Hunt small

I am tired. It’s been a long, good year full of trips and with little respite between projects. My legs are still willing, most of the time, but my mind needs a solid month of nothing in particular: no goals hanging over me. That will not come until December 2nd, the day the big game seasons close. As of today I have three unfilled tags and what remains of my resolution to keep hunting until they’re all filled or I run out of time.

That level of commitment has given me some very rewarding and very frustrating times over the past two months. I’ve learned a whole different way to approach backpacking trips, and been obligated to reevaluate a whole raft of assumptions and techniques in the process. I’ve done more slow walking in the woods than any other time, ever. I’ve changed clothing, footwear, and camp gear to accommodate. I’ve gotten used to looking at just about everything in new ways.

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I’ve learned a lot about the animals I’ve been hunting, and how they interact with our mutual home. One morning last week I was up and out before dawn, stalking deer in the woods not far north of our house, when I cut fresh tracks from a small black bear (above). Very fresh, as soon after I started following it I could see the 100 meters or so it took at a run when I got close enough to spook it. Tracking after it settled back down into a walk might be the most intense moment of the whole season thus far. It had snowed intensely 36 hours before, and rained most of the previous day. The snow was deep, and tracking easy, under tree cover, but exposed areas had let most of the snow get melted away by the rain. On many occasions I lost my way and had to spiral out to pick the bear back up. It doubled back, ducked through the thickest stuff available, and generally behaved unlike any unmolested animal. It was trying, with a lot of focus, to shake me, and feeling that as I studied the faint impressions in leaves and snow covered logs was intensely intimate. I was pretty aggressive in my approach, trotting on the several occasions when it followed a snowy logging road, because I knew I’d run out of public land before anything else. And soon enough the bear turned south, ducked a fence, and left a set of track running between houses into patchy woods where I could not follow.

That hour felt like 4.

This weekend I made only one dismal attempt at hunting, but quickly returned home when I realized snow had driven critters out of that area, and that I lacked the focus which hunting deserves. I’ve got three weekends left, and intend to spend them all out there in the pursuit. I’ll see what can be found.

Deciding the future

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Later today M and I leave south. We’ll be spending two full weeks in southern Utah. While there we want to pick where we’ll spend the next three or so decades.

Some, or many, of you may not know that we got married and lived in the Colorado Plateau. Before she started hanging out with me M had never slept in a tent. I’d spent plenty of time in a tent, but exploring the hidden corners of our new backyard set me on the path of deeper wilderness immersion which has blossomed since we moved to Montana in 2008. I want to see if the Colorado Plateau is still as vast and mysterious as it was, or whether the woods, rivers, snows and fewer people of Montana have permanently slanted my vision.

We have a number of ancillary criteria, but as we decided long ago to have a simpler, less financially abundant life location is paramount.  If you can’t afford to fly around the country on a regular basis, and will gas never to return to 2002 levels, you damn well better live close to good stuff.  This works well, and is why we haven’t been down to the Plateau since July of 2009.   Which is something I never thought would happen.

Talking in the pub yesterday afternoon, both of us admitted that we expect to return to Montana with one foot already out the door.

Wish us luck, as nothing is certain.

Make your year long

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Yesterday morning I woke up in one of my best camps of the year.

After a frustrating day stalking and glassing all over a series of hillsides and bottoms I retreated to the edge of a meadow near a major creek confluence to see what might come in the last hour of daylight. It was a relief to not have to worry about the wind, or stepping on a stick, or which sub-ridge to take. Instead I curled up under my serape (absolutely vital for hunting) and waited. Nothing came, so I built a little fire to warm back up, ate dinner, pitched my poncho tarp under a big p-pine at the edge of the forest, and went to sleep. I slept long, as my very early start the previous morning would suggest, and didn’t wake until it was a bit light. Spidery frost covered everything, except me and the patch of grass under my tree. On the distant hillside a few, select larch were just fading into yellow. They seemed a bit in denial of the season, as autumn was thick and hard in the cold, still air. Hunting seemed absurd under the circumstances. The crunch of every dropped pinecone rippled out amongst the trees like a pebble thrown into a beaver pond, the background gurgle of the creeks mitigating the shock of each not at all. The unexpectedly infrequent squirrel trills and jay calls were trombone blasts from the backrow of a cathedral at 0730 on a weekday.

