Best using the Gunbearer

In the last two years I’ve tried a number of ways to carry a rifle while hunting with a sizeable pack, and my copy of the Kifaru Gunbearer has been by far the best. It’s not a very complex piece of gear, but building and using one does have a bit of nuance to it, and took me three versions to get right. I’m not going to tell you how to make one; if you can’t sort that out go over and pay the inventors 30 some-odd bucks for one.

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The gunbearer consists of a pocket for the butt attached to the bottom of the pack frame, and a quick-release strap low on the shoulder strap. This second strap wraps around the barrel and stock of the rifle, above the scope but below the forward sling stud. The rifle carries hands-free, and deploys via the left hand forward on the stock and right hand pulling open the upper strap.  Videos illustrate this well.

I like the ability to mount your rifle quickly, and the hands-free carry, but my favorite aspect of the gunbearer is the innocuous, balanced way it stows a potentially awkward and snag-prone piece of equipment.  It looks odd in these photos, but the butt of the rifle always seems to keep out of the way of rocks and logs, and the barrel is right in sight and easy to mind without too much thought.  I’ve been able to climb 4th class rock with a mid-weight pack and a rifle in the gunbearer without (too much) stress.

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My Ruger 77/22 is shown above, which has a weight (6 pounds, unloaded) and length (38″) very close to my Kimber Montana.  Heavier and longer rifles might require a bit of adjustment, and there’s probably a ceiling on the comfort which can be had from carrying really large rifles.

When I first began working with the gunbearer I ran the rifle too high, which puts the scope into your armpit and screws up the balance.  It’s crucial to have the upper strap tight around the barrel and below the sling stud.  Leaning forward, for example when climbing over deadfall, will tip the rifle out of the butt cup at some point, and having the strap tight will keep your rifle from going for a ride.

Needless to say, the gunbearer requires a pack with a stout frame.  Kifaru recommends attaching the cup to the belt, but I’ve found the weight transfer to be much better when it is strapped to the frame, something made easy by the handy Seek Outside design.

I still bring a sling for transporting the rifle around camp, but 95% of the time it stays in the pack.  It even works well with a shotgun for rougher stretches during an upland hunt.  For wilderness hunters, an almost essential piece of gear.

Hunting divine valley, part 2

“I hate hunting. To like hunting is such a curse. You’d do better to like doing something different. I’m trying to think of something you could do where you don’t have to worry about it not working out. I guess video games, they usually work out pretty good.”

-Steven Rinella, Meat Eater 4:12

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The curse inherent in being a hunter is that however skilled you might be, however solid your planning and research, success requires luck. The extent to which this is true can certainly be minimized, but it cannot be eliminated. I still don’t know quite how much luck was at work in our overall success hunting and hiking that valley, but I’m certain luck played a huge role in finding a big chamois buck 200 yards from the hut.

In other words, I woke up very happy.

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We had a full day to pursue tahr, and if necessary half of the next.  The chamois skull, at that moment cleaned, salted, and bagged, would require a trip into Christchurch to get an export permit from the regional DOC office, which would add substantially to the drive required to get up north.  First, we’d investigate the canyon behind the hut, and if that didn’t pan out, go after the tahr I had seen yesterday on the big face across the lake.

Unlike the day before the wind was only mild, but a skiff of thin clouds hung high in the sky, keeping temperatures cool for a rugged climb up the streambed.

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Between the slippery cobbles, tight confines, and freezing stream crossings, it only took a half mile for me to be deep in flashbacks to 2011 and some of the canyons we used to hopscotch across the Hayes Range during the Wilderness Classic.

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Post-glacial erosion was happening fast and hard here, and the footing did not admit much inattention.

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The amount of groundwater seeping out of the cliffs was impressive, and the south facing alcoves bred extensive hanging gardens, dripping with verdure and visibly dropping the air temperature nearby.  It was terrain just like the chamois had been living in yesterday, but on a much larger scale.  It seemed like only a matter of time before we uncovered more animals.

After a mile or so the canyon steepened and grew more twisty, and M and my parents let me push on ahead alone, content to not freeze their feet any more.  That central section required constant stream crossings as each meander pushed up against sheer cliffs, and plenty of hand and foot climbing through big boulder fields.  Outside Alaska you don’t get to hunt this sort of terrain very often, because the sheep and goats who inhabit it have been made less numerous by the past century of heavy hunting, and what tags are available are made rare due to the entirely justifiable reverence, even fetishization, given to alpine hunting.  It’s a higher discipline for the same reason mountaineering is elevated in the public eye; both involve exploring terrain in which humans cannot live permanently, and the big spaces give the least-encumbered reign to our primary sense, sight.

After another hour of rough going, I made it above the twisty section.  The valley was a perfect V and ran mostly straight up towards the glacier, whose upper aspect was now visible.  The walls were steep, and on each side ran right down into the creek, with the water winning almost no mitigation in angle.  I climbed a hundred feet up one side to a collection of larger, flatter boulders and set up in a comfy spot to snack and glass the huge face opposite.  Behind the binoculars, it was easy to both revel in the perfect position and get down to the business of systematically picking the immense terrain apart.

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R0000274Downvalley.  Glassing location was right in the green patch at far bottom left.

The complexity of the valley walls came alive under my binos.  Steep, twisted walls of grey and black rock, ancient and varied with no pattern, were broken into discontinuous systems of ledges and striped vertically by gullies full of scree and talus.  The whole wall was steep, but in only a few places was it truly foreboding.  It looked like an agile human could go just about anywhere, but it would take a lot of horrid, loud work to get up off the talus and a lot of puckered scrambling to weave through the rock.  The green wasn’t as lush as that found in the hanging gardens lower down, but there was plenty of it.  Again, animals seemed certain.

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After an hour of glassing, I found them.  Little brown/tan dots bedded on a ledge under the largest, steepest cliff around.  A nanny tahr with kid, chewing grass.

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They were not close, but close enough that even my 50mm spotter on 30x could give decent detail.  It was immediately obvious that they had a good rig going.  They were bedded on the lushest ledge visible for a mile or more in either direction, with an impenetrable cliff above, and massive vistas below and to both sides.  As I watched the nanny chew, and examined the neighboring slopes, any stalk seemed problematic.  That whole side of the drainage was ever so subtly concave, and especially lower down none of the gullies were deep enough to hide the climb up into the rocks, even if one could in the process avoid making a huge racket kicking down rocks.

