Monday, August 29, 2011

Falling Down

It was a short hike into the spot we wanted to check out.  We were looking for a spot to hang a tree stand for the upcoming gun deer season.  From the old logging road, we had to cut only a few hundred yards through a mature pine plantation to a little clearing.  Roger was leading with Frisbee and I in tow.

Now walking through a pine plantation isn't the most difficult thing in the world, especially if you are going with the rows.  Cutting across the grain takes a little more concentration.  The furrows are often just wide and deep enough that you can't quite bound from top to top, at least not without ending up in a herky jerky jog.  Not the best idea with sharp sticks, eyeballs, and old knees in the equation.  So you end up sort of post-holing through the forest on a quiet bed of rusty brown needles.  One leg shoots down into the valley of a furrow, then the other is forced to mount the next crest.  It's akin to walking on a crust of snow, and having every other step break through.  From a distance, the three of us probably looked like a game of Whac-a-Mole drifting through red pines that day.

Then, completely without warning on an otherwise uneventful little excursion, Roger had vanished.  I heard a deep little whump, and our fearless leader was missing... until I glanced down and noticed, with more than a little curiosity, that I could see the bottoms of both of his Vibram soles clawing at the air.  He'd mistimed his crouch-hop through the furrows, and biffed hard.  Hadn't even had time to attempt to catch himself.  In hindsight, I can almost swear to you that his hat was still spinning in the air by the time I grasped what had happened.  As soon as we were sure all his parts and pieces were still attached and in working order, the howling ensued.  We laughed until we cried, Roger with glasses askew, pine needles in his hair, and the funniest stunned look on his face you can possibly imagine.

Walking has been described as the continuous act of falling, then catching oneself.  But when there's a hitch in the double pendulum strategy, when the wheels come off, when some outside force causes the whole undertaking to go sideways, comedy gold often follows.

Falling is hilarious.

More specifically, other people falling is hilarious.  I can't think of anything that vaults me into abrupt side-splitting laughter faster and with more reckless abandon than watching one of my friends take a hard digger.  I've been known to fall down right next to them in an uncontrolled fit of glee.  As long as nothing is broken, I laugh until it hurts, then continue to giggle about it at random intervals throughout the day.  I think most of us do.

Disclaimer:  I know plenty of people who have taken unfortunate falls, and suffered serious injuries. Tree stands, roofs, and ladders are often involved, and debilitating back and pelvic trauma have been sustained.  Broken bone falls.  Traction tumbles.  We aren't talking about the falls that result in months of physical therapy and lifetimes of residual pain here.  Only a sociopath would laugh at that.  We're talking about the tumble that makes you point and laugh at your buddy, completely justified in calling him an idiot and waiting for the pictures to be taken before you help him to his feet.

As people who spend a lot of time cutting cross country over rough terrain or crossing slippery stream beds, by the very nature of our endeavors, we outdoor enthusiasts set ourselves up for falls more often than most.  The dude who trips at the mall is amusing, but any slightly distracted numbskull can do that.  It's not a well earned tumble, miles from the truck, covered in mud and stink.

There are as many types of crashes as there are settings and situations.  I have three favorite classes of collapses, all with their own virtues and blessings to contribute to the world of hilarity.  They are the Sudden Collapse Fall, the Stuck Feet Fall, and the Extended Traversing Fall.

First we have complete and utter calamity, out of the blue, as Rog so kindly demonstrated above.  The Sudden Collapse Fall (SCF).  It's simply the instantaneous system-wide failure of a body to remain upright.  It's so entertaining because of the surprise factor and the downright catastrophe of it all.  That a person can be vertical in one instant, then decidedly not so in the next, often for no apparent reason in the moment, is uproariously funny.  This one often results in some bumps and bruises, because when preformed correctly, there is no time for an attempt at self arrest.

It really shines during early and late season ice fishing when there is no snow to provide traction on the ice.  Creepers were invented to prevent this, but I'm glad people forget them because it often leads to a precipitous and painful plunge to the planch.  You're all milling around in a loose huddle, waiting for a flag to trip, then suddenly one of the group is no longer standing.  His foot simply shot out from under him, and down he went like a sack of hammers.  Often, the next thing to shoot in this situation is beer out of an onlookers nose.  If his friends are anything like mine, the victim of this particular fall will hear about it for some time to come, simply because of the ridiculous nature of a supposedly functional adult unable to keep himself upright like a grown-up.

