Saturday, 13 December 2008

2008 Firewood Project

Bark Beetle Kill

The Pine Bark Beetle is devastating the forests in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. Literally millions of acres of trees have been lost and more are going all the time. It's hard to imagine what this landscape is going to look like in ten years and the impact on watersheds and air quality is catastrophic. There are plenty here in the west who give a knee-jerk denial of global warming as a factor. Even as the polar ice caps melt, glaciers disappear and the lodgepole pine forest around them dies you can hear them echoing the Republican theme that it is a "natural cycle". How much evidence could one need? Winters in the Rockies can still feel very cold, (it was 0° F this morning when I woke up) but rarely do temperatures drop into the sub-zero range for weeks at a time anymore. Those deep and extended cold spells were enough to kill off the beetles as they lie dormant. Not anymore. And now the attack is spreading to whitebark pines which tend to thrive at even higher elevations than the lodgepoles typically do. Some of the recently killed witebark pines have been dated as being over 700 years old. If this is a natural cycle, it has a very very long period.

Firewood aplenty, for now.

The beetle kill means that right now there's plenty of standing deadwood, easy pickings for firewood hunters. I've always liked cutting and splitting firewood. There is a kind of satisfaction in it that maybe goes back to the old saw that cutting wood warms you twice.

To get your wood; drive up into the National Forest with your firewood permit, find a standing dead tree, drop it, cut it into pickup bed lengths, load it and drive it home. Cut the logs into rounds that fit the stove and split them up.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Mule Deer

"Far from being a mark of moral failure, this absence of guilt feelings suggests a highly developed moral consciousness, in tune with the life-death process of the natural world."
                                                              Mary Zeiss Stange                                                               Woman the Hunter

This year a deer called to me pre-dawn from my warm bed and a hot cup of coffee. I had already decided not to hunt that day.

The south eastern part of Wyoming where I live is archetypal mule deer habitat. This is where the high plains meet the mountains, the Snowy Range here and in the next valley to the west, the Sierra Madres. Our property abuts designated winter range habitat. As such, roads are closed and travel is restricted November through March.

Sipping coffee, thinking about work, there suddenly seemed a certain urgency to go to a particular spot, high above the Laramie River, almost on the Wyoming Colorado border. I have been to this place many times, and have killed two deer near there before. By the time I was struck by this urgency, the sun was coming up, and I quickly dressed and gathered together an incomplete kit. I drove out, headed to the spot I'd seen in my minds eye. Ten miles south to the turn off for the dirt forest road and then down the road another eight, passing a couple of other trucks with paired hunters, road-hunting as their trucks crawled along.

Once at the appointed place, I pulled off the road, donned my binoculars and quietly loaded my rifle, a restocked Winchester model 70 built in 1958, two years after my birth. It is chambered for 270 Winchester. I was going to still hunt along the rim above a steep canyon.

Still hunting, the only kind of big game hunting I do, is best described in Theodore Van Dyke's book The Still Hunter: A Practical Treatise on Deer Stalking which was first published serially in The American Field in 1881. To still hunt, you move slowly and as quietly as possible and mostly just look. You take a step and stop and look. And then you glass with binoculars. As quietly as possible, take another couple of steps. Glass again, looking ahead on the treed rim and across the canyon, taking care to inspect the shadows of the aspen thickets that grow in the draws that cut through the sage on the far side. You try to step into the shadow of a tree and to stay off the ridges. I came on three blue grouse, who took little notice of me other than to scurry off twenty yards and then to continue their pecking morning feed. There was a doe and an fawn feeding ahead on the rim. They did not see me and I dropped off the edge into the canyon a bit so as not to disturb them.

Not ten minutes into the hunt, I saw a large and beautiful buck feeding in the sage across the canyon. He was standing full broadside to me brightly lit by the sun which was now well up. Glassing the far side, I had been concentrating on the shadows and had not expected to see an animal standing out in the sun.

I was carrying a rangefinder and measured the distance at 392 yards. A long long way and half again as far as the longest shot I had ever made at a live animal. There was no wind, it was dead calm. I knelt and set my rifle on the shooting sticks and took aim through the scope, still not sure I would try this seemingly absurdly long shot. I watched as he held rock still, head down, feeding on sage. He was a three-by-three buck (three large tines to a side) but clearly larger than other four-by-four deer I had killed before. I load my own ammunition, and was shooting a 140 grain Barnes bullet with velocity clocked at 3000 fps. I had carefully sighted my rifle in just a few days before so that it would shoot one and a half inches high at 100 yards and therefore be just about three inches low at 250 yards, but for the life of me, I could not recall the drop of my bullet at this absurd distance of almost 400 yards. It turns out to be a bit more than eighteen inches of drop.

