Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Opening Day (PA edition)

I stand atop a shipping container which is stacked on a shipping container that is in turn resting on another and another. And this stack is fastened to another of equal height beside it. We are 42 feet off the ground counting the concrete pad supporting the stack. But as our tower of seaworthy metal blocks is on a hillside, to the south the drop off puts us at something more like 64 feet. The tower is painted and industrial military shade of green to match it's purpose. Someday snipers may train in this very spot with a rifle much more powerful and accurate than my own. We are 3 sentinels guarding this tower from a theoretical onslaught of deer.

I stay at the East side of the stack. My focus is on a field that is visible for 300 yds before it dips and any deer disapear from view. In truth even in the open field they will be hard to spot because the brush in places is nearly 3 feet high, so too are the deer if they drop their heads. More than half of the field is encircled with a thin stand of timber marking property lines and parcel edges. Though only 10 feet wide in most spots it is enough to offer a deer the illusion of cover. I regularly check these potential avenues of travel especially considering that the deer have worn a path directly beneath my perch. in the north there is thick timber from which we expect our quarry to come. It is state land, publicly huntable and filled with rifle bearing men in orange who we hope will shift the deer in our direction. I occasionally look south at a triangle shaped bench along the hill. It is thick with brush but it in a deer pushed upwards my try to catch his breath before continuing to ascend.

My nephew, a year my younger, guards the western flank. His view is wider, more interesting, harder to manage. Straight west is flat for a piece with a line of rotting machinery at the edge of the trees. it then slopes slightly, crests and drops off at 400 yards. But along the shallow traverse there are dips which will hide a deer from sight. A few clumps of pines also dot this section. To the south his view drops off much more rapidly. The hill is steep and we are high so most of it is in view. And arm branching off from the peak is the tipping point of sight but it many places it is 300 yards away.

The bottom of the hill is marked by a dirt road running east-west. Beside it and on our side but mostly out of view from our perch is the 1000 yard range increasing west to east. It is marked at 100 yard intervals with mounds of dirt growing ever higher with distance from the targets. It was seeded with clover and grass after construction this summer and the part that is visible to me is a verdant green even now. Our tower is roughly between the 7 and 8 hundred yard mounds. On the other side of the road the terrain again rises, a low hill that happens also to split a creek and become an island in the process. This island is surrounded on 3 sides by swampy brush and timber and the far side is better than 1200 yards from me as the crow flies. The terrain rises again beyond the island, thick trees for a while then another "open" field with a strip of trees surrouding it, marking pipeline-east, property line-west, and crest of hill-south.

My brother is at an intersection of paths at the bottom of the hill. Treeline, creek, island corner and dirt road meet beside him and very near the 600 yard mark. He paces like a caged animal around the cable spool which is supposed to remain his home base. He covers all directions. Protected from our view and our rifles by a hump in the hill are 2 friends of my brother and father, Sam and Ross. One is on a cable spool above 1000 yards and the other on a spool above 200.

My father for his part walks between us like a commander checking on troops. He has a rifle, loaded, resting on the makeshift plywood table. But he would rather we shoot first. As we wait he points out orange dots and names them, describes the owner of each stand and the stand itself. Talks about how he knows them and the deer they are likely to take. Across the field from me is a party of 4 hunters. They take turns sitting 2 in a tree stand and 2 driving deer. They are shooting for meat and likely have doe tags. For them anything goes. Along the pipeline a party of 2, unknowns to us. Near the edge of the far trees tucked into a fox hole covered with tin is ---, barely visible. His friend sits in the middle of that far field. Every other year --- takes a trophy buck. He will hold out for glory until the final days of the season. His friend, we suspect, will shoot the first shootable deer.

Shooting light comes and goes without incident. By some design of the state, it is not yet light enough to see through a scope until 5 minutes after you are permited to fire. As it was we wait nearly 10 minutes before the first shot christens the season in earnest. It is followed by a volley from all directions and a lull. This patteren continues until an hour past lunch. Five to ten minutes of regular shooting from every which way and then silence for half an hour or more. It is as if the rifles are calling to one another from distance hillocks and checking in to maintain the pack formation.

The tree stand hunters have luck early, within the first hour of light they take something. We cannot tell from our vantage point if it was buck or doe but it never crossed within our line of sight so it probably doesn't matter much. Across the island, friend of --- makes a kill. This is unfortunate as the pair is old and the deer is far from a road. It takes them over a hour and a half working together to drag their beast up the hill and into the back of a faithful pick-up. They do not stay to fill another tag.

My brother takes a shot. It makes contact but does not kill. He calls to inform as he gears up for a hike through swamp. An hour later we here a shot from his supposed direction and half an hour past that we get another call. Among other things he is wet waste deep from the failure of a beaver dam he was crossing. His deer is now cooling in the creek while he seeks dry clothing. One of the pipeline brothers saw him and bored with his station wandered down to investigate. Obnoxious and unhelpful. Why the deer did not drop immeditately is beyond us all. The first shot was accurate, true and more than enough to end things quickly. Perhaps this deer found a methamphetamine stash this morning.

Kurt has a doe tag but wants to save it for a snow covered day. His plan is 5 buddies on the tower and a doe crossing the island at 1200 yards. The stuff of legends. He joins us for a while on the tower while his deer cools in the creek.