The next flounder in my top three is the Stuck Feet Fall (SFF).  This one results from the inability to get one's feet where they belong in time to prevent a slow decline to terra firma.  It happens in thick brush and on muddy ground.  Your boots get sucked in or tied up, but your body is still moving.  You flail and grunt and grab desperately at nothing, but in your head you already know you're going down.  It's so gorgeous because it takes an eternity.

About a decade ago now, Brian and I were on a quixotic fly fishing trip for pre-spawn pike in a backwater of the Mississippi River.  It was bitterly cold and windy, hell for a fly fisherman trying to cast, but we'd made the drive so there we were like a couple cretins out in the weather.  I'd gotten myself in that Zen-like zone you have to find in those situations.  It's the only way you can withstand the conditions.  Don't think too much or you'll suddenly wise up, and get the hell out of there.

Intruding on my reverie, I suddenly heard splashing and grunting to my right.  Thinking Brian had a fish, I glanced up to see him pitching and wobbling, shin deep in the mud about five feet from dry land.  He had been attempting to get out of the water, but the river goop had different plans.  Try as he might, he simply could not free his feet to catch himself.  He was going down, and it was taking so deliciously long to happen.  Arms windmilling insanely, language appropriate for the sailor he once was, he finally face-planted in the slop.  It could not have been uglier without breaking the rod.  He might have needed help extracting himself from the icy water and mud, but I was in no condition to lend it, doubled over with tears running down my face as I was.  To this day, he still bitches that I stood by, and almost let him drown that day.

The happy little sub-variant of the SFF is the Tangled Upright Fall (TUF), often encountered on deer drives and during thick cover bird hunting.  You begin to fall with stuck feet, but the brush is so thick that you can't actually complete the tumble.  It hangs you up while your boots lose purchase so you simply hang there, flailing your feet like a puppy rounding turn three at the Linoleum 500.  Frisbee holds the honor of performing the greatest TUF I've ever witnessed while we were on a deer drive.

Our final failure to stand, and my personal favorite, is the Extended Traversing Fall (ETF).  The ETF also takes considerable time and energy to complete properly, but the main distinguishing feature is the extended stumbling around and thrashing about while covering ground laterally.  All of which takes place before performing the dismount on your face.  After the initial lurch you almost succeed in recovering your stance and your dignity, but gravity and momentum are cruel mistresses.  Just as it occurs to you that you might come out of this sudden low balance situation unscathed, you are forced to recognize that you are, in fact, about to come to a hard prone stop.

I once watched my friend Roadkill (so nicknamed for his eyes like a deer in headlights and his body of a flattened rabbit) perform an exquisite modified ETF up a snowbank as we were exiting Camp Randall.  Yes, I said up.  He slipped as we were clambering over a trampled, slick bank of snow.  Immediately upon slipping, the sound that escaped his mouth was almost indescribable -- something between a moan of despair, and a grunt of effort.  After a nifty little ricochet off my hip, he kicked in the turbo chargers and the mad scramble was on.  Somehow, defying all laws of physics, he managed to the summit the snowbank on all fours with his feet slapping away like a duck on speed.  I'm fairly certain the amount of beer we'd consumed before the game had something to with his ability to bend the physical laws of the universe.  Or perhaps my ability to perceive them.  He'd used roughly the same number of strides it would normally have taken to cover a quarter mile in less than seven yards and five seconds.  Unfortunately, since it was not a truly complete ETF, no confirmed topple to the ground, I was forced to disqualify him from official scoring, but it was still one of the greatest things I've ever seen.

I am not impervious to the dangers of a good fall.  In fact, I am an accomplished practitioner of all the battles with gravity listed above, and many more.  I've fallen off porches and into wood stoves.  I've plopped into streams and out of them, staggered around marshes and broken my big toe by tripping over a concrete parking bumper while sober as a judge.  I ruined a perfectly good smart phone this very spring, sprawling face first into a creek.  But most of those are subjects for future posts.

I'll simply state that, after a certain rather undignified plummet a few years ago up at camp, I am now strongly encouraged by my hunting buddies to wear a helmet at all times.

Yeah... it's funny now...

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hikers, and Bikers, and Birders! Oh, my!

It's human nature to divide ourselves up into comfortable little groups.  A friend of mine says that if you were to take a group of perfectly homogeneous people -- same race, religion, social status, interests -- and lock them up in a room together, they'd still find a way to segregate themselves.  By foot size or freckle density, perhaps.  It's one of the things we probably need to work on as a species.

It happens out in the field as much as anywhere else people wander.  I've gotten the hairy eyeball from the occasional spandex-clad suburban hiker while walking on public land, gun or rod in my hands.  Nothing serious, but the implied judgement is there.  And I'm just as guilty.  I encounter a gaggle of crunchy Teva-sporters on the trail while decked out in camo or blaze, and my internal defenses instantly creep up just a notch, warranted or not.  Oh, shit... here comes the PETA lecture...

