The Right Tool

The tool need not be new, or heirloom, or trendy. It need only be right for the job.

And the job must be a real one. Not an excuse to use the tool. In this case, the tool is snowshoes, and the job is hunting supper.

Legs burning, steam pumping, heart working at a healthy-feeling pace beneath the layers of synthetics and wool that I constantly revise to avoid sweat and retain warmth. Ash and babiche snowshoes bound to my boots with cotton lampwick, finally adjusted just right. Old .22 balancing in my right hand with the familiarity of years. The familiarity of its sights and trigger have been tuned up with a week of daily practice.  

For once the snow matches the shoes perfectly: a thick, soft crust above a foot of sugar-snow that would have us postholing two of every three steps, except for these modified bear paws. Or a pair of magnesium USGI surplus. Or a set of Iverson Michigans. With these we are taking swift country-devouring steps, over deadfalls and brush tangles, and in fact traveling easier than if we were wearing upland boots and there were no snow at all.

We find this walking to be an unexpected but welcome pleasure, just like the flush in our cheeks in the ten-degree air. Pleasure in needing a tool for its purpose and having it. We are not snowshoeing just to snowshoe, shooting just to shoot, exercising just to exercise, recreating just to recreate. We are hunting varying hares along the brushy spruce-swamp edges in eighteen inches of crusty snow, with .22s and snowshoes, and on this day, it could not be done any other way.

We walk five abreast, looking hard for black eyes and black ear-tips or for the motion of a darting kicked-up rabbit, and though we cut a hundred sets of tracks in the inch of last night’s powder, we only find three hares. We have them in four shots. They otherwise hold tight in the hard-crusted snow caves beneath deadfalls and brushpiles. They, too, have snowshoes, and the right tools. 

As it turns out, three is plenty.

A sublime supper then, seasoned by exertion and no small amount of triumph. Legs and backstraps and hearts, cooked stovetop with onions and garlic–and some potatoes to avoid starvation. Just right. Afterward we file outside to escape the heat of the kitchen and stand amid a cold falling snow and listen to a barred owl calling from the same spruce swamp edge and we wish her success. After all, her job is the same, her tools right, if more refined than ours.

Author’s note: This work (aside from the cooking) was done on Federal public land within the Superior National Forest. No fees, no gates, no permission slip, no State Park sticker, no crowds.

Sounds Like Snow

The first blizzard of the year. If the forecast holds, sounds like that’s what’s coming. A no-travel-advised, buy-extra-groceries-and-an-extra bottle-of-whiskey two-day blow. And just in time. It’s been another too-warm deer season. We’ve been wearing flannel instead of wool and hearing loons on the lake instead of ice-making rumbles, and if there’s deer around they’re staying nocturnal. A sharp turn in the weather is just the thing to shake things up and at the very least some snow will make the woods more interesting. Hunting without snow is like fishing a muddy, blown-out river. No visibility and low confidence. Tonight, finally, the snow is coming.

The first raindrops hit the windshield about the time I hit Cloquet. By Duluth it’s sleet and twenty miles further north it’s sticking to the road. CB and Bear are at the shack already when I four-wheel into the yard and their tracks are already obscured by snow. The kitchen gas lights cast a warm glow out the window and illuminate galaxies of big, round snowflakes.

Next morning is not an early one into the woods. Instead: an extra cup of coffee, feed the woodstove, read a book at the kitchen table, watch the snow falling out the window. A foot or so of fell overnight and it’s blowing into drifts now. The cabin’s 110-year-old tamarack logs creak a bit with the heavy gusts.

But the kitchen is warm. Once more cup of coffee, weak stuff boiled too long, but seasoned just right by the smell of the birch smoke from the stove and the total absence of any kind of wireless signal. I step onto the porch and toss the dregs into the snow. Deep breath. 

That wind is really picking up. Probably should have got out earlier. I step back inside and stomp the snow from my slippers and head to the back bedroom where my gear is. I dress in light layers, planning to walk, and slide the rifle with iron sights out of its sleeve. A scope in this weather is no good. Irons you can just brush the snow out of. And this rifle’s seen some snow. It’s Swedish, a Mauser ‘96, made in 1911 and lent to the Finns in 1939 when the Russians invaded. The cartridges pop into the magazine with a musical clink, a pleasing aesthetic one doesn’t get with a more modern rifle made with stamped steel and polymers. 

First part of the trail cuts through a popple stand maybe thirty years old. The snow is blowing sideways and the treetops rattle skeletal. There is something about still-hunting in the snow and wind. You can’t hear anything but neither can the deer. Nor smell. In the swaying trees their motion-based eyesight is dazzled. My human predator’s eyes with their depth perception and color resolution give me a rare sensory advantage. I work through the aspens, step, step, pause, wait, look hard, step. I feel sinister. Lethal.

This trail dead-ends at a stand in an ancient black spruce that overlooks the edge of the cedar swamp. I climb up to sit for a few minutes but the swaying of the old tree in the gale is unsettling and the snow is falling quicker now. It’s about 3 but it’s already getting dark.