BBeing able to strike camp and be moving in 5 minutes seemed like an appropriately stealthy treatment of the moment.
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I did would I could, but later that day walked back over the invisible line between open and closed season on deer and elk with a light pack.  If I should be doing something differently, I don’t know what it is, and that weighs on my mind.  As I mentioned last week, it’s peculiar to have a good walk not satisfy.  It’s also a pain to move slow all day in near-freezing weather, constantly only just ahead of being cold.

Seeking redemption, I tried to shoot the head off a grouse (a body hit with a .243 will immolate such a bird).  I missed the first, which did not help my mood.  For the second, I took my time, used my pack as a rest, and knocked the head clean off at 25 yards.  I cleaned the bird at the next creek crossing, admiring the camouflage feathers, delicate bone structure, and enormous chest muscles (which must account for a quarters of the birds weight, in addition to being exceptionally tasty).  I was content to put the rifle away, and eager to at last walk at a hikers pace, rather than a hunters.  I even added a second bird to the pot with a crafty trekking pole assault.  That was contentment enough.

Looking back to January, and trying as I walked with impressively little success to catalogue and chronologue all the rest of the years best camps, made one thing clear.  If you want your days and months to be longer than their mere hours would suggest, doing a lot of backpacking is a good idea.

Clarity

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I’ve been waiting for this trip for a long time. It’s a perfect plan: hunt your way upriver from the Meadow Creek trailhead, shoot something, and float it back out. At the low levels of autumn Salmon Forks down is floatable, and aside from a few shallow riffles and two rapids, everything is runnable in a heavy boat. The 3 mile hike around the gorge is surely doable with just about any load.

It’s a great trip, and it has good hunting opportunities.  Sadly, I didn’t put all the pieces together this weekend.

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Things came very close.  Late Friday afternoon I was good miles in from the trailhead, having passed a bunch of packstrings on their way out, and trucking along when a big rock rolled down the steep hillside and across the trail.  Only bears make that kind of ruckus.  On cue, a black bear moved from one clump of bushes to another, quartering away from me across the talus slope.  I got out my rifle, put down my pack and trekking poles, and when he went out of sight closed the distance fast.  The bear was making a bunch of noise in the blitheful bearish way, and thus it was easy to know where it was and where it would reappear.  I got within 30 yards and sat down in the middle of the trail, took a good stance, pulled back the hammer, and waited.  The bear stopped, stuck its head out, and did nothing.  I was still, crosshairs centered, waiting for it to take another step forward.  Instead it coughed, turned dead way as smoothly as rain down a window, and sprinted down the trail.

I was able to follow its tracks in the mud, though this was harder than I would have thought because it largely avoided the sticky, horse-churned mass and ran right on the harder, faster edge.  As I expected, little ephraim jogged along for a half mile until the steep slope relented, and vanished uphill into the thick brush.  I made camp at a stream a further half mile away, and headed out at dusk on another trail to see if I could cut the bear off, but stalking through the brush was hopeless.  Darkness fell, I went back to camp, pulled down my food bag, and brewed tea by the creek as every star came out.  It was going to be a cold night.

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I had seen a massive amount of fresh deer and elk sign during that brief off trail excursion, so I woke up optimistic.  A feeling which seemed to be rewarded after a half hour of slow walking through the still, painfully cold morning when I saw an elk standing in the middle of the river a half mile in front of me.  Binoculars revealed another (cow) on the far bank.  I stalked closer, hoping those two weren’t alone, but getting within eighty yards didn’t make any bulls appear.  Those sisters, in true elk fashion, just stared at my still form for several minutes before walking stiffly off through the mess of burnt lodgepole.

Unfortunately, the trip just got more trying.  I hike deliberately between bottoms, glassing the banks, meadows and hillsides, and moved slowly through the pine groves and dry sloughs.  It was tiring work, in a way that just hiking along in even the worst terrain doesn’t approach.  A dense, high haze hung around until mid afternoon, making it cold work.  When the sun finally came out I was out of water, energy, and patience.  I climbed down a gully to the river, made soup for lunch, and took a short nap on a gravel bar.  I rousted a few whitetail does up as I neared my point of return, but nothing shootable.