We even clan up inside the confines of our self-same groups of interest.  I'm a fly fisherman.  After years of trial and error, fun and not so fun, I've stumbled upon my preferred niche as a fly fisherman.  I'll fish for anything, but I enjoy fishing for smallmouth bass the most, and I can get a little rankly about it at times.  I like to do it using topwater flies, especially those that I've spun myself out of dyed deer body hair.  And I prefer to do it in small wadable rivers. So if we follow the evolution it goes something like, fly fisherman --> warm water fly fisherman --> river smallmouth bass fly fisherman --> topwater river smallmouth bass fly fisherman --> deer hair topwater river smallmouth bass fly fisherman.  That's one stupendously long way to go to differentiate oneself from the other dudes out there waving a stick around in the river, but it's it worth because, as we all know, those trout guys with their wimpy little rods and microscopic bugs, they're weirdos.

The funny thing is, we're all out there for the same fundamental reasons.  We want to take in nature.  We want to escape the rat race, decompress, and take a little time to breathe.  The only difference is that my friends and I include the gathering of food in that practice.  From morels to moose, asparagus to walleye, if I can catch it, pick it, or kill it within the limits of the law, it's going in the gob, along with some taters and gravy.  You can't get more free range organic than whitetail on the hoof.

Because of this, I often catch myself thinking of "us" as part of the active food chain, out there actually participating.  We protein gatherers are in the game, getting after it, while "they" are stuck watching from the sidelines in way-too-clean zip-off tech pants.

How very self-righteous.

It's obviously a narrow mental stance to take, not to mention sort of ugly in general.  I do attempt to curtail it as much as I can, but it's an ongoing battle.  In reality, I'm sure many of those people are a lot more similar to me than I think.  Maybe they merely never had anyone to introduce them to the joys of chasing rabbits behind a baying beagle or make them a delicious squirrel pot pie.  A spotting scope and bird books don't predispose a person to rampant veganism any more than a shotgun and waders predispose a person to Anaditae genocide.

All this is slightly disconcerting to me because I don't come from a strictly hardline hunting and fishing family.  Far from it.  My dad didn't even hunt much other than a handful of squirrel trips as a kid and a couple fateful gun deer seasons during which they spent more time seeking out chocolate malts and cheeseburgers for his father than they did actually hunting deer.  He was a counterculture, Mother Earth News subscribing, back-to-the-land child of the Sixties with jarringly long hair in some of those old pictures.  He had no moral or ethical objections against the harvesting of meat anymore than the harvesting of potatoes, and was a better than average wingshot.  He simply had little interest in doing it himself.  We paddled flat water and whitewater almost obsessively.  He taught me how to navigate cross country by map and compass and how to start a fire with a bow and drill.  I learned to identify almost every plant and bird, edible or otherwise, in our little corner of the world.  And, just by way of a son's pride, anyone that knew him will tell you that he truly was one helluva world class story-teller around a campfire or dinner table, a skilled purveyor of the family narrative.

So why do I fall into the trap of prejudging those people who most outsiders would guess to be the product of my own childhood much more often than they would surmise I eventually stumbled out of it covered in zits and a mean stinging nettle rash?  This is the question that went rocketing through my head as I took a nice long, sweaty walk in the woods today.

The short answer: I have no idea.  Peer pressure?  The politics of conservation?  Laziness?

Another one of the sins that we, the hunters and fisherman, often commit outside is the sin of tunnel vision.  We get so involved in the task at hand that we often forget to remember where we are and how lucky we are to be there.  I fall prey to it most often during a hot bite, especially ice fishing.  More than once, I've plunked down on my bucket in group of ice fishermen, all of us like so many Thinsulate button mushrooms sprouting incongruously up from the ice, only to glance up some time later and realize that it's getting dark, and I'm one of the last remaining bumps on the frozen log.  That's concentration, I guess, but it's also a shame to sit with your head down a hole during a perfectly good sunset.  Sometimes it's like staring slack-jawed at a slideshow of fish and game on one side of the stage while the Rockettes are knocking out an impressive kickline on the other side.

