Wednesday, January 30, 2013

It's wintertime!

If you don’t own or have access to a variety of outdoor gear you stand the risk of becoming handy around the house. I’m not talking about having a mere variety of fishing rods, however. I mean variety as in “diverse” – you know, gear for every season. On the other hand, being handy is not all bad and there’s a bit of Red Green in a lot of us, though I know people who seem to thrive on such things. I know one fellow who keeps several photos of his shingled roof pinned up in his office. I have to agree that it looks like a mighty fine job but to my untrained eye it looks very much like every other shingled roof I’ve seen. And after all, the guy performs building maintenance for a living so the fact that he did it himself isn’t all that astonishing. He’s a steady talker too, and kind of a busy-body anyway, so I take comfort in knowing that I won’t run into him out in the field ‘cause he’ll be at home wiring a new ceiling fan, or something. I guess we all belong somewhere.

Even if you are a talented do-it-yourselfer with a pending project or two, it seems something of a shame to, say, spend a weekend installing flooring while so much expensive outdoor gear sits waiting and wasting in the basement and garage. OK, so it’s the middle of winter and we’re through hunting, the boat’s long put away, the camp tarp has been waterproofed and to a casual observer it might seem as if there’s nothing much left to do. If we were meant to be outside recreating someone would have invented cold weather equipment, right? Like goose-down parkas, ice augers, insulated boots, snow pattern camouflage coveralls, snowshoes, and skis. You get the picture – I rest my case.

I knew it was warmer the instant I stepped outside. Warmer than yesterday, anyway. There was no sub-zero temperature to grab my breath and water my eyes. My porch deck didn’t creak and pop when I put my weight on it. My boots didn’t crunch in the snow on my way to the dogs. No, it wasn’t that cold – looked like a fine winter day. The dogs were glad to get out of the kennel and raced around happy and excited. Yesterday morning Jack danced gingerly in the cold, but this morning he was off and running, eager to catch Molly. Together they sprinted the familiar trails around the perimeter of their territory, ready to chase off any intruders that happened to wander in during the night. Jack and Molly met me at the loft (I keep a small loft of pigeons for dog training, supposedly, but now for my own enjoyment as much as anything) and waited impatiently as I fed and watered the birds. Then they jumped and whined in front of me as I made my way back to the house. I could nearly hear their plea “C’mon! Let’s do something!” before I went in for a cup of piping coffee and to decide what that “something” should be.

A week ago I took the dogs up for a ski on the Rice River.  Most of the river is hardly wider than a canoe is long and I’ve hunted, fished, and trapped the river often, but seldom venture on its unreliable ice in the winter. No one does. Many years ago I broke through its ice on a December morning that read minus 10 degrees when I'd left my house on foot. I went in to my waist and when I climbed out I quickly stripped and wrung out my wool pants, long johns and socks. Still, it was a cold and potentially dangerous three-mile hike over rough country home. Two winters ago I was working on an old wooden bridge on the same river but miles downstream. Working on bridges  (my day job) off the ice can be advantageous, but this time I broke through near the center pier pilings and went in to my neck. I grabbed some bracing on the piling and quickly clamored out while my partner on top of the bridge rushed to find a rope. He ran back to the railing to see only the hole in the ice where I’d been. I was on shore by then but you should have seen the look on his face!

We’ve had some real cold spells and the stretch of river looked so smooth and inviting that I couldn’t resist trying it. I figured my skis would distribute my weight and that would help. I turned Jack and Molly loose and proceeded behind them laying a set of tracks on snow that had seen nothing but deer, fox, and wolves all winter. I was still in sight of my truck when Molly took an outside bend near an old beaver house and broke through the ice.  She was out of the water before I knew it and playfully rolled in the snow to dry off – a process that I know works; though I’m not sure how. However it works, I don’t believe it would be for me. Now, I outweigh Molly by a couple hundred pounds and my agility is dramatically un-spaniel like, but I took it in stride and decided she’d found a weak spot from current near the beaver lodge. It was a beauty of a day and I kept going, warily when need be. The ice in mid-stream seemed hard and strong when I poked at it with my pole, but at the many old beaver dams we crossed I could hear water trickling under the ice. It’s like a friend said, “It’s not the good ice you have to watch out for.”