Halfway back some character of the wind shifts and trees begin cracking. Loudly. I’ve already been thinking about the warm cabin and supper. Now I’m thinking about widowmakers. I imagine that the odds of a tree actually falling on me are pretty small. Then again every tree eventually falls, and every square inch of forest eventually has a tree fall on it.

I hunt a little faster. When I see the deer standing off to the right of the trail I feel that familiar jolt of adrenaline and the odd dissonance between shock that deer do actually exist and the ordinary image–a deer in the woods–that’s presented.

She’s not far away, maybe thirty yards, but the alders and popples are thick here and I can’t make out more than the color and general shape of a medium-sized doe. I can see the line of her back, a frosting of snow collected there, insulated by her thick winter coat, that hollow hair that spins and flares so perfectly for streamer heads and bass bugs. She’s eating the buds off the alder branches. I have no shot. Need to get closer.

I step into the woods, off the trail, moving when her head is down and when the wind is gusting. Time is short so I am taking chances, pushing it, but the wind hides me.  My heart races and my senses sharpen. This is hunting. One more step and a small hole opens in the branches. I raise the rifle and lean my left wrist against a popple trunk for a rest. But the deer has turned and she is facing away from me, head down. Sights steady but no real target. Wait. Light is fading.

And then from the hilltop behind me a thunderous crrrrack-whumph and I jump, focus jarred, turning to look automatically. A big popple must have come down.

I turn back and there’s another deer. Closer. Standing up from her bed. Snow slips from her back where it had piled as she slept. She looks right at me. I only have to shift the rifle a few inches for a clean shot. The sights have gathered some snow as I stand here but they’re clear enough and I focus on the front sight blade.

A wave of reluctance washes over me. Always does at this moment. Cold predatory instinct falters. My mind flashes excuses to not shoot. It’s almost dark. What if you have to track her in the snow? Do you really want to spend the next hour gutting and dragging? What if I miss? Will CB and Bear hear the shot and come to help drag? Is she big enough? Shouldn’t you save your tag just in case?

But I am expecting this onslaught–it has cost me in the past–and I have steeled myself against it with the thought of venison in the freezer, the memory of none last year and of buying beef and all the baggage it entails. And the obvious this is why I’m here. I catch my breath and squeeze.

The sound of the shot is swallowed by the woods and the wind and the snow. My ears do not ring.

recipe: venison heart

or, “the reason to take a neck shot.”

  • Chill heart in the snow. Rinse well and butterfly, trimming all fat and vessels. Anything white.
  • Slice into 3/4″ thick strips and season with cracked sea salt and pepper.
  • Rest for 20-30 minutes outside or in the fridge, but don’t allow to freeze.
  • Heat 1/16” of olive oil to spitting-hot in your 12″ cast iron.
  • Fry meat in two batches, turning frequently. Cook time for each batch 2-3 minutes. Do not overcook.
  • Add a bit of butter (and garlic if desired) to pan in the last 30 seconds of each batch and swirl the pan to baste the meat.
  • Rest meat for 5 minutes before serving.

at home: serve with Minnesota wild rice and roasted carrots or rutabaga. Pair with a Bent Paddle black ale or a modest European red wine. 

at camp: eat from a paper plate with your fingers while still too hot and wash down with whatever domestic light beer CB brought up.

Nowhere

A clear river intrigues, mystifies, and enchants. A muddy blown-out river obscures, chokes, and demoralizes. Opacity leaves way too much up to the imagination. We are deprived of the little signs of life that we take to heart on long days of fishing–minnows, crayfish, logs, boulders, shadows, undercuts. It’s as interesting as a dead television. 

But you’re here, towed the boat all this way, so you fish it. Convention says to fish streamers: big flies, black or white or chartreuse–something contrasty–and fish them close to structure, in deep holes, along current breaks, up against the banks.

‘Course, in musky fishing, you’re already doing all that. Not much to change. Musky fishing is normally a grind; now even more so, a finer grind, infinitely small particulate, infinitely discouraging. The river is like a driveway puddle that you can’t believe the dog’s drinking from–nothing suggests the complete ecosystem it used to be, must still be.

So you grind away. You try to stay alert and try to guess when to figure-eight so the fly doesn’t hit the rod tip. It’s neither hope nor optimism that keeps you casting–it’s more like martyrdom: pride at how much suffering without hope you can endure. So you keep doublehauling and staring into the turbid void.

And then the void looks back at you and explodes. From nowhere–nowhere behind the dead surface and amid the silt and leaves and detritus–there is a musky and its violence is shocking and then, in the net, its resentment seething.  When the hooks are free and you relax your hand from its tail, it doesn’t bolt in terror, but fins slowly back into the opaqueness, into nowhere. Reminding you that you’ve no lasting power there. 

Nowhere. This place the musky comes from is why musky fishing is more like hunting than it is like other kinds of fishing. A section of woods can be empty for days: no tracks, nothing, and then out of nowhere a deer is standing before you in the wide-open. Not sneaking out from the edge of the field or crunching through the dead underbrush, but just there, obvious, shocking. Out of nowhere.

