Tuesday, February 22, 2011

a strangers view...

After one peaceful evening last October I crawled out of my tent to a frosty, dark morning a hundred or so miles west of here. I was over there exploring some new hunting areas during the day and sitting outside in the chilly air sipping Knob Creek and pondering the Hunter's moon at night. A pretty fine way to spend some time, I think, and that morning I was about to light my stove and boil up some coffee when I thought "to heck with it," and drove into the nearest town to get some breakfast.

It was still dark when I spotted a little diner with quite a few vehicles parked outside and a sign that claimed "home cooking." As it turned out the claim was false. Compared to the mostly sorry breakfasts I usually have, this place was far better. I suppose most everyone in the place knew each other so I got the usual looks when a stranger comes into a place like that. It was during the week and I'm guessing most of the regulars worked at an equipment manufacturing plant a few miles outside of town. I sat down at a table and the waitress came and poured me coffee without my asking and told me the breakfast special was the way to go. So I ordered it without knowing what it was. A minute later I saw it posted on a chalkboard by the door.

An older guy that everyone greeted by name came in and took a stool at the counter and ordered his meal while she poured his coffee. I kinda overheard the waitress scolding him and warning about his cholesterol level and health in general. A couple of others seemed to side with the waitress and joined in. I'm thinking he had a heart problem, or something. He knew these folks were his friends and were concerned about him, but he just took a sip from his cup and looked up and said, "Now listen..."

Then this guy went on to tell them just how content he was and how he'd seen the world in the service, lived in Hawaii for a while, built his own house in the woods with the help of his wife and raised three kids, the early years without electricity, who were grown and successful and gone. He'd fished and hunted in Alaska and worked and played hard all his life, and made a passel of friends doing it. His wife had passed and he didn't figure at his age there was much left ahead for him. He was happy and satisfied and all he wanted in life was a big plate of bacon and eggs -- and if it killed him he'd have no regrets.

While I was digging into my own bacon and eggs I thought about what he'd talked about. I don't think everyone has to go skydiving or bull-fighting to live a full life, but you need to do something. We all have things we want and need to do that are important to us. I guess we all have our own bucket list. The idea is to keep it short.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Won't be Spring for awhile...

…but it almost felt like it for a couple of days last week. We enjoyed melting weather for three days, and one night it didn’t freeze and there was no ice on the water buckets in the morning. Nice. The sidewalks and kennels were down to bare concrete, people were skiing in shorts and tees, and it was downright pleasing to have a case of spring fever. We missed the January thaw, there wasn’t one. It seemed like it snowed daily since Thanksgiving and when it wasn’t snowing it was 20 below or colder. So this February thaw was more than welcome. Of course it didn’t last.

This morning I woke early but, weary of crawling out of the sack in the dark, I napped until the rays of the morning sun broke into the window and I could see the grosbeaks, and chickadees, and redpolls flitting around the bird feeder. I was still in pajamas when I pulled on my boots and coat and followed Ty out into the sunny morning to let Jack and Molly loose from the kennel. I kind of hated to let them out because the packed snow around the feeders is high enough that Molly can nearly jump up and reach them. The grosbeaks are shy and non-confrontational and won’t tolerate being hassled by an annoying spaniel, so they leave immediately. Only the chickadees are brave enough to quickly land, grab a seed, and head for the higher branches of the trees. When the dogs get tired of chasing little birds and head off for another part of the yard to search for mischief, a hoary woodpecker will appear and take a few stabs at the suet, and a nuthatch will join the chickadees for a quick bite.

I didn’t stay out long in my pjs. The thermometer read minus 5 and the lure of hot coffee inside was too much to ignore. After breakfast I sat with a cup and watched the birds for a while, and now and then a setter or spaniel would pass by on snow banks window high. The dogs were light-footing across the yard on a thin crust of snow. Every dozen steps they would break through and I could nearly feel their frustration at not being able to open up. I also had a feeling the conditions would make for some wonderful snowshoe travel and before long I was outside affirming the idea.

A light dusting had fallen last night, just enough to make for excellent tracking. The crusty snow held my weight and I snowshoed throughout the woods easily and randomly north. There was no need or desire for a trail so I just walked where I wanted. I carried my cruiser axe in case I had reason to clear branches but there was no need; I just took the clearest route, but I did use the axe to check the snow depth beneath me out of curiosity. Each time I pushed the handle into the snow it went the entire length right to the steel head of the axe.