I pulled out Dick’s rangefinder.  I couldn’t get a read on the tahr, but the device could easily range the big cliff behind them.  450 yards, which is a long way.  Given the slope I figured the ballistic distance was right at 300 yards, which almost seemed reasonable given the 260 yard hit on the goose the day before.  I fiddled with my pack, pack contents, rocks, and tripod, but could not arrange a good stance which allowed me to be stable and get the tahr in the scope.  Waiting the nanny out and shooting when she stood seemed like a good tactic, but wasn’t practical in that spot.

I packed up my gear, and after a last look to confirm the tahr were still bedded, headed a hundred yards downstream to a faint gully which led up towards the tahr on their side of the stream.  If I could get into the rocks and weave through the ledges, I could close the distance and probably get a good shot ounce I was up at their level.

It did not take long to see that this tactic was just not going to work.  I consider myself pretty good in scree and talus, but the slope was steep and yet unconsolidated, and I couldn’t but make a lot of noise.  By the time I made it a decent distance above the creek, the tahr were on their feet, looking in my direction.  I stopped.  Stared, and stared some more.  They didn’t seem in immanent danger of running off.  I ranged the cliff behind them.  450 yards, again, but this time I had the slope in my favor.

I took a few steps right, towards the tahr and into bigger talus.  A little more stable.  Moved some rocks around, put my pack down, futzed with the contents.  Being prone on a 45 degree slope and shooting uphill makes it tough to both get a good cheek weld on your rifle and have a clear sight picutre.  After some futzing, I had it, good enough.  I chambered a round, turned my brain off, let it direct a breath in and out, and fired at the standing tahr, holding a little bit up off the back for elevation, and a little right for windage.

The round impacted high, raising a puff of rock dust which glided off left in the breeze.  The concussion echoed through the valley, a very small noise in the big place.  The tahr didn’t seem especially agitated.  Cursing myself, I worked the bolt, settled down, and shot again.

This one was closer, the rock dust or concussion enough to spook the nanny, who started and ran 10 feet to the left before stopping and continuing to scan the slope.  She still didn’t seem to have a clear idea of what was happening or where it was coming from, just that something was amiss.  I moved a few rocks to give myself a more settled position, and got back down on the rifle.  Slowly, slowly, slowly, trigger.

Hit.  The nanny bucked in the universal body language of a solid bullet impact, and took off to my right, in and out of sight amongst ledges, the kid in tow.  No hope of a follow-up shot, but hopefully it won’t be needed.  After a hundred yards of progress, she wobbles to a stop and sits out of sight.

The kid remained above and to the right in plain sight, plainly agitated.  The obvious brutality of the scene barely nudged into my mind before being pushed back out.  I kept my binos on them for close to a minute, and with nothing changing took time to dig ammo out of my pack and reload, before getting back on the binos.  Another 30 seconds, and the nanny is back up.

Shit.  No time for niceties, I dive back down on the rifle and send a round as she proceeded along the broken ledge traverse, again in and out of sight.  I had to count my ammo later, and because of that I know I only missed twice as she limped along.  Finally, with 15 seconds having been an hour, she stopped long enough to give me three breaths, and the last bullet of the trip flew true.

This time she dropped immediately, and hard, onto a sloping ledge, where she hung for a second before sliding, and falling and tumbling.  I’ll never know, but I’m fairly sure my “oh no, oh fuck!” was not just said inside my mouth as the tahr picked up momentum and was soon tomahawking 20 feet in the air as she bounced off and over cliffs.  My horror gives me one iota of space to think “well, she’s definitely dead now” between fervent hopes that the tahr will stop, soon, anytime, at some point, please.  She hits the talus below the ledges like a 70 pound meat sack going 40 mph, which she is, and rolls and flops and knocks endless rocks loose all the way down to the stream before coming to a halt as a tan lump plainly visible.  I guess the tahr went halfway down to the stream during her horrific tumble.

No time for introspection now.  I stemmed up the talus gully to the base of rock, and moved up onto discontinuous 3rd class ledges, heading up and right towards the nanny.  At this point the kid took his unintended and entirely appropriate revenge as he hastened down to figure out what the hell just happened to his mother.  A volley of rocks came down right at me, with a few microwave-sizers flying right over my head.  A few seconds later the kid appears 100 yards away, in a mountain goat pose on a boulder, one eye on his mother’s corpse, and one on this weird thing moving towards him.  Following through on the decision I’ve already made, I take off my pack, get seated behind it, work the bolt, and send a bullet through the young tahrs lungs.

In an inscrutable panic of death, he runs back towards and up above me, almost hitting me with more rocks, before dying and sliding to a stop above and to my left.

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The kid seems closer, so I go up and find him.  The mix of steep talus over embedded dirt makes for truly treacherous going.  Mostly I boulder large to large rock, hoping none cut loose.  I find the kid, and haul him over to the largest rock I can find, which seems likely to stay stuck.  I stack my rifle behind him, and tie my pack to another boulder with the hipbelt, then head over to the nanny.  When I find her, bedraggled and (unsurprisingly) hornless in the talus, I put my hand on her head in a gesture of gratitude and almost fall over.  We both slide 10 feet down before grinding to a tenuous stop.  Skinning and butchering, or doing anything apart from just hold on, is out of the question, so I grab all four legs and give a less-than-gentle heave.  Almost in slow motion the tahr rolls and slides every last foot down to the small flat bit next to the creek.

R0000270Looking down from the kid’s resting place.  Nanny invisible in the center-top.

Cutting the head off the kid, and opening up the hide to get out the loins and back legs, is one of the more difficult things I’ve done, and took twice as long as seemed reasonable as I fought to not slip and cut my finger off with the razor-edged Havalon.  Eventually all parts were in a sack, which along with my rifle was in my pack, and I was headed back down to level ground.  This entailed much slipping and scree surfing, as well as a block which rolled over and tried pretty hard to crush my left foot, but went quickly.  The valley floor was welcome.

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Fun, with its mammoth imprecision, might be my least favorite word.  Hunting is not push a button and yahoo fun, but it is deeply satisfying.  Two years I began pursuing hunting in earnest with the assumption that the moral conflict inherent in the pursuit and kill were a necessary but not necessarily valued part of the whole affair.  Now I think that unanswerable dilemma is integral.  The question isn’t all that acute when an adult male drops cleanly, dead in an instant.  It’s quite a bit thornier when the process takes 2 hits and 4 misses, and involves a bone-breaking tumble and the slaughter of a mother-son pair.  In New Zealand that’s legal, and sound management, but I had plenty to think about as I placed the tahr up on a flat rock and retrieved some food from my pack.  Eventually I looked at my watch.  Turns out the whole labyrinthine stalk, shot, and retrieval had taken all of 20 minutes.

