Monday, December 19, 2011

A Beacon of Suck

Have you ever had the wind knocked out of you?  Have you been emotionally crushed by failing stupendously in an audition or interview?  Ever sit dumbstruck on the couch or in the stands as your team gives up the winning score with no time left on the clock?  I certainly have.  More often than I care to remember on all of the above.  If you have too, and you don't wish to relive those feelings, think seriously before becoming a hunter or fisher.

Sure, there are the halcyon days, fish and game around every corner and under every rock, the camaraderie and food and sleepy, hypnotizing camp fires.  But there are also the missed shots and lost fish.  The ones that stick with you forever, that pop into your half-awake mind, and keep you from falling asleep.  The ones that mark a geographical place indelibly in your mind, so that every time you pass it, you think, "there's the spot where I screwed the pooch on that one."

There is a short stretch of bank in Gibb's Chute, between the Mississippi River and Lake Onalaska, that haunted me for more than a decade.  I lost the biggest, baddest smallmouth I have ever seen at the end of my own line there.  I can see the red eye and tiger stripes now, glistening in the spray of his acrobatics, six pounds of pissed off riverine muscle and power.  He broke off at the boat, and before disappearing forever, leapt one more time behind me, my black Heddon Torpedo still dangling from his jaw.  The angling equivalent of flipping me the bird.  I'm secretly glad we got rid of the fishing trailer up there so I don't have to go back, and commit seppuku.

The bad ones feel like you've had the wind kicked out of you during an awful interview while watching your team fumble away a lead at the last possible minute.  Disappointment and self-loathing get together, and conceive a shame baby in your stomach.

Not all shots or lost fish.  Some shots happen so fast or were so ill-conceived to begin with, they don't have the investment to make you sick.  You learn this quickly as a grouse hunter.  Often as not, you're firing at where you think the bird might be through the spruces or balsalms, instead of actually seeing it.  Those misses are dismissed out of hand.  You're just happy when one magically tumbles to the forest floor.  Upland shotgunning is very often like that.  I'm still surprised all the time when a sharply swerving woodcock suddenly explodes in a puff of feathers, and falls through the willow thicket.

I can get excited over big bluegills and perch, but losing a few here and there doesn't really rate on the soul crushing disappointment scale.  That's probably part of the reason I don't fish for them much anymore.  There are no stakes involved, other than whether or not I have to clean the deep fryer.

  Look very, very closely at the other end.  You won't see the coyote because he kept right on running.

I was a great practitioner of missing from an early age.  A prodigy, even.  Pigeons, chipmunks, and squirrels often remained unscathed in our yard, snickering at the boy who couldn't shoot, safe on their perches thirty feet away.  Cans and baby pumpkins swiped from the garden sat unmoving and inert on the fence rail, unfazed by my attempts to murder them.  It taught me humility and the value of practice.  It also taught me not to shoot dime store pellet guns with any faith.  That thing was a pile of crap.  When I finally learned how to sight in a gun, I tried to get that one on paper.  It was given away or lost shortly after that.  No point in sighting in a gun that sprays pellets around like a drunken Mardi Gras reveler chucking beads all over the place.

As I grew older, under the guidance of Dad, I eventually became a fairly good rifle shot with my .22.  He paid me a bounty on woodchucks from the garden and Grackles from the bird feeders.  $1 for the woodchucks and $.25 for the Grackles.  On a good day, I was pulling down $2.25 after school.  Just enough for bait and a couple cold sodas for Josh and I.

I went on to win some Boy Scout and NSSF rifle shooting competitions with that little gun.  Not exactly Olympic gold, mind you, but you get the idea.  I was 14, seven feet tall and bullet proof with that rifle in my hands.  I can still look through that Lyman target peep sight, and be immediately calmed.  Like some people looking at a famous painting in a museum, I guess.  The squirrels no longer paused to mock and chatter.  Mostly, they ended up as pot pie, one of the first dishes I ever learned to cook on my own.  Or skinned and gutted on a stick over a campfire when we wanted to play Rambo.  Not delicious.   Even when Brian and I go after them to this day, the standing bet applies.  First guy to make anything but a head shot buys the beer.  I seldom have to buy.

Still, I miss.  Seemingly all the damn time.  We all do, at least those of us who get out there enough.  I can't think of anyone I've ever consistently fished or hunted with who hasn't missed a shot or pulled a bonehead move to lose a fish.  It happens.  The big fish comes unbuttoned or the deer doesn't tip over, and there is this pause.  Time freezes while your stomach balls up in a monkey knot, and then, if you're with friends, the jeering begins almost immediately.  Not that we want our buddies to fail.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  It's more a form of intimacy, for lack of a better term.  You wouldn't laugh at a stranger if he missed, or a client, but when one of the boys doinks an easy lay-up it off the rim, look out.  That's all part of the fun.

Of course, this is all leading up to the story of my miss yesterday.

I met up with my buddy Rick to do a little coyote calling, our first trip of the year together.  I like hunting with Rick because he brings great coffee.  I've successfully given up almost all coffee, but certain concessions to sanity have to be made in the shivering pre-dawn darkness.

We'd made two sets with no action by the time the sun was fully up, and were set up at our final calling station of the morning.  Rick was fifty yards downwind of me, I was manning the mouth calls.  Foregoing the howling we'd tried in our earlier spots, I set right in with the bunny distress.  After a few rounds of dying rabbit, a coyote appeared out of the blue.  I hadn't seen him come in, as so often happens, but there he was, popped out from the edge of the frozen cattails, just staring in our general direction.

We tried and tried to coax him across the little creek that separated us, but he was having none of it.  Cottontail distress, pup yelps, barking; he was a rock, firmly planted and unwavering.  I knew he wasn't going to hang out all day, so I decided to take the shot.  It was fairly long (187 yards on the range finder I won in our deer camp raffle), but certainly a make-able shot for the trendy Ruger .204.  I had a good rest, plenty of time to get comfortable and take a few cleansing breaths, no wind to speak of.  In through the nose, out through the mouth.  Don't strangle the gun.  Relax.   I held and felt my heartbeat and squeezed.

Nothing.  That gorgeous dark gray dog just turned and trotted back into the marsh.  That was it.  And there I was, a shining beacon of suck in the soft morning light.  I had no idea where or how I missed as that sinking feeling set it.

Of course, we walked down to check for hair and blood.  Nada.  Rick tore me a good-natured new one on the ride home, as is the right and duty of any hunting buddy.  I wouldn't have expected anything less, and I'm look forward to returning the favor the next time he shanks one into the rough.  

Thursday, December 15, 2011

And Darkness Fell

A sniper mission, alone in the cold and dark.  No back up, no buddy, just a hunter and his tools under the stars.

I'll shuffle out of the bunk at 3am tomorrow morning, and rub the sleep from my eyes.  Donning camouflage that has been cleansed of human scent, I'll make my way through the night to match wits with the ever-cautious and intelligent coyote, my headlamp filtered red to safeguard my night vision and position.

There's an intensity to it that you cannot find in any other type of hunting in this part of the world.  Calling a predator in, with those fangs and sinister eyes, that demeanor of a killer, will make your hair stand up a little and make sure the ticker is in good working order.

I'm no expert coyote hunter, but I sure enjoy getting out there.  I like it because it is often a cold and solitary endeavor for me.  A test.  Can I force myself to get up and out in the dark, minimize my presence, and convince a wild carnivore that I'm a delectable morsel of bunny or mouse?  I like it because I see so few others doing it.  Anytime I can feel I'm just a bit on the fringe is fine by me.  Mostly, I like being out in the dark.

Darkness changes everything.  I've deer hunted out of the same tree stand location for two seasons now.  That walk in to it in the dark is still a little adventure every time.  I don't use flagging tape or reflectors because I can simply walk along the creek, but not being able to see more than a dozen feet adds a bit of mystery.  Things go bump in the night.  Your sense of direction can go a little sideways when creeping your way slowly through dense understory.  There is a quick moment when just a tiny creeping doubt sets in.  I'm never going to get lost walking in to that stand, it's easy enough that if I ever did I could never show my face in camp again, but that quick second of indecision in the dark still happens sometimes.  It's a welcome rush.

Distances grow in the dark.  It's easy to estimate where you are and how far you've come when the sun is out and the world is alive.  At night, with few visual clues, the trail can stretch and meander in ways you didn't think possible.  Familiar stumps suddenly take on the form of bears.  The stream that is supposed to be right here isn't.  Unnoticed initially, the wind sweeps around the compass, suddenly convincing you that you're walking in the exact wrong direction.  It all takes more patience and steadiness to get through than walking in the light, which is exactly why it is often more fun and rewarding.

Wade fishing a stream at high noon can be tenuous at times.  Moving water obscures deep holes, rocks and boulders lurk unseen, waiting for that one misplaced step.  Currents slink and flow in seeming harmony, lulling you into false confidence until they are suddenly tearing at your legs.  Now do it with a blindfold on.  The topwater fishing can be downright outstanding, but again, fortitude plays a role in dealing with falls and tangles in the dark.  One thing remains the same, however.  When the fall does come, and it will, get that rod up in the air.  A broken tailbone heals, absurdly spendy mangled graphite does not.  I know.  While sitting on an inflatable doughnut for a few weeks can be demeaning, replacing a fly rod is worse. 

