Monday, December 28, 2009

Tanner's First Day Skiing

When I received my ski instructor initiation over a decade ago they explained why we must be courteous to all we encounter because skiing is a hassle sport. First you pack an endless list of necessities, most for the expected encounters and others for emergencies or the unexpected. Then you get into your car and drive for several hours. If you're lucky, the roads are clear but the ski conditions are marginal. If there is snow falling, you may be delayed for a number of hours in your car, waiting for the plow to lead you and a thousand other "lowlanders" into the mountains. When you finally get to the ski "resort" of your choice, you're greeted with lines; Lines for rentals, lift tickets, lift lines and then a lunch line to pay $12 for an overcooked cheeseburger. I was always eager to hold the door for a Mom or Dad, arms filled with undersized skis, followed by a little bug in ski clothes either crying or asking pestering questions but I didn't envy their experience in the least. I knew all this and yet we ventured forth in spite of it all, determined that we could beat the odds and still find a way to enjoy ourselves.
This would be my first time skiing in about five years. I'd like to blame it on the kids or Maya with whom my experiment to turn into a ski-bunny failed miserably, but the truth is, I didn't want to come to terms with the fact that I too had become a pitiful lowlander. No longer could I hitchhike to work with my snowboard, lead a charge of screaming youngsters down the mountain and find hidden honey holes of powder at lunch. Gone were the days of hiding from the last ski patrol so we could drop off the backside of diamond peak and snowboard home. Now I was looking to rent ski's at sport chalet and searching the internet for deals of lift tickets.
My wife and I pride ourselves in planning ahead-having "our stuff together" if you will. A friend of ours had been offering his cabin in tahoe-donner for the last few years and so I decided to take him up on it. Better to stay for a few nights than to try and drive the marathon-like 6hr round-trip drive in one day with a full day of skiing sandwiched in between. Next, we rented skis in advance and found that we could pick them up early, use them a day and return them late the following day for a one day rental. Then it was off to the supermarket. We loaded up on snacks, drinks and planned out our meals for the next three days. If all went according to plan, (since we could use our friend's guest pass for a discount, Tanner could ski free and all we (make that I) needed to do was shovel the driveway for a free two night stay at the cabin), we could pull this trip off for less than $200 dollars including gas for my hogging F150.
We ventured forth on the Sunday after school let out. We arrived at the cabin early enough but the driveway was covered in packed "sierra cement" at least waist high at it's lowest point. I parked the truck on the side of the road and mountain manned it to the porch where I uncovered the snowblower and let it rip. A half-hour later, with a sweaty jacket and fleece hat abandoned on the pack ice, I had plowed a path to the street and ushered the family into the cabin. Two hours later I backed the truck up to the porch with inches to spare on each side. I might be complaining about all this if it weren't for the fact that I was lovin every minute of it. Free cabin, fresh air, a great excuse to get two hours kid free doing man chores. Priceless.
We settled into the cabin and made ourselves cozy. The plan was to play in the snow that afternoon but the wind picked up and I forgot how much quicker darkness comes to the mountains. Snow started to fall and it wasn't until after dinner that Tanner and I suited up (or at least I did as Tanner had been wearing his new snow bibs for the last week straight) and headed out to make a sled ramp in the driveway. Of course the practicality of a sled was lost on him and so we had to put on the ski boots and skis and learn how to make a pizza slice shape with his skis. Another advantage to renting in advance was that Tanner could practice and get familiar with the equipment before the moment of truth on the mountain. He seemed to like making "french fry" shapes with his skiis better. When he positioned his skis spread eagle and asked, "what's this called Daddy" I couldn't help but reply.
"That's called CRASHING Tanner."
The next day, even the best laid plans couldn't help us. We couldn't find the resort. The GPS took us to the cross country area. We did find great parking but I remembered why I snowboard, ski boots make my feet and calves ACHE painfully. To top it off, the snow began to fall in flurries and yesterday evening's wind had only come up stronger today. Still, Tanner was game and we went through the drill: get on the shuttle, go potty, get lift tickets, zip up jackets and go. I took my first trip on the "magic carpet" and the slow standing intensified the painful aching in my boots ten-fold. I skied backwards and Tanner hung onto my ski poles for dear life as we slowly waltzed back and forth down the hill. Maya had Sage in "the backpack" weathering the blizzard like a trooper. I didn't think my feet could take another ride on the magic carpet so I took Tanner's inquiry about the lifts as an opportunity. Maya looked at me incredulouosly-"He can't go on that!"
"Sure he can, I've taken hundreds of kids on those things. He'll love it".
And he did. We whooped and hollered for about a minute at the exhiliration of being lifted up a mountain on a flying bench. Our enthusiasm was short lived as the stinging snow assaulted our exposed, pinky cheekbones. I tried to cover Tanner's face but it probably just scraped the protective layer of ice off his face. We made it about half-way down the run before I had to scoop him up and ski. We headed to the lodge for snacks and a break from the hail's stinging onslaught. I didn't feel guilty at all taking up a spot in the cafeteria with our brown bag lunch and mountain of snow soaked ski gear. Feeling defrosted and re-energized, we rounded up the circus and headed out for one more hurrah. This time I put Tanner in front and wrapped my ski pole under his armpits. As long as he kept his hands on his knees, he had the right balance point and I could still steer. I think he felt more comfortable being able to see where he was going. We made two more runs, no carrying this time and we were fit to be tied. I don't think he really "got the hang of it" but he had a blast and thinks he's "the greatest skiier in the world" urging me to announce it to everyone at the bottom of each run.
The next day we headed to the sled hill. The sun came out in glorious fashion, reflecting brilliantly off the six inches of powder yesterday's storm had dumped. For $14 dollars we got to sled all morning on a perfect groomed run complete with banks and an area to walk up. We had a blast. Tanner even took out a few sleds and Maya bruised her right-rear cheek in a terrific crash. We headed home that evening tired and content. Sometimes as a parent I realize that the greatest achievements sometimes are in not trying to make them grow up too fast. I hear they will be before you know it anyways.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Windy Day

