Friday, November 2, 2012

elk fortress II

Yet though we examined it through eyes prejudiced in favour of gently rolling slopes and shallow draws, we could not but admire the gigantic abandon with which the tall cliffs broke away in ragged bluffs and ridges of rim rock, the sweep of the towering timbered ridges, the sinister depth of great yawning canyons..
Another year, another bootless elk hunt. Like many another high-budget sequel, the special effects were tremendous but the experience as a whole was not up to expectations. We emerged from the trail once again bruised and bowed, but unbloodied. This is a problem when you went in explicitly to shed somebody else's blood and devour their flesh.

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Here's the camp, above in the green and pleasant land of maps, below on the cold cold ground.

We arrived late at the trailhead in dusk shading fast to dark. Loaded up the protesting boy with his backpack and a headlamp, and took off down the boardwalk over the swamps. Beavers slapped the water in alarm as we creaked on by. The boardwalk ended abruptly in the middle of a marsh. Twenty minutes' stumbling in and out of water found the other end of the boardwalk, just beyond headlamp range. It was rickety and posted as closed but we went on anyway. Now my boots were well soaked through, the mist of breath hung in clouds in the headlamp light and lightly fogged my glasses. Well, at least it wasn't raining. Soon after that a mixed rain and sleet began to fall. Usually when night hiking it's possible to go by starlight but tonight the blackness was Stygian. Well, at least it wasn't snowing. Soon after that the sleet hardened into a rattle of icy pellets on the raingear, then softened again into flakes. We came to a stream crossing some thirty feet wide with no clear route through, decided to camp for the night.

In the morning the snow continued. Legal hunting hours are half-an-hour either side of sunup and down, so you need to be out and in position long before that. Ian doesn't do mornings, so I went alone and climbed the icy steeps to look for animals through the veils of snowflakes. Nonesuch. We breakfasted and packed up camp in the slop, then moved on to the campsite I'd planned to reach last night. Well, at least it wasn't cold. We hiked several miles up to McQueary creek in poor visibility with the snow squeaking underfoot, not the best approach to spooky wild elk.

The next morning we found a big bull (from the size of the hoofs, that's my size 11 hoofprint nearby) had wandered past the tent about 20 yards away in the middle of the night. Informed opinions say this might have been a moose but I'm sticking to the elk story. More fresh tracks and scat and bedding areas found every day, but I think they were all nocturnal. This morning we had to deal with some equipment failures: my boots were sodden and cold, Ian's supposedly waterproof pants the same. We gave up and made a nice fire. This really stinks up your hunting clothes, not a good idea, but it was that or leave altogether. After that we had a snoop around in the dark woods, springs, seeps and benches up on the Middle Fork, to the same effect as every other day.

Another morning it was clear but frosted hard, the tent sparkling in the night and our boots frozen rigid. No morning hunt today as we could not physically get the boots on. By now the hunt had degenerated into a backpacking trip, with side excursions into the trackless woods. Ian described it as 'scenic torture'.

Elk hunting by the steps, 
001. get out in the woods where the animals are
002. evaluate food and water availability, hunting pressure, terrain, weather for elk comfort level, which is lots colder than human comfort.
  ... through ...
098, are all 'find the elk'
099. stalk into position
100. shoot 
Step 1 is easy and enjoyable; I have complete confidence in Ian to handle step 100; we can probably manage step 99; but steps 3 through 98 are a perfect mystery.

At the heart of the elk hunt are secrets that cannot be told. It needs a kind of instinct developed over years of hunting, dependent on so many variables that the search goes through a fractal decision tree with no leaves. I used to have the beginnings of that instinct for trout, since atrophied through disuse. Now I may be too old to learn elk hunting, at least not without dedicating myself to a full-time study. I'd like that but my creditors would not I think.

The beasts are deep in woods behind miles of deadfall, once disturbed the herd will be three drainage basins away before you reach the first ridge to see where they are going. The only hope is that other hunters will bother them and send them back into your drainage. Once they were plains animals but they have adapted like the tigers of India to become nocturnal mountain woodland animals. The approach then is to spend your elk days still-hunting a couple of prime acres in the middle of hundreds of square miles of deep woods. The trick of course is in identifying those prime acres, requires a few summers' worth of scouting.