Plan B gave me hope, which was to inflate the packraft and with rifle strapped within easy reach, float stealthily down and sneak up on something.  Over the past few years I’ve gotten disconcertingly close to deer, elk, moose, and bear this way, so it seemed like a good idea.  The first hour of floating was gorgeous, still comfortable with direct sun, and the flows encouragingly fast.  Only one doe to show for it, and I got within 30 feet of her without seeing until she jumped out of her bed in the weeds.  I had intended to float, slowly, until the end of shooting light, but the clear evening got too cold too fast, and I succumbed to the familiar ritual of pulling over on a gravel bar, and making a fire with shivering hands as the stars emerged.

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I didn’t sleep well that night, wracked as I was by a thought which took 24 hours to emerge: why hadn’t I shot that bear in the head?  Seated, at 30 yards?!  I knew that was not the sort of opportunity which could be relied upon to come along more than once in one season.  Bone-tired and aching though I was, I laid in the mid for quite some time running through the what ifs and why nots.

The final morning followed the same pattern.  A clear dawn led shortly to a high layer of clouds which kept the cold well in the river bottoms until late morning.  I saw fresh scat and tracks, but no critters.  I tried out my packraft hunting methods by float-stalking and sighting up on mergansers, strategically grouding on a rock and resting the rifle on my pack.  The ebb and flow of the river precluded a totally still rest.  This approach would be fine for shotgunning waterfowl, or close shots at big game, but getting out of the boat will probably be necessary in most cases.

The float out was gorgeous, and the constricted sections below Black Bear Creek even moreso, with low and clear water coming together with yellow aspens and just-not-yellow larches in a way which almost brought me to tears.  How have I never been back there in autumn before?  The beauty of it all just served to highlight further the contrast within me, and the extent to which what would have previously been a satisfying trip had on that day fallen flat.  Yes, I had sat down before that bear Friday afternoon with the idea of a perfect double-lung shot locked in my head, which was why I hadn’t thought to pull the trigger on a perfectly reasonable and humane target.  All the good reasons available weren’t going to make me happy about it, and I packed up and hiked the 3 miles back to the car with an uneasy soul.

There are any number of hunting cliches I’ll refrain from saying, and leave it with just one: this is the kind of experience which leaves me hungry to get back out there.

30s and raining: some suggestions

30s and raining is the toughest weather to manage sustainably. What follows are some ideas for how to do so, in vague order of importance.

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-Don’t put your rain jacket on until you have to. “Have to” can be defined as the point where you’ll be getting wet enough from exterior sources that maintaining core temp costs too much, metabolically and spiritually. Even the best raingear will trap some moisture if you’re on the move, which is often counterproductive. For drizzle, I find it better to combine a light base/insulating layer which wicks, traps dead air, and provides a space buffer from cold water with a good breathable DWR shell. Often, you can hit the balance where body heat is drying from within about as fast as precip is wetting from without. With proper care and feeding this can last all day. Individual metabolic differences make one setup generalize poorly across different people.

-Don’t fuck around. 35 and raining puts a four letter emphasis on efficiency. These days will take a lot out of you, so there’s no point in making it any harder. You should know, at all times, exactly where everything is in your pack, have a food/hydration/layering plan tailored to the oncoming terrain and weather contingencies, and adapt that plan as needed on the go.

-Move. It’s not especially possible to layer well enough to stay warm while stationary, at these temps that requires more stuff than can be practically worn while ambulatory. Over-layer and you’ll get cold from sweat, and needlessly burn calories. Maintain a steady-state effort.  If you’re one of those unfortunate folks who don’t readily produce heat upon effort (a large number of women fit here), I’m not really sure what to tell you. It sucks to be you today. Bulking up on a bit of muscle and metabolic zing might be worth a shot, if possible. Baring that, have plenty of good clothes and chocolate.

-Eat and drink. Obvious, and almost as obviously overlooked when you’re pushing miles a few clicks removed from desperation. Keep a few hours of snacks in a pocket, and keep up on water. Osmosis does not hydrate.

