Sunday, October 10, 2004

Hunting Day One

We were on the ground at eight a.m. this morning. Conditions were cool, with clouds that promised rain for later. We parked at the top of a steep rutted trail about a mile off of Trail Hollow road. There were only two hunters on the entire road; we stopped where it ended and spent a quiet half hour getting our gear organized. With so few hunters in the area we could actually expect to see game just as soon as we left the rig. I spent about ten minutes giving my daughter a map and compass class before we took off into the boondocks. Orient the map, apply the declination correction, shooting azimuths, how to use reciprocal bearings for backtracking, journey logging by bearing and estimated distance, the importance of checking your back trail frequently, and for the capper we did a three point resection to figure out where we were on the map. It was easy to do. Even with all the high ground being similar, the obvious solution jumped out when our triangle was about the size of a BB and put us at the end of the road, concurring with the map.

We climbed through stands of quaking aspen and intermittent fields of molted chokecherry bushes. Our plan was to advance due east to the top of a four hundred foot ridge (at a saddle), then hook quietly to the north along the crest for a mile, with thirty or forty minute stands wherever good sight lines opened up. The wind was in our face climbing up - GOOD - and the rain started with intermittent lightning and thunder about halfway up. Not so good, but the lightning/thunder interval was never closer than four seconds. By the time we reached the saddle we had put on ponchoes and were carrying our rifles muzzle down beneath them.

My daughter really enjoyed the trip and so did I. The pace was easy and even with the modest climb we were getting to see some great country. An aspen forest in Utah is almost like a wall in an Egyptian tomb. It seems that everyone who passes through has to cut initials and a date in the youngest aspen they pass. After five, ten, or even thirty years the scars become black bas relief monuments. "Roger '73" was the oldest one we saw. "J.D.doesn'tlove A.C. was kind of sad; somebody climbed back up the mountain to carve "doesn't" after the original message was posted. Windows into other lives, I guess.

The saddle we were climbing is an intersection on an elk migration route between two watersheds. The well beaten game trail we shadowed on the way up joins with three others from the opposite side; we thought we could smell the musk but it may have just been the forest. As we crested the first saddle, we heard movement to our front, crossing to the left. After skittering up and left we caught sight of two yearling antlerless elk just entering into a stand of pines.

No, I didn't look back at my back trail before going after them. Nor did I whip out my compass and notepad to tick off a waypoint. The elk were going the way we had intended to go so we gave them five minutes and then slowly picked our way after them. They were young enough to probably be part of a larger herd. In the damp shadows of the forest, we call this "optimism". We spent almost an hour under the cover of the pines, stopping two times to watch some good sight lines into meadows that I didn't remember seeing on the map. By this time the clouds were in the treetops and the rain had increased to a steady drizzle, mixed with flurries of frozen stuff. This kind of weather drives elk to ground. I knew that we faced a good chance of this kind of weather, so I was carrying my M1 Garand in case we actually busted one off a bed. The entire area beneath the pines was dotted with elk beds, tracks, and spoor.

The oldest Goddess asked how I knew if it was fresh or not. I told her the fresh stuff tastes sweet. I love the looks she gives me at times like that. I didn't tell her that it was the truth of course. In desperate times with little or no sign, there are extremes of analysis you can use, but we were tramping through an elk resort during maid service and a plumbing incident. We hoped to catch them moving from the bar to the dining room since it was obvious nobody was in their rooms...

Two hours away from camp we hit a beautiful meadow. It looked like the clouds might be lifting so we set up on a little knoll overlooking two different drainages and snacked a bit. I decided to do a map spot as soon as I could see some peaks and pulled out the map. I had the Quad map for Strawberry SE...which meant that the SW that I needed was back there on the front seat of the truck with the...checking..yep, pencil, scale, and notepad I had used for the class.

The compass was still on its lanyard, down inside my shirt, where it had been for the entire hunt since the class. *sigh* Well, we'd started out climbing a ridge on a due east bearing (hey - did you shoot that bearing or just bought the map spot...?) then topped it and generally followed a contour running to our left give or take, ergo we should be facing northish ...that way.

Azimuth reading 170 degrees. Emphatically southish. Clouds coming down again. Take binoculars off chest harness, ditch the large hunting knife, hand old reliable chunk of steel M1 to the Goddess, unhook the waist pack with the camera and radio, and step off ten casual feet to check again. The bearing remained unchanged - south is south, and no, it's not the equipment that's screwed up.

Hmmm. "Oldest Goddess, which direction is that way?" pointing up the bearing line I had measured. "I don't know dad. Give me the compass and I'll tell you."

Damn. She had just graduated from Hunter Safety the week before. I told her I didn't know where we were. She asked for the map. I told her where the map was. That's NOT the look I try to generate from her. She has a lot of her mom, in case I haven't mentioned that before. I got a lesson from Hunter Safety - STOP. Sit down, Think, Observe, and Plan. We settled down on a stump and listened to the rain beat on our ponchoes for a bit. I attempted to use our Motorola only to find that somebody else had keyed the security lockout so I was stuck with our regular family channel (six, sideband one). We did the Stop and Sit think to the highest marks...observe was kind of a win/lose scenario. Awful quiet out there - no road sounds was right at the top of the list. No gunfire either, which wasn't a loss since the clouds and canyons made any concrete guess at direction impossible. On the win side, I understood what had steered me off into the hinterlands (besides the atrocious carelessness already noted): the wind was in my face. Still. And had been the whole time except for the time spent in the thickest of the pines. No sun, no mountain tops, and two or three minor rain squalls...and you always want to hunt upwind. Duh. I was pace man on a patrol in the Mojave Desert one moonless Marine Corps night, and the exact same thing happened. No moon, flat terrain, one missed compass bearing, and a four-point shift in the wind put us almost a kilometer from where we thought we should have ended up.

We had bags of daylight left, so we just unloaded our rifles and listened for traffic. Why unload the rifles? Because you don't shoot a four to six hundred pound animal when you don't have the first clue which way you need to drag it, that's why. Eventually we caught the haunting call of a Chevy 350 through the trees to the EAST (see, Goddess, that way is EAST!...another look) and made our way down to Trail Hollow road, a mile beyond the point that we had turned off to go up to our parking spot. After we were back at the truck I pulled out the right map and figured that as close as I could tell we actually completed the better part of a mile and 200 degrees of a circle somewhere under those pines. Distance covered in six hours was about five miles (plus the one mile lift we got back to our turn off). That's too much travel for most hunting, yes, but we intended today to be a scout as much as a hunt. The rain made taking long stands a losing proposition.

We had a fine day.

We stopped at the Strawberry Reservoir Visitor's Center on our way out. I talked with a couple of rangers. I showed the Goddess the Kokanee Salmon all dolled up in their orange spawning colors in the creek. We chatted with some Texans on holiday and then headed back to the truck. I took off my new hunter orange ball cap and saw the two inch by five inch "ON SALE/$2.50" Walmart tag poking straight up like a damned Minnie Pearl prop anchored to the button on the top.

The Goddess laughed. Sometimes I really hate heredity.

Tomorrow I'm helping a friend work on his deck. Friday he called and said he needed to replace a rail section and maybe four or five deck boards. Saturday morning he called and said a few of the joists looked questionable. Saturday night the message on the machine was that the uprights might be sound enough to salvage, but everything else was trash. This is payback. He was with me when we mapped the circuits in my basement for my modest remodel project. Frankenstein's lab made more sense and he helped me fix it. So tomorrow is deck day.

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