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.