Friday, September 5, 2014

The Board Shorts Buck

I forgot the Ravens were watching me until the arrow hit home. Their death cries marked the celebration of my first archery black tail:  a giant, velvet-antlered monarch I could only have dreamed of taking when I first set out on this mission over a decade ago.  Why they never betrayed my presence I will never know.  Were they anticipating a fresh feast of steaming gut pile?  Or simply intrigued by the entire episode unfolding beneath them in the forest canopy?  They had squawked and cawed to herald my arrival but their presence was forgotten once the stalk got underway.  Did I somehow win their approval with my patience?  Or did they too, forget about me as I waited for the breeze to cover my movements, sweeping the oak litter aside with my foot to mimic the squirrel and clear a silent footfall.  You read that right-I too forgot about me-at least for much of the stalk anyways.  Bowhunting can do that to you;  create an outer body experience in which one has silent conversations with overgrown crows.  I had become a tree.  And then a squirrel rustling up an acorn in the brittle oak detritus.  A pine bough teetering in the breeze.  To a flock of turkeys who passed by at a respectful five yards, I was a ridiculous scarecrow of a hunter: some joke-of-nature mannequin dressed in a Camo Gilligan hat, stuffed with leaves, barefoot in board shorts.   Yet there I was, poised to make the biggest archery shot of my life.
This was day #10 in my quest to take a blacktail on public land with archery equipment.  I only knew that because my wife likes to remind me of the sacrifices she makes for my crazy ambitions.
Packing up my camp that morning, my disappointment at going home empty-handed again was tempered with the reassurance that I still had one more trick up my sleeve; one more buck I hadn't yet busted.  I know it sounds crazy but I had a confident feeling that morning that my string of heartache was about to run out.
A week ago I had spent five days in the same area with one of my former students:  "Merica".  A popular cowboy of a kid, he won his seat on the student council unopposed, but earned his nickname with his speech.  That is to say his nickname was his speech:  "Merica".  He volunteered to start our Hunting and Fishing Club at the high school when he was a freshmen and I wanted to pay him back for all of his hard work and dedication to the club, while at the same time, easing my wife's worries of going it alone.  He made a great hunting partner and we got more action that trip than either one of us would have admitted to hoping for.  We both missed "gimme shots" on the same "spork" from the same tree stand, and the last day "Merica" got a good look at Mr. Mountain Lion in hot pursuit of "Lucky Sporky".  An experience I'm envious of and one he won't soon forget.  On the second afternoon of our hunt, we crept up a valley and bumped a nice buck.  He got a better look at it than I did and proclaimed it to be "nice and tall".  I made a mental note to return again.  Once I had my truck packed up, I already knew where I would head for my "Hail Mary".
The valley lies at the head of a meadow-the parking spot a campsite for purveyors of target trash.  A lone bowling pin, long since whacked in a barrage of bullets, marks the trailhead.  I gently pressed the doors shut, grabbed my pack and bow and, sockless in running shoes, proceeded up the trail, determined to lose a race with a snail.
Even the soft soles of my Nikes snapped the pine needles and crunched the earth and so, in one of my characteristic fits of homage to Ishi and his brethren;  I removed my shoes.
Every three cautious steps brought a pause.  Waiting for arms to levitate I would scan the surrounding woodland with naked eyes and then again with the Nocs, breaking the vista into corridors in which I would dial into focus, near to far.  After maybe fifteen minutes in and approximately 30 cautious steps, I noticed something funny.  Tree branches moving during a windless episode.  Brown tree branches in the shape of antlers sucked my breathe away.  Before I could bring the glass to my eyes, my knees began to shake uncontrollably.  A good look at the massive rack swinging back and forth as he stripped the brush only made it worse.  I sat down to regain my composure and try to figure out what the hell I was gonna do!  Just up the hill, totally oblivious to my presence, up on his feet feeding, was the grandest velvet-racked blacktail I'd ever laid eyes on!  The internal dialogue began to return from orbit:
"OK, forget about the rack, forget about the rack!"
"How the hell am I gonna get up there?"
"Rangefinder, rangefinder.  How far is he?  Ok.  75 yards or so.  No way I wanna take that shot"
"You're ridiculous"
"OK, what do I do?  What's the wind doing?  Left to right in the direction he's feeding he'll be in the slight clearing straight ahead.  Gotta scale an open face with loose, sun-scorched rock and maybe, just maybe he won't see you."
"Shut up and go!"
"Slow the ****down or he'll hear you, idiot!"
