Monday, July 19, 2010

A Successful Outing - Young 'uns in the field.

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Yesterday afternoon, we came home from a 3 1/2 day camping trip into the Sierra Nevada.

It'd be nice to say that we hiked back 20 miles or so into some roadless area where we lived off the land, picked berries and tubers, killed the great Hart, caught fish, or some such thing.  The truth is, however, that we drove up to the last vacant site in a campground of 80 spots, amid hundreds of people and next to a reservoir.  But I do not apologize.

My plans always start bigger than they wind up (ask any number of my hunting and fishing companions), and this trip proved no exception.  We were expecting upwards of 20 people to join us for a few days of hiking, berry-picking, perhaps crawdadding, and definitely fishing, fishing, and fishing.  But slowly, people backed out, all for very good reasons, of course, and we were down to two days of 5 1/2 of us, and two days with three more folks.

The days were hot, too: I'm sure we broke 100 on at least one of them.  And the neighbors were up pretty late and up pretty early.  And the reservoir was full of motor boats and jet skis.

But not in our neck of the woods.  Where we landed, we had a wonderful little inlet that had a few people, but almost zero encounters with fast boaters.  We launched our kayak and canoe, toted around a blow-up turtle (as opposed to an exploding turtle), and splashed in the water the first day. 

The evening of the second day, my nephew and I took to the woods stumpshooting.  For those of you who aren't lucky enough to use a bow and arrow, stumpshooting is when you walk through the forest, slowly and quietly (or not so slowly and a little bit loud, but not screaming and running), and sneak up on and shoot wily critters like pinecones and sticks.  Stumps can break arrows, so we don't really shoot at those... I'm guessing the term was coined by wealthier folks than we.

We walked, and talked, and watched the stream higher than I'd ever seen it in July.  We vowed we'd return the next day with the whole family.  We also had a run-in with a hawk of some kind (it kills me that I don't know what kind of hawk it was) chasing a baby bird, the momma screaming and right on its heels.  The three of them went careening through the woods, and we had to duck to avoid being hit - the hawk barely banked to its left, the baby bird to its right.  They flew on through the forest, but since we almost instantly heard no more screaming from the momma bird, we figured the baby had gotten away.  While neither of us could help feeling relieved, I also explained to my nephew that the hawk may be trying to feed its own little ones.  He responded, after some thought, that "it's both good and bad."

The next day, we all trekked back to the stream and swam it.  There was a fast current in the middle of a fine pool, and my nephew swam it bravely, (which means with trepidation, but doing it anyway because he felt he should, not because we goaded him - we aren't like that).  Other family arrived, and we had a great time at the pool.  At one point, a niece fell in the water (she was okay), and our 11-year old dog, Irma, jumped in to save her - a remarkable feat, since she absolutely detests swimming, and the water was cold.  If you've never owned a dog, I might venture to say that you've never known pure, unconditional love.

The berries weren't ripe.  We didn't drop a crawdad trap.  We fished maybe ten minutes, tops.  No rabbits for the pot.  Deer season was a month away.  And yet, this was one of the greatest camping trips I've ever had.  Loving family was there, there were adventures aplenty, the food was great, and I got to watch my 3-year old daughter show little fear of anything other than boats and band-aids.  She climbed up and down rocks all day, she watched bugs, she asked about bird calls (a red-breasted nuthatch).

What an amazing time. 

If you ever get a chance to get out with kids into the woods, even if they are a little crowded with other folks, do it - for them, and for you.

And now, I'll leave you with a little video I took on a tree next to our campsite.  I think it's fitting with the theme:

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Last weekend's hunt, and thoughts on archery hunting

© 2010 Joshua Stark

I had an absolutely amazing time on my bowhunt with Phillip and Cat.  No game was bagged, but something in me clicked, in a good way.

Archery hunting tends to do that to me.  It makes me calm, it helps me move more deliberately and understand that serenity goes a long way in life.

When a person moves when archery hunting, they are trying to get in close, without being recognized.  Many people automatically anthropomorphize creatures, but when one hunts with a bow, even the most basic human assumption - that sight is the most important sense - has to go out the window.  At least, it does when you hunt pigs or deer.
When bowhunting, the wind is more important than cover.  Sound, too, becomes very important.

And so, one pokes slowly through the forest, using game trails and old roads, and always checking the wind patterns.  Especially when there is no persistent breeze, winds can be tricky.

I consider myself fairly astute at reading the wind, for which I credit my nearsightedness.  When I was young, I went a few years without knowing I needed glasses.  I was quiet and shy, and I also got good grades, so it just never really came up until I was about to get my driver's license.  However, I walked outdoors constantly, but came to rely more and more upon my understanding of the wind, especially in regards to how it moved sounds, but also smells.  (I also greatly enjoyed tracking, because tracks were close and thus more visible than, say, sunlight through the ear of a cottontail.) 

