ourselves within shooting distance. My little voice of reason tried telling me to stop since we’d have to turn around and go up…up…up…back through all that oak brush. But I learned long ago to dismiss that voice if I ever wanted to get to any decent hunting areas, and have the scars to prove it.

But Yogi never did come back out. After waiting as long as we dared to still have hopes of getting up to the road in the daylight, we started the long hike back up. Oak brush is a funny thing. Walking uphill through it isn’t as much hiking as it is cage fighting. I kept looking for “the path” through it but kept finding that “the path” was merely a figment of “the imagination.” I led the way as a matter of pride…”I’ve been in this basin before and can surely find the way out. Follow Me!” It was ugly. At one point I fell into a crevice up to my armpits suspended only by the brush, lost my left boot twice, and wore pretty much all the hide off my shins. My string of profanity would have made a sailor blush. But after a couple hours we did make it back up to the road, bruised, cut, and a bit skinnier.

Tuesday came and we again hiked and glassed and glassed and hiked. And listened to Nick whine about how far we were making him hike. Still no elk. That night we did some soul-searching in the camper over the firewater and decided to try somewhere completely different tomorrow. Steve and I had never tried this area, but it looked good on a map and we were open for anything at this point.

Another terrific sunset

Wednesday morning we drove back down to the desert, over and up towards another high pass, probably about a 30 mile drive from camp. We arrived at the trailhead only to find a camp right there. But luck was in our favor, said campers came out and it became apparent they probably didn’t hike up into the drainages where we were headed. In fact, I’d wager they didn’t hike anywhere further than 50 feet from their rigs.

Anyway, we chatted a bit and began our hike up into the canyon behind them. By the looks of the map, we would have our work cut out for us as the ridges to where we were heading were easily 1000 feet above the trucks. Nick/Bear Grylls announced that yesterday he was just too loaded down with weight so today would only be taking 20 oz. of water with him. I reiterated the fact that we’d be out all day, but no, he knew what he was doing.

We all stayed together hiking up the bottom of this canyon, looking for a way to start switching back up to the ridges high above us. About a mile into it, Shawn (fourth in line) stopped and motioned to us in front that he saw a big bull elk. At that point we hadn’t seen much at all, so my initial reaction was that he was full of it. Then he held his arms over his head like antlers and said “No, it is a BIG bull!” and his eyes were bigger than goose eggs.

The one in the best position was Dan, so he lined up for a shot. The elk was about 200 yards away. We waited…and waited…no shot…huh? Then I hear “My gun’s jammed!” from Dan. Meanwhile the elk is still standing there looking at us. Steve gave Dan his rifle quick and got him lined up for a shot. BOOM! Finally! Nothing, the bull is still standing there looking at us. “Shoot again!” We wait…and wait…BOOM! It looked like a possible hit and the bull turned away after the shot. It was jungle-thick down up there so we didn’t see anything after that. We waited about 20 minutes and then Dan and I went up to look for some, or all, of the bull near where he shot while the other guys guided us in.

We scrambled up the pine-needle slope to where the elk stood and lined ourselves into the exact spot the elk stood. Our hopes sank as we scoured the area for blood or hair, or any signs of a hit and finding nothing, we decided it must have been a miss. All we could find were fresh tracks out of the area in which laid a fresh pile of elk doo. It looked like Mr. Bull just stepped back behind a tree, took a dump, gave us the hoof, and walked away into more oak brush. Surely there was a twig or something in the path of that bullet…

A little of our oak brush playground

That was still mid-morning, so we decided to keep hunting up this ridge. Shawn stayed low in the canyon and would hike up to its head since we’d seen fresh bear sign headed that way. Dan and I would keep hiking up this ridge, Nick and Steve would come up the same ridge from lower down the canyon and we’d link up in a bit.

After another about 600-foot vertical climb/hunt up the ridge, Dan and I waited in a spot where we’d see and meet up with Nick and Steve. We all hooked up about an hour later and compared notes. We’d seen fresh elk tracks all through this slope, some of which were fresh enough to have been that bull. Nick said he wasn’t doing too well, was about out of water, and wasn’t sure how much more vertical he could take. Steve’s kind of a slave-driver with that kind of climb, so I’m sure Nick wasn’t given much sympathy on the way up. After probably more than his share of ribbing, we kept on climbing, and I remember thinking Nick did look a little skinnier than yesterday. He kind of reminded me of a big dreamsicle, blaze orange and pale white.

The ridge started to narrow and we came up to a point where it topped out and we could look into the next adjacent drainage. Exposed in the full mid-day sun was big elk walking up the next slope! At first I said “cow!” but then antlers flashed in the sunshine and I said “BULL!” I don’t normally like to shoot at moving animals, but he was trotting up over the next ridge and it looked like we’d never see him after that.

It’s funny how the brain works. After days of seeing nothing but thin air and trees, it took a while to register that this was in fact a real live bull elk, I was second in line behind Steve who only had a cow tag, and I should probably shoot. But, while all that was going on in my head, the rest of me had already sat down, chambered a shell, wrapped my sling twice around my left arm in a field-expedient shooting position, dismissed any ideas of pulling my shooting sticks out of my pack or fooling with the turrets on my scope, flipped off my scope covers, flipped off the safety, and put the crosshairs on the animal. Little did I know that I was seconds away from defining the ugly side of my “shoot elk ‘till they fall over” mantra.

I hollered “Range Me!” and shot…nothing. I shot again. I watched bullet #2 hit the ground behind him after what seemed like an eternity after I pulled the trigger. Steve said something along the lines of “about 350 yards” and my days of Whitetail hunting flashed back as it dawned on me that I’d have to lead him, even ubermagnum bullets aren’t that fast across a quarter mile. 350, that’s normally a chip shot, no need to hold over or fool with my turret, not that there was time for that anyway. I lined up and shot again. The damn thing kept going! I broke out three more shells and fed my thunderstick as quickly as I could. I vaguely remember thinking this was already an ugly situation so might as well ask “Anyone else going to shoot?” since Nick and Dan had bull tags too. But they all figured this was my turn.

The bull was kind enough to hold still while I reloaded, but as soon as that third shell was chambered, he started moving again. I was getting really mad at myself by now thinking I should have waited on the first shot until he stood still. But, now the seal was broken, sounds of my shots were still echoing around the canyons, so I might as well do my best to finish what I started.

Mr. Bull was still heading for that ridgeline too, so away I blasted…BOOM…BOOM…BOOM. I heard ‘Hold on, I think you hit him.” I reloaded again anyway and waited. The bull stood partially behind a Spruce and I seriously contemplated sending more lead his way as I was getting exponentially angrier at myself with every shot. Finally, he waivered a bit, stuck his nose in the air, and rolled over.

I surveyed the area around myself to see what all I dropped, threw down, or otherwise lost in the mayhem. Six pieces of brass shone proudly in the October sun forming a nice arc around where I sat. Sort of a monument to marginal marksmanship. I gathered them up quickly and said something like how it looks like a machine-gun nest around me.

We were all pretty pumped (Nick regained some color and forgot how tired he was) and we picked our path over to the bull. We had to go up, nearly to the peak of our mountain, curl around the top of this next drainage and back down the ridgeline where the bull had been headed. Basically about a mile trip, about 300 feet vertical up and down again, only partially through oak brush this time, to get over to that bull. It was about an hour to get that 350 yards.