The exact same stretch of water, a beckoning beauty in the daylight, becomes a dangerous, if intoxicating, mistress when the sun goes down.



Night has been driven from our lives for the most part.  A lot of us sometimes forget that at home or in town.  The sun goes down, street lights come on, and we carry on our merry way.  Traffic and signage, nightlights and the warm glow of the TV, all lead us down a path to thinking that night is simply a continuation of day.  Not too long ago people didn't live like that.  Daylight broke, we labored away to scratch out an existence on the land, the sun went down, and we retired to our sod house or teepee or log cabin to sleep the sleep of the dead. 

When I find myself out in the wilds at night I make it a point to enjoy the things I can't see or hear in my illuminated nighttime life most of the time.  A novice camper or night fisher is often taken aback, mouth hanging agog, at the number of stars that are up there once you get out from under the quilt of mercury vapor lamps.  Add the chorus of crickets often hidden by traffic noise or the ephemeral drapery of the northern lights, and the city dweller will often become suddenly still.  Mesmerized and quiet for the first time in too long.  Spellbound.  I'm a little jealous of that, and try to remember to force myself to take in the beauty, even when I've seen it before or I'm on a mission.

I will be on a mission tomorrow morning.  I will creep through the darkness.  I will melt into the landscape, and let hunter become prey.  And I will take in the subdued beauty of it all.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Day the Bacon Died

We should all endeavor to shun the Interstate highways a little more often.

I know, you have to get where you're going, always late, always go go go, but doing so numbs us to all that we're missing out in the country.  We sometimes complain about living in "Fly-over Land" here in the mid-west, how the coasts ignore us, how far Washington is removed from the problems on the ground.  Then we put on the blinders, set the cruise, and bee-line it to our destination, and we're doing the same thing to our own state.

Dad preferred back-roading, and therefore, so do I.  It's all about what you grew up with.  Of course there are times when hitting the blue highways is not the answer.  When I'm heading up to camp it's four lanes and 75 on the speedometer as far as they will take me.  Or sometimes you're at the end of one of those interminable road trips, all ragged and jumpy on sleep deprivation and caffeine.  That's a time set the cruise, and follow the herd back to the shack.  But other times you just have to leave the herd aside.

Highway 35, as it traces it's way alongside the Mississippi River from Prescott to Prairie du Chien is one of my favorite drives in Wisconsin.  All the waterfowl and river panoramas not withstanding, I never would've found those fresh cheese curds, still warm and super squeaky, if it weren't for that drive.  It takes more than an hour longer than I-94 coming back to Madison from the Twin Cities, but it's completely worth it.  And I can stop in Pepin, and shoot the breeze with Adam, which is always nice.

I seldom drive back from camp or Brian's house, my two main hunting and fishing destinations, by the same route.  The Gazateer is my loyal companion.  You are somewhat limited by the number of roads, but there's always that wonderfully enticing moment at a stop sign in the sticks...

Ah, what the hell, let's see what's over this way...

It used to drive Erin insane, never being able to figure out exactly where we were or how far we were from home.  The truth is, sometimes I didn't know either, and that's part of the fun.  Heading, say, southeast-ish until you stumble upon a road or village you recognize is good fun.  At least for me.

There are rustic roads, beautiful vistas, and cool historical markers that I always try to stop and read; but the real appeal for me is the unknown.  What could be around the next bend -- just like floating a river.

It does feel like you're going to see more wildlife most of the time because you are going slower, but I'm not sure about that one.  You do have to pay more attention to curves and slow-moving tractors suddenly blipping up out of nowhere, so you might actually be looking in the fields less.  It is easier to zone out on a massive ribbon of concrete and re-bar, coasting along with the flow and peeping for turkeys and deer.  More research is obviously required.

The crown jewels of these jaunts off the main drag are the little food producers you stumble upon.  If you're tailgating me when I lay new eyes on an apple orchard or indie cheesemaker (and you will be because I drive as fast as a Revolutionary War vet with bad cataracts), you best be paying attention.  I'm gonna clamp on the binders late, and fishtail into that gravel driveway.

Which is precisely how we found the greatest bacon I've ever had.  Brian discovered a tiny general store out past the middle of creation on one of his trips off the four-lane.  Nothing more than a small converted gas station, it was a gold mine.  It was a bit "Country Austere" for the city crowd, if that's a thing, and that was fine with us.  The meat counter was fully stocked, there was a crock full of stunningly huge and delicious pickles, and the owners were behind the counter, always ready to answer questions, slice up a hunk of cow or pig, or simply chat.  It was so small and poorly advertised that I went there for years before I learned the name -- Johnstown Food Center.

And the bacon.  Smokey, perfectly salted,... I'm gonna say it... sultry slabs of gorgeous bacon.  The single most delicious slices of swine to ever pass the lips of this humble scribe.  They cured and smoked it on-site, sliced it to your specifications, and wrapped it for you on the spot.  I don't know the owners, so I can't say for certain, but I'm pretty sure the stooped gentleman with the shock of white hair toiling over the stainless machines in back was running the show, and that at some point in his long life, he'd stumbled upon Aladdin's Lamp, and asked for the world's perfect bacon recipe.  It was, to employ an overused term of the day to it's full meaning, epic.  Flat-out porcine perfection.

We're all familiar with the current and surprisingly long-lived bacon fad.  And I'm all for some loving on salty sweet smoked pork belly.  Bacon can be downright sexy, no doubt about it.  But, as often happens in a craze, there is an awful lot of racing to the bottom out there -- lots of truly loathsome, heinous bacon.  Chemically injected, liquid smoked crap.  The cheap shit in every grocery store and quickie-mart.  That's not what we're talking about here.  It's not even in the same league.  We're talking about bacon that made you pause, bacon that left you wondering where it had been your entire life.

Johnstown Food Center is closed now, lost to the economy and aging proprietorship I'm assuming, so we were forced to go to another bacon purveyor for deer camp (if you're still buying grocery store bacon or not making your own, why are you even still reading this?).

Maplewood Meats is another fine meat shop a little off the beaten path.  We've had our venison processed there for years, and everything we've ever ordered has been excellent.  The German summer sausage and brats are particularly outstanding, and the bacon is very, very good.  2011 National Grand Champion Bacon, as a matter of fact, but all the boys in camp agree, it can't quite beat the "Gas Station Bacon," as it's known in camp, that we lost from Johnstown Food Center.  I still don't know what Don McLean was talking about when the marching band refused to yield, but I know the day the bacon died.

You wanna get nuts?  Let's get nuts.  Bacon and Egg Toast Cups.

Farm fresh eggs obviously go hand in hand with quality bacon.  If you're gonna drive out of the way, and pull a few extra bucks when you go to the hip for dazzling bacon, why would you sully the entire operation with pasty, bland eggs from the grocery store?  Don't be a chump.

Spotting a "Fresh Eggs" sign on the side of the road raises almost as much excitement in me as spotting an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker would in a southern birder.  For some reason the radio or Ipod goes off immediately because I'm apparently unable to make a simple turn into a driveway with music playing.  That is followed by the slightly uncomfortable walk up the the farmer's door.  They put the sign out, they want to sell the eggs, but it still feels a little like trespassing somehow.

The eggs themselves can vary quite a bit.  Obviously there's the shell colors, looking like they were died subdued browns, blues, and greens for some kind of camouflage Easter.  Shell thickness can also be an adventure too.  Sometimes they break when you startle them with a sudden glance, more often you need a tack hammer to make a dent in them, at least compared the the dainty white shells found at the store.

Taste varies as well, depending on how and what the chickens have been eating.  This is not a concern with store bought eggs because, obviously, there is no taste.  Luckily, I have a buddy who raises chickens, they produce for him consistently, and the eggs are delicious.  Deeply lustrous yolks that float on fluffy whites in the frying pan.  I love them soft cooked with that enchantingly gooey burnt orange yolk just barely oozing.  God Bless America, and pass the AED.

I believe at last count there were roughly 32 gajillion small creameries and cheese makers in rural Wisconsin.  In some parts of the state, you can barely crest a knoll without seeing a sign for fresh curds.  We can cover the love of independent cheese wizardry in another post.  A guy could drive for days living on the craft of these artisans alone.  And fresh strawberries taken back to a parent's home to be converted into glorious jams and pies I happily trade chores for.  The caramel goodness of apple cider, freshly squeezed in an antique press from apples you just picked.

The opportunities for roadside ambrosia are nearly limitless, but almost none of them can be found following nose-to-tail like a drone down the Interstate highway.

Update 11/7/2013:  The lords of bacony goodness have chosen to shine upon us once again!  Johnstown Food Center is back in business, and my buddy Frisbee says the bacon is just as spectacular as it had been when they shut their doors.

I find myself preposterously giddy at the chance to taste again bacon that I've been unable to replicate or find an equal to for years.  Even if nobody even sees a deer in camp, this will be a season to remember for the momentous return of Gas Station Bacon!

Yes, that was two exclamation points in two paragraphs, Mark Twain be damned!  It's that good!


