27 October 2008

EcoRover: On "Vacation" in Montana

Well, actually it can be more like moonlighting at a second job than a "vacation." You see, it's elk season. Elk, the large hoofed browser, aka "what's for dinner." Until there is about 200 pounds of it in the freezer and in various other forms (pickled, jerked, etc), most of my blog time will go into hunting.

Although I live in Montana and am in the hills about 200 days a year, elk hunting is very different from trout fishing, hiking, cross country skiing, backpacking, camping etc. It's a matter of gravitas, this taking the life of another being, and not something to be taken lightly or for "sport." Some neighbors seem to just drive their truck around the Forest Service roads and get lucky each year, but for me it's always a matter of hunting. The upside is the many hours spent in peripatetic meditation, trying to become one with nature, fitting into the seams of nature so that even the squirrel takes no notice. As part of that upside elk lead me to places no sane hiker would venture, in cold that freezes eyelashes closed, in snowstorms that erase my tracks like the passing of the ephemeral beast that I am...

I'll get caught up on the blog, including posting pictures of Little Brother AJ and I climbing the ridges and stalking along the dog hair timber on north-facing benches.

Until then, see you in the hills.

21 October 2008

When is it Autumn?

In some temperate zones, it's easy to mark the smooth, gradual transition from summer to fall: turning leaves, ripe fruit, seasonal rains... But here in the Northern Rockies, the transition is more erratic with fewer reliable signs. Even snow is not a good indicator, given our frequent September snowstorms and even the occasional July blizzard. Still, there are signs: rutting elk and other hoofed browsers, shortening days, and of course temperature.

Pressed to define the seasons in Butte, Montana, I'll choose temperature: in summer, it is consistently above freezing day and night; in fall and spring, it is consistently below freezing at night and above during the day; and in winter, it is consistently below freezing day and night. Consistently? Well, let's say any three or four consecutive days.

Friend Dave Carter and I set out for a hike over the weekend in German Gulch, a popular local deer and elk hunting area between Butte and Anaconda. I hunt there occasionally; mostly it is a favorite nearby spot to hike or to fish for the lovely native trout. Geologically it's interesting, running south from the Continental Divide and trisected by volcanic rhyolite, granitic quartz monzonite, and sedimentary formations such as dolomite. Here's a view of some of the volcanics along the creek:

German Gulch has been mined for gold since 1864--first for placer deposits , then hardrock mining including a large open pit operation near Beal Mountain at the headwaters. The open pit, cyanide heap leach mine was operated by the now-bankrupt Pegasus Gold Corporation and is now a Superfund site. Note that the corporate officers -- people such as Michael L. Clark, Werner G. Nennecker, Michelle G. Viau, Allan M. Park, Terry Bauer, Eric B. Ovlen, Robert A. Lonergan, Trevor S. Schulz, James G. Geyer, John Fitzpatrick, and Phillip S. Baker, Jr. -- all walked away with exhorbitant salaries, huge bonuses, and no personal liability. Just another deal gone done in the gold mining biz.

Here's a view south along a ridge toward the Beal Mountain Superfund site:

How nice to be a dog, living in the present moment with no anxieties about Superfund sites or other environmental causes. Let RTD find an old leg bone from a mule deer and she is happy:

Let her find a somewhat fresher elk leg (probably from a bowhunter's kill) complete with hoof and she is ecstatic:

Well, Dave & I live in the moment too. Somewhat more sight than odor-oriented, we paused to appreciate this big, old, lightning-blasted Douglas fir:

Still, mentalite' is ever present. I've hiked a lot of fresh burns and watched the vegetation recover after a forest fire, and this has made me sensitive to forest patterns that mark the passage of fires from long ago. Note on this slope the contrast between the smaller, denser stand of lodgepole pines on the right and the more open stand of mixed lodgepole pine/Douglas fir on the left:

Fifty or more years ago, a finger of fire reached up from the valley and cleared a swath of forest. The trees grew back quickly but, for some reason, not so densely as the older lodgepole stand.

Here was another interesting find--apparently a rock blind constructed many years ago by a hunter (note the lichen covered base rocks) but maintained in recent years ("clean" rocks piled on top). The blind backs up to a dense stand of big Douglas fir trees on the ridge but faces out toward a lovely little park with a lot of elk sign:

Watch your passage through those big firs! They have broken off, head-high branches, some with sharp tips that will pierce a hat and lacerate your scalp. Ouch:

I stopped the bleeding on Dave's head with a compress, we taped the hide together, and called it good. After we arrived home, Dave paid a visit to the clinic for six staples to hold things together.

Back at the truck, the late afternoon shadows were already stretching long, another sign of fall:

And the next night, a little snowstorm blew in and laid down a lovely blanket for RTD and my walk home from a late class:

17 October 2008

Pronghorn Antelope Hunting, Butte Montana

Pronghorn antelope (Antilocarpa americana) are abundant in the river valleys and vast sage-brush prairie hills of southwest Montana. They are a marvelous animal. One of the few surviving large mammals truly native to North America, antelope evolved on these Serengeti-like plains along with horses, cheetahs, short-faced bears, giant sloths, and other now extinct species about 25 million years ago. This was long before newcomers such as elk, deer, and humans reached North America via the Siberian bridge. The last of the big, fast predators became extinct about 10,000 years ago (shortly after humans showed up).