We tried that for a couple of days. Here's some minor deadfall on the creek we followed up to 11000ft or so, as always lots of tracks including some bear.

Here the unfortunate boy needed a bathroom break. His feckless father had packed insufficient TP, so he had to use bark and leaves - like that murderous punctuation panda who eats, shoots and leaves. I'd used aspen leaves with some success earlier. On this haul up the hill, Ian took a bad fall on a rotten log into another log, saved the rifle but bruised his quad extensively. We limped out the next day since that put a stop to effective hunting.

We saw a half-dozen hunter trucks on the 10 miles of dirt road in to the trailhead, another dozen or so on the drive out, but the four days we spent a mere 3 miles down the trail were in perfect solitude. The rifle took a beating, rain then sleet then snow, plus hauling it through deep woods and deadfall on 30-40 degree slopes, so it is now in pieces drying out on the flytying desk. It's taken me a whole day just to clean up.

Here's Ian practicing some magical thinking, if you aim it they will come ? nope, this screenplay is bitterly realistic I fear.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

potty talk

From 2010, a long weekend of installing a composting toilet in and below the old bath house. I thought we should dig a hole next to the house, then manually dig back under the house: in order to avoid moving the thing off its precarious perch on two old railroad ties. However Evan has a tractor and wants to use it, so we tried lifting the structure onto rollers and shoving. It moved gracefully sideways and started to topple. After recovering from this we started digging next to the house.

The Sun-Mar bogger was bought from a survivalist, whose business card says
“I buy Winchester”
Toilets and Survival Training.
It's a US Western thing, this survivalism: fantasies of competence in a post-apocalyptic world, plus sustainability, another fantasy: "that nauseating fig-leaf for priapic capitalism", as Will Self called it.

While digging the pit below the bath house we uprooted an old bit of sewer pipe, specifically orangeburg pipe. This was popular in the 50s and 60s, but had an expected life of 50 years at best, more like 10 years if rudely treated. It was made of wood pulp sealed with pitch, which seems unlikely at best for applications involving burying it underground near trees. In our case the pipe was from a water line run up to a now-defunct mine just up the hill, so was not too icky.

The throne room, ready for action. We took turns seeding the organic material in the drum with the appropriate intestinal flora, and called it a job well done.

By way of reward, a couple of hours up on the Grand Mesa for a water quality check. This is a simple test - as John Gierach says, if it's good enough for trout, it's probably too good for the likes of me. Here's Little Gem reservoir, in the traditional October horizontal snow. Caught a bunch of skinny funny-looking brook trout, Evan got the big one of about 12” upon which I noticed these fish had forked tails. So I think I caught my first lot of splake.

Artie the Wonder Dog behaved very well, hunted quietly around the yurt all weekend, with an occasional foray to swim in the canal when it got too hot. One of our farm syndicate had bought some chickens which soon fled the coop and went feral. They are the handsomest birds I ever saw, plump and glossy. The farm manager Manuel told us, "there is gold beneath the green", as they liked to lay below the one spruce tree: finding the eggs is a kind of easter egg hunt now. They do stick close to the farm manager’s house where Artie did not rove luckily.

On Sunday evening we we picked and ate elephant heart plums: not from the fridge or cold, but a sort of revelation all the same, scented and voluptuous. The chickens hung around our feet chooking companionably. To be honest our company might not have been so very attractive, it was more Artie sitting at the end of a taut peach-tree anchored leash, staring fixedly at them with the slaver running from his jaws. We left after that, I hope he doesn’t remember next time where the birds are.

2011 was the Great Potty Flood. I passed by the yurt on another fall weekend in the course of scouting for elk (which is another and longer story, full of trauma and incident).  On Saturday morning the irrigation pipe behind the bathhouse was leaking. The pit containing the composting toilet was completely full of water, so everything but the throne itself was immersed. The leak was fixed Sunday and the pit drained by Monday morning. I guess we'll never run the electric fan on the bogger now, but the drum still turns, good enough. 

2012 brings the annual potty warmup, adding warm water and some starter bugs, also dumped some compost and raked out the compartment.
The above picture shows the proud result of several years' use - all my own work ! well not really. Whoever went last, DID NOT ROTATE so there were TP blossoms in the output. It's possible there was some uncovenanted usage, as there were numbers of cigarette butts in the outhouse too.