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Maturing in the Rain

We all go through stages as hunters and fishers.  When we begin, there is nothing we will not endure in pursuit of our quarry.  Drowsy, interminable overnight drives and are fought through with caffeine and terrible singing.  Fierce blizzards glance off our backs like that of a duck in the rain.  Lumpy sleeper sofas mean little to young backs and necks.  Horrific food does nothing to dampen our zeal.  Raging, noggin-splitting hangovers are braved with grim silence and subtle regret.  Tents destroyed in gale force winds, boot-robbing muck, mosquitoes and ticks and chiggers, burns and blisters...

As a younger man, I've experienced all that in one weekend.  Or seemingly so.  Now we often go get a room of questionable cleanliness and adherence to building codes, and sleep in relative comfort.  A lot of motel shortcomings disdained by more discerning travelers are easily overlooked in the presence of wet socks and a flask of good bourbon. 

The unquenchable urge to land the fish or harvest the buck will be deterred by almost nothing to 20 year old males with a full tank of gas, a tent, and some good tunes.  The only need that could overpower it for me was a biological imperative -- that of the warm embrace of a 20 year old female.

A decade and a half later, some things have begun to change.  For one thing, I'm no longer a young buck, constantly in the rut.  I can go for almost an entire weekend before the urge to buy a drink for a knot hole in a pine tree takes hold.  A little walking around money also helps.  No longer am I left with no other option than to slither into a soggy sleeping bag, only to emerge a few hours later and spend the night huddled over a puny, hissing little campfire.  Quality, modern gear comes in here.  I started with the old-school leather and canvas hand-me-downs from my dad's days of gallivanting about the countryside -- stuff that would inevitably gain a ton weight in the rain, fail to work in the snow, and basically needed to be taken out back, and shot.  Thank God and Robert W. Gore for the relative ease and comfort of current gear.

I still love hunting and fishing (barring lighting) in the nasty stuff.  As a public land hunter in a populated area, the worst days concerning weather are often the best days to get out there alone.  When it's blowing in sideways the chances of meeting another dedicated moron out there are greatly reduced.

There's also a great sense of adventure to it.  I would be hard pressed to ever encounter true wilderness adventure where I live.  Sure, I've been turned around on occasion, walked a mile out of my way, wondered how my compass was wrong and where the hell the truck was; but there are almost always roads and railroad tracks around here that alert the wayward traveler to his missteps before anything gets really hairy.  A snappy jab of Mother Nature to the nose can instantly amp up what I've come to call the Jack London factor.

I absolutely loved Jack London as a kid.  His stories of man vs. nature in Alaska held me rapt for hours.  To Build a Fire is still my singular favorite short story.  It's sitting in a compendium on my bedside table right now.  So when the mercury plummets, or the rain pelts, or the blowing snow claws at my face, it's easy to imagine myself as one of London's heroes, fighting for survival in the wilds, clinging to life on the ragged edge... even though the truck is a half hour snowshoe through the woods and I have a cell phone in my pocket with full reception.

Most of us out here also enjoy being judged a little tough by the general public, I believe.  Donning layers of fleece and wool can be like putting on your armor.  Strapping up to go pheasant hunting while the coiffed and blow-dried little weatherman harps and whines about the harrowing dangers of a quick trip to the store can feel downright manly.  Being judged a little looney never hurt anybody either.  Not gun-toting militia survivalist looney.  More like, It's -20 and you're gonna go sit on the ice and stare down a hole? looney.  Hell yes I am, and I know anybody I encounter out there will be of like mind and spirit.  Or going through a divorce.  Either one will be happy to see me.

All of that being said, there is a beautiful thing that can happen when you mature a little bit, and decide to stay in camp on a dark and crappy day.  Now that I'm not all Run & Gun all the time, I've been able to experience a few times myself.

We have an annual boys party in winter up at camp called Drink Beer Burn Wood.  It was formerly called the winter wood splitting party in an attempt to justify to wives and girlfriends that attendance was mandatory.  Wood was split in those days, but we now have more than enough and our little ruse is up.  Attendance is till mandatory, but we call it what it is.

Saturday of DBBW 2011, last February, I found myself getting nearly skunked through the ice.  While the older guys remained in one of the camps, I'd headed out into the bitter cold and blowing snow to try for some pike and perch.  A few perch made their way to the topside of the ice, but it was by no means a banner day.  As I was hunkering down for what promised to be nothing short of a mediocre afternoon in the cold, I spotted Rodger, snowshoeing across the lake with something in his hands.  It turned out he'd brought me a strong beverage with which I could brace my spirit against the wind.

In years past, I would have remained out there till the bitter end of the day, hoping against hope that the fish would turn on.  But alas, fair reader, I grow older and wiser.  We quickly retired to his cabin where a fire was built and more bracing drinks were poured.  We sat and talked, simple as that.  One of those long rambling conversations between men with a history, covering everything and nothing, full of pregnant pauses; and frankly, comfortable as hell.  We soon returned to the other cabin with the rest of the party in full swing, but I never would have had that time with Rodg had I remained out there banging my head against the ice.

Not a week ago Saturday, nearing the end of gun deer season, wind blew and rain fell and the woods were a sloppy, wet mess.  Frisbee, Cleeb, and I were on a mission to get out stands out of the woods before heading back to civilization and reality the following morning.  It was wet and cold work, and I was soaked through and through, as if I'd taken a shower with my clothes on.  But we made the best of it, joking and knocking tree branches to shower each other with cold spray.

We got back to the camp in time to shower up, join the Rog and Ted in front of the fire, college football on the radio.  Again, it was seemingly nothing special.  In a small camp darkened by the overcast skies, sitting in front of the fire, we chatted and ribbed each other, sipped our drinks, and listened to the Badgers defeat Penn State.  It was just about as perfect as it could have been.  Had I chosen to extend my work-abbreviated deer season by hunting that day, I would have missed what turned out to be one of my favorite parts.

Call it getting old and soft or call it getting wiser.  Sometimes you have a better time staying inside with the guys.  Toss a few cards, tell a few jokes, make a fine dinner.  It takes a few years to realize, but those can be the best days of all.

We may be getting older, but I still have plenty of monsoon days in me.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Good God Almighty Rapids

I climbed into my ladder stand in the pre-dawn dark of opening day.  There are plenty of opening days in my year, but the opening day of deer season is the only one that doesn't need to be qualified when speaking with friends.  The first day of trout fishing is called the trout opener, the first day of pheasant hunting is called a fustercluck, with every bird hunter in the region pounding the fields, and the first day of woodcock hunting just happens unbidden, in all it's blistery, sweaty glory without being named.  Opening day of deer season, in turn, earns the succinct title of "Opening Day" with all the glory and anticipation that implies.

I sat spellbound with my back to the river bank feet away, night slowly giving in to dawn, looking across an opening in the dense pine forest.  Multi-stemmed oak trees inhabit this riparian glade, as does my sneezy friend Goldenrod.  Ferns abound in spring and summer.  A small creek, not much more than a rivulet, its name unknown to me, makes a burbling entrance from the dark mystery of the pines extending up the bluff, and meanders it's way through the clearing to the river.  It twists and wanders over riffles and under secretive cut banks, as if trying to delay its fate, attempting to remain its own until gravity inevitably brings it to the river, and the end of itself.

While I saw not a single deer Opening Day, presiding like some humble and powerless guest conductor over the meadow, I was thankful to be in the presence of so much other activity.  With ready eyes and ears straining to pick up the tell-tale snap of that statuesque buck slipping through the forest cover, I had a full menu of woodland fare to feast my senses on.

In my heightened state of awareness, sometime later in the morning, I was severely startled by a series of snappy, wet-sounding barks and whines directly behind me.  Quick little snorts and bubbly wheezes right on top of me.  A crazed ferret in a full bathtub, panting while dragging his nails across a chalkboard, it sounded like something was being murdered in the river.  Honestly, it was making me a little uneasy.  I didn't want to look and blow my cover, but as I would soon find out, it was too late too to worry about that.

Four otters eventually appeared in my peripheral vision.  They'd busted me sitting in their tree on their river bank, and they were pretty pissed off about it.  They took turns, in pairs and threes, popping their bewhiskered faces out of the icy water to scold me.  I couldn't get a count at first, as they would randomly appear and disappear, rolling and splashing, making their disapproval well known to anyone within a quarter mile.  And they were committed.  They were going rip me up one side and down the other until they were content in knowing I was fully aware of my transgression.  Or maybe they just confused, having never seen a giant pumpkin sitting in a tree holding a rifle before.

In any case, their four-headed harangue was cut violently short when a bald eagle came rocketing down, out of seemingly nowhere, to make a breakfast burrito out of one of them.  This must have been one hungry eagle, as he payed me no mind at all, sitting not twenty yards away.  I'm sure the otters were more frightened than I was, but it was my second major adrenaline spike in as many minutes.  We see plenty of bald eagles in winter in this part of the country, especially around open water, but I'd never been this close to one in action.  My mind's eye very nearly could not compute the massive size and wingspan of the raptor.  The brilliant white of the head and tail, the flashing gold of talons, it all almost too much to take in as he climbed away, all four otters safe in the depths for the moment.  The gregarious otter brothers returned to check on me throughout the weekend, but they were always slightly more quiet about it after the Eagle Incident.

Back on dry land I enjoyed the slinky undulating gait of a weasel, running this way and that, doing I have no idea what.  He snaked and slipped, a mercurial white specter, all around the clearing for quite a while, no apparent destination in mind.  I'm no ermine expert.  I have no idea if he was hunting, lost, or walking off a bender with the boys the night before.

