Wednesday, November 28, 2012

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Just a little housekeeping here.

During my time in deer camp, deep in the northwoods of Wisconsin, it was brought to my attention that many of my northern brethren do not have internet service at home.  Some don't even have computers.  While I wonder how they get through a day without gazing contently upon kittens in bowls of yarn and knuckleheads trying to eat piles of cinnamon, that does not surprise me, knowing them as true Yoopers and northern Cheeseheads.

At their request and to further the sharing of my blatherings, you will now find a print button in the lower left corner of every post, that you may print out the story to share with flannel-clad loggers around the wood stove.  Simply click the button, and go.

Thanks for pointing out the need, Else.


The Floating Orange Ninja

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The First Time

Young hunters are required to take a safety course before they are able to obtain a hunting license here in Wisconsin.  I remember how nervous I was taking that class as a kid.  Not that the material was difficult -- I'd spent my formative years in the presence of hunters and woodsmen who shared their vast knowledge freely.  It was that there was so much riding on it.  If I failed to make the grade, I'd never be allowed  to carry a gun alongside those men, never be treated to the joy of following happily working dogs in the sun, or so I thought.  It was for all the marbles in my pre-teen mind.

The jitters of taking the course and the test were a mere foreshadowing of the first time I would carry a gun in the woods.  It was a squirrel hunt with Dad and Brian in the Kettle Moraine State Forest, and I was rattling like the last oak leaves clinging to the trees in the autumn wind.  I carried the same Savage .22 that I still use and love today, handed down to me from Dad on that bright morning like a rite of passage.

Still as alluring as she is dangerous

A moment like that, Dad giving you his gun, is a monumental mark on the timeline in the life of a boy.  Pride and gratitude fall around the place like confetti on New Year's Eve.  My dad was "a hugger," there was never any shortage of those, but I remember there being something deeper about the embrace we shared over that elegantly plain little rifle.  It was one of the first times I felt like a man.  I remember how startled I was to notice the wetness in his eyes, and how conflicting shame and happiness overtook me as mine grew dewy in response.  I wanted nothing more in that moment than to shoot straight and make him proud.  A lot of times, that's all I want these days.

We saw one running squirrel that day, in what was probably a short hunt for the adults but seemed like one of the great adventures of my life to me.  I grew up within driving distance of those woods.  I knew them fairly well.  But until that point I had been a bystander on the path, observing nature in action, being taught everything from bushcraft to glacial geomorphology by my elders.  I knew what a food web was, but that morning was the first time I was granted the chance to take an active role in one.  I was finally off the bench and in the deadly game that has been happening since some primordial predator first chased down its prey in the goo.

I will admit now that my predatory instincts got the best of me then, in a move that I would frown upon today.  My young urge to shoot something grew nearly unable to be contained as we walked the kettled oak forest, until I eventually spied a chipmunk stuffing his cheeks in the leaf litter on the forest floor.  He fell that day, for no reason, to my unbridled hormones and excitement.  While age and wisdom have overtaken the heady need to fire haphazardly at anything with fur or feathers, I don't look down my nose on former me.  It was a waste, yes, a moment youthful indiscretion, but the seed of distaste it left in me has since grown to guide me in shot selection and general conservation -- a fine legacy for a hapless chippy with a cheek full of acorns.

I remember also watercress, and how surprised I was that a plant so lush and verdant, plucked from one of the many gorgeous little springs that dot that patch of the country, could be so piquant and bitter.  My entire life experience with leafy greens to that point had been with iceberg lettuce from the grocery store and spinach from the garden.  That a delicate little thing such as watercress floating on a spring-fed pool could be so bold and peppery struck a strong chord with me, obviously, since I just wrote a paragraph devoted to it almost three decades later.

I've gathered a lot of squirrels and watercress since that first childhood hunt, almost exclusively using that same rifle (for the squirrels, the watercress is more easily convinced into the game pouch), none of which diminished my enthusiasm for taking my hunting buddy Frisbee and his daughter on their first pheasant hunt last Saturday.

Frisbee is an avid whitetail hunter, but he'd never chased pheasants before.  When he mentioned that his oldest daughter wanted to go pheasant hunting I was thrilled.  It took us a while to juggle schedules and make things work, but we finally got it on the calendar.

I'd warned Frisbee during the protracted planning phase, that if they weren't ready when I arrived I'd have to wake the entire family with the doorbell in order to meet the rest of our party on time.  I had little reason to worry.  Nearly as soon as I pulled in the driveway, Sierra came bouncing out the front door in the dark, ready to go.  When I asked her what made her want to try pheasant hunting as I pulled on my boots for the day, she replied matter-of-factly, "I just like hunting."  Well, alright.

We arrived at our appointed rendezvous with the rest of the hunting party to find a chilly still morning, and acres of pheasant cover under gray morning skies.  I stepped out of the truck to greet dogs and men, and stole a glance Sierra's way.  She looked to be furtively taking it all in, asking hushed questions of her dad and slowly warming up to the hyper dogs as we all milled about with a bit of an edge, waiting for the appointed hour.

The hunt itself happened just as you would hope when you have a kid along for the first time.  We had not walked a couple hundred yards into the tall grass when one of the dogs got hot.  It took me a few years of bird hunting to be able to tell when a flushing dog was getting birdy, and they are all a little different in their mannerisms, but Maddy was making it abundantly clear to all that she was on a pheasant.

We were soon greeted by the boisterous flash and cackle of a rooster clawing for altitude.  Murph dispatched the bird and we were officially under way.  That field brought two additional birds to our vests, both relatively close to Frisbee and Sierra, which is all that can be hoped for with a new, young hunter in the group.

I think the smiles say more than I ever could

We were granted a couple more flushes in the next hours, in the grass and drought-pummeled corn, but were unable to shoot because of buildings and boundaries.  While I would've been thrilled to have more shots on birds, as I thought about it later, I was glad that Sierra had been there to see some hunter's restraint.  I can only hope that she saw in us the ability to discern safe and responsible shooting on the run, and that she had as much fun as possible.  I have a niggling suspicion that she may have also added a few choice phrases to her vocabulary, as Murph lacks any ability whatsoever to censor himself in front of children, cops or anyone else.

Frisbee and Sierra had to leave after that.  They had things to do back in the world, and I think her little legs had had enough tromping through the cover for one day.  We gave them our pheasants as we parted company and continued hunting minus the newest members of our crew, with hopes that they'd enjoyed themselves and that they might join us again after gun deer season in the cold hard fields of December, where the birds are tougher to hunt, but somehow even more beautiful in being so.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Then the Internet Happened

There's a state of mind that comes about sometimes.  I'm grateful when it does, I actively seek it out, and I believe a lot of us who spend time off the pavement are seeking it as much as anything else.

When I sit in my ice fishing shanty, nothing but the hiss of the heater and the gentle glow of the flasher to keep me company, I find myself sucking into... myself, if you'll permit me the horrible turn of phrase.  The world outside that thin layer of canvas disappears and, for at least a little while, there is nothing to be found in the galaxy other than what I can touch within easy reach.  It's a cocoon, a hideaway.  It is, to me, supremely comfortable.  The catching of fish, at that point, is so remotely inconsequential, it nearly fails to enter the equation.

On the right lake, you can sometimes have the whole place to yourself

When I walk through the woods.  When I walk through the woods until that perfect state arrives in which my feet are not yet sore and barking, my legs are heavy but not yet gone to clay, I'm tired but in the midst of a slow-motion runner's high, and the quarry no longer matters.  I walk to achieve this state as much as I do to powder a grouse in the slanting morning light or put fungi on my table.  And I do it alone a lot.  Not that I dislike the company of those I hunt and fish with, but things just seem to make more sense when I'm on my own most of the time.  There's no keeping pace, subtle competition is nowhere to be found.  If you've ever tried to coordinate a deer drive or bird hunt through heavy cover and over rugged terrain with a large group, you know that it can be, at times, more hassle than it's worth.

And so I remained happily alone in the dark, so to speak, for quite some time.  I've spent time with my "Madison friends" (so delineated not only by their geographic existence, but their relative disinterest in outdoor sports) during the week, and wandered off to chase protein and sunsets alone quite often on the weekends.  It was fulfilling, and obviously interspersed with weekends I treasured with my outdoor buds. 