Luckily for me, then, I've a decent ability to read the wind, a downright invaluable asset when bowhunting.  Rifle hunters need to know the wind, too, but usually only if it is moving big, or if they are still-hunting, or hunting heavy cover; but for a bowhunter, there is much more to it.  My most recent trip provides a prime example:

This last weekend, I had the absolute privilege and joy to stalk wild hogs.  In particular, after stumbling (a little more literally than I'd have liked) upon a wallow on a creek, I decided... well, my calves decided to sit a bit, because I knew it had been used recently (I could smell pigs there - isn't that cool?).  The Sun was setting, and I knew I had maybe 20 minutes of light left.

The creek was nestled between two steep, dry hills that rose a few hundred feet on either side.  They were very steep in some places, impassable in others, and covered in varying degrees of deep, dark wood, oak park habitat, and grassy open spots.  The grass was golden and dry, the ground baked by the California Sun, making bushwhacking too noisy a prospect.  But, a road paralleled the creek.

After "hearing" something up-creek a bit, I slowly walked around a small bend.  I realized almost simultaneously that the noise had come from the water, and that, 100 yards distant, browsing calmly between two oak trees and out in the grass, moseyed a sow, a boar, and six piglets.  I froze.

Now, if this had been a story with a rifle, I would have had the picture of the pig at the end of this story, right?  But with my recurve, I was just beginning a stalk, and I had 70 yards to go.

Thanks to my nearsightedness, when I stopped moving I immediately knew the bad news.  The back of my arms and neck, the exposed parts of my body, were colder than the front.  The wind was slowly wafting from me to my prey.  With little light left, I knew I couldn't hike up the hill and back down to them, so I attempted to close the distance a little quicker than normal.  Using the cover of the creek berm, I moseyed, myself, toward them.

Crap!  I walked up onto another wallow, and I immediately knew that's where they were headed, and if I'd stayed put, they might have walked right up to me.

I made about 30 yards before the boar caught wind of me.  A little snuffling snort, and all of them stood stock still, wound up tight, and ready to run.  Then they did run, back into the deep, dark wood, and into my memories forever.

They never once saw me, of that I'm sure - and the creek's gurgle ensured that they never heard me, either.  All it took was the familiarity of my smell (my wife will laugh at that one) for them to know, as surely as I would know if I'd seen a man with a gun stalking me, that they needed to leave, and fast.

Archery hunting hones a lot of lessons that regular hunting teaches, including the human need to move slowly and deliberately through the wild, the need to understand how you influence the world, and the vital lesson that things happen that you cannot control, and that accepting them and putting yourself out there are more important.

Getting out there also reminded me that I love and thrive on just being there.  I saw a tiny owl, I saw bandtail pigeons ripping through the air.  I saw quail, and had the hooey scared out of my twice by a lovesick grouse and his beautiful, brown mate.  Twice.  I stalked a jackrabbit and was showed equal shock and an instant of stark terror when a horrifying pig-squeal rose up from the canyon below us.  I realized that no successful North American mammal predator has a green coat.  And I spent a great time with two great, new friends - laughing, joking, eating and drinking, recounting tales, and sharing a sad moment (read Phillip's piece on that one).

So, when I got home and started poking around a few sites looking for archery and bowhunting legends and lore, and I stumbled upon this amazing video, I won't feel shame to say it brought tears to my eyes. Please take a couple of minutes to hear the last question of the last interview given by Fred Bear.  You won't be disappointed.

Friday, July 9, 2010

I'm off after the great Hart

© 2010 Joshua Stark

In a few hours, I'm on the road to meet up with Phillip from the Hog Blog, and pursue both blacktail deer and wild pigs. 

The last deer I took, a beautiful, tiny, blacktail doe during the late season archery hunt in Monterey County, happened while my wife was pregnant with our now three-year-old daughter.  I was elated that my daughter was made out of the coast blacktail, and I've told her that her whole life (she's also made out of the wild rainbow surfperch and rainbow trout of the Sierra).

This year, we are expecting another baby, a boy, some time in September or early October.  Of course, I again hope to bring home venison and pork.

However, even if I come home with only life-sustaining stories with what I know will be a wonderful, powerful time, I am still lucky.  From my relatively new community of blogging friends, my baby is already made from coast blacktail and wild boar.  For, we were invited to Hank and Holly's Big Fat Greek Party back in Spring, where they served up wild sausages I believe were made from Maximus.  Later, they also provided me with venison stew meat, and chunks of Trinity River steelhead.

It sounds fru-fru hippie, I know, but it isn't that in my mind.  In my mind, places are very important, and places include the animals and plants that have thrived there for hundreds or even hundreds of thousands of years.  And though my family doesn't have the ancestral connections to this most beautiful of places, I have still thought myself a Californian, in love with the myriad habitats and climates, and the wonders they hold.  This is why I have taken off for the wilds my whole life.  This is why I hunt. 

And knowing that my children's synapses were formed from this place, that they have been nourished, if only a little, from these amazing lands, makes me very happy.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Archery season! Archery season!

© Joshua Stark 2010

It's time, again.  The seasons roll around, and although my life has changed dramatically the past couple of years, and continues to do so, the seasons still roll around.  What season is it now?  Well...

I read many hunting blogs and magazines this time of year, and I also break out two very important books, one by Fred Bear and one by Chuck Adams.  Both of these books were given to me when I was a high-schooler, and I've read them and re-read them almost every year since.  They are books about archery, and about bow hunting, in particular.