I wanted the tahr hide, even though I knew getting it ready for export would add enormously to the work during the rest of the trip.  It took an hour to carefully skin out the tahr and extract the choice cuts of meat (in NZ there is no obligation to retrieve any specific amount of meat), and by the time I had done so I had made peace with myself.  Hunting is, at the end, about death.  Some times, probably fairly often, death is messy.  My tahr hunt had not been perfect, but it had been good enough to pass my personal litmus test, and I loaded my pack and headed down the stream a very content person.

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The steep descent with weight thrashed my legs and tested my patience as I took care to not hurt myself.  Rocks rolled, and on one stream crossing a bit of inattentive foot placement saw me fall neck deep with my trekking pole floating on ahead.  All that noise faded as I came out into the opening at the mouth of the stream and cruised the gravel bar past the chamois cliff from the day before.  It was hardly 3 in the afternoon, I had pieces of two tahr in my pack, a crystal memory in my head, and my pregnant wife and my parents just around the corner.

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All of whom were properly incredulous that everything had gone as well as it had.  They pitched in and fleshed the tahr cape, while I cleaned the skulls and generally sat back on the grass, savoring the moment.  Days this good simply do not happen very often, and rushing through without paying attention is a grave sin.

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The hike out the next day was leisurely because it could be.  The weather was good, the trip had been enjoyable to the point of stretching credibility, we had all day to get back to civilization, and 2.5 weeks in New Zealand still to come.

Hunting divine valley, part 1

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It is important to remember that we almost didn’t go hunting at all. Planning in the earliest stages centered around guides, but that was expensive and just not something I wanted to do. DIY was ideal, but without an entry point research on exactly where to hunt Himalayan Tahr in New Zealand was daunting. I spent hours flipping through the DOCs website, trying to ID the distinctive green hut Steven Rinella and the Meat Eater crew hunted out of during what remains my favorite episode of that show, before giving up.

M made the breakthrough, looking at the various non-DOC websites, and after not too long finding our hut. A name gave us a map and Google results to look at, which snowballed quickly into a good plan. We’d need to rent a proper 4×4 to get up the valley far enough for a reasonable hike in, and get my rifle into the country and around with us after the hunting, but after we ID’d that hut everything fell into place fairly easily.

And no, I’m not giving any more than hints as to where we actually were.

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Soon enough we were there.  Less than 24 hours after landing in the country we had a Mitsubishi full of gear and groceries easily making the river crossing at the end of the maintained road, and less than an hour later bogging down in a small stream crossing.  Turns out the 4 wheel drive wasn’t actually engaged, and once it was we ground out of the hole the back wheels had dug in the gravel and were on our very slow, very scenic way.

R0000150This is not where we got stuck, but close enough in appearance.  On the way out we couldn’t pick the spot out of a dozen or so such places.

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There was a strong probability that neither the pregnant M nor my acrophobic mom or stepdad would be able to accompany me on any steep stalk which might be necessary, and our destination was chosen for the scenery it would provide them, as well as the hunting it would hopefully provide me.  This aspect did not disappoint, fortuitous, as the drive gave us plenty of time.  A two-track was distinguishable most of the time the first day, but progress was rarely above 10 mph, and often well below 5.  Thankfully Dick is a patient and generally exceptional driver, so I just got to sit back and gawk.  It was like having driving access to Alaska.

The day grew long, and driver and passengers both got fatigued.  We had plenty of daylight left when we made the first hut, which was occupied by local “hunters” who were obviously and primarily interested in drinking beer and trying to hit each other in the head with a rugby ball.  But the hut had a rainwater tank, outhouse, and decent places to camp.  The constant 25 mph wind made it easy to get out of earshot of our neighbors, and the info we had on the area promised that the road ahead “deteriorated considerably” before running out altogether.  Camp would be made here.

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The neighbors were a bit annoying, and M inauspiciously managed to melt a hole in our only cook pot.  (When “they” say don’t put an empty aluminum pot on a backpacking stove, even for 15 seconds, they aren’t kidding.)  Our New Zealand-made freeze dried dinner had us regretting not importing more Mountain House meals, but we were here, we had made it, and the weather was fine.

I was not surprised that our fellows were not about when we made coffee early and got back on the road, which soon truly stretched any meaningful definition.  2-3 mph cobble crawling was the rule, but for a good while it still seemed faster than walking.

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Until it didn’t.  Everyone seemed happy to be on their feet, moving easily up-valley in the pleasantly cool morning.  My number one concern for the whole New Zealand trip had been weather shutting down the limited time we had set aside to hunt, and being out with a rifle and pack in absolutely perfect summer conditions made all my other cares tiny.

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The concept of this hunting trip had been to follow in Rinella’s footsteps, but soon enough this became far more literal and immediate.  I’ve yet to read exactly how Canada Geese came to call New Zealand home, but I do know they’re considered a nuisance animal with no protection, both from reading it on the DOC website and (of course) from seeing Rinella shoot one with his 7mm Rem mag on television.  I wanted to shoot a goose, to check zero, get a bit of meat, and take revenge on the silly creature which is the Canada Goose (if you’ve repeatedly bumped them downriver in a packraft as often as I have, engendering a groundhog day’s on inane squonks each time,  you understand).

After a mile of walking, we saw some geese out ahead.  I crept forward, trying to close in to a reasonable distance.  The trick of course being not just to hit one center mass and bring about an explosion of feathers, but hit it high and close to the neck, guaranteeing a quick kill and intact breast meat.  My first shot I rushed from a hasty rest atop a boulder and missed the goose as it waddled out of sight.  For the second I took more time, getting prone on my pack behind a patch of scrub, with folded ridgerest under the butt.  At first, I was only mostly sure I got a good hit, but glassing confirmed that the dark lump off in the distance was a dead goose.  M scurried ahead and grabbed it, while Dick had the presence of mind to stay back and range it.

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260 yards, with a perfect hit.  I had evaluated the shot as far, but not too far, and with a 150 yard zero instinctively held just over the back.  Ideal placement, and a serious confidence booster.

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We had a snack, took the breasts, and carried on.

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Easy walking while the road bed lasted gave plenty of leisure to head-swivel and drink in the endless detail.

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The final stretch without any hint of road was short, but with plenty of moraine debris was plenty slow.  Being on schedule, and with daylight running towards 10pm, there was no hurry.

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There are people pictured above.

The final approach featured a sporty creek crossing and some steep sidehilling on talus, making the hut feel like a proper walk-in only affair.

