Goats

In the modern hunting game opportunity is a watchword.  It means having the opportunity to hunt a given species in a given place, something increasingly relevant as interest in western hunting increased as some game populations decrease.  It also means having the chance, in a given hunt, to put a stalk on, actively pursue, and attempt to kill an individual animal.  The former question is both a biological and a sociological one.  There is substantial latitude* in the number of tags, for most species, which biological integrity will allow, and state preference for revenue and the number of hunters and animals in the field shapes things significantly.  Montana residents have long expressed their preference for opportunity based wildlife management, which is why we have long seasons for deer and elk, and why in most places in the state residents can hunt those animals with a tag they can buy every year.  While elk hunting in Montana is a high opportunity affair when it comes to possible days in the woods, it is for most people a low opportunity affair when it comes to stalks on a legal animal.  My elk hunting path has been unique and self limited, but as of today I’ve shot 100% of the bulls I’ve had in stalkable range.  In Montana, a foundational assumption in elk hunting is that the overwhelming majority of your time afield will be spent looking for elk, rather than specifically trying to kill them.

Antelope are the opposite, especially in Montana, where you can get an archery only tag every year which allows you to pursue goats virtually everywhere in the state, for nearly 3 months.  The opportunity aspect with antelope is also high in the chances to make stalks, at least with a bow, as the chances of success on each stalk is pretty abysmal, which is why the state can provide so much opportunity, in both senses, in the first place.

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Its an opportunity I relish, mainly because it is the opposite of so much of wild hunting in the 21st century.  Bison, for instance, is in the hunting all to do with the rarity of the tag, and the potential rarity in the animals on the ground.  Once you find one the hunt is essentially over, evidence in most places** of how little experience the bison have with being hunted.  Even grouse hunting in Montana is mostly about a lot of walking, about using time and distance to increase your odds.  Antelope hunting, especially in my favorite spot, is the opposite.

The antelope generally hang in the same spot, way down off the end of the mesa, on a bench hanging between layers.  They usually bed under one of two trees who sit, hundreds of yards from the nearest patch of green, on a seemingly utterly flat field of grass.  The challenge is getting close to them, in my case, with a longbow, within 20 yards.  After a few tries you figure out quickly how good antelope eyes are.  After a few more, you figure out that those grass fields are not flat, and that the little gullies and most importantly the flowing swale of one layer rising into the other can let you get quite close.  But close enough?

This most recent go, the answer was almost.  I clumsily bumped them out of their favored spot, when I foolishly underestimated the cover begin backstopped by dark timber at 600 yards would provide.  I watched them in the spotting scope getting more and more nervous before the lead nanny ran off her twitchiness in a seemingly random direction.  The 14 other ladies followed quickly, the lone buck reluctant and well off the back.  I walked well back, until my head was hidden by the slope, and then circled the cut bank and eased nearly 180 degrees around them, avoiding the cactus as I crawled up to the edge of a particularly large rock, and peaked over.  They were bedded at 100 yards, far enough towards the other edge that I might be able to circle around, again, crawl up that rise, and be within range.

Almost.

As I can best recall I did everything right, but they were still on their feet acting agitated when my eyes cleared the grass, and already being primed, the buck jumped the string hard.  After a hunt a few years ago, in the same spot, I swapped all my knocks for bright orange, and even so it still took me a few minutes of searching to find the arrow.  This at a distance where, were I more reliable at throwing, I could have hit them with a rock.  But this is the illusion of antelope hunting.  On the face you could have 10 stalks a day, bumping the herd, following, bumping them again.  But terrain and circumstance might allow for only one of those stalks to have any real chance, and holding fire for a legit opportunity is the best thing I’ve learning from antelope hunting yet.

*Colorado and Montana are first and second in terms of elk population, and also first and second in terms of both elk hunter numbers each year and elk harvested.  Oregon is third in both elk population and hunter numbers, but usually fifth (behind Idaho and Wyoming) with respect to elk harvested, one assumes due to the difficulty of hunting elk in coastal rainforest (2/5th of Oregons elk are the coastal Roosevelt species).  Wyoming, by contrast, is fourth (or fifth, with similar numbers to Idaho) with respect to elk numbers, but 7th (behind Utah and Washington) when it comes to hunter numbers.  Some states, such as Arizona and Nevada, have low elk populations, and commensurately low hunter numbers.

**The Henry Mountains in Utah being a notable exception, with a long history of hunting, and reportedly wary animals who often result in a once-in-a-lifetime tag going unfilled.  The bison on the Kaibab Plateau having moved, over the past decade, to wintering within the National Park is another.

 

Astral again

Last summer I bought what ended up being one of my favorites shoes ever; the Astral Brewer.  All of the limitations, and virtues, I noted in my review last summer have held true.  The lack of a little extra structure in the sides of the forefoot has gotten me pinched on numerous occasions.  The lack of a heal counter hasn’t been an issue while walking, but has threatened to pull the shoe off a few times in both mud and thick brush.  The rubber is very good, but the tread can be sketchy in mud and downright scary on loose over hardpack.  And while the upper fabric has manged over the past year, it doesn’t have much life left.