While he is hiking we see a buck too far away to shoot let alone count points. It is headed for Sam and his failure to shoot tells us that is was not legal. My father sees a doe come and go quickly. For a long time my nephew watches a buck, well within range. He is perhaps a year and a half old. The same age as the pair we took a few short months ago in Idaho and every bit bigger for having grown up here. He is a 5 point, 3 on one side including the brow tine and 2 on the tine. For a man who has only 5 hours to shoot before he has to travel home, this is more than large enough to take and in most of the state it would be legal. However, on our side of the state, where deer grow larger faster, we are constrained to only shoot deer with more than 4 points on one side...or rather 3 points off the main beam and you can skip the brow tine (so goes the rule new this year). The buck pauses for him more than once as it makes it's way down the hill. Until next year good sir. I dare you to walk this way again.

Time comes and goes. My sister comes. She and my nephew go. They fix my father's tire before they head for Indiana and in turn have tire trouble of their own crossing Ohio. A pothole of epic proportions blows one tire and bends another rim. The police tell them "We know, we know. File a claim with the state." They are home in time for my sister to start her shift at 10pm.

We pack up and head home. There has been no volley for over an hour and we suspect there is no one left in the game lands to drive us deer. Rain fell in torrents throughout the morning and continued to pizzle down for the duration of our stay. We are cold, wet, hungry and unenthused.

At home we each scavenge in the fridge for food to heat. Top this off with a hot drink and spirits lift slightly. We reaquire wet gear from piles on the livingroom floor and step out of the house for round two. This time I mount my fathers tree stand in the field below our house. He circles behind and tries to drive deer my way. His first and second loops return nothing. His final kicks up a doe, shot in the back leg and limping. She puts some weight on it but not much. I burn with anger at whatever fool did this. If there is a chance that your hit will be half that bad you do not bother to flip off the safe. There is no honor in a wound like that, no respect in causing suffering. The goal is accurate and therefore quick and painless. I have no tag to exchange for her life as she limps up the hill as quickly as she can manage. She will bed down in the trees beside my uncles house and his boys are flush with doe tags. I will see them tonight and tell them where to go.

Thus ends opening day. With rain, pain, and a twinge of sorrow. I shower immediately. I found a solitary deer tick on my hand and my mind has convinced me that I am covered in wee beasties. My dinner of leftovers is heart-warming, though I skip the stuffing, please pass the potatoes (and forgive the pun if you happened to pick it up). I sleep quickly, soundly and late. Tomorrow (now yesterday), according to weather forecasts, a horrible day for hunting.

Today I am in bed equally late. The world is shaddowed in full blowing blustering white and wind howls through cracks in the windows. This is supposed to stop in a few hours at which time I will gear up and remount the tree stand. But at the moment my thoughts wander to eggs, ham, coffee.


Monday, November 14, 2011

Between a dumpster and a concrete place

I intended to write through breakfast. To my surprise, when I stopped it was past lunch. Unintended consequences of observation.

No dear reader, these words were not for public consumption. But this was more than reassuring as only last night I was considering my lack of inspiration among friends. Yes I have left my preferred canvas of aspen and tamarack at daybreak but apparently garbage trucks, smoking stylists, and exhaust fans on a grey drizzly day can be prepared in a manner worth of ink and paper.

So it goes. I do not want to do my homework.


Thursday, November 03, 2011

Montana, the sunrise state

My father by some unknown power managed to drive 11 hours straight through the night last night while I slept fitfully in the back of the truck. He turned the keys over to me shortly after 6 am local time, just east of Billings. This, my friends, presented me with a glorious treasure. A sapphire so blue that you stare into it until you lose your mind. A sunrise on a cloudless Montana morning. Pure, graceful beauty.

For a space between Billings proper and the outskirts of mention there is emptiness. No lights brighten the road. A few souls flew past to open some store for the future souls who need stores open before their 9-5s begin. A couple of truckers were also on the road. Likely team drivers who do not need to lie about sleep in a log book. My body had long since grown numb to the bumps and bustles of the road beneath the tires turning steadily homeward. In the darkness I might as well have been flying through space in a hover car, a rocket ship, the vehicle of the future. And there on the horizon out of the darkness is an alien constellation. Lights that would outshine the sun surrounded in clouds of mystery and wonder. Mist threading here and there between stacks and domes with a few torches, flames for dramatic effect. These brilliant gems, Montana People’s Power and Light, Conoco Phillips, and Exxon Mobil. A coal fired power plant churning all night to fuel a pair of refineries which not only burn but also process the midnight oil. An ethereal dream, wrapped in wisps of steam. This is the lifeblood of Montana. This is a steady stream of income for a populous. This is the beauty of production. But I can only hold the lights for a few moments. The darkness swallows even those lights whole as I churn eastward.

A first for me. A wolf hit by the car on the side of the road. “Good dog. It’s a little chilly at 17 degrees but I know you will be quite comfortable in that ditch.” There is a season for wolves in Montana as in Idaho. One state to the east, and my next destination, has no such privileges. The sun will crest the hills mere moments before I breech the state border but I do not know this yet.

I am flying quickly through the darkness as dotted lines tick under my tires. But there is a change in the inky black. I sense it. A Painter is on the prowl. Somewhere in the black, a black tipped tail twitches. The tawny lion, the dawn is hunting. Swiftly and silently it is coming, diligent to its purpose. So many fools wandering now are unaware of its coming. It will take them before they know it. But I am awake and keen to watch the sun approach.