I held high and squeezed the trigger. The rifle jumped at the shot and after recycling the bolt, when I looked, I could see he was still standing, seemingly unhurt, facing the opposite direction he'd been facing and looking up the hill above him. He was still broadside. Figuring I'd held too high and not certain that he wasn't hit, I took aim again, and squeezed off another round. After the shot, I looked and he was nowhere in sight. I fully believed I'd hit him and that at the shot he'd gone down where he stood, but I couldn't be sure. There was no sign of him in the tall sage. Using a tree as a reference, I marked where I thought he'd on the far side of the canyon.

After hiking down into the canyon, and then up the far side, I failed to find him. After twenty minutes of searching, I realized my mistake, I was keying off the wrong tree. I found him in the sage exactly where he'd stood. My bullet had severed the spine above the shoulder and had killed him instantly.

In the end it turned out to be a very lucky shot and one I did not really deserve to make. Indigenous hunting peoples believe that an animal has to give itself to you before you will be successful. Somehow I can not help but feel that this deer gave itself to me.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Grouse Hunting

Blue grouse, also known as "fool hens" can be hard to find but are easy to kill. When you do find them, they'll frequently reveal themselves by jumping from the ground into a nearby tree and will just sit on a branch and look at you. If you have murder in your heart or are thinking of grouse in mustard sauce, they're done for. Mostly you'll see them behave like this when you're not hunting grouse but are maybe after an elk, a far more substantial meal. Because they so often exhibit this foolish behavior, they are often disrespected as quarry for "serious" bird hunters. But early in the season (which starts in September hereabouts) they can provide some truly classic bird hunting over a dog. This hunting involves a lot of walking in spectacular country. The grouse tend to hold tight for a good pointing dog, the sound of their wings as they flush will startle you every time and they will bob and weave on exit. I think the holding tight for the dog comes from their strategy for dealing with coyotes and other predators.

Erdos, my Vizsla, is a natural bird dog. We killed the grouse shown in the photo after walking at least four miles away from the truck into the Platte River Wilderness area. We found no grouse on our way in, though we did find a rather distinctive mule deer shed.

I'd pretty much given up on finding any birds but on out way back to the truck, and at most a half a mile from where we'd started, we got into them. I sat down on a log to rest for a minute, and Erdos, wondering why we'd stopped, continued to hunt without me nearby. And then he got very birdy. Grouse are gallinacious and spend a lot of time walking around on the ground. Vizslas are pointers, and with a little help from me, Erdos has trained himself to follow a scent on the ground to the bird, and then to hold point. This is a good habit for a dog to have for pheasant hunting too, Datus Proper talks about this in his pheasant book. A pheasant will run a half a mile or more, and you don't want the dog pointing where the bird was, but where the bird is. After following scent, losing it, circling out to pick it up again, and then going on point I flushed the grouse not 50 feet from where I'd sat down. The bird flew and I was pleased that I managed to drop it with a single shot. Grouse are gregarious, and where there is one there is usually another. There weren't any other grouse paling around with that one so we moved on.

After I shoot at a bird, Erdos, who is almost but not quite still a puppy, goes wild. He rushes around like a crazy dog, a habit I need to break. Further along toward the truck, and running wild, he jumped two grouse without pointing them and I had no shot. I called him in and an made him heel and he started to settle down. As we walked through a rather sparse and scrubby aspen grove with tall grass, he scented and then pointed three more birds. I dropped one of them as it flew off and at the shot, four more birds jumped and I killed one of them with the second barrel. A limit! Not a usual occurrence for me.

This was amazingly good bird hunting. It was as good as any ruffed grouse and woodcock hunting I did near Ithaca. It was as good as and any quail or woodcock hunting I'd done in Virginia.

When elk hunting you invariably walk long distances in the just kind of country that blue grouse call home. One year I hunted blue grouse in September with no luck at all and once elk season opened in mid-October I saw grouse on almost every outing. Out of frustration, I finally popped one with the .270 and was lucky enough to make a head shot and so had some dinner. But of course, shooting a high powered rifle does nothing to help keep the elk in the area either. I refer to this as the "grouse problem". An elk rifle is not the best weapon for collecting a grouse for the pot. I solved my grouse problem by buying a 22 LR revolver, a beautiful little vintage Smith & Wesson model 16 kit gun. This is exactly what this gun was designed for. It is meant to go in your "kit" and be used for pot shooting grouse and rabbits. When I remember to, I carry it with me elk hunting. It has proved itself to be a useful solution to the grouse problem but does raise a whole other set of problems, mostly of being able to shoot and kill chicken sized birds with a revolver.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Mt Zirkel Wilderness & Steamboat Springs

P, Erdos and I drove up to Buffalo Pass on the continental divide at the southern edge of the Mt. Zirkel wilderness area. The wildflowers were magnificent.