-Get a real rain jacket. A real rain coat has a hood which will keep sub 30mph precip off your glasses and out of your mouth. It also has a solid enough (read: rigid) laminate that it will still provide a functional buffer when the face fabric wets out. ‘Net wags to the contrary, modern WPB fabrics do work. They merely have easily quantifiable shortcomings which minimal experience will allow you to easily predict, provided you’re savvy enough to ignore marketing speak. Once the face fabric wets out, breathability will be minimal, creating an environment ripe for condensation. Fighting that will depend on the aforementioned insulating/base layer providing a few mm of air space between skin and shell, as well as a shell which doesn’t drape like paper when wet. It’s not perfect, but it is better than anything else I’ve found. Poncho and umbrella fans hike a 8k ridge during an October snain gale and call me back. For the record, I’ve only laid hands on 2 sub-30D laminates which met this criteria (Ozo and Helium I), and neither are still made.

-Mind the legs. Wet brush can soak your legs, which can suck a lot of heat fast when we’re talking doses of tree slush every 90 seconds. You might find yourself wearing rain pants well before you put on a rain jacket.

-Give yourself a break. Hiking all day in the aforementioned conditions will add a huge metabolic and psychological load. Recharge both with good food, lots of hot beverages (coffee), and if at all possible an external heat source at the end of the day (i.e. fire). It is possible to scarf dinner, strip, and get in your bag, but you won’t rest as well knowing what you have to look forward to in the morning. If at all possible, plan camp for an area with decent wood, and know how to get it going.

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To elaborate on clothing a bit: I cannot say enough good things about the Patagonia Capilene 4 hoody.  It is a borderline miraculous piece for these conditions.  I’ve yet to find anything which creates as much dead air space and is anywhere close in wicking.  The excellent fit and fantastic hood are icing on the cake.

I’ve gone through a ton of windshells in the last few years.  For a metabolically-powered drizzle proof setup your shell of choice needs a good DWR, which means you need to maintain it properly.  Beyond that, I go back and forth.  There are lighter, less breathable shirts like the Rab Cirrus in the first photograph, and heavier, more breathable shirts like the Sitka Ascent I wore this weekend (which if it isn’t made of Pertex Equilibrium stretch, is made from a damn good copy).  The lighter shells are lighter, both when dry and wet, but I think the more breathable shells work better for self-drying when the balance is right.  Once they get soaked they’re a pain to get dry, so no free lunch.

The final tip I’ll give involves hats.  Bring extra hats.  A dry hat is both comforting and an efficient use of warmth-per-grams.  And enjoy yourself.  Functioning at a high level during difficult conditions approaches the satisfaction our ancestors must have felt, having killed a mammoth and knowing they were that much less likely to starve over the winter.

A new schoolhouse

I was talking with a client the other day about the virtues of being a beginner, and how wonderful it is to be in a position to learn new things every time. The downside of this can be in the doing; the painful process of finding out the mistakes you made earlier.

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Early autumn in the alpine forests of the Bob/Glacier complex might be my favorite outdoor location, period.  Fog and a good dusting of snow everywhere facilitates an incomplete view and mirrors the pockets hidden in the forested, rocky folds.

What makes a good hike might make a poor hunting destination, a thought which occurred to me two hours and 3k into my 3700′ climb yesterday morning.  I was well into the snow line at that point, and looking at a profusion of fresh deer tracks going down from the pass, of which this early in the season I could only legally on the far side.  Surprisingly, I ran into a group of half a dozen young mennonites a few hundred yards short of the pass.  They were packing out, hadn’t seen anything in the days previous, and had been camped at the spot I was going to hunt.  Not good.  A few hours investigating the basin pictured above found a lot of human tracks, and no deer or elk sign whatsoever.  Later in the day, after the ceiling has risen just enough to let in a bit more sun and turn the snow to rain, I cut tracks of and followed a lone deer, which was heading up towards the pass.  Feeling defeated, I went home.

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Not matching destination with conditions may have been my first issue, but the more serious one was not matching gear with activity.  By 1 in the afternoon, my legs and feet were soaked and the pace of still hunting and glassing was not near enough to keep them warm.  With little choice I stopped and built a fire, and struggled unsuccessfully to find a way to make my equipment work for the rest of the day.  For backpacking in 35 and spitting rain I’m pretty dialed, but hunting is a work in progress.  I needed even more clothes than I thought, a means to dry off more easily (wood stove in the mid), and waterproof boots.  Hunting and the wet footed approach do not mix in temps below 50.