The weather report said "breezy" for Saturday and so my pre-dawn ritual was filled with a little more excitement. Instead of just feeding the cats, I sang them a little song in "kitty Lou" a cat-language I devised on my own. "Monties" danced around me in anticipation. I read somewhere that elderly people actually had dancing contests with their labs, teaching them the two-step. I tried a waltz with Montana but she kept stepping on my toes with her sharp claws, ripping away from me and doing prancing circles by the door. I guess it's enough that she retrieves ducks. She knows from the moment my alarm clock goes off early that she's going hunting and she shadows my every move, reading me intently with her ears back, eyes probing for a cue to jump in the truck. Funny how she will crash into my tailgate before I even open it, but getting her to "kennel up" for the ride home usually involves lifting her in. It's not that she's tired, she just doesn't want to go home.
When I arrive at the club, the flags are barely flapping and I'm worried the weatherman has got it wrong again. Just like baseball, the weatherman only has to be right 3 out of 10 times and he's in the hall of fame. We piled coyote brush into the boat to cover our blinds and dogs and set out to cut a wake down the moon tinted canal. Just before shooting hours, a flight of three sprig swung past the outskirts of our spread and came low past heyman. He balked and I made a comment about "triggeritis" even though I was fresh off a frisking with Fish and Game regarding the legal size of crabs. They let me go but I didn't want to tempt fate and commit anything that might even be considered a violation. It's tempting in the dark, in the middle of a thousand acre pond but you never know and it ain't worth it.
The weather man was apparently being conservative today because the "breeze" turned into a steady north wind-perfect for our pond and set up. Teal buzzed my side and I shot instinctively, picking the closest bird and sending it somersaulting across the ponds surface. The rest of the flock did what teal do when they're fired on and went airborne, straight up in an evasive maneuver that had me aiming over my head, past vertical. I missed the next two shots.
Soon our "winduks" were absolutely zinging with the wind and the poles tilted back at an angle, threatening to eject the spinning wing decoys, drowning them forever in the white-capped pond.
Normally, on a more placid day, the ducks will stay at altitude, occasionally flirting with a landing but for the most part these are the ducks who have gained wisdom from the shotgun's boom and the loss of a fallen partner. These same ducks, now grounded to the deck with winds gusting to 50, picked their route through the pond wisely. They skirmished the perimeter and gained altitude over suspicious looking "islands". Ironically most of the guys who normally hunted the less productive outskirts were invited to hunt the middle today, only to watch squadrons of sprig, widgeon and even a few greenheads dive-bomb their normally unproductive spreads.
I got up from the pits and pulled the spinning wing decoys in, they just didn't look right spinning so hyper actively. It paid off as a large flight of sprig and then another worked their way east, side winding in the wind, tilting, dipping and working hard but making excruciatingly slow actual progress so that when they finally came within range, it seemed as though we'd spent the morning with them. Guns blazed and labs lunged, leaped, plunged and stroked to their marks, soaking us with a vigorous shake as they handed off their prized retrieves.
We ended the day with nine birds (no spoonies thank you) and spent another 20 minutes looking for three that had sailed out of retriever range. We only found one. You've got to drop them cold in wind like that or they lock their wings and suck themselves into the ozone-shrinking into a speck on the horizon. It was the most productive day for me at the Tule Belle thus far. Normally the ducks are predictable and follow an established routine. Most of the time that routine keeps them safely out of shotgun range. That's what makes a windy day hunting so exciting though, all bets are off. The wind changes everything.
When I got home that afternoon, a mysterious thump seemed to be coming from the attic and our hefty, cast iron trellis had fallen over. Luckily no one was standing underneath the trellis and the thumping turned out to be Tanner's plywood basketball backboard. Nothing like a little storm to make things interesting.