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

The Flying Moose and the Blueberry Bear, Part II

The country we would be hunting was the delta formed between the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers.  We were to fly about 50 miles to a spot they had previously scouted for camp.  The delta we flew across looked like a textbook river delta, fairly flat and swampy with thousands of lakes and ponds filling the landscape.  Some had smaller meandering threads of water connecting them, others were simply roundish standalone lakes.  The terrain was fully half and half land and water and was completely void of mountains, hills or even many bumps.  About 15 minutes into the flight I elbowed the pilot and said “I haven’t even seen a rock anywhere!”

He simply grinned and replied “Yep!”  I could tell what he was thinking…”FNG’s…[frustrated] new guys”  To a couple self-proclaimed mountain men it all felt as alien as a trip to Mars.

After 45 minutes of flying we came to our lake.  We took one air lap around to get a look at things then came in for a landing.  Shane taxied us over to the shore, shut down the plane, and we proceeded to unload all our gear.  After making sure we had all our accouterments, Shane pointed to a tree-lined knoll about 200 yards away and said “That’s where we’d recommend you camp.  Call us when you get one!”  With that, he hopped back in the plane, repeated the whole procedure in reverse, and was gone in a matter of minutes.

We hauled gear and made camp just inside that treeline he had recommended.  Walking across that tundra was indeed more work than we expected.  After the tent and our cook tarp were up, we sat down to finish our Subway sandwiches.  That was a weird feeling, being way, way back in the boondocks but still unwrapping and chowing down on a Sub Club on wheat…extra tomatoes.  I wish I would have gotten the two-cookie deal…also no refills out here.

Our Alaska Home for two weeks

We glassed around from the several great vantage points just steps from our tent.  This was indeed an ideal spot for just sitting tight, looking and listening.  Then, just as we were discussing how long the sunset takes at this far northern latitude, we saw our first live Alaskan moose!  About a half mile from camp a big cow was strolling between stands of evergreens.   Cool.

Landing strip lake, smooth as glass

The next morning proved to be foggier than a Vegas hangover.  The mist kept thickening and ebbing around us.  Sometimes we could see 50 yards, then a minute later we could only see five.  Per Steve’s instructions, we sat tight and cow-called anyway.  After a few sessions of that, I got a cow to answer me back!  I was having my first Dave-moose conversation!  It proved to be a short one though, I only got two calls out of her, then never did hear from her again that day.  So much for my morning of moose-wooing.

The sky cleared that afternoon and we kept up the calling and glassing.  From the other side of camp, we spotted a small herd in a clearing over a mile away.  We studied them for several minutes, counting five or six cows and calves when a new moose showed itself from the treeline.  This last one had giant boat paddles sticking out of each side of his head!  Our first bull sighting!  Had this been an elk, we’d have packed our bags, planned a way in on him, and beat feet as fast as we could quietly go.

But again…“You don’t want to pack no moose no two miles”…especially on day one of the hunt.  So we sat tight, watched them, and tried to figure out where to put ourselves to call him in to a more shoot-able spot.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

We realized our novice status at this whole moose thing.  We exercised EXTREME discipline in just sitting tight, watching them, and trying to strategize a way to put a hunt on him.  There really wasn’t any way at him through cover without pushing him straight away from us.  Good advice also indicated that once a bull is “cow’d up” it is very hard to call them in.  Apparently it is easier to call in a solitary bull.

Moose calling is an art in itself.  We’d been practicing for a while, I even had a moose calls app on my iPod to confirm what they actually sounded like in case we didn’t hear from a live one.  To cow-call you basically cup your hands to make a small megaphone, hold a nostril shut, and shout a loud nasal “Eeeeeeeuuugh” in the direction you want to throw the sound.  If you want to sound like a bull, that is a more subtle “Ye-uh” and if you really want to go crazy, you can rake a wooden boat paddle against a tree or brush.  All this really does help break up the boredom of sitting and waiting.  But it would most certainly get a guy hauled off in a straight-jacket if you tried it in your local mall.

For hunt day two we branched out a little farther with our calling setups.  We saw moose even further off in the clearing where we spied the Day One Bull.  The rush from seeing them was starting to wear off enough to a point where we might be able to actually hold still enough to shoot one if the chance came.

Suddenly, I spied a lone moose about ¾ mile behind camp where we hadn’t been glassing much.  A closer look through the binos showed that it was indeed a bull!  And he seemed to be wandering in our general direction.  We ‘spoke’ to him a little more then sat tight to get a closer look.  Sure enough, he was picking his way over to us!

We decided he was too small to shoot this early, maybe 36 inches wide, but we could play with him anyway.  We kept up our calling and raking and broke out the video camera.  Stephen moved to a spot closer to camp and I stayed put and kept up the calling.

Our new friend kept working his way over to us.  At one point, he walked up the hill to our camp and gave our cook tent a sniff!  We kept calling and he kept walking to us.  I watched him stop and sniff a spot about five yards from Stephen.  I figured he’d wind us pretty soon and bolt out of there.  But he just kept hanging around.

About 15 minutes of hanging around our hill was apparently enough for that day’s Bullwinkle.  He eventually turned around and kept walking north, passing me at about 10 yards’ distance, to go investigate smells and sights more interesting than us two hunters.  That little escapade was the most Alaska fun I’d had yet!  And it helped to re-affirm that our calling must at least somewhat resemble the sounds of a real moose!

Vodpod videos no longer available.

We passed the next few days with the same routine, glassing, calling, seeing some small moose up close and a few big moose way far away.  The weather started being uncooperative.  It wasn’t nasty, but not good for hunting either.  Days were hot and clear, but windy.  Wind is not a hunter’s friend as it keeps most any animal bedded down not moving much.  A few clouds moved through occasionally, but for the most part it was beach weather.

The afternoon of day four found us getting a little frustrated.  We found a lone tree that offered good visibility south of camp so we hunkered down for a calling and napping session.  After about two hours our napping was starting to beat out our calling.  I woke up to sweat and bugs and shifted to get back inside the shadow.  A bank of clouds about a half hour away was oozing its way toward the sun.  Stephen was still snoozing as I thought through the next hour or so.  I would wait patiently until the clouds reached the sun to provide us some much-needed relief.  Then I’d start up some more calls spaced about 15 minutes apart.

My half-hour ETA for the clouds proved to be more like an hour, but they finally did arrive.  After a few minutes of relishing the shade, I figured it was time to start making noise.  I cupped my mouth, clamped a nostril, breathed deep, and let loose the loudest, juiciest “Eeeeeuugh” I could muster.  I kept looking out the corner of my eye for Stephen to jump since he was really out.

A Stephen-napjerk-induced snicker was just leaving my mouth when I heard over my left shoulder, a low  “Ye-uh” from about a quarter mile away.  Paydirt! A bull!  It didn’t take much to whisper Stephen up.  I gave the bull a couple minutes and “Eeeeugh”ed again.  The bull came back with another “Ye-uh” from even closer and my heart was racing.  We’d seen a couple smallish bulls up close so I kept having to push away thoughts of the little ones and hoping for a monster.

The tension built as the bull and I kept up our conversation.  We each scooted around for a bit better cover and Stephen readied for a shot.  We had agreed ahead of time Stephen would get first right of refusal.  We had hunted together in a trophy elk unit in 2006 when I scored a nice bull but he came home empty-handed.  Besides, he’s older!  I never let him forget that, even though he has always been able to hike me into the ground, and likely will up until we’re both telling hunting stories from our Hoverounds.

I caught movement from the draw to our left, about 80 yards out.  Plenty of antler flashed between a couple trees.  Stephen saw him too.  Its antlers looked much bigger than the few little ones we’d seen, but not the pig we saw way out north.  I guessed maybe 50 inches wide or better.  I asked “Gonna take him?”

“Yep.”

The bull was moving in an arc around to our front, disappearing and reappearing through trees and low terrain.  It felt like hours, but probably less than 10 seconds had passed since we first saw him.  The bull stepped out into the open, broadside, then turned his head our way.  Those big paddled antlers did look impressive this close and I was playing out in my mind how fast I could shoot if Stephen had said he’d pass.

He turned his head back broadside, my fingers were in my ears…BOOM!  Stephen’s single shot .300 Win Mag roared.  The bull hunched up from a good lung hit.  It took a couple more steps then stopped.  Stephen had already reloaded and cocked the hammer.  The bull began walking again.  I said “Kill him Stephen, hit him again.”

BOOM!  That second shot probably wasn’t completely necessary, but they can never be too dead.  Besides, each step was a step directly away from the direction we’d be packing the meat.   This one knocked that bull over.

Everything was instantly back to the eerie dreamlike quiet that consumed this wilderness.  We looked at each other in disbelief.   I think it took until then for both of us to resume breathing.  “You did it!  We got one!  We came up here and got one!  Thank you God!”  It took a couple minutes to collect our wits and get rid of the shakes.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

We walked down to the bull and marveled at how enormous it was.  My buddy from Wyoming wasn’t kidding when he said it was like shooting a Clydesdale horse.  We’d seen big elk killed but this thing was an absolute monster.  We got more pictures and strategized our plans for butchering.  One tarp on which to lay the meat out.  Another tarp to cover the meat.  Knives, sharpeners, Wyoming saw, meat packs…check, check and check.

Stephen's bull went about 51 inches wide

Head over heels for elk

Colorado’s  2011 third rifle season arrived with the first real snowstorm of the winter. Saturday morning we woke up to fog and rain turning to snow at our camp. We decided we didn’t want to start off the elk season by ATVing and hiking around in the slop to places where we couldn’t see through our binoculars. So we drove to higher elevations pursuing the slim chance of eyeing a break in the storm and different places to glass.

Oh, and Murphy’s Law showed up opening morning too. Dan could not find the keys to his locked truck (and rifle) anywhere in his gear. We helped him hunt for them for a bit and finally opted to let him rummage through the camper, end-to-end, on his own while Shawn and I drove up for a better look.

No luck, the higher we drove, the more things looked like an episode of Ice Road Truckers. After stopping high at the pass and chatting with another hunter having a similar internal debate to ours, we turned around back down the trail. Neither of us was too excited about tromping around in the slop only to get soaking wet and possibly be miserable for the next few days.

