Hunting the Kaibab

Last week, I fulfilled a longstanding ambition, and went Kaibab squirrel hunting north of the Grand Canyon.

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Kaibab squirrels are a subspecies of the Abert’s, a common, ear-tufted rodent seen through the more arid parts of western North America.  The Kaibab developed its distinctive white tail and dark body due to geographic isolation, and are singular enough that the part of the Kaibab plateau is a national natural landmark because of this unique subspecies.  Tassel-eared squirrels are almost exclusively seen in ponderosa pine forests, and the Kaibab has developed life habits highly synced with that tree, making it the most pure representative of this class of rodents.  It does not hibernate, for instance, nor does it store food in anticipation of the winter, and their diet (to quote Hall) “…consists almost exclusively of  items produced by the tree [ponderosa] or of plants symbiotic with it.”  Seeds, cones, and the bark of new shoots are the most significant food sources, with the later being the potentially most relevant, for the Arizona squirrel season, which generally runs for the last three months of the year.

I’ve seen plenty of Kaibab squirrels in my life, with the best directly relevant experience being in mid-October of 2014, when after a canyoneering backpack we spent a few days up on the Kaibab Plateau proper, and saw the squirrels seemingly everywhere we went.  The correlation between seasonal conditions and tree squirrel numbers is not precise, but there was reason last week to assume that the stout winter of 2018-2019, and the dry summer of 2018, might make for slim pickings.  While there is a decent body of ecological literature on the Kaibab squirrel (for a rodent, that is), there is almost nothing out there about hunting them.  There are two broad types of ponderosa habitat on the plateau; pure stands in the flatter parts, and stands more mixed with either pines (Doug Fir, more commonly Pinon and Juniper) or Aspens in the transitional and more broken areas.  The plan was to hunt a representative of each type, and see what happens.

Combining hunting with anything else is complicated.  M and I had met my parents in southern Utah for an early Solstice celebration, and adding a 300 mile day trip from our base near Zion when we had driven 800 two days before was pushing things still further.  Fortunately, we had great weather that morning, and the toddler slept all the way from Hurricane to Jacob’s Lake.  Drawing on my knowledge from the Kaibab Monstercross days I had a spot a little ways south of Jacob’s Lake in mind: extensive stands of mature ponderosa, some gentle gullies to provide different aspects, and flat areas for the kids to roam while my stepdad and I went and looked for squirrels.  It seemed obvious they’d be favoring sunny aspects this late in the year, both for warmth and snow-free ground, and 45 minutes in we spotted one, which ran hell for leather away from us and disappeared up the far side of a stout tree and into a nest 60 feet up.  Oops.  I felt like an idiot; as the person with the shotgun I had waited for the classic pine squirrel pause and lookback at 40-50 yards, rather than taking the running shot I should have almost immediately.  Knowing how few chances we could expect to have, especially given the dearth of sign, had me concerned, and irritated with myself.

Back at the cars the kids were collecting pine cones and enjoying the relative warmth outside, so we two hunters took a short walk around the hill to the south.  The sign we’d seen on our first outing had been concentrated exclusively in a small area with a mix of old growth and new (20-60 feet) ponderosa trees.  The far side of the hill had this habitat, but no squirrel tracks in the patchy, crusty snow.  All morning the wind had been strong enough that hearing anything was improbable, and I scanned continuously between the ground and the canopy, trying to tread that line of possibility between being attentive and trying too hard.  Which was when I saw one.

On the opposite hillside, 100+ yards away, and as with the first one running full speed straight away from us.  But this one climbed the near side of a big ponderosa to the first stubby branch 30 feet up, where it sat, tail curled up, looking at me with seeming passivity.  The question now was whether its tolerance for me moving closer would overlap with the effective range of a improved modified choke and 1 ounce of #8 shot.  I kept eyes glued to it as I closed the distance.  It didn’t seem purturbed, indeed didn’t give any sign of disturbance, while I closed to 45 yards and almost the same level, across the gully, went through the full calming breath cycle as if I were about to take a 300 yard shot on a deer, and at the bang of my shotgun fell immediately to the ground.