I walked today, sans weapon, partly in an effort to get back to the mindset of simply being out there.  Taking it all in.  No rods, no guns, no bolas or fire hardened spears, and no blinders.  Strictly open eyes and ears.  Of course I stopped to look for deer tracks and puffballs.  My eyes scanned for the telltale whitewash and bore holes of the woodcock in appropriate areas.  I slowed to the cryogenically torpid pace of the sloth at times, just in case that was a deer or a coyote my Spidey Sense just pinged on.  Splatter vision and forced stillness were employed.  That will never change, it's too cemented in the synapses and tiny little folds of my oft-confused brain.  It's simply how I'm trained to take it all in now.  I was decidedly not there to hook or harm anything.  It was just a simple walk, but I returned home with a resolution.

I hereby resolve to open my damn eyes a little more often out there.  I resolve to pay a little more attention to my surroundings even when my fingers go all pruney from hastily taking bluegills off a double jig rig two at a time.  And I resolve to talk to the nice couple in the clacky clip-on biking shoes at the trail head, instead of just grunting and walking by.  Maybe.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

On Any Given Saturday

I am a double agent.  I pass through two mutually exclusive camps with the ease and stealth of a ninja.  I am trained in the art of blending into each camp as if I know nothing of the other.  I must keep my dual identities separate and intact at all times in order to avoid complete disaster.

OK... so it isn't really that intense.  There are no life and death situations.  No Cold War era spy-craft.  I don't have to attend secret debriefings, nor do I often dangle, Tom Cruise style, mere inches above a pressure sensitive floor, but things do come to a head every year.  And it's about to happen again.

The problem lies in the fact that fall is the greatest time of the year by leaps and bounds.  I literally yearn for that first day of every year when I step out the door in the morning, and the chill takes my breath for just that one instant.  It's here.  This is what we've been waiting for. 

Birds and retirees will be staging for their long journeys south.  Most of our gamefish will be strapping on the feedbag, gobbling down the calories and protein in preparation for the long winter to come.  The crisp air will somehow seem clearer, all the better for leaf peeping and bird hunting.  The bucks will be starting to travel solo, the ancient drive to reproduce arriving once again.

While all of this is happening, another force, equally compelling, will be rearing it's awesome head in celebration of autumn.  Badger football.  And not just the games themselves, as truly awesome as they often are, but the heady, almost magical atmosphere of an entire game day in Madison.

I'm as happy as I can be in the woods in fall, but if there's a game on, I'm a man of two minds.  Even the illustrious woodcock fails to hold my attention completely.  During the short water breaks and pauses, my phone will come out or the truck radio will come on, searching for that fix, much to the consternation of my hard-line, old school hunting pals.  They've never been here for a Big Ten Football Saturday.  They haven't tasted the the electricity in the air.  They haven't thronged expectantly into Camp Randall just in time to see the tubas lead out the marching band for the pregame show.  They've never screamed at the last second touchdown or polkaed maniacally to You've Said It All in a swaying upper deck during the world famous 5th Quarter.  They're not junkies like me.  They don't understand.

On the other hand, most of my Madison friends cannot understand the allure of being out there.  There are a few hunters and fishermen among them, and I'm grateful for their friendships.  Some of my "city friends," as they are known to the outdoors friends, even camp a couple times a year.  If you can call drinking around a fire 20 yards from the car "camping."  They've never had the good fortune to taste fresh trout and watercress on the stream bank.  They don't understand the thrill of a long awaited buck appearing from the early morning mist or the magic of a perfectly laid out fly cast.  They can't know the jolt of adrenaline that races through you when a pheasant erupts at your feet, and somehow sees fit to fly into your pattern.  They don't understand either.

So I walk the line.  I consider it a blessing and a curse, in that, both cliques want me there.  When I take off for the cabin on a home football weekend, the avalanche of razzing can be almost interminable.  If I stay in town for the game, my fellows hunters can get downright gruff about it.  It's a balancing act that I'm glad to perform.



The similarities help.  Both groups know the high fives, the back clapping hugs, the pain of disappointment, and the utterly comatose crash that follows a long day afield or a big win at home. 

The separate components of each outing, to the woods or the parking lot, carry their own similar familiarities.  Both days often begin the same.  With food, of course.  If we're tailgating, I've got a house full of people while trying to get the brats boiled, the corn silks tossed, the flank steaks marinated, and the associated paraphernalia in the truck.  If I'm going hunting, it's considerably more quiet.  I grab whatever meals I've prepped for the cook stove, and throw them in with the go-bag of standard hunting gear for that season.

Arrival on site brings the same rush of excitement, no matter the venue.  The parking lot downtown is awash in a sea of red.  The cacophony of music and people, fans and families, all gearing up for what promises to be another gorgeous fall Saturday in Madison, grabs you immediately.  While the gravel parking lot of the hunting ground or boat launch is considerably more subdued, there remains an air of expectation.  In its own quiet way, it is just as exciting.