We made it back to the camper to an even more frustrated Dan. He found no keys after tearing everything apart. Shawn and I each scoured our gear and rigs to no avail either. Without much persuasion, we decided today would make a good “snow day” and we would head back into town. Since last year’s elk season, Shawn had been pining away for another meal of Starvin’ Arvin’s biscuits! Plus Dan had resolved to just get another key made for his new GMC truck.

This would probably be a good point in the story to mention that Shawn drove a Chevy truck…I’ll just leave it at that for now.

First stop was the GMC dealer in Grand Junction. The whole trip in we were debating whether he should just get a non-chipped key made in hopes that his keys were inside his truck, or spring for whatever ridiculous fee they would present for a fully functional new ignition key. Dan had resolved to the latter and we three engineers were all throwing out ideas for rationalizing the added expense to an already not-cheap hunt.

I pulled up in my noisy Dodge diesel and an intrepid salesman met us at the curb likely hoping I had eyes for one of his new Duramaxes. We gave a quick explanation for our visit, to which he replied we were S.O.L. because the service department didn’t work weekends. Just then Shawn piped up with “Never mind, I have your keys right here!” pulling them out of his coat pocket. He had apparently grabbed Dan’s in the camper thinking they were his keys to his Chevy.

Right there I was thankful for three things: we had all been friends for close to 20 years, the weather was crap for hunting, and we all were hankering those biscuits anyway. Had one of those three been missing, I think there would have been some severe butt-chewing going on.

We ate our biscuits, gave some financial support to the Cabela’s through their Grand Junction store, and stopped by my house for a few other odds and ends. With a couple hours of daylight left, we motored back up to camp. From there, we decided to take another run up high to see if the weather might break a bit enough to glass.

It didn’t. The snow was well over a foot deep up top. So back down to camp we went, resolving to hit it hard tomorrow.

Sunday morning was clear and the ground was frozen enough to get around without getting too sloppy so we headed up a closer trail. We hiked and glassed at a few spots on the way up the mountain. We spied a small herd way down on some private land. We knew they were un-huntable from our terrain today, but they were fun to watch nonetheless. We spent the day working our way up, seeing a couple pairs of cows here and there way off the trail. None of us was too excited about packing a cow elk very far this early in the season.

The shadows were growing long as we worked our way back down the same trail in the late afternoon. We opted for one last stop and hike out a spur ridge closer to where we had seen a few cows this morning.

We hiked to a spot that was about as far as I wanted to go that afternoon. Just then, as I was glassing higher where the cows had been this morning, Shawn spotted something below us. “There’s a bull…There are THREE bulls together! One of them is nice.”

Dan and I both had bull and cow tags in our pockets, Shawn just had a cow tag. Dan and I each sat down and readied for a shot while watching the elk walk away from us. I passed my rangefinder to Shawn and asked “What do you think, about 400?” The elk were walking quartering away, getting further with each step through some sparse trees, but not spooked either.

Shawn called out the ranges: “520 to the far bull. The middle one is the biggest.”

Dan was having a hard time getting situated, plus that was a bit on the far side for shooting off the cuff. Living in Grand Junction gives one the luxury of shooting desert rocks at 1000 yards as often as one cares to practice. Dan and Shawn, living on that evil overpopulated Front Range, haven’t had that luxury. He handed me his shooting sticks. I wasn’t going to argue with him if he wasn’t going to shoot. I still wasn’t positive I was going to get a decent shot either. I got them set up and watched the bulls through my scope.

“540” called Shawn. These elk were still walking so I dialed my scope turret to the 550 yard mark. The air was calm, I wasn’t winded from the hike, this could work. I flicked off my safety and just followed that center bull in and out of the trees. He was pretty nice, a big five or even a six-point. There…an opening…he stood apart from the other two…BOOM!

“He’s down!” said Shawn. The bull dropped, but his head was up. I could still see his antlers moving a bit. The other two elk had turned a 180 and were heading back up the ridge getting closer now.

Now Dan was down with his sticks readying for a shot on one of the other bulls. I told them “I’m watching mine, I saw him moving yet, you’re on your own, sorry guys.” I stayed glued to my bull. I was pretty sure he wasn’t going anywhere, but didn’t want to risk missing him get up and then losing sight of him.

I could tell what was going on just listening to the other two. “They’re working their way up the ridge. Shoot the one in back, he’s got a big drop tine, he’s cool!” Shawn was still calling out the ranges as they got closer. But the closer they got in yardage, the thicker the trees got and the worse the shooting opportunities got.

At about 250, the other two bulls slipped into the trees never to be seen again. Dan never did get a clean shot. Bull #2 did have a big funky drop on one side in addition to a smallish antler. It looked like a dark droopy baseball bat hanging down well below his jaw. I was proud of Dan for not shooting and risking a bad shot. I believe you’re better off not shooting if things don’t feel right.

Shawn guided me into the bull while Dan went back to the rigs and got some gear. We figured we’d be out here well after dark now. I made it to the elk and then called Shawn in. My 180 grain Nosler Partition bullet hit him a little high and broke his spine. We took a couple pictures then got a closer look at the antlers.  The bull is a six-point, but just barely.  Plus his brow tines are weird, it looks like he beat them up, or down, on something when they were developing.  One goes straight forward like a unicorn and the other droops down like, well, we dubbed him the Viagra bull.  You can draw your own conclusions.

We were about halfway done by the time Dan worked his way up from below. Dan’s trip up turned out to be tougher than it looked from the top of the ridge. A foot of snow, oak brush, Juniper, and pitch dark will make the most pious of hiker cuss like a sailor.

Strange ideas come to a man while butchering an elk in the dark, especially in the afterglow of a huge adrenaline rush. At some point in this work, we thought it would be a dandy idea to each simply rope-drag a quarter across the snow down to the trail. We thought it could be only about a half mile as the crow flies…piece of cake.

About four hours later back at camp, when I got feeling back in my hands, we all swore over a bottle of Jack that we’d never, ever, pull a stunt like that again. Packing elk meat on your back is surely way better than dragging a quarter through the snow in the dark. Somehow a nice round elk shoulder transforms itself into a sage-clinging barbed grappling hook that will fight the dragger every inch of the way, even downhill. An old Army lesson came back to me too: parachute cord makes a great tourniquet, neither the elk quarter nor my hands bled a drop on the trip.  In fact, I could have left a finger or two out there and not known about it until hours later.

Monday morning we went back up and carried the rest of the elk meat down to the trail. Dan and Shawn kept hunting while I had to bug out by noon to run into town for a work meeting that night. I loaded the two quarters onto my ATV and headed downhill.

I learned long ago to pack heavy loads on the front when going uphill and the back when going downhill. At some point prior to that Monday, I unlearned this important fact. I still don’t know what I was thinking as I motored down the mountain willy nilly with one load on the front and one on the back. Probably something to the effect of “Yeah, I killed a big bull, I’m bulletproof, laws of physics don’t apply to me.”

I do, however, remember what I was thinking the instant my front right tire slid down a wide flat rock and the rear end rose like a teeter-totter under me. “You @#$% moron!” It all happened in ultra slow motion. The ATV was going over and there wasn’t any stopping it. So I hopped off and let it go. Then it rolled at me like the big rock from Indiana Jones!

Sitting there on my butt, there was no running away down the tunnel like good old Indy pulled off in the movies. At that point all I could think about was my friend Mark who really busted himself up on an ATV while elk hunting last year. I gave my Honda a kick and it rolled past me. Then…it kept going! Now my mind’s eye was playing out seeing this thing tumble a mile down the hill. Thankfully it just gave another half roll and stopped.

I radioed the guys to come give me a hand tipping the rig back up. We all got a chuckle CSI-ing the crash scene, butt print here, elk meat print there, etc. We loaded all the elk meat onto the back of the Honda, and down the mountain I went.

Coincidentally, on the short work road trip that night over to Moab, my work colleague and I had to drive through the single largest game check I have ever seen hosted by any state wildlife agency. The white Jeep Cherokee towards the end of this news clip is us:

http://www.kjct8.com/news/29708700/detail.html

I had no idea the DOW even had that many employees around here. I could be wrong, but I bet they were cross-training all their newly acquired help since the Parks and Wildlife departments merged.

I showed back up at hunting camp Tuesday dark and early bearing fresh doughnuts. We hit a different trail, hiking, riding, glassing and seeing a few elk way off in the distance. Again, after getting out as far as we dared and as we were contemplating the trip back, we spied some elk close enough to hunt!

One spike bull lay bedded in the oak brush 450 yards away. We glassed hard, picking apart the brush around him and sure enough, we found a leg here, an ear there. Turns out there were a handful of elk in that pocket. No legal bulls but Shawn and Dan were both game for taking cows. Besides, you never know what we might not be seeing.

There wasn’t a good shooting spot from our location. But parallel to our line to the elk, a spur rand down off our ridge where we could hike down and reduce the range. We’d just have to be a bit sneaky!

We picked our way down the backside of that spur to a spot about 350 yards from the elk and the boys got set up. I sat between them to spot and call the ranges. Shooting sticks were out, breaths were calmed, safeties were off…BOOM, BOOM, and BOOM! Shawn dropped his cow but Dan’s ran off.

Wednesday, as we were packing the meat back up to the ATV’s, we decided the elk were 450 yards horizontally from the trail, but also 450 yards of vertical from the ATV’s. We need to dust off the “hunt up from the trail” rule because hunting down means packing up! It’s no wonder my knees sound like Rice Crispies when I climb stairs.

Thursday morning we found where a mountain lion had passed through camp. It made some nice big paw prints in the mud. I bet it came through to smell all the elk meat we had hanging in our meat tree.

We hiked, glassed, and hunted around more that week but finally packed it in Friday noon. The fun didn’t stop there though since we took Friday afternoon to go plinking! We found some nice long-range rocks and hammered away at them with our arsenal. We learned a few things here too. Dan was shooting his 7mm Mag, Shawn had a .300 WSM, and, like always, the bullets dropped a little differently in real life than what even the best ballistics chart tells. Another thing, my .300 Ultra Mag may kick like a rabid mule, but it’s more pleasant to shoot than Shawn’s .357 lightweight pistol pushing .357 “Leverevolution” rifle ammo. Ouch.