We hiked north up the continental divide about 4 miles toward north Mt. Ethel and then back along the same trail. The photo shows Erdos and I on a rocky point where we turned back toward the car. It is impressive country. On the hike out, Erdos pointed two blue grouse (grouse season opens in WY on September 1st.)

We set up camp over the pass at Dry Lake campground, a few miles up the hill from Steamboat Springs. Stopped and soaked at Strawberry Hot Springs on our way to town, had dinner in Steamboat Springs and sat around the campfire for an hour or so before hitting the hay. Drove home in the morning back over Buffalo Pass and up through North Park and Walden. Turns out to be about 70 miles from home.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Encampment River Wilderness

Pen, Erdos, Mary and Warren and I backpacked down the 16 mile Encampment River trail from Hog Park to the BLM campground just outside Encampment. The trail follows the river as it drops through a canyon out into the Platte River valley. We hiked downriver about seven miles the first afternoon, starting out at about 1:30 and arriving at a camp site at around 6:30. The upper section of the trail has a lot of up and down with the trail climbing high up the hillsides above many of the cliffs that plunge down right into the water. Other times, it follows close to the river on a narrow track. We all probably wanted to stop hiking around 5:30, but there was no place to pitch a tent in the steep sided canyon.

Fish was on the menu for dinner and so I broke out the fly rod and managed to catch a beautiful wild brown and a brookie to add to the larder. There is certainly a different aspect to fishing when there are hungry people expecting you to catch dinner. The river up here is fast flowing and not overly rich in aquatic insect life. I did find a few caddis cases under rocks on the river bottom and there were a few recently shed stonefly exoskeletons dried onto rocks above waterline. I managed to catch the fish on a caddis imitation. After trying a few different flies, including watching two fish rise to, follow and then reject a rather large (size 10) caddis imitation, I ended up doing best with a smaller (size 14) tan Goddard caddis.

Mary and Warren did the menu planning and food shopping including wine selection. This included cleaning the trout and cooking them wrapped in foil with butter, salt, pepper and some chopped celery. Trout, risotto, and a couple of liter boxes of French Rabbit Pinot Noir followed by brownies made for an outstanding meal.

Erdos has never been backpacking and I don't believe he's ever slept in a tent before. At one point as darkness fell, he headed up to the trail and back toward the car, stopping to look back and no doubt wondering what the hell we were up to. By the time we got into the tent, he was tired enough that he pretty quickly abandoned his scepticism about the whole thing. He easily runs 4 times the distance we walk and I'm sure that in total this was an eighty mile run for him. He is beat today.

Day 2: After breakfast, we packed and started down canyon. The photo shows us ready to take off on day 2, a bit tired but happy. The nine miles out from the camp site to the end of the trail were harder than I'd expected they'd be. The upper section of the trail is mostly forested with the trail running through the trees. About six or seven miles upstream from the lower end the terrain opens up into steep and rocky sage country with few trees except the cottonwoods, aspens and willows just along the river. The sun was brutal. I don't know how hot it was, but it must have been near ninety if not more. In the last five miles, much of the river itself runs across private land with the trail up on the south bank separated from the river by barbed wire fences. For the last two miles or so the far bank is intermittently clustered with small cabins and trailers.

Sixteen miles later, happy, tired and achy, we got back to the car parked at the camp site just at 1:30. Exactly twentyfour hours after we'd left the top end. Warren and I drove up to get my truck, a drive of about 30 miles, mostly on dirt roads, only to realize I'd left the keys in my pack! Argh. Pen and Mary made the second trip up and back, this time with the keys and actually returning with the truck.

This hike is on a great trail along a beautiful wilderness river. We saw maybe ten other folks the entire time (all but two were fishing), and those were mostly concentrated at either end. Next time, we think we'll take three days to allow more fishing time and to generally allow for a more leisurely trip.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Neahkahnie Mt, Oregon

Hiked up Neahkahnie Mt on the Oregon Coast with P, Clea, Tom, Jasper and baby Zan. It's a bit more than three miles round trip and Jasper (age 6) was a champ. We passed the easiest access to the summit and managed to get up by a bit of scrambling. Great views and a fantastic hike through some Oregon coastal Old Growth forest.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Mt. Richthofen in the Never Summer Range