And I don’t really care, because the combo of zero drop, the right stiffness, and plenty of toe room is simply sublime, and simply not available in many other shoes.

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So I invested in the TR1 Merge, Astral’s midtop hiking shoe.  The tread pattern is more aggressive, the midsole 5mm thicker, the toe and heel have a rand, and the upper has a bit of padding in the ankle and tongue.  Weight, for my size 12, is 14.1 oz per shoe.

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The Merge does not have a heel counter, but on first glance the rand and doubled fabric provides a nice degree of stability the Brewer lacks.  It will be interesting to see if this breaks down at all.  I’m quite excited about the lightly padded ankle coverage, in a nonwaterproof package that doesn’t pretend to roll abrasion protection into the ephemeral notion of “support”.  I’m bummed by the thin stripes of pure foam in the sole, as the non-rubber areas of the Brewer have made for a few pokey experiences with cactus.

Overall, I could hardly be more excited.  Shoes over the past 5 years have only seem to come with more and more compromises for backpackers who like stout, minimalist shoes.  Exceptions are a big deal.

 

How the Dana Longbed Works

Amongst the few dozen folks worldwide who care about such things, the Dana Designs external frame packs are regarded as the pinnacle of the genre.  I spent a couple hundred field days carrying an Arcflex, and for a number of reasons gladly passed it along a decade ago.  Finding both the load carriage and feature set deficient, I can’t fathom a reason to go back to that tech, but I’m enough of a pack nerd/historian that when a Longbed popped up for cheap enough locally, it was an easy decision to buy it.

First, the numbers.  The early oughts era Dana Designs Longbed is listed as 99 liters, and 7 pounds 13 ounces, stock.  My version, with medium straps and belt, and a regular harness, breaks down as follows:

  • Belt: 14.5 oz
  • Straps: 7.3 oz (pair)
  • Bag: 3 pounds 12.6 oz
  • Harness assemblage: 8.1 oz
  • Magic wands (pair): 7 oz
  • Upper frame 4.9
  • Frame. 1 pound 3.2 oz

121.6 oz, total.  Which is heavy, by any modern standard, and really heavy by most measures.  Modern load haulers are generally 2-3 pounds lighter, in a package with similar capacity, but a more sleek feature set.  The Longbed is not sleek, as evidenced by the bag weight.  Four separate zippers, including a huge #10 U zip to access the main bag, are the main source of the overall weight, along with the huge lumbar pad and hypalon reinforced frame sleeve, which are sewn to and thus included in the main bag weight.  In this respect it is the worst of late 90s pack design, complete with floppy, non-functional mesh sides pockets, and a size that isn’t even that capacious (42 inch top circumference).

These criticisms would be valid for almost any pack of that era, making the more interesting question why this most modern of external frame packs might have something to teach us still.  As mentioned in the posts cited above, making a frame both rigid enough for load hauling and not massively heavy is challenging.  On the one hand the 19 oz Dana frame is porky.  On the other, it is more rigid than something like the Seek Outside Revolution, is at 29 inches taller, and that 19 oz figure includes totally rigid cross bracing.  With a modern belt removing 5-6 ounces, and a less complex overall harness design cutting something close to 2 pounds, the Dana frame might be a more coherent package than it first appears.  

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With the top bar at full extension the Dana frame is a full 36 inches tall, a full ten inches beyond most modern hunting frames.  It is also lighter, shorter, and narrower than something like the Barney’s Freighter frame.  The other argument for external frames, beyond the virtues of tubing over stays, has always the footprint of the frame.  The 26″ by 12″ footprint of modern hunting packs (Stone Glacier, Kifaru, etc) equals, when loaded 10 inches deep, 3120 cubic inches, about half a carefully boned out elk, and more weight than most people will be able to carry over rough terrain.  A load bearing footprint beyond this is handy for loads less easily tamed.  A bison hide is an example with which I have personal experience, or a moose quarter or rack of ribs (which many places in Alaska must come out of the field bone in), which explains Barney’s enduring popularity up north.

For myself, I’ve long wanted to experiment with a larger platform for family load hauling, and the Dana frame makes an ideal platform.  

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Carrying the Longbed in stock form does not make me at all nostalgic for my old ArcFlex.  The external frame is indeed more forgiving of poor packing.  I loaded up a five gallon bucket of iron window weights, resulting in a load too heavy to stand under without rolling over and crawling upright (a boundary I’ve found that for me is right around 100 pounds).  The adhesive properties of the aggressive lumbar pad and thick, soft hipbelt were immediately obvious, as were their longer term impacts, having to cinch things repeatedly as you travel and motion and gravity combine to help things compress.  

The years have taught me that the rough contours of hips require different sorts of padding compared to the less sensitive, and often concave depths of the lumbar.  But I still struggle to see lumbar pads as anything other than a crutch for fit issues.  I’m excited to experiment with the frame.  I’m also excited to put lumbar pads in the bin until something unforeseen comes along.  Dana packs remain the apotheosis of that design, and this pack not suiting me injects confidence into my dismissal.