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I can’t emphasize enough how sublime and ridiculous this location is.  To one side is a steep tributary creek issuing from a deep, sinuous canyon.  To the other is a semi-major glacial river, terminating in a large lake.  Above is a craggy slope cut through with cliffs and hanging gardens.  And in the middle of it all is a green, rectangular metal box with beds.  Possibly the coolest location of any man-made structure in which I’ve ever slept.

After unpacking and having lunch, M and I took off one way to glass for critters.  Mom and Dick would go the other way, and we’d meet for dinner and share information.

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In country this big, steep, and barren it doesn’t take much walking to reveal new vistas, and we found a good place to set up and glass.

M took a nap while I worked the binos on the tripod.

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In a fairly timely fashion (<1 hour) I was on a nanny tahr with kid, way across the valley (brown dots right of center, 2/3 of the way to the top).

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I had first noticed dual tracks across a steep snowfield, and followed them to the only logical conclusion, a hanging ramp below a hanging meadow, south-facing and (in the southern hemisphere) therefore shaded and green.  The tahr were feeding in a leisurely fashion, and would I assume stay in the general area, but the approach (around the lake, ford the river, climb the slope) was too long for anything less than a full day.  Tomorrow, perhaps.

I glassed other places for a while longer, periodically checking in on the tahr.  When nothing else became visible, M and I headed back to the hut.

We were within a few hundred yards when we saw my parents off across the rock field, waving wildly at us.  Dick came over and revealed that they had a short hike earlier that afternoon; making it a mere 200 yards before spooking a chamois up out of its bed low in the cliffs.  They had been watching it wander the same cliffs for the past few hours, feeding, sleeping, cooling off by sticking it’s head under small waterfalls.  Dick and I crept forward.  He said it was right around the next corner, I chambered a round and undid my sternum strap, and we snuck around, staying close to the rock.

There is was, the unmistakable, odd figure of a chamois, standing calmly on the very edge of a sloping black ledge dripping with water.  The chamois was munching grass and had not seen us.  At that point I went on auto-pilot, moving out and right, sitting, taking off my pack, setting up for a seated shot with pack as rest.  Lined up on the chamois (a bit high, in retrospect, as he was 40 feet off the deck) and let fly.  Bang, thwack, and the chamois was falling off his narrow perch and landing rather brutally in the talus below.  My high shot had spined him, which was not immediately fatal, and I shot again, also high, due to excitement and not compensating for the 150 yard zero.  A bit more flopping, and the chamois was dead.

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Our hunting trip, hardly a day old, and on the second full day of the trip, was a success, 200 yards from the hut.  Most importantly, and unbelievably, everyone had been right there to be a part of it.

On their trip Steve Rinella also shot a chamois in a unexpected and unexpectedly close to camp place, so a parallels were growing, oddly.

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The chamois did break off his left horn in the fall, and not everyone could keep their eyes open in one photo, but these are small objections.  Photos of dead animals and smiling humans may seem strange to non-hunters; just let me tell you that they’re exactly like summit photos, only far more emotionally complex.

For me, it was the best thing that could have possibly happen.  Dick, who has taught me a lot about hunting the past few years, admitted over dinner that his extensive hunting resume did not include any alpine critters because his fear of heights never made such a thing palatable.  I was immensely satisfied that I had been able to plan a successful hunt, and even more pleased that circumstance had conspired to let all members bear witness to the full set of details.

We separated and cleaned the skull, removed the loins and back hams, and retreated to the hut for a dinner of goose (not very good) and NZ-made freeze dried (also not good).  Food could not dampen our spirits, not with a chamois skull and meat hanging in bags from the huts support cables.  Soon enough, a full day in our heads, we went to bed.

R0000255The chamois’ home range; we approached and shot from the left side of this photo, the chamois was perched atop the dark, wet slab in the center-right.

When I woke up and went outside to urinate in the middle of the night the milky way was on display in a way rarely seen in our modern world.  I would never have guessed that tomorrow the trip would only get better.

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Keep it public

I’ve been putting this writing off for months, because putting fingers to keys and pixels to ‘net admits that there are things which need to be said about keeping public lands public. Today, there absolutely are, and that admission is in itself a sad statement.

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I remain acutely skeptical that the current movement to transfer federal lands into state custody will ever come to anything substantive, but the opponents are sure taking the whole mess seriously, which has produced more than enough dialogue to frame the debate.

Sadly, this has mostly taken place on economic terms. The heirs of the Sagebrush Rebellion maintain that state governments and local towns are loosing potential revenue due to federal complacency, while the heirs of Roosevelt trot out vague statistics to demonstrate why states would not be able to shoulder the management burden.

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US federal land.agencies” by National Atlas of the United Stateshttp://nationalatlas.gov/printable/fedlands.html, “All Federal and Indian Lands“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, all this discussion is very much besides the point. Federal land was, starting in the late 1800s and more rapidly in the first quarter of the 20th century, set aside specifically against obvious economic motivations. Preservation was the word when the Adirondacks and Yosemite became state parks, and Yellowstone a national park. Long-term economic arguments about how tourism is superior to extractive industries only followed. That tourism is the most economically use of public lands is a fait accompli, as demonstrated by the states-rights rhetoric being restricted to only wanting a little more logging/mining/roads while maintaining or increasing tourist infrastructure. The problem is that these pro-states arguments are almost identical to those made a century ago. It’s an obscure and uncommon thesis, but the conservation/preservation, public lands ownership and use debate made the Republican party what it is today, and the zenith of that debate between 1910 and 1912 is when the GOP ceased to be the party of Lincoln and started to become the party of Reagan.

TR left the White House in 1908, denying himself a certain third term. Given that he had assumed office after McKinley’s assassination in 1901, Roosevelt had a strong claim to a second elective term, as well as the sort of popularity which would have guaranteed him a win. At the national convention, Henry Cabot Lodge had to intervene multiple times to prevent TR from being nominated by acclamation. William Howard Taft, then Secretary of War, was TRs hand-picked successor, in no small part because Roosevelt thought Taft the most likely to continue his policies, Unfortunately for Taft, once elected he proved too malleable or indifferent to stand up to industry, and supported either outright or by default significant erosions of TRs conservation work. Taft fired Gifford Pinchot, and made moves to undo the designation of the enormous and visionary Tongass National Forest. TR valued these things, and the ideals they represented, so much that he was compelled to run against Taft in 1912. He failed to win the Republican nomination, and as a Bull Moose candidate in the general election outperformed Taft, splitting the vote and guaranteeing the victory of Woodrow Wilson.