And thus the internal dialogue waged a war that melted as I came into tune with my surroundings.  My bare feet proved a worthy weapon so long as I resisted the urge to vocalize my discomfort.  My toes helped me cling to lose rock and sensed the brittle snap and, thus sensing, could sweep the whistleblower aside.  Just a squirrel having a snack.
I had to lose vision of the buck to scale the rise and hoped to come up behind an obstacle that would obstruct his vision.  I crested the hill with glass to eye, knowing the only way to beat him was to see him first.  Just when I began to believe what my mind had been telling me for the last half-hour, the same thing everyone will tell you about stalking blacktails in the heat of summer:  that you can't fool the Blacktail Ninja-I spotted him again.  He had moved almost 100 yards, retreating behind the rise, finding shade and cover in the corner of the grove.  With a sure sense of direction now, I covered ground more quickly, ducking below his horizon.  Finally I was within 50 yards of the buck, now bedded and facing away.  A flock of turkeys darted behind him and soon began to work their way between us.  An ancient dance of bobbing heads made their way past.  I, a wayward mannequin, and the turkeys in their noble, if not slightly suspicious, procession, gawking as only a turkey can.
I watched them fade away into the forest and then turned my attention back to the quarry.  He was up!  I ranged him at 35 yards before he made a beeline down the depression.  I thought, "Oh great, here is where he just keeps on trotting off".  But he veered back up the hill, bent on a path that would put him right in front of me!  I came to full draw unconsciously as he passed behind an old grey stump.  I heard the footsteps but he never appeared and I seriously started to believe he had disappeared!  I took a few cautious steps and he was NO WHERE TO BE SEEN!!??  This was one of those silent scream moments.
Great.  He heard me, saw me or smelt me.  Just great.
For the thousandth time I fought off the urge to believe what my brain was telling me:  "Oh well.  It was never meant to be.  Good game, etc."
I took two more steps to see around the whole tree and farther below me I saw a brown rump.   A calm took over that I'm still ruminating on.  I tiptoed around a christmas tree and squatted to clear the branch.  At 25 yards I put a pin on his back and one below the waist.  I heard a pumpkin stabbing hit and then a sickening crunch as the arrow beat bone.  He fired off at a gallop and I heard him crash in the brush below.  That's when I heard the Ravens and remembered they had been there with me, all along.
Not that they could help me drag the buck back to the truck, but it's always nice to have someone to celebrate with you when you score on a nice one.  Then, when I sat down to give thanks after the hit, I began to think that the Ravens all represent some one who had gone before me.
Hey there Ed. Grandpa, Grandma, Larry, did you guys see that?  Glad you could be here with me.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Archery Is My Tattoo

All I have is the title.  Four lousy words that mean everything to me.  The story keeps playing itself out in my head.  It starts like this:  My wife wanted a Tattoo and I didn't, and like most men probably, I seized the chance to capitalize on a moment of weakness.  I'd been shopping for compound hunting bows lately, if the truth must be known, waiting for my chance to spring the question.  Not that I needed a racquet to get what I wanted, I just never seem to be around when the UPS guy shows up.
So I said, "Sure you can get a tattoo, if I can get a bow."
Thus began my sojourn into the ancient world of archery.
Not that I have anything against tattoos, well I must, seeing that I still don't have any.  Maybe I'm just waiting to get real old and wrinkly before I get tatted with some fresh ink.  Better than the other way around don't you think?  In either case, I had ulterior motives for wanting a bow;  I wanted to go deer hunting.
It's ridiculously ironic when I think about the single me vs. the married me.  When I was single I tried my best to convince every chic I met, and myself for that matter, that I was a caring and sensitive guy who wasn't just in it for my own needs:  time off for hunting and fishing mainly.  Now my wife has convinced me,  through a long and strategically masterful campaign, that I am in fact a totally insensitive, completely selfish dude who mainly just wants to be left alone to hunt and fish and the most wonderful thing about it all is that I'm OK with it  We have an understanding.  Still, it's important to maintain a certain level of sensitive discretion when pursuing ones passions.  And so I quoted her the base price for a ready to shoot Bear Charge: $399 and left the accessories to my own devices.
Though her Tattoo was much less expensive initially at $225, owning my own bow has been a priceless experience.  My bow, to me, is like a key that unlocks another realm.  A realm steeped in nature: breath-taking, awe-inspiring beauty and intense close-encounters with four-legged prey.