The difference between alone and lonely is mostly a matter of comfort with oneself, and that works for me.  Whether I ever produce anything worthwhile again or not, the fact is that this ginormous melon on my neck not only barely fits in most hats, there's also a creative mind sloshing around in there that craves quiet time to think -- sometimes deeply about the meaning of things, often about the perfect piece of pie... and redheads.

In the span of a couple years I suffered a great many painfully sickening losses.  So for a time I'd been cruising along in solo mode, adjusting to a life irrevocably wounded.  People worried about me.  They talked of me in hushed tones and "stopped by" a lot.  They used kid gloves with me during the holidays, knowing that almost everyone I'd had was gone.  Somebody gave me a canned ham once, which would've been very sweet if I were a 1970's housewife with a surplus of pineapple rings and maraschino cherries.  They marveled at my "toughness," which never really existed, and when they'd had enough cocktails, awkwardly congratulated me for not becoming a lop of weeping goo.  Insert vaguely uncomfortable man-hugging.

It was all very overwhelming and sweet, and I am forever indebted to every one of them for their love and compassion, but my one true respite throughout it all was grabbing a rod or a gun or a kayak paddle, and pointing my sniffer into the wind, alone.

Eventually we all got on, family, friends and I, with being the ones still above ground together, and things got as back to normal as they ever will be.  I continued my lone jaunts even as I began to treasure my time in deer camp or with the bird hunting boys more and more.

Then the internet happened for me.  A social media explosion, more precisely, akin to the big bang; Google Earth, GIS and all the other useful outdoor cyber-tools notwithstanding.  Before the pulverizing avalanche of heartache beset my family and I, I'd joined an ice fishing forum.  I remember the day.  People were sick and in the hospital.  I wanted to go fishing, but obligations with out-of-date waiting room magazines bound me from the ice.  So I clicked around and found the forum, which will remain nameless here because I was later ejected for being too likable and funny.  Also for toeing the line right up to profanity, quite creatively, I thought. 

While I am and was an electronics junky, far from a stranger to LEDs and touch screens, I'd never joined an internet forum before that.  I'd never used any social media.  I was content to eat my lunch quietly on a stump in the swamp, and look at my own pictures when I got home.  I only begrudgingly use Facebook now to halfheartedly promote this collection of rambling drivel, and then not very often.  My current Instagram addiction may be a different matter, but I try to convince myself that it's only related to my affection for, and envy of, quality photography.

It turns out the sweaty palms and butterflies associated with joining that first ice fishing forum were completely unfounded.  While that community could not abide my penchant for playfully twisting the language right to the edge of acceptable public use, I did meet there a group of outdoorsmen I'm still in daily contact with today.  All of us too fantastic in form and thought to mix with the great unwashed, we formed our own private outdoor forum that still thrives to this moment.  I can alt+tab over to it as I type this, and they will probably razz me for being a verbose, blathering donkey when they read it.

This is a group of men who have grown together, built cyber-camaraderie over the last half decade.  And not just over the ether of the interwebs.  I've flown halfway across the country to fish with some of them.  One guy actually had the impudence to move to Montana without taking the rest of us.  I hope to sully his home with my presence and frightening fly casting someday.

It has become more than an outdoor forum.  It's a community.  I know their kids' names.  We share our real life victories and defeats.  They comforted me when everyone was dying.  I stood up in one of their weddings.  All because some nerds at MIT and DARPA wanted to talk to each other back in the day.

Draw a horizontal line across Wisconsin from La Crosse to Sheboygan.  Rotate it clockwise a tick, and you're damn near connecting my house to that of my good friend Adam, but we never would have met without the internet.  Packer games, ice fishing, talk of girls, booze-soaked rowdy wedding receptions; we could have shared none of them had we not each clicked on the link to that ice fishing forum.

After years of chatting through the screen, Adam and I finally meet

I belong to many internet forums now, some related to the outdoors and others not.  I'm even starting to get the hang of this Twitter fad.  As is true for all of us, though, my closest  personal friends will always remain nearest my heart.  The Lathrop Street gang from back in the days when a house cup and a marginally clean shirt made you a celebrity, the guys I marched with, the retired crew up in deer camp who are probably hoisting one and talking about how cool they used to be right now, and Brian, who was there with Dad when I was born and still shoots woodcock faster than I do -- these are my people.

This blog is a form of social media I never imagined myself being involved with, but it has led to acquaintances all over cyberspace.  I read some of your wonderful writings, see your gorgeous pictures, and am inspired to write and cook and chase game more than I ever have been.  Thank you.  But while we're at it, what's up with all the stickers?  I may be a relative social media noob, but where are you people sticking all these things?  Seriously.

Still, I often find it most comfortable to go it alone.  If you're ever in Wisconsin and you see a lone fly fisherman casting like he's being stung in the face by invisible hornets... or a solo bird hunter miss an easy passing shot... or a solitary mushroom seeker arresting a fall in the brush with his face, stop and say hello.  It's probably me.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Highway to Everywhere

I was cruising north toward home after a successful weekend at Brian's house when it happened.  The previous days had combined early morning duck hunts with installing a new steel roof on his house in the afternoons, so I was flagging a bit.  Not grievously sore or tired, but waning just enough that things suddenly seemed to be happening a little too fast around me.  That feeling you get when it dawns on you that you need to find a place to park, and either get out and unbend the hinges a bit, or grab some z's right there behind the wheel.

I was engrossed in a favorite podcast at the time, which normally keeps me awake and alert (fellow werdnerds, please find A Way with Words on your radio dial or itunes feed), but the need for a graceful exit from the speeding masses was growing more pressing by the mile.  I paused the podcast in order to quite literally shake the fatigue from my foggy head, and the radio came on.

Then it happened, and I could've driven on over the horizon.

Miles north of  Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, after you've been in the corn fields past the car dealerships and fireworks stands for quite a while, the highway crests the tail end of the Niagra Escarpment and looks out over a broad valley.  As I slid down into that valley, together with, and so post-modernly separated from my fellow travelers, the comforting staccato call of the Green Bay Packers play-by-play man tumbled out of the speakers, and I gazed across the sunlit valley gone amber and crimson with autumn.

This is it.  It's here.  All was suddenly right with the world.

I often think of my outdoor life laid out like a highway before me.  The tires creep out of the driveway on New Year's Day.  We drive all the way to the ball dropping on Times Square again; hunting, fishing and foraging along the way.  Annual rites and markers pass by, some like inconsequential signposts, others with all the grandeur and beauty springing forth from that golden valley under the sun.  Surprises crop up on the year's highway, detours that lead to both joy and disappointment, sidetracks that lend color to another 365 days of chasing the dream over hill and through the thickets, but there are those moments, both infinite and infinitesimal, that come along the road every season almost without fail.  I treasure them just as we do the perfect shotgun swing or topwater slash.

One of those milestones is that moment in fall when the leaf colors are approaching their climax, and I suddenly find myself driving home from another trip afield with the Packers playing on the radio.  It's an ephemeral, seemingly trifling snapshot of the fall, but that does not mean that I treasure it any less.  It's just football and receding chlorophyll, nothing more, but when it sneaks up on me like that it also functions as a reminder that I'm still here.  Still taking breath, still getting after it, hopefully with muddy boots and a few birds in the back of the truck.

It's also one of the first reminders that we are in the thick of it.  The wind is shifting around to the north, most of the hunting seasons are open, there will be football and tailgating.  Woodsmoke in the air.  It's the greatest time of year.

Some of these yearly occasions are more structured and sure-handed.  Anticipation builds, for me at least, all of November for the opening morning of gun deer season.  I know that for some of you reading this the preoccupation rears it's head long before it does for me, but I don't feel it in the air until Halloween passes.  The woocock hunting is too raucous before then.

Regardless of when the impatience and expectancy set in, opening morning brings with it a magic that cannot be diminished by the knowledge we have of it's coming.  Regardless of all the preparation, all the stories remembered around the fires leading up to the day, the back clapping affection that we men sometimes find ourselves only comfortable with when everyone is finally in camp; when night fades into opening morning on the stand, it never fails to evoke chills.  Hope mingles with prayer in that moment, and I feel like I want to get down and chase them, but there is nothing to do but sit quietly and wait, a constraint that does nothing but add to the thrill.

One of my small annual milestones, the impetus behind this very writing, happened just this morning.  I arose, and after the normal amount of dreary-eyed shuffling around the house, stepped out onto the front deck.  Immediately upon doing so, a shiver overtook me right up from the toes.  No shiver of anticipation or excitement, this was your standard Holy-Mother-it's-cold-out-here shiver.

