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.
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