I sprinted down and then up the hill to it, not because I was worried about it running away, or because if it did I might somehow catch it with my bare hands, but just to look at it.  The process of hunting obliges one to look at a place in a particular way, here the framing is an objective and potentially foreign as navigation through a tangle of cliffs and canyons.  These days I fully embrace this, and the way in which hunting a place can provide new depth of place, if not an entirely novel experience.  Shooting this squirrel, whose finding took all of two hours, and which may have weighed a bit over a pound, was almost as exciting as shooting a six point bull at ten yards last month, because of the context built up over years.  All on a tag which cost 20 dollars.

I hope to go back for a truly extensive Kaibab squirrel hunt, hopefully soon.

 

Thanks; part 1

As married adults M and I were content, for over a decade, to ride through the holidays and end of the year without much intentionality. This year that changes, to fit the raised stakes two kids and their indoctrination bring. So we’re currently on the road, working on new habits and traditions. Doing old things, and knocking a few off the big some day list.

Ripped and chewed

One of the privileges of traveling off trail, something often but not necessarily associated with hunting, is getting to know how animals use the landscape, season to season.

We’ve had an atypical autumn in Montana, with big storms and cold temperatures in September and October giving way to moderate temps and a big melt off in the past few weeks.  The impact of this divergence from the norm was, recently, on stark display in one of my favorite places.

As in many corners of Montana, here the first tendrils of winter cause elk to move out of the alpine, and eventually to winter out on the prairie, or at least down in the flats.  I assume this process isn’t as simple as a certain amount of snow forcing movement, as regular freezing temps up high must impact the quality of feed.  In any case, there are a lot of elk in this area, and being elk, they are creatures of habit.  They take predictable stops along their annual journey, one of which is a series of hanging meadows that face southwest, where sun and wind can reliably strip the grass, and aspens, bare.

Evidence suggests that the herd had an early, and extended, stay.

Rarely have I see elk trails so freshly beaten in, and never have I seen so much elk shit in such profusion over so many acres.  The herd had moved on, and their tracks, scat, and trails, along with the grasses they had clipped neatly down and the bark they had ravaged with antlers and teeth, were all frozen in place by the nearness of winter.  Only the hard crust of melting snow revealed that it had been a week, at least, since any elk were present.

What you also get to see, this late in the year, is a hint of what was, a century ago and pre-dam, surely the most striking 5 miles in the Bob.  Note the hanging spring right of center in the featured image, which all spring and summer is 20 feet underwater.  These elk spend all summer and winter in game ranges created around the same time as the reservoir, to guard against the march of the humans.  There are accounts of rangers in the Bob, shortly after the creation of the Forest Service, making a 2 week patrol from Spotted Bear through the North Fork of the Sun and back via Danaher and seeing no mammals save grouse and squirrels.  At the same time that game reserves, hunting seasons, and Pittman-Robertson brought back the elk, the reservoir was built, and ensured the ranches and farms downstream steady water through the fall.

 

I’m happy I get to see those hills full of elk.  I’m bummed I’ll never get to see the main river canyon full of the ponderosa and cottonwood it surely had 150 years ago.

 

North Fork updates

The initial run of packraft straps has sold out!  All orders yet to be shipped will be fulfilled and sent out today.  I’ll be making more in early December; until then they’ll appear as out of stock in the store.  The second run might even be a different color.  Taking suggestions now.

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Not just for boating, as demonstrated by reader, customer, and Alaskan Scott Yeats.

The development of the Tamarisk pack is proceeding, slowly, with the final area of refinement being the belt shape and foam.  In the next three weeks, expect a series of posts detailing the various features and dimensions you’ll see in the finished pack, and the experience behind them.

Ammo questions

Most will recall that a bit ago Luke commented that “I think a TSX is just tougher then it really needs to be for a deer or even an elk broadside.”  The translation here, for the non-hunters, is that while bullets may be lumps of metal, they are not merely lumps of metal.  300 years ago bullets could be simple balls of lead; with probable ranges relatively short and velocities low the force on the bullets were modest and predictable.  Today both variables are several to many times greater, which means that a modern hunting bullet needs to effective at 50 yards and 3000 feet per second, as well as 400 yards and 1900 feet per second.  A hunting bullet needs to expand predictably under both scenarios, and ideally while hitting relatively little resistance (a broadside lung hit, going through hide, ribs and organs) as well as much more resistance (a quartering shoulder shot, with bone and lots of meat to clear before exit).  Too much expansion and the bullet will not create an exit wound, too little and the bullet will potentially not do enough damage on it’s way through.