But that first true shiver of fall brings with it an avalanche of thoughts and sense memories.  My mind immediately turns to thoughts of burning wood and hearty stews and good dark beers.  No longer are we panting under the searing glare of July's unrepentant blast furnace sun.  There is frost on the grass, and fallen leaves.  Squirrels make their tireless runs to oak and hickory while the whitetail's rack slips through the willow bottoms.  Woodcock fly low and unseen in the night, only to flush where there were none mere days before.  Coyotes sing in their new winter coats over the muskies and pike as they put on their feeding run before it all goes cold and dark.  It's all in that one tingling shiver on the deck, and so much more.

Opening morning of gun deer season being the glaring exception, most of these small yearly instants in time cannot be forced.  The act of searching for them changes them from the outset.  We aren't quite to Uncertainty Principle here, but you can't chase Schrödinger's cat.  Like so many other things outside and in life, they must be observed as they come and in their own time.  They punctuate life rather than filling it, and come to fruition only through their own being.

Less grand than sweeping vistas as we travel the yearly road, overlooked by many who never have the need to seek it out, hardly ever mentioned among men who hunt in pounding rain and through impenetrable briars; we find the cherished, even venerated, comfortable place to sit.

It is an exceedingly rare gift to find a truly agreeable place to park oneself while out in the wilds.  Maybe once a season, God willing and the creek don't rise, I will find myself sitting truly comfortably while engaged in the otherwise lumpy, muddy, bug-infested business of chasing fur, feather, and shrooms 'round and 'round.

I often hunt squirrels with a stop and stalk approach, as many of us do.  We walk as quietly as we can for a while, eyes glued to the canopy (which is nearly guaranteed to produce at least one stupendous tumble from a hunting partner once a year), until we find a likely looking place to stop and watch things.  I hunt this way with a vest that includes a stadium seat for just this purpose.  It felt so thick and luxurious in the store that I figured I might no longer need a bed, opting to simply sleep on my hunting vest.  That turned out to be not often the case where big oak roots and sharp rocks are in play.  The forest floor is miles from the sales floor in more ways than one.  But I recall one fluffy-tail hunt a few years ago where everything came together in the seating department, and that piece of foam was the most comfortable perch I'd ever encountered.  So I reacted accordingly.  I sat right there all afternoon.  I took a nap.  I didn't see a single squirrel and I didn't care, the holy grail of outdoor seating having finally been found.

These signposts throughout the year's highway often act as talismans.  They give us the power to carry on by reassuring us that things are going along as they should.  Once happened upon, we can continue down the road of our seasons knowing that we are not lost.

Among the most powerful of these guideposts is the first fire.  Campfires are always alluring, and there is nothing better than staring into the wood stove as a lifeline while the snow drifts ever deeper, but the greatest fire of the year is always the first one that is truly needed.  You've daydreamed about it while toiling with maul and hydraulic splitter.  The cant hook brought blisters fighting the big ash trunk now broken down and burning.  Muscles burned and sweat ran, and now it all amounts to the mesmerizing flame we've all been worshiping since nearly the beginning of time.

Backyard campfire in the rain last week

It would be a glaring omission to not return, from a previous post, to one of my favorite stops along the annual highway.   Gun deer season is the High Holiday of the year among my ragged clan of hunting friends.  Not all partake, some prefer to continue fishing or hunting birds, but all of us know that no treasure can compare, no light can shine so brightly, as that shimmering out into the night from the deer camp window.

While the deer hunting may not be spectacular in our corner of the state, the camaraderie certainly is.  And the pinnacle of that coming together every year is Bloody Mary Tuesday.  The tradition began long before I was invited to join the camp, but it is burned into me as the single greatest gathering day of my year.  The guns are put away as people drive in from all over the county to share in drink, food and storytelling.  I force myself to sit back and listen to my elders, as much for their comedy as their wisdom.  I can safely say that I look forward to Bloody Mary Tuesday and that collection of men as much as I do anything else in my sporting life.

The fellas, Bloody Mary Tuesday

I hope to be heading down the annual outdoor highway for years to come.  The milestones continue to grow in number over the years, but in their magic they hold the power to remain undiluted by one another.  I don't believe any of us can accrue too many.  Please feel free to share your annual treasured milestones in the comments below.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Martian Deer and the Vanishing Truck

In his gorgeous little portrait of grouse hunting, A Grouse Hunter's Almanac, Mark Parman states plainly,  "I've been lost just a few times or many times depending on how one defines lost."  That just about nails it.  He goes on to discuss how, while we as outdoorsy folks might occasionally become a tad turned around, we seldom have to spend an unplanned night or two in the woods.  I never have, though it has been close a time or two.

All is generally well and good for me when the only order of the day is walking through the woods.    If my mind is free to wander as it will and my eyes left to take in whatever they happen upon while the feet and legs keep churning away down below, I can and will most often turn back and make a beeline for the truck at the end of the day.  My brain, while not especially adept at handling differential equations or Farsi, has been conditioned to note and remember waypoints and landmarks as a matter of second nature.  I've been doing this for a pretty long time now.  Somehow, after years of practice, many outdoors folk can continually create a fairly accurate 3D map in their minds, as they progress through the day over hill and dale.  I happen to fall comfortably within that category most days.

We all acquire some tricks of the trade, of course -- sighting methods used to keep oneself aligned and on course relative to a big landmark or the sun.  In fairly open country the easiest thing to do, obviously, is to pick out a feature like a ridge or lone tree in the distance, and walk to it.  You can't get more simple than that.  In more dense or hilly terrain, we often line up two or three closer trees, sighting down them like stacking them up against one another, in order to maintain a course.  Deliberate error is also a handy play to master when navigating to a line such as a road or stream.  If you consciously nudge your back bearing off a few degrees in a purposeful direction, you'll know for certain that the tent or the truck is, say, downstream as opposed to upstream when you get to the road or river.  Much easier to find.  I use that one all the time.

Dad taught me a decades ago to stop every few minutes when bucking cross country, and turn around to look at the way you've just come.  I still do it.  It helps to cement a visual image of the country as it will look coming back the other way, so things don't look so foreign on the return.

Still, with education and experience, even the most practiced among us sometimes do end up wandering around in a meadow that isn't supposed to be there or gazing bewildered into a river valley that surely eroded in behind our backs after we'd passed that very way earlier in the day.

If you walk around outside long enough, you will eventually crawl up out of a thicket somewhere.  That small spark of elation at finally seeing the sky after an hour shouldering through cover not fit for human travel will blossom in your chest, only to be slowly and inexorably crushed by the realization that you have no idea where you are.

 A nice enough shot, but I took it because I fully expected a certain kettle lake to be there when I crested that hill.  They moved it, apparently.

It is most often when other tasks are added to the agenda, more mental energy spent on other things, that we can fail to keep track of our way.  On a very short walk through the northwoods with Frisbee years ago, I got a little turned around.

We'd parked on a sandy road that makes up one side of what we casually call "the loop."  I believe we were looking for a spot to put up a tree stand, though I no longer recall whether it was his or mine.  Maybe we were both looking for a spot.  It was a month or so before gun deer season, with all the accompanying contentment and excited jitters that time of year brings to the hunter's heart.  I remember the chill wind being strong enough to bring on the goosebumps for one of the first times that season, and the angling sun as it shone through the turning leaves.  I also remember walking back out to the road, and discovering that the truck had been beamed up by aliens.  Or stolen in a preemptive strike by the deer we were preparing to hunt.

Those were my first suspicions, anyway, though I was quickly yanked back to reality by Mr. Occam.  In a quick, if slightly befuddled, review of my actions to that point, I realized that I'd committed the gravest of outdoor follies during our mini-hike.  I'd distrusted my compass.

Any woodsman worth his salt doesn't leave the bermed gravel turnout in big country without a compass.  I carry two, one pinned to my vest for quick access and a spare in a vest or backpack pocket.  I use them constantly on the long grouse pushes we make through spruce and balsam so thick you sometimes have to turn your back and bull in reverse.  There is no lining up of landmarks to maintain a bearing when you can't see past the end of your gun.  Not a lot of shooting either, but that's a subject for another time.  The compass is the single most  invaluable tool in our arsenal, should we choose to leave the easy confines of tarmac and road signs.  It is the first thing on my pre-hunt checklist after food and water.

