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by Christine Cunningham, Staff Writer, Alaska
If your sole provision is a day old chocolate chip cookie,
don’t leave it in the glove box.
It had been three hours since we first hadn’t seen any ducks. And we still hadn’t seen any ducks. My hunting partner, the die-hard, hadn’t lost hope. I glanced over as he contentedly poured himself another lid of coffee. I was not as content. I had an idea of shooting a pair of mallards for a roast, and since I’d been living on Mountain Dew and M&Ms all day, my visions of fire places and roast duck had given way to a warm car and the cookie in the glove box. “I can’t stand it anymore,” I said. A fog had settled on the flats making our only view the pond in front of us. The only excitement was the flock of snipe occasionally mistaken for teal. The puzzled look on his face meant he wasn’t anywhere close to being done. He pulled up his sleeve and looked at his watch. One hour and forty nine minutes until last light. He pointed out that the decoys had never looked better. “If I were a duck, I would be landing here,” he said. If you were a duck, I thought. Warner Bros. cartoon images filled my mind of the starving and conniving Daffy making a meal out of Bugs. “I’m going in,” I said. I’d been duck hunting in some form or other since opening day. It had been a week in the same partially dried out gear. I was dirty, I was tired, I was hungry. “Don’t get mad if I shoot a duck,” he called after me as I departed the blind. I hesitated. It was always the moment after I gave up that something happened, not Murphy’s law, but a close relative of Murphy’s law- if something can go right, it will go right, just moments after you‘ve left. The flats we hunted were on the south side of the Kenai River on its final approach to the Cook Inlet.
Redoubt Flats on the Kenai Peninsula- Alaska (Cunningham photo)
To those passing by on the road, the flats look like a short stretch of swamp with canneries and mountains floating in the distance. When venturing out on the flats for the first time years ago, I was surprised by the miles of walking and the impassable sloughs running from corner to corner. The well-worn trail from our blind to the road assured me that I wouldn’t get lost in the fog. As I marched along, I got a second wind. A pond about sixty yards ahead of me had ripples on the water. Still pessimistic, I figured it was probably just snipe. But I waited and watched through the fog. The ripples could also have been caused by jumping salmon fry that got trapped in the ponds at high tide. I started walking again when a pair of mallards launched out of the pond in front of me. I watched, and when their heads were out of view, I crept closer, bent in my best impersonation of Elmer Fudd. When they were in view, I froze. Still about fifty yards away, if I could make the next ten or twenty yards, they’d be in range.
They got up again, and sat down on another pond farther away. I repeated the same tactic and so did they, flying when I got within fifty yards. This time they flew farther. I couldn’t see where they went in the fog. The ponds around me didn’t look familiar, and I couldn’t tell the direction of the road in the fog. I started walking and came across a slough. That was my first sign I’d taken a wrong turn. I got down into the gut to cross, but the tide hadn’t gone out enough that it was safe to cross. Getting stuck in the mud without anyone knowing where I was would make my situation worse. That’s when it occurred to me that my situation was already bad. I’d have to find my way back to the road without the help of the well worn path, in a heavy fog, and with only an hour or so of light left. Being lost at twilight in the fog wearing wetlands camo was probably the worst idea I’d ever had. I crossed several guts, out of breath, not sure if my excessive sweat was exertion or fear. What made matters worse was that I was so used to hunting the area that I never carried a flashlight, whistle or GPS. Since I didn’t want to be bothered in the field, I hadn’t even brought my cell phone. I’d been stumbling around for nearly an hour, walking up countless sloughs and back again, probably going in circles. My shortcomings were never so apparent. I’m that guy, I thought. I’m that person that goes ill-prepared into the outdoors and has to be rescued. My hunting partner was probably making his way back to the vehicle.
Kenai Penisula-Alaska Floats (Cunningham photo)
When he realized that I wasn’t sitting in it with the heater going full blast and the radio on, he would worry. He would think I knew my way well enough that, if I hadn’t made it in, I must be injured out in a hundred acres of fog and marsh muck. There were two stumps in the distance and I tried to remember if I’d ever seen them before. They were moving fast, carrying packs full of decoys. I didn’t care where they were going, I didn’t want to lose sight of them. I ran to catch up, then walked to catch my breath. These guys must be a couple of football players, I thought. I was about twenty yards behind them and their dog and they still hadn‘t noticed me. Maybe I could still play it off like I hadn’t been lost for an hour and just casually join them on my way in before my buddy realized I was lost. At about fifteen yards, I called out again, and one of them turned. My vanity gave way to relief, “I got lost,” I hollered.