The new rules for nature

There has been much discussion in the past few months about how the significant, perhaps even colossal, surge in those camping and going outside will in effect unite the insta-hipster trend of the past 5 years with the COVID-induced cabin fever and lack of options.  Those who went camping twice last year, and wouldn’t have considered it a decade ago, may well go 12 times this year.  My anecdotal experience with local traffic, as well as the availability of Forest Service rentals recently, supports this.  Accompanying this demographic shift is the expected naval-gazing guidance on the part of the Outdoor Media, much of which has been exceptionally horrible.  The following is my screed, a hope for newcomers and those newly serious in the outdoors that we will not let a rare year such as this pass by without using disruption to accelerate change, or even to shift the paradigm entirely.

1: Your stoke will not save us

Ethan Linck’s 2018 essay has become canonical in the way it summarizes and then deconstructs the founding myth of recreationalism.  In the process he casts the moral basis of outdoorish capitalism in deep doubt.  His concluding suggestion, that “…place attachment may be the only thing that cuts across socioeconomic divides to predict environmentally friendly behavior” both provides a way forward after his critique, and deals a further blow to the trophy-place ethos which so deeply pervades recreationalism in the social media era.

2: Tourism won’t fix our economy

Anyone who suggests otherwise is ignorant or disingenuous.  For every Boulder or Boise, places whose economy is not directly dependent on the nature which surrounds it, there is a Whitefish or Moab, a place where the second-order impacts of tourism has made it ever more dependent on nearby nature and ever less able to support those full time residents who make such towns, towns.  There are ways to make tourism fund teachers, answers which have nothing at all to do with selling more soft shells, and everything to do with the sort of tax policy nature-rich states have historically avoided.  When you relocate to or vacation in a place, take an extra moment to consider what that resort tax or sales tax does and does not do.

What recreation, and recreation infrastructure, might do is help change the economic paradigm of nature-rich locales, and break up the binary between the Boulders and the Moabs of the country.  For each of those two types of place there are 2 or 3 Townsends, Worlands, or Panguitchs.  Places whose 50 mile radius is as rich as anywhere when it comes to outdoor opportunity, if not outdoor spectacle, and who are generally caught in the demographic trap wrought by the nature decline in agriculture and extraction, and the moral paradox of keeping more wild places intact without sundering them all over again with publicity.  If we exit the pandemic with more jobs no longer tied to place, such places can quietly build trails and boat ramps and attract new residents who will (hopefully) be able to pay enough taxes to keep to local K-8 open without also demanding the culture-flattening presence of Starbucks.  The future of the wild world, in our lifetimes, is very much on human terms.

3:  Safety is not the same as comfort

Camping and being outside for extended periods is not about using knowledge and $$ to mimic the four walls of home.  It is about using technique and an open mind to discover new ways of being in the world.  I understand that companies can’t sell a new widget each year to further open minds, which only further highlights the extent to which capitalist recreationalism is an uneasy campmate to sustainable, wild nature.

4:  Subtle is sexy

Here I think a phallocentric metaphor is entirely appropriate: our preferences in scenery and in activities for an Outdoor Trip have become quite the same as wanting big tits and a six pack in our romantic partners.  The fantastic may have its birth in reality, but the exceptional should not define everyday reality when imaging so thoroughly disguises both the rarity and the labor inherent in such things. (end metaphor)  The Zions and Yosemites of the world are valuable because of the way they can shock complacency out of routine.  A preoccupation with the spectacular runs the very real, daily risk of making invisible the interest close by, be that interest in the terrain or in the modes of travel to which that terrain is best suited.  Red rock riding is surely the most interesting form of off-road riding, a fact which should only enhance the depth to be had in riding Iowa back roads.  Finding inspiration in the subtle, ideally closer to home, solves several problems.  It facilitates place attachment (see #1, above), it spreads out user impact (see #2), and it hopefully promotes exploration in places less definitively documented (see #6).

5:  Statistically speaking; no one shreds

Buried in some recent mountain biking press release or interview (I think it was from Trek) was a candid bite from an upper marketing person: “Statistically speaking; no one shreds.”  This is true, and in the time of the shredit an important and difficult thing to keep in mind.  Not only are these folks and the like exceptional talents and practiced professionals, they have the benefit of many, many tries, suggestive camera work, and a custom made trail.

This is a corollary to #4; a reminder of both the gap between representation and execution, and of the extent to which our society has struggled to celebrate the more contemplative forms of travel in nature.  The public side of this has created real problems, be it neophyte backcountry skiers diving right into avy terrain, or schralping giving the Sierra Club dog walkers more ammo against mountain biking.  To say nothing of the inferiority complex foisted upon ambitious newcomers.

6: Leave your phone in the car

Photographing is not the same as seeing, and taking a photo of a previous photo a sort of experiential poison.  As DeLillo wrote; “Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender.  We see only what the others see.  The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future.  We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception.  It literally colors our vision.  A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”  Or Turner; “I had become a tourist to my own experience.”

Turner wrote his Aura essay close to 30 years ago, and to put it simply, it is well worth contemplating how his ideas (and those of Walter Benjamin) might be extended to the age of the gram.  My suggested experiment is to, at least once, go on a keystone trip (whatever that means for you) in totally novel terrain without media devices, without taking photos or video.  You might learn something about seeing.