All in all we had a blast. I can’t wait to do it all again next year. Well, almost all.

Sleepboxing

I think a lot of people have trouble sleeping for various reasons. But a reason that I hear frequently is something to the effect of “I just can’t turn off my brain.” This modern life we live has so much stuff rattling around our heads it’s sometime nearly impossible to just give it a rest for a good six or eight hours to get some Z’s. I’m no doctor or psychologist, but I have picked up on a thing or two in these 40 years of burning oxygen. I want to throw out what helps me sleep when I just have too much buzzing around up there between my ears: sleepboxing. I think I read about it in Mens Health magazine or something similar because I’m not nearly creative enough to have thought of this on my own.

Backing up, I think it’s important to first acknowledge that the reason you have all this noise (projects, obligations, worries, wonders) spinning around up there is that you are smart, effective at your job and family life, and a lot of people depend on you getting things done and helping others get things done. This doesn’t happen because you’re an idiot, or you take things lightly and just blow off obligations. Quite the contrary is true. Because you’re you, a lot of people have come to depend on you.

In order to solve this work problem, fix that financial issue, plan that event, you really do need your sleep to maintain your “A” game. Things can spiral downward rapidly when you are NOT getting your sleep, still need to split those atoms, and still not getting any sleep because you’re worried about splitting those atoms.

When you’re lying in bed, acknowledge what it is that’s nagging you, and put in into a box. Visualize a box, I like to imagine something about half the size of a shoebox, make it whatever color you want, and put your problem in it. Now visualize that box sitting on the floor next to your bed. You can deal with it in the morning. You’re saying that you know that box is there, you’re not just blowing it off, it will still be there when you can open it back up and deal with it most effectively…after a good night’s rest. I usually have several boxes laid out in my mind’s eye: blue for work, white for family issues, black for financial headaches, etc.

The work one is toughest probably because it’s the most frequent. There are larger life issues to crack than work. But those work stressors are pretty much daily. I’ve taken to another spinoff of this: when at home, only letting myself think about work when I’m in the shower. I absolutely despise working at home, preferring to leave work at work. When those thoughts and ideas creep in at home, I just put them on hold and acknowledge that I will give them some brain time, just not right now when I’m on my family’s clock.

Is this foolproof? No. I write this as the sun rises on a Saturday morning after waking up in the wee hours wondering if the leaky pipe I found last night was a fluke or something I’m going to need to blow the whole weekend fixing. So far it looks good as I’ve made it to this sixth paragraph and still can’t hear any dripping.

Is all of this a little existential, holistic and…well…weird? Maybe. But sleep is precious, prescriptions are expensive, and bourbon still gives me a morning headache.

The Flying Moose and the Blueberry Bear, Part I

My good friend and hunting buddy Stephen and I have been talking about going on an Alaska hunt for years.  We’ve debated the quarry (caribou, moose, bear, sheep), the method (do-it-yourself, guided, float hunts, foot hunts) and the timing, which always seemed to be “maybe next year…”  This past January, we decided that this would be the year and we settled on going moose hunting.  We, being avid Colorado do-it-yourself hunters, checked into the pro’s and con’s of going it on our own.  It seemed do-able, and definitely less expensive than a fully-guided hunt where the guide stays right by your side the whole time, well, guiding.  There are shelves full of books about what a person needs, where to go, and how to handle all the logistics.

After a little (although my wife might disagree) research, we found that we could either do everything ourselves completely unencumbered by any local assistance, or hire an outfitter/transporter to handle some or all of the logistics before and after our actual hunt.  This decision sent us to a deeper level of research, separating the costs, locations and other pros and cons of various outfitters.  In January, we went to the International Sportsmen’s Expo in Denver in hopes of meeting some outfitters the old-fashioned way:  face –to-face.  There, in addition to finding all manner of gadgets that separated us from a good portion of our saved-up hunt money, we found two different outfitters who seemed to fit the bill.

One gent offered float hunts and a fairly high success ratio of about 75%.  Another offered drop hunts with small boats for getting around with a lower success ratio of approximately 50%.  The four-hour road trip home from the Expo provided us the debate venue for about the last lit bit of discussing that each of us could tolerate before just flipping a coin.  We decided (provided his references checked out) on the second guy, PaPa Bear Adventures with Steve and Carl Powers out of Bethel.  The first guy’s float hunts did sound fun and we kept him as a first runner-up should the Powers references bonk.  But the more we chased out the details, the more those float hunts sounded like a hell of a lot of work with three or four camp setups across the two weeks we’d be out.  Then, if you get a moose, you might have to drag the meat along with you until you get to a spot suitable for float-plane access.  PPBA seemed to have the best of all worlds:  a drop camp that we just set up once, a boat should we feel the need to float around the lakes, and a pretty no-nonsense but Mom-and-Pop feel about their operation.  He even offered float hunts too if we still wanted to go that route when time for the hunt came.  The half-and-half success ratio we could live with.  As with most things, we figured the hunt results we got out of our adventure would reflect how much effort we put into it.  Turns out, our decision would prove correct!

http://www.pbadventures.com/

PPBA’s references, several even from Colorado, all checked out with good stories and gear recommendations.  One guy said he shot his bull using the antlers of his dads (dead) bull as a rifle rest! The Powers brothers’ pilots’ licenses checked out as unblemished.  The local wildlife officers also gave their operation a thumbs-up, so we sent off our non-refundable deposit in February.  At that point, we were committed!  We had until September to not break a leg or suffer any other manner of hunt-canceling tragedy.

Our wives breathed a sigh of relief that we were finally done with our outfitter research.  You see, Stephen’s a land surveyor and I’m an engineer, so there is a whole lot of left-brain activity that goes into our technical planning.  I’ve heard the phrases “anal retentive” and “overboard” muttered on more than one occasion from my lovely bride.  I still need to look up “O.C.D.” that must be some outdoor gear company that I’ve yet to find.  Little did our better halves know that now we had to move on to the “must-have” gear selection phase!  And she says I don’t like shopping…

The gear…oh, the gear.  I made a pact with myself not to buy any outdoor/hunting gear that I wouldn’t use on this hunt.  But that didn’t reign in my shopping much.  Part of the reason I wanted a cheaper, non-guided hunt was so that I’d have more room in my funmoney piggybank for gear!  Good gear is an investment since I’d be using it for years to come on all my other hunts.  Well, most of it anyway.  New tent…gotta have it.  New daypack…absolutely, I’d been meaning to try out an Eberlestock scabbard-pack.  New meat pack, no question there.  I had to have the most ergonomic backpacks due to the old war injury, you know!  New sleeping bag…definitely, because having the wrong bag in bad weather can kill you!  And, while I’m at it, the old sleeping pads just wouldn’t cut it compared to the new snazzy insulated air cores out there these days.  Why stop there, those cute little lightweight cots that only stand a couple inches off the ground looked like just the ticket.

***Shameless plugs for Colorado companies and their great gear:  Raingear, Loki of Grand Junction; Sleeping bag, Wiggys of Grand Junction; Sleeping pad, Big Agnes of Steamboat; Meat pack, Kifaru of Golden.***

The piece of the gear puzzle that I vacillated longest over was waders.  I had never worn waders in my life.  Chest waders?  Waist waders?  Hip waders?  Insulated?  Non-insulated?  Neoprene duck hunter style?  Nylon?  Canvas?  Nobody says “Made just for moose hunting” on any set of waders that I could find.  Most advice told us chest waders would be too hot.  Yet other advice indicated hip waders might be too short if you’re, umm, vertically challenged.  Getting one’s hip waders flooded sounded like an adventure that, at best, would cause you to lose a day of hunting.  At worst, a good soaking in the wrong weather could be dangerous.  I decided that I probably fell into that group of hunters.  Not that my 5’8” is short, but I figured my fireplug stature might encourage the swampy terrain to suck me in a little deeper than I first might anticipate.

So I decided on waist waders, the nylon non-insulated kind.  I figured I could always don more longhandles if I needed the insulation, but it would be darn hard to make them any cooler if I started to overheat.  That decision then drove the need for fancy wader shoes!  The Simms company makes a nice pair of wader/hikers that only cost as much as it takes to change the oil…in my diesel truck.  And, as luck would have it, when you’re 5’ 8” waist waders are chest waders.  If your buddy’s Ed Grimley jokes get to you, you can always roll the waders back down around your waist.

While signing that Cabelas credit card slip, I thought of yet more justification:  I’ve only been twice, but if I ever go on a third fly-fishing venture with my neighbor, I’ll have a snazzy wader setup just like him!  I would no longer need to endure near-hypothermic conditions standing in a river for hours wearing shorts and Tevas.  These waders would surely catch me more fish.

The February to September wait was not without hiccup.  Stephen was laid off for a time but stayed strong and never considered canceling since he really had been planning on this hunt for most of his life.  I probably should be thanking Mrs. Stephen for that.  My wife got assigned a trip overseas for the second week that I’d be hunting.  Thank you, Grandma and Grandpa for visiting and wrangling our herd through its school-homework-church-soccer-football-dance-band-three-kid-two-cat-one-dog-one-turtle weekly circus.

The calendar finally crawled to a point when we were about a month away from departure and we held a gear-packaging party in my garage.  Our charge was to limit all of our gear to 125 pounds each, or 250 between the two of us.  Initially it sounded like a lot, but we quickly filled up four Plano tubs with about 60 pounds each.  That was just fine, except we still needed to include our rifles and daypacks!  So, out came the cots…and stools…and rollup table…and some food…and, well, you get the idea.   We wound up paring the whole ensemble to about 220 pounds and shipping them north to the outfitter.  We figured after arrival, we could ditch three of the tubs and pack our wares into drybags, saving the weight of those three tubs.