The presidents who followed Wilson have mixed records on conservation, but the overarching narrative is universally in support of conservation and the value of federal lands. National Parks came to be called America’s best idea, Alaska still has a robust salmon fishery, old growth forest still exists in pockets of most western states, and free or cheap opportunities for recreation of all types could as of 2015 occupy many lifetimes. There are many particulars which could be improved, especially wildfire management, but it’s hard to see arguments against the current regime of federal land management as anything other than variations on Cliven Bundy; ahistorical, myopic, and selfish.

Folks are hesitant to say this out loud, and even more hesitant to state what I see as the central point in the debate: the states are too hasty and subject to the winds of public opinion to be good custodians of public land. This is especially true of states like Montana where term limits and biannual legislative sessions have maintained a tradition of true citizen legislators. Like the US Senate, experiencing federal land management in real time can be frustrating, but is the least-worst option. Ecosystems dwell in extra-human time scales, and thus government must be stretched a fair bit to suit it. Land conservation has in the past century been one of the largest success stories in North America. The pushback against it is probably the last kick before the death of a 20th century view about the unalloyed preeminence of the western human, an ideology about which conservation only tells a small part. Insofar as it’s a coherent entity, I can’t take it seriously, but it would be foolish to underestimate it’s advocates.

The legacy of the 21st century will be rewilding littoral areas, and cultivating a less adversarial relationship with the wild which will make it easier for predators to reassimilate. But it will not come easily or with good grace. Be patient and, where necessary, make your voice heard. In the western states that probably means now.

My contempt for brown trout

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Though I’ve been fly fishing regularly since we moved to Montana in 2008, and sporadically for close to a decade before that, I’ve never bothered to get particularly skilled at it. The twin revelations of tenkara rods and wilderness streams have largely relieved me of the need to develop a solid, precise cast. If I can avoid the smart fish which, in northwest Montana, tend to be found near the road I do, because that’s what I like doing anyway.  I’ve caught a lot of fish this way, and gained a lot of satisfaction.

In tandem with this approach has been a willful disregard, even contempt, for much of what is most easily called traditional fly fishing gear, technique, and philosophy.  Fly fishing is, above anything else, a deeply self-serious discipline, which along with the wildly expensive gear, endless rows of flies which all look the same, and funny vests makes it an easy target for derision.  Over the past few years I’ve pretty much decided that around 80% of all the mumbo jumbo considered necessary to fly fishing was a bunch of crap.

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I was wrong.

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Very wrong.

Dick, my stepfather, was keen to book a guide for fishing in New Zealand.  I’d figure we’d put the expense to good use by hiring someone to take us way up into the mountains, some place infrequently traveled and beautiful, where like in Montana we’d have a bunch of unsophisticated fish at our disposal.

It did not work out that way.  Turns out the non-native Brown Trout in New Zealand, at least in the lust, warm rivers near the north end of the south island, have such a luxurious environment that the headwaters are the most desirable environment.  According to our guide, the big fish chase the little fish downstream, claim a big pool for their own, and hang out in the clear water enjoying the year-round flow of bugs, and occasional mouse.  They can afford to be picky, and they have the perfect environment for being very wary.  The result is fish which are very hard to catch, and a type of fly fishing where all the tricks you read about in magazines are absolutely imperative.

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As you can imagine, quite a bit had been lost in translation when we were emailing with Mike the guide about this trip.  By the end of the day I had committed almost every foul and misdeed in the book, save catching my backcast in a tree (miraculously this didn’t happen the second day, either) and was ready to quit and hike out.  The rough terrain along the river was kicking Dick’s butt, and he didn’t have time to fish at all for the need of moving fast enough to make camp by dark.  I was getting a hasty, remedial lesson in fly casting a western rod, not something in which I had much interest.  The tenkara rods in my pack were clearly going to be of little use, both for lack of range and lack of a ton of backing for when the gargantuan trout went on a run.  We saw nothing, all trip, which Mike thought much less than five pounds, and a few which he thought in the 12-13 pound range.  (The trout pictured above was 8.5, Mike had a scale integrated into the handle of his net.)  We were throwing an 18 foot tapered leader, and only having success using a double dropper rig, which is a dry fly, with three feet of tippet tied to the hook and a nymph on the end, and another three feet of tippet and nymph tied to that.  I was not up to casting such a rig with anything approaching the range or delicacy necessary to not spook the browns, having previous considered such lengths hyperbolic at best.

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There are many outdoor activities, fly fishing being one and hunting being another, which can be done and done richly at a wide variety of difficulties.  Every activity has certain settings or modes which demand nothing less than an A game, and while submersion in an alpha environment is often intimidating and frustrating, it’s also a tremendous learning experience.  I slept poorly the night we were in the field, deeply irked that I hadn’t done enough to ensure the fishing trip I had wanted, but woke up resolved to make the best of it.  Dick stayed in camp reading, the helicopter would pick him up along with camp after it got Mike and me that afternoon.  We would fish up river, and I would try to relax enough to work near my potential and actually catch some fish.

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It almost all came together.  Mike hooked a few fish and let me land them, no mean feat with big fish who have a ton of room to run.  A different world of fishing indeed.  I even managed to tease a fish in and set the hook on one, which I also managed to land.  The practice of fishing tenkara, which requires lots of movement to land a fish, certainly applied.

The browns blended in to the dark cobbles remarkably well, but by the second afternoon I was getting the hang of it.  I saw one 100 yards upstream, feeding against a white cobble.  Fortunately, a car sized boulder 30 yards downstream provided ideal shelter.  I got close, got line out, and made a passable cast with the dropper rig far enough upstream, and the fish slurped it up.  I set the hook and the fish took off to the right and upstream.  In a panic of pre-thinking, I clamped down on the line, or perhaps got it tangled in my fingers trying to let the tension down onto the reel, and with that moment of hard resistance the hook straightened and the fish was gone.

So close, and so far.

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I’ll always be disappointed in myself for not sorting the trip better before we left for New Zealand, but you don’t know what you don’t know, usually until it is too late.  In retrospect, I’m not certain the sort of trip I wanted for the both of us was even available when and where we wanted it. What we did get was an amazing trip into a gorgeous river valley, a fantastic helicopter ride, and a serious lesson in fly fishing. I still think a lot of fly fishing is ridiculous, and I still think the extreme catch and release ethic practiced in New Zealand and elsewhere is ethically questionable, but there’s also no question that seeing the possibilities which are out there is immensely alluring, and invaluable. I know some of what I don’t know about fly fishing, and how to go about learning it.