The deck at the pull out appeared suddenly in front of us, just sixty yards away, and I could see the lights of my friend’s vehicle along with two police vehicles. I wanted to hide or somehow avoid the inevitable explaining I had to do. My hunting partner was wracked with worry that hadn’t quite faded out of him any more than my residual panic. Someone mentioned that an officer was bringing the dog. I didn’t just feel stupid, I felt like The Fugitive. I wonder now how the drug dog would have found me when I didn’t carry any drugs and a trained retriever failed to notice me in the fog. There are things I could have done and should be done. Like carry a flashlight, cell phone and a compass or in the one word salutation of the officer “GPS.” If things were going bad and it looks like there will be a rescue, stay in one place and, if possible, build a fire, blow the whistle or fire a couple shots to give location. There are a few ways, outside of technical advances, to gauge direction, such as marking your path, picking out landmarks or determining the wind direction and staying consistent to avoid walking in circles. There is also the general admonishment against chasing ducks in the fog or rabbits down holes. And if your sole provision is a day old chocolate chip cookie, don’t leave it in the glove box.
Camping in a Power Outage
by Christine Cunningham, Alaska
When the power went out,
There’s something romantic about sitting under the stars and knowing that only your own survival skills will sustain you, that is, as long as you’re not in your own living room. My electricity went out for four days due to wind storms, but, instead of seeing it as an opportunity to exercise my woodsmanship-like prowess, I ran around frantically lighting candles with only a headlamp between me and total darkness. After the house glowed in pre-modern-electric-utility-industry light, I sat in my recliner with a shotgun in my lap waiting for the looters.
The difference between a power outage at home and camping without power is about like the difference between driving your work vehicle, which has an electronic ignition and heated seats, and your all-terrain vehicle, which has mud tires and a snorkel. In extreme circumstances and with some modification, they could fill in for each other, but they were not made to pull double duty. My house as a campsite had none of the allure of an actual campsite, especially when I needed to get ready for work in the morning.
At camp, I wake up and literally roll out of bed (since I’m either on the top bunk or on the ground) to the smell of coffee brewing. Somehow I manage to feign sleep long enough that someone else makes the coffee. I take mine without cream or sugar. Then I don several layers of hunting gear until the powers of camouflage render me invisible – and it’s a good thing, too. Scentloc technology replaces the shower and all those things the dental hygienist tells me to do go out the window, because my chewing gum is winter fresh. The cold morning air makes me feel alive.
At home, the alarm clock goes off and it’s like waking up to the middle of a high-speed chase with me asleep at the wheel. Life in the fast lane starts with several reflex actions–the snake-like speed in which I silence the alarm in five-minute increments until finally, the daily grind must begin. Instead of camouflaging myself to the environment, I camouflage myself to resemble a better-looking version of myself. I do all those things the dental hygienist tells me to do. Well, I skip a few so that she has something to do at the annual cleaning. My first coffee is a heavily sugared mocha that costs five dollars and requires a professional staff working out of a mobile office to make it. The cold morning air makes me feel cold.
A power outage slams these two worlds together so that I am in a complete state of confusion. Without an alarm clock or the smell of percolated house blend, I am incapable of waking up for work. I jump out of bed and flip the light switch. It is dead. My house is full of sharp corners and random objects. I fasten the headlamp to my head and look in the bathroom mirror–the light blinds me. I can’t find my teeth with my toothbrush and have toothpaste all over my chin. The last of the water chokes out of the faucet and I briefly consider the toilet as the last source of water should I become stranded and dehydrated. When I open the door, the cold morning air makes me feel scared.
It doesn’t matter that I have camping supplies and a collection of fine guns I could use to protect myself–everything is put away in dark cupboards and containers. The image of a powerless eternity flashes before my eyes. I picture packs of domestic dogs scavenging the neighborhood, escaped zoo animals crawling into second story windows, crazed mental patients staggering in the streets and businessmen in ragged suits fighting over the last saltine cracker in the break room.
I closed the door and briefly considered holing up for the duration. I’ll just go sit in the titanium bunker built under the shed and wait until I see a dove carrying an olive branch, I thought. But, in the interest of continuing to earn an income, I drove to work.
People at work were talking about how they had things like generators and wood stoves and applications on their cell phones that allowed them to teleport to tropical regions (it’s been minus 20 degrees for two weeks) where they could order blended drinks and get a tan. I don’t have any of these things. I like the great outdoors and I like to have faith in the answer of the lineman to my plea to restore power to the line.
As Jimmy Webb’s famous song Wichita Lineman says, “I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time.”