The last month of waiting was brutal.  I found myself compulsively checking the news and weather around Bethel.  Turns out, there wasn’t much of either.  I checked with a taxidermist about the various logistics of getting antlers and a cape from the Alaskan wilderness back to him here in Colorado.  That took lots of discipline to overcome the fear of jinxing myself out of a moose by planning on dealing with antlers.  Luck always plays a part in hunting, anyone who says differently is not entirely connected with reality.

D-day minus one finally arrived.  I suffered through one last day at work, we each packed our carry-on, rifle, and piled in Stephen’s truck for the road trip to Salt Lake City where we would begin our flights the next day.

Checking in at the airport was fairly smooth.  Checking our rifles turned out to be the easy part.  Checking the hunters proved to be different.  When you book a flight nearly eight months in advance, there is a fair chance that the itinerary will have changed at some point between booking and boarding.  This was our case and it was a good half hour for the gentleman behind the Delta counter to bang away at his keyboard and produce our boarding passes.  I sensed he was about to ask to use one of our rifles on his computer.  I would have happily obliged!

Finally, FINALLY we boarded and began the flights.  Salt Lake City to Seattle to Anchorage to Bethel.  The fun of slugging each other in the shoulder and saying “Hey, we’re going to ALASKA!!!”  never did wear off.  We had to knock it off by the time we arrived at Bethel and met up with the Steve Powers at baggage claim in Bethel.  Well, with the size of Bethel’s airport, the baggage claim area was also the waiting area, check-in area, and half of the security check-in if you moved the ropes around just right.  I think the airport terminal was one of the five largest buildings in town, and that’s not saying much.

Steve drove us to the grocery store to pick up the couple odds and ends we needed to round out our gear, butter, salt, pepper and another tarp.  Turns out that store had a healthy supply of camping gear and one aisle even held ATV’s.  I decided then and there that I loved Alaska.

We got to the lodge (it was really a three-bedroom house on a lake decked out with enough pictures, mounts, antlers and bear rugs to make grown hunters weep) and unloaded all our gear.  After a good hour of gawking at all the trophies and checking out the float planes, we began consolidating our gear into plane-suitable piles and doublechecking the weight.

Shane, their main pilot came back with a load of moose meat and head from one of the camps.  The antlers were about 36 inches wide and the other locals kept asking “why’d they shoot a little one?”  Soooo, that gave me a good frame of reference for “little” anyway.  Apparently the reason the hunter shot that “little” one was because he thought he was going to get run over by the bull!  The moose kept coming close in even after the hunter quit making noise.

We got to visit with Steve Powers a bit more about how to hunt moose.  We’d been reading everything we could get our hands on about chasing, finding, calling, shooting and packing a moose.  But there was just no substitute for face-to-face advice from someone who made his living at it.  He said the newbies who do the best are typically whitetail hunters who are very good at minding their scent, just sitting and calling for hours.  He didn’t have much to say about elk hunters actually.  Apparently one earlier group showed up in their bluejeans, big belt buckles and Stetson hats.  They would not listen to much advice and went home empty-handed.

The whole sitting and calling thing was something we knew would give us trouble.  Elk hunting at home involves a whole lot of hiking and glassing but not much sitting.  We do fairly well, but usually wind up backpacking our elk meat a couple miles back to the rigs.  So the hard work part didn’t bother us much.

But one of Steve’s phrases stuck in my mind like a firebrand.  In his thick Kentucky drawl, “You don’t want to pack no moose no two miles!”  For one thing, packing moose meat would be several times more meat than we normally get off an elk.  The second reason to leash oneself to camp with a half-mile tether was that the ground in Alaska was like walking across a stack of mattresses.  There wasn’t much in the way of solid ground to carry the 100-ish-pound load across.  Walking across that semi-solid terrain was a workout even without a load on the back.  Hmm…staying within a half-mile from camp or boat compared to our usual hunting regimen of 8-10-mile days…the next two weeks would be an exercise in discipline indeed.

Sleep still didn’t come easily after finally getting to the brink of our adventure. Sunday morning we woke and got ready way before the Powers got to the lodge.   We got our gear loaded into a truck for transport down to the Kuskokwim River on the other side of town.  With the weight of us and our gear, the float planes needed more takeoff length than the lodge’s little lake offered therefore the loaded planes had to take off from the river.  On the way out to the plane, we stopped by Subway to grab some lunch to go.  It felt a little weird standing in line wearing waders, but nobody batted an eye.  This reaffirmed my love for that State!

Loading the plane at the river’s edge was a group effort.  We manage to cram all our gear, Stephen, me and our Subway sandwiches into their yellow Beaver aircraft and taxied out to the center of the river.  I fly a lot in little Cessnas for work, but this was my first trip inside a float plane and it felt a little weird.  I’m used to nice cleared public-use (land) airports and taxiing in full view of about five or six boats motoring up and down the river was a little unnerving.

Throttling up the aircraft for takeoff felt a bit like trying to take our work Cessna off in mud, it was a little slow.  Then, after gaining some speed, I felt the airplane glide up onto the top of the water just like speeding up in a boat or jetski.  That was a really cool sensation, plus it felt a lot more like the paved runways I was used to.  Next thing I knew we were airborne and banking left over town…North, to destinations unknown.

The Infidels’ Bible

This story first ran in the Kitsap Veteran’s Life publication in 2011:

http://kitsapveteranslife.com/blog/infidels-bible/1473/

Blogger’s Note:

infidel — in – fi- del  [in-fi-dl, -del] —-(in Muslim use) a person who does not accept the Islamic faith

It’s really not derogatory at its basest meaning.  One of my favorite quotes from my whole tour was when Wahid, one of my regular interpreters, said at then end of a particularly long day, “You know, you guys are good infidels, I like you.”

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August 29, 2010

I have a box of things I brought home from Afghanistan.  There is nothing too dramatic in there, some trinkets, patches and other memorabilia.  Some items, when held, crack open a short story that plays out in my head.

One of the treasures inside is a Bible.  It’s not large or decorative, it’s a green, softbound, pocket-sized version.  I did not take it to Afghanistan, but I brought it home with me.  It was a gift…a gift that came with some lessons.

I deployed to Afghanistan in 2003 as an Army Engineer Captain.  For several months I was the facility engineer for a new Afghan Army base.  This was akin to acting as manager to a large campground that was being transformed into a permanent 8,000-man fortified compound/campus.  I worked on some new construction and some training of the Afghan Army.  But probably 80% of my role was operation and maintenance (O&M) of the new facility, its barracks, dining facility, equipment maintenance buildings, roads, gates, towers, ranges, power plant and water supply.   I had at my disposal several teams of foreign civilian contractors of wildly, even comically varying levels of competence and experience.  These guys were essentially my crisis management.  The initial construction crews and materials left much to be desired.  At that time, our third-world Persian combat zone played a logistical distant second to the other war in Iraq.  Those teams helped me keep a handle on the various areas of the new base that broke, leaked, collapsed, plugged, fell off or caught fire.  For a couple months I worked long days and nights with them while only seeing my fellow troops when I cleaned up or worked out.

One contractor crew superintendent was an Egyptian gentleman named Mahdi.  He was a civil engineer like me and was put in charge of a crew of local Afghani laborers.  He also seemed to grasp the daunting level of his charge.  He realized how haphazardly the basecamp was being constructed, how its schedule was dreadfully out of synch with any realistic schedule that might allow real quality control.  That meant the O&M crews had a full plate.  I did facility triage providing him prioritized lists of breaks, leaks or flames.  He did his best to assign crews to the crises.  I pitied him because I knew that he knew what a proper new facility should look like.  He understood the plans and specs that showed the base everyone started out intending to build.  But we both knew this place would never get there on our watch, if ever.  Take away a master mechanic’s tool set, give him a Leatherman and a hammer, tell him to rebuild your engine, and you’ll see the look Mahdi wore daily.

His Afghan laborers were usually happy as clams.  They had hope, paying jobs, and nobody threatening to cut off their heads!  Most of them had never even operated a door handle so anything with four walls and a roof was a palace.  Initially they could care less that the power was off more than on, doors fell apart, and the equipment supplied to kitchen staff burst into flame.  But even some of them seemed to come around to the fact our ship, while not sinking, was not the steely sleek vessel the U.S.  had set out to build.

Mahdi and I each played our role: me passing along the chewings I’d get from the brass, Mahdi promising repair schedules we both knew were pure fantasy.  I grew to consider Mahdi my friend, as I believe he did likewise.   One day over lunch, Mahdi turned quite serious and began looking around, shifting in his seat.  I was waiting for him come clean with some horrible scheduling setback and excuse.  Instead, he asked, “Can I ask you something?”

I replied, “Sure, I’ll answer if I can.”  Friend or no friend, this guy was a TCN (third-country-national) and we both knew some types of information I simply couldn’t impart upon him.

“Are you a Christian?”

 

I blinked and before I could think about why he might be asking me this, out came the answer, “Yes, I am, my whole family is.”

Mahdi relaxed a notch or two.  “I am too.  I have something I’d like to give you.  Will you please take this?”  He held out that Bible.  “I found this in my hotel room in downtown Kabul.  It must have been left there by the previous person.  I cannot keep it; it is not safe for me to have this.  But I don’t want to hide it or throw it away.  I’d like to give it to someone who will take care of it…another Christian.  Most of the guys I work with, are not and…well, it’s just not safe.”

I understood.  Taliban or no Taliban, even with Afghans smiling and waving at our convoys in the streets, I knew that many of the locals did not appreciate all these other foreigners crawling all over their country.  We were still deep in the heart of Muslim territory.  They put their best foot forward to the Americans and did truly appreciate us booting out the Taliban/Al Qaeda show.  But when left to their own vices and on their own time, it could still be ugly.  Like with every country, there are fanatics, many of whom use a twisted interpretation of one religion or another to justify their actions.  And combat zones attract the worst of the worst; carpetbaggers with Kalashnikovs.  I had the luxury of being backed up by the American military.  Mahdi was an unarmed civilian working for the infidels spending his evenings in the rough part of one of the world’s roughest places.  I told him, “Absolutely, I’ll take it and take care of it.  I have my Bible with me already but will gladly take another.  Maybe I can find someone else I can give it to.  Thank you.”  I tucked it away in a pocket.