The skiing was awesome and fun. I glided easily down the river while the dogs raced and chased ahead. Ravens flew overhead, as well as an eagle. A Pileated Woodpecker went by and Molly chased it into the woods. Here and there a small dam would have to be crossed cautiously and it started to get creepy when Molly put a paw through the ice right in front of me. We were about an hour out when we came to a three-foot beaver dam that Molly went over and promptly busted through again. Thankfully she was able to get out on her own but I had had enough. Stopped, I heard running water all along the dam and decided I had pushed my luck far enough. Jack hadn’t gotten wet at all and I have to think he isn’t quite as reckless as the spaniel, picking his routes more carefully, but then I don’t think anything is as reckless as Molly.  So I gave her a call and turned around to follow Jack back to the truck, disappointed my new ski course hadn’t been all I’d hoped for. At least I was still dry.

Yesterday it was nearly 11 a.m. before the temperature climbed above zero. I spent most of the morning inside stoking the stove, sipping coffee, and listening to Charlie Parr on the stereo. I could hear Jack and Molly tumbling about on the deck in a wrestling match while Ty lay snoring next to my chair. I had a broken snowblower that needed fixing so I finally went out and tipped the machine on its nose to find the trouble. I removed the belly pan to find and replace a broken shearpin. Then I spent an hour widening the drive and pathways around the place. I was happy to drive it into the shed and turn it off and was enjoying the silence outside when I noticed an aspen tree leaning precariously over the driveway and another threatening the canoe shed. So it was another hour or so with chainsaw and splitting maul converting the troublesome trees into firewood. That was yesterday, but today there was little work on my schedule.

This morn I was on the skis, again. This time I clipped in at my door and skied the upland trails and breezy fields, high and dry, across the road. Jack and Molly loved it, of course, and I pushed through unbroken snow that sometimes piled at my ankles. It was slow going for awhile and I broke into a sweat, bit it was welcomed exercise and felt good to be moving – under my own power and silently. I was surprised at the absence of animal sign. I found one grouse snow roost and a few deer tracks and several weasel prints were all to see. There are some nice backwoods trails winding up and downhill, along an old beaver pond and in through old growth balsam woods before going into young aspen stands that were logged off a few years ago. I used to drag a track-setter behind an old snowmobile to make a more polished trail but I quit that a few years ago. If the snow gets too deep and soft for skiing I will pound a trail on snowshoes. When I want the speed and ease of groomed trails, there is a great Forest Service trail system only a couple of miles away.

Cross-country skiing is a great way to some wintertime exercise, but it’s more than that. There’s nothing much better than easing through the beauty of a silent winter landscape. Crisp clean air is good for the body, good for the head and this is the time to do it. Breaking trail on skis is an easy way to get more than enough exercise for one day and I’ll likely feel it tomorrow, but I’ll remember it much longer. Relaxing now I can already feel the tenderness in the back of my thighs. Muscles well used – it’s not a bad feeling. And while I never seem to do it enough, I can’t wait to do it again.

27 Jan. 2013

Monday, January 7, 2013

settlin' in...

I was sitting in a duck blind last October with my partner, Fledge, quietly chatting about dogs. He figures it’s time to get a new pup. We also talked about guns and boats and some of the other things guys talk about when they’re gazing at the sky waiting for shooting time and trying not to drink all their coffee too early in the day. In gathering light the decoys came into focus and when one of us said, “we’re legal,” all chat stopped. Moments later the ducks came low and fast right out front. Shotguns blaze and blast and old gray-whiskered Mac, my favorite Labrador, gets his chance to do what he loves most – retrieve ducks.

Fledge, Mac, and I shared quite a few blinds last fall. The places we hunted varied, but there was a certain unchanged routine to it all. We’d boat out and set dozens of decoys in the dark and then sit and try to get comfortable in the blind, pulling our collars up against the wind that was, hopefully, at our backs. The shooting was usually good first thing and we’d bag some ducks every time out. Long about 9 o’clock things would slow down. We’d start talking again and be surprised when a trio of woodies passed right over our heads, or a high pair of mallards that would look down at us and say, “Hey look! That guy is shooting an old A5. Haven’t seen one of those in years!” or “That fellow could use some help with that duck call.”

Sometimes the geese would come just when we thought it was over. And they came often enough to keep us in the blind for another hour or so, but sooner or later one of us would say, “well, whaddya think?” That meant we’d give it another half-hour. I don’t recall, right now, the last time we said that but we ended in cold, snow and ice.

It’s a New Year and most of the hunting is over for another season. Sure, we can still go out and chase rabbits or take predator calls for fox and coyotes. We can set traps until spring, and go ice fishing, too. Those are the things that keep us from cabin fever and going stir-crazy, but Jim Harrison once implied that we accept “the months when no suitable sport is available.”

I’m looking at my fly-tying desk as I write this. I’ve got an idea for some new bass bugs I’ll be eager to show the boys, come spring. For now I guess it’s time to settle in for winter. It’s about time to wrap it up.