The modern GPS is a fine instrument, and can no-doubt be a useful tool at times.  I use one for certain things, and it has yet to fail me, but it probably will someday.  When I fail to replace the batteries or slip on a damp rock and crush the screen, most likely.  Or drop it down an ice hole.  It's much easier and cheaper to carry a backup compass.

Which brings us back to our fateful day seeking hunting spots, and The Case of the Vanishing Truck.  As I said, I'd committed the most serious (and flat-out dumbest) navigational faux-pas earlier that morning.  I'm a righty when I shoot, so I keep that compass pinned just above the left breast pocket of all my vests so it won't foul up a startled gun mount.  It's perched inches from my face.  A normally functioning adult bushwacking in unfamiliar country would glance at it every minute or so, and base his or her movement off that observation.  Instead, that morning I was suddenly struck with the sure-hearted conviction reserved almost solely for the irrational that the compass was wrong.  It wasn't, of course, and so as I continually bumped our course further away from the correct return bearing, I felt justified, proud even, in having realized that my compass was somehow malfunctioning and I, consummate woodsman, had not only noticed this, but reacted in a manner suited to solve the problem.

Until we got back to the road, and the truck had been absconded with by alien deer.

Unless you're traveling in areas considerate of extreme magnetic declination or random huge mineral deposits, always believe the compass.  It's not wrong, you are.  If you really doubt it, take out the spare you should be carrying and compare them.  It's not wrong, you are.  That was the lesson learned that day, and the mantra I repeated to myself as Frisbee and I hoofed it through the sugar sand to the truck, a half mile the wrong way down the road.

Not many years after that, Caleb and I decided to take a ride up to the river, and have ourselves a little mid-week hunt in fresh country during the gun deer season.

 A favorite view of the river

He had a big rock he wanted to sit on, a perfect vantage point looking out over mixed hardwood and popple thickets interspersed with stands of balsam.  I, on the other hand, had no plan or idea, and as such, struck out almost directly east from his postition to see what I could see.

I walked for a few hours, combining the still hunter's glacial pace with occasional fits of over-the-peak-itis.  Not a condition suffered by the old farts in camp in this case, OTPI is the strong urge some of us suffer from, whether hunting or not, that drives us up to the peak of the ridge, and the next one, and the one after that; in a singular quest to see what lies beyond.  It's very similar to around-the-bend-itis, a condition more often suffered in a canoe or kayak, but resulting in the same symptoms and outcome.  Those being, the sufferer, often in a state of endorfin-induced bliss, ends up way the holy cripes too far away from campsite or vehicle as dusk begins to fall.

That is exactly what happened to me on the hunt along the river with Caleb.  I'd seen what I thought were a doe and a fawn through the slashings sometime around what photographers call the "golden hour," that period of time when the sun is setting and everything takes on the soft hue and cast of autumn.  I'd then hunkered down for the last few minutes of light in the hopes that they would return or a buck would follow.  None of that transpired, but I did suddenly realize I was quite a long way from the truck in country I did not know, full dark quickly approaching.

To be completely honest, I had a moment, as they say.  I could suddenly feel my heart pounding in my ears, and the hair start to stand on end.  I was alone in the wild, unprotected in the dark.  The most profound of our primordial fears.  Fortunately for me, a process that began when we dropped out of the trees and started growing bigger brain pans eventually lead to the ability to reason, and a few hundred thousand generations down the pike, the invention of the LED headlamp.

I had two additional things on my side, combating my heedless flight into the dark.  I was prepared, and I'd learned to always trust the compass years before with those martian Cervids.  It was a simple matter of donning my headlamp, and following the compass straight back west through the big woods to the road.  I was amped, a little frightened by my poor decision making, but fully confident that I would be fine in a lean-to with a campfire and frozen Snickers dinner if it came to that.  It didn't.  I walked right out to Caleb's truck, and found him sitting in there with the heater running, wondering where my big buck was, that being the hopeful assumption of every deer hunter when his buddy returns late from the field.  I was puffing a bit, and sweaty from pushing it a little too hard on the way back.  I was also content to have found my way out of the darkness, and looking forward to the comforting glow of the wood stove and a nip or three of brandy.

Most of my experiences with getting spun around in the fields and woods are nowhere near that intense or prolonged.  Often, when you've had your noggin to the ground tracking an animal or in the clouds simply getting loose for a while, there suddenly comes a wait just a second moment.  An alarm born of instinct and experience reminds you to snap out of it, and take stock.  It hits with a little shock, but fades quickly as you assess and correct.  Hang on.  Where's the sun?  What's the wind doing?  Is that little pond still where it should be?  OK.  And you comfortably resume the tracking or shroom hunting or my personal favorite, mindless wandering.  It's important to stop and check in with the macro view once in a while, in outdoor pursuits just as in life.  Fail to do so, and you may quickly find yourself lost.

I failed to do so a little more than year ago.  A scant few miles from where I sit typing there is a DNR public hunting ground with a river running through it.  One of those small, wandering woody rivers with plenty of backwater that looks as if it should be fairly bristling with wood ducks come hunting season.  I'd been up and down it a number of times with Selma Kayak, and I knew the general layout of things, but I wanted to get in there and have look from the banks.  I wanted to get a little sweaty and muddy, and check things out for duck hunting.

So I did.  After a couple hours of poking a prodding along the banks on foot, occasionally fighting boot-sucking river muck, it was time to head for the shack.  I veered up out of the bottoms and back into the light, put the sun on my right cheek, and got to making time across the mixed prairie beset with small stands of hardwoods.

I hadn't studied the maps or aerial images of this particular area too closely before leaving home.  It's relatively small, and there's a river bisecting it.  If you get spun up anywhere near the middle, just make for the river.  Then it's simply a matter of knowing whether you need to walk upstream or down to get home.  Nor did I bother with the compasses.  "Practice what you preach" was apparently not in session that day.

But as I cut across country through the grass taller than me, in a bit of a rush to get home to a nice cool shower, I was rudely and quite suddenly cut off by a river that shouldn't have been there.  And it was running the opposite direction from what it should have been.  I stood there slack-jawed, utterly stunned.  There's no river here, and certainly not one that runs uphill.

Looking back on myself standing there now, I'm reminded of that picture you sometimes see of yourself, taken from an odd angle when you weren't paying attention.  I tend to live under the cheerful delusion that I have things pretty well under control and put together, at least a portion of the time.  Then I see myself in the periphery of one of those off-hand pictures and realize again from my unguarded countenance, I'm just another open soul, sometimes confused, less often truly content and sated.

That's how I'm sure I looked standing on the bank of that stream that shouldn't have been there.  Confusion with a chaser of surprise.  I stood still until I could hear the whisper of the Interstate in the distance.  Using that as my guide, I made some big loops, half circles along the bank of the mystery river, until I figured out, at long last, that it was in fact the same river.  I'd simply walked directly into the crook of an oxbow I hadn't known was there.  Had I cut the bank fifty yards in either direction from where I did, that towering prairie grass blinding me from any meaningful perspective as it was, things would have made much more sense initially.

As it happened, I was forced to make a couple five minute detours to reacquaint myself with what was actually happening.  As I got my wits about me and and a picture in my mind, Venus began to shine brighter, and the western horizon caught flame.  Time to boogie.  I made for the railroad tracks that I knew edged one border of the public land, and made my way back to the parking lot under that jostling gait you can only achieve walking on the tracks.  An extra hour of bumbling around in wilds, minutes from the state capitol building, it was just the sort of mini adventure that can crop up close to home when you get out there, and explore.

 A little mud, well earned

I never really worry about getting lost because I'm pretty damn good at it.  And thus far, I'm OK at getting un-lost too.  We'll see what this fall brings.  Following an eager flusher through the heavy bird cover is one of the easiest ways to lose oneself, and I hope to be doing plenty of both come October.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A Vested Interest

When I cannot find a certain piece of my gear, anything able to be toted in one hand, there is one place I begin my search.  Actually they are many, many small places, but they're all bundled up in the same area.  On the coat hooks near the back door here hang vests.  Fishing and hunting vests abound, with a couple more street-wise (read: clean, not full of fish goo and partridge feathers) fleece items for staying in town.  Those two have red W's on them instead of camouflage patterns and duck blood.

There were so many vests cluttering up the joint, I handed this classic down to Spanky.