The first signs of an as yet non-existent light come in the faint outline of what might be a horizon. If asked, even if hard pressed, both sky and land are as black as black can possibly be. But somewhere in the distance, where the edges of the earth reach toward the infinite, a black is slipping in to blue. The stars still shine with all the brilliance and honor the million year journey of light deserves. Punctuation marks across an otherwise immutable glass ceiling of darkness. No, the next shift toward a lighted heaven is hinted at on earth. Each pond, puddle, lake and lagoon is gathering up every stray ray of the infantile dawn and reflecting it to any being that will see. In the black on black the name for this color is shimmer. Crayola has yet to dissolve it into a 4 part formula in wax and I hope they never shall. Hiding in the havens of shimmer are small black forms in comfortable, irregular clumps. Waterfowl, hoteling. They are headed homeward south as I press towards the east. And then as at the ends of the world black shapes start to appear against the black earth, silhouettes on silhouettes. Here there are forms of beasts, cattle. There the forms of bales, hay.

And there to the east is a change in shade. Out of the blackness, the colors of the rainbow spread from ceiling to floor but in muted charcoal tones. These are not quite colors. There is a hint of yellow, perhaps green. But no it is just grey I suppose. Is that pink on the horizon? I think so, but no…it is only more grey. This continues for an odd hour or more. Black gives way to pale pastel in ever lightening washes of grey without becoming something of a complete color. No color you would stake a dollar on at any rate.

Somewhere in between the not quite indigo and essence of blue the stars wink out one by one. The almost shades of rainbow are drifting upwards, westwards around the dome. To one ill experienced with a nascent sun or more comfortable with the close of day this might seem to signal a new wave of brilliance, for is not a sun rise merely the opposite of a sunset? But this has never been the case. An aged day is cocky, flamboyant. Raging mad with sparks of color to highlight the insanity as the sun plunges towards another death. Purples intermingle with oranges and gold shines out with neon flare against preposterously pink clouds. And even as the sun struggles downwards it thrusts out final rays in hopes it will not be forgotten. But as an infant the day comes wrapped in layers tenderness. The soft shades of new skin. Pink lines the edges of the buttes for a time and you sense that the sun when it first appears must certainly be pink. Imagine the disappointment then when colors never actually appear. Pink slides softly out of existence, kissing the contours of the hills at your back before disappearing completely.

As yet there is no sun but the sky is full light and it seems so too is the earth. From black on black into light on light, for all of creation is covered in snow. This color too is best described as shimmer and again it is dotted with dark forms. However, these are the black bodies of range cattle. The plod onward in whichever direction their whims take them. They graze, then they wander, then they pause to chew, and all the while they praise their Creator for their darkness as they soak up any light that reaches them. All heat is precious when the air hovers near single digits.

To my right I spy a pack of wolves. They are running in a line and like me they are pointed towards the east. This part of the country is much more open than the one I left 12 hours earlier. These wolves are in season and exposed. And so they are on the move. They are less than a handful of miles from the neighboring state where they are still protected and this is where they are bound with all haste. Their feet are faster than mine, but they are no match for the speed of my tires and they are out of sight in seconds. I catch a glimpse of a sentry prairie dog searching the new day for something to fear. His wish will be granted in 5 minutes or so when the wolves pass through his village.

I can see Wyoming’s welcome sign in the distance. Then suddenly I can see nothing but light. The sun has finally scaled the hills and is present in full glory. A ball of fire that cannot warm the day soon enough. Though momentarily blinded the sun has also revealed a danger I’d not paused to consider. The asphalt leading me eastward is coated in a shine of black ice. I ease off the accelerator and slow to what I consider a reasonable speed. I am passed frequently, but then I watch the hasty slide as they cross bridges at wrong angles and I am reassured that my pace is perfect. It will be another hour before I drift above 51 and then only once behind an ash truck. Miles tick off more slowly but also more safely and I am content. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Bad Air, Bad dog

I will try very hard to explain the aura of the day.

The moon is waning but still above half. It’s setting about two hours past dawn and it’s mighty bright if the day is clear. Today on the way to my secret spot was no exception but clouds came in fast after I was settled. However, with the combination of the moonlight dispersing through the clouds and the first pre-dawn rays of sun doing likewise, shooting light came early. But if was as if the sun stopped rising shortly after I could see my crosshairs against the amber grass. It failed to get brighter than new morning for the duration I was in the woods. The yellows and golds which seem bright as they welcome the dawn became sickly, jaundiced tones as the hours progressed without a sun.

A few squirrels chattered from their trees, but too few. And why would they not come down? A few birds called but from the safety of heavy brush in the woods. Why all this hesitation? Only the crows were active and it seemed that they were out in force to compensate for the lack of other life. They purred, burbled, cackled and screeched above my head. Their wings a terrifying swoop with every beat, much more fitting of a pterodactyl than a bird of their size. They would not rest as if to taunt the other creatures, shut up against the day.

All I could think of was malaria – bad air. Yes. The air feels bad. Too thick. Too still. Too…I don’t know. I am missing something.  This like a febrile dream. Some unknown horror on the horizon. Tension at every turn for the something that is chasing you. But what thing? A think unknown. You turn to run but time slows and you cannot will your legs to run. It takes an eternity to move and inch and all the while the unknown is closing fast.