It was getting to be too late to fool much with him and still get off the mountain in the daylight. We got the bull gutted, pulled the tenderloins and laid him open to cool off. Nighttime lows had been 20 degrees or less in these canyons. During the gutting I was able to see my hits…all four of them…and recover two bullets. Suffice it to say I wounded him to death. It was certainly not my proudest moment. After that first shot I had to decide quickly to try and close the deal, as ugly as the process may be, or waive off with a possible first hit wound. Looking back, I should have waited on the first shot and blown the cow call to get him to stop before I shot. But keyboard quarterbacking is pretty easy, I guess a dead elk is a dead elk.

The work begins

We decided to try to go straight down the spine of this ridge where the bull lay since the trucks were parked at the bottom of the canyon directly below us. It was either that or wind our way back down the way we came which would be about three times as far horizontally. It was about 1000 feet vertically and about ¾ of a mile horizontally as the crow flies to the trucks.

The first half wasn’t bad, the second half was brutal and the third half was brutal and dark. This particular ridge helped put the “cliff” in the Bookcliff mountain range. The lower half of the ridge was about 15 rimrock ledges, each of which we had to navigate our way around and/or down. We were all getting pretty whooped and still had not bottomed out by dark so we tried to pick up the pace a bit. At one point, a certain hunter who skimped on his water was witnessed dragging his rifle by the barrel like a kid drags his blankie. But I won’t name names…

We did finally make it to the bottom in one piece. Shawn was waiting at the trucks. He said we sounded close long ago but it still took an hour to get down the last stretch. We decided quickly that would not be the route we took the meat out tomorrow. The drive back to camp was fairly quiet as we all were thinking that we’d have to suck it up and do that same trip again tomorrow.

Thursday morning found Steve’s camper’s cold water lines iced up. We waited around camp until sunup, since we knew what was in store for the day, and tore into the camper’s plumbing. At one point, after significant head-scratching and swearing about pipe ice, I was buried under his camper couch trying to get a wrench around a leaking fitting. Just then I heard “Knock, knock, DOW officer, can I come in?” I thought it was the other guys just messing with us so gave an eloquent reply of “Ha, ha, very funny you @#$%&*s, I’m a little busy here.” Then I heard “No, really, I am the DOW officer, can I come in?” Oops. The game warden took it pretty well after seeing what we were up to. I had punched my tag and followed all the legalities of the dead elk situation, so he took some notes and let us be. He did say that was about the only bull he’d heard of being taken in the area.

Steve stayed to work on his camper after we found the problem spot and warmed it up with a propane torch. Dan stayed back to work on his trailer, he had to put on the new tires…and fix the fender…and the lights. We hadn’t seen our camp in the daylight so this was as good a time as any to take care of that stuff.

Nick, Shawn and I drove over to yesterday’s spot and geared up for packing out meat. We carried empty meat packs, game bags, ropes, water and minimal snacks. Nick did bring more water this time, it almost lasted him all day. The initial plan was for the three of us to hike up, they would hunt around for a bit as I got the quarters ready for packing. But gravity proved to be the big winner of the day as it took us until 2 o’clock to get back up to the bull. It was ice cold, some parts even frozen. Dan and Steve arrived at the bull a little later, they had hiked up the next adjacent ridge to the South just to get different look at this new area. Butchering elk while lying on the ground is real work. I would pull off a quarter and we’d hang it up, then those guys would bone out the meat and put it into game bags. By about 3:30, we had four packs each with about 70-80 pounds of meat and one head complete with antlers, probably going about 50 pounds.

I threw the head over my shoulders, the others each grabbed a meat pack. I wore Dan’s camelback pack with some odds and ends from the other guys. That pack was fairly nice at the time, but when we reached the bottom it was smeared with elk blood, brains, and hair. I think Dan may need another one for his mountain biking endeavors lest he be shunned by the earth-muffin crowd. We headed down the way we had come up, not straight down the rimrock this time though. We worked our way down without too much pain, again having to hustle to race against the dark. Oak brush is a little easier when you’re headed downhill, you can just sort of fall into it and you’ll pop out somewhere. Unless you’re carrying a big set of antlers backwards over your shoulders, then you still have to carve your way through. In the steeper open parts I just flipped the elk head in front of me and drove him down on his chin, driving his antlers like bike handlebars. I only took a couple tumbles and had to kick the thing away from me rather than land on his antlers and have him take his revenge post-mortem.

We bottomed out right at dark but still had about a mile to go through the bottom of the canyon back to the trucks. Out came the flashlights and we trudged along. Again, a certain nameless hunter’s flashlight batteries lasted only slightly longer than his water supply and he had to hike closely behind Steve’s heels to see the way out. We finally made it down to the trucks and motored back to camp. We didn’t get there until 10 o’clock or so, hit the JD and Advil and crashed.

The 2008 crew. I’m in back with the faded hat.

All things in camp moved pretty slowly Friday morning. We headed back up to where we’d been Saturday and looked for good places to glass…from the rigs. None of us were too interested in hiking much. On the way in the (late) morning we came up on this fresh mountain lion-killed deer right in the trail. Guys we met on the way in said it wasn’t there on their trip in but was on the way out, so it was about an hour old. You can see where the cat killed it, ate the guts and one hind quarter, then scratched around to bury it. Kind of cool. I didn’t venture too far from Nick, figuring I didn’t have to outrun the lion, just outrun the slowest guy in our group!

Mountain-lion-killed deer laying right in the trail

We all hiked out a few different directions to glass, but none of us came on anything. We all met up and headed back to camp for dinner. Saturday we just did a token trip back to where we’d seen the three cows, then came back and packed everything up. We split up the elk meat, took some pictures, and headed home.

Saturday afternoon I continued securing my place as the goofy redneck in the subdivision by power-washing out the elk head on the storm drain inlet in front of my house. So far the HOA hasn’t yet called.

Don’t judge…

All in all, I had a blast. Eight days of living in the woods with good friends away from work, news, and politics was good medicine for the soul. I wish we’d seen more elk, but it’s been so dry that they haven’t really begun to migrate into the areas we were hunting. It was good to see everyone and swap stories, new and old.

The finished European mount

Fresh Air Poisoning

“Fresh air poisoning” is a running joke in our house, and most outdoor recreation enthusiasts of all types know it well.  “The Outdoor Cleanse” or “Soul Candy” or whatever you want to call that endorphin-fueled peace you attain after being outside for sometimes just a few hours.  Playing outside isn’t for everyone.  But I believe it is for many people who don’t even know it yet.

My family and I are blessed to live in an area renowned for its outdoor opportunities.  It’s a way of life for most of our community.  We are keenly aware, however, that most Americans live most of their lives confined to a concrete jungle.  They have our sympathy!

Among the many tough days downrange was the day in 2003 when it hit me that I’d be missing the first hunting season since the 1970’s.  As well as being incredibly fun, hunting was a tradition for me.  Drawing a bead with my rifle on an Afghan goat and saying “bang” as he quartered away when nobody was looking just wasn’t the same.

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In the years since transitioning from soldier to veteran, I’ve learned that many other vets share a love for the outdoors.  Many, like me, had a long tradition of outdoor life before they went to war.  But a growing number are learning to love the outdoors after their return.

War means something different to every single veteran.  No two stories are the same.  Some never left the wire but watched helplessly as their family back home disintegrated.  Some watched their buddies bleed out waiting for a medevac.  Far too many came home traumatically disabled.  Each of us miss that person who we were before war.  And returning to some traditions that span our pre-war and post-war self help keep life balanced.

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Another way to “put things behind you” is to fill your new life with intense, amazing experiences.  These will help to populate your personal timeline past that noisy yearlong crackling buzz of intense highs, lows, and lowests that changed you into today’s you.  For many of us, that self of today carries scars or missing parts that changed our lifestyle forever.  For all of us, it changed what goes on between our ears forever.