Archery is my favorite hunting season in California.  I know that sounds weird, because I read about how horrified people get at the prospect of hunting in 100+ degree weather, but that has always been my experience.

I didn't grow up in a hunting culture, and so I've rarely been successful at big game.  Four years ago, then, when I bought a recurve bow and decided to pare down my gadgetry and gear for archery, I was very surprised to take a doe with it.  Archery, and in particular "traditional" archery, had taught me valuable lessons.

I've blogged about archery gear over at my Lands on the Margin blog, if you are interested.  I hunt with a cheap, 55 lb. draw recurve I named Versorger (German for "bringer" or "provider"... basically, a caterer) that pinches my fingers bad and stacks like a beast (stacking is bad, if you don't know archery).  But it has provided, and I shoot fair-to-middlin' with it.  What I do when I hunt with it is hunt better.

In archery season you at least see bucks sometimes.  In California, with very few exceptions, you can only shoot forked-horn or bigger deer (for you over-compensating whitetail hunters, that would be a "three pointer" or bigger), and for many years I thought the notion of deer with antlers was a myth perpetuated by the Dept. of Fish & Game to sell tags.  But in archery season, buck sightings are more common, probably because the hunters are quiet, unlike during rifle season, when shots occasionally roll across the canyons and valleys, and many, many more people take to the "field" (meaning, drive up and down logging roads).

Archery, itself has a great quality about it: it is a deeper brush with our connections to the wild.  I enjoy shooting guns, for sure, but every aspect of archery provides me with a deeper meaning.  The symmetry of the bow, the speed of the arrow, the finality of the shot, the ultimate reliance on one shot, and the need to get closer all appeal to me.

Ethically, I have the same problem with archery season that I do with most people who think they can shoot past 100 yds.:  Many people don't practice enough, and when they are in the field, they aren't honest with themselves about the range and opportunity of shots.

Some animal rights people are concerned with the wounding danger of arrows, but they haven't had enough experience with a bow, either.  Poorly shot arrows do wound game animals, and that is a shame.  However, an arrow-wounded animal that gets away has a much better chance of surviving and thriving than does an animal wounded by a gun.  Arrows kill by slicing clean, often passing completely through.  Guns kill by opening holes, too, but also by shock.  A gun hits with a blunt force.  An arrow, as Chuck Adams states, has less kinetic energy than the smallest pistol, a .22 short.  Yet, with an arrow, a person can kill bison. 

Archery also teaches one how to hone skills, not just acquire them.  Everything about archery, from the actual honing of the broadhead to the need to improve tracking skills, read the wind, and know your prey, thrives on betterment.  Above all, archery rewards accuracy, and it can be practiced in a relatively small space. 

This year, I hope not to put down the bow with the end of archery deer season.  California has an early season archery quail hunt in August, and I hope to get up into the mountains after them.  I also hope to get family out with bows for stump-shooting after pinecones and the like.  It's a great sport just by itself, and it teaches a lot without preaching.  Something I could learn...

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Lead bans in California

© Joshua Stark 2010

Phillip at the Hog Blog beat me to it, but I wanted to note here that the proposed lead ammunition ban in California wildlife areas was killed in committee.  I don't expect this decision to be paraded around by opponents as another example of wise leadership on the part of our legislature, but it should.
That's right, I said that the folks who were opposed to this ban need to acknowledge, vocally and in public, that this decision was a good, wise decision.  Then, they need to take it a step further, and offer a bill that would provide for research on these properties, research that looks for any and all impacts from potential pollutants, including lead, but also other pollutants.  It's time to judo-flip this puppy, lock arms with other members of the environmental and EJ communities, and say, "hey, there is a concern for pollutants on our lands.  We worry, because we love the wild, and we also eat the wild.  We want healthy places for our land and for our children."

Now is the time to step up with some solid language.  I propose the bill language include general research into airborne, soil, and water pollutants with a focus on identifying the toxins and determining their vectors into the habitat.  I also propose that findings be reported by five years' time.  Last, I propose that the research consider each wildlife area individually, that it not be lumped into some general statements.

We are a huge state with many climates, dozens of microclimates, many different watersheds, and a huge diversity of industries.  We also have a gigantic population that is highly urbanized.  All of these factors weigh in on the various pollutants with which we live.

Seriously, this could be the impetus for bringing together those who care about our environment, whether for hunting, for its own sake, or for the pollutants that harm our own neighborhoods.

Editorial note:  I did support the lead ban in condor country, but opposed the proposed lead ban in all wildlife areas.  I also no longer shoot lead at all when hunting, because I have a pregnant wife and a three-year-old daughter.  We need solid science to show that a lead ammunition ban would, indeed, positively impact my wild places, and where this comes to light, I do support lead bans.  But, where it is determined that it is not causing a problem, I do not support a ban.

The sorrowful pessimist in me says that other politics (namely, the grip of huge industries on our political sphere) will keep our groups from organizing on this issue.  But, I try to remain hopeful, and if anyone is interesting in helping out, please let me know.