I don't know how all these vests took over, but there they are, no room left for coats or hats.  They have become permanent residents on the landing, and show no signs of leaving.  I suppose that makes it a vest rack, not a coat rack then.  I do try to clean them out after a trip, but some relics are always left behind in the many tiny pockets it seems.

So, when a headlamp or gaiter comes up missing, for example, I make like a Leakey, and commence with the digging.  There are as many pockets per cubic foot of space hanging from those coat hooks as anywhere else on the planet, and some interesting finds can sometimes be made.  Often, I find the odd bits of detritus that fit together to weave the story of the last hunt or wade.  Food crumbs and wrappers.  One of those cheapo multi-tools you sometimes get for signing up with another outdoor magazine or organization.  A wader repair kit, years past usefulness. An exploded tube of sunscreen.  A discarded fly, stuck mysteriously to the inside of the collar.  I once found a perfectly preserved little mushroom in the chest pocket of a fishing vest where I normally keep my camera.  As far as I know, it grew there.  I have no recollection of how it might have gotten there otherwise.

Another time I found a scrap of folded paper containing a two-word note in my own jerky scrawl.  It said, "Cat library," and to this very moment I have no idea on earth what I was writing about.

 This vest is a testament to organization.  It also proved that a granola bar is still edible after a year inside it.

It's always an enjoyable time going through Pandora's Pockets, almost like looking at an old journal.  There's more than a couple dessicated planks of forgotten jerky in there.  The vests are filled with memories.  As I walked by them the other day, I saw the tag end of a wadded-up leader hanging out of one of the pockets.  I'd jammed it in there weeks ago after it snapped off on a big fish, retying a new one mid-current in a huff.  It seems silly now, to get enraged on a perfectly good stream because a nice fish broke you off, and that wad of balled up monofilament reminded me in passing, once again, that fishing is supposed to be fun. 

This all started for me with a vintage Eddie Bauer down vest.

Actually, it wasn't vintage then, it was just a vest.  Come to think of it, even if it had been, we didn't call things "vintage" then, we called them "old" or "hand-me-downs," and didn't really think about them much after that.  My dad gave it to me after years of faithful service from his own closet, rusty ocher over burnt clay.  Or I bet that's what the blurb under the heavily bearded model in the catalog said.  It was the chromatic equivalent of walking around as a giant cat turd, and I loved every minute I ever spent in it.  I dare say, I might have felt sexy as hell for the first time in my life, peacocking around the woodlot in that vest as a teen, no audience other than my velcro Vizsla, Happy.  We didn't call them "rescue dogs" back then either, but that's what Happy was, and seldom has there been a more fitting name for a canine companion.

We outdoorsy folk don't do much down and nylon in the vest realm anymore.  Some city people do, but they call them vintage or retro now, and that's not my gig, really.  When you've shredded the front off the original number hauling firewood with your brother, wearing its clone over a $90 flannel to the bars as a token of style just seems disrespectful.  I don't know to what or whom (lumberjacks, hipsters, Mr. Bauer?), but I know it ain't right.

I am still, however, a practicing vest aficionado to this day.  What can I say?  They make me happy.

I also transfer the little sticker off every apple I eat onto the last one in the group, until the final survivor is sporting a full, apple-y chest of badges in memory of his fallen brethren.  Sometimes I whistle "Taps" as I peel them off to eat that one.  I love truly awful sci-fi movies.  Stuck at a stoplight, I'll close one eye, line up a bug splat on the windshield with random objects and people, and make pew! pew! pew! laser gun sounds as I fire away in a valiant effort to save the galaxy.   What we're driving at here, is that vest love rests among the least concerning of my idiosyncrasies, I believe.

I go fleece over down now, in a layering vest, mostly because down sucks when it gets wet and I'm not stuck in a John Hughes movie.  And because Windstopper fleece is one of the greatest inventions of man, as far as I can tell.  The Donner Party would've been gorging on San Francisco sourdough come spring, had they been armed with vestments of the breeze killing polyester pile.  And some more food, I guess.

It's important to know what makes good vest food.  While I love my step-mother's secret recipe for deviled eggs (it's all in the horseradish and shallots, I think), I would never carry them around in a vest.  Disaster waiting to happen.  You need something firm and compact, something that will stand up to a little battering.  I stow jerky and mini candy bars in my vest for much needed bursts of energy.  I've probably devoted hundreds of hours to perfecting vest sandwich construction.  Not so much ingredients as architecture.  Things have to be assembled in such a way that the tomato doesn't get the bread mushy and the home smoked chicken thigh meat doesn't squirt out the side into the baggie.

The choice of the bread itself is integral in the construction of a solid pocket sangwich.  Too crusty and it will quickly be rendered dust around roast beef in the gyrating machinations of scrambling through blackberry brush after a fast flushing dog.  Soft white bread will often be mashed back into a doughy consistency through the same action.  Toasting can also make a difference to structure of the vest hoagie.  It may help keep the bread free of the effects of a gloopy aioli, but it can also make things too tough to chew on the wrong loaf.

As far as the perfect pocket sandwich goes, I prefer foccacia or ciabatta for the foundation.  They're already flat and bring flavor to the game, so I don't have to spread too much more on.  Fillings vary, but I always like some roasted red pepper in there, maybe some pesto if I have basil or have recently gathered sorrel.  And any good melty cheese.  I don't own a panini press, but if I have time, I do like to toast and smush between a couple cast iron grill pans before I toss my lunch in the vest.  You're almost guaranteed an indestructibly delicious slab of game pouch grinder at that point.

Superstitiously speaking, I do not like to have the meat of the fish or game I'm chasing in there.  That just seems like asking for karmic kick to the jewels.

Aside from the world of outdoor Dagwoods, I have two go-to vest lunches in my arsenal.  These are the ones that get used most often.  Firstly, the simple combination of an apple and a slab of cheese.  The apples because I do the majority of my vest wearing in the fall when the apples are plentiful, fresh, and snappy delicious.  The cheese because, well... it's cheese.  I don't care if it's ear-curling 18 year cheddar or my old pal, creamy mellow muenster, if I can hack it up with a pocket knife and pop it in with a slab of Honeycrisp, I'm in.

Next, a less universal choice.  For me, kipper snacks are the ideal vest food.  I love smoked fish, and they're already in a tin perfectly sized for vest carry.  It's a match made in heaven.  Although, I have discovered you can break a tin open with your ribs of you fall hard enough while crossing a creek, and nobody wants to smell like smoked herring the rest of the day, so be careful out there.

Lunch in bird season: lamb stew and reloads of kippered herring tins for the vest.

Of course, it also depends on what you can fit in your vest of choice.  Like fish and people, vests come in all shapes and sizes.  

As a fly fisherman, I'm often guilty of serious over-gearing on the stream.  I don't know if it's the product of the huge vest I often wear, or if I bought that vest because I knew I'd be carrying the kitchen sink.  Either way, in the age of demure little chest packs and tech savvy lumbar bags, I still slip into a hoss of a flyfishng vest, and I like it that way.  I fish what are considered huge ugly (in the good way) flies for fat fish, and I want to have a lot of them at my disposal.  The Camelback with room yet remaining for rain gear and lunch may be extraneous, but I can barely stand the thought of separating from them now.

I am able to pare things down to a chest pack when using a spinning rod for some reason.

They vary in size and carrying capacity, all these gear carriers.  The turkey hunting vest with the cushy stadium seat, is the most spacious of all.  Festooned with pockets on every possible surface and a game pouch seemingly large enough to carry a small antelope, this is the big mama of the local vest population.  I even used it to hunt turkeys once.  Most of the time it does double duty squirrel and coyote hunting.  That wonderful seat may have lent itself to a few too many woods naps, but I hold no ill will toward it.  Sometimes a man has to fall asleep under a tree for a while or life stops making sense.  

I lost a coyote call for over year in one of the million pockets on that turkey vest, then it floated back to the surface like a buoy lost in a sea of camo as I sat down to watch for squirrels one day.  It felt even better than finding cash in last season's coat pocket.

At the other end of the vest demographic, we have my favorite.  It's the classic, minimalist strap vest from Filson.  Two pockets in the front, one game pouch in the back.  That's all she wrote, folks.  It's light enough to wear all weekend through the thickets without a second thought, and spacious enough to carry all the shells I need, along with an apple or some fortifying smoked fish.  And it does double duty for me.  I intentionally bought the one without orange so I can wear it when I just want to amble down the bank of a creek, and collect a quick wood duck dinner.

It's the barely there vest.