We didn’t speak any more and I didn’t think much more about it at the time.  I was mainly relieved to be able to take a little stress off a friend.  We finished our lunches and went back to the daily grind.  That night I checked out the book thoroughly, ensuring it wasn’t a bomb or bug.  That’s what war does to a person.

It wasn’t much later Mahdi moved on and I moved south to the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team.  But I paused on several occasions to ponder the gravity of that gift.  I realized its significance to me both as a Christian and an American.

It’s hard to describe, but I think the best adjective for that gift is refreshing.  At that point in my 12-month stint I had faced more trials than I had expected and prepared for.  Most of us soldiers leaned on each other as much as we could while still projecting and protecting the Superman persona expected of officers.  Getting that Bible unexpectedly from Mahdi gave a little boost of energy I used to help cope with the surrealism that my tour had become.

Separately, the event showed how good we have it in America and how drastically different most of the world is compared to our safe and secure back yard.  Here I was in a country liberated by the full might of the U.S. Military.  At the time it was considered the “safer” war to those who even understood there were two wars ongoing.  A U.S.-installed president sat in a palace less than two miles from Mahdi’s hotel.  Kabul’s streets were patrolled by American-trained Afghan Police and Afghan Army.  The U.S. State Department was mentoring the fledgling government on how to be a democracy.

Here in America most people think nothing of proclaiming our faith freely.  Likely 99.99% of Americans have never seen nor heard firsthand account of violence against another person based purely on religion.  Even fewer would even dream of participating in violence somehow intertwined with religion.  In many parts of the world, that is not the case.

Sidebar…many of us soldiers who worked regularly with the Afghans had a second set of nametapes, in the local Dari language in backwards, swooping Arabic print, sewn onto our hats and uniforms.  Most were the informal version of what most the interpreters called us, “Captain Mike,”  “Sergeant Chris,” etc.  I was known as “Engineer Hartmann.”  I’m proud of my rank, my name “David” and family heritage.  But I thought it prudent to not wander around the former hub of fanatic Islamic extremism with the name of a great Jewish king sewn to my chest.  The fact that King David had pretty much the same role in Islamic history as he did in Christian history might be lost in a fanatic’s eyes and trigger finger.  Call me paranoid.

Mahdi was smart, he understood that “coming out” as a Christian in his setting, even to his colleagues, would likely not do him any good and could even jeopardize his safety.  Like me, I think Mahdi understood that part of being Christian is about not hiding your faith and was a little ashamed.  But he also understood that coming home safe to his family to continue being a father and husband would be in everyone’s best interest.  I believe the Man Upstairs will understand and forgive a little mortal weakness in the interest of stacking the deck to come home safely.

In that short conversation that day, I sensed that Mahdi felt that giving me that Bible was a compromise between his faith and his security.  But it has proven a lesson to me that I cherish inside my box of other memories.  I’m somewhat ashamed that I have not yet given that Bible to anyone else.  I like to dig it out every so often, touch it, smell it, and remember one of the good stories of that year as the bad ones fade.  But maybe by writing with this story, I am giving that Bible away.

Lightning, Wapiti and Bears…Oh My

(Blogger’s note:  I originally posted this on the General Big Game forum at 24hourcampfire.com  That’s an awesome site and forum for outdoors enthusiasts.  Rick, the owner, gets some real talent there.  Several regular posters there are actual professional writers.)

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November, 2006

This story gets pretty windy, so if you just want details and pix, scroll right to the bottom. My hunting partner and I both drew tags for a nearby unit that historically holds good bulls. Nine preference points it took us both, so I guess you could say we were committed. I spent this summer scouting the country and praying I wouldn’t break a leg before the season!

We left to set up camp Thursday morning. I agreed to meet my buddy at IHOP in the wee a.m. hours and we’d convoy up to where we would set up his wall tent. During breakfast we each remembered what we forgot, ran home after breakfast, and met back up at the gas station.

We finally got up on the plateau late morning and set up the wall tent and other camp trappings at about 8300 ft. We cinched the roof tarps down hard, filled the kerosene stoves, and remembered everything except the trench around the tent. That would haunt us later. We spent Thursday night glassing a few spots we’d been checking all summer. Steve had been keeping tabs on a monster six-point in a particular drainage. We saw some cows and small bulls but didn’t see “his” bull.

Friday we spent more time glassing around seeing lots of elk but no real monsters. One good five-point was the honcho of a small herd and we watched him for nearly an hour. He was noisy, bugling, chuckling, rounding up his dozen cows and shooing away a spike and raghorn in his small herd. He was fun to watch, thinking he was big stuff and acting like a bull twice his size. We figured he’d be a Monday or Tuesday bull, but not a Saturday shooter for the five-day season that started Saturday.

We noticed lots of cattle and cowboy traffic and stopped to visit with a couple cow-punchers up in the high country. They confirmed what I’d started fearing, the deadline for getting cattle out of the USFS grazing leases was Sunday. That meant these guys had been riding around for a couple days yipping, yee-hawing, and rounding up all their cattle. From the looks of things, they’d continue all this for at least a couple more days…right into the season. This surely wouldn’t do us any favors tracking the elk we’d been patterning last month.

Don’t get me wrong, they were nice enough guys and just doing their job. Lord knows ranching and cowpunching is pretty thankless. They even offered up some sightings of some good bulls. But in the same breath they talked about how they didn’t think all this would affect the elk patterns yet a friend of theirs who bowhunted thanked them all to pieces for moving the cattle around in September and running some nice bulls right past him. The USFS is federal and the DOW is state and I’m guessing the two don’t talk much. First rifle season is touted as the best odds season as it’s still in the rut. There’s nothing in the DOW’s fine print about having to elbow your way around the cattlemen riding through the woods pushing everything with hooves in front of them. Oh well, everyone loves a challenge.

Saturday morning came, we donned our orange and our game faces and headed up the trail. Pretty much the same routine, glassing and seeing elk but no real monsters. The weather started going downhill with fog and rain moving in. We still-hunted through some pockets that usually held game but came up empty. Sunday the weather got worse with thick fog and rain most of the day. It was still better than work!

I still-hunted down a long ridge Sunday and got within spitting distance of every manner of beast except those that I had a tag for: bull and bear. I kicked up two nice bucks, one stood up out of his bed not 10 feet from where I stopped and we had a staredown for a good three minutes. That was fun. Nearly stepped on blue grouse and had eight turkeys and a fat, healthy coyote cross my path. Bear and elk sign everywhere, but no joy with a live one.

Sunday night I got back to the ATV’s before Steve, he and his son went out the adjacent ridge and the views were better. I could hear him bugling and cow-calling playing with at least one other bugling bull. I didn’t want to hunt out his way since he wouldn’t know I was coming and didn’t want to mess up anything he was setting up. There was about a half hour of light left and I was just a short ride to the drainage where we spotted Monday’s five-point so left them a note and scooted up the trail to see if I could put that bull to bed.

I came around a bend about halfway up the trail to see cow elk crossing the road in front of me about 30 yards! I stopped, got ready, and waited to see if a bull was following up the group. A couple more cows came through but no bulls. By then it was dark so I just stretched out on my ATV and waited for the guys to come up the trail.

Watching the night sky, I realized I forgot how neat it was to watch the stars come out. When lying there, they just sort of sneak in and you can never see it. They’re not like raindrops appearing on the window, more like weeds growing in your lawn. You look away, then back and there’s more.

Also while watching said stars, I learned something new. If, while lying on your back, you decide to eat trail mix, it’s very likely a raisin or peanut will drop up your nose. A guy makes quite a commotion in the woods getting it out.

Sunday night I as starting to get bummed on the ride back to camp. I realized this trophy-hunting stuff being picky puts a lot of pressure on a guy. I told my buddy it was almost more fun in years past where we’d hunt OTC areas and any legal bull really got our blood pumping. Anything with five points or a brow time and it’s usually Game On! With us busting our humps to get in after them. Maybe it was the wet and sloppy weather just getting to me.

Remember that trench we forgot to dig? Mother Nature really dumped on us Sunday night, the roads were a sloppy mess and absolutely everything outside the tent got soaked. We took a few steps into the tent to hear “squish, squish,” water was running under the floor tarp and the old carpet we threw down. I hustled outside to go dig that trench, finishing just in time for the rain/snow/sleet to let up. That’s one way to keep warm I guess.

Monday morning came, day three of a five-day hunt, and I was ready to go kill that five-point. We glassed a couple spots on the way up but came up dry so drove on to where we saw Friday’s bull. Parking at the trailhead, we agreed that my buddy would walk in the trail and I’d lag about 3-400 yards behind. The trail stuck to a contour through the first drainage. We worked our way through it with no results. I was coming up to the next spur and spotted Steve running back up the trail waving me along.

I hotfooted up to him and he’d seen a nice six-point above us spook and run over the spur at least to the next drainage. Steve says “he ran through just below where that buck is looking at us.” I looked up and skylined above us about 150 yards was about the heaviest Muley I’d ever seen. Only about 26 inches wide but he had to be as big as my forearm at his base. Any other day I would have stopped to gawk but we had to beat feet up the trail to see if we’d catch that bull in the next drainage.

We scooted over to the next drainage to no avail. Fresh sign but no critters. The trail was still sticking to the contour and was pretty easy walking with good views so we kept going over to the third drainage in. Still no elk but the country was looking good, not much cattle sign, and we were about out to a ridge where we’d seen a fair six-point bedded on Saturday. What’s one more drainage, we’re only about three miles from the ATV’s?

We came over the next spur to the 4th drainage and it looked real good. We both spotted elk on the far, north-facing slope, right away. We ducked down and scoured the ridgeside for elk. There looked to be at least 10 cows walking and bedding through the Spruce and low oaks…and the rear-end of one very bleached elk bedded at the top of the herd. That one moved and sure enough, antlers started waving around in the sunlight, a good bull!