On the tiny creek his cousin the mink later appeared.  Rusty brown with the cutest little round face, he bounded up and down the banks, dove in and out of the water, stopped on a dime to sniff and look around.  While I suspect he was hunting for trout, my personification of him likes to think he was simply having a rip roaring good time.

And who couldn't on that little stream?  I don't know it well, but I grew up stomping in and out of it's brothers and sisters in the southern part of the state.  While completely different in it's specific environment, in that section it shares all the same qualities and character of the little rills of my childhood.  I was immediately drawn to it.  Like meeting a long lost relative with your family features plainly displayed in his visage and mannerisms.

I grew up in a place with water running out of the ground all over the place.  Springs, seeps, artesian wells -- there are braids of tinkling water around every corner.  Ponds and kettle lakes dot the countryside.  It's a place steeped in native American history as well.  The earliest known inhabitants were mound builders, later displaced by the Potawatomi.  With a nod to the statute of limitations on trespassing, I can say now that we spent a ton of time in winter on Potawatomi Creek as it passes through Big Foot Country Club (so named for the Potawatomi Chief, Big Foot).  I don't know much about golf, nor do I care to, but I do know that that private course, home to many springs and The Seven Sacred Pools of the Potawatomi, is also home to many of my dearest memories.

I came to know the heft and swing of a canoe paddle a full decade before I ever hoisted a fishing rod or gun.  While I now hunt a fish more than I spend time propelling myself across water, that was not always the case.  We canoed, kayaked, and rafted rivers and lakes from central Wisconsin to Tennessee, following Dad and Brian, and their love of both flat water and white water.  I've dumped more canoes in the Kickapoo river alone than most people have ever been in, something I'm oddly proud of now that I'm much better at staying in them.

The little creeks of Fontana are not big enough to support a canoe or kayak, but that did not stop us.  Among our countless winter outings on the golf course, from skiing to building forts, sledding to just wandering around, my favorite, the family favorite, was always floating boats.

Not big boats, mind you.  Not even little boats.  Miniscule boats.  The earliest "boats" were simply chunks of scrap wood pilfered from grandpa's shop. Or wine corks.  My brother Josh and I would spray paint them our favorite colors, and set out for the golf course with a pocket full of them, alone or with parents in tow.  Often, Brian would accompany us as well.  Our little boats evolved somewhat, but never really amounted to much more than anything that could be carried in our pockets, and happily lost to the whims of the stream.

The rules were simple.  Drop your boats in the creek at the designated starting line, and the first one to cross the finish, be it yards or a miles away, was the winner.  No getting in the stream, and no advancing your boat with your handy, specially chosen poking stick.  Only gentle nudges were allowed to free your boat from a micro-eddy or tangle of overhanging brush.  Of course rules were bent and flat-out obliterated in the heat of the moment, brothers competing with each other and the Old Man to win a close-fought heat.

I dreamed of my brightly painted wine cork, tossed and heaving in those currents.  I imagined it being beaten and dragged when I was supposed to be listening to a teacher rambling on about multiplying fractions or some other useless prattle.  Crewed by the heartiest of Lilliputians, it was the bravest little vessel ever to make the journey from one end of the golf course to the other.  Those daring, diminutive sailors, Vikings of my child's mind, were the only ones brave enough dare passage through the Good God Almighty Rapids.

The Good God Almighty Rapids, so dubbed after many mini sailing ships were lost to their tumultuous depths, were formed where a smaller feeder creek dumped into the main channel through a culvert under a cart path.  Our boats would be dropped in at the upstream end of the culvert, only to have Josh and I race to the other end, giddy with excitement at the prospect of our boats rocketing out into the tailwater.

We would tease and taunt, run and fall, fighting our ways through the streamside brush to help our little boats along the length of the creek.  Entire family days in winter were spent urging our micro-craft down the treacherous gauntlet of that creek.  A lot of them.  We'd leave the house to go sledding, but that never lasted long.  Everyone knew we were going boat floating.

My brother Josh was developmentally disabled.  With his beautifully simple mind he could make me laugh harder than anyone I've ever met.  He could also make me see red faster than anyone alive today.  I've never seen him happier than tearing up and down that little stream, poking stick in hand, splashing in and out of the water, exhorting his little boat to victory.

He's gone now, and so is Dad. As I sat in my tree stand this weekend, and whenever I see a little creek like that I look back fondly, sometimes with a tears on my cheeks, and remember our times braving the Good God Almighty Rapids.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Camp Road

Note:  Some of you have seen this before.  Those of you close to me may recognize the date, and my reasons for recycling it, slightly edited, today.

He turns the wheel, and the truck noses tentatively onto the camp road.  Its tires won’t feel the monotonous, numbing vibration of pavement at highway speed for days.  He’s made this drive many times before.  It is an exercise in familiarity.

Through the decades-old red pines the sun sets, bruising the darkening sky deep shades of indigo and orange, a sight he rarely regards in the city.  He slows to take it in, reminding himself that looking is not the same as seeing.  Though he cannot abide the primitive structure and repetitive nature of old country tunes in his real life down below, up here he allows the simplicity of the music to wash out through the speakers and envelop him.  As happens so often, the proper soundtrack is necessary to get deep into the groove of this place at this moment. 

There are no majestic outdoor magazine cover shots to greet him on the road. No massive buck in the prime of his rutting glory, no black bear sow sending her cubs up one of the pines.  Still, he knows they are not far.  He shot his first buck not four hundred yards from here.  He was so excited that he almost didn’t believe when it fell, it’s antlers growing grotesquely in his mind as he raced back to the camp to bask in the glory that would be bestowed upon him by the men that he loved.  So he takes comfort in the fact that they are in fact there, somewhere.  He smiles as he realizes, once again, that seeing is not the same as looking either.

The lake now appears on his right, a simple kettle filled with cold, clean water.  He thinks that he should try to fish it sometime, but knows he might never get to it.  Some half remembered tale about perch the size of your forearm seeps like smoke under the door from the back of his mind, but he can’t remember if the story was even about this lake.  They all run together after a while.  A circular pattern suddenly describes itself on that door in his mind, branding itself there like an Ouroboros -- the snake eating it's own tail.   Tie some classic wet flies from the partridge he shot here last weekend, roll out some long, elegant casts to the sunfish cloistered in that enticing bed of lily pads, fry those fish and enjoy over some beers with the boys, then have one of those boys guide him to another shimmering Popple thicket full of grouse to harvest more feathers.  Repeat.  A perfect circle.  The thought dissolves as the final beam of setting sun breaks him from his reverie.  His casts are only long and elegant in his dreams.

He glances over to the passenger seat, and she is there.  Shining like she used to before the surgeries and pain so smugly robbed her of that infectious, gleaming smile.  He’s known the memory of her was coming since he pulled onto the highway over four hours ago.  It is part of the reason he makes this long drive.  He tries to remember the music of her laugh one more time, but he still can’t.  He wonders why, but is not sad.

He is nearly to the camp now.  He is no longer thinking, merely remembering.  His mind is awash in short vignettes from years past on this road– digging out of a snow bank with an ice fishing skimmer… ambling alongside his hunting buddy’s long strides with no particular destination in mind… rattling the frame of his old truck off every rock and rut with another tale of the perfect hookset or most imperfect shot… stopping to collect himself so they wouldn’t see his suffering…suddenly noticing that he no longer suffers every time down this road.  Yes, a fine road indeed.

He draws to a slow halt in the yard, the warm inviting glow of the kitchen spilling into the night, illuminating cords of split and stacked oak.  The sweet, acrid smell of wood smoke permeates the cab of the truck.  He sits quietly.   When he does open the door, he is brusquely greeted by a cold, hard late autumn wind.  He is immediately reminded of a story his father enjoyed telling.  His father had once witnessed a shirtless Oregon man, standing defiantly in the chill spray of breaking winter surf.  His father had asked the man why he was enduring the torturous cold while the icy spindrift had cut at his own face.  The man replied, with a devilish gleam in his eye, “Because it is real.”

This is real, he thinks.  This is what I was built for.  He gathers his travel gear from the rear of the truck, and feels his familiar way through the darkness to the door.  He opens the door, is greeted by the sound of a familiar story being told around the single homemade table, and is grateful for the camp road that got him here.

For Erin.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

JuJu, Rhinoceros, Apophenia

"Good Luck.  Be Safe!"

I've had those two short sentences said or written to me maybe a dozen times this week.  Deer camp is coming, and those are the prevailing sentiments.  Good luck getting a deer, but more than that, please come back home with all your parts attached and in working order.

Relative safety is achieved without too much trouble.  I hunt in an area without a lot of other hunters, I'm using a better safety harness in my tree stand this year, and I trust the men I hunt with implicitly.  Most of the fatalities associated with hunting occur when hunters fall out of their tree stands, or suffer some sort of heart problem anyway.  Either when Bullwinkle walks out in front of them or when they are attempting to drag a  deer out of the woods.  Shooting accidents do happen, but they are much less common than a chunk of bacon getting snagged up in a ventricle.  I have been much more frightened for my personal safety driving down the interstate than I ever have doing any type of hunting.