The clouds above scraping their bellies on the mountain tops, thinning to wisps that cascaded down a contour line or twelve in places but always, ever impenetrably thick. Enforcing, reinforcing, the anxiety of the air. Not even a breeze to stir the mood. No laughter of Aspen leaves as they caressed the tree one last time on their winter decent. Only the foreboding voices of large black birds criss-crossing the heights above my meadow.

My inner animal whimpered. Domesticated man had her hand on a rifle, with full knowledge of every single fifteen plus one rounds in her sidearm. But the deep neurons, the few still wired for the wilds were alarmed. I was naked and I knew it. Some sense that told all of God’s creatures to stay in their own thick brush or hole-in-tree equivalent of home with locked foors was lacking in my toolbox. Lost to my genetic line from years of breeding towards domestication or atrophied from want of need. Either way, when called upon it was not there.

There was a collective holding of breath. Waiting, waiting, waiting and though my nerves wound to match the strung bow tension of this mal air I could not name the aggressor. I could not determine if I, the great white hunter, should tremble at the unknown terror or perhaps this unnamable horror was my quarry and my heart should race instead for thrill. Over and over I tried to read the signs. The air. The clouds. The birds. The squirrels. The air. The squirrels. The clouds. The birds.
I heard the neighbors hound first, joined shortly after by our rent-a-dog, Cooper. What did they know that I did not which stretched their tension to finally snap?

East – A lone wolf howls.

This must be my antagonist I begin to unwind. But something is odd.

North – A coyote yips, howls. This is something I have never heard before on my mountain. Then in short order from the South East – another bachelor wolf.
Why had every canine around me come undone? What could they hear? Smell? Sense?
To the west, my answer. A wolf howls and is joined by another. Still more join in multi-toned chorus. Voices mounting and echoing as counter point as time stands still. Clarity washes over me with each wave of voice on voice. One wolf can silence a thicket of deer, but a pack unnerves every creature on a covey of mountains- including their own kind. Their solitary brethren fear them too.

They are getting closer, moving south and east, traveling thick timber. They are hunting.
That this act is natural is unmistakable. Much more so than my scent destroying chemical, high velocity with penetrating plastic tip for tough game, laboratory proven camouflage patterned presence between stump, rock and cedar.

The animals, the pack, the song, the swift sure motion of the unit towards a goal. It is also supremely beautiful. But it is a stark cold beauty, formidable, vain. A vertical traverse up an ice covered stretch of slope, gleaming white and blue. The chance of death much greater than that of success. It is the beauty of evolutionary success in action. Lithe bodies running through thick cover, seeking scent of prey. The beauty of staring into the end of a life.

A call breaks out across the trees. Ten bleats of a cow elk, steady and pronounced. I take this as a warning. No elk pursued directly could call out so clearly, so evenly. “They have arrived. You cannot hide. To the swift goes survival. You must run. Run!”

Close on the heels of this message comes a renewed cadence of ethereal howls. “Yes we are coming for you. We ARE the swift. We will outrun.”

Silence follows for some minutes. All creatures turn an ear to the chase. Their very lives depend on the death of some other life.

Another bleat. This a cry of agony, a cry for help that will not come. They will have hamstrung the elk. Back legs worthless it tumbles and they close in. It calls once more, shaky, fading. They will start at the stomach, then the back legs, a fury of blood and teeth, while the elk struggles to rise on front feet only. Loss of blood will bring on shock and the elk will cease to feel as light fades to darkness behind its eyes. But the peace of death will take an agonizingly long time to come. I strain to hear but there is no more.

The fever has broken. The mountain wakes stiffly, slowly, echoes of nightmare still clinging to consciousness. Now gingerly it fingers the idea of food, drink, something activity other than waiting out a horror in the clutches of a dream.

As darkness crept in beneath the shadow of the mountain, I heard the pack again. They were hunting. There are half grown pups to feed and they are hungry. This will continue until the elk move to another mountain and the wolves follow. I was thankful that I could shut the door behind me.


Idaho is one of a few states with a wolf season and they are currently huntable. 3 wolves have been killed legally (read: that were reported instead of buried in the woods) near here recently. One attacked a female bow hunter and she shot it with her side arm. Another was tracking a hunter closely enough that when the man went to shoot he had to wait for the other hunter to turn or risk shooting him. A third was taken in Bonner's Ferry, 7 feet long, 200 lbs. In unit 4 IN TOWN a wolf attacked 2 horses. Hamstrung one and did enough damage before it was chased off that it had to be put down. The other was severely wounded but they think it will survive. It is a miracle we survived the domestication process.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Definition of terms

For them what live in cities and the otherwise uninitiated.

Feller Buncher (noun):

Monday, October 10, 2011

Opening Day

Opening day eve. A constant flurry of internal excitement. The uncontrollable drive to have every detail under control, down to the order in which the socks are placed on top of the other layers that will keep me out in the cold longer. Persons drift off towards dreams one by one but I remain awake long after I hit the sheets. Tomorrow. Tomorrow. Opening day. Tomorrow, you’re only a few hours away.