I saw tracks of fox, coyote, fisher, marten, squirrel, rabbit, mice, and deer. The deer were using packed trails and I’m sure they’re having a heck of a time now. I expect we’ll lose a fair number this year. I did not find any wolf tracks in the area I covered behind my house, which is a bit unusual. I have to pity those deer when their tiny hoofs pierce the crust that holds up the broad-footed wolves. I've seen the results and know how harsh Nature can be. There were also grouse tracks, and quite a few of them, which I always like to see. I think the grouse will have a hard time getting through the crust right now and that’s a concern, especially if it stays cold, but this happens every year and the grouse always seem to survive. Though today I never saw any wildlife other than at my bird feeders, I’ve been seeing grouse regularly coming out to road edges and pecking gravel and high in birch trees feeding on, I suppose, catkins. I often flush grouse near my pigeon loft and wonder if they are there for some feathered company.

This afternoon the clouds rolled in and it started snowing. There were several inches of fresh snow by dark and I’ll bet tomorrow morning will be a good time to be on skis. Hhmmm…

Sunday, February 13, 2011


I fell in love with snowshoes when I was yet a teenager and spent much of my time outdoors chasing all manner of wildlife and exploring hills and valleys and rivers and such. I was trying to learn how to catch fox in traps and having some success. But when the snow became too deep for easy walking even I had to concede to something more reasonable. However, I thought, if I had snowshoes there would be no safe fox for miles. I made my first pair from scrape plywood and a couple of miles of bailing twine. The result never lived up to the anticipation but the course was established, and snowshoes would become necessary winter gear for myself.

I broke my first snowshoe on my first winter camping trip. Some friends and I set up in the Whitewater River valley and explored the river bottom like we never had before. The open river winding through the snowy woods and meadows was a sight. Somewhere along the way we broke into a rowdy game of snow tag and I was running full out when I caught a toe or hit a hole or something. I went tail over teakettle and when the explosion of snow settled I looked down to see the frame of my shoe broken in two places. Little did I know then that I was about to embark on a lifetime of broken snowshoes, skis, canoes and other assorted outdoor gear. I still have that shoe with the metal splints I attached to keep it all together, but it was never the same.

This is a year for snowshoes if I ever saw one. There is no going into the woods without them and I dislike being confined to the plowed yard and roads. Even the powerful snowmobiles seldom leave the groomed trails – I asked a neighbor motor-head if he could break a shortcut ski-trail for me to the groomed trails of Big Aspen on his monster Polaris, or Ski Doo, or whatever it is. No, he reckoned, it wasn’t worth the risk of getting stuck out in those woods. So I broke the mile trail myself, on my snowshoes.

I’ve used bearpaw and beavertail style snowshoes but long ago became convinced longer and narrower Alaskans were the way to go. Ojibwas have a pointed toe but are otherwise about the same as Alaskans. I’ve tramped through a lot of brush on snowshoes and can’t say a pointed toe is any real advantage. They all get tangled and the best thing is to avoid the worst of the brush. When the course is more open the Alaskan, or pickerel, style allow a more natural stride but when the snow is deep like now, it’s still a leg burner. Rubber bindings are fast on and off, but for long hauls the A-type binding offers me more stability and I’m experimenting with the old wick binding described in The Snow Walkers Companion.

I like the art of traditional wood and rawhide. Now that I’ve re-laced a snowshoe of my own, I really appreciate the technique of the snowshoe craftsman. Even though I’ve broken a number of ash frames in various mishaps, I don’t see the day soon approaching when I’d buy a pair of the new metal and composite materials. They may work fine and some have a binding/crampon combo that would be awesome climbing hills, but the ash and rawhide shoes give me a feeling something akin to old double guns and felt hats. There is modern gear out there that may be as good or even better, but some of the old ways seem worth hanging on to.

It’s a real winter, here. Roofs are collapsing under snow loads and there’re plenty of 25 –35 below zero temps. The ski trails are excellent, grouse are comfortable in snow roosts, and the deer are yarded up. The woods are snow filled and beautiful and snowshoes provide the means to get out and see it. Neat.