The pronhorn's evolutionary past answers the question: Why do they run so fast? No living predator on this continent can approach their speed. But American cheetahs did, and though the big cat is gone the evolutionary influence is a living memory in the antelope's physiology and social habits. Does dominate this process by continually testing bucks: one doe will begin to wander from the herd, and as the buck chases her and heads her back toward the herd, another doe runs out. This goes on again and again, and is exacerbated when challenging bucks come around.

For pronghorn antelope, the breeding race does not go to the guy with the largest body or biggest horns: it goes to the swift.

Antelope also have big eyes and incredible vision--about the equivalent of 8-power binoculars. They will spot you a mile away. Excellent stalking skills -- using the terrain, staying out of sight, and making the final approach using cover to break up your outline -- are required for good shooting (i.e. not missing or wounding animals).

This is a story of two antelope hunts. For the first, Howard picked Allen Puckett (my Little Brother, "AJ") and I up Sunday morning for opening day. I don't usually hunt opening day, as I don't like putting up with bad hunters doing things like riding ATVs off road and shooting from long distances at which they end up wounding animals. But Howard had a hunt planned, which turned out to be at a place where we often hunt mule deer.

We weren't the only hunters out that morning. Here's the track of a fox after a rabbit:

It's a good place to hunt mule deer but a difficult place to hunt antelope. There is only one antelope herd in the area, and it is very selective about its use of the terrain. This makes for difficult stalks and somewhat long shots. Adding to the difficulty was six inches of fresh snow that came in a freak early storm accompanied by fierce wind and 20 deg F temperatures. Footing on the steep rocky hillside was precarious and in some places the snow drifts were crotch-deep. It was more characteristic of elk hunting weather.

Sharp-eyed AJ spotted a herd of antelope up on the ridge as we approached our parking spot. Howard parked and we followed the herd across the open ridge: AJ & I taking a high, rugged route; and Howard following an old road.

After a half-mile the herd paused on a high spot, AJ & I began a stalk, but one of the sharp-eyed does spotted us creeping through the rocky sagebrush. They took off and ran another half-mile, again pausing on a finger ridge a half-mile away. AJ & I walked down to Howard, and though we tried to cross a coulee and make a stalk, the antelope either saw us or became nervous because they could not see us and ran off once again. AJ & I decided to stay after them, while Howard agreed to hike back to the truck and drive around to the other end of the ridge where the antelope seemed to be going.

This time, the herd ran nearly a mile, crossed a large coulee, dropped over a ridge where they were out of sight, and bedded down. Again, AJ & I made a long stalk, staying out of sight behind the ridge and then crawling through the snow and sagebrush to a point about 200 yards above the antelope. AJ shot and missed cleanly, the herd ran off a short ways but then milled around as they did not know where we were. AJ did not feel confident shooting at that distance, and so he handed the rifle over to me. The little .257 Roberts cracked once and we had one down:

I dragged the doe antelope down to where Howard would meet us while AJ tracked the herd once more. They cut a large circle and then headed up toward a high point on the ridge, at which point AJ gave up the hunt. We were all wet, cold, and hungry.

I picked AJ up yesterday afternoon for a hunt on a favorite area that we refer to as the "antelope hills" of the lower Big Hole River valley. We drove to a high point and glassed the vast, wide-open prairie. Spotting a small herd about a mile away in a shallow valley, we began the stalk--staying below the south ridge and out of sight. Here's AJ, carrying his shooting sticks (a bi-pod made of two fiberglass tent poles) in his left hand:

When we crawled through the cactus and peaked over the ridge, the antelope had moved some and were much too far away for a good shot. We discussed a number of alternatives, and AJ came up with a plan. Several times he has heard me describe hunts where I stalked along a fenceline, more or less in sight of the antelope. But something about their vision makes detection difficult so long as you stay low and move slow. We hiked back to the truck and then down to the valley a half-mile or so below the herd. Along the way, we saw this fantastic Big Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) woven like a trained vine into an old fence:

AJ began his stalk, following the fence that would lead him to the antelope, while I sat down to enjoy the view and a sandwich:

I love this immense landscape that swallows us like Leviathan:

Nearly an hour later the sound of a single rifle rolled out over the prairie. I slung on my knapsack and went to meet AJ at his kill. He made a splendid stalk, approaching within well under 100-yards of the herd for a very sure shot:

AJ is an experienced hunter now and needed no help with field dressing the fat doe:

I took the rifle, hiked the mile back to the truck, drove a short distance, parked as closely as I could, and headed back up the little valley. We found an old fence pole, lashed the front and rear feet to it, and carried the antelope doe back to the truck. Back in town, AJ hung the carcass in his family's garage and skinned it immediately so the sweet, tender meat would cool down for today's butchering job.