Meeting the hype

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Some times, some things, even things which are famous and about which you’ve heard too much, exceed expectations. This happened numerous times in New Zealand, but no case was more clear cut than the pancake rocks of Punakaiki.

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The west coast between Westport and Greymouth is rugged, and the road which goes down it will make you ill. Partway down is one more in the series of steep headlands between beaches. This is Punakaiki.

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Waves from the Tasman Sea smack into limestone cliffs, and have over time carved canyons, caves, crevices, and holes into the fantastic compact limestone. Under M’s impetus we put the guidebooks to good use, and arrived right at high tide during a windy, rainy day. The spectacle cannot be well described. It was almost as interesting to close your eyes and listen as it was to watch. Hidden impacts precipitated sucking exhalations, after which came regular but unpredictable explosions up through gaps in the cliffs. On one occasion I had to sprint back to keep my camera reasonably dry.

Thankfully, the tide went back out and the impacts became less enthralling, and we were able to get a coffee at the cafe before continuing south.

Concerning sandflies

The sandfly is a fact of life in New Zealand. Forrest McCarthy called them the countries top predator, which is in a sense quite accurate. The “bloody sandflies” are both widespread and annoying, and coping with them requires a few special preparations.

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Thankfully, sandflies are no where near as obnoxious as mosquitoes. Yankees familiar with early summer blackflies will find that their experience will transfer well, and the sandfly is merely a small variety of blackfly. Sandflies live around water, but dislike rainfall, as well as significant wind and intense sun. Humid, still, overcast days are their playground. They like to fly, silently, around humans until they find a bit of exposed skin for bloodsucking. Their bites cannot generally be felt until it is too late, if at all. These bites generally swell up in the typical fashion 12 or so hours after being bitten, and persist for a week or two. While the strength of individual reaction varies, I found them extremely itchy for 10 or more days after the fact. Salves provide temporary relief, and are especially useful right before bed.

Unlike mosquitoes, sandflies cannot bite through thin layers of clothing, so things like gossamer woven shirts are quite adequate to keep them at bay. Long sleeves and fingerless gloves are a good idea, as are long pants. These pants must be tucked into gaiters or socks, as sandflies delight in flying up to gnaw on your shins. Knee-high socks are a good back up in case your pants become untucked from your gaiters (while fly fishing this happened during almost every river crossing). Lastly, a scarf or buff which can be tucked into your shirt and pull up over the back of a hat to cover ears, neck, and chin will be welcome during heavy sandfly pressure.

DEET is effective against sandflies, until it is washed or sweated off.

As with most bugs, my favored strategy is to avoid sandflies as much as possible. The eastern drainages in the southern Alps are primarily rock, very windy, and under heavy orographic shadow. Pretty much my favorite kind of terrain anywhere, and not coincidentally a mostly bug-free zone. The sandflies in Fiordlands were pretty bad in camp, but they didn’t really follow us out on to the water while kayaking. They were present most places on the Heaphy Track, but cooler and generally windy weather kept them mostly at bay. The trailhead in Kohaihai was just enough off the beach to be sheltered, and the sandflies there were apocalyptic. Thankfully we didn’t have that anywhere else on the hike.

I got 80% of my sandfly bites while fly fishing, for several reasons. First, I had arrogantly dismissed the need for gloves. Second, the DEET washed off my hands constantly. Third, my pants came untucked in the river. Fourth, the fishing was so absorbing and difficult that I ignored the flies and had little idea how bad I was getting it. Lastly, fishing puts you rather inevitably in ideal sandfly habitat. With a few extra precautions, I would have suffered much less.

In conclusion, sandflies should be prepared for well, especially if you’re visiting the wetter and more verdant parts of New Zealand.  Thankfully, they’re not as well armed as mosquitoes, and don’t produce a maddening buzz, so if you’re properly equipped they’re somewhat easy to ignore.

The Harsh Fiords

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The first day on Doubtful Sound was the most trying of our whole New Zealand trip. The first third of a 26k day in tandem sea kayaks lulled us into complacency, before the main arm turned a little more westerly and the full force of the 30 knot winds slammed us in the face. Progress was excruciating the rest of the way up the arm, with a lunch break finally arriving at 3:30, five hours after starting. An earlier stop not only would have put reaching camp in doubt, but with only a handful of beaches in the entire fiord, was hardly possible at all.

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Thankfully lunch recharged everyone enough to make the crossing into Crooked Arm safely, and camp was tucked into a calm forest cove, complete with cook tarp and a big mesh tent to keep out the sandflies. My arms were shot, and I had to lay down carefully in the tent that night, least my twinging left elbow wake me. Sometime in the middle of the night I woke in a haze brought on by a full bladder and claustrophobia. The downpour outside was so fierce it seemed to slap down all air movement, and our little tent was stifling. Semi-panicked, I pulled off my shirt, ripped open the zippers, and leaped outside. The rain, drenching and cool, provided instant relief.

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The weather the next day was better than expected; clear, mostly calm, and we were surrounded by pulsing waterfalls brought to life by the inches of recent rain. Half the crew stayed behind due to fatigue, but my elbow held together, indeed the low-torque paddling and tremendous scenery made it feel much better.

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Fiordlands is massive, and built with rules I did not at first understand. How do 3000 foot granite walls, old, hard, twisted and dense granite, grow carpets of trees on 75 degree slopes? Evidently, the answer is that 30 feet of rain a year soaks the rock, moss infests the cracks and, over a century or so, accumulates enough biomass for seedlings to sprout, whose roots wriggle and grab, holding a forest tight to 12 inches of soil atop bare rock.  As can be seen by the blank patches, eventually a bit lets loose and a silvan avalanche comes down into the water.

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We saw a seal, and many dolphins, and the first freshly-used game trail I’d seen on all the west coast, and towering, monumental light as the sun came over the walls and onto the water, but it was the absurd basic physics of the place which left me most in awe.

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I’m not much on an ocean person, and in life-time a river person quite recently and only due to the dictates of western Montana.  I was a bit off edge all trip, even after the inexorable, backwards-pushing winds subsided.  Fiordlands isn’t a place to which I’m itching to return, unless it’s up in the tundra to hunt elk, but my images of it will remain vivid for decades.

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A note on logistics and planning: Doubtful Sound is not a beginner place to go sea kayaking, at least not without a guide.  The winds, currents, weather, and severe lack of places to get out of the your boat without tree climbing make it so.  At first we were just looking for someone to rent us boats, and only hired Sea kayak Fiordland when we found no one who would do so.  Turns out there’s a good reason for that, and that they runs a tight ship, with good guides and a great value for the whole experience.  Recommended.