Someday I will be organized enough that as each trip afield winds down, I'll take the time to clean out my vest when I hang it on it's designated hook.  I don't know in which universe this miracle is going to take place, but until then, I will continue to enjoy the treasure hunt and archeological dig that is trying to find the damn range finder in all those acres of pockets hanging on the wall.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Thoreau's Rust

It wasn't that many years ago I attended eight or nine weddings in a single season.  I can't even remember how many there were or who they were all for.  Summer weddings all run together after a while -- hot church, pretty dresses, open bar, possible bourbon-fueled horrific dancing. Thankfully for my gift and travel budgets (and waning tolerance of  the Chicken Dance), that ridiculous rate has not continued.  I'm resting comfortably at four mandatory nuptial celebrations this year, leaving more summer weekends for whatever I wish to do with them.  But even with a relatively rare open weekend currently staring me in the face, there just isn't much for me to do outside at the moment.

Henry David Thoreau stated that he needed to walk in the woods every day lest he "acquire some rust."  I haven't walked in the woods or water for more than a half-hearted gambit in weeks.  I have become a soft and reluctant slave to the wonders of central air.  There are almost no hunting seasons open right now, and the drought and abominable temperatures have conspired to render my flowing home waters little more than somber rills of considerable thermogenic prowess.  Due to the drought, all the counties that entail my home fishing waters within a couple hours' drive have been declared a natural disaster area by the federal government.  Judging by the pitiful state of the streams, I would have to agree.  It's easy for me to get angry and flustered about the state of things, but then I remember to try to only worry about the stuff I can control.  And that even if all were refulgent tumbling stream and idyllic glade this year, summer weekends are often surrendered to other non-outdoorsy pursuits so I'm probably not missing that much in the end.

Were I a gardener, I'm sure I would have plenty to do. I am the oldest son of a Master Gardener who practiced his beloved hobby with a zeal generally reserved for those deemed headed for the nut house.  It is perhaps odd that I picked up most of his other outdoor loves, but somehow the green horticulture gene seems to remain recessive in me.  I suffered through my indentured servitude, kneeling on closed cell foam or cardboard, for many more hours of my upbringing than I care to recall.  I knew what raised lasagna beds were before they were even called that, and I swear that, for a while there as a dust-covered tike, I thought pvc pipe was made specifically for the purposes of building hoop houses.

While I treasure nearly every moment I spend outside, I have little wish to garden, especially considering that I live minutes from one of the most celebrated farmer's markets in the country.  I fish and hunt, pick the occasional sack o' shrooms or greenery, then happily hand cash over mountains of brilliant produce bordering the capitol square here in Madison, in order to enjoy the glorious peas or melons or whatever it may be, next to my fairly chased protein and fungi.

That attitude may be eroding slightly as I age, however.  In recent years I have begun to keep a battery of herbs standing sentry in hideously counterfeit terra cotta strawberry pots at the corners of the garage, something I swore I would never do until I considered my monthly expenditure on bubble packs of basil.  That was a big concession for me, but I still do not see the days of hauling loads of organic matter to recently constructed garden beds in my future.  I know which booths sell the best heirloom 'maters up on the square, know some of the proprietors by name even, and that is enough for me at the moment.

Foraging follows as the next step in progression of logic.  Were I a more adept, involved forager I would certainly have a lot more to do outside this summer.  But I pretty much stick to the so-called Foolproof Four when it comes to mushrooms (puffball, sulphur shelf, morel, chantarelle - as I learned them) with the occasional shaggy mane thrown in.  Anymore species than that, I start to worry about my internal organs turning to goo.  Berries I am comfortable identifying, and scarfing down like a bear when presented with the chance.  I can identify and collect probably a couple dozen of the various leafy green yummies found around, but I almost never think to until I see them, and start stuffing them in my fishing or hunting vest.  An opportunistic forager, at best.   

So, with "my" streams parched and hunting seasons closed, here I sit in a café because I often feel more relaxed, write more clearly, in new-to-me environs.  I ordered something more adventurous than my standard iced coffee, and have been presented with a libation resembling more a chilled flagon of diabetes than the dark and intense beverage I desired.  My mistake.  With the mercury rocketing toward the century mark again, while the dew point hovers somewhere between stifling and drywall mud, my current caffeinated hide is nestled in the corner of bigger building.  As I walked in, I could hear the rooftop air conditioners roaring away like locomotives in a desperate race to keep things livable here down below.

Perhaps an impromptu camp run is in order this weekend, to fish the slightly cooler northern waters, and daydream about all the pleasure fall will bring up there.

I am not the only outdoorsman growing sweaty and restless.  The "Campmeister," owner and perhaps figurehead of our camp, continues with his amusing emails that count down the days until the opening day of gun deer season, and record all the things we must do and buy before then.  I have been reminded numerous times by him that I'll need a new truck and deer rifle come November in order to maintain my membership, simply because he wants to use them.

Brian texted me last night without forewarning.  Five simple words: Is it hunting season yet?  We joked about yearning for the bloodied backs of hands often earned in the woodcock thickets, and hassled each other over missed birds of the future and past.

Ruffed grouse are the undisputed king of upland game birds in northern Wisconsin, and north-central Wisconsin is considered ruffed grouse Mecca to many uplanders from all over the world, but we don't have the birds here in the southern reaches much at all.  We used to when I was a kid, along with wild pheasants, but we don't anymore.  Now we have subdivisions and Pier One Imports, which if you are reading this, I think you'll agree, is not the loveliest of trades.  I have to drive about three hours north from where I sit right now to even have a chance at a grouse when I step into the thick stuff.

So we are specialized and fairly rare dedicated woodcock hunters, Brian and I.  The vast majority of upland hunters chase grouse, quail, pheasant, and a handful other species with unfailing determination and contentment while the diminutive timberdoodle gets relegated to second class status.  The woodcock gets little respect.  Grouse might be tougher to hit in cover, but I adore the twittering flush and challenging corkscrew flight path the camouflaged woodcock brings to the fight.  They can be found with relative ease around here, and found with relative ease almost everywhere when the migratory flights are passing through, so the bulbous-headed bog sucker has become our primary quarry.  I cannot get enough of chasing them through the mushy bottoms, prickly thickets, and up on top of the coulees in the western part of our state.

 If you're willing to hump it all the way up, they might be in the sumacs on top.  Or they might not.

And the faintly liver-like flavor of the red breast found under those feathers?  Tell you what, you hang on to your braunschwieger and sandwich spread.  I'll be perfectly content with my woodcock "pâté" on some crusty grilled bread with a good dark porter.  

I remember my first woodcock fondly and clearly.  Those images we share of upland hunting in the fall: the shimmering popples, the balsam-laden meandering creek bottom, the lone hawthorn hidden back from the trail that always seems to shelter a bird or two.  None of those were there for my first woodcock.  The bird flushed wild to my left and behind as we were trudging back to the vehicles, in an ugly little vine-choked slough along the gravel road that lead to the parking lot.  There was no arcing flight of bird or puff of feathers settling gently in the sun.  Honestly, I don't even remember seeing the bird, that ditch being so thick and tough to see through.  Still, I spun, I shot, and I was pierced by Cupid's arrow for chasing that silly looking little bird.
   Make no mistake.  We'll hit the road, and chase down some partridge this fall as well.

Which all calls into question something I've stated numerous times, both here and in everyday life before.  I have asserted that I don't need a rod or gun in my hands to enjoy my time outside.  I still believe that, but this summer has challenged my stance.  Frankly, it is easier and a lot more comfortable to plop down in the AC, and drink this melted candy bar.

Any hunter or fisherman who has been at this as long as my friends and I have know that we practice our chosen pastime not for the game itself, but because of the places it takes us.  I'm thinking of a place right now, almost unbearably green and full of life, that I never would have known had I not had a fly rod in my hand at the time.  I savor dozens of those places in my mind.  There are hundreds of thousands more that I will never know in my home state alone.

We fish against the odds, trying to fool the minute brains of fish into thinking bits of fur and feather are real insects or baitfish.  We push through the cover, fighting a certain losing battle with caloric net loss against the birds we will bag for the dinner table.  Living strictly on wild game in the modern world is a near impossibility with all the driving and expensive shells required.  I don't think it can be done.  Either you or your truck will starve.  Aside from that, who would want to?  I'm proud to say I do a lot of my own killing for the dinner table, but sometimes you simply need a succulent slab of pork or beef to throw on the grill, and I'm not allowed to shoot those.  So we don't do it solely for the food, though there is most assuredly a component of that.  We paddle long and hard against the wind to reach the revered honey hole, not only for the sustenance or joy of fighting a big fish, but because it takes us to that place.