Archery has gently encouraged me to push my body and mind beyond their breaking points and to be still at the moment of life and death.  Archery has helped me tune my heartbeats to the rhythm of a gusty wind; has shown me paths that I had once passed before and didn't recognize; gives me peace in a world that likes to hurt; has stationed me squarely atop the food chain in a very real context and, just like a Tattoo, has engrained those primeval urges into my brainwaves, never to be erased or forgotten.  Unlike a Tattoo, I sense somehow that the lessons Archery has taught me are for eternity.  The Ink will die with the flesh, or possibly remain a symbol in a photograph.  The bow and arrow, while symbolic, are in their essence reality.  Energy stored and released.  Mass.  Gravity.  Physics in motion.  A hit or a miss.  Sustenance or starvation.  The ultimate clutch.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Sasquatch Winter

"Sqwuack!  Sqwuack!'  The sound of a grey jay never sounded so welcoming as it did this sunny morning at 8000ft in the picturesque high country of trinity county.  A friend come to visit gave Chris the final ounce of courage needed to roust himself from his place of safety.  Searching the remains of last night's raid, he couldn't discern whether or not anything was missing so he gave into his rumbling stomach.  Placing his stove on a rock, he struck a match to the granite and kissed the hissing valve with a "poof".  Propane burned blue under a titanium pot.  He carefully measured out two cups of water and poured it onto the hissing pan.  Unfolding his havalon knife, he checked its edge against the packaging of freeze dried biscuits and gravy.  The brand new razor edge passed with a clean slice and he poured the contents into a lightweight bowl, still slightly marred with the remains of last nights kung pao chicken.  "Adds extra flavor" he could hear his Dad say as he shook a few tablespoons of coffee into a tin mug.  By this time the water began to bubble so waiting, he turned his attention to the breathtaking surroundings.  Granite faces, scree slides and vast, flowing boulder gardens offset the greener, softer patches of willow and aspen.  Sunbeams began their march down the mountain faces and Chris suddenly noticed the vibrant contrast from last night.  Mountain chickadees quarreled in concert, squirrels bickered and the intermittent throttle of a woodpecker all joined in the cacophony.  Like the "camp robber" who woke him this morning and now waited patiently on a spruce bough nearby, the animals kept him company.  Unlike last night, when he felt alone.  Alone like a solo tourist who suddenly found himself in a dark alley with three or four "local boys".  Was it just the onset of darkness that unleashed the cloak of silence over the valley?  Or was there a real presence, in the form of a giant ape-man that opened a gigantic can of "shut the hell up" over the area's inhabitants.  Chris had read many stories of the "feeling" that people got from being near a bigfoot.  Now he knew that its presence was as unmistakeable as a light switch:  click it "On" and the creepies invade your gut and escalate to the top of your scalp;  Switch it "Off" and all the heavy, dark feeling lifts as a fog from the marsh.
The water reached a rolling boil.  Poured into the containers, a steam lifted in the air.  His sister used to say you were releasing a spirit when you did that.  Quickly he wolfed down the biscuits, chopping them up with his spork to release the vapors.  Sipping his coffee meditatively, he pondered the dilemma of finding such an elusive creature in such a vast landscape.  His experiences and research told him that looking for them was a futile exercise.  Best to exploit their natural curiosity and let them come to you.  Still, he couldn't just sit and wait all day for nightfall so he laced up his boots and headed for a secluded ridge at the fire side of the alpine lake where he might search for some sign along it's banks and then head for high ground to glass for clues.  He planned on buying a deer tag for this coming fall so was going to use the opportunity to scout for sign.  Figuring he could kill the proverbial "two birds with one stone", he set out to look for signs of life and possibly a bachelor herd of high-racked blacktail bucks with their antlers still puffy in velvet.  His March was a brisk one and he found himself in the valley before the sun.  Skirting the creek, more like a seep really, he searched for muddy spots that might hold a decent track.  Finding one, he squatted to read the story. 

Sasquatch Spring

Chirping, twittering, singing, song birds serenaded Chris whilst he warmed up a pot of water for coffee and oatmeal.  Still in his sleeping bag, half protruding from his tent, the morning sun burned through the sequoias in a hazy eastern dawn.  Bolstered by the warm illuminating forces of our closest star Chris chuckled at last night's paranoia.  Caffeine surged through his veins and a plan began to formulate:  No one ever finds him, he finds you.  Rummaging through his gear, Chris located his trail cam and checked that the batteries had juice and the memory card had space.  He strapped it to a tree overlooking his camp and camouflaged it as best he could with pine boughs he slipped between the straps, careful not to block the flash, trigger or lens.