The Barnes TSX is an all-copper bullet, renowned as Luke noted for being a tough bullet.  Barstool wisdom has them excelling when they hit bone, something my experience last year endorses.  So, imagine my surprise cutting up some elk and finding this:

That is a 168 grain TSX from a Remington factory load, buried 2 inches deep in a hunk of shoulder.  I don’t recall noticing an entrance wound, or meat damage.  The inescapable conclusion (I suppose?) is that one of my initial misses was in fact a hit, and (evidently?) longer than I had supposed, which I find hard to accept for several reasons.  Barnes does not guarantee the TSX below 2000 or so feet per second.  What I find hard to wrap my head around is how my shot got that slow.

Further damming to the TSX was a recent mule deer hunt, and one of those odd overhead quartering to shots (the deer was 150 yards across a canyon, subtly below me, and facing downhill) which led to a high lung shot that exited out the paunch, and entirely not enough wound damage or blood.  5 years ago I shot a similar sized buck at a similar distance with the same rifle and a 165 grain Federal Fusion, with the exit wound being the size of a softball, and the deer dying instantly.  This year, I faced a fairly lengthy and unpleasant tracking job with a deer that was obviously almost dead for far too long.

So I’m looking for a new go-to ammo, or maybe a return to Fusions.

I’m also reminded, by this ammo situation, both kills this year, and a few of the weirder shots from the past few years that the acting of shooting an animal with a rifle is far more fraught with ambiguity than most folks, individuals or media outlets, care to admit.  An instant bang-flop is the ideal, and it is proper to expect that practice and conservative shot placement makes such a reality most of the time.  But sometimes we hunters make mistakes, and some other times weird stuff happens somewhere within the system.  The wind on the other slope is far stronger than expected, the critters take a big step forward at just the wrong moment, a bullet improbably misses vital points on a trip through the torso, or something else which will never be understood.

I had to go out last week and shoot paper to assure myself that I was not the weak link in the system, and was left contemplating nothing more than the delicious messiness which is big game hunting.

The vexatious Airshed

Windshirts are complicated, because their job is a difficult one, and an important one. Patagonia’s Airshed, a pullover shirt made from the outer fabric of the Nano Air series, has been around for a few years.  The lack of a hood, concerns over durability, and the expense put me off for a while, but Max’s glowing review, a gift card, and a 50% off sale put me over the edge last winter.  That I’ve put off writing this for close to a year, and still struggle to summarize performance, is evidence of what an odd duck the Airshed is, as well as how action layer performance doesn’t emanate directly from lab numbers.

The relevant numbers are that the Airshed fabric is 44 grams/meter, and the claimed air permeability is 67 cfm (cubic feet/minute).   The Patagonia Houdini, touchstone for the traditional modern windshirt, is 40 grams/meter and somewhere around 5-10 cfm (being over the head of the general public, cfm is not generally featured on product pages).  The BD Alpine Start, touchstone for modern soft shell windshirts, is 80 grams/meter, and roughly 30 cfm.  In theory, the Airshed ought to be breathable like an Alpine Start class windshirt, but as light and thus as quick drying as a Houdini class windshirt.

In this, it succeeds, though as the significantly increased cfm would suggest, the Airshed does not provide the same warmth as the Alpine Start.  This has a lot to do with breathability, but also I think a lot to do with fabric weight and drape.  The Airshed fabric is impressively pliant, and offers exceptionally little resistance to breeze killing dead air space.

At the same time, I found the Airshed oddly not breathable.  During sub zero conditions it accumulates less moisture on the inside surface than the Alpine Start, but during warmer conditions (say 60F) felt stuffy faster.  I’ve worn the Alpine Start as a sun layer in a packraft on a few occasions when I only had a short sleeved baselayer.  Oddly, I’d be less comfortable using the Airshed for the same purpose.  Somehow the Airshed seems more responsive when the moisture gradient between the inside and outside of the fabric is greater.  I also found it unpalatable to wear against the skin.  It dries fast, faster than modern light (~100 grams/meter) baselayers, but does not actively wick, and thus feels clammy.  It feels very similar to the old BPL Thorofare; uberlight, bugproof, quite windproof, and somewhat plastic-baggy.