Sometimes it is difficult to put your boots in the dirt and go when there is little impetus from the sporting side of things.  Now, for example.  The heat and humidity are convenient excuses that I've fallen prey to recently.  The lack of rain is a real problem to a small stream fisherman like me, but there are certainly more waters to fish.  It's time to get out the Gazetteer, and do a little exploring.   As soon as the weather settles into a slightly more humane pattern, I will force myself to get out there and work up a good lather, cover some ground and see what I see.  To shake off some of Thoreau's rust.

Note: If you are a local and you read this immediately upon posting, you may have noticed that the temperatures and humidity referenced herein do not coincide with those currently happening outside.  You're on to my secret.  I generally let these posts marinate for a couple days before I proofread, re-write, edit, and try to un-suck them as much as possible.  If I didn't do it this way, the shocking number of typos, non-sequiturs, and basic cretinism would render you unable to read this blog, or perhaps anything, ever again.  Thanks for checking in. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

North and South

As the temperature outside sails over 100 degrees yet again, and the sun beats the more winter-inclined souls among us into dreary submission, my outdoor mind turns to thoughts of fall.  It's just starting now, the very beginnings of autumn dreams sparking to life in the heat.  There will be college football tailgates in the lot, all of Madison pulsing with excited energy under the changing leaves, as we wait to cheer on Bucky.  There will be deer and ducks to chase, once again.  And there will be birds.

I re-waxed the tin cloth Filson bibs in anticipation last night.  No need for a heat gun in this weather.

That's an important distinction.  In the parlance of the Wisconsin hunter, especially those hailing from the northern part of the state, ducks are not birds.  They are not referred to as birds when hunting comes up in conversation, anyway.  When you're going duck hunting, you say you're going duck hunting.  The phrase "bird hunting" means one thing north of Highway 10-- ruffed grouse hunting.  While the mention of bird hunting could technically pertain to the pursuit of any winged and feathered creature, it evokes only images of thundering flushes in golden popple thickets and fragrant balsam bottoms to most of us.

That, and a nudge from my buddy Frisbee, set me to thinking about the many differences in language and practice we encounter between the urbanized, populated southern region of the state and the more wild realms up north.

I've already employed one linguistic difference between north and south, almost unwittingly.  I grew up in the southeastern corner of the state, in a tourist town where the "flat landers" from Illinois were tolerated during summer with cool indifference and where those trees of white bark and leaves fluttering on squared petioles were referred to by their given name -- quaking aspen.  The quaking aspen does not exist up north, or so the casual listener would think.  It's actually very prolific, but it's referred to as the popple.  I'd never heard that until I was invited to camp, and frankly, I hid my confused ignorance until I figured out what they were talking about.

"Popple," so far as I can tell, is also sometimes used as a catch-all for any of the slender light-barked trees that grow in thick, nearly impenetrable clumps around the state.  I've seen aspen, birch, poplar, and even occasionally young willow and cottonwood referred to as popple by those less concerned with botanical accuracy.  And I knew what they were talking about, even if their taxonomic skills left something to be desired.

Of course, bird hunting talk brings another salient example to the front.  Ruffed grouse are almost never called ruffed grouse up north.  Often, as denoted in the phrase "bird hunting" above, they are simply called "birds."

"How many birds did you get today?"

"The leaves are still up so it was a little tough.  A few wild flushes that I couldn't see, but I put one in the vest."

Both parties know they are discussing the ruffed grouse exclusively.  If a woodcock (the only other upland game bird up there) made it into the game bag, it would be mentioned separately.

The grouse is also frequently referred to as a partridge up there, another stumbling block for me as a rookie in the camps more than a decade ago.  I'd heard them referred to as grouse or even "ruffs" or "ruffies," but never as "partridges."  In my early days, it often seemed as though those guys were just making up names for stuff in order to confuse me.

A similar anomaly exists in the fishing world of our camps up near the border with the upper peninsula of Michigan.  Often, if not always, "fishing" refers solely to trout fishing in that part of the world.  Like bird hunting means grouse hunting, when someone from the camps asks you how the fishing has been, they most likely want to know the condition of the local trout streams, at least outside of the ice-locked winter months.  And you can forget talking about fly fishing up there.  It remains little more than a curiosity with the old guard still in power.

Being a dedicated smallmouth fly rodder, this can sometimes throw a spinnerbait into the gears of a conversation for me.  I've been met with more than one quizzical look after going on about fly fishing for smallies in the same rivers they think of as trout water.  Then I remember that trout are king up there to most, and then almost exclusively using a spinning rod and worm.  Which is a real shame actually.  Not that I have anything against catching a few gorgeous brookies for dinner, but if they were even casually in touch with the outside fishing world, the up north boys would realize they reside literally in the heart of what has become a world-class smallmouth fishing destination in recent years.  People empty their pockets to airlines and guide services for the chance to strap up against huge smallmouth bass in rivers my friends and deer hunting compatriots drive right by to fish for six inch trout.

A bass fly fisherman from the southern part of the state is a fish out of water, as it were, telling stories around the fire.  I might as well be speaking a foreign language half the time.  Brian even commented on it once, during the long drive home after a great bass fishing trip up there.

"Man, those guys have no idea about the smallies, do they?  They just looked at us like we're nuts."

"No they don't, and all the better for us.  They leave them alone."

The Yooper and northern Badger also have a rare and strange superpower.  They can make wood.  At least if you listen to them talk about it.  Where a kid from Fontana like me grew up splitting and stacking ricks of firewood, they "make" firewood.  After a little reading on the subject, I believe the phrase could be a calque of the Finnish, much like a Cajun might "make groceries" using a direct translation of the verb faire in French.  Whatever the history or derivation, I grin a little inside every time I ask what happened up at camp in my absence, and it is related to me that firewood was made.

The gear and tackle of the northern sportsman must also be discussed here.  While the causes can vary, almost none of my peers from the northwoods find themselves some-time slaves to the whimsy of outdoor equipment purveyors as I do.  I stop at the big box stores or specialty web retailers all the time, and often become enchanted with a certain rod or reel, boot or backpack.  They don't have to worry about such infatuations around camp, as the nearest big stores are hours away.  Not that they are ignorant of quality, it's simply often a matter of gas mileage and opportunity for some of them.

Ted will never read this as he remains convinced the internet is a fad and thinks a laptop is something you pay scantily clad women for in the back of a gentleman's club, so I can state with no worry of future recriminations that his life-long affair with questionable gear is the direct result of his induction into the Hall of Fame of Tightwads.  He is cheap and proud.  I've accompanied Ted and Rog on the deer season grocery run for camp, and I enjoy watching Rog slowly come to a simmer as Ted quibbles over every single cent for a can of beans or a loaf of bread, the cost of which will be divided between multiple paying members of the camp.  Ted is completely willing to fight for quarters of cents... as Roger's ears slowly take on a burning glow of frustration in the soup aisle.  The entire affair is glorious to take in.

Ted is one of the funniest men I've ever met.  He is easily the undisputed champion of joke tellers I know, and has forgotten more about trapping fur bearers than I will ever know.  A great guy to hang with.  He also painfully parted with $25 for his last rifle scope, pulled from a bargain bin (Camp Boys, correct me if I'm wrong on that figure).  You simply cannot convince a miser of that jaw-dropping conviction to spend a few more bucks on his gear.  I stand both amazed and mystified when he walks into camp with yet another "steal" most hunters would toss in the bin.  Then I sit back and try not to cry laughing at his stupendous jokes and stories with the rest of the guys.

Primo stands at the other end of the spectrum among friends who use gear from decades past.  He is one of the best woodsmen I know, and has a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of every fire road, two-track, and fading backwoods ATV trail in the eastern county.  When October rolls around, I'll look forward to our meandering bird hunts together more than anything else up there.  Sometimes we spend more time bumping down rocky lanes last visited by voyageurs, guns safely cased, than we do actually chasing birds, but that's OK too.

He has no aversion to quality gear, outfitted as the most hearty logger all winter long, right down to his signature Husqvarna suspenders.  Everything I've ever seen him use has been stout, well-cared for, and in perfect working condition.  It's just that some of it was popular well before I was in elementary school.  He apparently sees no need to update, nor should he if he be judged by results.  He bags as many fish and game birds, spends more time in the woods, than almost anyone I know.

