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.

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.

 

The Enemy of the Good Enough

After months of studying things like acid mine drainage and nitrate fouling and harmful invasives and general degradation of our remaining wild landscapes and how people fight for them and how people first decided they were worth fighting for and how those first people argued for them; and why people care or don’t or calculate risk or generally value wildness or don’t; and trying to determine how I value it and how I can share that value with others, if that’s even possible; pages of notes, stacks of books, megabytes of maps; alternating frustration and hope with no good basis to judge the merit of either — all this leads naturally to a strong desire to escape to a wild place, while they’re still around. Some urgency creeps in. Frustration with the nine-to-five. So I try to remind myself: right now, take what can be had close to home.

Like the suburban pond that’s within easy portage distance, about thirty rods, of our garage. On a 1902 topographic map it’s the center of a wetland network; today it’s in the center of a mixed-zoning section of Roseville, Minn., and it gathers apartment and office building runoff.  But if it’s still good enough for nesting wood ducks, and blue and green and white herons, and muskrats struggling to push huge mouthfuls of spring greens, then it ought to be good enough for my wife and I to stretch our paddling muscles.

And like the local trout. The stream is busy with anglers and muddy pathways, and despite decades of restoration is still subject to poisonous agricultural runoff. But if it’s good enough for two thousand trout per mile, a few caddis and blue-wings in partly-sunny late April, and the bald eagle cruising the valley huge and silent inside the close riparian tunnel, then it ought to be good enough for my wife and I to work upstream with size 16 CDC & Elks and maybe raise every hundredth fish.

The lesson I am trying to learn here is: don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the close-to-home and good-enough-for-today.

Outlive Them

It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here.

So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space.

Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: You will outlive the bastards.

Edward Abbey, 1976