Then we start to walk.  The dogs are excited, but working well.  The frost in the grass is loud, and you're still working the kinks out of all your hinges, but you are there.  It has started.  Back on the asphalt, you get the grill going and the tables set up.  Friends and family begin to arrive, and the excitement begins to build.  It too has begun.

Both days progress through lulls and highs, riding seas of emotion.  You make a brilliant cast to a rising fish or a winning toss in a highly charged game of bean bags.  The feeling is the same.  You cost your team a round of Flippy Cup or whiff on a pair of passing of wood ducks.  Either way, in that moment, you are the goat.  No two ways about it.

Bucky dominates again at The Camp or you stride confidently back to the trucks, game pouch freshly refilled with feathered glory.  You get skunked while wading all morning in seemingly glacial water or the football gods chose to smite the Badgers this time.

On any given Saturday in autumn, any of it can happen.


Thursday, August 18, 2011


From way back when I was still scuff-kneed and covered in dirt, still casting a Zebco 202 (when it actually worked), until I eventually moved away to college, my parents would come home from working vacations, and delight us with highlights of their trips.  While I'm sure other kids heard about the standard tourist attractions of City X, or gazed mesmerized upon slides of Alcatraz and the Grand Canyon, we heard, almost without fail, about the food.  It was always about the meals.  Sometimes these gauzy tales of culinary Nirvana concerned restaurants known far and wide.  Other times the stories were of magical little taverns or supper clubs discovered by random chance.  Often, they were about feasts conjured at the hands of my father, armed only with local ingredients, an old Boy Scout mess kit, and a state park hibachi grill.  Maybe some aluminum foil and a bottle of wine.

"Did you take a tour of the Gateway Arch, Dad?"

"Nah, we heard about this rib place we had to check out.  You shoulda seen this place..." 

Since then, I've been blessed enough to have engaged in serious gluttony in Paris, dined gleefully in New York City, and supped until sated in L.A.  And a lot of points in between.

Still, the greatest kitchen I've ever eaten from or cooked in, the one closest to my heart, is often found by the side of a country highway, or at the dead end down by the old washed out bridge.  Sometimes it's in the cathedral formed by a canopy of gaudy autumn oaks and maples, or along the banks of a hidden farm country trout stream.  This oasis of laughs and warmth, sustenance and fuel, is located on the tailgate of my pickup truck.  I'm sure Dad, with his calloused mechanic's hands and do it yourself attitude, occasionally looks down on us hoisting fork to mouth in the woods, and is pretty damn proud about that.

Lunchtime in grouse season: lamb stew and a dry change of boots.

Seldom will you find a slow reduction or delicate emulsion out here.  There are no piping bags or sauce painting or stacking the food a mile high.  Consistent knife work and classic technique aren't necessary.  Chimichurri?  Chimiwhatthehell?

None of which is to say that we have to eat like heathens in the woods.  Or like insulin resistant eighth-graders bum rushing a convenience store candy aisle, for that matter.  There is no reason we cannot or should not stick to our culinary guns while dining al fresco in mud-caked waders.

First if all, it doesn't have to be "fancy."  We're talking about a midday meal here, designed to both refuel and satisfy.  I don't expect to be served multiple courses on grandma's china, nor will I cook that way in the field, but I do get offended by stale chips with bologna and white bread roulade de la poche (that's jacket pocket, not parchment).  If we're out here already, why not enjoy what we have already earned.  Venison Italian sausage steamed in a little white wine?  Hell yes.  Trout with asparagus and morels?  Are you kidding me?  I think you know where you can shove your Pringles can.

There are days when you can't or won't cook lunch on your tailgate.  Rain, work schedules, and family obligations often prevent the leisurely enjoyment of lunch afield with the boys.  Hell, maybe you already limited, and you want to get home to the missus and the game.  Or a hot shower and some aspirin.  I'm not talking about those days.  If you need to roll down the road or keep hunting, no time for lunch, there may be a call for energy bars and those petrifying sandwiches served up in plastic yellow pyramids.  But that ain't food, and you know it.  I hope.

Like I said, we aren't going for Michelin stars here.  We don't have to.  We already have two of the cook's biggest allies in our back pocket.  Guns to bring to the knife fight.  Any cook or eater worth his weight in Swiss chard will tell you these two secret weapons are unstoppable.