7: Adventure is founded in vision

My closing rule (ha) is the outgrowth of leaving ones camera at home, and my personal favorite discovery from the past decade relating to how I experience the outdoors: within the limits of my human life, the possibilities for adventure, exploration, for experiencing aura, will always be truncated by my own perspective, by my vision, experience, and lack of imagination, before it is limited or circumscribed by the miles of trails, number of ridges or creeks, or variety of trees.  There is a consistent tension between reserving the unknown for the future and seizing the moment in the name of uncertainty.  What cuts across that whole debate is that beta should be approached with abundant caution in an age when commerce, more than anything, is pushing us towards easy archiving of, well, everything.  If, to summarize, aura is the gateway to profundity and thus to place attachment, any coherent future of conservation is grounded in turning away from apps, waypoints, and indeed excessive and insulating technology.

Happy solstice.

 

 

Shorty

For a number of years I’ve wanted a short handy shotgun like my modified Tuffy, but with more ummph.  .410 is an excellent squirrel chambering, and mostly adequate for grouse and rabbit.  With these larger critters range is a practical limiter, not so much outright than with respect to pattern.  With a .410 20 yard shots on a static grouse or snowshoe are reasonable most of the time.  Moving shots are marginal without a high level of skill.  Much beyond that and one runs out of power quickly.  If a short shotgun is a practical tool because of portability, because you might bring it where and when you wouldn’t something bulkier and more refined, marginally expanding capability in a few targeted areas might be worth some extra weight.

I’d been on the lookout for a candidate for a while, and a few months ago we found a Stevens 9478 12 gauge at a pawn shop in Butte.  The folks there were quite willing to let the rather ugly little thing go for less than asking, and I think we paid $70 for it.  First step was to cut 10″ off the barrel.  This made for a cylinder bore.  I was able to unscrew the original bead sight and reinstall it, a welcome economy measure.  Next step was cutting the stock down for a straight grip, and stripping the ugly, slick, and in the end incredibly thick finish.  I left the texture a bit course and did a simple linseed oil finish, which feels nice in the hand.  Testing revealed the length of pull was too long, so I cut nearly an inch off, making it 13.5 inches, and as a test replaced the plastic back plate with a 5mm bit of dense foam, glued on.  Last mod was installing Grovtec flush cups, for the mandatory comfy carry with a sling.

Slimming the stock and reducing the LOP took off enough weight that the balance point was brought back a few inches in front of the trigger guard.  Pointing ergonomics with a shorty shotgun aren’t really a priority in the same way they would be with a full sized over/under, but as it stands the Stevens shoulders fluidly enough that tight, close shots on flushing spruce grouse seem very reasonable.  High, fast, straight away shots which seem to be the standard on ruffed grouse around here likely won’t be in the cards, but a gun like this is as a much about being present for ground sluicing blue grouse and hares 20 miles from the trailhead as anything else, and for that the just sub 5 pound weight will do very well.

I hope for an exhaustive field report in the fall.

Distance learning

There has been a lot of discussion lately concerning the new, or newly rediscovered, hikers and bikers and outdoorspeople the pandemic has brought out of rooms amongst the trees.  It is logical, and I see it as an extension of the last decades trend of increased outdoor participation in profile, if not as a percentage of the US population in fact.  The OIA 2019 report is padded, as it has been for at least a decade, with activities such as jogging and rv camping which take place outdoors but are not generally associated with the wild.  This last is important because some of the recent discussion concerning outdoor newbies has been about mentoring, and learning.

Part of me wants to welcome them all.  The other part of me wants to scream how members of the tribe can possibly, when we have yet to pass beyond the immediacy of how over-socialized our world is, get things so wrong.  Especially in the age of the internet, when instructions on every mechanics is easy to find.

I spent my whole childhood in southwestern Ohio.  Whenever I’ve returned, especially in the past decade, the logic of the landscape is jarring.  I learned to climb in a gym, learned to hike on vacations and in the strings of woods which clung to creeks around town, and when things got technical I turned to books.  Basic knots from the BSA hankbook, tracks and plants from all of Tom Brown, klemheist and biner block from Freedom of the Hills.  We never got enough snow to self arrest, but by high school had one BD X-15, a drill bit glued to the hole in a claw hammer, and ancient Salewa 12 points in hiking boots and “discovered” the 25 foot vertical ice pillars which formed on the spillway in our local big woods state park.  It was equal parts this DIY period so far from anything and my poorly-acknowledged introverted nature that has kept me on the self-taught path ever since.

Not everyone has this agency growing up, to say nothing of a family system that gives both a safe neighborhood to roam and fancy, fancifully chosen gear for Christmas.  There is a lot to be said, still, for core outdoor adventure being the ultimate encapsulation of first world privilege, in all its expensive and precisely curated discomfort and challenge.  There is a bit less to be said for the high cost of entry to outdoor pursuits.  This doesn’t hold too much water in things like backpacking, where skill and fortitude and thrift stores can provide 9/10s the practicality bought in a $5000 trip to REI.  It does, sadly, in things like boating and cycling, especially the later, which in the past 15 years has seemingly doubled down on eeking more and more profit as the last bastion of unfiltered yuppism.  There is still less to be said for the meritocracy of information, as today the process of learning has never been more accessible.