Opening day morning. I fight my alarm for unconsciousness but I am defeated. Just as well. For the first time since I arrived on the ranch I am the first human awake and active. I try to be as obnoxiously active as possible. Even so the persons scattered around the kitchen remain sleeping until others wander in from their respective beds. Customized sandwiches come together with deli-quick efficiency. Hot breakfast and coffee were ready before my feet hit the floor as a result of last night’s obsessive compulsive ducks-in-a-row frenzy. Breakfast consumed with breakneck speed and those still sleeping roused abusively. Cheese laid gently by the face brings a sloppy dog tongue which cannot be ignored in the same way as my reminders about the minutes passing and the need to leave “like NOW”. All outward tasks accomplished I slip into my dressing room for my costume. Long-johns layer betwixt socks, shirts on shirts, pants on pants, hats on hats. Bending and twisting becomes a challenge and I begin to sweat. Over it all a pack. Riffle checked and strapped to my chariot. Time to go.

I could count the past hours of today on one hand were it not gloved. The nascent morning is crisp cold and the air feels close with humidity. It is inky black. The sky would be overflowing with galaxies of stars were it not cloaked in clouds. We ride strung together until we reach the trailhead, where we are spat out in various directions. Into the great darkness we are balls of fire, color, and noise, a roman candle rolling out light.

Our headlights can do little to dispel the thick darkness, but even as we race through a small sphere of vision, the surroundings cast in black and white from our feeble lights, the trails are still comfortably familiar to us. Like the back of the hand? But who really knows one hand from another? Like the lines on a lover’s face? Sadly I fear even that cliché fails to find meaning these days. No, we know these dirt and grass freeways like the streets of our youth. The sidewalks that lead to friends’ houses, the way to the park, the road to the convenience store for penny candy or ice cream which become stories passed to our children when we return there on some distant day. Long hours cutting fresh lanes and clearing old log roads have imprinted each twist, ditch and fallen tree into forever memory. These tracks have been paved by mixing fine mountain dust with our sweat, our blood. We regularly fight the wilds for these avenues to upward meadows, landscapes, views, and game. We know them intimately.

My father and I are now alone on our chosen path. We are winding west-north-east-north-west but constantly climbing. Gaining ground heavenward and racing the earliest rays of sun. We turn a final left onto the long and rugged bench carved at the top of our meadow. The sun has not yet crested the eastern mountains but its light still sneaks our way by bouncing off the cover of clouds. We tuck our bright red horse beneath some small pines and separate, he to the east and I west. The refracted light is enough to define my path without artificial fire. We are late.

I am all down and stuffing heaped up against the cold. The success of my efforts is told in my sweat with each footstep but so also is the sound of myself, a foreign presence in these woods. It is impossible to step without snapping sticks, swishing grass, creaking slings and complaining buckles. I am a one man band disrupting the morning, a cacophony to all the ears of the forest. I give up on silence and focus instead on speed. The faster I arrive the sooner I can become soundless. I head towards the back corner of the meadow but stop short of my intended perch. There along the tree line, some ten feet above the trail, three high stumps as a fortress with a massive hemlock for a parapet at the rear. These stumps shall be my blind, my gun rest, my castle wall and the great reaching hemlock my throne.

I diligently remove all sticks and underbrush from my new fort. Twigs cannot snap when there are none. I adjust my layers for temperature and my body for the slow pivoting of head left to right, the imperceptible lifting of rifle when the time comes. I fidget restlessly after perfection of view, of angle, of body weight on roots for the first half hour. The sun is still long in approaching but my eyes no longer strain to see. My scope has more than enough light to paint me a pretty picture within the reticule. Crosshairs on rock, stump, tree. Yes, I have a good view of my corner of paradise. Now I take to the task of memorizing every shape in sight so that when the living shadows of the forest slide silently into view I will know that a change has come to my kingdom.

Squirrels chatter, woodpeckers drum, and crows call between mountain tops. The world would be in complete peace if not for the lumber operation proceeding at full feller-buncher speed somewhere below me and beyond my vision. Mechanical saws making me future meadows but disrupting my present quiet, my present chance at success. In time the shredding of trees becomes background noise, forgotten as one forgets the sound of traffic after living too long in the city. Into this pseudo-silence suddenly comes a sound of rushing., water pouring from heaven and being sifted through countless branches on the way to the ground. The clouds are moving towards me from the east. They are now over the meadow and coming quickly but I still have time.

I abandon my castle for something dryer. An ancient tree fell recently in a storm. Its roots pulled with it a ball of soil and left me with a perfect patch of dry. I maneuver into the sandy bowl and duck beneath my roof of roots, readjusting to new rocks beneath me. My rifle must now rest on my pack. Occasionally I bump a root with my head and cause a cascade of sand upon myself but not a raindrop reaches my person. I can still scan nearly the same stretch of open space and I am content in my new home. So satisfied it seems that I fall asleep for some unknown hours during which time the rain stops. I awake instantly to full alert but with no movement save the opening of my eyes. The squirrels changed cadence. I strained to see something brown as my thumb caressed the ridges on the safety. Ah, yes there is the brown walking along the trail, but it is a bipedal silhouette. At the edge of my vision my old man turns up into the woods for a new vantage point to finish out his morning. I elect to do the same, and I return to my previous accommodations. I find myself now fully conscious and again scanning with a slow pivot head.