You arrive late morning back at the truck.  Maybe you've got a handful of ducks in the bag, maybe not.  A few things are sure: You are cold, you are tired, you are hungry.  This condition is the single biggest gun in the camp cook's arsenal.  You would eat your $50 Gore-Tex hat right now.  So we don't need six burners and 90 minutes to prepare a mighty feast.  Take a container of that cream of mushroom and grouse soup you rescued from the dark recesses of the freezer this morning, and chuck it in a pan.  When it's hot, dunk some nice crusty artisan country bread in there, and bang, you are ready to get after it again.  It's as simple as pie.  Simpler, actually.  As simple as turning on a burner.

If hunger is the greatest sauce, the howitzer in the cook's armory, then the next factor is the S&W .500 hand cannon.  It's your friends... your crew, the buddies, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band... whatever you call them.  Often, a passable meal can be raised to a much higher level simply by the power of the company, and an outstanding meal can be vaulted right up to phenomenal.  The experiences you've shared throughout your time together solidify your bond.  You know all the stories.  You remember the greatest trips with a serene smile, and grin ruefully at the ones that were wet, cold, and miserable.  Just by breaking bread together, you establish, once again, that you treasure each other's presence.  Let's not sully that with radioactive beef jerky sticks and neon plastic sugar cakes.

Go get yourself a little camp stove.  They range from miniscule backpacking models to the venerable old Coleman two-burner, up to truly chef worthy propane-driven monstrosities from there.  Cook a little at home beforehand, and warm it up along with some coffee in a freezing drizzle behind the truck.  Your hunting and fishing buddies will thank you, as will your waistline.  It's entirely worth the effort.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Weak Sauce, Good Gravy

We've all been there, fellow food lovers.

You've been invited to dinner.  Maybe at a friend's home, perhaps at that new restaurant on the other side of town, or even just down to Aunt Mildred's for her annual Arbor Day bash.  The fateful night comes, and you arrive ready for a wonderful night of high spirits and good food.  Aunt Mildred mixes a surprisingly potent and delicious cocktail, the conversation is flowing, ambling here and there, topic to topic, as it does when cradled in the warm comfort of friends and family.  All is right with the world.

Then, out of the corner of your eye, you see it as the guests come to the table.  Instantly, the amygdala triggers a comlex series of events to deal with this sudden threat.  The world closes in as your focus grows hyper-sharp.  You can feel the sweat begin to run.  Capillaries constrict and your breathing speeds up, your heart rate increases as smooth muscle fibers contract.  Your pupils dilate as huge amounts of sugar are dumped into your system, giving you the energy to fight or flee.  In short, the afterburners have been lit.

This purely emotional response has evolved over millions of years.  Countless generations of your ancestors have lived or died by it.  The lucky few that lived, helped hone your involuntary reactions to the millisecond, until now, as if chosen by the hand of Darwin himself, you are able to stare this new evil in the face and survive.

Instant Gravy.  Oh, the humanity!

Powdered, canned, or otherwise thrown in the face of nature, fake gravy will be the downfall of our civilization.  Fake gravy and boy bands, that is.  Those among us who truly love it, often romanticize food.  The sights and smells, the wait, the great pleasure in taking it all in.  That's fine, but it's not always true.  Gnawing a mangled energy bar from the game pouch of a hunting vest while wiping sweat from your eyes is in no way sensuous.  It's fuel, nothing more, and it usually tastes like it.

Gravy is different.  Gravy is your first kiss.  It is the sirens song, calling you willingly to shipwreck.  It is her lusty laugh, the sparkle in her half-lidded eye, the hollow of her collarbone in flickering candlelight.  Gravy is sex.  So let's treat it as such.  With some respect and fun, and perhaps a couple too many servings on a weekend romp.

Most gravy begins with a piece of well roasted meat, now resting under foil, and the trivet of vegetables it was cooked on.  Period.  If I see you opening a packet or a can or a jar of gelatinous goo, I'm calling the cops.  You've got a gorgeous bed of roasted deliciousness in the bottom of that pan, replete with the drippings from your roasted protein, all golden brown and caramelized.  It's ambrosia bursting with flavor.  You'd rather dump water into a packet of seasonings some poor minimum-wage broom monkey swept up off the factory floor?  Seriously?  Roll up your damn sleeves, grab a whisk, and get in there.

Whether you chose to add add water, stock or wine makes little difference.  It matters to none at all if you chose to use a roux, a slurry, or simply reduce.  Mash the veggies through a strainer, or go quick and dirty and set them aside.  It's up to you.

Just please, put down the can opener, and live a little.

Venison meatloaf with a serious homemade gravy

And if I order biscuits and gravy one more time, only to be served that blinding white glue congealed to horrid canned biscuits, you'll see me on the evening news.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Anticipation II

Our navel gazing continues as pheasant season opens in mid-October.