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For these reasons, I haven’t worn the Airshed a whole lot.  I’m also not a fan of several key features.  The chest pocket zipper is weighty relative to the gossamer fabric, and doesn’t run well unless the neck is zipped almost all the way up.  I removed the pocket, something of an ordeal as the light fabric puckers and pulls like crazy.

The second, and far more significant issue, is the stretch fabric along the cuffs and hem.  This stuff holds water like crazy, an attribute highlighted by how fast the main fabric dries.  Not really a huge deal for a trail running shirt, but an almost fatal flaw in a backcountry piece.  After the struggle of canceling the pocket, I’ve yet to tackle replacing the hem fabric.

Durability has been passable.  There is significant pilling around the front of the waist and along the sides, where the hipbelt action is, but I haven’t yet put a hole in it from brush, which somewhat exceeds expectations.

After a summer of disuse, or of bringing the Airshed and wishing I’d brought the Alpine Start, I cut the sleeves off (easy, the seams are right there), and as a vest the Airshed has promise.  My perhaps longest running complaint about wind or action layers is that they have to be removed and stowed away during serious rain.  Light ones like the Houdini mess significantly with the breathability of a WPB layer, while more breathable ones like the Alpine Start hold too much water, while not contributing enough to the insulation scheme.  My new Airshed vest promises to be a wind layer that can stay on, over a baselayer, for days at a time of mixed weather.

Time (and spring) will tell.

10 yards

Fortunately the bull died on a slope.  So when it came time to turn it, I knew from two years ago to turn the head, stab the uppermost tines into the ground, grab the lower back leg, and pull hard.  Rather than 20 minutes of near-impossible flailing against snagging willows, this time three tugs had the bull flipped and wedged against the log, stable, and the other flank ready for skinning.

Based on the forecast I hadn’t taken the first hunt of rifle season very seriously.  I woke in the dark and as promised inches of snow blanketed our yard.  Webcams west of town showed fog and light ground blizzards.  I figured I’d drive just out of town, take a nice three hours walk, maybe find a few new tracks to investigate, and come home to regroup for tomorrow.

But the sun came early.  An hour out and I had walked a mile of trail and climbed a mile of steep north facing lodgepole forest to reach the broad curving ridge, ground more than half talus, ponderosa and juniper thick.  Last winter I’d found a rash of elk beds melted into the snow on the ridges vague summit, where a little more flatness let more soil take hold, and he ground was a mix of grass patches and the fallen monuments of passed pines.  I’d shoot the bull 3 hours later within 100 yards of this spot, but at first pass I found only fresh squirrel tracks and, at the edge of the cliffs, another orange vest on the lower section of the ridge.

The sky kept opening, blue tendrils spread south to north, and I went west, up each to the next ridge, glassing from summits.  Way off in the flats there seemed to be two folks cutting up a deer, but I hadn’t brought my spotter or my tripod, so couldn’t confirm.  I only brought one knife, one game bag, two granola bars, and no headlamp.  That one game bag was very large, fortunately, as it fit all ~150 pounds of boned out meat, with enough room to squirm down the slope, amoebalike, and with much twacking,, pulling, tweaking, kicking, and swearing get entirely into my pack.  Which in fitting with my casual prep was smallish, 40 inches circ at the top, and with just enough frame height that carrying 80+ percent of my own weight was possible.

I took my pack off once on the two miles back, and 24 hours after each muscle between my ankles and ribs is sore for it’s own reason.

I found the elk on the final ridge, and botched the sneak.  There were 30 of them, cows, a few spikes, and on bull which at 400 yards obviously had brown tines.  The final approach to the ridge tilted towards the knob upon which most of them were bedded, and I didn’t realize they were watching me for probably 30 seconds.  I belly reversed out of sight and re-snuck in the shadow of a puffy juniper, but the herd was already on the move.  I compounded my inattention and nerves by missing twice on the walking bull at ~250 yards, sending the herd sprinting rather than trotting over the far saddle and out of sight.

Fortunately 30 elk in a hurry across a few inches of fresh snow are easy to track.  Determined to not make any more mistakes on the day, I took it slow.  300 calories and 50 ounces of water wasn’t ideal for an all day pursuit, but if needed it would serve.  From the first, when I saw the herd hook right into the trees, I expected they might end up on the first ridge, and an hour later I was slowly through the pines, expecting to cross my own tracks, .308 cambered and at port arms.

For a few minutes prior I could hear one elk, and then another, scooting ahead of me, kicking loose rocks.  They didn’t seem to like this slope, the group spreading out, then coming back together, the lead elk testing a line, then backtracking.  Matters were simple when things came to a head and I was, suddenly, surrounded by tan patches of fur.  There was only one which had brow tines.  They knew something wasn’t right, but didn’t understand what I was.  A few broke downhill, plowing rocks and branches.  More went uphill, a line tight through the trees back past me.  I clicked off safe and hovered my eye above the scope, waiting the last elk of 10, the one with brow tines, to come in line with a dinner plate sized opening.  He did, and settled on the stock and squeezed the trigger.

The elk was 10 yards away.

Shot placement wasn’t ideal, center of center in both directions, and the air seemed to go out of both the elk and our immediate orbit.  He crashed through the brush, shattering dead limbs.  The instinct which in contemplation had left me shaking and thus, missing, earlier flooded back in.  I stepped up and left, quickly, found an opening, and without thought shot the bull again, right in the ass.  He stumbled forward, obviously on the edge of death, but yet going uphill over snotty rocks and through bushes, the momentum imbuing his life seeming to want to carry him over the top of the hill and into forever.  The power of modern firearms seemed very small, but I chased straight on his heels, catching him, again at 10 yards, face to face across an opening, and shot him a final time, brisket through the shoulder.

I’d later find shoulder, back leg, and ribs shattered, innards liquified by the violence of 2800 feet per second.  Such was this elk that it took all the above to place him off his feet, groaning primeval, three legs flailing, blood foaming from his side.  Standing there I all but dropped my rifle, stricken by what I could, in the moment, do so simply.  What accident of zoology gave such creatures flat teeth and ruminant stomachs?  Were they to evolve instantly and today, with such soft human biomass filling the valleys, surely they’d make business of running us down, skewering and stomping us, having in our livers so much concentrated forb.

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My mind was mostly done in when I jettisoned the meat bag into the back of the car.  Lacking the usual hatchet to separate the antlers I had cut off the whole head, thus facing a second load both not un-heavy and very awkward.  It would take me 20 minutes to acceptably strap it to my pack.  But first, I’d enjoy the luxury of daylight, of time to savor being in the middle of the process, and drive a few minutes to recharge with cooked cow and a beer.  The head wouldn’t quite fit in even a large hatchback, so it went on the roof.  Two separate vehicles dove into the pullout to gawk in the 3 minutes of the lashing process, and I made the 20 minute drive home tempted to hide under the dash or pull a bag over my head.

Would you be comfortable carting such evidence around like a parade float?

Shit that works: MSR tent stakes

Back in July I seized on a weather window and probable lack of snow and did a big alpine traverse in the Bob.  Early summer in the alpine, especially in the limestone reaches of the Bob that hold water in mysterious places, generally mean bugs.  So when  set my camp the first night, in a notch in the rugged ridge at 8000 feet, I chose the only unambiguously flat spot, right in the middle of the pass.  This had the advantage of being away from the springs on the north side (and would thus hopefully keep the many elk I’d seen that evening from tripping on my guylines), as well as the extensive grizzly diggings along the eastern (and more verdant) edge.  Most importantly, it would take advantage of any breezes to reduce bug pressure.

The disadvantage of this approach is that any storms would come full force, which is just what happened at 3 in the morning.  The thunder and wind woke me up simultaneously, and I had plenty of time to assimilate the simultaneous flash/bangs as the storm rolled over, as I was sitting up with my back against my tarp, hoping to help keep both the paddle sections propping up the rear intact, and the windward end stake from ripping.  Neither of these things happened, and after 20 or so minutes I went back to sleep to the music of frantic rain.

I was sleeping in this tarp, with the wall end fortunately facing dead west.  That end was propped up by my Shuna, with the ridgeline supported by a single MSR Cyclone, and the corners by MSR Groundhogs.  These burly stakes, hammered with significant into the rocky alpine soils, were the main reason my sub 1 pound shelter held tight.

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Pictured above is an MSR Cyclone at top, MSR Groundhog, and DAC J stake (formerly standard with Sierra Designs tents) at bottom.  All are made from stout aluminum alloys which over the years have proven immune to any abuse.  I’ve never bent any of these, and only broken older Groundhogs (10+ years ago) by snapping off the heads pounding them into frozen desert soil with a rock.

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Contrast this with the shit stakes that came with the Sierra Designs Clearwing we bought this summer, and the state they were in after the very first use in the field.  Fortunately that night in the Beartooths only featured pouring rain, and was not accompanied by any wind.

Lesson being; don’t get good tent stakes, get the very best.  If your fancy tent, tarp, or mid can’t stay upright, all other particulars are irrelevant.

I’ve used Groundhogs since they first went on the market, and they’ve only gotten better with time.  For years they were all saw fit to use.  I first came across the Cyclones looking for something that would provide enough holding power in loose soils for the great forces bigger shelters (like the Seek Outside 4 man tipi pictured at top) inevitably enact.  They’re expensive, but they do that job admirably, along with providing reassuring overkill for smaller shelters in extreme conditions.  Anyone who camps in sand or sandy soil should have a few, as well as anyone who camps in the alpine.  Adding stake point to an otherwise vulnerable shelter like a tarp is the traditional approach.  The limit here is in the form of soil conditions, which might not admit two guylines, at an acceptable angle, on a primary load point.  A cyclone can be pounded into almost any ground without buckling, and is a more reliable solution to a guy point that must not fail.

In conclusion, it is appropriate to excoriate the many companies who sell faux-MSR stakes with their shelters, presumably in hopes customers will never have cause to know the difference.  MSR doesn’t cut generous deals on the wholesale front because, building the best stakes on the market, they don’t have to.  Either providing these stakes with your shelter, or having the grace to sell shelters without them, communicates seriousness and respect.

There is currently no substitute.

Shit that works: the Rocketbox

Our Yakima Rocketbox turns 20 this year.  Over that time, few other items have been as consistently useful when it comes to outdoor adventure.

The US is set up for cars, with the overwhelming majority of prospective destinations not lending themselves to non-private motorized transportation.  If in places like Alaska the wilderness can make hard to get to the wilderness, in the lower 48 the great ocean that is rural America usually makes it hard to get anywhere else.  For this reason some places can feel very remote indeed, even if you’re only a few miles beyond the trailhead; Big Sandy in the Winds, for instance, or Choprock in Escalante.  Add winter weather, and even pavement can be drafted into the wilderness.  During several long drives home from the east side of Glacier and the Bob, riding on the teeth of a storm, unpredictable whiteouts have reduced me to 30 mph with right tires firmly planted the rumble strip, for security when visibility suddenly plunged from 100 meters to 2.

It is logical to get a car big enough to fit all your stuff inside, for security, protection for the elements, and aerodynamics, until you do the math on the dimensions of some of those items, how often you’ll need so much space, and, as important as any other reason, how stinky much of that stuff often is.  A roof box solves all three of these issues.  It should be easily removed and stowed in a garage.  It should be long enough to fit (for instance) 210cm classic skis, and other things which don’t stow well in all but the largest vehicles.  And a roof box is necessarily separate from the passenger space, making it an ideal location for soggy clothing, ripe wetsuits, and muddy boating gear.  The gear itself, and the interior of the cargo box, can be hosed out when convenient and then dried quickly in the sun.

The Rocketbox was essential for organization when M and I were living out of Xterra.  It held all of our trekking, camping, and climbing gear securely and out of the way.  With creativity and a few mods we were able to fit the box and three bikes on the roof (with 48 inch cargo bars).  The box was merely convenient when we lived in a house in Arizona with the same Xterra as primary vehicle, mostly because gear dried so fast in the southwest, and we didn’t do much skiing.  The box, on the same vehicle and with the same living setup, was more important once we moved to Montana, and has become absolutely vital since adding a hatchback and first one and then two children to the mix.  Today, we’ve had enough practice that we can do a week on the road, camping exclusively, with climbing and packrafting gear in tow, and fit everyone in a small (by US standards) car.  With summer sleeping bags there is even space to see out the back window.

(Rocketbox visible at far right.)