Mt. Richthofen is the highest peak in the Never Summer Range. It is just south of Cameron pass on Hwy 14. Lake Agnes is a short one mile hike from the parking area and lies at the base of the impressive Nokhu Crags and Mt Richtoffen. We traversed the lake on the south side across the boulder fields shedded from Nokhu crags which tower above. The photo shows P on the traverse around the lake. Higher up, there were some snow fields that made progress easier, but they proved to be a bit scary for P who has not done any snow climbing before. We made it up onto the obvious ridge (above the pines at the end of the lake in the photo) unnecessarily crossing a steep bit of snow. We made it about as high as the base of the rightmost snowfield (that looks a bit like a duck with a hat) before turning back. The rock up the ridge is extremely loose and with Erdos climbing above and knocking the occasional rock down on top of us we decided to retreat.
It was a beautiful day and we plan to return soon to get to the top without the dog.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008


Climbed Sugarloaf below Medicine Bow peak with P and Erdos. It took about an hour to get to the top from the car (parked at the hairpin on 130). Sugarloaf is 11,300 ft. but the climb from the road must be less than 800 ft. Forgot the camera (again) but snarfed this photo off micksmtn. It shows the opposite side of the peak (North), while we scrambled up the South ridge. Lots of big loose rocks and there was still a lot of snow on Medicine Bow.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Twin Buttes and Hattie in the Pram

The Laramie Plains lakes are pothole lakes west of town. I dropped the pram into Twin Buttes on July 4 and fished for an hour or so catching nothing. It was midday (the only time I could get out) but still, based on last years fishing, it was rather unusual to have caught nothing. The water levels at Twin Buttes are low, but Lake Hattie is virtually disappearing! Fished Hattie on Sunday the 6th from about 7:30 'till noon. There were a few 4th of July campers along the shore but really, it was virtually abandoned compared to previous years. The gas prices ($4.00/gal), voracious mosquitoes, West Nile virus, and the low water levels are taking their toll. It was great. Not one jet ski in sight! It was challenging to find a place to launch the boat. The water level is another ten feet lower this year. After launching I rowed to the far side, trolling along the way. I ended up in an amazing caddis hatch, only to discover that while I had a spool with the floating line on it, I'd left the reel body for that spool in the truck. Oh well, I anchored and fished to rising fish all around me without any luck. My Goddard caddis would float on a long leader on the intermediate line I was fishing for a few minutes, and then it'd go under, I'd pull in and cast to another riser. Seeing the hatch, the rising fish and the wild mustangs coming down to the lake for a drink made the fishless trip far from boring. And then the wind came up. I was trolling off the far bank thinking I'd better head back toward the truck, when I hooked up with a good sized rainbow that nearly pulled the rod out of the boat and then jumped. I dropped the anchor and almost immediately, he broke me off in the weeds. As the wind picked up even further, I put on my rain jacket and life vest and motored back across the lake in some good winds across the oncoming waves getting splashed with spray.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Clark Peak

Climbed Clark Peak (12,951 ft.) near Cameron Pass in CO with Jeff VanBaalen. Cameron Pass is on HWY 14 south east of Walden CO. It's about an hours drive from our house on 230. We parked Jeff's RAV a short way up the 4WD Ruby Jewel Road and hiked up the road and the Jewel Lake trail to the lake, which was mostly still frozen over.
In the photo above, the trail goes through the meadow at the base of the leftmost peak and then up the grassy ramp into the cirque beyond where the lake is. We climbed up the slopes to the right to the summit of Clark Peak (the third to the right.) This stitched photo makes the actual summit look lower than its neighbours.
We ate some lunch at the lake and from there we headed more or less straight up for the summit. We crossed a boulder/scree field up to some gullies leading out of the cirque and then followed the steep grassy slopes to the top. Jeff, who swims 12 miles a week dashed up while I struggled with the altitude a bit. The views are spectacular. To the north along the same ridge line are South Rawah and North Rawah peaks. To the south the Never Summer Range with Nokhu Crags and Mt. Richthofen looking particulary impressive. In the distance tot he south east, Rocky Mt. National Park with Longs Peak visible. To the west, you look across North Park to the Zirkels. There were patchy cumulus but no thunderheads. We descended down the south ridge and across the face of the next peak (12,433 ft.) along the ridge and then back north to the Jewel Lake trail crossing a small creek in the meadow. All told, it took us about six hours and maybe six miles to the lake and another two up and along the ridge for an eight mile walk. With a higher 4wd vehicle and the fortitude to drive the rough road to the trailhead would have saved three miles of walking.