The first truly cold mornings of the year greet us as we gather up vests and and guns and dogs to hit the pheasant fields.  I look forward to the bracing wind, the stinging ears, the first brave little flakes driven on the promise of many more to come because I know the flush of the pheasant is something to behold, all flash and color, noise and bravado.  Hunters will cover miles of hard ground for that chance, and it's all well worth it when that gaudy rooster launches in range.  Pheasant hunting is a much more social activity than the other upland pursuits because you can actually see your partners, as you follow the dogs to the end of one tract, and back again up the next.  So the joy of the flush, swing, and shot is more easily shared between friends.  You laugh and high-five when you hunt pheasants, you sweat and pick briars out of delicate places when you woodcock hunt.

A couple seasons ago, on a still, frosty morning, I was lucky enough to have a pair of roosters flush in front of me just minutes from where we'd parked the trucks.  With what I'd like to think of as a measure of skill and easy composure,  I managed to down both birds.  Murph ran over for high fives and back clapping, screaming, "That was the coolest f***ing thing I've ever seen!"  The following weekend, in nearly the same spot, I couldn't get my safety off, and missed an easy shot at another rooster.  I'd wussed out, and put gloves on.  Them's the breaks.  Just when you start to think you're looking pretty damn fine in your Filson britches, the omnipresent hand of karma deftly cuffs you upside the back of the head, a la Moe Howard.  None of which matters when you put protein to plate.  There's not much better than enjoying the fruits of your outdoor pursuit with close friends and an appropriate beverage.

"One Pan Pheasant"  Easy and beautiful... just like a good prom date.

As we troop back to the trucks, our vests heavy with our brightly feathered take (God and Kurt Russell willing), my mind begins it's own journey down the calendar.  It is drawn inevitably, unflinchingly, and without fail, to deer camp. 

Gun deer season in our part of the world, as in many others, is almost holy.  The pilgrimage up north to camp, the sacred rite of reaffirming friendships in hearty handshakes and hugs, the unpacking of blaze orange vestments all lead us to one glorious moment.  Opening day.

Opening day is such an anchor in the year, a red letter day in our hunter's minds, than it has become an unspoken reference point in the language of our camps.  We do not call the days preceding opening morning "Friday" and "Thursday."  They are casually referred to as "the day before" and "the day before the day before"  The time when we gather at camp to slow down, and prepare.  To toss some cards, and tell some jokes.  If Rog called me up right now, and said, "Hey, you remember the day before, 2001...?" without batting an eye, I would understand his reference -- the day before the day so important to us it need not even be named.

Opening morning itself, on your stand for the first time in a year, is a thing of magic.  All hope and prayer, excitement and calm, balled up in a knot in your stomach with a little reverence.  If you've prepared well, if you have minimized your mistakes, you might be blessed enough to gather some of that precious, delicious protein.  But there are no promises.

As the week rolls on, the success of the hunt becomes almost secondary.  There are stories to be retold and reheard around the warmth of the wood stove.  There are card games to win and lose, jokes to be told well and poorly.  And there's food.  Mountains of glorious food.  It can be tough to sit it out in driving sleet when you know there are pasties or lasagna or rare venison tenderloin calling you home.

Inevitably, the week must draw to a close.  As the "day before" is one of the greatest days of the year, the ride home is one of the worst.  Knowing the return to the world is here, that we won't all be together again like that for another year can be downright tough to swallow.  There is a remedy, however.  The wandering mind consoles itself with daydreams of the next call of the wild...

... the call of the coyote, that eerily playful yet sinister serenade rolling in from a pack of wild dogs or a lone animal.  Coyote calling is one of the only hunting pursuits in North America where the hunter becomes the hunted, and therein lies the draw.  There is something very primal about sneaking into a place, imitating wounded prey, and knowing those dogs are coming.  Coming with hunger and blood lust.  Coming to kill you.  Well, not to kill you, but the to kill the rabbit or fawn you've hopefully become in their mind's eyes.  Put plainly, it is killer versus killer, and seldom is there a more difficult match to win.  You can scarcely have more fun on a cold winter night... at least not with that many clothes on.

Here, doggie doggie

You cross a frozen pond in the dark, careful to spot soft spots in the ice, and you know your favorite bluegill bay has locked up for the season.  It's time to ice fish...

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


Summer can be a time of great anticipation for many outdoor sportsmen and women.  The fishing, at least here in Wisconsin, can enter the doldrums at times.  The dog days.  Sure, the smallmouth bass slash voraciously at my topwater flies late in the evening on a small, wadable river, and the cats bite well all through the humid days and nights, abuzz with cicada and mosquito.