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Oh well, it was a good hike.  This learning curve is not promising to be an easy one.

Autumnal shoe roundup

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The time of shallow snow, snain, and hourly freeze/thaw cycles is upon us. Check your shoes.

Caveat for all of this is that the shoes gotta fit ya.  Check the links to older posts for more extensive discussion.

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The Boulder X Mid continued to impress through our rather short summer snow climbing season.  They’re the perfect answer to the fast hiker and backpacker who wants to be able to do plenty of line-of-least-resistance snow climbing as part of their routes.  They’re the least structured shoes I’d want to put flexible 10 point crampons on for hours on end.  They’re not stiff enough to frontpoint, but they can kick steps in softer snows.  They climb rock well too.  The harder midsole is not the most comfy for long miles, but up to 20 per day I found them just dandy.  Sizing down a half size was a good call for me, though I need to remember to loosen the toe lacing before extended downhill hikes, or the tops of my toes rub.  No concerns about durability with that big rand.  With extensive snoseal in the leather they remained waterproof through all the snow slogging.  I got them drenched several times on stream crossings, and they get boggy but are perfectly tolerable.  They dry about as you’d expect: fairly slowly.

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The Anakondas may be the best rugged hiking shoe ever made.  I maintain that the last is the same as the X Country, but the stark lack of padding throughout the shoe makes them wear very differently.  The first time I wore them was for a fast training hike on a dirt road, and I ended with a pressure blister on my right achilles.  I assumed they’d be unwearable.  Instead the shoe broke in a bit, I learned to lace the upper slots very tightly, and to wear slightly plusher socks.  The heal cup often seems on the edge of being problematic, but I’ve had no more blisters.

What I have had is the unrivaled all-conditions grip of the Crosslite sole, together with a very quick drying upper which thus far has laughed off all the talus and bushwacking I’ve thrown at it.  I don’t think I’ll be able to kill them before it’s ski boot time, but I will try.  Durability until death is the last rubric unevaluated before I give them the crown.

Before I discuss the next shoe, it’s worth noting that as recently as 13 months ago I only took the X Countrys on rugged alpine stuff with some trepidation.  Now the Anakondas are my burly, bulletproof, heavy pack shoe.  What are the limits of foot adaptation?

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To that end, I present the Inov8 Trailrock 235.  9 oz a shoe in 44.5.  I’ll be doing an exhaustive comparison between these last two for Toe Salad late this fall, in the context of minimalist footwear for rugged hiking.  Inov8 sized me down half a size from what I requested, which was a good call.  The anatomic last, seen above, certainly works.  They feel like moccasins cruising down the trail, with an impressive blend of flexibility and a precise fit.  You don’t edge these in steep terrain, but smearing grip on dirt and scree is excellent thanks to the good tread pattern.  The rubber compound is noticeably harder than that on the Anakondas, and wet rock grip is consequently quite a bit worse.  I preemptively aquasealed the toe area, as the red toe patch was pealing a fair bit after minimal use.  They’re a good shoe, but will likely fall into the will the upper outlast the tread trap of most light shoes.

The real value of a shoe like the Trailroc is as a milder terrain trainer to keep your feet tough and ready.  I wore them last weekend, and cruised through all the rocks and the final, 3700′ descent just fine, with only a little unusual shin soreness to let me know I had done some bonus training.  It’s good to have a quiver.

A Spotted Bear elk hunt

I’ve gotten bored with backpacking. Not with the act of backpacking, but with the learning. The point of diminishing returns with reference to reading and the practice of trial and error has been passed. Time to find something else.

Which is why elk and deer hunting this fall has been the number one priority all year. I’ve hunted both in the past, but in 2013 I started shooting regularly and educating myself over a year ago. This fall I would dedicate completely.

My stepfather, Dick, has hunted all over the world and is a font of information on just about anything related to hunting and firearms. For me it’s important to bump along in the dark learning as I go, but select guidance accelerates learning and makes everything more enjoyable. Montana has three wilderness zones where elk rifle season opens mid-September, making them the only places in the US you can hunt the rut with a long gun and an over-the-counter tag. I invite Dick to come along back in the spring. It was just left to me to formulate a good plan.