Luck is an entirely different matter.  We don't even know what it really is or if it exists.  In our struggle to define it, we assign random values, willy-nilly, to random occurrences until such time as we can link a certain outcome with a certain occurrence.  It's all very slipshod, but that doesn't prevent us from spending massive amounts of mental energy on it.  I'm sure it varies from person to person, but I think most of us have our own little rituals or talismans that we secretly believe help achieve a given goal.

I have a little pewter rhinoceros on my key chain.  It must be moved to the zipper of my hunting coat at the start of the gun deer season or I will surely go the entire year without so much as catching a glimpse of a deer.  I shot my first buck two days after I'd clipped that little guy to my coat, and now I have greatly diminished confidence if I do happen to forget him on my key ring back in camp.  God forbid I ever lose him.  I'd have to quit deer hunting.

There is a shirt that I prefer to wear under my vest while wading in summer.  I'm not going to go as far as calling it a must-have lucky shirt, but I certainly prefer to wear it.  If fits me well, wicks away moisture, and matches the trim on my favorite Fishpond vest, if nothing else.  It's important to look good on the stream -- never know when you might run into a mermaid.  If it doesn't bring actual luck, it definitely brings ease and comfort, two qualities in high demand when my notoriously sketchy fly casting starts to go sideways on me once again.

Just like mise en place in the kitchen, I think our little superstitious ticks help bring order to a world that can quickly ramp up to a Category 5 shitstorm if we enter into it ill prepared or disorganized.  Having everything in its place, including little trinkets, not only boosts confidence, but helps us to be more productive and level headed when it's time to rock-n-roll.

Apophenia is defined as perceiving connections in unrelated phenomena.  Or seeing meaningful patterns where none exist   This is where hunters and fishermen truly shine.  We see connections everywhere that may or may not be related.  Ask any fisherman why the fish are biting better (or not as well) today, and you'll get almost as many opinions as there are fish in the sea.  Everything from barometric pressure to sun spots, water temperature to wind direction, moon phase to static electricity -- all have them, and many more, have been thrust to the forefront as the cause of victory or defeat on any day in question.  I have literally stood slack-jawed in front of some of this armchair science, while at the same time, having absolutely no way to refute it.

Of course there are professionals, guides and commercial fishermen, tournament anglers and avid locals, who seem to have an uncanny ability to read their home water.  They've been fishing the same water for years, and have gained a sixth sense for how the lake "feels" today.  I realize this happens all the time.  The accumulation of vast amounts of data stored in an experts mind can result in pronouncements and catches that seem to border on the mystical.  But that's all it is, trial and error refined by experience.  The "10,000 Hour Rule" espoused by Malcolm Gladwell fits well here -- true expertise in any field comes from performing any task for roughly 10,000 hours.  I'm gonna need some aspirin and my tennis elbow arm band thingy after that much casting. 

It was once a common belief that Northern Pike lost their teeth in winter because they became more difficult to catch, and therefore, must have stopped eating until spring when their slightly frightening chompers would reappear for another summer of terrorizing perch.  We now know this to be patently false, but it was asserted as truth for decades.

Hunters are the same way.  We stand around tailgates and campfires trying make sense of what we have seen.  Deer trails go cold, birds seemingly disappear, coyotes stop responding, and we are forced, by our nature, to attempt to make sense of it all.  They stopped feeding, or it got too cold, or too hot.  Whatever.  We grasp at any shred of evidence, and stomp it to gelatinous goo until it oozes down into the cracks of our reasoning like mortar.  Not that it's an entirely bad practice.  Often, we do stumble on a bit of key information by simply hashing stuff out with each other.  Brainstorming over pickled eggs and beer can produce results other than the gaseous emission kind. 

To any of you fellow deer hunters who may stumble upon this before heading out into the fields and woods this weekend I say, good luck and be safe!  And don't forget your lucky socks.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Camp Food

Deer camp is looming.  Of course, to my mind, that means thinking about the food.

There are a gajillion things to get in order during the next week.  I have to take care of everything from stopping my mail to getting an oil change.  I have to pay some bills and remember to set the thermostat down as a far as I dare.  Guns and blaze orange, boots and hats, it all has to make it in the truck.

And the cooler, of course.  There is no shortage of food at camp.  In years past I've brought everything from smoked grouse breasts to canned fish.

Northern Wisconsin being Scandinavian country, there is always a preponderance of pickled goods around the table at camp.  I've pickled pike myself.  Frisbee and I experimented for a few seasons, and finally settled on a pickled egg recipe fit for royalty.  If royalty like pickled eggs, I guess.  They are a bit of an acquired taste, but are also damn near the perfect food with a cold beer.  Frisbee has taken over the job of pickling the eggs in recent years, and continues to do a bang-up job.

There will be pickled herring, pickled wild onions, and a vast array of pickled vegetables to accompany the bloody mary fest on Tuesday morning of deer season.  As everyone knows, the guns get put away on that morning, as we rejoice in the world famous tradition of Bloody Mary Tuesday.  Alright, maybe it isn't world famous quite yet, but it is the day I look forward to the most of all.

If you've been reading this blog at all, you know I love to hunt and fish.  Deer season is no different.  It's a chance to escape into the woods, and be quiet for a while.  But after three days, most of us are ready for a respite from shivering in a tree or on the ground.  And the people come from miles around on Bloody Mary Tuesday, quite literally.

Yard full of trucks means it's Bloody Mary Tuesday

If memory serves, we had 22 guys mashed into a tiny camp last year on BMT.  I adore it.  We eat, and drink, and tell the stories all day.  There is something almost magical about sitting around that table on that day.  Not to oversell it, it is merely a bunch of dudes of varying levels of sobriety, talking trash and telling jokes, but I can never get enough of it.  There's a chance that I might miss it this year because of this pesky career thing ruining my life, and it's killing me already, but as Dad used to say, "You wanna eat, you gotta work."

I learned to love head cheese around the table on BMT.  A peasant food since the middle ages, head cheese is not actually cheese.  It's a terrine made from the head of a calf or pig.  In lay terms, you take a head, remove the brain and eyes, boil the rest down, and pack it into loaf form.  The natural gelatin rendered from the head congeals when cooled, surrounding the delicious meaty bits, and forming a solid mass.  Then you slice it up and fall to, bloody mary in your other hand.  It takes a bit of courage the first time, but once that sweet seasoned meat jelly melts in your mouth, you're sold for life.  Meat lover's pizza is a misnomer.  real meat lovers know that head cheese is where it's at.

We're short of woodcock breasts this year, or there would be woodcock pate' again.  Woodcock has that livery taste that lends itself extremely well to the making of this outstanding cracker topper.  And it's a snap to make.  Fry up some timberdoodle breasts with shallots and garlic, and toss them in the processor.  Bash that up with some capers and a few other key ingredients not to be divulges on the open interwebs, and there you are, smiling again.

Pasties are a favorite of the northwoods, of course.  This pastry case filled with meat and root vegetables made it's way to this country from Cornwall, England with the Cornish miners who immigrated here with their mining skills and their recipes.  They worked both in the copper mines of the U.P. and the lead mines around Mineral Point, WI, so the pasty is popular throughout the state.  While the pasty has Protected Geographical Indication in Europe, meaning that the recipe and even the shape of the pasty are protected, they can vary more here in Wisconsin.  It's the perfect camp food as it's easy to warm up, and very satisfying after a long day in the cold.  It's a pouch of meat and potatoes, after all.  Very nearly impossible to mess up.

In our deer camp the meals are delineated by tradition.  I already know what I'll be having for dinner all of next weekend.  It adds to the anticipation factor when you know whats coming.  I haven't had that lasagna or that stew since last year, and I'm looking forward to how the leftovers of each will taste.

Of course deer, camp isn't the only camp of the year.  There are fishing camps and bird hunting camps as well.  While some of these do take place in remote cabins, they've also taken place in campgrounds, decrepit seedy motels, and illegal campsites on public land.  Those signs that say "No Camping" are merely a suggestion most of the time, as long as you don't get caught.  The tastes and foods of these camps vary as much as the hunters and fisherman who populate them, but I've come to discover there is often a discernible pattern.  That being, the stronger the taste or smell, the more popular it is.  Think about an annoyed wife or girlfriend, face scrunched up in utter disgust, stating emphatically, "You are never eating that again in this house!"  You're on the right track.

Kipper snacks stink up the joint nicely, but taste like heaven.  People will fawn and tumble over smoked salmon.  Others sing the praises of smoked Cheddar and Gouda.  Finding a guy who won't devour an entire chicken form my smoker can be a challenge.  Yet, suddenly and without explanation, these same, seemingly sane people, will consistently turn their noses up at smoked herring packed in oil.  They might even be repelled on horror.  I don't get it.  Kippers are another perfect food for the field.  They pack well in the vest when you're on the move.  All smoke and salt and oil, there is hardly a better snack on the tailgate with a beer after a long day of walking.

Stinky cheeses are another favorite.  In this part of Wisconsin, that means Limburger. There's no getting around it, a three month old Linburger smells like farts and feet.  The bacterium used to ferment Limburger is the one of the same bugs that compels us to shower regularly and wear deodorant.  But it is so creamy and delicious.  At our old fishing trailer on the Mississippi River, Limburger was a staple.  Spread on a chunk of pumpernickel, and downed with a slice of sharp radish, we could barely keep it in stock.  You didn't want to be within three counties of that trailer the following morning, but that is just part of the fun for most of us adult boys.