The rain altered the strata of temperatures everywhere it fell which in turn rearranged the direction of the breeze. Every creek bottom was giving birth to clouds. Mist constantly gathered in the arms of stream-side trees. Over time the moisture would build into something of substance and break free from the bonds of the branches and began to ascend skyward following the tops of the trees toward the mountain summit. My head continued to swivel and I watched infant cloud after infant cloud forming and taking wing in every valley. Those clouds born of Grouse Creek at the foot of my mountain slowly found their way to and through my meadow as they sought the sky.

Now I see another cloud approaching from the southern slope of my meadow. It is full bodied above the trees but wispy mist near the ground. It fills in hollow spaces in front of my eyes. My landmarks blur and sounds become washed out and more distant. The cloud gives the allusion that stationary objects are moving. Do I see a deer? The scope confirms a stump. But outside of the cross-haired circle the stump seems to walk farther into the cloud and disappear. The temperature drops as the cloud thickens. I look down at my watch in hopes of confirming the current degrees but the watch only bothers to report the time of day. This is perhaps the fifth occasion I have sought the weather from my time keeping device. I swear I will not do it again. This is in fact prophetic.

I watch a bold squirrel leave the forest edge on my right. He bounds to a tree in the pasture and calls to any who care to listen. He scampers to a pile of leftover logs and weaves around and through the whole heap. Not finding any treasure he returns to the forest edge now to my left and circles a stump. He hears something that I cannot and stops half way round so that all I can see is his tail. It twitches nervously. So too does my thumb on the safety. Does he see brown? He cannot tell from his current position so he tops the stump for a clearer view. What he sees is alarms him greatly. He shouts a warning to his fellows and disappears into a pile of brush. The safety is off and my index finger is resting on the trigger guard. I am breathing more rapidly than I desire. I allow my conscious to take control of the pace of respiration and I strain my eyes for brown.

My index slides back up the side of my rifle and the switch is pulled back to safe. I see the alarming brown but it is a weary and overdressed biped with rifle over shoulder slung. I maintain my pose. My father walks along the trail searching for a familiar face among the trees. When a tree blocks his view I turn my head to catch him on the other side. He walks directly below me staring upward still unseeing. I move my head to look down. Now he sees. He is shocked. He laughs. He is cold, damp, bored. The loggers are too loud, too close. We will hunt again later.

We now walk the bench toward the east. I continue to scan all parts of the meadow for anything moving. My father stops walking. Does he see something? Ah yes, our 4-wheeler buried in brush. I’d walked right past it. We repack our red mule and turn towards home. Down we wind through the logging operation, past the beaver dam, through the muddy ruts left by 18-wheelers loaded with logs, below the low clouds.

We are the last of the hunting party to return. We are apparently the only two smart enough to stay out of the rain so that we stay warm.

I remove my costume and tuck it into a chest for another hour of the day. There are now men draped in seats around the cabin still variously camouflaged in what they never got around to removing. They are bored, tired and becoming reacquainted with warmth. They are all of them falling asleep wherever they’ve landed. I meander to the kitchen and fix myself a second breakfast. It is still early. Some folks in town are only seeking breakfast one.

What to do between hunt and hunt? I think I will sit down to write…

Ah yes and now the call from my father. It is time to think about a fresh ascent. Appropriate too because I am finished with composition…and it has started again to rain.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Dark comes soon and wet

It is raining.

That is both a profound statement and an understatement.

There have been times this week where I have stood in the rain for half an hour without getting damp. You could see the rain leaving the clouds but by the time the drops neared terra firma the greedy air had robbed them almost entirely of themselves. And those lucky few who managed to keep themselves together long enough to fall the whole way down found themselves evaporated moments after they hit. It would rain for an hour without the ground becoming damp. But today the clouds seem to have forced every molecule of wet from their silver linings and the starving air seems to have gorged itself enough to finally be sated. On more than one occasion it was raining hard enough on the tin roof that I could not hear myself think. It was like one sustained roll of thunder. At these times I found myself as Noah in an ark. Outside the windows all that could be seen was water coming down. There was no barn across the yard. There was no yard. I meant what I said initially.


It rains very seldom here in the summer. Once spring skips merrily on making way for long days filled with Sol you may only get a few showers until Fall crashes in with frosts and golden aspen trees. And so, true to tradition, this Summer has been quite dry and as always, fears of fires run as wildly through the minds of the locals as they would race through the tops of the tinder-dry tree tops.

There was a fire about an hour away from here burning when we got here a few weeks ago. Hundreds of acres and millions of trees burning. Left to burn. So go the national forests when they are not leased for regular timber harvest, fuel removal and management. A heritage of hundred year old trees turned to smoke. Their ghosts gathering at the edges of the horizon in one final burst of beauty. Sunsets beyond the imagination as the thickened air gives perspective and depth to the sun slipping below the mountains beyond the mountains. This could perhaps be considered lasting beauty traded for temporary beauty and it is I suppose true. Except that I had never seen the ancient trees or sat beneath their shade and I will forever hold the sunset in my memory. And forests have always caught fire and always replanted themselves. I suppose that the Birthday Fire of Bonner's Ferry has finally burned itself out but my only basis for this thought is that the air has been less hazy.