Smells sweet as a nut.. really, no odoriferous assault at all. None of that 'whoreson saucy stink', as the inventor of the flushing toilet, poet Sir John Harrington, says:
even in the goodliest and statliest pallaces of this realm, notwithstanding all our provisions of vaults, of sluces, of grates, of paines of poore folkes in sweeping and scouring, yet still this same whorson sawcie stinke, though he were commanded on paine of death not to come within the gates, yet would spite of our noses, even when we would gladliest have spared his company..

'Scuse me,  I'm off to fertilize something..

Robert Gordon puts this in perspective with a thought experiment for the meliorists and iEnthusiasts:
With option A you are allowed to keep 2002 electronic technology, including your Windows 98 laptop accessing Amazon, and you can keep running water and indoor toilets; but you can’t use anything invented since 2002.
Option B is that you get everything invented in the past decade right up to Facebook, Twitter, and the iPad, but you have to give up running water and indoor toilets. You have to haul the water into your dwelling and carry out the waste. 
As a late slow suspicious adopter I am still at option A anyway, but we do hauling and carrying at the yurt by way of practicing for that post-apocalypse.

Meantime the Gates Foundation is making artificial poop :

This is in service of reinventing the toilet. The ambition is laudable, the execution suffers from that same technocratic hubris which corrupts other efforts of the Foundation. Take a look at these gleaming marvels of engineering,


I particularly like the little arrow on this one, to show the synthetic poop where to go.

Now imagine how long either of these would last, in their target environments - desperately poor countries with good supplies only of dust, heat, hungry goats and inventive cannibalizers of technology. Let me hasten to add that I mean 'inventive cannibalizers' in the most complimentary sense and in no way pejoratively.
A thoroughly exercised composting toilet built like, pardon the phrase, a brick shit-house, would seem to be a better approach than chromed steel and microprocessors.

By way of contrasting example, World Bicycle Relief builds a massively under-engineered bike as simply as possible. This is supplied together with training for maintenance so there are field technicians available, providing both a decent job and running bikes.

Monday, April 23, 2012

carp fishing

Since I've forgotten how to catch fish on lures or flies, I wondered if I could still remember how to catch carp on bait. 

Dug out the old centerpin reels and spooled on some new 6lb line, over the ratty decades-old monofilament that was quietly aging on them. Scraped out old fossilized grease and applied new lithium bike grease, guaranteed not to harden: there's another job I won't have to do again in this life. Mixed up a batch of bread and sweetcorn for baiting, and proceeded to get the skunk again.. oh well. I remembered quite clearly what to do, but forgot all the blank days enjoyed while doing those same things. 'Blank' here of course is in the sense of palimpsest, rather than merely empty. 

This is an old gravel pit now pond, deep and clear. There are no shallows to speak of, everywhere drops off quickly into ten feet or more of water. Had there been shallows, the pond would by now be plagued with dude-brahs exercising the new fashion of flyfishing for carp, but that can't be done blind without seeing the fish; well, it can be done, if you don't mind a catch rate that registers only in glacial time; even global warming won't speed it up enough to matter. Arthur Ransome in 'Rod and Line' describes some carp flies he found illustrated in 18th century fishing pamphlets, unfortunately not in enough detail for tying. 

Black-striped suckers with sex on their tiny squamous little brains roamed just offshore, circling and writhing in promiscuous shoals. There was a little excitement when I hooked one of the smaller carp, fifteen pounds or so. The cast was about 60yds, his first run went from there clear across the pond and stopped only when the fish ran out of water. For a moment I wondered if he was going to clamber out, over the bike path, and take off into the next pond. There was only a few yards of the 150 yards of new 6lb line left on the spool. After twenty minutes or so it was about ten yards off, got a good look in the clear water, then the hook pulled out. That hardly ever happens with a carp.

The rodrest in the pic was manufactured in 10 min with an old tent peg and a bamboo garden stake, not quite state of the art. The bamboo is old and dry, beginning to split in several places; so I can honestly lay claim to owning a split-cane rod rest.

The park ranger yelled at me for jumping over the barbed wire fence early in the morning. Luckily he was unwilling to chase for some reason so I simply faded into the astronomical twilight, carp rods at the ready.