There is a stupendous amount of crap information, of course, but given that we’re confining the discussion to wilderness pursuits, the judgment learned in discovering bad advice to be what it is is more valuable than the skill of pitching a tent on six feet of snow or climbing a 9 inch offwidth.  My repeated attempts to convey how mindset creates safety are so perseverative precisely because these intangibles are the most valuable and most enduring things I’ve learned from climbing, backpacking, boating, skiing, and everything else.

Evolution of the Tamarisk: features

Or; as few things as possible.

Backpack features don’t make up the majority of a packs weight, but they do make up the overwhelming majority of the weight which is easily negotiable.  There is only so much weight to be shed with material (before you sacrifice durability), only so much with suspension or frame elements (before the pack carries poorly), and for a technical backcountry pack good side pockets (and belt pockets) are mandatory.  So the design task left is to make it possible to carry all the technical goods, along with the unexpected and unexpectable, with the least material possible. 

This includes snow gear like skis, crampons and ice axe(s), and a shovel, along with water gear (PFD), and perhaps something odd like firewood or even a bike.

I’ve settled on an extension of the reinforcing layer of bottom fabric, with horizontal daisy chains 15 inches apart.  Each daisy has a second layer of fabric inside.   Not only does each bartack thus have serious resistance to the ends pulling through the fabric, but the load is transferred to the whole fabric panel, and thus 16+ inches of seam.  The sleeve is not primarily intended as a pocket, being non-dimensioned, but is open at the top and thus not a bad place to stash pesky things like paddle blades, but the first intention is to both spread the load and provide abrasion resistance. 

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Pictured above is the full deal, for a trip which involved a 12 mile hike to even reach the skiing, and ended with steep skiing (on terrible crust) at 8500 feet.  A shorty 45cm ice axe mounted, old school, to a cord loop on the lower daisy.  The shovel shaft went inside the sleeve pocket.  Skis mounted diagonal, with ski straps, and crampons went under the top cinch strap, on top of three days of gear. 

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The final piece is the top strap, which is bartacked into the middle of the top daisy chain on one end, and with the buckle directly under the upper stay pocket on the other.  When the pack is on the empty side the angle of the strap, combined with the taper of the bag, provides compression.  When the pack is full the strap pulls the load towards the suspension, transferring the load and enhancing stability. 

And that, is it. 

 

Hunting the future

Exploring the underbelly of any subculture via internet forums is invariably equal parts fascinating and revolting.  Diving into the graininess of people at their most unfiltered teaches a lot, about a particular subject and about humanity generally.

If you dive not far into American hunting culture, you’ll become acquainted with the narrative of how liberal elites are engaged in a conspiracy to end the practice entirely.  The variations are several, and include a combination of wolf reintroduction, firearms restrictions, and overcrowding serving to, from a variety of angles, make hunting all but impossible to regularly practice, or so socially looked down upon that no kid or young adult will want to do it.  The sentiment is, in the end, one of many symptoms of the current generational and demographic sea change in the United States.  Hunting is in danger of dying out significantly in the next few decades.  The unpleasant fact is that hunters themselves and the policies they’ve grown up with and come to experience as background noise have given birth to most of the threats to hunting’s future.

The data is clear, assuming the Fish and Wildlife survey is sound; as the population of the US has increased the number of hunters have decreased, both as a percentage and in absolute terms.  In 2016 11,453,000 people in the US hunted.  The overwhelming majority were white men, with a heavy bias towards the 45-65 age group, and rural residents.  4% of the total US population hunted that year, which can be broken down to 3% of the urban population, and 13% of the rural population.  Including anglers, the total number of “extractive” wildlife sportspeople was in 2016 39.6 million.  Wildlife watchers, by contrast, numbered 86 million, though only 23.7 million of those did so “away from home” via specific outings 1 mile or more away from home.   Those wildlife watchers accounted for not quite half of the almost 157 billion dollars spent by all “wildlife related” recreation-ors.  Of particular interest, while that figure increased only a few billion from 2011 to 2016, the share of hunting expenses dropped from 36 to 26 billion, while the wildlife watching share increased from 59 to 76 billion.  The survey attributes most of the later increase to including photography equipment, and the former decrease to less money towards leasing private land for hunting, though hunting trip and equipment related expenses both trended downward markedly.

All of this is concerning for a number of reasons.  Most obviously, hunting is an aging pursuit, and for that and/or other reasons, eventually dying habit.  The most obvious issue emanating from that has nothing to do with hunting directly, and everything to do with the majority of wildlife funding on the state level coming from hunting license fees.  Fewer hunters buying fewer licenses, especially (in the western US) few out of state hunters, means much less money for wildlife management.  Those who are not hunters might be surprised at just how much more a nonresident will pay for the pleasure of hunting in another state. This table is dated but mostly still accurate, though Idaho and Wyoming both voted significant increases for the coming year, with Idaho directly acknowledging that increased fees are designed to keep a reduction in tag numbers (for elk, mostly) revenue neutral.  By way of example, by resident Montana Sportsman’s license (which includes fishing, upland bird hunting, general elk, deer, and bear) will this year cost me 77 dollars with the base hunting license and conservation license another 18 dollars.  A nonresident will pay $25 for the base licenses, and a cool $1046 for the deer and elk combo (which includes upland and fishing, but not black bear).  Montana is the most disparate in this area, but hardly in a different category.