A winter moose skeleton found ravaged by wolves and birds
Cold Calling Coyotes
By Christine Cunningham
My idea of the temperature outside has less to do with the thermometer or the forecast than it has to do with, well, my idea of the temperature. The other night, for instance, I had donned all my cold weather gear in anticipation of the negative temperature advertised on the radio. However, my excitement at hiking to my destination and setting up a stand on a lake read a temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Once situated and waiting for a coyote to come in, I achieved “Waiting Temperature” which is about 20 degrees below “Setting Up” temperature.
After an hour, my temperature started dropping until I reached the dreaded “Actual Temperature.” I couldn’t see the dark landscape of the lake past my breath. I imagined that my knee caps were frozen machine parts, my toes and finger tips went from numb to stinging with pain. Whenever my thrill meter starts dropping, my ability to observe sharpens. Although family members have called this “complaining” it is, in my mind, a highly sophisticated art of observation. It notices such things as an inability to make facial expressions due to cold or the horrible scraping sound of anything against frozen snow being like that of a reaper’s blade against the short hairs on my back.
My hunting partner does not share my signs and symptoms. When I glanced up from the fetal position I assumed, he was un-daunted by the hypothermic condition of the weather. He focused a red light on his thermos lid before he poured his coffee. When the temperature of the coffee met the cold, a red steam erupted from the lid and unfurled into the atmosphere in a mushroom cloud. “It’s pretty cold,” I observed.
He glanced around as if he were noticing the temperature for the first time. He didn’t say anything, but I took his silence for lack of agreement. Arguments about the weather have caused me un-necessary stress in years past so I try to avoid them. Trying to convince certain of those among us, especially winter sport enthusiasts that it is getting too cold to persevere is like trying to get an Olympic swimmer to admit that the swimming conditions are “too wet.”
Once it was two degrees outside and, just to be pleasantly conversational, I said, “It sure is cold out.” The person next to me lived for the ski slopes, glanced at my parka and shrugged his wind-breakered shoulders, “I’m not cold,” he said.
“But,” I ventured, “You must admit that it is cold.”
“It’s not that bad,” he said.
To me, he was being a bit insincere, so I persisted. “If there is such a thing as ‘freezing’ and the term ‘freezing’ is commonly known to be 32 degrees and it is only two degrees, then, by definition, it is cold. You must admit,” I said.
He mustn’t admit was the gist of his response. Even though my temperature and blood pressure shot up as I tried to convince a growing number of on-lookers that it was cold outside and was eventually removed from the premises by security staff, I was certain that it was cold.
It was about eleven-o-clock and my hunting partner and I had not met with hunting success. “The temperature must have really dropped,” I said (translation – let’s get the hell out of here). He pulled the squealing rabbit call out of his jacket. There’s something about hearing the high pitch call of a squealing rabbit in negative nine degree temperature while watching once-warm breath shoot out the end of the call on a frozen lake in the dark that made me feel like I was in the Chosen Reservoir experiencing the worst weather in 50 years cut off from air support and assaulted by snow, wind and temperatures of negative 40 degrees.
“It’ll be interesting to see what the thermometer says when we get back to the vehicle,” I said. “I bet it’s dropped twenty.”
It hadn’t. The temperature had actually risen two degrees. The thing about temperature is that it is a measure of something in third-party terminology. Like time and money, temperature is a medium of exchange relating one thing to another. What it means to the individual is a matter of perspective. Some hunters say there isn’t enough time to go hunting much this year. Some say there isn’t enough money. Some say it’s too dark, too late, too early, too clear, too cloudy or too cold.
On the way to my morning coffee the next day, a coyote ran in front of my vehicle and trotted alongside the road right smack dab in the middle of town. It was negative six degrees outside as he stopped and watched as I took his picture. He didn’t seem to think it was too cold.
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By Kathleen Kalina
All photos by Kathleen Kalina.
This is an excellent example of a bear rub. Hair was found attached to the bark of this aspen, so the rubbing occurred recently. You can bet that this an area that the bear favors, he is leaving his marks and scent on the trees as well as scratching his back. He will be back. St Louis County, MN.
This is a spring-time (June) bear scat, probably a month or so old. It's the color of digested grasses and bark. It was found near berry bushes, so he will be back for the berries, he's marking and checking his territory. St Louis County, MN.
A bear has scratched the side of this hill to get the ants and other bugs out. He spent awhile here.
Bear scat with undigested berries. He was full and eating well. St Louis County MN.
Back paw prints with more weight on right paw. He stood up to see what was ahead.
Front paws and back paws are clearly visible. After standing the bear tapped his front paws near his back and then a bounding set of front tracks up further. These are very clear and unusually good tracks in wet sand. (Pickle lake Ontario). Very recent and probably less than a half hour old. Sand will start to crumble as sun dries it.