New Zealand logistics for the DIY hunter

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In New Zealand, all big game (and a lot of small game) is non-native, which is why you can hunt Canada Geese with a rifle.   Before the arrival of Maori 700 years ago, and of Europeans 400 years later, New Zealand was one of the more distinctive ecosystems on earth.  The largest mammal was a bat, and the terrestrial megafauna almost exclusively consisted of flightless birds.  Maori extirpated many of the birds, while Europeans wreaked far greater havoc when they got around to it.  In additional to feral pigs, sheep, and goats, a large number of wild big game species were let loose specifically to create hunting opportunities.  These include chamois, native to Europe, tahr, native to the Himalaya, and no fewer than eight species of deer from around the globe.  America contributed elk and moose, both of which were (rather oddly in my view) released in the fantastically rugged and wet fiordlands.  Elk are doing well, though their continued interbreeding with red deer is lamented by some Kiwi hunters, while most thought the moose had died off until a confirmed hair sample was found in 2002.  New Zealand has some the roughest, least penetrable country immaginable, real bigfoot territory where the largest deer species could plausibly go undetected for decades.  This fact alone should make New Zealand an intriguing location for a hunting adventure.

Interest will be vastly increased when the implications of a 100% introduced pantheon of hunting species are fully grasped.  Aside from harsh weather and lack of food, there are no natural checks on these animal’s spread.  Hunting has been and continues to be a vital tool to maintain some equilibrium in the hybrid system which is New Zealand.  If the Department of Conservation (DOC) has reason to suppose that too few tahr were shot in the past year (overall population target is 10,000), thus setting up a population boom which might put native alpine plant species at risk, they hire folks to go out and shoot a bunch out of helicopters.  If the DOC thinks too few deer were shot, they’ll attempt to aerially cull them or, when the terrain makes such an approach less effective, poison them.

All of this means that, with few exceptions, there are no limits or restrictions on big game hunting in New Zealand.  Formulate a hunt plan and get yourself and your gear in country and you can have at it, year-round.  What restrictions do exist mostly have to do with keeping hunters away from crowded areas, especially during popular seasons, and in draw blocks for the aforementioned modest populations of elk.

The informative DOC website will be the inevitable first stop on a hunters’ quest for information, as well as where hunting permits should be obtained.

R0000231While the free hunting permits are attractive in a world of increasingly expensive hunt tags, the real value of New Zealand hunting is in the unrestricted opportunity in terms of season and terrain.  There are few places in North America where you can hunt terrain such as the above, without building points, spending a lot of money on a guide, or being an Alaska or Yukon/NW Territories resident.

There seems to be a low-level, semi-permanent conflict (difference of opinion might be a better phrase) amongst the Kiwi hunting community about conservation, or more specifically the different meanings of conservation. Most people seem to accept that the various big game species are in NZ to stay. Most people also seem to accept that it is in the interest of the integrity of the native ecosystems, all of which are already much diminished by non-native predation and depredation, for big game species to be kept at a manageable/lower level. At the same time, hunters want to see animals when they go hunting, and many hunters want to see trophy animals as well. How all these things can be balances appears to be something New Zealand is still working out. Frankly, for anyone interested in the intimate detailed of ecosystem management it’s a fascinating issue, and I had a lot of really engaging conversations with all kinds of folks about various aspects. The South Island compares favorably to Montana or Wyoming in that a fairly significant portion of the population seems to hunt, fish, and get out regularly and thus be more aware of and engaged with these things.

All of that is to say that a visiting hunter will be put in the unusual position of lacking any formal guidelines on how many animals she/he can or ought to shoot, should fortune prove kind. Good manners behoove guests, so it’s something everyone ought to think about before getting out in the field.

Possibly before the hunt is fully planned, a visiting hunter will need to buy airline tickets. We saved a lot of money buying way in advance. This can be the source of inadvertent trouble, as different airlines and countries have different regulations. Qantas, for example, allows you to check a firearm using the same guidelines any US carrier would (locked hard case, etc), but requires a special internal permit to check ammo. You can get this online very easily, but you need to do so at least a few hours before you check in. Air New Zealand requires a phone call at least the day before you fly with ammo and a firearms to notify them. Australia is another potential problem for the traveling hunter. The way I read the regulations, you need an Australian firearms permit even if you’re just flying through the country and never clearing customs with your checked baggage. We went through Sydney both ways, are were lucky to get away without any Australian permit of any kind. In the future, I’ll give Australia a pass unless things change. Not worth the extra bother, though Sydney has some great pubs. As is usual with such things, the process is rather Kafkaesque and whether you get a severe or lax treatment of the rules comes down to chance.

New Zealand requires a visitors firearms permit for you to bring a rifle into the country. This is actually very easy. The form can be filled out online, ideally a few weeks before you arrive, and will be waiting for you with the police at the airport when you arrive (along with your rifle). You just need to announce yourself to said police officer, present proof of your ability to legally own firearms in the US, 25 New Zealand dollars (get this in advance), and you are on your way. In Queenstown, this was a very quick and easy process. The only potential complication is that we don’t necessarily have a specific firearms license in the US. A concealed carry permit would presumably be ideal here. I brought a 2014 Montana hunting license, 2015 Utah hunting license, and hunter education certificate, which together proved sufficient. The officer was not especially familiar with US firearms laws, but accepted my explanation that some degree of legal check was involved in obtaining a hunting license.

There is a space on the visitors firearms license application for the licensed NZ resident who will be keeping your firearm for you, including address and firearms license number. If you hire a guide the answer in obvious. We used the address of the Queenstown hotel we stayed in the first night, and left the license number space blank. We had also made arrangements, considerably in advance, to store my rifle while doing a backpacking trip and a multiday kayaking trip. In both cases we emailed local police departments asking for assistance. In one case they cheerfully agreed to store the rifle, and in another they referred us to the manager of a local sporting goods store, whom we called, and who cheerfully agreed to do the same. We had hard copies of both emails to present along with the hunting licenses, which seemed to make a favorable impression.

Having clean gear is quite important when coming in to the country. My shoes and tent stakes got a free bath from customs to make sure they had no non-native particles. I had washed both beforehand, just not well enough.