He looked to be a six-point, more than big enough for me at that point. Steve still had his heart set that other bull that had been eluding us so I was more than happy to be the shooter. We grinned at each other and made plans for drawing a bead on the guy. He was about 500 yards at this point and the thick tall oaks didn’t give us much shooting space. We dropped our packs and snuck into the oaks trying to be as quiet as possible. We were moving right at him through the oaks trying to close the range. At about 100 yards in a few pockets opened up enough to get a shot. But that also meant we could be seen moving right at them. I low-crawled down to the last open pocket before the slope of our spur dropped off into really thick oak again.

I set up for a sitting shot with shooting sticks at the top of a small opening. We couldn’t’ see the bull but both knew the Spruce he was behind. The elk were still feeding down the slope and we lasered the nearest cow…330 yards. Sweet.

The bull stepped out and his front half appeared between to trees. “Take him,” says Steve as I flick off the safety, hold on the shoulder, breathe out, and squeeze…

Boom! The bull crumpled but took a couple steps on three legs. A hit low in the shoulder. Damn, he’s still up and behind a tree as I rack another shell in. One more step and he’s in the open again. “Hit him again David” Steve reads my mind as I raise the crosshairs a bit and squeeze again. We’re both of the “shoot them until they fall over” school, especially this far back off the trail.

Boom! The bull rolls over pointy side down, shady side up. Yes! This one’s done. After gathering our wits I leave all the goodies I won’t need to work on the elk and start heading over to him. After I talk Steve out of helping me clean the elk, he agrees to stay put until I get over to the bull and radio back an all clear. These tags only come once every decade and I couldn’t stand for him wasting time with me with the season half over.

Coming up on him he’s a pretty fair bull but kind of fell awkward in the deadfall so I knew I’d have my work cut out for me. I knew I’d have to leave him for the night so proceeded to start gutting. That went pretty well but I didn’t get a good look at the exit holes. The entrance holes were spaced vertically seven inches up the shoulder. The first shot would have been a killing shot but I’m glad I hit him with the second one. Nosler Partitions haven’t failed me yet.

I left as much “scent” around the kill as I could and started my way back up the trail about 5 p.m. The weather was turning foul again, go figure. A real low and dark storm was moving east right at my side of the mountain. I made it to the last (first) drainage before the main trail that ran back up to the ATV. This was about where I met Steve running back at me this morning after seeing that six-point. I started into the dark timber at the head of the canyon and heard “scratch, scratch, huff, huff” coming from halfway up a big Ponderosa about 20 yards off the trail. Oooo, Yogi’s in here too.

I racked a shell and tried to get a visual through my scope but he was on the back side of the tree. I started weighing the odds, it was about 10 minutes till dark, I’m in the dark timber, exhausted and nearly out of water. As half a fuzzy head and one ear peaked around the tree into my scope, I moved my thumb off the safety and decided I didn’t want to risk chasing a wounded bear in this dark timber. I watched him for another couple minutes, he never did give me an opportunity for a decent shot anyway, and moved on up the trail. I figured that elk would be enough work for me for the next couple days. I don’t regret it. I did keep the shell in and kept checking my six all the way through that last drainage.

About the time I reached the main trail it was obvious that storm was headed right at me. And just to make things exciting, the sleet and lighting really started cranking up too. I hit the main trail, took a breather, and started climbing back up to the ATV. I knew this part of the trail would be the worst, it was about ½ mile up to the ATV at about a 1:1 slope, sort of like a stair climber with mud and rocks. Plus it ran right of the exposed spine of this steep ridge.

I made it about 100 yards up the trail thinking about the guy that got killed by lighting last month not far south of here. I’ve always had a healthy respect for lightning, frequently preaching to people how silly it was that they were worried about getting eaten by bears and lions when statistically lighting was more dangerous out here. I figured it was time to walk the walk as the leading edge of this baby was getting close enough to be dangerous.

I found a slide in the side of the trail I could hunker down in. I set my 26” stainless steel Remington Ultra Lightning Rod on a bush in the trees, packed everything metal into my pack and kicked it away as the last strike was too close for comfort. The storm clouds were pretty low and for a while I was actually looking down into the lightning bursts, that was something new and more than a little creepy.

The good news was now, as I lay curled up in this hole, that it had started to hail. Only a few stones were big enough to hurt, plus in short order I had a big pile in my lap and arm. Apparently the big guy knew I didn’t pack enough water with me this trip and was being kind enough to provide some ice to chew on.

After about 45 minutes of listening to the strikes get closer, too close, WAY too close, then finally move away and getting plenty soaked I gathered up all my stuff and headed back up the trail. Steve was waiting at the top and was getting ready to start down the trail after me. The storm had given him the willies too. Good hunting partners are priceless.

We checked out the maps that night and figured out a shorter way into that bull. It would be a hair less than a mile as the crow flies but very steep for the first half. 700 ft. total vertical says the GPS. I figured that would still be less pain in the long run than packing him the three miles back out the way I just hiked.

Tuesday morning was again super sloppy and cold and neither of us was excited about riding the ATV’s. We took my truck around the rim road on top and watched the GPS until the distance to the bull was the closest. I parked, Steve unloaded and took off on his ATV to go hunt, and I beat the brush for a different way into my bull.

The GPS was crucial, I worked my way out to the spur above my bull and dropped down the slope to him. I’ve packed worse, I kept telling myself. And I learned another valuable lesson: use a compass with the GPS. The cardinal directions it was telling me were good, but the little “hold me flat to get an arrow that points the way” routine didn’t work worth a crap, that stupid little arrow kept jumping all over the place.

It took until about 3 p.m. to bone out and hang the meat up in game bags. I hung everything but one load and the head. Those I started leapfrogging the loads back up the slope to the top of the spur. About two hours, a string of profanity, much sweat and a little blood later, I finally topped out on the spur’s ridgeline. I understand how the sheep hunters say they would take the fillings out of their teeth if they could. I was looking to shed every ounce possible. Again getting dark, foggy and snowing I worked the rest of the way up the much gentler ridgeline back to the truck. Steve had beat me back to the truck and switched on the lights making the last few hundred yards a little easier to navigate. Carrying a big elk rack and head over your shoulders makes it a little difficult to hold a GPS, compass, walk, chew gum, and not look like a pig on skates as you make your way through the woods in the dark.

Wednesday we repeated this routine all over again. I got the last of the meat back up to the truck about 3 p.m. and was whooped in the worst way. I guess that’s why they’re called trophies. I made it back to camp in time to cook up a Dutch oven supper that was about the best thing I’d ever tasted. Killing, gutting, and packing out a bull elk nearly single-handedly over the previous 3 days probably had something to do with how well that meal went down. All the bourbon didn’t hurt either as the season was now over and we let loose and killed a good bottle. Another lesson learned tonight…you can finish out a Dutch oven meal on the top of a Kerosene heater on high if you’re too lazy to keep going out in the weather to check on the oven on the charcoal.

Thursday we broke camp and took pictures. Of course, this was about the nicest day of the trip. All in all, I had a blast and am thrilled with this bull. I plan on doing a European mount.

Here’s the bull. He’s a pretty fair six, certainly nothing to sneeze at. He doesn’t have the longest points, but he’s real heavy and symmetrical, a pretty bull. My rifle is a Rem LSS 26” barrel that pushes 180g Nosler Partitions at about 3340 fps. She wears a Leupold 4×12 vari-x II.

This was pretty wierd, the bull had a cavity in one of his bugle teeth.  I’d never seen anything quite like it.

Good luck on your hunt!

Wilderness Hobos

July, 2007

Not long ago my friend Jeff invited me on a backpacking/fly-fishing trip along the Animas River.  It was to be just an overnighter, we’d take the Silverton-Durango train, get dropped off at Needleton about halfway down the route to Durango, hike in about a mile, camp, fish, then hike out and get picked back up Sunday morning.  It sounded like a pretty fun trip even though I had never fly-fished.  I had always wanted to try fly-fishing and now seemed like as good a time as any.  Plus it would be fun to finally ride that train and camp in the Weminuche Wilderness where it’s nice and cool.

I wiped the dried elk parts out of my backpack, hauling elk meat is all I’ve used it for in recent years, and packed for an overnighter.  We’d be hiking for less than a mile so I didn’t give much thought to going light and packed lots of food and extras.  I nabbed all the homemade granola bars my wife would spare from her baking business…love those things.  I opted for my heavier but comfortable Army boots for the trip and water sandals for the fishing.  I’d been meaning to get some proper raingear but opted for my Army Gore-Tex suit instead.  It was new in 1995…not that long ago.

We loaded up with the latest flies that were supposed to be working for that area and trucked on down toward Silverton.  After following a series of flatlanders at glacial speed through the Red Mountain area we were cutting it close to catch the second of three trains heading out of Silverton back down to Durango.  We screamed into Silverton with a few minutes to spare and, having no clue where the train station was, headed for the first plume of black smoke we saw.  Sure enough, that smoke column on the edge of town led down to a chugging but stationary engine.  I ran up to the nearest costumed railworker and asked if this was the 2:45 train going south.  He said no, this one was just warming up, the 2:45 was getting ready to leave from “in town” and gave an arm waive northward.

Back to Jeff’s truck I sprinted and we drove up the main drag looking for any sign of a train staging to leave.  Now we were getting down to just a few minutes to spare when we saw the train sign and turned down to the road that held a train bristling with people.  We parked, stuffed a few odds and ends (beer) into our packs and ran up to the last car.  We asked railworker #2 for the day if this was the right train.  He said they were just getting ready to go, please hand him our tickets.  Oh yeah, tickets…Jeff had purchased those over the phone and we had no actual paper to show for it.  Said railworker promptly rolled his eyes, folded up the stairs, and said they’re leaving now.  We’d have to go get our tickets from the “station” that was “two blocks this way then two blocks that way” and waived his arm back down the way we just came.  Then the train rolled away.

We knew there was one more train in the queue but that one didn’t advertise stopping at Needleton.  After some quick explicatives and more than a little contemplation of just heading to the bar, we cinched up our packs and walked smartly “two blocks this way then two blocks that way” to try our odds with the final train of the day.