Good work, and we give thanks for this meat upon our table.

15 October 2008

The Joy of Hunting and Secret Places

Butte Montana is blessed with unparalleled four-season outdoor recreation in our backyards. Mountain wilderness, broad prairie, lush bottomland, steep-walled canyons, rivers swift & slow--it's all here.

This is hunting season. Big game such as elk, mule deer, whitetailed deer, and pronghorn antelope abound. Tags are easy to come by, there is a generous five-week long season, and there is abundant public land. One may also apply for special hunts for bighorn sheep, moose, and mountain goats.

It is hard, sometimes, to be a hunter in postmodern America. Many view hunters as blood thirsty killers with no respect for nature, redneck Joe Six-packs that ride down a terrified deer and shoot it from their ATV. It does not help that some hunters are this way.

At its best, hunting embodies a deep connection with and respect for nature.

This is one reason that “secret spots” are so valuable and must be closely held. While it is a great pleasure to introduce others to special places, it is important that they be held dear. It is a lot of work to form a deep connection with nature, to “figure out” a good hunting spot: it doesn’t just happen.

In turn, I appreciate others that figure good hunting places and share them with me. It’s not that I need any new places to hunt. But I do enjoy seeing how other hunters plan & perform a hunt on home ground—-especially if they do it successfully & well. This is why I would love to give my soul over to the Kalahari people (!Kung San or Khoisan) for a few weeks.

I am very fortunate to have had Dave Carter as a hunting partner who worked with me in figuring out some “secret spots.” Dave & I hunted together for about 15 years and worked incredibly hard to hunt these placeseffectively-—we spent many weeks at pre-season hiking & scouting, and never expected to just “show up” somewhere and get lucky. Locating a place with a good population of antelope, mule deer, whitetails, or elk etc is not a big deal. The important part is in learning the lay of the land, where animals are likely to be under various conditions, and how animals are likely to behave.

There is a ridge along the Big Hole River that is a very easy place to hunt mule deer and a very difficult place to hunt pronghorn antelope. There is only a single herd of antelope, and their use of the terrain makes for tricky stalks & long shots. Effective stalking and long shots seem impossible for neophyte hunters or for those not confident in their abilities. Things I take for granted – tracking a herd of antelope two miles before stalking and killing one – do not come easily. No wonder that so many antelope hunters resort to random acts of road hunting!

Hunting, like so many forms of tacit knowledge, is cultural. Such things cannot be learned from books. Luckily, because we are human, our parents can come from among anyone in the village. All hunters, before they get too old, should find a hunting/outdoors apprentice and pass along their knowledge. Those who love nature will defend it.

This applies equally to other outdoor activities that depend upon a deep connection with and respect for nature: backpacking, birdwatching, fishing, etc.

Keep the flame alive.

06 October 2008

Montana's Alpine Larch

We value that which is not easily obtained.

The ridges and high valleys of the Continental Divide in the Pintler Wilderness are blessed with Alpine Larch (Larix lyalli). A coniferous deciduous tree, the soft, feathery needles turn a lovely golden color in autumn before the weather strips them from the tree. They grow in the harshest environments at treeline on the thinnest, rockiest soils where the less hardy spruces, firs and pines cannot survive.

It is the color of fall in Butte, Montana. A patch of chokecherries along my morning walk has somehow been missed by flocks of birds this year:

We've been enjoying a warm, sunny Indian Summer, but Friday morning the sky dawned red:

And curtains of dry rain, called virga, hung from the sky:

With the weather changing, it was time to hike up a mountain to view the larches before the delicate needles were lost to sleet and wind.

Like trout, the beauty of Alpine Larch comes in part from the places they live. It takes effort and timing to get to them. You have to climb, and if you go too early the needles are a washed out green, too late and they have fallen to earth. Saturday morning found Don Stierle, Andrea Stierle, and EcoRover hiking into the high Alpine cirque of Many Mile Lakes.

The cones of the Whitebark Pine (Pinus albicaulis) are ripe on the high ridges, though one seldom finds a whole one. This one was dropped by a squirrel making a hasty retreat at the charge of Chukah the Wonder Dog (we wonder why she doesn't run into trees as she galumphs about the woods):

You can see where the squirrel had begun to gnaw on it. Opened with a quick boot stomp, the cone reveals its delicious, rich nuts. We ate a few and left it for the hungry squirrel:

Here are Don and Andrea just as we are dropping over the ridge into the Many Miles cirque:

The ridges around the first lake were dotted with color:

On our way up to the second lake, Andrea pointed out the interesting whorled grain of a downed tree:

At the second lake, still more larches among the pines and fir:

And at the third and uppermost lake, still more larches and color, but the weather was rapidly closing in:

We hiked out in sleet and snow, and were happy to reach the car and a thermos of not-so-hot chocolate. An hour or so later we pulled into Butte just in time for a little sunshine sliding in under the heavy clouds and light rain. As I drove up the hill to my home in Walkerville, a rainbow lit up the sky:

A great hike in a wonderful place. Next week: antelope hunting season.