In 1999 Yakima made three cargo boxes.  Today they make 9, with only two being comparable (long enough to hold skis, narrow enough for multiple bikes or a boat additionally on the roof).  Wider, shorter boxes seem the fashion, and the worry-free tailgate clearance they provide seems to me a poor choice given their limitations in all other areas.  The other lamentable development is in dual-side opening, the hardwear for which takes up considerable interior space.  Back in the day, the most popular box (the Rocketbox) was available in left or right opening, the other two in right only, which seems like the pragmatic choice anywhere other than New Zealand and Britain.  If the original weren’t still going strong, minus a bit of sun fading, I’d be tempted to look on the used market.

As is, I can’t imagine living without one.  It is the primary car accessory for almost any outdoor activity.

Seeing Rocks

Hunters are fond of saying that success correlates with time in the field, that it only takes one (more).  Numerically this is true, but not all hours afield count the same.  Animals use the landscape deliberately, and substituting brute math for knowledge uses cliche as fiction; that even given time and attention native logic is beyond us.

My chief hope for this fall is to hunt deliberately, getting into the essential facts of each place as my quarry sees it, resigning as needed based on my own shortcomings plainly seen, rather than perseverating in the name of blind hope.

First up, unlimited sheep, district 300, to be specific.  I did this hunt 5 years ago, and have long intended to return.  The area is sublime, and the 10 day season fits nicely into the autumn, provided one is content giving away the first weekend of archery deer and elk.  The operant cliche here is that it is a game of coincidence, that some years no legal rams are to be found outside Yellowstone.  Indeed, in both years I’ve hunted, no sheep were shot.  But if a ram were to be found, where would it be?

In every outdoor activity I’ve pursued with any seriousness there has been a tipping point, where learning has flattened and often, where interest wanes.  First, it was 18 years ago on a 22 foot plywood wall, and a series of opposing, textureless pinches and the smallest left foot chip we had, a stab up out and left to a sloper at the lip of the four foot roof, and when after six weeks my foot stuck, and inverted heel hook rockover to full extension slap to the top.  Well into 5.13, I later realized, and likely the most difficult thing I’ll ever climb.

Another instance may well have been the bison last fall, a trip whose innocuous profundity looms ever larger with each passing month.  Competence and preparation dulled epicness out of existence until well after we were back on pavement.  My hope for sheep this fall was a day or two of the same, playing a clean glassing game after a big hike in, leaving the most probable collection of ridges and swells with the greatest available certainty I had seen what was there.

Skills were tested straight away, as after an 8 mile hike I arrived high to rolling fog, which for hours only opened beyond 50 yards for irregular seconds.  First I saw the family of goats feeding along 70 yards below, and with nothing else to do besides make coffee again, I glassed their feeding and urination habits intently.  Then I saw a dozen cow elk, a few miles away, pushed from the timber across a bald ridge.  They stared back intently for minutes, each clarion pullback from the fog revealing little alteration in their position or mood.

And finally I saw some sheep.  Three white rumps, stoutly obdurate in a way only sheep butts are, a mile away on the other mountain, for four seconds only.  The fog didn’t truly clear for another half an hour, though it gave enough glimpses 8 times over of the intermediate ridge, such I could plan and replan my approach, and well consider the virtues of charging on over before discarding that in favor of patience.  And at last patience was rewarded, early afternoon winds cleared fog for good, and I saw one sheep after another after another.

I did not shoot anything that day.  I pounded water and had dinner for lunch, but fatigue spread out from behind my eyes as the evening flowed into the valleys and I ended up cliffed out atop a conglomerate pillar, which sat off the far end of the mountain like Klimt redrawing the Argonath.  The sheep and goat shit which had, hours and miles earlier, reassured my judgement now just annoyed me, mostly at their substandard trail building.  Traversing along to the real trail, barnacled to the cliff, my feet popped shards of rock from the dirt, and one hasty handhold parted itself out, a melon of history absent in my hand.

I saw over 40 sheep in one day.  None of them were mature rams.  In the last five years since I decided to actively learn about bighorns I’ve seen them across the state, and seeing more in one day was only a secondary benediction; the first invocation of hunting competence was finding them exactly where I had assumed.  Sheep favor a defined edge, the littoral where abundant feed snaps into steepness, or escape terrain.  Reading a paper five years go that detailed the significant majority of Montana bighorns observed within 500 meters of escape terrain is one thing.  Knowing what that looks like first hand is another.  And for this year, that is enough.