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.