Still, I find myself dreaming of the days to come.  And most of my year is like that.  A "grass is greener" thing.  Not that I fail to fish or hunt or be in the moment (OK, busted.  I do that all the time), but on those pleasantly dark drives back to the shack after a long day afield, my mind constantly wanders to the adventures to come.  The hits and misses, the easy walks and trudging marches, the time we will spend around the tables and campfires celebrating our successes and pondering our shortcomings.  Neuroscience sometimes calls the act of planning simply a "memory of the future," and my future memory is outstanding.

I'm wading a small river in Wisconsin's Driftless Area. The late afternoon sun, still full of August bluster and swagger, beats through the overhanging brush, tatting lacework shadows on the surface of the quick water as I swing my fly through the undercut bank.  I've stumbled into my share of fish for the day, and my subconscious may already be heading for the cold beverage back at the truck, so thoughts begin to wander...

... to birds.  The next undertaking of the year.  It will start with doves.  Dove hunting, still controversial in some circles here, only became legal a few years ago in Wisconsin.  Last year brought our first dovey endeavor, and man, did we have a hoot.  As usual, I was flailing around the countryside with my longtime friend Brian and his trusty English Cocker, Buddy.  We scouted a little, if you can can call noticing doves on power lines scouting, but mostly it was a seat-of-the pants operation.  Up early in the mist, we took our positions along a small creek where we knew the birds to be roosting.  As legal shooting loomed, the birds began to move.  And then the melee began- little slate rockets in the pale morning light.  We hit a few that first day, and a few the following evenings, but mostly we missed and laughed.  Laughed at each other, laughed at ourselves, and laughed at the joy of being out there. 

 Buddy, dove hunting in the present.  I envy his concentration.

Driving back home after my first ever dove hunt, I could not wait for grouse and woodcock to open, though they were a month away.  Never satisfied, my thoughts began to wander...

... Up North.  There's a broad term for you.  For me, Up North refers to a couple small cabins that belong to friends in extreme northeastern Wisconsin, right along the border of Michigan's Upper Peninsula.  And the grouse hunting can be fine.  Fighting through popple thickets and stands of balsam so you thick you are sometimes forced to crawl, you can spend an entire day immersed in the vibrant colors, deep earthy smells, and clean crisp air of autumn.  Not to mention the famously heart-stopping flush of the ruffed grouse that will, on occasion, lead to everything from a dumbfounded stare to questionable language to an actual shot.  But, when that shot connects, angels sing and you are dancing at the feet of your Lord.  Last year, in a rush to get to a downed bird, I attempted to crawl under a big old popple that had broken off about 7 feet up the trunk, folded over into a messy A-frame.  Somehow, I managed to stand up too soon, and crack the exact crown of my head on a severed branch protruding from the down-angled trunk.  The resultant torrent of blood blinded me as it ran down my face.  The foot stomping, head clutching, stumble hopping dance I performed did little to solidify my position as an intrepid, stoic outdoorsman.  My partner for the day, the notoriously reticent Primo, calmly retrieved my bird from his young dog, then quietly asked, "You need a hanky or something?"  And a brandy old fashioned.  Stat.

The oddest looking of all our game birds, so bulbous and spindly at the same time it sometimes looks like God's happy little accident, is also nearest to my heart.  Of all the daydreams during the year, the most detailed and filled with yearning are for the beloved little American Woodcock.  Slogging from muddy creek bottom to alder thicket, taking slappy dogwood off the face, clawing through cover so thick I curse not having taken up golf, somehow brings me the greatest joy.  I love the effort required, I love the commitment to long walks "in the shit," I even love the clothes and gear.  But mostly, I love that unpredictable flush, corckscrewing up through the mesh of branches, only to dart off in any given direction.  Get on them fast and shoot.  Don't wait for "the shot" because there often won't be one.  The woodcock is one of those birds, for me at least, for which there is no shame in slapping the trigger with the gun mounted slapdash on your chest or your cheek after having doinked the barrel off a sapling or two.  And the meals they bring --  roasted whole and served on toast with a fine reduction, or ground up into pate' on a rye crisp with a porter in hand.  Recipes good enough for Industrial Age barons must be at least passable.  Right?  But still, hiking back to the turn-off with spruce needles down my back and wet feet, my mind wanders further still into the fall calendar...

... to ducks and deer camp, coyotes and rabbits, and beyond into winter ice fishing and the first paddle trips of spring.  But it's late, and it's August, so I'll retire to dream of Mourning Doves.  The next big thing on the calendar.
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