The timber on our nearer mountains is managed. Most of it is national forests leased to this or that timber company. Companies are told how much they can take or how much they must leave and parcels are cut in patchwork fashion to maintain habitat and promote healthy regrowth. Several years ago a few large parcels were cleared out. Few trees were left standing save proud tall and healthy tamaracks. These sentinels are the genetically strong, spreading the seeds of the next generation. In 5 or 10 years they too will be cut but they will have left a heritage of wee western larch trees behind. In the mean time the cleared spaces have become meadows filled with huckleberry bushes and bear grass. Places for deer and bear alike to graze in preparation for the hard winter to come. Places for my family and I to wait along the forest fringes, to fill our freezer in preparation for the hard winter to come.

Over this now fading summer another timber company has been working to clear new parcels in the land above us. Men and machines travel daily into what should be wilderness. Whenever traffic increases on our humble dirt road so do the rumors. There is little else to discuss. No one wishes to think of fire and how can one talk about the weather when there is only always sun? Rumor has it that this particular company bought out the leases of another timber company that went bankrupt a few years back. And according to rumor that this company has also gone bankrupt. They are however, under rumor and perhaps something otherwise legally binding, required to continue to cut timber on the parcels. And rumor also suggests that the lease on the timber is up at the end of the year and they do not wish to renew it. So they are taking as much as they are permitted as fast as they can at which time they will leave the mountain. I've heard pieces of this story from more than a handful of people and not everything lines up into logic. But no matter. I can say with confidence that there are at least 9 machines scattered around the mountain and that is a lot of iron for an operation of this size. It is also a tremendous amount of diesel fuel to keep the feller-bunchers happily felling and bunching. And as the trees are cut, trimmed and stacked, they are as quickly shifted onto the humble backs of timber trucks and whisked away towards some good purpose in mill of some western state. The world will be kept long in telephone poles, toilet paper and pellet fuel. Log homes and cedar chests will be built as strongholds against rust and the moth that destroys. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

But for the present residents of the unpaved portion of rapid lightning road, we are spared the ashes and instead given a double portion of dust. The fragile soil of our mountain is really not so much soil as very well packed, talcum powder fine tan fragments of still older mountains. Shallow rooted grass holds the mountain together in any place where the roots of a tree cannot. And where there are trails or timber roads there is no grass. Rocks unfortunately have no roots to hold silt in place. Daily the timber trucks rattle quickly and empty up the winding trails and plod slowly and heavily down, each journey removing some tonnage of timber but also a tonnage of dust. It shakes off on corners and sprays up on trees such that by the time the truck reaches town it is presentable. A brush here, another there and the company logo is legible again. But on the trails behind our cabin the dust rests deceptively, pretending to be a solid floor when it is actually rather like 6 inches of air. And as we traverse the mountain seeking adrenaline through speed we find ourselves sliding sideways in unexpected places or falling in to holes that had not been there before.

Each resident recognizes that these parcels which are now ugly dusty wounds on our mountain will heal quickly into moose filled meadows in a year or so. And this is perfect timing because the existing open spaces are becoming less open. One can scarcely see a bull moose let alone a black bear. But even with the promises of greatness waiting for us in a few short months we complain ardently because it gives us something more interesting to talk about than the weather. Our cabin is a good distance from the road but this dust is pervasive and mobile. It has nary any substance to cause it to settle. It defies gravity and lands where it chooses. Everything I can see is cloaked in a thin powder. Wipe it clean and it will be covered again tomorrow.

But we've found ourselves in a bit of a hard place. You see this time of year we always pray earnestly and ardently for rain. Rain without lightning. Rain until snow can put the threat of fires to bed beneath a downy white blanket for a few months. But this year it seems our prayers are more timid. We are still as desperate as ever for rain but conscious of the fact that nothing is holding our mountain in place. I am afraid that in the morning I will look out and see a valley where once there was a peak...or I may find that I have been washed past the Pack River General Store in all the way in to town. The saying goes that everyone lives downstream. Perhaps tomorrow I will too.


Friday, September 23, 2011

Something about a bear

I am in the woods as I write this. It's after 6 and light will fade soon. This is hunting that isn't real hunting. In a blind made from stumps and old logs, the stream at my back. My 270 rests across my legs, 4 shells, one in the chamber, safe on.

I am not watching. This our primary predator sense. My most accustomed, most comfortable sense. At this place, in this time, it is no useful. The world is awash with various shades of green, staggered, layered, a phalanx of trees around a meadow. Infant trees sheltered here, racing to meet the heights of their fathers. The only punctuation in color comes in hues of brown. Straight, tall sky seeking brown of long straight and now laid down brown. The brown which is purposed to hold the greens in place from leaves to needles to mistletoe moss. until there is no longer life to hold. And carpeting the floor in the pungent yellow-brown shades of autumn are the fronds of ferns kissed by frost on an eve earlier this week. But there is no movement to speak of save the breeze twitching branches. No visual sign of animal life except the occasional bird. Eyes are not useful in this hour.

Instead I have my ears. Behind me the water mercurial as it passes over rocks and branches, yet rhythmic and constant. A backdrop on which all other sound is splashed. Behind me left and distant, the persistant thump of far away hammers at our cabin and at piercing intervals the small dog howls. He is tied on my account. Round about me from within the impenetrable green, the forest crackles with life. Small squirrels chatter one to another. They break sticks and rustle brush as they scamper, sounding far larger than their diminuative size. A flicker or more have called nearby. They've also drummed out dinner on failing trees. A yellow jacket went as quickly as he came behind me. And I've heard several quads traversing different trails on the mountain. And always the swift running flow at my back which I must cross to return home.