We did make it to the station where Kris, a very nice and understanding lady, hooked us up with actual paper tickets and a nice note explaining to Mr. Conductor-man our situation and instructions to please kick us out at Needleton.  And oh, by the way, that train was boarding right now for a 3:30 departure.  We opted to walk back down the tracks rather than hike “two blocks that way and two blocks this way” back up from where we just had come.  Even in Silverton a guy feels a little silly walking the City streets with a full backpack and fly-rod case antennae.

The train ride was beautiful, everything people talk it up to be.  After about an hour’s ride we got to the Needleton stop and disembarked.  We were the only two passengers to leave and got lots of quizzical looks from the rest of the riders as they rolled past.  Hah, we were going to have way more fun than just riding a silly old train for another two and a half hours.

We hiked back in about a mile to a spot just above the Animas River.  The country was beautiful and this site had been camped before so there were even a few flat spots for the tents.  We got camp all set up and headed for the river.  After about 20 minutes of casting instructions Jeff apparently felt I was a slight enough danger to myself and the surrounding flora to leave me alone to fish.  He headed downstream a bit.  It was actually pretty fun, but about 45 minutes into it neither of us had a bite.  Plus a storm was rolling in quickly and it was rumbling louder every minute.  A couple more minutes passed and the lightning show was more than we could tolerate while waving fly rods around in the air.

So we headed back to the tents to hole up and wait out the storm.  We waited…and waited…and waited until after dark and we realized there would be no more fishing tonight.  I cursed myself for forgetting the book I had recently bought and passed the time inside my tent letting my cell phone whip my tail at solitaire.  I found that my GPS has a few games on it too, but they require you to actually move around and find points so that turned out to be a letdown.

About 9:00 hunger was getting the best of me and my rumbling stomach didn’t seem to care about the torrential downpour outside.  So I pulled on my Gore-Tex and go check on Jeff.  He’s been killing time reading the instructions for his new tent and the finer points first aid in the tiny book that came with his new first aid kit.  Such is the battle against boredom when you’re stuck inside a tent.  Anyway, he was up for cooking up some dinner too, so we gathered up our goodies under the biggest Spruce we could find and commenced to boiling up dinner.

Dinner went down pretty well as we compared backpackers’ stoves and each weighed in on opinions of the various dehydrated meals available.  Hawaiian chicken with a raspberry-chocolate crumble makes a darn tasty dinner even when a guy has his heart set on fresh trout.

Now, about the time that we’d gotten through the dessert, we’d been out in the rain for close to an hour.  I was beginning to have my suspicions about the waterproof-ness of my 12-year-old Gore-Tex.  My back and arms were feeling pretty wet, but I shrugged it off knowing I could dry out my shirt overnight and the next day should be nice and sunny.  Plus a big hot meal in my belly does wonders to counteract the misery of feeling soaked and clammy.

So back to the tents we go with hopes to “hit it hard” in the morning.  But we both knew the unspoken probability that the river would be brown and full of debris in the morning after this storm.

I woke up about 2:00 a.m. when the rain stopped.  I contemplated taking my Gore-Tex outside to hang up as it was just laid out inside the vestibule of my tent probably just taking on more moisture.  That idea lasted about as long as it took me to re-create in my mind the feeling of slipping on wet sandals and squishing around in the campsite.  Back to sleep I went.

The next morning the river did prove to be blown out from the storm.  We couldn’t help flicking the flies around a bit more in the hopes of landing a very desperate trout for breakfast, but again got skunked.  We got everything packed up about 10:30 and started the hike back down to catch our 11:25 train up to Silverton.  I remembered the conductor telling us not to worry about the first two trains of the day that wouldn’t stop, the third one was ours and it would arrive about 11:25-11:30.  I thought it was a little odd that I hadn’t heard any trains yet this morning but dismissed it as just me not paying attention.

We arrived back at the Needleton stop where three others were also waiting.  11:30 came and went with no train.  So did 12:00 and12:30 and we were starting to have our doubts.  More backpackers started showing up and we all thought it was pretty weird that there were no trains.  Then two Forest Service volunteers showed up and said something to the effect of this situation not boding well; the train was sometimes late but it always came.  Through this time small rainstorms kept moving through so we all kept busy donning and removing our raingear several times.

The crowd started getting pretty big as the folks who needed to take the afternoon train back down to Durango filtered in.  Now keep in mind most of us were at the end of our backpacking trips so had little or no food, were a little spent, and generally had several days or more of forest-living on us.  Needless to say the group was spaced apart pretty well.  And the unspoken consensus was that we didn’t want to think about just how screwed we really might be.

About 1:00 most of our growing band of backwoodspersons broke out our maps and again discussed our options.  Some were growing more than a little nervous at the prospect of spending extra nights in the backcountry not knowing when or if a train would show.  We decided that if there would in fact be no train, we’d have to hike out one way or another.  There was the 20-mile-route up the tracks back to Silverton or we could go about seven miles down the tracks to Cascade then about 6 miles and 1500 vertical feet up and out to the Purgatory trailhead on the highway.  Then we would have to hitchhike a ride back up to Silverton.

The second option seemed to make more sense to most of us since we could hopefully flag down a train if it ever did show on the stretch from Needleton down to Cascade.  Two younger guys from Colorado Springs did not at all like the idea of hitchhiking and opted for the trek up the tracks to Silverton.  We tried to talk them out of it, since they were pretty much out of food, but up they went.  I did manage to give them a couple of my wife’s granola bars after their eyes lit up at the offer.  Those poor people on the Front Range; these two kids were apparently A) very amazed that anyone would be offering them food in this situation and B) scared to death of hitchhiking.  I hope they made it.

There was still a sizeable contingent that opted to just wait things out, or at least wait a few hours more before just hiking down to Cascade to camp the night.  But we had a band of six that could wait no longer as doing the math put us out on the highway at about 10:00 or 11:00 at night.  Remember that heavy pack I had filled with wet gear?  I was not looking forward to this 13-mile trek but I’m not a good sitter either.  So, after trading phone numbers and volunteering to make some calls for some of the crowd who opted to stay another day, down the tracks we went.

We made less than a mile down the tracks to hear what sounded like a sick little train whistle behind us.  We stopped and waited to see our first sign of life from the train company.  A front-end-loader came around the last corner down the tracks rolling our way.  We saw that the loader was curiously not bristling with people who mobbed him back at Needleton so figured the driver must have a good story.

He did.  Apparently the storm last night was quite a gully-washer.  There was a huge rockslide over the tracks upstream from Needleton.  He had gone up ahead of the morning trains from Durango to check the tracks and just stayed at the slide to work all morning.  He said he had a flatbed railcar up near the slide and, after a couple more hours’ work, he would pull it down to Needleton, load all of us and our gear, and pull us down to Durango with his loader.

That sounded like the best plan we had all heard for a long time so turned around to go back up to Needleton to wait.  With the schedule the worker gave us, we even had a little time to fly-fish.  The Animas had cleared quite a bit during this ordeal so we spent another 30 minutes or so flipping flies around the river to no avail before the loader/flatcar combination rolled back down to our makeshift bivouac site.

Had I been thinking I would have hiked up to the slide for some pictures.  Apparently it wasn’t far upstream from Needleton.  The worker said it was about 50 feet high across the tracks and slide out into the river, damming it up for some time.  He figured it was going to take about five days to get it open.  He also said he had seen those two Colorado Springs boys, offered them the same flatcar deal, but they opted to keep going.

The workers warned us that the trip would take two or three hours to get back down to Durango and the rains were getting more frequent.  So we all donned our raingear for the trip, piled our packs along the center of the car, and started rolling down to Durango.

We, workers included, all joked about what a motley crew we had assembled.  We figured now we knew how hobos felt and this was just the Colorado version of a Central American bus.  All we needed was a few crates of chickens and some other livestock on the car to make the trip complete.

Now, without any rain, this would have been an awesome trip.  How many other people can say they rode in an open-air, a very open-air car on the Durango-Silverton narrow gauge?  And the equipment pulling us turned out to be a very good way to go.  The little diesel offered no cinders, black clouds of coal smoke, or ear-ringing steam whistles like the locomotives do.  The five or ten total combined minutes when it wasn’t raining, I did manage to get a few pictures.  The trips across the bridges were spectacular since you could look right over the edge down hundreds of feet to the river.  But for most of the trip it rained.  And not the pleasant little oh-I-love-the-smell-of-fresh-rain showers that just knock down the dust.  This was a holy-crap-I-can’t-see-ten-feet, full-on drenching where the raindrops are as big as your thumb and you can’t see much space between them as they fall.  It absolutely opened up on us the whole way.

I decided that my seasoned Gore-Tex was all gore and not much tex, as I was soaked to the core.  Thank God for a fleece shirt and synthetic shorts underneath, cotton duds might have been the death of me.  I would have stayed dryer treading water in a pool the whole time.  And even if our raingear had kept us all dry, we were still sitting in the gathering water on the gear on that flatcar.  At least it wasn’t really cold, although I’m pretty sure I heard a couple sets of teeth chattering.  I love Colorado, there is nothing quite like the prospect of hypothermia in July.  At one point it even hailed on us for about five minutes.  The best line of the day was from Jeff, as we were both hunkered down staring at our knees through the little oval of daylight offered by our cinched up hoods.  I said “hey look, it’s hailing” and he replied “Of course it is.”

As miserable as we were, we all agreed that this was much better than walking out so nobody complained much.  Backpackers are a unique slice of the American demographic anyway, as we chose to go back into that country in the first place knowing full well that Mother Nature is still very much in charge.  Many of the crowd had spent a few days climbing the 14-ers in Chicago basin.  We made our own fun.  Several places along the line the tracks run directly adjacent to a rock cliff.  During a heavy rain those turn into one wide waterfall.  We all made the best of it whooping, hollering and arm-waving like kids on a waterpark ride.

We finally rolled into the stop of Rockwood a few miles outside of Durango where the train company had two buses waiting for our band of waterlogged refugees.  One bus each for the Durango and Silverton groups.  I was never so happy to see a bus in my life.  On the faces of the awaiting drivers and the few Rockwood bystanders you could read their faces like a book:  “I don’t believe what I’m seeing…this is crazy…they rode how far in this rain?…on that thing?”

