Wednesday, November 24, 2010

fourth season

The fourth season of elk hunting in Colorado is the harbinger of the real world's fourth season: only for the bold, the foolhardy, and those who've forgotten what it was like last time.

The grimace here is because the feral cats got into the rubbish bag, smearing leftover lasagna over everything. One of the boys left the tent open one morning upon which the cats got in and broke open the box of Sun Chips in their hunger. Cats eating chips ? When we came in, they panicked and leapt up to the roof, hanging there upside down with their claws dug into the mesh. That's a new indignity for this tent.

We picked fourth season since that was when leftover licenses were available. The hardest part of big-game hunting is navigating the Byzantine castle of regulations and finding a place to hunt. Thanks to Teddy Roosevelt, the game belongs to the public, but the laws of trespass still apply: shoot a public beast on private property and it will be very painful, fines, confiscations and jail time may result. Colorado doesn't have a posting law, which means private property need not be posted as such. Instead, buy a probably outdated BLM map at a large scale 1:100 000, overlay it with the topo map at a much smaller scale 1:24 000, and determine your legality. The BLM map shows public lands managed by the BLM, National Park Service, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife, lands managed by the state, and private lands. Then, overlay that with the map of summer elk habitat, winter habitat, and migration routes; check the long-range forecast for the next year to determine snowfall and precipitation patterns, take your best guess; then enter the lottery to get a license for the selected area. Simple ay ? Or, do what we did: get a leftover tag, scout the area by Google Earth, and hope that Luck will be a lady and not a beldame. Real elk hunters spend 51 weeks of the year researching and scouting for one weeks' hunting, dilettantes like us just blunder into the woods regardless. Finding the creatures actually out in the hills is not simple.

On the first morning, we ditched the car, a rented Jeep Commander SUV, and postholed out into the snows an hour before sunrise. The area we'd planned to hunt was six miles up a 4wd road under two feet of snow, unreachable, so we had to improvise. A herd of five cow elk appeared on the edge of a far ridge, browsing slowly up the hill below the sundogs. Upon investigation there was a thirty-foot wide river, half frozen, at the bottom of a gorge between us and them. There's that Lost Creek again. When writing about remote secret fishing locations it's generally understood that Lost Creek and Lost Lake may or may not be their real names: though there are so many of both, it might even be true. I'm not sure what the equivalent convention is for hunting locations - let's just say we were up in the Lost Creek drainage and call it close.

We roved around the drainage for a while, contouring along the cliffs in a foot or so of snow, but saw no more beasts. There were plenty of tracks, elk yellow holes in the snow, and so forth, but no actual incarnations of wapiti. Back at the SUV we concluded that stood for Stupid Useless Vehicle: no low-range 4wd, no traction from the silly urban tires, we remained in the ditch. Courteous fellow hunters with a proper truck pulled out us city slickers and were kind enough not to laugh.

Back in camp my minivan wouldn't start. People look at you funny when you go hunting in a minivan. I lived up to our city slicker reputation by forgetting to pack towropes, shovel or chains, all of which were safely home in the garage: and driving up with the old balding back tires. The van helped by deciding this was a fine time for the battery to give up and the headlights to blow. Complete collapse of stout party, in fact.

In the far corner of camp is an elk rack. The unfortunate creature is strung up by the legs, skinned, to hang and cool before processing. At least so I am told. The camp is nearly impossible to find as the sign fell down after thirty years. Our hostess told us she's trying to get permission from the neighbours to put it up again.

After two more days of rising long before dawn and hunting hard to no effect, Ian sat disconsolately down in the snow and said, "I'd like to see a little gun action here".

On the last evening we found the elk highway across Lost Creek, the only crossing for five miles either side. The trail had cut down through the snow to mud over the island, then the herds split up again across the hills. We'd planned to sneak in the dark the last morning and ambush them but snow stopped play. It started as rain about 1am, to lay down a nice layer of ice, followed by 6-8" of fresh snow: that was in camp, the hunt area was another 1000ft higher. We got up at 4:30am, crunched disconsolately through the mess, knocked the worst of it off the tent and went back to bed. Even if we'd gotten in to the hunting area we would not have emerged again. I wasn't certain if the minivan was going to make it up the muddy icy snow-covered hill out of camp, but it clambered out quite easily. The road back to town was fortunately half ploughed, unfortunately it was the wrong half. We drove on the left, swerving wildly into a foot of slush and ice whenever another car appeared oncoming. The van didn't have enough clearance for this and surfed happily from side to side. Home again safely with the white fading slowly from my knuckles, in good time to dry and sew up the tent again.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

autumn 2010

what if much of a which of a wind
gave the truth to summer's lie
bloodied with dizzying leaves the sun
and yanked immortal stars awry
- e.e. cummings

though in my case the bloody leaves were all over the muddy ground, and had to be raked up.

We ate the first pheasant of the season (shot with my phowling piece) in a modified coq-au-vin using a white Vinho Verde instead of the more traditional reds. My dear wife was amazed that I didn't use a recipe, as her rule-bound hide-bound grumpus of a husband likes precise instructions, as a rule.

A picture from many years ago, this is me sneaking past the hole in Skull rapid on the Westwater stretch of the Colorado, a different autumn day. That's one of my favorite canoe runs, like a miniature Grand Canyon.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Never Summer

After the Grand Tetons trip I still had a couple of days' vacation time and did not feel like going back inside. A swift planning session ensued to pick out one of the many backpacking trips on the list and pack some food, then off outside again. A loop through Never Summer wilderness won out for its high mountains, deep woods, trout possibilities, and relatively short driving time.

The way in is 5.5 miles and 3000ft climb to the first lake. Columbines and showy bright red mushrooms enlivened the trudgery. If I knew anything about mushrooms perhaps I could have had a fine wild-gathered dinner.

Three hours took me to timberline, rapidly followed by the appearance of the lake.

There were rises going on, so tossed out the usual #12 Royal Coachman dry. The fish materialized out of clear water and sailed cheerfully up to attack the fly. It turned out to be a 12" brookie, fat and brightly coloured, which was a little depressing. Normally I'd be very happy with such a fish, but in a high country lake a brookie like that usually means the whole fishery is confined to a passel of similar fishes: which rather limits the opportunities for hope: and so it was, all the 10-12" brookies you could eat. They weren't particularly easy to catch as the cruisers would spook while the line was still descending. A number came to an assortment of dry flies. Eventually discovered a red-tail Invicta retrieved slowly near the surface worked best, a hit on most casts: but the fish were expert at bite-and-release so missed a lot. Some fish were plump with small heads, as pretty as you could find anywhere. The larger ones had that big-head snaky look that creeps over them as they outgrow the food sources.

Weather made its appearance as expected in the mid-afternoon.

There wasn't any rain, but clouds and thunder in surround sound. These are the conditions where lightning comes out of a clear sky to hit the highest thing around, which in this case would be the fool standing in a lake waving a lightning (fishing) rod. I'd thought of camping near the water, instead bucked back over the ridge and down below treeline to find a cosy campsite tucked into a cove in the rocks.

The rain did eventually move in - dinner was a race between my stove and the raindrops.

As I bolted the last mouthful of curry and beans (excellent for pre-heating the sleeping bag) so the rain bucketed down. I had brought a book but left the energy to read it on the climb up: dozed until a break in the rain at 10, then got seriously to sleep. Storms went on and boulders crashed down across the valley, a mountaineer's lullaby. It sounded like a scene from The Hobbit, "the stone-giants were out, and were hurling rocks at one another for a game, and catching them, and tossing them down into the darkness where they smashed among the trees far below, or splintered into little bits with a bang."

Next morning was sunny and clear with the usual scenes of hopeless beauty all around.

On the first lake picture above a faint trail can be seen cutting across L to R and up to the Continental Divide at 12 000 some feet. That's the route. Up there were good views to be had, North Park and human habitations to the west, Rocky Mountain National Park apparent wilderness to the east. I turned on the camera and it helpfully turned itself off with a cheery reminder, "replace batteries". Um, with what exactly ? oh well no more pictures.

Contoured along the side of the divide in the high clear air; cliffs to one side and meadows full of flowers to the other; big clumps of blue columbines, 15 or 20 blooms all together. Climbed up again to drop down into the next drainage over, where I met a loquacious solo hiker. He said there were several moose in the first meadow after the fifth stream crossing but they'd moved on by the time I got there. There were moose signs everywhere below treeline, huge hoof indentations in the mud, willows browsed down to moose-head-height, even some loose moose stool next to last night's camp.

Bowen Gulch is home to old-growth spruce, trees six hundred years old, fine deep wet old woods. This was the ground of a big battle with the loggers last century (1980s) when the Forest Service sold it to Louisiana-Pacific Corp. There were protesters chained to trees, lying down in front of the bulldozers, all the desperate expedients of the last ditch. For once it worked and the trees are still here. As I barreled along the rocks the clouds descended, the trail a spooky tunnel through black-green darkness. The gulch trail is very rocky and unpleasant: comprised of boulders, rocks, stones and pebbles; mostly in a rough staircase configuration down a gully, but quite often random; all of them the wrong size, the wrong shape, and in the wrong place for a human foot to traverse.

Down to the stream and trail junction then up again to 11 150ft to the next lake, just below the Divide in a bowl of trees. What the thunder said today was, "you should have started fishing before eating lunch" as it broke over my unsuspecting head. With the woods and the hills, it can really sneak up on a guy. Not quite damyata, datta, dayadhvam, but I'm long past revelations here.

There were Colorado River cutthroat trout prowling the shoreline, in a nice range and selection of sizes; little ones flipping out of the water in the shallows, bigger ones cruising at the edges of the downed timber where the clear water shaded to a dusty green the colour of seaglass. I had to wait for the storm to turn to rain from thunder before I could attempt them. Caught fish from 9" to 14", and I'm sure there were bigger ones in there as well: four fish in less than an hour and missed a couple more. All were strong and colourful, a healthy fishery. Now I can say I’ve caught a cutt standing on the Continental Divide trail.

It rained and blew for about an hour then the real weather kicked in, gales blowing wildly from all directions with horizontal rain gusts slapping me around. Wind this fierce and vagrant feels like a personal attack, or maybe it's just the hypothermia delusions firing up. The whole thing seemed a bit risky, plus I still had what I thought was four miles to walk out: concluded a judicious retreat would be in order. At the campsite packing up, the wind blew the pieces of the fishing rod out of my hands. Yep, time to go. The campsite was big with a huge fire-ring which seemed odd for 2800ft up and 7.5 miles in on a bad rocky trail. Typically the guys who build huge fire-rings don't walk much. As it turns out there’s an easy 4-mile ridge walk to the lake as well: par for the course in US 'wilderness' areas, there's no way to get more than a few miles from a road. In the arrogance of my youth I'd despise the 4wds driving up to the boundaries but now I'm old fat and weak, am in fact myself lusting after a 4wd to drive comfortably close to the tatterdemalion remnants of wild.

I'd made a slight miscalculation on this day's hike distance and wound up with 13.5 miles, plus two and a half crossings of the Continental Divide (the lake at 11 150 ft, hence the half); about 2000ft climbing and 4000ft descending. The second drainage emerged above the Colorado river with a three mile drag through second-growth spindly pines to the trailhead. My dogs were barking all the way home.

Grand Tetons

The iconic image of a Grand Tetons vacation, at least its public face. Really the image could as easily be the thousand or so people packed in 350 campsites along the Gros Ventre (Big Belly) river, many of them in RV cocoons to make sure nature doesn't intrude too far: a sort of industrialized recreation. Last year we'd camped up the river in a National Forest campsite, quiet and pleasant, but a bit far from the fleshpots of the visitor center etcetera. This year we'd planned to spend most of the time in a backcountry canoe-in campsite, consequently resigned ourselves to mass camping for a couple of nights. It was endurable but not really what we'd driven eight hours for.

In the evening we walked the two hundred yards down to the river itself, where the moose and her child grazed on the willows. The blurry mess of this image is because light was low and my tripod safely home in the closet. I fished a bit but only small fish attempted to drown the big dry fly. The boys threw rocks to encourage the fish while a beaver fled the scene with alarmed tail-whacks on the water.

The vacation fell plop in the middle of what should have been the heaviest training weeks for my competitive swansong, ITU championships in Budapest. In the grotesquely early morning, face grey as the dawn, up and off again on the bike for ninety minutes, followed by forty minutes' worth of distance run. Sunrise on the Tetons was a fine distraction.

Time for the gear-fussing, loading the canoe with surprising quantities of food and variegated sorts of equipment. The put-in is at String lake, a couple of miles up against the current (in a lake ?) then a short portage. 'Portage' means unpack all the gear so recently packed, hump it up and over the ridge to the next lake, and.. pack it all again. Whee.

At least the scenery was gorgeous. As can be clearly seen here, where I used to have abs there is now a small comfortable puppy of fat. I suppose I'll have to drag it along with me wherever I go now that it's followed me home.

On the way up String lake, there was a young grizzly at the water's edge having a drink. We looked at each other and he faded back into the woods. This was about a mile from the portage, so we hoped nothing in our foodstuffs was smelling too irresistible. The swimming in Leigh lake was good.

The lake was perfectly calm, clear water turning black in the depths, as we cruised in to camp. The site was up a little hill deep in old-growth spruce, willow fringing a small stream delta of sand and rocks below. I hugged two of the big ancient trees, using for excuse the installation of a hammock.

Ian had just returned from a week-long Scout camp where he'd earned his canoe merit badge. He'd paddled bow in Ken's boat on the way in. I asked how it went, "it was very tiring, if I stopped paddling Ken would stop too" whereas sucker Dad just keeps paddling if his crew gets lazy. Hm takes notes.

Ian cruised the lake with his fly rod, but the fish were sparse and cautious in the clear cool water. From the edge of the stream delta, the water dropped straight down to twenty feet or more. It was the first time I've been able to dive off a beach.

We did get a couple of fish, a smattering of smaller brook trout and two big cutthroat, both around 20-21". Ian broke off one of these on the spinning rod, and I lost another on the fly rod, since some fool thought he could fish a big streamer on 5x tippet. The one landed came to a Peter Ross, an old Scottish loch fly pattern I tied thirty years ago in the sun room of the house in Newlands Avenue.

The next day we paddled to the north end of the lake for a change of scenery. This beach had huge prowling cutthroat, they'd come in and snoop through the shallows looking for a little something to eat, like an innocuous version of sharks.

There was a small cabin here, with a ranger lady and her daughter living in it for the summer. They came around the campsites each day to make sure there weren't any bear incidents or drunken campers. The day we paddled out, they came out as well - for a change from living in a log cabin in the woods, they were going backpacking. I thought I was a hardcore outdoor enthusiast.

C got a plump healthy cutthroat on the way back, the only small cutt we saw in the lake. Down in those black depths are shoals of aliens, giant lake trout mistakenly transplanted from northern lakes, which push the cutts down a link in the food chain.

That night another moose and her child tried to take a shortcut through camp, then decided against it and swam around us instead. I nearly had a heart attack, quietly washing the dishes in the dusk, when her large brown head came quizzically around the tree: thought it was the bear, come to see if we had left any of that delicious-smelling dinner sausage for him.

Ian went back to the inlet, where we'd caught most of our fish, to see if there was anything doing. A steep creek runs in a flume from the high country to vanish into the lake here. The winds blow hot from the far shore, then a gust down the ravine brings icy air.
They allow only two nights in the backcountry per permit, so we had to get out again. I abandoned my family in another industrial campsite, fenced about by RVs, while Ken and I headed in to the deepest backest country we could find via 4wd road, in between Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. H assured me they wouldn't spend any time in the campsite except for sleeping, straight to the Jackson Lake Lodge deck.

We found our way down to Lake of the Woods and camped on the east shore in clouds of mosquitoes. A couple of recent graduates of UW (Criminal Justice) were hanging out in their campsite, heavily armed. Ken discussed large handguns with them for a bit. We proceeded peaceably out on the water, where a few fat strong rainbows rose in the evening mists. Strange streams with no apparent drainage area came in from the dark woods, edged by flowers and pebbles.

Wait, mists ? that was smoke from the Boy Scout camp at the other end.. with a merry clangour of Grumman aluminum, they emerged from the smoke like a kind of apocalypse. So much for peace and quiet. In the morning they were up before dawn to regale us with the Scouting Symphony, full Grumman timpani. We left.

The road runs on from the dense woods, through ponderosa parks, into the small well-watered Winegar wilderness. At first we overshot it to come out to a view of Idaho farming country. It looked perfect, an ideal landscape of rolling hills interspersed with clumps of trees around the farmhouses, a sort of middle-earth Shire. That wasn't what we were after, at all, so u-turned back into the wild. Parked at Loon Lake for a lookaround, there they were, two loons happily nested on it. The sewage truck that had been tailing us came in, looped around the campsite, and left again. No idea at all what it was up to.

The Winegar wilderness is there for the bears: as that author notes "a wet, boggy, ponded, willow country, an excellent place to stash a body". We hiked in to the Falls river, bear spray on one hip, .44 magnum on the other (Ken that was, I was insufficiently armed). A pretty river in meanders with very little holding water, below that big sky. The fish were mostly small. Ken got the big one, a 12" brookie out of an undercut bank.

There was a whole passel of fish lined up along the current break, requiring a long exact cast and careful mending of the line to deceive them. After taking half-a-dozen, Ken had pity on me, and let me have the last two in the line. We bushwhacked back across the bear logs and bogs through the spookily quiet empty country.

I wasn't ready to stop fishing and prevailed upon Ken to stop at Grassy Lake, a reservoir drawn down for the fall, with an unattractive bathtub ring of greasy mud and rocks. Pitching out a big streamer quickly got a handsome colourful cutt of 16-17", then nothing.

The original plan was to wander back home camping at various spots on the way, but Ian had been out for over two weeks and wanted a bit of quality time with his Xb0x before school started. That seemed fair after all.

We spent one night in Thermopolis at a hotel with a side excursion to the hot springs. The hotel owner was an enthusiastic hunter, filled the place up with dead heads and antlers. He'd started catch-and-release elephant hunting - shoot the poor beast with a drugged dart, pose for photo, then let it go again. We recede from the real world at an accelerating rate.