For me, many of those intense new experiences involve do-it-yourself hunting trips.  I’m blessed with an amazingly tolerant wife and a good job.  Both have allowed me, in the years since my return, to hunt and take several nice trophies that populate my wall.   Like most hunters, I don’t call them “trophies” based on the sum of the inches of antler length.  The trophy is the memory and the experience that comes from facing and overcoming the challenges.  One real trophy is my week of slogging through sleet, fog, and snow on the Uncompahgre Plateau hunting my 2006 bull elk.  Another is my 2009 cow elk that dropped near my buddy’s bull, each were several miles from the nearest trailhead.  We enlisted a friend and his horses to pack all the meat out, nearly killing one of his horses in the process.  My two weeks living in a tent in the Alaska wilderness chasing moose and bear…that’s the soul candy brass ring.

Another set of trophies, all in their own class, is hunting with my kids.  The feeling of watching my kids pull trout out of the water or coaching my son into his first buck and first turkey was nothing I can even describe.

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Most every adult, and certainly every veteran, knows that idle hands are no good.  Each of us channels our energy into different activities.  For many, their job and their family is enough.  But a lot of us need more.  There are certainly other hobbies and pursuits keeping veterans busy.  It might be volunteering, politics, sports, crafts, the opportunities in modern America are endless.

Any outside adventure is fun, for sure.  But when you’re in the wilderness, or even just a park, away from all the straight lines, noise, and artificiality of our modern world, it has a wonderful way of putting life in perspective.  That mountain, that river, that tree, even that rock, it doesn’t give a rat’s ass about your problems or internal demons.  It’s been here before you, it will be here after you.  That pioneer, centuries ago, had problems that weighed heavy on his mind…how much does it matter now?  Humans from millennia before have probably contemplated that very same mountain or trail.  They all probably had their own baggage weighing them down.  People centuries from now will ponder the very same thing with the very same results.

There is no room in the wild for self-pity.  When you look at all the world’s comings and goings that are unaffected by humans, it really makes all your individual problems and challenges seem small.  So you didn’t sleep much last night for the two little Afghan boys you saw burned to a crisp came back to visit in your nightmares?  Yes, that’s a problem.  But watching a black bear boar fight a sow, kill and eat her cubs, all so he can breed her…now THAT’S a problem for that sow.  Wondering if you could have trained your soldiers better so that one of them wouldn’t be buried in the Hayden cemetery?  Yes, that’s something that sticks with you.  Watching most of a deer herd starve to death in a brutal winter also sticks with you.  Cruel?  Absolutely.  Does nature care about your issues?  Not one iota.  Life goes on.

“I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself. A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself.”  D.H. Lawrence

Helping those with physical disabilities overcome their individual obstacles to triumph over a challenge is an unmatched experience.  Many organizations have sprouted up over the last decade and have that very mission.  You don’t need to look far, but here are several that I know about:

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Camp Patriot, VetExpeditions, Basecamp 40, and Colorado DiscoverAbility.  You can find them all on all the social media outlets.  The local VA Hospital even has a recreation therapy section that takes veterans out and about, including hunts.  These are just the ones I’ve bumped into.  There are similar organizations in every single state.  If you are the philanthropic kind, each greatly appreciates all donations.

They all have their own particular package and offerings.  But their missions are similar.  Getting people with physical and mental hurdles out to face their challenges in the open air can save some lives and create some amazing trophies.  And I’m not talking about antlers.

If you’re a veteran, or anyone wrestling with demons, please take my advice:  get outside.  Turn off the computer and television for a while.  Get away from the infinite pool of self-pity enablers, the news, the forums, the politics, the drivel that passes for “entertainment.”  The life outside your door or open window is better than the life portrayed by pixels that come at you from every angle indoors.

The current outpouring of support for veterans is unprecedented.  If you don’t know where to turn, just look up one of those organizations above.  Ask around at your local gear stores.  I guarantee you, if you are a vet and you want to dabble in hunting, fishing, climbing, biking, rafting, skiing, anything outdoors, you will find someone happy to take you.  It will be exhilarating and exhausting…traits of a mission well-executed.  Before you know it, you’ll want to pay it forward and become somebody else’s coach.  Fresh air is that poison we all need.

The Flying Moose and the Blueberry Bear, Part III

We took a few pictures around that bull moose and I sent out a SPOT satellite beacon message, “Critter Down!” for the outfitter and the folks at home. After a quick walk back to camp to call Powers, eat, and grab knives, a saw and tarp, we came back to the bull and butchered until midnight.

Stephen and his moose

The next morning, we treated ourselves to sleeping in until 8:00! Then we got up and resumed butchering again since we were only about a third complete. Alaska hunting regulations require you to remove the quarters with the bone-in AND still bone out the rest of the animal. You have to remove all useable meat. Performing all of this on a carcass laying in the brush, with thousands of mosquitoes in the pattern all around you, AND keeping one eye out for bears takes a while.

We split up all the meat and quarters in eight pack loads plus the skinned out head. Stephen was planning on doing a European mount if he could get the antlers back home in one piece. Most hunters split the moose skull down the middle and then reassemble it back home for mounting, so doing a full Euro mount on an Alaskan moose would be a trophy indeed!

Stephen and I had packed out a lot of boned out Colorado elk in our day so we figured this would be just like packing out two elk. This proved to be somewhat true, except for the packaging. You see, we’re both about 5′ 8″ tall, while some moose stand that tall just at the shoulder. Imagine a four-foot long bone-in moose quarter weighing easily over 100 pounds strapped to your back. Doing the math, you’ll realize that a good two feet of meat and bone protruded above our heads while we packed the quarters! Walking around on that tundra wasn’t easy with just a daypack. Packing one of these super-sized quarters made us look truly comical. Plus it had the added bonus of producing a rolling sweat for the entire half-mile pack down to the lake. If it was easy, they would not be called “trophies.”

We got all the loads packed to the water just in time for Shane the pilot to arrive in the Supercub plane. He loaded the meat in two trips so he could drop it off at a larger nearby lake, load the entire load, and be able to take off with the whole load using the longer takeoff area. This got him out of our hunting area quickly, quieter, and safer than either trying to load the whole thing at our lake or running clear back to the lodge with each half load. Given all the work we knew handling that meat was, we really appreciated Shane’s efforts and decided on his tip amount right then!

That night we cooked up some tenderloin. This was my first taste of moose meat and, I’m not sure if it was because we were starving or not, but that was one of the best meals I’ve ever had. Again, the word “awesome” gets used alot, but I’m certain those chunks of fresh tenderloin cooked up in butter, seasoned salt and pepper would have brought a tear to the eye of even the most experienced Parisian chef. We were so beat that we skipped any more hunting that evening and just went to bed.

Alaska sunset

Saturday morning came. We were a week into our two-week hunt and had our tags half-filled. We went back over to the knob west of camp and called. After a half-hour, we heard bull grunts from the treeline north of camp. After more calling without bringing him in any closer, we tried to maneuver into a closer spot without pushing the animal away. We kept this chess game up for another hour but could not get the bull to show himself.

We walked back over to the kill site in hopes of possibly seeing a bear, but nothing besides birds and bugs had been visiting.

At this point we still had not yet used the raft that Powers provided us, so we decided to give it a go. It aired up pretty easily, so we donned our waders and set sail. ‘Set paddle’ would probably be more accurate. We two land lubbers got the hang of it quickly, it was easier than it looked to simply straddle the side of the boat and paddle away. We got to the far side of our camp lake in about 15 minutes. That same trip on foot around the lake would have taken well over an hour. Needless to say, we were hooked and would be floating this country whenever we could!

Me sitting on our Alaska raft. The best transportation to be had for that hunt.

We stopped at a beaver slide that worked pretty well for humans too. We climbed up the far side and found a nice open clearing filled with blueberries. This high clearing provided the best vantage point around, so we sat down and called a bit. We saw a cow and calf moving about 350 yards away and heard one bull grunt way off, but never could get any more grunts after that. After over an hour here, we went back to the boat and paddled around to the far north end of the lake.

Blueberry fields forever

Here the country was thicker and more rolling and we hiked around in a big loop calling and exploring. It was mainly Spruce forest with a few small ponds mixed in. We started to hear a big ruckus in the next pond over but the trees were so thick we couldn’t see. It sounded for sure like at least one moose, maybe more, splashing around in the water! I’m not sure how much horseplay moose engage in, but I swore we’d find one rolling around in the water doing calisthenics.

We crept up to the edge of the treeline with eyes peeled and ears on high alert…I was really itching to fill my tag now. We got close enough through the thick brush to catch glimpses of the water and hear more of what was going on. About 50 yards from the pond we hit the realization that this was no moose, but a flock of about 80 very noisy, very active ducks. They were splashing, diving, flapping around, I’d never seen such a thing. It seemed like they were having a party. We each felt pretty stupid.

So we backed off to a point where we could hear without being overpowered by the duck-a-palooza, sat down, and ate dinner. By the time we got to the bottom of our bags of backpacker meal, we realized we weren’t the only ones in the wilderness interested in that duck party. A fluffy red fox walked past us at about ten yards. We made a few mouse squeaks and got him to stop and look our way. That was pretty fun, we speculated that we might be the only humans he had ever seen.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Fox video

Mr. Fox lost interest in the ugly 200-pound mouse who smelled like rehydrated noodles and continued down to the pond. About 10 minutes after he departed in that direction, the duck ruckus really picked up and they all flew off. It really sounded like that fox just had dinner too!

We paddled back to camp and arrived right at dusk. We decided that paddling around the tundra beat the heck out of walking, it was definitely the way to go. I also decided that I should have brought some sunscreen along this trip. The weather was much nicer than we had anticipated with no rain and full sun most days. My nose and cheeks were sunburned and my only option was a nice greasy chapstick coating.

The next day we kept up the same routine while heading out in a different direction. We paddled across the camp lake, hiked and called around, portaged to the next lake and repeated the process. We came across a few cows and calves. At one point we met a cow with two calves on the same game trail we were walking. We all stopped at 15 yards out and stared at each other for a minute before the moose simply turned direction and walked away. I still don’t think the moose cared much about the smelly two-legged aliens in their forest.

Monday was day nine and we embarked on the same routine as the last few days. It was starting to wear on us a bit as the weather was not great for hunting. It was actually too nice, it was sunny and clear most of the time and the afternoon winds were starting to pick up. Wild animals that rely on scent more than sight or sound do not generally venture out much in windy conditions.

We paddled again over to our beaver slide and blueberry field. We tied up the boat near the slide and I climbed up the small rise toward the blueberry clearing. I came over the rise and there, right where I figured we’d sit…BEAR! A good-sized black bear was munching away on the berries. His head was down and he was feeding away from us.

I ducked down and quietly racked a shell into my .300 Ultramag. I turned to Stephen and signaled to be quiet. If it were a good bull moose, I would have signaled with hands above my head like antlers. We did not, however, have a bear sign worked out. So I made like a clawing motion and pointed up to where the bear was. The look on his face told me he just thought I was plain crazy, but he hunkered down too.

I turned back around and peeked over the rise. The bear was still there, quartering away now at about 80 yards. I searched around for any cubs, I didn’t want to shoot a sow with cubs tagging along. No cubs were around and the bear looked as big as any I’d seen in Colorado, so my mind was made up. I rose up, flicked off the safety, put the crosshairs a smidge low (I keep it zeroed for 250 yards) on the offside shoulder and squeezed…

BOOM! The bear dropped. He gave one quick nip at the entrance hole and then lay still. We high-fived each other and went up to see my first bear. He was a pretty nice boar, coal black, and didn’t have any rubbed spots on his hide. We figured he’d probably weigh a bit over 300 pounds.

My Bear

After we stopped for a few pictures, we started skinning. He had definitely been tearing up the blueberries. He had purple lips, tongue, teeth, and kind of a big purple grin not unlike Batman’s nemesis, the Joker. And anyone who’s skinned an animal knows that while the teeth around the critter’s “in-hole” are fun to look at, you have to do a fair amount of knife work around the animal’s “out-hole.” This fella was bright purple from all the blueberries at that end too. Between this aftermarket dye job and the field we found him in, he was…The Blueberry Bear.

Most bears, this one included, are super greasy. The oil was literally running down the skinned carcass. Our hands were soft and supple after working off the hide and butchering out the meat. My waders now a have permanent bear grease coating down their front to make them extra waterproof.

We packed the meat and hide the easy 150 yards back to the boat and paddled back to camp. We laid the skin out under a tarp, made a sat phone call to Powers, and whipped up a dinner of bear and moose steaks.

Bear in a boat

It wasn’t quite as tasty as the moose, but it was still very good. I’ve heard horror stories about bear meat, but this was good stuff. It was a bit tougher than the moose, but really took on the flavor of the seasoning. It was a little bland, almost sweet, compared to the moose. We figured this bear must have been living his whole life on berries and fish. Many of the bears back home in Colorado get into a lot of garbage and their taste reflects it.

Wild blueberries, mmmm good

Steve Powers showed up the next day in the Supercub to take the bear skin back to his lodge freezer. Over the last few days, we kept up the same routine, paddling, hiking, calling, portaging to the next lake, paddling, hiking, calling, etc. We got into moose every day, but never did call in another good bull.

At one point, we selected a portage, or boat drag, from one lake across to another. We failed in our recon of the length of land we had to cross and it turned into a pretty strenuous drag. As we took a break about halfway across, a small plane came buzzing over, likely going north to the town of Russian Mission. It was low enough that we could make out a couple passengers’ faces looking down on us. I can only imagine what they thought at seeing a couple guys sacked out on a rubber boat parked on dry land clearly farther from water than any sane person would drag a boat!

A small drag across the tundra

We knew we were to get picked up on day 13, so I we quit hunting at noon on day 12. We didn’t want to risk getting a moose down and not have enough time to pack it and our camp out while still making all of our flights back home. The morning of day 13 we broke camp and lounged until the plane showed.

Shane arrived in the Beaver and told us that Steve Powers wife had to be rushed into surgery to have her appendix removed. That had thrown some of their hunter pickup plans into disarray, but we all made it back to the lodge just fine. I consider myself as manly as the next guy, but I could not wait to get a shower. Back at the lodge, we unpacked all our gear, threw a load of clothes in the washer, and got cleaned up.

Then came the packing up of our gear for transport back home. We decided to just check all our gear as baggage on the flight, rather than try and ship any of it. Alaska Airlines is kind enough to allow each passenger six checked items. We did the math and that allowed us to take home four 50-pound boxes of moose meat, all our gear, and we were going to attempt to get Stephen’s antlers home in one piece.

Our gear

Its antler spread was just over 51 inches. Most hunters split the skull, fold the antlers over, and package it for transport in a compact package. Stephen is not most hunters. He had a week to ponder this dilemma and had a plan. He desperately wanted to get the skull and antlers home intact so that he could do a European mount like several of his elk. If we could find or fabricate the right box, we could check this baby home whole. The search was on…

Again, Alaska Airlines had rules. Any checked back dimensions could not add up to more than 62 inches length+width+height. On a trip into town with Powers, we secured a couple giant cardboard refrigerator boxes and thus began our sculpture.

At this point, it’s probably worth reminding everyone that Stephen is a surveyor and I am an engineer. We work with numbers day in and day out. A mandate of “L+W+H=62 or less” with a 51-inch rack plus skull was a worthy challenge indeed. We got to work with our box cutters, duct tape, foam packing, tape measures, and imagination.

After a few hours of sweat, blood, and cussing, we had our masterpiece. It measured 61.5” inches when you added up the dimensions just right. We decided we’d have to coach, persuade, and possibly even bribe when it came to actually checking in. We needed to make sure the future airline employee understood the definition of “length, width, and height” exactly how we did. I decided to keep the tape measure and a couple big bills handy.

Skull in a box

We got all our gear bundled up and into the truck and they took us to the Bethel Airport. Steve Powers hung around to make sure we got checked in all right. The regular bags, rifles, and boxes of meat checked in just fine. The TSA, in their infinite wisdom, could not care less about the rifle cases. But they were very interested in my mostly-frozen bear skin, head, and paws rolled up inside my action packer. That case drew a TSA search and a swab down.

Bethel Airport

That bear that had been so tasty had apparently kept his nose clean of everything besides blueberries. The swab turned up negative for all things nefarious including explosives, poison, and illicit drugs. Good bear. Our intrepid TSA agent actually looked a little disappointed.

Last came our seven-sided cardboard-and-duct tape monolith. That one earned us a frown and a head shake from the lady checking us in. She had a tape measure, too, and was not afraid to use it. We instructed, cajoled, and finally begged her to measure it up the way we had measured it. She finally called in a supervisor. We gave him the same schpeel. I was starting to visualize those big bills not seeing me to the lower 48. He finally said, “I don’t know, let’s ask Billy, he loads the planes” and called for Billy on his radio.

Hands in pockets, toes making circles on the tile, we waited for our judge and jury, Billy, to appear. Finally a gentleman of about 19 years old appeared through the swinging doors. Supervisor asked, “Billy, can you get that thing in the plane?” Our blood ran cold. The fate of how we were going to get this home, whether or not Stephen would get his European mount, if we would have to break out a saw and cobble together a cardboard monolith 2.0 right here in the airport lobby, laid with this young Alaskan in an oily blue jumpsuit.

Billy looked at it from a couple directions, looked at us, and said “Sure” without even giving it a measure.

We were elated! But that lasted about five seconds until another thought crept in. So we asked, “What about when we get to Anchorage and switch planes? Will we have to go through this same exercise?”

That answer was no. Once an item is in a plane, it’s assumed that all the subsequent planes will be able to manage it.

We shook Steve Powers’ hand again and he left us there with our giant grins, two-week beards, and boarding passes.

After the plane began boarding, the young lady with the airlines who first began checking us in called us over. She said “Let me see your passes.” We handed them over, and then she TORE THEM UP! I was horrified.

“Umm, what are you doing?” I asked, dumbfounded.

“Here, have a good flight.” She said as she handed over our new FIRST CLASS passes to Anchorage!

We got situated in the plane but still had a few lingering doubts about Billy’s assessment of the cardboard prize. We kept peering out the window, watching as the baggage trailer came under the plane and we could hear the clunking of the loading efforts below us.

We kept looking and it seemed to be taking longer this planeload should take. Finally the captain came on, looked around the passenger area, and landed his gaze on us.

“You guys, that big funky cardboard box is yours, right?”

We nodded “Yep” with a little of that now-familiar load terror creeping back in.

He grinned, “We got it in the plane just fine. You can relax.”

Between this guy, Billy, and the first class upgrade, I decided right then and there that Alaska Airlines was my new favorite airline.

An hour and a couple free drinks later we landed in Anchorage where we waited for the red-eye flight to Salt Lake. We dined in the airport where we chatted a bit about our adventure with the waitress. She appeared of Asian descent and got visibly irritated that I had left the bear’s gall bladder out in the wilderness. We spoke of how good its backstraps had tasted after cooked in butter and seasoned salt. But I got the distinct feeling that, had nobody been watching, she’d have whacked me with a menu. Repeatedly.

We slept most of the way to Salt Lake and arrived there in the early morning. We had to hunt around the baggage claim area for the special doors from where our rifle cases and “big funky cardboard box” would appear.

Ever taken a red-eye flight? The sleep isn’t real great, especially when you’re coming off two weeks in the wilderness. Hold that thought.

All our gear at the SLC airport, just before packing into Stephen’s truck

We carted it all out to Stephen’s truck and began loading. We debated a bit how best to pack everything, especially the moose. We decided it should ride just fine protected inside the box, but jammed in the bed off the truck with all our other gear holding things snug. Light loads can sometimes fly out the back of a truck if you’re not careful, but we figured everything was a tight enough fit to hold all the items in. We pulled out of the airport, fueled up, and picked up some ice for the bear. We got on I-15 and began the long drive back to Colorado.

Road-tripping back home

We got out of Salt Lake City proper and started up the Point on the Mount. I looked back on the gear from time to time and Stephen checked it in the mirrors. Things were wiggling a bit, but seemed to be fine.

Just before the crest of the hill, he and I looked back at the same time. We both saw it. Have you ever wondered what a bullet looks like as it’s fired from a gun, from the perspective of the bolt face? I no longer have to wonder. I’ve seen it firsthand.

He was on the brake trying to slow down from our top speed of 75 mph, but it wasn’t enough. We both yelled “OH @#$%!” as that big ugly box levitated up, quivered a bit, and shot straight backwards out of the truck! Aaaaaaah!

It landed right side up and skidded along in our middle lane for another 20 feet before coming to rest right in the road. By that time we had pulled over to the shoulder. We got out and I yelled at Stephen to watch out for the traffic. One semi swerved around the outside of the box, an SUV passed it on the right.

Even though this was a six-lane interstate, there was surprisingly little traffic. Then, as we were pushing it over to the shoulder, it hit me. “Thank God for Mormons!” I told Stephen.

This was 9:00 on a Sunday morning just outside of Salt Lake City. No other stretch of urban interstate highway anywhere else in the country would you find that little traffic at 9:00 any morning. Most of the faithful were at church and thankfully not bearing down on us at top speed.

After we un-boxed that miraculously unscathed head right there on the shoulder, repacked everything, and got back on the road, we decided on a name for that moose. We were very proud of ourselves for getting that rack to fly back through a combination of our creative packaging and the benevolence of Billy the Bagthrower. Now, however, we felt like complete morons having witnessed that same box nearly get decimated by flying onto on the highway. This, after we both knew way better than to ever pack a large light box in a moving truck bed!

We made it the rest of the way home, uneventfully, to Colorado with The Flying Moose and the Blueberry Bear. Plus, since a big moose rack in the back of a truck draws a crowd every time you stop, we even made a few new friends along the way home.

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You’ll Never Guess Who I Ran Into

We’ve all had those conversations where someone tells the story about how they were somewhere weird and ran into a friend from home. Then the next person tells their story about when they were somewhere a little more odd and met someone they knew. I have a trump card for those conversations.

In early ‘04 I was stationed at the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team, an 80-man firebase, as a Civil Affairs team engineer. This duty meant lots of meetings with various Afghans about projects and policies they’d like. We also tried to coordinate with several other units with varying missions to try and synchronize all our efforts.

Recent PRT’s across Afghanistan. In 2004, Kandahar was one of the first to open.

Anyway, one day found us at the PRT meeting with several other units from other bases. There were about 20 people in the room including several officers from other units, several Afghan officials, our PRT leadership, and we each had our interpreter. One of the visiting Colonels had an interpreter that kept staring at me during the whole meeting. I thought, “Great, another one of these Afghans who is gayer than a hatbox full of speedos.”