We bussed up to Silverton, found Jeff’s truck, and scoured the Sunday afternoon streets for a store where we might get hot coffee.  After we finally got on the road I decided that heated front seats were my new favorite vehicle option.  If we couldn’t dry off we could at least try and steam our clothes dry.  We placed a few quick cell phone calls to our wives and the conversations were pretty limited as this trip wasn’t anything that could be explained quickly. We met stopped in Ridgeway for dinner with a couple others from Grand Junction who we met on the wilderness hobo train.  We got a few strange looks going in the restaurant and they curiously stuck us upstairs when there was seating available downstairs.  I’m not sure if we looked more like drowned rats or California raisins but they apparently felt we were worthy of confinement away from their regular (and dry) customers.

We finally got home in Grand Junction about 11:00 Sunday night where, after laying out most of my gear in the garage, I still had to towel off before crawling into bed.  My fingers looked like prunes until Tuesday.  All in all it was a pretty wild adventure for my first ride on the Durango-Silverton Train.

Plus now I can say I’ve been fly-fishing!

High Mountain Turkeys

April 26th, 2010

Last Sunday consisted of hunting, fun, and panic.  The flow of the day went something like this:

Drive to woods, ATV 10 miles across mud and frozen snowbanks to the backcountry. Tell myself repeatedly we must be back out of there by 11:00 or the snow will be soft, we’ll break through and never make it back. Hike 2 miles uphill…”Daddy…, can’t we stop HERE?” Make turkey noises. Eat snacks. Nearly choke on snack as I see turkey walking downhill at us. Wait for turkey. Make turkey sounds. Continue waiting for turkey. Lose turkey in brush. Realize turkey left. Forgetting about 11:00 rule, circle to where we think turkey went. Make turkey noises. See no more turkey. Begin hiking back out.

Look at watch. See that it’s noon. Realize we may be back here until we dig a path through ½ mile of slushy snow or things freeze up around midnight. Try to contain mild panic. See turkey tracks. Forget time again. Keep hiking down and looking for turkey making these tracks. See same turkey 200 yards from ATV sprinting uphill away from us. Chase turkey. See stars. Remember we’re at 8500 ft. elev. Give up on turkey. Damn, those things are fast. Realize he just walked down the trail we had walked up. Rotten bird never made a sound, he apparently did not read the rules on how this stuff works. He’s SUPPOSED to gobble or yelp or at least make a peep at some point so we know he’s coming. Ethan dubs him “stealth turkey.” Much better than the name I think of.

Begin the ATV trip out through the now-thawed mud and slush. Gun it and make it through the first few drifts. Breathe deep and begin the ½-mile slush drift. Get 50 yards and high center. Play out winch cable. Fight thistles for access to the only tree close enough to wrap cable around. Unstick ATV. Fight thistles again to get my cable back. Leave part of my face on thistles. Bleed on ATV. Have Ethan walk as I try to navigate the rest of the drift sidesaddle with my weight on the side with the thinnest snow. Convince Ethan it’s for his safety and to make the ATV lighter, not just so he won’t hear me cussing.

Commence 45 minutes of strategic riding, pushing, bouncing, swearing, and bleeding my way through the rest of the drift without even needing the winch again! Return home. Have beer. Tell everyone we actually saw a gobbler this time. Begin to think elk are easier.

Just another elk story (2004)

(Blogger’s note:  I originally posted this on the General Big Game forum at 24hourcampfire.com  That’s an awesome site and forum for outdoors enthusiasts.  Rick, the owner, gets some real talent there.  Several regular posters there are actual professional writers.)

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Boom…Whap! The elk’s down, hooves flailing, sliding down the slope and coming to rest against a little spruce.

This year’s Colorado hunt really began back in March. I was hunched over a laptop at one of the firebase’s few internet connections filling out my 2004 big game application online. “Man, I hope the connection holds up”, this was my third time trying to enter all my stuff and have it stick.

I was 10 months into a 12-month deployment to Afghanistan and through the miracle of satellite internet and the good graces of the CO DOW website, I would be able to still apply for big game. I had a 2-year-old 300 RUM sitting in the safe at home that hadn’t yet been bloodied, surely I’d get something this year.

I got home in May and waited patiently for the draw results. Black bear…draw. Ranching for wildlife elk…denied. Buck…denied. But Dad finally drew his buck tag for a unit that’s prone to producing monsters and there were leftover cow elk tags so I bought one of those. I would take him around looking for a 30+ incher and hopefully come across a cow elk in the process. If I felt ambitious after all that I would still go hunt a bull 3rd or 4th season with an OTC tag. Dad’s tag didn’t go quite as originally planned, I’d been telling him for years to keep applying for 3rd season as that’s when we typically saw the most buck action. But, unencumbered by my advice, in a fit of well-intentioned research, he called the DOW. The kind people there told him he’d “never” draw a 3rd season tag (even though he had statistically enough points, I found later) and told him if we wanted a tag, he’d better apply for 2nd season instead. The conspiracy theorist in me says they just wanted their out-of-state fee rather than risk having to send it and another preference point back to the applicant. Oh well, these chances for a good buck were poorer than third season’s, but maybe the weather would push them around early this year.

September rifle bear season arrived at exactly the same timeframe as we were selling our house and moving into a duplex to wait for our new house to be finished. Between that, work and Labor Day weekend camping with the fam, I only squeezed in about a day and a half of bear hunting. Saw bear tracks but went home skunked again.

Second season arrived with my Dad and family friend showing up for a Sat-Wed hunt vacation. We got set up in a wall tent (mainly because our rental place is too small for a crowd) Friday night and got a good early start Sat morning. We drove and hiked and glassed in beautiful weather Sat, but Sunday the rain and fog started rolling in. The mountains combined with the weather, roads, and tent-living really gave my 70-year-old flatlander Pa the willies, I don’t think he was having much fun. We saw some smaller 3 and 4-points but, as I had feared, no shooters within hiking/packing range for these guys. We watched pairs of little bucks spar at several locations, that’s always neat. And one occasion where 3 bucks were grazing down a hillside and kicked up a coyote, they all scattered in an instant, it was pretty funny. Not a single elk or recent sign to be found anywhere. Dad decided he’d rather go back to town and hang out with the grandkids. I’d have probably done the same thing in his shoes, he doesn’t get to see them much since we live three states apart.

We tried some different country for Wednesday, their last day. There we saw lots more deer but still no shooters. Plenty of mud still, too, I definitely gave the tire chains a workout that week. Dad and friend went home empty-handed Thursday morning.

Saturday I was back to hunting by my lonesome, and just for elk this time. I wanted to try yet a different area, higher up since they weren’t moved in the lower areas we’d been hunting. I opted for some country that’s a 20-mile ATV ride around private land. Conditions were perfect with new snow and a really good freeze that night, they’d be up and moving for sure. I tried hiking out a couple ridges to no avail, not even a deer. It was starting to get a little weird not seeing anything.

The next ridge I rode clear up to the edge of the private on top and glassed back down along its west slope. There, in a little sage park midway down the ridge was paydirt! 10 to 12 Elk moving back up the slope into the trees about a mile and a half back. I checked the map to make a game plan to get closer. I went back down the ridge and hiked out a spur that should let me look right over their clearing. I picked my way down the spur, peeking over its crest to keep one eye on the elk.

They were starting to bed down, two cows bedded down at the edge of the clearing, two small bulls were feeding around in the oaks, and a couple calves milling around. Two other cows were still up, one watching downhill and one watching up. The one cow was keeping her eyes peeled right at the slope I was working my way down, I’d have to be careful not to get busted. My cover of spruce trees ran out when they were still about 750 yards away. Crap. I’d have to sneak down the back side of the spur… not a big deal except that side had turned into rock cliffs a couple hundred yards back!

Stooped over like a thief in the night I picked my way down the back side of the spur, just low enough so I wouldn’t skyline myself while trying not to launch myself down the sandstone cliffs. I kept prairie-dogging over the edge to peek at the elk every so often, they were still there. 500 yards away now and my small ridgeline quit at a sharp cliff. Either shoot from here or work down an open brushy slope directly in view of the elk. The shot was down a 1 to 1 slope and I wasn’t 100% confident shooting that range. The elk were watching the other way now so I decided to risk moving closer. I know I took over 20 minutes picking the quietest way down through the waist-high brush, praying they wouldn’t look up at me.

I finally made it to a little 5-yard clearing in the brush that looked promising. It looked like I could sit at the high edge of the clearing and maybe make a seated shot over the top of the brush. I found a spot, stood my pack up in front of me and laid my rifle across the top. The brush was inches below my crosshairs, this just might work. The Leica told me it was 353 yards, good enough for me. All sorts of range data was going through my head. Some wildass notion to aim low took ahold of me, because this slope was at least 45 degrees or steeper. The cow bedded and looking to the right would be the target. Aim…breathe…squeeze…boom!!!

The rifle roared as a surprise, the smoke cleared and I got a look through the scope. She was now up and looking around holding her right front leg up off the ground. Crap, just winged her, but there was blood on the snow. She hopped around to the left and offered a broadside shot, still not in a hurry to run anywhere. Crosshairs right on the money, just below her backline behind the shoulder, let me try this again.

Boom…Whap! The elk’s down, hooves flailing, sliding down the slope and coming to rest against a little spruce.

Turns out the first shot went right through her ankle, just above her hoof, right where I was aiming. Note to self: to get an elk up out of its bed, shoot it in the hoof. Another note to self: discard any crazy thoughts about compensating for shooting up or downhill, just friggin’ shoot! Second shot was right in the sweet spot. The 180g partition went through high in the near lung, low in the far one and came to rest just below the hide on the far side.

Sorry guys but no pix, I didn’t have the camera with me. I’ll get some pix of the boolit when I get it and my dig camera together. It performed like a textbook partition, opening up and losing its nose. I squeeze them out sub 1”@100yds with H1000 and CCI magnum primers. This was the first animal taken with that rifle, and my first elk in a couple years. I’ve been home from Afghanistan for almost six months, but moments like this really help me feel back to normal.

Followup; I managed to get a picture of that 180g Nosler Partition here: