Monday, October 15, 2012


I stir, remove my binoculars and replace my sunglasses then zip everything securely in my bag. I hoist it, fasten it. I linger long enough to scan the meadow one more time, then another “one more time”. Still empty of the things I seek. I take off a glove and slip it over the barrel of my rifle to bar dirt from slipping in, then gingerly place it at the edge of the rock. I sit on the edge and brace myself with both arms. My foot stretches to the tall stump and now that I am balanced I can step down onto the top of the slanted log wedged into the crack in the rock. My other foot reaches and with two feet planted I retrieve my rifle and replace my glove. I jump from the log to terra proper and lumber upwards towards the trail. This maneuver is far from graceful but it is well practiced.

I take my time returning to the cabin. As with my ascent this is in no way related to concern for my corporal form. This may even be worse. I am perusing (in the TRUE sense of the word) each meadow along my route. I am still hunting. More than I was hunting in the morning darkness. Maybe I missed a deer in one of the valley rifts, perhaps a bear wandered into the field while I was walking to my wheeler. Should there be something, anything, I would not hesitate to slam on the parking break and leap from my wheeler, scurrying the requisite number of feet away from the trail to a stump while chambering a round to take my shot. I've practiced this scenario countless times in my mind as I have ventured up or down. Even now, as I scan for some animal that has made a critical mistake I plan out the process. But this degree of concentration on the open spaces and primed actions by definition reduces focus on the trail to the barest minimum required to keep the quad on course. No attention is spared to steer around the dents and divots as I drive down and down and down. There are far gentler ways to reach my destination.

I am met by an old man in a pickup hauling a trailer with a fancy-dancy quad on it. It has a wind screen. A WIND SCREEN. Seriously? This is clearly government. Why on this green planet would you drag a truck and trailer way the heck up here (cause I am WAY the heck up) over all of the Kelly-humps and waterbars when you could make the trip in half the time and twice the comfort on an extra fancy wheeler? And seriously, what real live person actually has a wheeler like that? Oh…and he has a key to the gate that keeps your average local from getting to the trail with a motorized vehicle in the first place. So he is either with the timber company or some government branch. Either way I would take his gate key over his wheeler any day. I pull off the trail in a wide patch of huckleberry bushes to wait for him to pass.

It is more than obvious what I am up to seeing as how I am the color of the wilderness with a thin strip of orange on my face and the rifle slung across my back. His appearance gives less away. I eye him suspiciously and nod my head in acknowledgement of his presence. He doesn't eye me at all. I want him to wonder how I got up here on the wheeler. Everyone asks that question when they see us on that side of the mountain. You can get around the gate but it isn't common knowledge. It is unintuitive and tricky and it makes me all over adrenalined and what with all the taking the guns off and having to do a three point turn on the side of a hill, it isn't any faster than the trail we cut through the back of our property to get to the old logging trail even though it is a good half mile or more closer to the cabin so I avoid it. 

He is gone and I pick up my focused and calculating decent. I note every stump that looks like something else. I cut the throttle often when I think I see a something. To date this has always been something like a change of perspective on a shadow or a leaf falling in my peripheral vision or my extremely overactive imagination. Down and down the dusty road until I have passed the last of the meadows. I pick up speed and shift my focus to the trail. Now that I can and choose to see I can miss nearly all of the bumps. I am traveling faster than in the morning dark but the ride is smoother anyway. I am still alert. Grouse like to sit on the edge of the road. I like to chase grouse. They will fly in front of the wheeler until you almost catch them and then they dive into the brush. Dad thinks they do it for fun, to mock you and it seems right. Since I chase them also for fun this seems fair. If they are too far off the road I will stop and give them a long stare which they will return until they get bored and take one or two steps into the bushes and utterly vanish. This too is a game. We also chase the rabbits that run down the road but that isn't as fun for either party…they are in the way and too panic-stupid to leave the trail and usually they are only out after dark when all we want is to be home eating dinner.

Today, no large game. No small game. No chicken game. No game.

Just before I make the turn onto the ancillary trail that connects our property to the main road I see a wheeler pull out. It is a carbon copy of the wheeler I recently passed and the old man driving it might as well be the same old man. I am still not convinced that it wasn’t a glitch in the matrix. He is carrying an official looking piece of yellow paper, some form documenting some bureaucratic information about the quality of the forest or noting the work to be done. He DOES choose to eye me suspiciously though he does not ask my origin, purpose or destination. For my part I slow, give a friendly-like wave, and wait until he has turned his attention forward before I dive onto my trail.

I feel alarm. They are going to log this piece, my favorite part of the trail. I can think of no other explanation. This is bad bad news. If they log it they can gate it or otherwise block our entrance. Granted, one of our friends would very likely unblock it with his tractor but that just starts up a pissing contest. I have seen that at every location where a barrier was set on this mountain. You never know if you can make it through until you get there because you never know who is winning. We hunt this side of the mountain because we can do it easily and because no one else can. What will happen when they cut the timber?

I force myself to refocus on the trail. On the present. Things that are certain. Holes that can throw me over the hill and into a creek. For my dedication I am rewarded with a string of bones in the center of the trail. Three other wheelers had come this way in the past hour and no one had seen or crushed this treasure that had been there for who knows how long. I determine that it must have spawned there just for me. “You have found strange bones. 1. Poke with stick? 2. Investigate? 3. Place in backpack? 4. Ignore?" [Investigate bones] "You do not have enough exp to determine the type of bones. 1. Poke with stick? 3. Place in backpack? 4. Ignore?"  And like any good RPG player I place the new item into my nearly bottomless cache. Contents: 1 rifle, 8 rounds of ammunition, 1 knife, 1 flashlight, 2 pieces of jerky, one apple, 1 flask of water, one change of clothing, 1 bones. I will present them to the taxidermist in residence of whom I am an apprentice. I will gain +1 research exp and I might be able to barter for something at the market.

I've crossed the culvert that the beavers are stuffing with anything they can chew now. Up the hill and I am home again. The last one home. Why am I always the last one home? But as soon as that negatively skewed ponder rises up in my mind it is driven out of existence by the odor of bacon wafting out of the open front door. Getting home late has its perks. 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Dawn is breaking

The strap of my rifle digs awkwardly into the already sore muscles of my neck. I think to myself how my roommate would not approve. I am by myself on a wheeler, not my wheeler but solitary all the same and I am celebrating by reminding my body just how little I care about its groanings. Even so, I cut back on the throttle and knock it in to a lower gear. Not for the sake of my neck or the patch of somehow bare skin on my wrist that is numb from cold or my thumb that seems cramped into place on the throttle or my eyes that water from the dust and wind. No. This is the first of a baker’s dozen of waterbars striping the next third of a mile to keep the road from washing out and between these and the holes left behind when the bulldozer scraped out rocks to “fix” the road it is becoming hard to navigate at my preferred speed. 

I was next to last out of the gate this morning but I have passed two quads from our party to put myself in the lead. We all left later than we intended but I appear to be the only one trying to make up for lost time. Then again I also have the farthest to climb. And there is a pair on one wheeler so bumps are harder to mitigate. And my uncle just had his hip replaced, so he is “taking it easy”. My nephew would be in front of the pack but he elected to hunt on foot from the house. If it weren’t for the freedom of four-wheeler that his choice gives me I would be jealous of his good idea, his extra half an hour to sleep.

It is still some time before dawn when I reach my habitual parking spot, just past the orange ribbon on the tamarack and just before the upturned root that looks like an elk shed. I pull the key and find myself surrounded by nothingness. I shimmy the rifle over my head, remove the scope covers and chamber a round, safe on. I am hunting.