He and my mom flew in Friday night. Saturday we woke up, finalized plans over a hearty breakfast, packed, and got on the road. Shortly after noon we three were on the trail, and by six we had a nice camp by a creek along the Spotted Bear River in the heart of the Bob. The next morning was opening day for wilderness rifle. My mom would hike out, and Dick and I would continue a few more miles before heading off trail, wading the river, and ascending up a steep, trailless side canyon. A weeks previous I had come across abundant sign just not far enough back. If it had been any further, or the sign any less profligate, I would have dismissed it. Instead, we were all in.

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Saturday and Sunday were hot, as most of the summer had been. This was a cornerstone of my strategy. Creeks and rivers were running very low, and I figured watering options for elk would be limited. Reports from the first week of bow season indicated that things were quiet across the state, limiting tactics further.

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There aren’t huge number of elk in this part of Montana, and what animals do exist have many steep, dark, timbered hillsides for hiding.  Still hunting for big game is a waste of time here, as only the rarest of conditions will allow a human to sneak up on anything.  If the elk were no bugling, our only option would be to stake out water sources, sit, be quiet, and hope luck and the wind favored us.

There are plenty of places for the most limber and experienced of backpackers to break an ankle on the deadfall, brush, steep dirt hillsides, and slick limestone creekbeds, but by noon we had climbed far enough up the drainage to start looking for a camp.  Close enough to the water source for easy in-the-dark access, but not close enough to spook anything, was the name of the game.

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Near the base of an avalanche chute we found a flat area amongst the weeds, one of the few we’d seen, and stomped out a tent sight.  Temperatures were up near 80.  We hung the food, ate lunch, drank the scintillatingly cold creek water, and took a nap.

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Arranging a good food hang in the land of spruce requires advanced tactics.  We were surrounded by old growth over 200 feet tall, but none of the limbs within throwing reach were thicker than an inch or more than 10 feet long, and all tilted groundward.  We had a lot of stout cord for hanging meat, and managed to wrap each end around limbs 25 feet up on trees 60 feet apart.  Lots of tension got our food just high enough (Dick, above, is 6’4″).

Around 1500 we headed up to investigate the seep and game trails I’d been counting on.

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The next avalanche chute came down to the creek 1/3 of a mile above our camp.  This late in the dry year, the creek only started flowing 1/2 a mile above.  Game trails as obvious as any I’d seen outside Alaska and Yellowstone came down from both sides; the brush-choked burn to the east and high, steep, cliff-capped meadows out of sight to the west.  Up in the forest on the west side, a steady seep had been trodden into oblivion by elk and mule deer.  Fresh tracks were everywhere.

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We set up behind some small pines on the far side of the chute, with good views across to the east side and up into the forest.  And we waited.  The sun set slowly, the air stayed warm, and everyone on earth aside from the squirrels and chickadees seemed to be in suspended animation.  We saw nothing and heard nothing, waited until dark, went back to camp, ate a quick dinner, and went quickly to sleep.

Around 0430 a lone elk bugling behind camp woke us both.  We were back in a slightly different spot at first light.  After five hours we went back to camp, made coffee, and ate brunch.  The day was much cooler, still clear, and still very still.  We pocketed snacks, headed back up to yet a subtly different spot, and waited all afternoon and evening.  In the last minutes of shooting light a doe mule deer appeared silently from between the trees, but no buck (for whom we had a tag, along with a bull elk) followed.  16 hours of waiting in 29 of being there, and nothing else.  Either the subtle swirling winds were giving us away, or the few elk and deer which kept leaving fresh tracks each night were only drinking in the dark.  Frustrating, but I was content that my plan had been good and we had executed it as well as could be asked.

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The next morning we woke at dawn, but had coffee and oatmeal in camp before heading back up on game trail we now knew well.  We followed the most obvious one up beyond the top emergence of the seep, and quietly worked our way up the hillside.  After 500 vertical feet the trail shrunk, and the scope of the terrain became apparent.  The forest only grew steeper higher up, and if anything, more dense and dark anywhere but the subtle rib we found ourselves resting on.  Dick joked about taking all my ammo, and I knew what he meant.  Shooting something and packing it out from near our creek camp would have been horrendous hard work.  Doing the same up here was simply unthinkable.