He looked pretty harmless and I just tried to ignore it. After the meeting he came up to me.

A typical PRT meeting

A typical PRT meeting

“Sir, what is your name, where are you from?” he asked in his thick Afghan accent.

I told him, “Captain Hartmann, but most call me ‘Engineer Hartmann’ and I spent several months up in Kabul and Polecharki before coming down here to Kandahar.”

“No, no, no, I mean where is it you are from in Amerrrica?” (You have to roll your R’s to sound like an Afghani.)

I said, “Well, I live in Colorado but grew up in…” He cut me off.

“By Allah, I knew it!” and he gave me a great big grinning bear hug that just about knocked me over.

He let go and was still all grins. “I knew I recognized you. You guys all came to my store from the Fed Center! You would all come get gas and coffee on the weekends!”

Then it dawned on me. My Reserve unit back home would sometimes do our monthly drills at the Denver Federal Center in west Denver. There was a convenience store close to the main entrance where most of us would in fact stop for gas, coffee, and snacks. This guy apparently recognized me from all that. We chatted a bit longer about places we both knew but he had to hurry off with his unit.

Entrance to the Denver Federal Center

He was as happy to see someone from back “home” in Colorado as I was the few times I ran into buddies over there. I’m guessing interpreting meetings for the Americans paid way better than selling slurpies and 87 octane.

Thanks Giving

Thanksgiving is far and away my favorite holiday.  It is simple, no gifts, little hype, just a day to gather with friends, family, possibly even strangers, then give thanks and eat.  It has become very much the last day of sanity before the dam that holds back Christmas commercialism bursts.

We’ve had happy Thanksgivings, less happy Thanksgivings.  We’ve had fun Thanksgivings; I’d say last year, spending the day at Disneyworld hits the high mark on the Thanksgiving fun meter!  We’ve had Thanksgivings that were quiet and some that were, especially since becoming parents, quite loud.  I even spent one Thanksgiving in a guard tower in Afghanistan.  While not fun, I was still thankful that things weren’t worse.

I even still like watching the parades on TV.  Those big goofy balloons have always been just inexplicably fun to watch, they’re like a lollipop for the soul.

I don’t have a “best” Thanksgiving.  I’m a little sad to say I don’t even remember most of the 41 Thanksgivings I’ve seen.  Some of them, like Disneyworld, I’ll never forget.  One that I think back to quite frequently, and have for decades, is one Thanksgiving during college.

I was going to school in Rapid City and living in my fraternity’s house.  We always joked that, since Mines was a small engineering college, our Theta Tau house was an environment best-described as a combination of the movies Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds.  As classes were getting ready to let out for most of that week, a big nasty South Dakota blizzard moved through and shut down most of the travel around the state. All of the guys that had trips home cancelled them and stayed put at the house.  This, in and of itself, led to big fun.  There were no classes but nearly everyone from the whole school was still around.  Use your imagination.

I grew up locally and the drive home to Thanksgiving with Mom and Dad was just a quick 30 minute trip across roads that had opened up by that Thursday.  So, after getting Mom’s blessing, I invited as many brothers as were interested to come and spend Thanksgiving with my folks and me.  It was otherwise just going to be the three of us.

About a dozen guys took me up on it and we convoyed over to my parents’ place.  It was a little cramped, I think we wound up setting up a card table that quickly was dubbed the little kids’ table.  As always, there was more than enough food, but we did make a much larger dent in all the table fare than would have just the three of us.  Countless stories were told from all sides of the tables.  I think both my brothers and my parents were each a little surprised at how interesting the others were.

After dinner, there were more than enough hands to make quick work of the dishes, so Mom and Dad actually got a break.  I’m pretty sure we helped Dad with a small project or two around the house.  After all that was done, I vividly remember just relaxing around the house, enjoying how my two worlds had meshed together so well without incident and with very little planning.  Mom and Dad had met maybe only one or two of these guys, they didn’t know the rest from Adam.  And who knows what my brothers thought they were getting into by traveling into the incubator of their “housing manager we think just might be a little crazy.”  (And you guys thought I never heard that.)

The two families in my life at that time had come together on that Thanksgiving, very much appreciated each other, and for that I was infinitely thankful.  As fun as it was hanging out around the fraternity house, I think there was still a little boy in each of us that appreciated being inside a home with more home-cooked goodies that could possibly be eaten.  And I was happy that the home I had grown up in made a good surrogate for the guys who could not make it back to theirs.  That holiday helped me learn that it is ok, and usually even a very good thing, to combine families that might otherwise never meet.  It might just make for a good story years later.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

A Teaching Moment

It has been eight years now, but I still get asked what Afghanistan was like.  And I still don’t have a good quick answer, usually mumbling something to the effect of “I learned a lot.”  One of those pearls of wisdom I did learn is spelled out here.

My engineer team of six officers was armed only with pistols.  This sounded like a dandy idea back at Ft. Carson as we were preparing to mobilize and go downrange to be basecamp engineers essentially functioning as a public works department.  The technical term for that type of role is “REMF” for Rear Echelon…you can fill in the rest.  But after arriving in country, we promptly found ourselves working directly in the task force that was training and mentoring the Afghans and going outside the wire on a regular basis.  I was on the ground exactly four days before going on my first foot patrol with a squad from 10th Mountain Infantry Division.  That was all fine, we were anxious to do any job needed of us and this whole theatre seemed desperately short of engineer assets.  But wandering around the backstreets of Afghanistan armed only with a 9mm and rapier wit does not instill one with much confidence.

For most of those trips and convoys, I was able to borrow a rifle or shotgun from the infantry units.  But there wasn’t a stockpile of extra U.S. weapons from which to “sign out” and keep one as my own for the duration of the tour.  If you think back to 2003, our Afghanistan War was fast becoming a sideshow to the Iraq War.

There were, however, more AK-47’s around than you could shake a stick at!  I should qualify…they weren’t lying around.  They were oiled and stored neatly inside arms rooms waiting for the Afghan National Army, or ANA to fill its ranks with recruits.  At the time, Afghanistan had much more military equipment (much of it donated from former Eastern Bloc nations) than it had soldiers to handle it.

Given all of that, we frequently discussed simply signing out a few AK’s from the Afghans so we’d have more long rifles at our disposal.  The downside to this was that we would get many strange looks and even questions from higher up our own chain of command about using foreign weapons.  But, as the SIGACTS (noisy run-ins with bad guys) started to grow more frequent, we opted to err on the side of common sense.

I grew familiar with quite a few Afghan officers and their western counterparts.  I got in touch with the U.S. officer who was mentoring the ANA supply officer and set up a meeting to sign out a couple AK’s.  We met up that week, the smiling ANA officer was happy to oblige.  I returned back to my team with two nice Romanian AK-47’s, magazines, ammo, and even a hand-receipt complete with Dari serial number!

Hand receipt for an AK-47.

Debate if you want the rightness or wrongness of this whole exercise and how well we were equipping our own troops for the mission at hand in 2003.  That debate did rage for a while, and is still worth discussion, but it is not the point of my story.  If it was, I’d write at length what I learned about the finer points of duct-taping old flak jackets to the interior of an un-armored vehicle.  I’ll save all that for another story.

Those AK’s did work well, I hung onto mine for the last half of my tour.  It did get me some strange looks and a few questions.  But the longer one stays on the ground in a combat zone, the less one cares about rules that serve absolutely no purpose.

The author stands in a poppy field outside Kandahar with the Civil Affairs team to which he was assigned.

Fast-forward to the end of my tour.  I had transferred back to Kabul from the boondocks where I had been assigned in early 2004.  The last week in country is typically a lot of cross-training with newer soldiers, paperwork, and wrapping up loose ends.  At three days left before going home, I tagged along on a convoy up to Bagram to schedule my travel home.  Early in the afternoon, our Bagram business was complete, and we prepared the people and vehicles for the convoy back to Kabul.

Rolling down Bagram road, I was riding shotgun in our SUV while coaching the new-in-country driver on the finer points of driving in a third world combat zone.  We equated it to bumper cars with guns.  Apparently my coaching left something to be desired because one second I was warning the guy to look out for an oncoming truck…the next thing I remember was sitting up in the Bagram ICU with the doctor sewing up my face.

About three hours, one nasty motor vehicle accident, and my eventual medevac had passed.  My side of the SUV took the brunt of the T-bone collision with the loaded gravel truck.  The vehicle’s side was caved in and the others’ initial reaction was that I must be dead or severely crunched up with the truck.  It was a true miracle I only received the few holes and dents that I did.  Had the impact gone an inch differently either way, I’d surely be dead.

As it was, the bottom of the rig was crushed in to a point where I had about a 10-inch diameter void for both my legs.  Inside that space was also my AK-47…broken into several pieces!  Interestingly, about a week after the wreck, a forearm bruise that reflected the exact pattern of the bottom plate of the AK’s magazine showed up.  Weird.

The passenger seat location and the author took the brunt of the impact.

That event set back my out-processing a bit as I spent a little unplanned time in the Bagram ICU.  After getting out the next afternoon complete with stitches and a cocktail of pain killers, I had to get back on the paperwork wagon.

One cardinal rule in the Army is equipment accountability.  If you sign something out, you by-God had better sign it back in or Uncle Sam will find you.  This train of thought brought me to the two AK-47’s under my name.  In retrospect, I probably could have just handed them off to my U.S. colleagues at the base and ripped up my Afghani hand-receipt.  But, that officer mindset has a way of being hardwired into a Captain’s brain.  Rules are rules but moreover, it was important to me to not miss an opportunity for a teaching moment to hammer home that cardinal rule for one of these Afghans.  So we found a couple hours to get back to their base in order to turn in those two weapons.

We found the ANA supply building arms room and explained our plight through our interpreter.  Since this whole situation was a little outside the box, even for the ANA, the Afghan sergeant went to go fetch the officer in charge of supply.  I was getting a little nervous about the fact that one of the AK’s was broken beyond repair.  I had valid circumstances, but if it had been a U.S. rifle, I would be looking at a very long line of explanations and paperwork just to ensure the cost of the weapon would not be coming out of my paycheck.  I was hoping the Afghan that we found would still be green enough to hold common sense in high regard and that their own system was still undeveloped enough to just write off broken equipment.

It apparently took a while to find the right guy and we loitered around in the ANA main supply area.  After about ten minutes, a couple more senior ANA officers came through the door and looked us over.

I should probably mention that, at this point, I looked like warmed over death.  I was a couple days out of an amnesiatic concussion,  loaded with Percocet, had a faceful of stitches over a huge black eye, and I wasn’t moving very fast with broken ribs.

The interpreter spelled out the story to the ANA Major.  He seemed to brush off the interpreter and I thought “Oh boy, here it comes.  One too many of our anal-retentive-supply-types have probably mentored this guy and he’s going to seize the opportunity to chew on an American.”  Dealing both with the ANA and contractors, I had more than my share of arguments with Afghans of varying levels of hostility and was hoping to get home without any more.

I laid out the weapons for him, broken bits and all, and apologized while explaining in small words that they had been through a wreck.  But it turned out this guy did have a pretty good command of English after all.

He looked me in the eye, gave me a big hug, and said “Praise Allah you are OK.  These rifles, they are nothing.  Your life, it is everythingThank you for helping my country.”

It was probably all the Percocet, but that choked me up.  Getting an unsolicited bear hug from a big bearded Afghan tends to throw a guy off.  It was me on the receiving end of that teaching moment.  This drove home something I was still coming to believe after working, training, and living with many Afghans over the past year.  These people are in fact human.  They have lives.  They are not just a face on a TV news clip.  They have hopes, dreams, and worries.  Most have concern for other people, even strangers.

This war, like all wars, will end someday.  As we get closer to that end and weary of each other’s failings, I hope and pray both we and the Afghans keep in mind the fact that the foreigners are human.  Geographic location, religion, or nationality should not be the sole reason we judge people of any flavor.  Prejudging people with hate or even bitterness is often the easiest route to take.  I like to think we’re all better than that.

Outdoor Gear Opinions

It’s March and most of us have been cooped up for a few months dreaming of getting back outside after most of the snow clears. I don’t think I’m alone in saying I get cabin fever-ish this time of year. It seems like good medicine to go through and revisit the gear I will be using while daydreaming about upcoming trips.  I put links to all the gear companies at the end of the article.

GEAR I USE AND REALLY LIKE

Kennetrek boots. I’ve had these for a little over a year now and love them. They’re a little spendy, but over the years I’ve come to the realization that I have never regretted spending a little much on outdoor gear. It seems you get what you pay for. Every foot is different, certainly try boots on before buying. I’ve tried on many pairs of other high-end hikers and could not get them to fit my wide Hobbit feet. I’m glad I kept looking. Kennetrek makes nice gators too. They are sturdy, waterproof, and quiet.

Kifaru packs. I’ve had their Spikecamp daypack since 2003 and keep going back to it. I use it hunting, hiking, family vacations, as a carryon, and a bugout bag in the Army (including a year in Afghanistan). They make a shelf attachment that I have packed elk meat on. The shelf is functional but not an ideal meat hauler. Plus, I usually have more hunting to do after packing one animal and prefer not to get my daypack covered with dead animal scent. A 25-pound plate fits snug inside a Spikecamp (for training or sadism, depending on your point of view) as do most laptops.

I have Kifaru’s Longhunter meat hauler and love that. It’s the most comfortable meat pack I’ve worn, I’ve packed elk, deer, moose, and occasionally one of my kids around on it. I usually strap a 35-pound plate onto mine for training. I recently ordered the backpack that goes onto the Longhunter hauler frame for an upcoming backpack hunt. I can’t wait to try it out.

Kifaru makes tipi tents, sleds for hauling gear in the snow, and various other accouterments that all look very well made and functional. Kifaru manufactures all their gear in Colorado. Have you ever heard of Mountainsmith packs? Patrick Smith, the gent who started Mountainsmith, spun off the Kifaru brand for hunters and military purposes.

Wiggy’s sleeping bags. They make them right here in Grand Junction. They’re synthetic, not down, so will still keep you warm if you get wet. They compact down to an amazingly small volume to squeeze into your pack. There are lighter bags out there, but I’m willing to carry a bit more weight to give myself the option of not freezing to death if I get completely soaked. I think Wiggy’s still has some military contracts for sleeping bags too.

Eberlestock packs. I know, how many packs does a guy need? Eberlestock makes many packs from small to large, but their unique feature is their rifle scabbard that rides right down the wearer’s spine. It is, hand-down, the most comfortable way to carry a rifle all day. For those of us who are starting to see a little gray in their whiskers and have some old back/neck injuries, load symmetry is the name of the game. I feel way better at the end of a day toting my rifle in an Eberlestock than if I had it slung over my shoulder. This setup also allows your hands to be free for trekking poles, elk calls, catching yourself from falling off a cliff, etc.

Leupold binoculars. You can go crazy spending money on binoculars. I like the Leupold mid-range Wind River models. They’re good glass and not priced so high that a person would be scared to take them out of the truck! Where I hunt, we typically look through our binos at least 100 minutes for every one minute looking through our rifle scopes. So I always tell people to get a reliable scope, but spend your bigger money on your binos since you put way more time behind them.