I'll admit, there is one camp food I cannot do.  My nemesis is the antiquated and venerable Blind Robin.  I don't know the origin of the recipe or the colorful name, but I do know that salt in those quantities is unnatural no matter how much cold beer you have on hand.  Extremely heavily salted herring fillets, Blind Robins have fallen out of favor in recent years, and for good reasons, I say.  Good riddance, with apologies to my friends Brian and Dick.

I'm on my way up to camp today to get ready for the upcoming deer season.  I'm looking forward to seeing the fellas, I can't wait to check my deer stand and possibly hunt up a few grouse, and I can't wait for all the yummy smoked, pickled, and salted snacky food.

And maybe one or two of these...

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Duck Noob

I can string a few sentences together, but I'm probably never going to be on any Pulitzer watch list.  I know my way around a kitchen, but I'll never earn a Michelin star in Paris.  I'm an upland hunter of some ease now, after years of flailing and stumbling.  My fly casting no longer resembles spastic flailing either, but Flip Pallot and I won't be rubbing elbows anytime soon.  I do love to tie flies, but don't see them being featured in any of the trendy mags on the shelves these days.  I earned a badge and won a handful of ribbons and trophies for my marksmanship shooting open sight .22's as a kid.  Then I missed an entire deer with my rifle... more than once.

Jack of all trades, master of none.

I'd say that phrase fits me fairly well.  If I look inside honestly, I can say I'm pretty comfortable with it too.  Maybe "Jack of many trades" would be more fitting.  The minutia of the internal combustion engine remain a complete and utter mystery to me, and always will.

There are a multitude of outdoor pursuits I've yet to learn.  I've never hunted bear or elk.  I've never called in a bobcat, but I have been putting in for a permit, and am very much looking forward to trying.  I've never fished the salt or grabbed a catfish.  For everything I have tried, there is plenty yet to do. So it is was with some lighthearted, almost child-like glee and an open mind that I sidled up to duck hunting a few years ago.

As with many of these things, it's all Brian's fault.  He's an upland guy, through and through, who hunts ducks only casually when the doodles have headed south for the year.  He and I were called out as "dyed-in-the-wool woodcock men" by other pheasant hunters while stowing our gear and sharing war stories in a gravel turnout a couple weekends ago.  It felt good.  From our guns and dress to the muddy boots and bloody hands, we'd earned our title and position in the eyes of men who know.  Not that it put any more birds in our vests that day.

I was surprised then, when a few seasons ago, he suggested we try our hand at some wood ducks on a little creek we had permission to hunt.  It was early in the woodcock season, the leaves were still up, it was stiflingly hot, and the hunting had been particularly tough.  Not the fine and pleasant misery Pat Mcmanus so brilliantly introduced us to, mind you, the sweaty, chaffing, want to shower and sell my gun misery.

So we did it.  We stalked up on a beaver pond, scared up some ducks, and shot them.  Easy as falling in a stream.  What follows is a snippet of the post I made the following Monday on a close-knit outdoor forum I frequent.

We walked another hundred yards, then crouch walked/belly crawled as near to the bank as we dared.  He looked over at me from his belly, and whispered, "If it flies, it dies," and grinned.  We popped up and started banging away...I couldn't stop smiling.  

Sunday, there were no ducks when we arrived at the dam so we hunkered down in the grass and waited.  It didn't take more than a half hour to limit as they circled in singly and as doubles... I can't believe I'd never tried this until now.  What a true blast!  

I was plainly thrilled with our success, and flush with excitement over my new-found and seemingly simple brand of hunting.  Oh, the blatant naivety. 

My first woodie drake

And the beaver pond that began my new obsession

Since that fateful trip down the creek I have been humbled.  I have learned it is not always that easy.  Sure, ducks coming up off the water are a million times easier to hit than a woodcock whizzing through the thick stuff... if you can find them.  Not to mention long passing shots and ducks streaking in from behind you.  Yes, it is much easier to sit on a stool or in a kayak than it is to push through brambles until your legs seem to belong to to someone else.  It's also a much bigger test of patience.

I've modified Selma Kayak for both jump shooting and calling ducks from a blind since then -- built the blind out of PVC and camouflage burlap.  I've foregone the kayak paddle for a single bladed canoe paddle while hunting as it lowers my visibility.  I've left the seat in the truck to kneel in the footwells for easier shooting.  I've purchase calls and decoys, mimicked more experienced callers on Youtube.  I've pestered my buddy Adam, a much more experience duck hunter, with novice questions via text at all hours, and he has been more than generous in helping me.  I've shot some ducks, and missed many more, or failed to get near them in the first place.  All of which is to say, I still suck at this.

While that is sometimes frustrating and humbling, it's also refreshing.  It feels good to be challenged with something new.  It's not always in my nature to ask questions and lean on friends for support, but it is good to know they are there and willing to help.  Even if it is with something as mundane as, "what in the hell am I doing wrong now?"

And there's a sense of wonderment.  Maybe wonderment is too strong a word here.  They're ducks, not mermaids.  But the learning curve, the vaguely new sights and smells of it all, sitting in the cattails instead of tromping over them chasing a pheasant, the excitement of getting up well before you have to in order to chase grouse... all of it leads to a sense of renewed pleasure.  Of course I'd seen ducks flying around everywhere in the fall, but I'd never stopped to look at ducks before.  When I'd driven over streams and rivers in the past, I'd study the brush to see if it looked "birdy," that undefined feeling that woodcock might be hiding in there.  Now I look for ducks too, and often this time of year, they are there.  They were probably there the entire time.  I just wasn't looking for them.

That Guy

You run into all sorts out in the wilds, just as you would at the mall or in the office.  Hunting mostly on public land this fall, I've had my share of run-ins.  They vary from the almost imperceptible nod and grunt, often favored my males unknown to each other, to full, rambling conversations.  Very occasionally, such an encounter might even evolve into a friendship.

Let's take a look at some of the people encountered afield in the past month or so and the archetypes they represent.

Duck season was not yet open.  I was scouting a lowland creek near home, looking to see if I could get Selma, my kayak, in there to jump some wood ducks out of the bends in the upcoming weeks.

It turns out I can...

It was an early morning on a Wednesday, so I didn't expect to meet any people out there, but I did.  As I scrambled up out of the Alder scrabble onto the railroad tracks that bisect the property, I almost literally bumped into Mark.  The typical stilted conversation of two slightly startled guys ensued.


"Morning.  Scouting for deer?"

"Ducks.  You?


"Ah... nice area for deer.  I saw a couple rubs back that way.  I'm gonna head upstream, look for beaver dams.  Good luck."

That's where the typical exchange usually ends.  I was obligated, by some unwritten code, to imply I agreed with his choice of scouting area by telling him I'd seen some sign or heard of a big buck coming out of that area in the past.  You don't crap on another man's dreams.  If he'd told me he was scouting for tribbles or fraggles I still would've felt obliged to hem and haw, and finally mumble something about it looking like good tribble cover.  Politeness sometimes requires fibbing.  Like telling her that her ass looks fabulous in those pants, it's the way of the world.  Not that it's a bad looking area for deer, it is.  I had seen some rubs... this time.

Mark looked a little new to the woods.  He was wearing hard shoes that would fit better in a cubicle.  He carried a clipboard full of aerial photos of a public hunting ground, printed from Google Earth, you could walk across in ninety minutes if you pushed it, and his pack looked like he was going to summit K-2 after a business lunch downtown.  When he asked if he could accompany me upstream, my first thought was that I didn't want to be telling the cops I was the last one to see him alive later that week, so I said sure.  I regretted that decision minutes later.

Mark was a talker.  And worse than that, as I should have guessed from the cognac cap toe oxfords on his feet, he was a salesman.  Double whammy.  Or maybe he was a money manager or an investment advisor... I can't remember.  I stopped listening sometime around the first mention of mutual funds.  I went out in the pre-dawn light to find likely looking outside bends with some timber in them, he went out to network.  Or perhaps he simply can't help reaching for that stack of business cards the second a new face trapses out of a ditch, into his line of sight.  We soon parted ways, and though I might have been able to avail myself of his financial services, and I'm sure he's a nice guy, his card was relished to the bin almost immediately, if only because he wouldn't shut the hell up.

A week later I sat on my miniscule, butt cramp-inducing camp stool, camo from head to toe.  This time it was after work, and I was waiting for the doves to come into roost on another parcel of public land near home.  I hadn't seen any other vehicles in the parking area, but this wildlife area is quite large with multiple parking lots, so I was only slightly suprised when I glanced to my left, only to see an entire Cabela's catalog slowly making it's way toward me.  Crushed under the mighty burden of what must have been the entire deer hunting section at any of the major hunting and fishing retailer, this guy had it all.

I've already admitted that I'm a bit of a clothes horse and a gear nerd, but this guy put me to shame.  I was a mere piker in his presence.  He was either going bow hunting for the entire season, or his wife had kicked him out with a garage full of his belongings on his back.  I saw the normal items you would expect on an archery hunter -- the bow... obviously, the range finder, binoculars, knife, backpack.  But beyond that, the poor pack was bristling with every conceivable piece of gear.  I saw a water purifier.  Let me stress that there's a convenience store 30 minutes away, tops.  I don't know, maybe he's still living out there.  I didn't catch his name when we exchanged pleasantries.  He was panting too hard from carrying a metric ton of stuff out to his tree for a couple hours of hunting.