 Canvas hipsters, Mitchell reel, Ugly Stick, even a wicker creel on the back.  Like fishing with my bud, Norm Rockwell

That brings us to the what I suppose you would call the Up North Attitude.  It is not unique to the northwoods or our camps by any means, but that is where I encounter it most often.  Relaxation is part of it, surely, but that does not fully encapsulate the feeling. It's more the idea that, come what may, we're in camp and everything else is better left for another time.  Nobody gets worried when guys are hours late or unaccounted for.  They probably ran into friends.  People don't get uptight about dinner time or curfews -- eat what you want when you want, and go to bed whenever you see fit.  There exists no unfortunate infighting or snarky gossip sadly found in many of the other groups I associate with.  We all go along to get along.

The internet is unheard of and you have to drive quite a piece down the road to get a finicky single bar on your cell phone, so there is almost no contact with the outside most of the time.  The world carries on, the weather will be what it will be even if you can't check it, and there's cold beer in the fridge.  Let's toss some cards, and pretend we're the only people on the planet for a while.  Why else are we here, after all?

Friday, July 13, 2012

Of Sweat and Flannel

According to the all-seeing eye of the National Weather Service, we are now experiencing an official severe drought over here in my neck of the woods, with no rain in the foreseeable future.  Glad they cleared that up.  I'd been wondering why my lawn has taken on the shade of a blond roux, puzzling over my home smallie water, and its resemblance more to a rock garden than a stream at the moment.

Not only that, but we suffered brutal record temperatures most of last week.  I personally saw 106˚ accompanied by sopping wet dew points on two different occasions.  That's just uncalled for here in America's Dairyland.  When one travels from Wisconsin to warmer climes, towering mercury is a novelty, something to be braved and remarked upon.  I've experienced blast furnace Phoenix and jungle-wet Baton Rouge, among others.  They were all bearable, if not entirely enjoyable, only because I could say I'd done it.  Been there, did my best to make like a local.  When that same heat follows me home, smacks me on my sweaty red face, it's just soul-deadening.

I enjoy all seasons outside.  Point to a week on the calendar, I'll have a fair idea what I hope to be doing then; armed with rod, gun, foraging bag, or simply my favorite pair of boots.  If I were forced to arbitrarily lay aside a couple of those weeks, hop into one of those slightly creepy, claustrophobic stasis beds from a science fiction movie for a fortnight,  I freely admit I would aim for the bull's eye encompassing the dread high heat of summer.

I should be running to "my" stream after work these days.  No epic fishing excursions that take on lives of their own, mind you, merely a quick check-in a few times a week.  I know it better than any other water, and it produces fish for me most times I stop to visit.  Sadly, thanks to the combination of crushing heat and no rain, it has been rendered practically unfishable for the moment.  That is not the end of the world, it happens every few summers, but it does rob us of some of the joyful spontaneity of the fishing quickie.

If nothing were rotten in the state of Denmark, I'd also be gathering chanterelle mushrooms right now.  I can almost taste them, almost smell that earthy aroma, but I cannot find them, thanks to the parched earth tactics currently being employed by Mother Nature.  I checked my favorite spot late last week, neck crimson and sticky, salt stinging my eyes, only to confirm that there were no fungi to be found there.  It was a pleasant hike if you enjoy trudging up and down oak forested hillsides in a sauna.  The only squirrel I saw looked as hot and panty as I felt, and I think he wondered just what I was doing out there.  Similar thoughts had occurred to me.

Shortly thereafter, Trout Caviar's gorgeous pictures of a chanterelle-based salad served only to pique my envy and frustration.  Emotions might've grown a bit out of control were it not for his calming, nearly libidinous foodie photos and my minty mojito close at hand.

Of course, one can simply purchase the chanterelles I crave, but that always seems a touch boorish to me for some reason.  Much like wild game and sex, a man shouldn't have to pay for wild mushrooms if at all possible, but I am only human after all, and I caved to my need for the shrooms after only a few days of resistance. 

Fortunately, even in the presence of mirages shimmering off every flat surface under a pounding sun, acres of pastel clusters appear in the form of the milkweed flower.  Being half a Scandinavian mutt myself, I've pickled nearly everything short of a doorstop, or have enjoyed such treats pickled by others.  Smelt and pike, Brussels sprouts and ramps, eggs and asparagus and sugar snap peas-- even some cucumbers on occasion, but I've never pickled milkweed pods, which seems odd to me now as they do sort of resemble fat little gherkins.  I'd never even considered it, a personal shortcoming I hope to overcome post haste.

We denizens of the Midwest know well, however, that punishing heat and drought cannot last.  Living closer to the center of a massive continent than our compatriots nearer the coasts, we are lucky to experience a wider climatic range than those more temperate, consistent environs.  In short, we have seasons, and I, for one, am pretty happy about that.  Among my travels, I've also been in Tucson for a Badger bowl game near the new year holiday, and let me state plainly: garland on a saguaro does not Christmas make for this Yankee.

As the seasons of summer and winter are polar opposites, so are my feelings toward them.  Between the two, I'm a  praise-Jesus-and-pass-the-ammunition affirmed man of winter for many reasons, some of which I've stated here before.

I'm a gear and clothes nerd for one thing.  There is only so much pride of ownership to be found in a wicking t-shirt and a pair of shorts while earth bakes underfoot.  Conversely, when the snow flies and mercury burrows, there are entire hosts of fragrant wool and fleece to choose from.  Earnest discussions take place concerning the contrasts between natural and synthetic fibers as base layers.   Big chunky boots and a snug balaclava can make a man feel like a northern ninja ready for assault, whether the target be fish, fowl, or fur.  And alone in my ice shanty with only the glow of a lantern and comforting whir of the Vexilar, I find chilly, comfortable peace.

In summer a person can shed only so many clothes in public before the local constabulary makes an unwanted appearance.  While Old Man Winter visits, there are almost always more layers of heavyweight Polypro to be found.  And then there's flannel.  Glorious, glorious flannel.  Give me a thick Woolrich flannel shirt and pair of broken in leather work gloves, I'll move your firewood all day with a silly grin plastered to my mug.  Add a Stormy Kromer, the pinnacle of northwoods style, and we're ready to head to town for dinner and a brandy old fashioned, your treat in exchange for the labor of course.

Honestly, I'll take this over last week every time. (photo courtesy of Adam Schruth)
I fished with a group of friends the morning that picture was taken, though I was in Alpena, MI while the photographer, Adam, was at home in Wisconsin.  The weather was equally tepid in both locations.  We caught only one fish through the ice that arctic day, but such is not always the case.  If you are brave enough, and properly prepared, those deeply sub-zero days can provide very good fishing.

Years ago at the annual "Drink Beer, Burn Wood" celebration with the old guys up at the camp, the thermometer hovered at a benumbed -24 when we awoke.  With the woodstove set to pinging and a hot breakfast in me, I set forth to venture out on the ice while those of receding hairline and perhaps more intelligence gifted through age, decided to stay in the camp.

Fishing in extreme cold is a slow and sometimes cumbersome affair.  It forces you to think, to plan ahead, which is one of the reasons I enjoy it.  Much like stalking a rising fish in warmer months, simply flailing about without a plan will not do.  You'll get cold and tired long before you get your dinner.

The first thing you learn on the south side of zero: plastic breaks.

I set up my portable shanty, being reminded the entire time that slow and steady defeats the cold most of the time, and managed to get that broken heater started using a pair of needle nose pliers.  Then, with slow boreal contentment, I set upon the single greatest fishing day I have ever enjoyed on that lake.

I was fishing with dead smelt under tip-ups, and often had the great and rare pleasure of multiple flags being tripped at once.  The pike were big for that small northern basin, and hungry.  As the wind whispered through the crown of pines around the lake, I eventually flopped prostrate on the ice in appreciation, warmed by contentment and wool, and perfectly happy to be left out in the cold.

Here's hoping the weather breaks soon.  Not all the way to winter yet, but some moderation would be greatly appreciated.  I could do with some ice time, but not just yet.  There are grouse and woodcock to be chased in the thickets before then, fat fall fishes and squirrel pot pie, venison and pheasant for the dinner table before the hammer falls.

Gloves are for pansies... and for putting on immediately after your picture is taken.



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