09 December 2012

Winter (and Cross Country Skiing) Begins: Butte, Montana is a cross country ski paradise

Most years, we have snow on the ground by Thanksgiving--enough to ski at either of the excellent cross country skiing areas near Butte, Montana in southwest Montana. The Deep Creek pass area (aka "Mt Haggin") has wide, relatively easy trails ideal for both skating and novice skiers. Much better trails, at least for traditional or "classic" skiing, are to be found just north of Butte at The Moulton (named for a turn-of-the-century dairy farm).

The weather has been unseasonably warm, the "new normal" thanks to global warming/climate change. Our first good snow came late this year, but it laid down a heavy wet snow that bonded well to the warm ground (photo of my house in Walkerville):

Our friends Don Stierle and Andrea Stierle have a cabin at The Moulton, and they hosted a "let's eat the leftovers" party after Thanksgiving. It timed nicely with that first snow, and it felt good to be on skies again after my season ended early last February when I packed for China. MollyTheDog loves visiting the Stierles' cabin because she gets to play and hang out with her buddies Chookah (golden retriever) and Shiekah (older mixed breed lab):

The Moulton typically has a few moose hanging around, and I am grateful that MollyTheDog obeys very well and does not chase critters (well, except for squirrels...). I watched this yearly from just a few yards away (and the safety of my pickup):

Meanwhile BIG mama came out of the timber to make sure baby was in no danger:

This past weekend brought more snow as well as near-zero temperatures. Still, the skiing was great (it warmed enough for green kick wax in the afternoon):

PhoebeTheCat, on the other hand, has a different approach when the short days, cold temperatures, and snow comes. She virtually hibernates, spending many hours cuddled up with "Skunky" (a handpuppet from my daughter's childhood that the cat has adopted):

In terms of physical fitness, cross country skiing is an excellent sport. So long as your knees are relatively good, you can go for hours and adjust your speed to your physical condition and the level of training you want to achieve. I like it for the aerobic cardio workout, but a long leisurely ski with friends is also a great joy. Let it snow!

Thanksgiving Road Trip

Arguably, Thanksgiving is the major holiday in America. It combines all the things Americans so dearly love: family, feasting, football, and (sadly, perhaps) shopping. It also gives us a moment to step back, contemplate our lives, and give thanks for what makes life worth living.

Daughter Emily had an apartment full of her belongings to move from the Phoenix, Arizona, area--so what better way to do it that a Thanksgiving, father-daughter bonding road trip? I flew down and met her, we packed up the little UHaul truck, and were soon on the road. Happily, she is an excellent driver so we switched off every few hours on the 1,000+ mile trek:

The route took us past the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, which made for a quick side trip:

Like many U.S. National Park Service sites, the attraction is well managed and designed to inform as well as to amaze. I especially liked the kiva-inspired "Desert View Watchtower":

The interior levels are decorated with murals by Hopi artist Fred Kabotie:

Sadly, we had limited time to enjoy this holy landscape. Sadly also, the views of the Grand Canyon are greatly obscured by air pollution from a Navajo coal plant:

Our marching orders from Mrs Rover were clear: "Be home for Thanksgiving dinner." We made it, and enjoyed "A Thanksgiving dinner that couldn't be beat" (as Arlo Guthrie sang in Alice's Restaurant) thanks to chef Jeff:

Here's the sated crew after dinner, a walk, and a rousing game of "Dictionary" (standing from left: Celia Schahczenski, WooTheDog, Jeff Schahczenski, Michele Schahczenski, Clara Schahczenski, Sean Wiz; seated from left: Keith "Mule Deer Slayer" Vertranen, Pat Munday (aka EcoRover), Emily Munday, MollyTheDog, and Jan Munday):

It's good to be home, and there is much to be thankful for.

Hunting Where the Deer and the Antelope Play (Southwest Montana near Butte)

Unseasonably warm weather prevailed through November, so it did not seem like the general hunting season. Still, both the pronghorn antelope and mule deer hunting were good.