The skeptics popular argument:  With all of these game cameras in the woods, why don't we have some clear pictures? -Is a decent one.  Though there are a few shots of dark, fat fingers and even two decent photos of a gangly adolescent sniffing some bear bait in Pennsylvania, no one has hit the jackpot yet with an indisputable shot of an adult, complete with facial features.  Maybe, as some conjecture, the camera emits some sort of low frequency sound that is alarming to biggie, or maybe they are just intimately familiar with their own living rooms and shy away from any new and unexplained "packages" in their territory.  Much like a flight attendant might flee from and subsequently report an unmanned backpack in an airport terminal.  In any case, Chris was out here to beat the odds and, just like you can't bag game if you don't go out and hunt them, one cannot catch anything in a trap if it isn't set.  So Chris gathered a day pack full of belongings and headed for the top of Castle Crags, the highest peak in the marble mountains, and left his camera and a sprinkling of hope behind at his base camp.
Heading off at a familiar clip, eating up ground at a pace that wouldn't break a sweat, Chris gained elevation and a new outlook with every step.  The trail bissected a boulder field and then wove it's way through a heavily forested draw, spitting him out again in more alpine terrain, his view spreading out and growing.  As he  marched he recalled the video he had watched over and over on youtube.  The video that brought him here and rekindled his confidence that a hairy apeman could be delivered safely into the context of rational conversation.
What is seen in the video is an outing for kids who are mentally handicapped but obviously fit enough for a trek into the high country with their supervisors.  The footage begins with the counselor narrating for the folks at home as he pans over what appears to be a bigfoot's shelter.  He comments on the materials used to create the structure and the fact that no sharp object appears to have cut the branches limbs and boughs that make up the tidy A frame shelter.  Whatever made it appears to have used an abundance of brute strength to crack off limbs over 6" across.  In the background one of the students blurts out that the owner is returning or something to that effect and for the remainder of the video we watch a very tall, upright creature with long arms meander down the spine of castle crags, skylined atop a towering peak.  How tall is unclear until a re-enactment shows it had to have been upwards of eight or nine feet.  The narrator notes the creatures agitated behavior and puts words in the Squatches mouth as it were, "Get out of my camp, Get out of my camp!"  Comments ranged from seriously skeptic to convinced but what stuck with Chris was the gait of the mystery camper.  The arms swung down near the knees and the head attached to the shoulders directly.  It's knees seemed perpetually bent as it stooped down the steep slope.
Chris had chosen his campsite carefully based on what he could glean from the footage and now he hoped to reach the area where the creature had stood.  Calves and thighs protested with an intense burn now and he paused to take in the scenery.  An intense vertigo overwhelmed him as he turned to face downslope.  A gently breeze rocked him like a seasickness as the panoramic abyss threatened to swallow him whole.  He marveled at the landscape.  Hundreds of thousands of acres here and more than the eye could see constituted a territory few modern humanoids could even comprehend and yet most "expert skeptics" are convinced there is nowhere for an as yet underdiscovered animal to hide.  If only he could drag them here for one look.  One taste of this native anthropoids home turf and possible seems more plausible than impossible.
Suckling from his bladder in between gulps of too thin-scratchy alpine air, he returned to the mission at hand:  reach the tree from the video and then literally reach for the limb.  The one the silhouette walks under without ducking, creating a perfect frame of reference for Chris to see for himself just what kind of height range the creature belongs in.  The cluster of trees grew larger with each step and he approached the last few paces cautiously.  The last sip of a fine chardonnay.  The closer he got the  more he doubted what he was seeing and then he was under the exact limb.  It had to be as the cluster was made up of only five altitude defiant trees and this, the one on the right was easy to pick out.  Chris reached his hand to it's full height of 7 feet and felt like he did as a point guard in high school, small.  The limb was perched at about the same height as a regulation basketball hoop putting the creature convincingly, at least to Chris, in the 9-10 foot range!
While it's plausible that a 7 foot man could have hoaxed or colluded to hoax the video, climbing 1000 extra feet to become a youtube anomaly.  But to do it on stilts becomes a circus act of epic proportions.  Highly, highly unlikely if not impossible.  Chris shook his head and sat down to admire the world from his perch sans vertigo.
Later, from the peak, Chris pulled out his spotting scope and glassed the valley below.  Even with 25 power glass, his tent was only a small grey speck in the tableu of alpine habitat.  He wondered what the creature was thinking as he paced agitatedly from this crows nest.  He also realized how easily the creature had traversed the treacherous terrain.  Every one of Chris's steps was calculated and accompanied with the real fear of falling to his death.  The film subject sauntered down the mountain like a neighbor retrieving his newspaper from the driveway.  Whereas before the Marble Mountains footage was intriguing to Chris, it was now convincingly legit.  No question an agitated squat had been here, would probably return and was very likely in the vicinity at this very moment.  Possibly it was watching him plod along right now.