Fast forward a few days, and we find ourselves somewhere on the same chunk of DNR land, down by the creek this time.  I'd walked the banks for a couple hours, unsuccessfully attempting to jump wood ducks.  Unsuccessfully attempting to even see wood ducks, actually.  I'd decided to take the stool off my back, and wait out the last hour of light cloistered in some willows near a spot where the creek widens nicely.  It's a spot I've hunkered down in quite a few times, watching the sunset, and even harvesting a woodie or three once in a while -- the adult equivalent of a living room cushion and blanket fort for the hunter.  Just as I was slipping into daydream land, a black lab pup burst into my lap, and nearly caused a major heart attack, doing the happy dance and face licking young dogs do when they get to go hunting.  His owner soon appeared on the opposite bank, having had the same idea about walking the creek for ducks, and called him back across.

The next time I was down there I saw the pair again.  And the next time.  Ted and Brandy are regulars, just like me.  They know the spot.  It's close to home and easy to hit after work.  Both of us being hunters, and relatively well raised and civilized, I guess, we've come to a point where we expect to see each other, and shoot the breeze a bit.  It's public land, and you always hope against hope to get away from others out there, but running into another dude of like mind and personality, doesn't feel like much of an intrusion.  We're not gonna exchange vacation pictures anytime soon, but I'll shake his hand and pet his dog when we cross paths.

At the other end of the spectrum we have Grunty McGee.  This guy is pretty common.  Brian, his cocker Buddy, and I were finishing up the woodcock season last weekend down in the southeastern corner of the state.  By noon Saturday we could tell the flights were gone, and the hunting was going to be tough, but we pushed brush hard most of the weekend, just to say we finished strong.

All those heady woodcock dreams, and it's over for another year.  A man could shed a tear.
In that particular spot, the bird thickets are separated by open spaces so you put the dog in one end of the cover, hunt it to the other end, then just sort of amble across the prairie to the next birdy looking thicket.  It was during one of these relaxing jaunts to the next stand of willow and dogwood that we encountered ol' Grunty.  From his gear and clothing, he was an obvious pheasant hunter.  From his demeanor, I don't think he'd gotten any in a long time.  Probably no pheasants either.

Not much can be said about the actual exchange because there wasn't one.  I was ready stop, grab some water from my vest, and bemoan the lack of birds, but good ol' Grampa Grunty was having none of it.  He strode by us not five feet away, without so much as a tip of the cap.  Our greetings were met with stone silence and lack of eye contact.  I'll never understand those guys.  I just hope they are happy in some way, not too busy to be bothered while trying to shoulder some unknown pain in a life that failed them.

Finally, we reach the most dreaded outdoor encounter.  The most vilified and annoying guy you're likely to meet afield -- the Blowhard.  The know-it-all who has shot more game, landed more fish and women than you and I, mere mortals, will ever hope to.  This self-aggrandizing asshat comes in all shapes and sizes.  Young and old, weak or stout, carrying a $5000 English side-by-side or a Sears & Roebuck single shot, he can barely contain himself long enough to ignore what you have to say.

I met one of these wonderful gentlemen while walking for pheasants not two weeks ago.  He had one more bird in his vest than I did at that point, which only encouraged him to share his considerable and superior knowledge concerning everything from the proper shot and choke tubes for pheasant hunting, to how best to train pointers versus retrievers.  All of it stated as surely as gravity would have taken him to ground had he tripped, which I was so wishing he would.  There's nothing to do with that guy except get away from him as fast as you can, let him go tell his wife how she folds laundry wrong or something.

Hunters are a cross section of humanity.  Just as with any other group of people, there are a handful of cretins and twits surrounded by the majority of good folks out doing what they love.  I look forward to going out there alone or in my small party of close friends, but sometimes you run into other people, and you just never know what you're going to get.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Old School

Blogger's note:  Please excuse all the blatant product placement found below.  It's integral to my thoughts today.  I have no affiliation with any company mentioned, nor will I receive any compensation for mentioning them.  I just like their stuff.

I'm at home this weekend because of some family obligations, which is rare for me.  You're much more likely to find me up north at camp, down south at Brian's place, or somewhere in between every Friday evening through Sunday evening.  There are so many gorgeous and fulfilling opportunities outside, I've been known to go months without a quiet weekend at home.  The laundry piles up and the lawn slowly begins to resemble a Central American jungle, but there is no glory in folding underwear and nobody has ever looked cool carrying a weed whacker.  Ever.  Even the name is ridiculous.

As a Madisonian food lover and cook with little to do on a Saturday morning, sleep in my eyes and flannel trout pants twisted in an unruly monkey knot around my feet, it was both my right and obligation to stumble up out of bed to sentience, and get my heiney to the farmers market.  I'm told the Dane County Farmer's Market, held in the shadow of the capitol dome, is the largest producer-only farmers market in the country.  It is a wonderful place to take in as a cook.  The bounty literally overflows.  It's one of those places that makes me wish I were a competent photographer, able to freeze all those vibrant colors and resplendent heaps of harvest forever.  From the sprawling, verdant capitol lawn down to the tiny first spring onion of the year, it's a place that makes a person excited to know the difference between spanakopita and spelt.

It was cold yesterday morning.  Not twenty-below midwinter cold, but it sometimes feels like that early in the fall before your uncovered bits adjust to the nip.  With all the root vegetables showing up, and the mercury plummeting, there was only one thing to do.  Comfort food.  I could have gone with modern, updated comfort food -- squid ink new potato gnocchi or some faux hawk, ear gauge, neck tat stuff like that, but I was cooking for me.  I listen to Elgar and get flipped off for for driving too slow, not exactly punk rock.  With no need to twist exotic ingredients into a Kubrick orgy scene, the decision was made.  Chicken soup, with all the down home charm that implies, it would be.

Chicken soup is the poster child for homemade simplicity.  How can such an easy combination of common ingredients transform into such a mythic, satisfying dish?  I have no idea.  Even in it's most simple, old fashioned preparation, it manages to comfort and sooth, not to mention taste downright amazing.  There's always an element of surprise for me, in that I can chuck a bird, some stock, a few veggies, and a handful of herbs and spices in a pot, only to be greeted later by a classic, elegant ambrosia.  Personally, I'm not a fan of noodles mucking up my liquid gold, but you may be.  That's fine.  As with many things from folk art to fishing lures, the draw is often a product of what the individual grew up with.  To me, that means keep your floppy noodles outta my broth, and don't cook the veggies to structureless mush, thank you.

Braced against the wind and rain by my hearty soup, family obligations out of the way, I fell back on my standard weekend distractions that evening.  The home version of which can include a bottle or four of local microbrew, college football humming in the background, and care of outdoor gear.  As I took to seeing after my tools, it occurred to me that perhaps the draw of unpretentious, traditional food can be linked, in some way, to equipment of the same ilk.  Some of my treasured possessions are old hunting and fishing equipment.  Maybe that fascination with the "they just don't make it like they used to" feeling applies to gear as much as it does to comfort food.

Let me be clear.  The vast majority of my gear is up to date, space age derived, polycarbonate and resin stuff.  I happily fish graphite rods, standing in Gore-Tex waders, wearing shatter-resistant polarized sunglasses with lenses that change their tint based on available light.  I once read something about the microscopic silver halide crystals impregnated in the glass lenses, and how they react to UV light... then promptly forgot most of it.  Not that I even know what silver halide is to begin with.  All I do know is that sometimes it's nearly dark out before I remember to take them off.   That's some cool shit, and I see and catch more fish in the stream because of it.  I know it's true because the advertisers told me so.

Amidst all the toys bristling with the latest and greatest, there are a handful of gems either truly old or based on old designs and technology, traditional tools made from traditional materials that just ring true in your hands or on your back.

As I paid vague attention to LSU stomping West Virginia in the background, I pulled out my hunting knives to sharpen them.  No motorized grinders or ceramic sharpening rods, I was armed only with natural whetstones and honing solution.  I've dallied with all sorts of modern sharpening tools in the past, had varying degrees of success and failure with them, and finally settled on a couple traditional stones and plenty of patience.  Fitting, as the first knife I went to is almost three times as old as I am.

Marble Safety Axe Company began as a one room manufacturing facility behind the home of founder Webster L. Marble, legendary timber cruiser of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, in 1898.  They went on to produce knives and a great many other things, under a few different names, for about a century.  My model is called a Marble's Ideal, handed down to me after my grandfather, "Boompa," passed away.  With a stacked leather handle and blood groove, it was forged somewhere around 1922 in Gladstone, Michigan.  More than that, it belonged to a man I loved and admired.  It's a little shorter and wider than I usually like, and the handle is too stumpy for even my moderately sized hands.  Still, as much a talisman as a tool, I was thrilled to use it for the first time on those crop damage deer we harvested last weekend.  Just thinking of all the things it has been through, with it's slight pits and pocks, makes using it a pure joy.  It was embarrassingly dull last weekend, but I'm proud to report it is blunt no longer.  After plenty of time on the stones, resisting the urge to press too hard or go too fast, concentrating hard on angle and cutting surface, I'd like to think it now possesses an edge close to that which it carried when it first came off the line.  Ready for the next challenge, Boompa.