Pronghorn Antelope

I hunt antelope on the vast sagebrush prairie of the lower Big Hole River valley in southwest Montana. Here's a view from a cliff where the river has carved its way into the rock:

In a rancher's hayfield along the river, several moose (including two bulls) posed:

While nearby another small bull crossed the river: 

Though the afternoons were warm, night brought freezing temperatures. Some rancher left the sprinklers on, creating an artificial snow field:

The upland terrain is dotted with interesting features both geological (I think this is a lava outcrop):

And historical (a cairn, probably built by sheepherders a century ago):

Some days, it seems impossible to stalk within shooting range of pronghorn antelope. They spot you a mile away and run to a high point two miles away... No matter, for it's a beautiful place at dawn:

And in the afternoon, which often brings interesting cloud formations imposed on an impossibly blue sky:

It's a always a pleasure when my old friend Dave Carter can join me for a day afield. He no longer hunts, but enjoys a good hike. Here he is, posing with an ancient, stunted juniper:

Perhaps because of our healthy wolf packs or because elk are still repopulating niches emptied out during an era when they were nearly exterminated, more and more elk seem to be living on the high prairie. For the third year in a row, I found a herd of elk with a big bull while I was antelope hunting. This photo is a little fuzzy (taken through my binoculars), but you can see the elk bull at center left:

With this warm weather, I tread carefully for the prairie rattlesnakes are out and about. On this day, however, I found only a rattler's skeleton (minus the head and rattles--perhaps taken by some depraved soul who killed the snake):

This pronghorn antelope skull shows the huge eye sockets that support the animal's incredible vision:

Hunting another day, I walked up over a ridge-line with the afternoon sun low behind my back. A herd of a dozen or so antelope fed and bedded on a hillside near the top of a coulee a half-mile distant. With the low sun, they did not see me so I backtracked, fell behind the ridge, circled round, and then crept on hands and knees (I wear hard shell knee-pads in this prickly pear cactus country) to get within easy shooting range. A set of shooting sticks is essential, since any sort of natural rifle rest is usually lacking. That night I savored the liver, and repeated my pledge to honor the pronghorn antelope's spirit and use this doe's flesh well:

It was a long mile back to the truck, and I wished Dave had joined me this day to help with the carry. It is said that the further you must pack a big game animal, the better it tastes. It is certainly true that you appreciate it more.

Mule Deer

Mule deer are found in the same open country as pronghorn antelope, but tend to concentrate in and prefer areas that are steeper and more rugged with hiding cover such as Douglas fir. Mountain mahogany -- a favorite deer food -- also grows here. For the first hunt of the season, I joined two colleagues, one of whom, though a veteran white-tailed deer hunter from Minnesota, had never hunted mule deer. I think Keith likes it:

I took a break one weekend to hunt elk with a former colleague now at another university. His wife is also an avid hunter. The three of us did not find any elk, but had a great hunt in the hills above the prairie spring where we saw a number of mule deer. Earlier that morning, Matt and Jenn had already killed two deer, including this mule deer buck:

Though I enjoy the fellowship of hunting with friends, I am more attuned to nature while hunting alone. I like taking time to appreciate things, ranging from the musical flocks of geese passing overhead (I believe these were snow geese):

Even the common sight of prickly pear cactus has a beauty all its own:

I'm careful where I step for other reasons, too. As I suspected while antelope hunting, the warm weather had brought the prairie rattlesnakes back out. I was sitting down glassing a hillside when this little one (pencil diameter) came slowly from a burrow (at right, near the end of the stick):

I have great respect for them, and deeply appreciate their beauty:

Moving along this ridge requires scrambling over the rocky outcrops, and -- fearing I might be in a den site -- was very careful where I put my hands. It's good to move slowly anyway, for every draw can hide deer. Peering from one steep ridge side into a a draw thick with mountain mahogany, I spotted four mule deer bucks together. I stalked as closely as a I could, and chose the buck with the smallest antlers. As a subsistence hunter, I find the larger antlered, more dominant bucks are often "ruttier" and not so good eating:

Again grateful for the bounty of this good earth, I struggle to get the buck a few hundred yards to the ridge-top, after which I had an easy half-mile drag to the truck.

Arriving back in town I was greeted by the sight of one of our frequent rainbows during the warm, rainy November:

Near the end of November, the weather changed. Little Brother "A.J." came home from the University of Montana for a long weekend and I joined him for a hunt on a blustery, snowy morning with temperatures in the low teens. The wind created some drifts near the ridge-top, and it took some effort to plow our way to the top:

I am very proud of A.J. He has become a slow, patient, and ethical hunter. From a vantage point overlooking a steep coulee, we watched several herds of mule deer does feed and mill about (deer at upper right):

His patience (and endurance) paid off as, in carefully glassing the thick mountain mahogany, he spotted this fat buck and made a clean kill:

As A.J. field dressed the deer, I watched several more dozen deer pass by, including several small bucks. A golden eagle heard the shot and glided past, checking out the kill. They are often the first scavenger on a gut pile, and even the ravens respect their presence and do not press their luck:

We use copper bullets for this reason, because raptors are very sensitive to and many die from the lead fragments left by conventional bullets. This lead is also unhealthy for hunters who eat a lot of wild game. An added bonus, the Barnes copper bullets perform perfectly every time, mushrooming to about double their original diameter (this one came from the mule deer I killed this year):

As A.J. began the drag back to the truck, a flock of migrating tundra swans passed over (with a few unidentified, darker species mixed in). What an outstanding sight:

Although it was a bit of a struggle getting A.J.'s buck to the top of the ridge, from there is was a long, easy downhill drag to the truck. Many Montana hunters "road hunt" for mule deer--that is, they drive around on the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service roads until they see deer and then shoot them from the road--often without even getting out of their truck. This is really just shooting, and not hunting. Also, these so-called hunters miss out on experiencing and knowing the amazing habitat that mule deer call home:

Along with the incredible views found in such places:

While I'm ready for the skiing to begin, it has been a pleasant autumn and the freezer is full.

14 October 2012

Blades: Practical Tools for Outdoors People

I lost a dear friend a few years ago: it was a Case XX "Stockman" pocketknife that my grandfather carried in the years before he died in 1979. There was nothing remarkable about the knife: dark bone handle and blades of carbon steel (a patent Case variation called "chrome vanadium steel") stained dark by deer blood and other strong oxidizers such as apple and peach juice. It was hard but tough steel, easily kept razor sharp with a small pocket whetstone:

Having carried this knife for 30 years, I used the sheepfoot blade to scrape carbon from the spark plugs of my old Land Rover (1972 Series III). I think I left it on the radiator before setting the points,  shutting the bonnet and driving off. I never saw the knife again.

I grew up in Bradford, Pennsylvania, where Case knives were made. Everyone, it seems, had a relative who worked at Case Cutlery. And in those days, every boy above the age of 10 and every man carried a pocket knife. Carry a Schrade, Buck or Gerber? Heresy! So, after I lost my old knife, dear Mrs Rover didn't have to think too hard when it came to my Christmas gift. Though my new friend is made of stainless steel, it has most of the qualities I like about Case XX knives (2.5" main blade):

For day-to-day chores such as cleaning fish, field-dressing deer, or cutting apples, a pocketknife is all you need. On the few occasions when I have killed an elk while hunting mule deer, my pocketknife could do that job as well. Shortly after moving to Butte, Montana, I realized a larger knife would be a good thing for field dressing elk. A local knife maker, Harold Podgorski, used L6 (a very tough low alloy carbon steel) from old circular sawmill blades to make his knives. I like the sense of craft and common sense he brought to knife making (no pretentious B.S. about exotic stainless steel alloys, high-tech "Damascus" steel etc). After field dressing, quartering, and skinning about two dozen elk, I'd say Harold's knife has given a pretty good account of itself (4.75" blade):

You can quarter an elk or make do around camp with just a knife, but a hatchet is a good tool for snicker-snacking (as does the vorpal blade in the Lewis Carroll poem Jabberwocky) the ribs away from the spine and for other heavy butchering work, as well as for cutting branches or small firewood. I bought a Norlund hand ax when I was in college, about the same time I bought my first aluminum-frame backpack. Ten years later I replaced the original handle (after it broke) with a shorter, sturdier one made of white oak and shaped to fit my hand (3.25" blade):

Two other knives in my more-or-less random collection deserve special mention. One is a Russell "Green River" blade--my favorite skinning and thin-bladed, light-duty kitchen knife. Again, the blade material is nothing special--just good old carbon steel. The handle, though, is very special--a fine piece of local Mountain Mahogany (a dense, hard wood) fitted to the blade by my friend Dave Carter (4.75" blade):

The other special knife is my most recent acquisition. My graduate student and friend Oliver gave it to me while I was in China (3.25" blade):

Oliver is a Uyghur, a Caucasian Muslim minority in China, with the population centered around Kashgar in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Thousands of years ago, the Uyghur people spread along what became known as the Silk Road. They were famed for making (and carrying, and using) weapons -- including knives -- and closely allied with the Khan Dynasty in the early middle ages. To carry a Uyghur knife is to be part of this tradition, and I honor this culture and hope the Uyghur people are granted greater freedom from the Chinese, Russia, and other countries that have subjugated them. Here's Oliver, "driving" a Willy's Army Jeep at the Stilwell Museum in Chongqing:

In a world where we often become obsessed with "high tech" -- whether cellphones, sneakers, or boutique cutlery -- it's nice to know that traditional craftsmanship and materials will still do the job. Better yet, in using such tools we connect with culture in ways that give meaning to our lives.