Or maybe more appropriately, the wolf. It can take years or decades–you know they are out there but have never seen one on the paw and then one night, out of nowhere, there’s a lobo standing on the centerline of the dark highway. Not a fluffy nature-show star, but scruffy and wild, moonshine eyes and gangly legs and huge head held low, unmistakable for any other canid, breath boiling white in the cold headlight beams.

And it doesn’t bolt in terror, it lopes off into the dark woods — into nowhere. You’ve no power there.  

We Are Lost Without It.

My younger brothers wore hand-me-downs. As the oldest I usually got new clothes, but a lot of things were handed down to me, like my first hunting and fishing gear. A particular Fenwick FF80 and Remington 760 come to mind. I also inherited a profound passion for the woods, and access to plenty of acres to roam on family farms and homesteads, adjoining public lands, and a liberal post-logging water-access culture.

It wasn’t until I moved to Michigan after college and had to redraw my map from scratch that I started to think about public access — suddenly, I was the public. I grew to love the Huron-Manistee National Forest and its sandy pine forests and honey-gold trout streams, though it’s riddled by parcels of old private and state land with varying levels of river access. 

In 2014 I moved back to Minnesota and have been re-exploring my old hunting and fishing grounds, with public access fresh in my mind. It occurred to me this spring that the Superior National Forest — a name so familiar that I had to rediscover it — is four million acres of open public land. I’d been hunting and fishing within a tiny part of the southwest corner of it my entire life. I bought a paper Forest Service map. It’s four feet by six feet, both sides. It’s like the sun rose from behind a mountain, illuminating an entire kingdom I’d not known was there. That’s one hell of a hand-me-down.  

And that’s just one national forest. There are 153 more of them, and a total of 640 million acres of federal public land in this country, generally open to exploration to anyone with a pair of boots. This is over one fourth of the nation’s land area — and unlimited adventures with a fly rod or a rifle or a canoe or a horse or a bike or a camera, though even if I start tomorrow I’ll never get to do it all. Still, the existing possibility is thrilling.

And the existing possibility of that land being divested to state and local control is frightening. It’s a real risk, not a “back to the states” issue, and not a “Western” issue. Watch this short film and read more here and here and here and here.  Short story: certain political powers want to transfer this land to state ownership, and states will over time likely sell the land to private interests who will fence or log or mine or drill or otherwise restrict or eliminate its public use.

Obviously, we anglers and hunters and wilderness lovers don’t want to see this. We want these 640 million acres to remain held in public trust so that we can fish and hunt and hike and camp and so our kids and grandkids can do those things too. It’s a simple message, and, to me and other members of this sportsperson’s choir, it’s profound preaching. Time spent out there defines and nourishes us. We are lost without it.

It’s a powerful message, but it’s narrow. What if there aren’t enough of us? If we stake our argument on sportmen’s and women’s votes or dollars we’ll very likely come up short. We will always be dwarfed by the power and momentum of the big extractive industries. And plenty of Americans never set foot on public land beyond city parks, and don’t hunt or fish or care that we do.

It’s easy to say that we need to get more people into the outdoors, make them invested, win them over one at a time. Certainly can’t hurt. But I don’t think we have time for that. It’s also tempting to make the argument that much of this land is worth protecting even if none of us ever use it, especially the roadless tracts, the wilderness areas, the wild and scenic rivers. But miners and loggers aren’t very sympathetic to that perspective.

So we should consider what public use can mean. Recreation, yes, but also study and protection and managed use of landscapes and ecosystems, biodiversity, wilderness, responsible timber and mineral extraction, and other as-yet-unknown uses. As it stands, there’s something there for everyone.

And even aside from public use, that land is an investment, like a savings bond that our grandparents bought us before we were born. We, the people, quite literally own it, it’s incalculably valuable, and while we hold it, we can use it. Let’s not cash it in.

 

How to Buy a Fly Rod

Here we have a pair of Minnesota fly anglers on a week-long June dry-fly trip across northern Michigan. Weather-beaten and unbathed, in damp waders and muddy boots, they’ve stopped at Gates Au Sable Lodge mid-afternoon for a cheeseburger and some flies. As we join them they are on the grass in front of the shop. One of them is casting a well-worn but beautiful rod, while the other holds the sock and tube.

TOM:  Geez, I like it. What do you think?

ADAM:  It’d be the nicest rod I own.

TOM:  Me too. But you’re the one shopping. Wow, that does feel nice.

ADAM:  No I’m not. I don’t need a new four weight.

TOM:  Here, give it another cast or two. How often do you get to test-drive a used Thomas & Thomas? Check out the hand-painted logo.

ADAM:  I guess it would make a good souvenir. To go along with my signed book.

TOM:  Now you’re talking. And it would be perfect for those Southeast Minnesota streams.

ADAM:  Also true. Are you seeing these loops?

TOM:  It makes us look like good casters.  You know, we’re only a few minutes from the Holy Waters. You could buy it and we could go christen it right now, before we have to post up for the night.

ADAM:  Can’t argue with that.