Sunday, 29 June 2008

Vedauwoo again, cracks this time

Garrett and Sarah and I returned to Vedauwoo again today with Penelope and Erdos as well. Garrett led Cornelius (5.5) on the Nautilus and we all followed. This is a short crack climb that I'd compare in difficulty to Baby (5.6) at the Gunks. This was the first time Garrett placed his own pro on lead. After lunch we hiked to the Valley Massif and Garret lead Bill Steal (5.6) on the south side. The photo shows him at a rest a few moves below the crux. This is a very impressive lead and I would compare it to double crack (5.8) at the gunks.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

Vedauwoo -- Crystal Freeway

Went rockclimbing at Vedauwoo with Garrett and Sarah. We climbed two bolted routes on the left (Northeast) end of the Crystal Freeway. Oddly, neither of these routes are listed in either guidebook for the area, nor are they in the online guide. They start just to the left of the start for the climb called the Northeast Cutoff.

Both climbs are friction routes, the first one is about 5.7 and is two pitches. The first pitch ends at a pair of bolts and another pitch continues up to a second set. With a pair of 60 meter ropes it might just be possible to descend from these bolts in a single rappel. Garrett led the first pitch, his first lead. I lead the second, short pitch. The second route, another 30 feet left of the first is harder (5.8 or 5.9) and the start is a bit more difficult since the first bolt is maybe fifteen or twenty feet off the deck with a very bad landing in a wide crack. Garrett led this pitch with aplomb. It ends at the same pair of bolts after a steeper and smoother ascent. We lowered Garrett off the shunts and then Sarah climbed on top-rope, cleaning the route and I followed after her. It was a mostly sunny day with a few clouds providing nice relief from the sun which can be brutal at 9000 feet.

Nice first leads for Garrett.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Gray Rock

After a day running errands in Fort Collins, Penelope, Erdos and I hiked to Gray Rock and climbed to the summit. I've been looking at this nice piece of rock for many years driving to Fort Collins CO down Rt 287. We left the truck at about 3:30 and made the six mile hike to the top and back in a bit more than four hours. Thunderheads blew through all afternoon. The trail to the summit winds around but is marked by cairns and some posts the forest service has put up. On reaching the summit plateau we were greeted by a cacophony of peepers. There are two small ponds near the top.
When we did approach the summit, there was another thunderhead bearing down on us, so we made a quick dash, scrambling up to the top and back. Unfortunately, I forgot my camera so we have no photos.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

North Platte River -- Gray Reef

Drove to Gray Reef on the North Platte river with Jefferson Snider and Garrett to fish for the big ones. Gray Reef is a small Bureau of Reclamation (BLM) dam on the river about a mile below the larger dam which creates the Alcova Reservoir. The fish bunch up below the dam, and there are some real big ones in there. The largest trout I've ever caught was caught under that dam about 15 years ago and went 27". Not sure why, but I haven't fished there much since. Part of it is the landscape, it really is a reclamation site in the high desert though after spending five months in Scotland, the contrast of the desolate high western landscape with the wet Scottish highlands somehow made this look better to me than it has before.

Jeff, Garrett and I were hooking up a lot throughout the day. I only landed four, but hooked up with another eight or ten that straightened my hooks, broke me off, or just managed to rub the hook out in the weeds and rocks on the bottom. The fish we caught were all rainbows or cutbows in the 18" - 24" class and, unlike fish in some other western tailwaters, were strong fighters. The place is crowded. Many guys were not hooking up at all, a few were doing as well as we were, and in the early evening, there were a couple of men, standing in the best spots just below the dam, who hooked up consistently. The guys who don't hook up are invariably fishing bigger flies that the fly shops seem to push.

Garrett (in photo with a fish on) had the place wired and we started catching fish right away. This is tailwater flyfishing with small, tiny tiny tiny flies. The rig is either two size 22 or 24 midge patterns (there were midges swarming the banks) or possibly a rig with the upper midge swapped out with a size 12 or 14 red rock worm pattern. Black glass beadhead or silver beadhead midges were really hot. So the entire rig is a 9 foot leader, down to one or two size 6 splitshots, a foot or two below that a size 22 midge, and another 18" below that another midge on the point. (If you click on the photo of the fish above, you can see one of the flies hooked in trout's mouth.) We all used a new style of strike indicator which seemed to work really well. A kind of little round rubber bobber with a tab and a small grommet on the tab. Not sure what this thing is called, I've never seem 'em before, but they have them at the flyshop at the turn-off to Gray Reef. Garrett had used them before steelhead fishing in Northern CA.

It makes for a long day from Laramie (and I'm 25 miles further on) with a bit more than five hours of driving together with seven hours of fishing in the hot sun, but it is a great day if you don't mind crowds and want to hookup (and sometimes catch) lots of big fish.