Slowly, with care for safety’s sake and a bit of stealth out of habit, we returned to camp, ate, packed up, and headed back to the trail.

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Using our enhanced intimacy with the land, I thought that instead of gaining elevation steadily in and near the creek, we’d contour one of our game trails and see how far it took us.  We climbed a few hundred feet above camp to the best one before starting the long traverse, and while the path got fainter a few fresh tracks took us all the way to the ridge where the side canyon in which we’d been for so many hyperbolically protracted gave way to the main river valley.  We had to pay the piper with a steep drop through the steep and deep, but it was a better route overall.

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Dick, with decades of football, hunting, and working as an alarm contractor in his joints, is missing cartilage in a few key spots (knees, right shoulder, right big toe), and trained hard for this trip.

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He moved well and within himself through some nasty stuff in no-fall terrain (due to the absurdity of rescue).  I was impressed.  His knowledge and assurance that my plan had been a good one went a long way towards cultivating the profound sense of peace I had by the time we once again reached the cold river crossing.

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Like all deep excursions into true backcountry (which, let us be frank, is by definition bereft of human-built paths), just stepping back onto the horse trail brought jarring relief.  The 52 or so hours we had been away had without exception been full-bodied.  It was pleasant to make easy miles without watching every step, but I couldn’t but dwell on how exceptional and ultimately peculiar such walking ought to be.

A few miles back to our first camp, and we retrieved the bag of food we had cached in a tree.  Our snack supply now overflowed, as I had packed extra in case hauling meat caused complications.  We had heard one distant rifle shot that morning, but otherwise the woods were still silent.  Absent a better plan, we hiked another mile and did a short bushwack down to the river.  This provided a suitably refined final camp, and an opportunity to stake out the confluence of two river channels and an abandoned meander for anything that might come take a drink.  Nothing did.  We went to bed happy anyway.

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The stars were out so we left the doors open, and I warned Dick rain might not be enough to wake me up.  The thunder which sounded a few hours later was, and after closing things up we went back to sleep to the duet of rushing river and pounding rain.  We walked the final miles the next morning in a muddy drizzle, the temperature dropping all the while, and as autumn finally descended on the Bob started the drive back home.

I knew going in our odds would be long regardless.  As much as I know that hunting will be my next major outdoor interest, I know that quality trips to inspiring destinations will always be first priority.  Did the winds give us away?  Would we have had better luck a week later once cool weather had set in?  We can only speculate.  I would rather have failed on this trip, in country I know and love, than succeeded in another place.  With the whole season ahead of me it almost seems fitting that I didn’t have a shot on anything, much more work should be required.

A few gear notes are in order.  The Paradox Packs Evolution frame was very impressive all trip.  The belt is the best I’ve ever used, and this modern iteration of the external is as stable off-trail as any internal of comparable size.  I also found my copy/revision of the Kifaru Gunbearer system, pictured poorly above, to be absolutely essential.  I cannot imagine carrying a rifle any other way in such terrain.  The gun was comfortable, out of the way, I could use trekking poles, and yet shoulder the gun in seconds.  Lastly, I got thinking more seriously above weight-reduction than I have in a while.  Modern gear makes lightweight backpacking, even with a packraft or winter gear, pretty trivial.  Buy decent stuff and don’t overpack and you’ll have a light enough load.  Hunting, and especially the possibility of having to carry out 150 pounds of meat, casts this question in a whole new light.  Among other things, the 24″ barreled .30-06 will be replaced in the near future.  Thankfully Dick is an exceptional gunsmith, and the hike out provided plenty of time to discuss the ultimate mountain rifle.

There are over 2.5 months of hunting season left, and I cannot wait for the weekend.

Packing for an elk hunt

I’m headed out in the Bob tomorrow with my stepdad for six days chasing elk.  Weather is supposed to be pretty good; lows in the high 30s, highs in the low 80s, maybe a bit of rain.  Here’s what I’m bringing.

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Remington 700 in .30-06, 3-9×40 Leupold, all the trimmings. Detachable sling and Kifaru Gunbearer copy on the pack.  Primus Express Spider stove with windscreen and 1300ml pot.

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Paradox Packs Evolution frame with 4300 packbag and flat talon.  Thermarest Prolite XS.  32″ piece of ridgerest.  MYOG synthetic quilt.  BD Megamid with center pole (basecamping).  12 stakes.  Trekking poles.  150′ of rope for meat hanging.  Kill kit (5x muslin cotton meatbags, Havalon Piranta, Gerber saw).

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Patagonia wool t-shirt and light softshell pants.  Wild Thing tactical windpants and anorak.  Haglofs Ozo.  Patagonia Los Lobos jacket.  Sitka Traverse shirt.  Sitka merino beanie.  Arc’teryx Neutro visor.  Patagonia Cap 2 bottoms.  2x mid-weight wool socks.  Mesh orange vest.  8x extra rounds (180 grain Speer Mag Tip).  Repair/FA/possibles kit (flashlight, knife, etc).  BD Orbit lantern.  Montbell Stretch Semi-long spats.  LaSportiva Anakonda.

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Ten person-days of food.

Not shown are binocs and a rangefinder, and some other stuff like water bottles.

Backcountry hunting is a lot like packrafting.  Take a normal backpacking load, add extra clothes and ten pounds of stuff which may or may not be useful.  Should be fun.

The same pack all over again

It occurs to me that since I started doing this four years ago, most of my packs have been the same. After all, most everyone needs a solid big pack.  Each iteration represents more learning on how to best meet the same demands.

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The pack bag weighs 25 ounces as shown above, the modified Gossamer Gear belt 7 ounces, the 1″ by 1/8″ by 22″ stays 4 ounces each, and the 22″ by 24″ pad 3 ounces.  43 ounces total.  The main bag is 34 inches tall (30 inches when cinched), the pack panel is 12 inches wide, the front panel 10 inches wide, and the side panels 8 inches deep.  All the grey fabric is VX-21, the black strip on the bottom is VX-42, and the back panel and side pockets are 500D cordura.

While there will always be a place for a frameless pack, it’s pretty easy to get a ~55 liter pack heavy enough to make stays a good idea.  The above system is the cleanest and most effective of which I’m aware.  The stays insert into channel (2″ webbing) which runs right up to the shoulder straps.  The pockets on the hipbelt hold the stays in place, and the flap buckles over the belt and foam pad making it all stick together.  Added bonus, this system is pretty simple to design and sew.

Over the past 8 months I’ve played with a number of designs for packs which would carry big loads, including two complete prototypes which ended up as scrap.  The first one featured thinner stays, which started to unbend with loads over 60 pounds.  The first one had 30 inch, 1″ by 1/4″ 7075 stays, and made for a pack which felt like a back brace.  My conclusion is that loads under 40-50 pounds can be well served with a pack like the one shown here, and that bigger loads need something else which builds a bit of a buffer between the user and a very rigid frame.

As far as features, I’ve decided that some sort of sweat mitigation fabric is worthwhile, hence the 3D mesh, which is expensive and a pain to sew.  I’ve been quite taken with the sit pad on the Gorilla for breaks and it’s general multi-functionism, so that was added.  Side pockets are handy, so long as they can disappear and don’t snag on brush.  I don’t often strap something to the back, but when I do I want to do be able to do so with authority, and thus the tabs laced with shock cord are double bartacked.  I find a lot of adjustability in the top cinch straps essential, and the ability to attach the g-hook lower on the daisy chain facilitates this without too much webbing flapping in the breeze.  My affinity for Osprey shoulder straps has stayed the same, and for all its simplicity the GG belt is impressively effective.

VX-21 might be the best all-around pack fabric available, insofar as it balances durability, weight, cost, UV-resistance, and sewability (read: simple seams don’t tear the fabric under load).  Ideally I would have had twice as much VX-42 for the bottom, but protecting the corners from paddle shaft wear is first priority.  I used 500D cordura for the back panel because it has better stitch retention (the per/yard weight is about the same as VX-21, but the majority of that content is woven nylon).  I would have made the top of that panel from VX-21, but I didn’t have enough left over.

Questions?  Ask ’em.