Leupold rifle scopes. These all have a lifetime warranty and are very, very, reliable. I like their basic VX-1 models for the reason outlined above. It’s Leupold, but certainly not their top of the line glass. In my opinion, reliability is the number one criteria for scopes. I am a bit of a control freak so when I hit or miss a rifle shot, I want to know it was all me, I don’t want any question about my rifle, scope, or bullet being awry. For this same reason, I also use…

Nosler bullets. There are seemingly infinite choices of quality big game bullets out there. It seems like manufacturers are getting closer every year to the ideal bullet that works in every condition on any game. For now, I still shoot the relatively boring Nosler Partition bullet. They have been performing reliably on game for decades. They have always flown surprisingly well out of my .300 Remington Ultra Mag, so I’ve never had a need to experiment with any other bullet. I use target turrets and a laser rangefinder and, when conditions are good, consistently hit plate-sized targets out to 800 yards with 180g Partitions out of my 26” SS factory barrel. Living in the desert provides good opportunities for plinking rocks at long ranges.

Helly Hansen rain gear. I ordered a set of their Impertech five years ago and it’s still holding up very well. It’s rubberized, completely waterproof and not breathable like goretex. Anyone who’s been out all day in rain and/or wet snow, you know a saturated Gore-Tex or other breathable fabric is really no picnic. It may be waterproof, but it still gets heavy, and is not pleasant to wear after a full soaking. I prefer to pack my raingear around with me and put it on for when the rain/snow really starts coming down.

SPOT Personal Locator Beacon. If you ever find yourself hunting, scouting, hiking, or just out alone, please do yourself a favor and invest in one of these. They’re simple and they work. I occasionally volunteer with our local Search and Rescue and can truthfully say these have saved at least a couple lives in my County. You can even set it up to post your location to your Facebook wall if you’re so inclined!

Taurus Judge .410/.45LC pistol. This is a great camp gun. The .45LC round is great for most critters who may take an interest in any meat you’re packing out. And the .410 is good for snakes and birds up close. For whatever reason, mountain grouse seem to always be more than willing to let you get nice and close before they fly off. It is small and light (it’s only a 5-shooter) so the recoil is brisk. It seems there are many folks out there who love the idea of a .410 buckshot round for personal defense against malicious two-legged critters. I’ve never understood that logic myself, a 2.5-inch .410 buckshot round usually has three pellets. That load from a three-inch barrel won’t pattern decently beyond a few feet. You may as well just use harsh language. Again, in my opinion, a .410 load is for snakes and birds. Defense against the zombie apocalypse is a whole other conversation.

JetBoil Stove. I love mine. It’s simple, compact, and boils water amazingly fast. I never liked the various other lightweight backpackers stoves with the bottle of fuel, flexible supply line, pumping the plunger, and all the associated headaches. Often, when you want hot water in the boondocks, you’re bordering on miserable in the first place and you want simple and fast operation.

Honda ATV. I won’t buy any other brand. In my opinion, they are the most reliable. They may not have the snazziest features of some other models, and they’re priced a little higher when you compare apples to apples with respect to options. They do hold their resell value quite well. When a person goes way out alone, reliability is the number one criteria, so I give Honda the nod. I mainly drive a 500, it’s big enough to haul two adults and a quartered elk. It’s also small enough I can pick up the rear end and swing it around 180 degrees if I get in a tight spot. I figure they are the Nosler Partition of ATVs. They are boring, but get the job done consistently.

Steripen water purifier. We took mine on a two-week drop camp in AK as a backup if our water filter crapped out, and…our water filter crapped out. We kept the Steripen busy making drinking water. You do have to read and follow the directions, but it was fast and neither of us got sick. One word of caution, if you dip your water bottle I raw water then purify the water inside, that still leaves raw water around the bottle’s rim. So wipe it off before you put it to your lips!

CHEAP GEAR THAT WORKS SURPRISINGLY WELL

Jansport (or any decent brand) internal frame backpack. I bought a low-end backpacking pack in the mid 1990’s and have used it mainly for packing meat! A boned out elk quarter fits quite well inside and the whole thing snugs down nice and tight for travel. Even a bone-in quarter from a cow elk will fit inside most internal frame packs. If you use a good game bag (see below), it won’t get too nasty inside the pack. I tell people wanting to start elk hunting to just hit the yard sales and pick up any large internal-frame backpack that is in decent shape (look for rotted seams and thread) and fits you well with a big load. Odds are, if your yard sale has backpacks, there will also be dumbells or weight plates nearby too! When starting out, spend your money on good boots and glass instead of an expensive meat pack.

Homemade game bags. My lovely wife sewed together some old sheets into gamebags for me. We sized them as a pillowcase large enough to stand in and pull it up to mid-chest. They work great. Plus, if you use some ridiculously-printed sheets, your hunting buddies will never “accidentally” make off with your game bags at the end of the hunt. Don’t transport game meat inside plastic bags for any longer than you have to.

Homemade shooting sticks. A local sporting goods store has a big grab-box of various sizes of miscellaneous shock-corded tent poles. With a few dollars, a hacksaw, and a little imagination, you can make your own custom shooting sticks in bipod or tripod setup.

Non-orange flagging. Flagging tape is great for a number of uses, but everyone uses orange. Do yourself a favor and go to a local survey or contractors supply store and get the most outlandish color you can find. Remember, in the fall, much of the foliage is orange and yellow so those colors may not be ideal. I like the striped flagging when it’s available.

Wool. Socks, gloves, hats, underwear, anything. Wool often gets forgotten about in the age of snazzy synthetics. But it wears hard, stays warm when wet, doesn’t get as nasty of a funk as some synthetic undergarments, and I find the socks hold up better to the dryer than synthetics. I know, you’re not supposed to dry any of it in the dryer, but I’m just being honest. Tumble happens. Smartwool out of Steamboat Springs, CO makes some nice stuff.

GEAR I HAVE RESEARCHED AND REALLY MUST HAVE SOMEDAY

Seek Outside tipi tents. I just found these guys. Their tents seem quite like the Kifaru tipis with a little different twist on material and configuration. They’re out of Ouray, CO, which is close to my home town, and their price point appears a little lower than Kifaru.

Swarovski binoculars. These are all very nice, very bright, very crisp, and very expensive. Someday.

Bell and Carlson rifle stocks. I really need a lighter stock on my .300 RUM if I’m going to take it on a backpack hunt. Stocky’s Stocks has great information and prices on stocks of many shapes and sizes. There are more expensive and likely nicer synthetic stocks out there, but I don’t shoot hundreds or thousands of rounds per year like a lot of serious shooters. I just want lighter and good quality. I own one McMillan stock on a .270Win. It is nice, but for the money B&C looks like just the ticket.

CONCLUSION

I thought it can’t hurt to share the knowledge/opinions I’ve gained after spending more than a little time outdoors. I don’t get anything in return from any of these companies. And my evaluations are based on small statistical data samplings, i.e. just the stuff I buy and use. Your mileage may vary. Good luck!

www.kenetrek.com
www.kifaru.net
www.wiggys.com
www.eberlestock.com
www.leupold.com
www.nosler.com
www.hellyhansen.com
www.findmespot.com
www.taurususa.com
www.jetboil.com
http://powersports.honda.com/
www.steripen.com
www.jansport.com
www.smartwool.com
http://seekoutside.com/
http://www.swarovskioptik.us/en_us/products/binoculars
http://www.bellandcarlson.com/
Stockys Stocks website