Light is fading and will continue quickly now. There have been no birds for some minutes and the squirrels, I sense, have turned in for the night. There is plenty of light here in the open but within the ranks of forest if is approaching full dark. The air has picked up a moist chill and I am thankful for my hat and gloves.

I am waiting for the lumbering carelessness of a bear, wandering from and to anlong this well worn train. A large noise in the darkness to proceed a large dark form. An instant to readjust, loose the safe, and take aim. But color is draining out of the forest now with the passing light. I am running out of moments as the world slips into black and white. Today it seems will not feature a bear. Only solitude in a place of beauty.


(Transcribed from my field notebook.)

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Again we come to mid-July

The red line in the thermometer creeps upwards with the sun. Days are frighteningly long and the air doesn't cool until it is bordering on dusk and the mosquitoes are out. Either work is done frighteningly early in a race against the heat or beneath a ball of fire with skin shifting towards crimson and sweat rivers cutting through the dust on your face.

But the garden is parched and desperately needs tending. Somehow weeds have taken hold and are threatening to suck precious moisture away from the plants that matter. And the plants that matter are wilting, turning brown, fading, tired. The dirt was rich and dark at the onset of spring but now it too is tired- clumped and hard, unyielding.

And even now, under unending glare, it is time to plant. Yes there are already green tomatoes on the vines, some well watered peppers may even be ready to eat and you've already harvested the radishes and eaten plenty of salads until the lettuce turned bitter. But the summer is peaking. The Sol you presently curse is drifting downwards again and while the heat will persist, the hours for growing will not. This is the time to think of snow. For it is the seeds planted with hope, diligence and sweat NOW that will produce the best vegetables for the long winter hibernation.

Last year I kept herbs, a tomato plant and peppers alive through the winter. I not only had a tomato on Christmas but through the rainy spring when nothing else could be planted. True these were only cherry tomatoes and perhaps only one a week. But each globe turning red hinted at the life that would be possible when the white melted in to green. And this plant is still alive and still producing from a big blue pot tucked into a garden in NY. Not a heavy-yielder by any means but definitely persistent.

My impulse to put hands into soil has led me to gardens in three states this summer. Most plants were started in pots on a NH deck and moved to NY and PA. I last heard that the zucchini are ready...and fantastic. A late spring meant plants were still for sale in ID so with a fools ambition I put peppers and tomatoes in the ground with a host of perennial herbs and 100 feet of soaker hose. Perhaps I will only feed a bear but it was worth my time to try. Here I recently added more tomatoes because the store is eager to let them go.

And each time dirt slipped under my fingernails I saw analogies to my life. It is no wonder so many parables slant in this direction. As it is mid-July for my garden, so too it is mid-July for my soul. I've only a trowel to dig out the roots of long ignored weeds but I've tomatoes waiting to be lifted from pots and set into the dirt. Purple, pink and striped heirlooms, each with the promise of viable seeds for a new generation. I cannot wait to see this harvest and on this side of the sunburn I am confident that it will be worth the sweat.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Twinkie Report 2011

First, Phil did NOT see his shadow. Praise the Lord the snow’s gonna stop fallin’.

Second, there’s been some confusion all along about the number of Twinkies and years left in this game. Let me clarify. The boxes of Twinkies were purchased in late January of 2004 and the first Twinkies were eaten during Levy's Organic Chemistry on February 2nd of that year. Since the cream filled cakes were at that time within their ‘fresh by’ range 2004 represents year zero. So it follows that 1 year later or when the Twinkies were 1 year old we ate Twinkie #2. Thus the year is always behind the Twinkie number by one. After today there are 2 years and 2 Twinkies left so we will wrap up the experiment in 2013 with a very stale Twinkie and a fresh one for comparison. I believe that neither Jenn will ever eat another Twinkie after that day.

Now for this years results:

I had to have the Twinkie mailed to me by my father because I left the box at his place accidentally.

At this point (Year 7, Twinkie 8) the “Pastry” was dry enough to be crumbling and patches of the outside had fallen off giving it a leprous appearance. The lettering on the package was also starting to smudge so I wasn’t in a hurry to jump in.

I couldn’t actually bite into the thing so I cheated this year and cut it (with a steak knife) in to slices- six slices each amounting to 2 bites. Here is the weird thing. Somewhere around year 3 the filling absorbed up into the Twinkie and became a sort of gooey mass in the middle. Last year that was all but gone…this year it is still there. There was definitely a core of post-filling goo throughout and some of it was still sort of kind of almost white. The goo texture is something like….maybe the nougat part of a Snickers but a little firmer? And then the outside ‘cake’ part was crusty and crumbly sort of in between toast and a crouton. As for taste….I swear to you it tastes like a Twinkie. Even without the cream filling the goo still adds that essence of vanilla and the cake still tastes like cake even though it crunches. I do want to reiterate from past years that the aftertaste is the killer. It’s something like super hyper saccharine mixed with extra evil. But it’s a delayed taste- maybe even 45 seconds- so if you eat the pieces fairly steadily you can get to the end before the nausea hits.

I personally don’t feel different other than the sense of accomplishment of having done this for 7 years now. I think the take home message at this point is that within the same package Twinkies will still degrade at different rates. Only two Twinkies Left…

(Pictures when I have proper internet. Or never if I forget.)