The fairness of charging so much for people who live in other states to hunt what is often federal land is a circular world (though state’s rights to govern wildlife is well established as nearly absolute), and while I find the argument that the expense of out of state hunting puts the future of the pursuit in jeopardy (on both practical and PR levels) compelling, the supporting data is as of 2020 mixed at best.  What is certain is that the vast majority of wildlife management dollars, in states in the western US, come from a small (~1.3 million, total) pool of hunters who ever hunt out of state.  The fish and wildlife survey does not parse out region or demographics for out of state hunters, but it is easy to imagine an impending and precipitous drop in numbers, and thus, revenue.

The largest concern with hunting is that as license revenue begins to dry up, management decisions will become increasingly biased towards shorter term dollars, as opposed to longer term landscape health and integrity.  A few states, noteably Missouri, pay for wildlife management out of the general fund.  Which seems appropriate, especially if the above-mentioned trend of “nonextractive” wildlife recreation continues to grow.  This is the point where the backpack tax, a complement to Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson, comes into play.  P-R (hunting) and D-J (fishing) tax gear and directly fund conservation projects, and have over the years provided a certain buffer against political winds.  A backpack tax thus has virtues, and fits with the ethos of user fees which have since Gingrich become the norm in US public lands.  It also promises both a broader funding base for wildlife management and to capture a more complete share of those who “use” wildlife in a recreational capacity. Which just might, eventually, with a slow revolution in tags and access for urban folks, bring hunting back to a broader portion of society.

Great small game hunts of North America (2019 Hunting in review)

In 2019 I spent fewer days far afield, in the wilderness and on big destination hunts, than any year since I started hunting.  Nights in a tent backpacking while hunting were in single digits, which is a drastic reduction.  When I’ve written these year in hunting posts in the past my predominant recent conclusion has been to favor quality, by which I’ve meant big remote keystone trips, over quantity.  This year that just didn’t happen.  Or rather, I chose to prioritize non-hunting big trips.  Isle Royale took the late September place of a week chasing elk in the Bob, and a week in Utah over Thanksgiving took the place of prime mule deer rut hunting.  Fortunately, the quality and variety of hunting within a 30 minute drive of our front door is fantastic, and being able to have a relative few, quality and intense days chasing elk and deer, with minimal driving, made it a big game hunting season to remember right along with any other.

What I did do a lot of in 2019 was go squirrel and small game hunting.  Rightfully or otherwise, all squirrels, rabbits, and hares are in Montana classified as non-game species, meaning one can hunt them any day of the year.  This is convenient, especially in the eyes of a four year old who routinely requests episodes of Meat Eater, loves to shoot stumps and imaginary deer with his little fiberglass bow, and struggles to walk fast up big hills in the snow and cold.  The pace of small game hunting is a better fit, as is the regularity of the practice.  My primary hunting goal for 2020 is to no longer have much of a hunting season, and for it to rather be a regular, weekly practice.

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Hunting is a curious thing generally, in that so much time and energy can be put into preparation for so few days actually doing it.  Between spring bear and turkey, elk shoulder seasons, and the generous regular fall big game seasons one could theoretically hunt big game 8 months a year, though half that period is a more realistic prime time.  Most states in the west measure far less, to the point where in states like Arizona and Utah a hunter, despite all available planning and dedication, still might have a season in the field measured in weeks, rather than months.  This difference in volume makes the analogy between hunting and other potentially opportunity starved outdoor pursuits like skiing, whitewater boating and ice climbing a poor one.

Big game hunting is also in the midst of a crisis of opportunity.  It’s not clear that overall hunter numbers are increasing, but the knowledge economy and social media are reshaping what hunting, especially western hunting, will look like for the hard core.  While there is more than enough hunter opportunity in the west when taken as a whole, the focus on iconic species like sheep, and on trophy experiences in limited opportunity areas seems certain to continue to make these more and more difficult to attain.  All the more reason for me to be grateful about the abundant options available locally, because hunting big critters like elk and bison is just different, and perhaps inherently more profound, than smaller creatures, even deer.

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All of that said, hunting is still hunting, which is to say that it is a great and singular way to experience a landscape, as different from the rest as hiking is from mountain biking is from paddling.  My project, over the next few years, is to focus on small game hunting, specifically on the more experientially outstanding hunts available in the western US, on not just dedicating time to these, but on better exploring the aesthetic and spiritual things they have to offer.  Their is great irony in publicity, especially as an active alternative to big game options, which are expensive and potentially difficult to access precisely because the internet has made them easy to conceptualize and plan.  With destination small game hunting this difficulty cannot just be ignored, but like with publicizing a heinous bushwack or a scary backcountry river, the pool of probable applicants blunts the danger of fame.

That said, here is an incomplete list of small game hunts that promise to showcase wild places and creatures.  For the sake of discussion the game must be smaller than a turkey, native to the place it will be hunted, and exist well apart from excessively civilized landscapes.  They must in short provide as many of the virtues of the destination big game hunt as possible, while being cheaper and more logistically accessible.  A cheap or cheapish license and tag, no need for specialized packout gear, and being doable with a ~$150 singleshot shotgun are all great virtues for beginning and experienced hunters alike.