The cheapest way to get skulls, hide, and frozen meat home is in checked and carry-on luggage. Hunting was the first activity we did, so we didn’t pursue freezing all the meat for transport home. In New Zealand there is no legal obligation to take more from a kill than you like. I actually regret this a bit, as the tahr was excellent and we ate it with gusto for consecutive meals. The chamois was less good. We did have two separate cabins booked along the trip, which gave me access to a yard and hose for boiling skulls on the camp stove and cleaning and salting hides. We brought a tahr hide back in checked baggage, and three skulls in carryon. This required a trip to a regional New Zealand DOC office (Christchurch) to obtain an export permit, which cost $40. We gave them details over the phone the day before, and signing, paying for, and picking up the permit took 10 minutes. As was the case pretty much everywhere, the folks at DOC were cheerful, interested, and helpful. You’ll also need to fill out a US Fish and Wildlife form (#3-200-20) to bring this stuff back, and ideally call the port (airport) through which you’ll be returning to give them a heads-up, which vastly expedites the customs process.  Virtually all major international airports will have Fish and Wildlife staff qualified to do this, but it’s a good idea to be sure. Obviously, make sure the hides and skulls are very clean and professional looking. We called a few places in Christchurch about cleaning stuff for us, but the rates they quoted seemed obscenely high, so doing it ourselves seemed like an obvious investment.

It will be a while, but I can’t wait to go back and hunt New Zealand again. The long and costly flight is the only disadvantage, and considering the cost of non-resident tags, a well-planned trip to New Zealand is probably not much more expensive than many hunts within North America, if not cheaper overall.  With the ability to hunt very different species in very different ecosystems with few restrictions, all on one trip, New Zealand might be the best hunting destination on the planet.

Forests of the Heaphy

The centerpiece of our New Zealand trip was the Heaphy track. At around 80 kilometers, it’s the longest of New Zealand’s Great Walks, and located at the far northern end of the south island. The Heaphy promised great variety, from alpine forest to coastal beaches, and as a Great Walk featured huts and well-maintained tread. 80k isn’t all that far, especially over four days, but with M being pregnant and my parents not having the best of joints anymore moderate seemed like a wise move.

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Logistics for the Heaphy are daunting. New Zealand topography does not lend itself to straight roads, and the country is nowhere near densely populated enough for second-generation roads, straightening curve and moderating grades, to have gone in. Major highways regularly feature one-lane bridges and the kind of irregular, off-camber corners rarely seen on anything besides back roads in the lower 48. Thus, the 463 kilometers of road which separate the trailheads can easily take 8 or more hours if you don’t want to make your passengers ill. We used Derry Kingston at Heaphy Track Help, who will drive your car to the end and give you back your keys as he meets you while hiking the trail in reverse back to his van. He’s an AT thruhiker, has hiked the Heaphy over 400 times, and his service is a very worthy investment.

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The Heaphy starts in temperate rainforest along the Aorere River. The first 20k is a gentle, 900 vertical meter climb up to the Perry Saddle Hut, where we’d spend our first night.

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It poured rain as we drove to the trailhead and began our hike, which seemed appropriate given the surroundings but meant few photos got taken along the way. At times the downpour was as intense as rain gets.

The whole Heaphy is now machine-built trail, and allows mountain biking during the less-crowded winter. I’d love to go back and ride it.

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M was hitting the wall pretty quick, after only an hour or so. She’s light and lightly muscled and doesn’t have the power reserve to move the added weight of a four month-old fetus up big hills at her normal pace, to say nothing of the chaos of the new metabolic regime pregnancy dictates. I lashed her pack to mine for most of the day, which got some good comments as we rolled in to a very full hut during a bit of clearing late in the afternoon.

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The three huts we stayed at just happened to be three of the newest huts in New Zealand, and were all built to very high standards by a local contractor. Bunks for two dozen, gas cookers, running water from a rainwater tank, and coal stoves are standard features. If ever there’s a good time to camp at such a hut, it’s after a day of soaking rain, and we took advantage.

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The forecast for the next day was mixed, all while we got underway under a light shower the day was for the most part sunny and pleasant. We wove our way through gorgeous forests and out into the grasslands and peat bogs of the Gouland Downs.

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Variety of the name for the day, and indeed for the whole trip. Kind weather and easy walking allowed for lots of gawking around.

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M likes to make fun of me when I’m effusive about trees, but even she had to admit that the profundity of the Heaphy forests was exemplary.

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Gouland Downs hut. We booked the three new huts simply due to spacing for a four-day schedule. They were very nice, but the smaller, older huts had a bit more of a cabin-y feel which would have been welcome.

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Oftentimes at ent sighting would not have been out of place.

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The only native New Zealand mammals are bats. Australian possums and english stouts are a particular menace to native birds, and rodent fecundity being what it is, New Zealand has for a number of decades been the world leader in the use of compound 1080. It’s a political and ideological issue; there isn’t a viable alternative when it comes to controlling the rodent populations, but with a range and frequency of use beyond any previous precedent worldwide, it’s impossible to know what the potential long-term affects will be on an ecosystem level. Signage like this was copious.

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Day two, which ended at the months-old James Mackay Hut, was the longest and most varied, and probably the most scenically enjoyable.

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From the common room we had a distant view of the ocean and mouth of the Heaphy River, where we’d end the day tomorrow.

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Day three featured two distinct sections; a long descending traverse down to the suspension bridge across the Heaphy River, and a flat track through the thick woods alongside down to the Heaphy hut, within sight of the ocean.

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Weka, a native mostly-flightless bird, are the Heaphy equivalent of marmots or racoons. Very curious, they were a consistent presence around huts and the trail the last two days.

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Crossing the big bridge over the Heaphy River made for a startling transition. First, it was already a big river, amazing since we had hiked above the very headwaters midway through the day before. Rainforests, obviously, make rivers quickly. Second, the flora along the floodplain was enormous and abundant. The last half of the day went very quickly, with endless stuff to look at.

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After all that you get to the hut, drop your gear, change, and go for a stroll on the beach.

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Or just enjoy the view from the hut (inside, due to sandflies).

That evening the ranger came by and invited us along for a short hike to a cave.

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As can easily be imagined, the off-trail hiking was thick, and a guide very welcome. The cave was short, but tall, active, and very clean with plenty of airflow and light from the many openings.

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The next morning we were down to the last dregs of food, and all the stood between us and beer/food/showers was 16 km of coast.

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The whole experience of the Heaphy, from the huts to the terrain to the biome, had been novel in the extreme, and the coastal walking just drove that point home all the more emphatically. Most of the time we even had enough breeze to keep away the sandflies.

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That is the whole point of traveling, I suppose, doing a familiar thing in an unfamiliar place, and using your base of comfort as a headstart to better understand something altogether new. In this way, and just about all others, the Heaphy was perfect. It was a great walk, ideal for our group in terms of length and difficulty, and one of the most varied and memorable backpacking trips I’ve ever done. All without needing a tent.

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