This was the bear that made the clear sand tracks. He was not far off and had been sitting in sand resting, until he spotted me. Notice how his lip is curled showing the irritation of having been disturbed. He made a "woofing" noise, but nevertheless retreated. He's an old bear which is obvious by his size and weight. Old male bears can often be very disagreeable, so they shouldn't be messed with. (what was I thinking?).
Another big bear at Pickle Lake, Ontario. He's huffing and lip curling. Don't mess with this bear. He is squinting, not from sun, but so that he can see better what I am doing. Bears can see almost as good as humans. But I was carrying a telephoto lens on my camera and he's trying to figure out what that is. Bears are curious, but smarter than most people think. They can distinguish items that you are carrying. (Is it food, is it a gun? Just what is she carrying?).
On hot days, bears search for berries along the roadside rather than deal with thick vegetation accompaning bugs. In remote Ontario, it's common to see a bear taking a walk on side of the road.
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You have put forth a grand effort to attract game animals to your property, by providing a tantalizing array of food plot offerings. It’s fun but HARD work. Then – the unexpected happens. What to do? Several things this year went awry for me, and many in the past have as well. Just expect that some things will go wrong and plan ahead for it, or remedy the problems as best you can. Here are some things that could cause you problems:
Critter Damage – especially with corn or beans planted – deer, squirrels. etc. can dig up or eat up your newly planted crop. See my article Hubba Hubba for an example of this. You do two things: Plant again, and/or do something to keep it from happening again. Just think of your home garden on a bigger scale. How to Keep destructive critters away? Critters have their vision and smell to warn them of danger. So, I made a scarecrow. You can also tie shiny Mylar streamers around the perimeter of your plot until your crop takes root. You can try deer and rabbit repellents. You can hang your stinky t-shirt at the food plot so critters thing you are still there. Replace the shirt every 3 days.
My ATV and cart with snowplow in it after I used the plow driving backwards on my ATV to level the plot that got rutted with the furrow from disking.
Weed Takeover – You plant and weeds choke out your crop. They seem to come out of nowhere. This year I deep harrowed my most proven food plot and over seeded with clover. Then I was gone for a couple weeks, and when I got back, the volunteer weeds were 2-3 feet tall! The only answer was to use Roundup or Glystar herbicide type products, kill everything, including the struggling clover I planted, and start all over. I had to do this with three food plots this year that in the past I had just over seeded. I’ve tried spot treating weeds on a large scale, with mixed results.
After the herbicide - a good deep disking
Disk, harrow, plant and smooth the soil
One week later
This is what we work for-This is brassicas
Weather – is the farmer’s great challenge. If it’s too hot, the seedlings wither. If it’s too wet, the new plants drown and rot. If it’s too cold, growth will be stunted. If it’s dry and then too wet, they wither and then rot, or they might never come up at all. Torrential rains might wash shallow planted seeds away. The secret is to carefully monitor weather in the initial planting because once crops are established, they should make it through most bad weather. Plant when rain is in the forecast 2-3 days after planting. Keep the plants healthy till they are established. You can always rake the soil and over seed spots that are bare because of sun-kill, etc.
Equipment Problems – Things break or fall apart just like a vehicle does. Or, they might not perform as expected. Example: the weedy food plot mentioned above? I applied the herbicide and disked heavily, but somehow I created huge furrows and ridges that were far too big to level by hand. I have no field leveling equipment, so I ended up attaching a snow plow to the front of my ATV and going BACKWARDS around the 3/4 acre food plot to make it level. Use your imagination and be positive about solutions. One year, one of the disks broke off and had to be welded. The more complicated your equipment, the more likelihood of breakdown and more cost to repair. You can always go back to doing things by hand as a backup.
Trespassers – You can bust yourself and have everything going right on your food plots, only to have some jackabilly come traipsing around your land and booger up all your farming efforts so you never see a deer or turkey. Again, just like any other animal control, there are things you can do. Talk to your neighboring landowners if possible and let them (and their guests) know to please not trespass. Let your local Conservation Officer or Sheriff know that you do not allow trespassing and that you have talked to neighbors. POST your property NO TRESSPASSING according to what is legal in your state. Put out trail cams to catch trespassers. If you still have problems, there are other off-the-record but legal and non-confrontational ways to dissuade trespassers. Email me and I can share them with you.
Farming if rife with things that can go wrong and which will always be totally out of your control. The secret to keeping optimistic, is the anticipate that things WILL go wrong, and be armed with the knowledge to either fix them yourself, get help from friends or hire someone who can help you.
The ultimate pleasure when all is said and done, is being camo’d up and sitting in your stand during hunting season, looking out at a lush food plot you and God created and which is being happily grazed by the critters you intend to harvest.
From disaster to success- food plots pay off
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