Posts Tagged ‘hunting’

When fur is a necessity

January 25, 2011

In a place where life’s on the brink,

The cold makes cheeks rosy and pink.

     The fur of a fox

     Can protect from the frost

But nobody’s wearing a mink.

Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  Transitioning my career away from the brink of burnout, I’m on a sabbatical my one-year non-compete clause expires.  I’m having adventures, visiting family and friends, and working in out-of-the-way places.  Currently I’m in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point the in the United States.

Forty degrees below zero Fahrenheit equals forty degrees below zero Centigrade.  At those temperatures, the cold has a hard cruel edge.  Wind, given such a weapon, cuts like a saw.  Exposed flesh freezes to death in moments.   I catch my breath when I step outside, and if I walk too fast or if the wind comes from the wrong direction, I put my hand up to my face to protect my nose from frostbite.

This cold demands a central place in the everyday life of the North Slope.  It is a fact that will kill you if you give it the chance.

Such frostbite as I’ve seen here has been confined to the face and neck, when the cold has found a soft spot in the armor of the last layer a person puts on before going outside.  People here don’t venture out unprotected more than once.

This kind of dangerous cold makes wearing fur a necessity, not a luxury.  Wolverine fur, the most visible, predominates as a ruff on the hood of a parka, but a lot of the shearling lamb, fox, wolf, and beaver stays hidden as the best parkas keep the fur side inside.

I haven’t seen mink, even once.

The people here, Native and non-Native, live with the cold.    

Some people, whether connected with the hospital or not, just don’t go outside for longer than it takes to get in and out of a taxi.

A few of the young, dressed for the experience, go out for fun on snow machines; the distinctive whine of the engines sounds throughout the long Arctic night.

Most people riding on snow machines go out of necessity, not recreation.  Hunting happens year-round; most of the calories consumed in Barrow come from creatures who breathed their last less than fifty miles from here.  Firearms qualify as tools.  The people hunt, not recreationally, but for subsistence.  They whale, not for wages, but to eat; if they didn’t, they would starve.

The women sew to survive and manufacture most of the outerwear.

Thus living in Barrow means wresting the necessities of life from the most unforgiving environment in the world.

Yet, when I find myself in a group of people here, I count nine smiles for every frown, a ratio eight times better than any other place I’ve been.  Except, perhaps, a comedy club.

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I love the smell of napalm in the morning: muzzleloading in Ponca State Park

September 19, 2010

You know, I said with a grunt,

Some just think it’s a stunt,

    With no scope for a sight

    And a load that is light

And a rifle that loads from the front

I went out to Ponca State Park this morning for their annual Outdoor Expo.  Because I’d been so busy in the past I hadn’t attended before, but this year when the Hawkeye Rifle and Pistol Club asked for volunteers, I couldn’t say no.  And I didn’t want to.

Back in February of 1988, my new partner at the time, John, picked up a flyer off his desk and said, “Did you see how long the muzzleloader deer season is in Iowa?  It’s almost three weeks long.”  He put down the flyer and he picked up an identically sized catalogue.  “And did you see how much muzzleloaders are at Comb’s?  They’re $99!” (Comb’s Authorized Liquidators has since changed ownership four times and to the best of my knowledge is out of business.  But they were fun while they lasted.)

For twenty dollars less I bought the kit, mail order.  One of my best stories to tell a live audience is my “take-it-apart-put-it-together” saga of Me and the Ten Failed Muzzleloader Kits.  If you ever meet me and ask for it, I’ll tell the story but it has a lot of visuals that don’t translate to the written page.  In July of that year I bought an actual front-stuffing rifle from Thompson; it served me well for fifteen years until the stock cracked under horrendous weather conditions.  The manufacturer stood behind their product when they didn’t have to, and that’s another very long story.

That summer John and I learned how to shoot and maintain our new rifles.  Over the next five years at least one of us took a crippled deer each year. 

As time passed I acquired a flint-lock, two Civil War era reproductions, modern in-line front loading weapons, and a bunch of spare parts.  I have taken deer and elk for meat. 

I naturally fit in as a volunteer at the Club’s muzzleloader booth.

We kept the loads light, about 40 grains of a black powder substitute propelling round balls with a greased linen patch.  Nobody complained about the recoil.  Several people shot very well.  Lots of folk didn’t know how to aim without a telescopic sight. 

One volunteer gatekeeper, four loaders, and four coaches kept the crowd moving.  It was a good mix of ages, ethnicities, genders and experiences.   A lot of women fired a gun for the first time. 

 At some point I found myself both loading and coaching.  After a few shots my loading went very fast. 

We took a break while three mountain man re-enactors gave a great flintlock demonstration.  One fellow got a shot off every twenty seconds.  Another man dressed correctly for 1760 used a historically accurate “trade musket” loaded with a handful of powder, leaves from the ground for a first wad, a handful of gravel as a charge, and more leaves for a top wad.  He pointed out that with flint and powder he could still have a weapon with whatever he found lying around.

Moose hunting on Kalgin Island

August 24, 2010

 I offer up not an excuse,

My joy it would hardly reduce

     I was in the wrong spot

     I had not a shot

And I didn’t bag me a moose

If you look at a map of Alaska, you’ll find a body of water leading up to Anchorage called Cook Inlet.  South of Anchorage by a couple of hours you’ll find the cities of Kenai and Soldotna; if your map is good enough you’ll see Kalgin Island just west of those towns.

No electric lines tie down the landscape on Kalgin.  No electricity aside from batteries and generators, no running water; cell phones and internet connections don’t work.  A few cabins on private land house commercial fishermen, homesteaders, and out-and-out recluses. 

Four of us, my friend from residency Les, two of his friends (Tristan and William), and I chartered a float plane to fly us there for a week.

There is no commercial air or boat service to the island. 

Small aircraft infuse Alaska skies.  People refer to that majority of the state accessible only by air, water, snow machine, or dog sled as the bush.

If you want to know, we flew in a 1954 De Havilland Otter.  It has floats for landing on water and carries five passengers.

No bears on Kalgin Island, moose were introduced during the twentieth century and have done well but not spectacularly.  Spruce bark beetles killed a lot of trees and the beetle kill continues; rotting logs crisscross much of the land. 

We came in two days early to set up camp and scout.  We saw moose that day, before the season opened and too far to shoot.

I borrowed Les’s Sako .375 Holland and Holland Magnum for the occasion.

I didn’t bring my computer, but a notebook.  I found that more happens in a boring day of sitting around camp than I care to write or than my audience would care to read.

We did some fishing and caught rainbow trout and a kind of trout called a Dolly Varden (which was delicious).  The salmon came swimming upstream and I watched them swim into the lake, looking for all the world like freshmen at a mixer.

I watched trumpeter swans in their family group at the edge of a beaver pond.  When the beaver saw me they decided to defend their territory and came swimming up in formation.  They didn’t leave the water but I watch them tail-slap the surface of the pond and dive.

I have a process I call Hunting Right.  It works for me but there are a lot of hunters it doesn’t work for, they hunt in a very different fashion, and they do well.  For me, Hunting Right means four steps at a time, stop, look, listen, wait until the forest forgets my presence, then move again.  The object is to not disturb the consciousness of the animals.  It becomes an end in itself, a state of meditation, but it is not easy to sustain.  It got me five steps away from a large, glossy red fox who never knew I was there.  A marten passed within two feet of me and didn’t care. 

But I didn’t get within shooting range of a moose.

There’s a reason we say, “We’re going hunting,” instead of “We’re going killing.”

I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  I’m having adventures while my non-compete clause ticks away.