Kaibab Squirrel

All the (many!) virtues of squirrel hunting, in a particularly outstanding location and with the most unique squirrel species.  I finally did this one, and am psyched to go back.  Currently an Arizona nonres small game license is $20/day, with a season running from the first Friday in October through the end of the year.

Montana grouse trifecta

There are a number of places west of the Continental Divide in Montana where one might, with proper habitat selection and luck, see spruce, ruffed, and blue grouse in one day without having to drive or even walk enormously far.  The current daily bag limit of three grouse allows for exactly zero wiggle room in the ultimate Montana grouse project; shooting one of each species in a single day without traveling by car in between.  This is a time consuming project.  In years past, when I was able to put a lot of days into walking for grouse, I came close multiple times, shooting each 2x combination in a day at least once, and the most common combo of blue and ruffed in a day on 10 or more occasions.  The toughest part of this project is probably holding fire and not prematurely filling ones bag with blues, who seem to hold in family groups further into fall than the other two.

In Montana a nonres upland bird license is $110 or $50 for three days only ($15 general hunting license is needed in either case).  Grouse season runs September 1 through December 31.

Antelope Jackrabbit

Down in the Sonora in Arizona they have really big jackrabbits.  And the season runs all year.  And you can use (almost) whatever weapon you fancy.  Top of my list of small games hunts to-do.  Same $20/day small game license.

Himalayan Snowcock

Cheating a bit on this one, as these monster grouse were introduced to the Ruby Mountains back in the 1960s, when the native blue grouse were at a nadir.  These birds reportedly live in the true alpine, in one of the prettier mountain ranges in the lower 48.  The season is September 1 through November 30, you can shoot only two, and you need a $155 nonres Nevada license and a free Snowcock stamp to do it.

Desert lagomorph slam

In theory there are 3 lagomorphs to be found in the Colorado Plateau; cottontail rabbits, and white and black tailed jackrabbits.  Cottontail hunting in mid-elevation desert areas is a blast.  Find some moderately ledgy rimrock in the p-j forest and contour around looking close to the base of boulders and small cliffs.  Scoped .22 or tight choked 12 or 16 gauge work equally well.  In the right spot black tailed jacks can be right nearby in the flats.  I’ve never hunted white tails, but in theory one ought to be able to also find them somewhat nearby, at least in certain locations.  In Utah, jackrabbits can be hunted year-round without a license, while the cottontail season runs start of September through the end of February, with a nonres hunting license running either $65 a year or $32 for 3 days.  Shooting all three in a day would be quite the accomplishment, shooting all in a single 2-4 day trip still difficult.  Desert rabbit populations have in my experience been exceptional subject to boom and bust cycles, which makes predicting populations difficult from afar.  This slam should be doable in Colorado and Nevada, as well.

Colorado Beaver

Beaver is very tasty meat.  Most places getting it requires the labor of running a trapline in the middle of winter.  Colorado is weird (ha) and while it outlaws most of the traps traditionally used for beaver, it has a generous season (Oct 1-April 30), unlimited bag, and allows them to be hunted with a centerfire rifle of .23 or smaller caliber.  So you can take an autumnal, winter, or spring walk and snipe beaver.  Just bring waders or a packraft to guarantee retrieval.  I haven’t done this, and intend to some day.  Currently $17/day for a nonres, with additional days at $7.

Have to be plenty of other worthy small game adventures out there.  What you got?

A decade in the outdoors

7 things that happened in the past decade; equipment, trends, and the ways the two intersect to create human experience.

The Alpacka booty

The technological advancement of the decade is, for outdoor adventure, without question the packraft. 10 years ago the state of the art was the above. Today, boat shapes make that level of paddling accessible to intermediates. While pushing wilderness whitewater remains the future, especially in the context of landscape trips, modern packrafts are most often put to use making moderate moving water simpler and warmer, which is not a bad thing. Nonetheless, with so much of packraft energy being put into sidecountry and destination backcountry whitewater rather than technical traverses, it’s difficult to not conclude that packrafts haven’t yet justified their seed.  This next decade will tell us how much of a place packrafts, as a backcountry whitewater tool, have in the wider outdoor world.

The great bike divergence

A convergence of several trends have made the past decade an extraordinary one when it comes to bikes that will be ridden on dirt.  When I began working on this series a bit over 9 years ago there were only three “bikepacking” bag manufacturers.  Trans-Iowa was still alive and well and while that event had by 2011 birthed the ethos of modern gravel, the commercial side with pros and more saliently, specialty bikes, was in its infancy.  Allroad bikes are what road bikes for the masses should have been all along; mellow handling, a low gear down in the 20s, rock solid braking, room for a 2 inch tire.  Good on pavement, great on dirt, good enough on mild tech (or more if you’re skilled).  From the other side, these bikes can be coherently viewed as the true successors of early mountain bikes, in terms of both ability and versatility.