Of course, such important undertakings as knife sharpening and gun cleaning cannot be undertaken out of uniform.  In order to achieve the proper mental state, you must be dressed accordingly.  I think Buddha said that.  So I donned a Stormy Kromer, and got to work.

Somewhere around the turn of the last century George "Stormy" Kromer came up with the idea for the hat that still bears his name.  With a decidedly northwoods fashion bent, the stormy is not exactly Madison Avenue material, but man, is it ever comfortable.  As their poster says, "For fishin', huntin', or just plain wearin'," the simple wool and canvas construction, true to the original, never fails to warm the noggin, and always stays on in a stiff breeze.  The peculiar looking flaps rest in place around the back of the hat until that breeze takes on winter's bite, at which point they easily slide down to cover the ears.   It was a great design back then, and it still is today.  And I think the ladies secretly really like the look of a Kromer man.  I've had my eye on a new one in a cool newer pattern for a while now, as matter of fact.  They're practically required up north in the winter months.

After the zen-like repetition of sharpening a bunch of knives, it was time to get messy, time to wax the bibs.  C.C. Filson founded his company in Seattle in 1897, catering to the hordes of Klondike Gold Rush fortune-seekers with a line of tough-as-nails outdoor clothing and gear.  Filson's trademark Tin Cloth, basically canvas impregnated with paraffin, remains the toughest waterproof cloth you can find today, at least in my opinion.  In order to maintain the waterproof qualities, wax must be applied occasionally.  You take a heat gun or hair dryer, and just get in there with your hands, smearing warm wax into all the high wear areas.  It's a fun job for a formerly obsessed mud pie builder.

If I had to pick a single piece of outdoor clothing for the rest of forever, my Filson Double Tin Bibs would be the obvious choice.  If only because they might last that long.  They are the best of all worlds, and have been for more than a hundred years.  A boon for the upland hunter, they withstand the thickest stands of Prickly Ash, briars, and Buckthorn with ease.  Where synthetic waterproofs would be shredded, where Cordura brush pants would be soaked, Tin Cloth outshines them all.  If you're looking for gentle comfort, look elsewhere.  These things practically stand up on their own out of the box, the closest you can come to wearing aluminum siding, they need some serious breaking in before you stop walking like the Tin Man.  But you can charge through the nastiest cover in them without becoming an involuntary blood donor or drowned rat, then plop down on any convenient stump for a water break without getting a soggy bottom.  Totally worth it.

The "Good Old Days" should not always be lovingly fawned over through rose colored glasses.  Times were often tough, with hardscrabble men and women barely squeezing out a meager existence.  Modern life definitely has it's advantages.  I like modern dentistry, anesthetics, and using the loo indoors when it's colder than hell outside.  That being said, occasionally men like Filson, Kromer, and Marble really hit the nail on the head.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Comfort and Redemption

We hunted last weekend.  Finally.

We were hunting deer on alfalfa fields.  It's a vastly different operation than our gun deer hunt in the woods up north come November.  Here in Wisconsin, farmers can apply for crop damage deer shooting permits, allowing hunters to shoot antlerless deer on their property.  And "shooting" might be a better term than "hunting" in this case.  There isn't a ton of strategy involved.  Generally speaking, the farmer knows when and where the deer tend to come out in the fields.  We simply hunker down in a blind or behind some bales, and wait.  It's a good system.  The farmer gets relief from some of the damage caused by the deer nibbling away at his livelihood, the hunters get to stock the freezer.

I enjoy being the one of the youngest men in this particular crew.  I don't think we need to go all new-age here, proclaiming the virtues of hunting with and learning from one's elders, but there is an element of that.  There are plenty of opportunities for me to shut up and listen to the older guys, but more so, to laugh along with them as they tell the stories of the camps, the decades-long narrative of that thing that brings us all together up there.  Over the past 15 years I've even managed to insert myself into a tale or two, but I enjoy the ones that occurred when I was still toddling around with my hand in my mouth more.  They have a sort of mystical quality about them.

Those old stories... nobody bullshits their friends on purpose, but we all know that the great tales have a tendency to grow a bit over time.  The feats of strength and endurance tend to take on a life of their own, while the misses and defeats fade away.  It's one part how we cope with life in general and one part plain good story telling.  And there's nothing better than sitting around the fire or table, and just listening.  These guys have lived up here.  They know the country, they know the people, and they have decades and decades of great stories.  Every once in a while I even hear a new one, and that's just gilding the lily in the best way possible.

One of the only drawbacks to being just about the only one in camp with all my hair is that most of these aging buzzards are retired.  So by the time I arrived to join them on this trip, they already had one doe in the freezer.  Fair enough, three permits to go.

They were out on one of the fields when I pulled in.  After a four hour drive, I was more than a little antsy to get started.  I was in that adrenaline spike zone -- excited, trying to remain calm, but just the smallest bit shaky.  The zone where you have to take that little moment just to be sure you aren't tying your bootlaces together.  I had to make a couple trips back to my truck after hastily changing clothes in the driveway, but finally, I got my act together and it was time.

I stopped by the bales at the end of the field to check in with Rog before I went out.  As I cut through the woods to get there, I caught a glimpse of him through the trees.  I could see he was in the zone too.  A different one.  Completely still but alert, he was leaning against the bales, eyes intent on the field in front of him, rifle laid out at the ready.  A picture of a happy guy, content to be doing something he's comfortably good at.

It was time for one of those small details I think many hunters overlook in their memories, but I adore -- the whispered skull session afield.  You stand a little too close to each other, kind of stilted over like old men.  Being careful to minimize movement and sound, you whisper the plan.  We aren't curing hunger here, but there's an intensity to the information exchange.  There are guns involved, and hopefully death.  With multiple hunters hunting together in the area, we need to be sure we know where everybody is sitting and who is shooting which way.  This hushed conference, men making a plan, is almost always the final prelude to the actual act of hunting in a group.  Basically hunting foreplay, with all the same butterflies and endorphins.  Just don't start taking your clothes off.

I slowly walked around the corner of the irregular, hilly field.  Taking care to check all the angles for deer, I eventually took a position on an edge of the field, attempting to melt into the cover of the woods.  I sat back in with the secrets of the trees, just trying to be still at first.  There is no switch you can throw, no button to push to force yourself into that quiet state after spending so much time in town, racing around with nary a care to quiet and stillness.  Sure, we are out there to gather meat.  You can't paint with a wide Rockwellian brush here.  This is a bloodsport, and we do it to kill animals and eat them.  There's no getting around that.  But I think, even more than that, most of us are hunting for that quiet.  That bit of serenity that only comes in the midst of wind and sun, trees and grass.    While your eyes and ears remain on full alert for the duration of the hunt, the back of your mind is free to wander.  It continues on at full speed for a while, tumbling through lists and goals, objectives that must be reached.  But then, as if calmed by your surroundings, it subsides.  When all goes well, you are soon simply just being.  Sitting there taking it in.  This is why I do it.  Buddhists and yogis would call it meditation, and I suppose it is.  Meditation with a loaded weapon.

I settled in, rehearsing in my mind all the probable shooting scenarios that might present themselves, to enjoy one of the other perks of the first hunt of the year -- cold.  It was a gorgeous sunny day, but tucked merely feet back into the forest, you could feel the damp chill.  Winter lying it wait for us, just as we were for the deer.  It's so deliciously life affirming, that first chill up your spine.  After a long summer of sweat in your eyes, a few goosebumps are welcome.

By Saturday morning we had lost Ted to a golf trip, but we had also harvested our deer.  Shots were made and shots were missed, but we got all that we deserved, I believe.  Rog and I had were smiling and giddy by the time the last deer was loaded.  Hunting with a long-time, competent partner has a kind of easy cadence to it.  Like walking your favorite path, you know what's coming, and slide along happily right in the groove.  It's one of the most comfortable feelings I know.  And I knew from the look on his face when we got back to my truck, right in that perfect little moment surrounded by leaves just beginning to turn, he and I were both back in the sweet spot.  Happy and comfortable, wind burned cheeks and a job well done.  As we cased up the guns, I locked that memory in the place they don't disappear from.

We went to the local watering hole to register the deer after that, a tradition when hunting this spot.  It's one of those small town places that never seems to change.  If you told me the same bartenders had been working there when Washington was crossing the Delaware, I'd probably believe you.  It's dark and solid and perfectly rough around the edges.  Hot food, cold beer, and college football added to the comfort level then.

We made the drive back to camp, and I began to prep for the evening meal.  As I posted a couple weeks ago, I'd committed the sin of overcooking venison the previous weekend.  I felt the need to wipe that one of the scorecard, so I brought along the ingredients for the exact same meal.  Different people, different place, but the chance to redeem myself.  After a long, lazy afternoon hanging around the cabin, I finally got off my butt and did it up right.  The boys enjoyed the meal with the hunger and zeal that comes from the combination of a couple days outside and a few cold drinks.  As they tore into it, I sat back in my sated, very comfortable state, and gave one little shout out to the gods of the kitchen...

... redemption is mine.
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