But that is stupid and I know it. I cannot see to shoot will not be able to shoot for another half an hour at least. If I am hunting while I am walking I will have to wait. And this is a good meadow for critters to bed down in. I should wait. But I am right up against the woods and they are dark dark woods. Instead I follow my usual pattern and tromp through the brush guided by the little circle of red emanating from my headlamp which sorely needs new batteries. To put the stamp of approval on my instincts I am less than half way to my perch when I hear a pair of startled animals crashing in to what sounds like everything on their way to and then through the thick timber on the south side of the meadow. I never do see them although I started maybe only 30 feet from them. Such is the pervasive darkness of a land without light pollution. I settle into my nest recognizing that my morning chances of seeing anything probably leapt away on the swift feet of ungulates in a rush. I “hrumph” in frustration to my sheltering tree but it remains unconcerned in the blackness.

I think this is my favorite time of day. It is like saffron, precious, transient and well worth the price of admission. A faint sliver of the waning moon graces the cloudless sky. Little is left but it shines with enough intensity to drown out all but the most persistent stars. Out of vast blackness silhouettes of trees emerge. At first they are merely breaks in a skyline of domed mountains. But slowly, silently, mountains separate from other mountains, each a subtly different shade of almost too black to be grey. And the sky has the slightest hint of a color. It is as if the landscape has been tinted barely blue. Or maybe the color is more violet…Or could it be green? Next the birches and alders and poplars take on definition and they too are bathed in the soft almost-color. I look for markers, remembered places, huckleberry bushes with fiery red leaves, evergreens that live up to their name, the yellow crowns of leaves topping the alder trees…I can imagine their hues but for a few more moments I am captured in black and white. I am mesmerized. Images cannot capture such beauty; words cannot possibly describe it. Who has ever seen such a morning except me? Who will ever see this morning again? I am utterly alone but to be lonely seems impossible. And suddenly, instantly, colors appear. Orange, red, yellow, green, blue, brown, born of nothing. Dawn is breaking. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


This night. The night. Infinitely and no more important than any other night. Rituals set in motion. Final preparations wound up and let go.

Tonight coffee was made ready so that the first bleary-eyed human need only flip a switch before they stumble to the bathroom and with the promise of caffeine brewing. Tonight (with help!) veggies were chopped and tucked into a slow cooker in the fridge, to be started in the morning. Not unlike the coffee there is a promise of hot and hearty stew to greet the hungry hungry hunters after daylight shifts to darkness on the far side of tomorrow. Tonight one after another drift from the table or a TV towards a shower and then meticulously set out clothing and gear for ease of access in the cold pre-dawn. I reverse this order because the showers are full.

Into a large plastic bin go honeycombs of plastic that smell eerily and perfectly like rich forest dirt. I shove in my backpack- already loaded with water, snacks, rain gear that I won't need and the ever expectant knife. Then in layers, my hats and neck gaiter, two pairs of gloves and hand warmers, my jacket and overalls, a lighter jacket, a down vest, a fleece, a long sleeved shirt and then a tee that both wick sweat, pants, thick socks, wool leggings...In too few hours I will methodically reverse the process of laying the items in the box and instead place them on my body. I am mocked because I wear too much...but I am not cold.

This task completed, it is my turn to get wet. I fetch the special soap that "eliminates 99% of human odor" and I scrub and scrub until I feel like have been turned inside out. Not because I believe that it is in any way effective. I don't believe this at all. But this is what you do. The sent block clothing, sprays, soaps, potions and incantations are one more ritual. One more good luck charm. One more essential in every hunter's toolbox. But even the most well scoured hunter will avoid being on the wrong side of the wind if there is ANY option.

I am the last one to head to bed. (Why am I always the last one to fall in to bed?) My final ritual comes just before I allow myself sleep. I read two of my favorite passages from Aldo Leopold's essays. I choose "The Deer Swath" and "Thinking Like a Mountain", always at least these two. If I didn't re-read them I would consider them at every turn in the morning anyway and I would rather remember the details exactly. Both feature hunters and deer, one also features mountains and wolves. I will be stepping into this world in the morning. I will be taking part in the dance that is so integral to the fabric of Idaho that it is up for a vote this year to give constitutional protection to hunting and fishing rights to citizens.

Tomorrow is opening day.

Tomorrow is opening day.