Mountain bikes themselves ought to better be called trail bikes, something made very clear by the last decade of development.  2014 gave us the Surly Krampus, and the rapidity with which 3 inch tires were shrunk for 650b rims, widely popularized, and then all-but discarded by the mainstream remains as impressive as it is curious.  The appeal of fat-lite is to the rider who regularly sees not-groomed off road terrain immediate.  For the groomed trail rider they are, apparently, too heavy and imprecise.  And this is I think the quick story of trail biking in the past decade; the move towards specialization, towards bike parks, towards flow trails, towards compartmentalizing and prioritizing downhill ability above all else.  I’ve read more than one commenter in the past week say that, in another 10 years, acoustic mountain bikes will be in the significant minority, especially in “destination” mountain bike spots.  Electric assists will send riders up the shuttle roads and trails, and big, heavy travel and geo will send the same bikes back down specially made gnar (or flow, which remains another word for easy-for-humans).

In short, I’m not sure I want to be a part of the next decade of mountain biking.  Shying away from the broader challenge, from trails not specialized for two wheels, from climbing as much as circumstances allow, from travel at distance across a landscape, isn’t mountain biking as I have known and loved it.  Neither is dirt (road) touring, which is plainly the growth direction for capitol B bikepacking.  If the old Dial formula that roads are for cars, trails for bikes, and off-trail for feet is currently on life support, this coming decade will determine if it survives as anything beyond the fringe of the fringe.

Skimo

A decade ago Greg Hill was just a guy in Canada with questionable music and a wife who could presumably support him financially.  Then came the year of 2 million feet and the TLT 5 boot and a bunch of local races, and today ski gear is a hell of a lot lighter and better suited to a range of backcountry skiing.  The broader ski community is even tentatively embracing human powered alpine skiing as a way to both make money and grow skiing itself.  Win/win?  There doesn’t appear to yet be a clear uptick in avalanche deaths, so perhaps not.

FKTs

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A decade ago the term FKT had only barely begun to grow beyond its use, by one man from Boulder*, to catalogue his own extensive, formidable, and occasionally bizarre ultrarunning accomplishments.  Today, the term itself has become ubiquitous, and the website which birthed it polished and host to a big list of routes and their associated fastest known times.  I continue to have existential objections to the whole project, but as the decade has come to a close my objection has become more pointed.

The internet has made publishing routes so quick, and sharing them in detail so precise, that I begin to worry about both increased traffic in fragile areas, and the poverty of imagination that so many off-the-shelf options will breed.  As crowded as our outdoor world can occasionally be, inspiration and imagination remain the limiting factors.  A good thing and a bad one wrapped into one.

Clothing that breaths

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A decade ago active insulation wasn’t a thing, and 120 grams/meter wool was state of the art.  Today, we have the Nano Air (since July 2014), Alpha Direct, Polartec High Efficiency (above), light poly baselayers, and windshirts like the Alpine Start.  In other areas (shoes) development has been frustratingly circular, but the clothing we have day to day for the outdoors is exponentially better than 10 years ago.

The Neoair

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Comfort has long been, and remains, my least favorite word in the backpacking lexicon.  As a concept it is not only subjective, it is monumentally lame.

But the Neoair sure is comfortable.  By moving the bar on how much loft and comfort one could get from a given set of ounces, Thermarest reinvented the sleeping pad in the most significant fashion since their original inflatable.  A Neoair, and the various competitors and clones, allows side sleepers with hips at-home comfort, and allows those less picky to get away with sleeping on slickrock, wooden decking, and generally careless site selection.  Winter pack size shrinks a small but potentially crucial amount.  Like advances in clothing, the ripple effects are significant, and also like the above advances in sleeping pads stand out in the decade in which other sleeping gear was largely staid.

Laminate fabrics

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As a cuben skeptic I’m not going to give too much credit to DCF for providing much actual performance value, but with its enhanced sex appeal cuben has done more visible work than xpac in moving the conversation about performance fabrics and fabric performance shockingly close to the mainstream.  The need for laminate fabrics is currently vastly overstated in the mind of the enthusiast; for example I see no point in using them over PU in something like a fanny pack with a top zipper, the functional increase in weatherproofing just doesn’t exist.  Even for extreme use cases the value of a laminate pack fabric over good ole Cordura is far less than the overall value brought on in the past decade by the general increase in fabric awareness.  MSR completely revisited their tent fabrics, for instance, while PU/sil blends have become common.  Enthusiastic-level backpackers might actually know the difference between robic and nylon 6.6.  Once some of the fashion talk dies out or moves on I’m tentatively optimistic that a more sophisticated market, with more functional options, will remain.

Which is a nice concluding point to the decade as a whole.

 

*Bonus points to Mr. Burrell, associate of Mr. Bakwin, for writing the dumbest paragraph of the decade, as follows:

Packrafts. Ever since these were invented I’ve been avoiding them. They’re costly, heavy, and while some respectable adventurers use them, I’ve always thought they sort of looked like dorks. Like wearing rubber galoshes on a trail run. Like carrying a plastic lunch box with little bunnies on it during an ultra (OK, that one would actually be very cool). Kayaks and Stand Up Paddleboards are sleek and slender, paradigms of hydraulic efficiency, are great sports I really like, but packrafts are basically glorified pool toys.