Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Minor Pleasures

The fact that I’m itching to get hunting is apparent to all, and that I can’t stop yammering about calling contests, waterfowl weekends, and gear that I need to buy is not helping matters.

Of course for every thing that really makes me downright giddy about the approaching hunting seasons (waterfowl, fall turkey, and deer specifically), there are about a hundred things that the non-hunting people in my life think is negative, or at least weird, about my passion for the outdoors.  Most have long ago given up trying to convert me, and truth be told, most of them don’t think hunting is ‘wrong’…particularly when they see me making and eating delicious things out of game animals.  But a sad symptom of our ultra-modern, urbanized, smart-phone culture is that scads of people that I come into contact with on a daily basis in my personal and business relationships that have no appreciation for all the tiny, esoteric, and absolutely exceptional experiences that are to be gained from spending long hours afield.  And that’s fine…I don’t derive my self-esteem from whether they find me somehow “different”.

But in the spirit of conciliation, and in an effort to further reduce the ridiculous clich├ęs that people ask me on a daily basis, here’s a list of some things that non-hunters think of as inconveniences and irritations that are, in a hunter’s mind, simple pleasures to be savoured.

Wood Stoves
I always get “But what if the stove goes out?  Don’t you guys freeze?”  The answer is, yes, if the fire goes out, it gets cold.  The trick is to not let the fire go out…and I happen to hunt with a group of guys who are adept fire-stokers.  By 1am or so the camp is downright tropical, in large part thanks to my father and uncle who seem to be cold-blooded reptiles of some sort.  In our deer camp it is not uncommon to wake in the night and lean out a window or walk out to the porch in one’s underpants, just for the sweet relief of a brisk November night.  Early fall goose camps are even worse, because it is usually pretty mild already without someone literally ‘putting the wood to’ the camp stove.  At least it is a dry heat.  On the plus side, we can all, for the most part, bond over our constant berating of anyone putting wood in the stove.

Mattresses (Air or Otherwise)
Another question I constantly hear is “What do you sleep on?  The ground?  The floor?” and to that I usually shake my head and remind people that although roughing it is a key component of the hunt (and I have nothing but respect for the high country hunters who operate with canvas tents and pack horses), for us, we do have a modicum of comfort.   One of our camps has dedicated bunkbeds with old, generally feculent mattresses on them.  In the other, most of us use air mattresses.  Last year, I got tricky and got a synthetic camp cot, primarily because I wanted a bed that I could fold up (since everyone was either walking on or flopping down on my air mattress as they pleased) that was likewise not going to develop a slow leak and deflate in the night.  Unfortunately for me, this cot proved a little too comfortable and some certain individuals in camp took to unfolding it for me and resuming to sleep on it as they saw fit.  In the bunkbed scenario, lower bunks are prized possessions.  Owing to hot air’s natural tendency to rise, and given our healthy cabbage consumption (in the form of sauerkraut, cabbage rolls, Brussels sprouts, and coleslaw) mixed with the tendency mentioned above for certain camp elders to keep a raging inferno going in the stove at all hours, sleep (if it can be called that) on a top bunk is memorable to say the least.  Waking up in a sweat surrounded by a cloud of miasma used to be a rite of passage in our one camp.  Since we took to draping heavy sheets over the doorframe a few years back the heat issue has improved slightly…the noxious odour, not so much.  Still beats sleeping on the floor though…barely.

“Don’t you guys all stink after staying in camp together?”  Okay this one is partially true.  Yes, after a day of hiking the backwoods or carrying decoys in and out of fields we are generally sweaty, hungry, and dirty.  And yes, a shower is not always an option, although we are lucky enough to have an outdoor shower at one deer cabin we hunt out of.  Our fingernails get grimy, or feet get wrinkly, and we itch in places we don’t always itch.  But that is not to say that hygiene is completely out of the question.  Almost everyone in camp at least brushes their teeth, and a steel pail of water gathered on a short trip to a lake or stream can be heated on the glowing steel of one of our blazing wood stoves to provide enough hot water to at least splash down the most offensive nooks and crannies.  I choose not to shave while in camp, others do.  It’s no big deal.  In deer season, when scent control becomes somewhat important some individuals become a bit more fanatical about cleanliness…me, I steer clear of that cyclical argument and just let myself smell as ‘natural’ as possible.  Keeping a shaved (or more apt in my case, balding) head of hair addresses the need for frequent use of shampoo and if you can locate the one man in camp who is cleansing, conditioning, and moisturizing their hair I’ll be you I can point out a hunter that just isn’t appreciating the experience on as many levels and senses as I am.  I even have an uncle who came up with a clever use for Penaten cream one year.  I’m not sure if it was stranger that he was using it or that he packed it with the foresight to know he’d need it.  In the end it is okay to get kind of gross.  It means you are doing more important things than fretting over what your cabin-mates think of your appearance.

“So do you just bring enough bacon, beef jerky, and beer to last you the week?”  I wish…I love bacon, beef jerky, and beer, and if that was all I consumed for a week of hunting I might lose some weight.  I think if anything has really changed about the modern hunting experience it is that I would wager very few hunters just pack in essentials and rely on their woodsmanship skills to provide their sustenance.  Gone are the days (for many of us I bet) when eating on a hunting trip meant that you ate what you killed or else you nearly starved, and I’d bet double that those days expired many years ago.  I don’t think I’ve ever been to camp that didn’t have enough food to feed everyone in it twice.  Now some camps are better than others in terms of selection and quality; for every camp I’ve been to where the menu is exceptional (like our deer camps for example) I’ve to as many others where hot dogs, chips, mixed nuts, and beans were all there was all the time.  Most camps fall in the middle, and frankly I couldn’t care less what is on the menu, as long as there’s a lot of it.  Hunting is exertion for most of us, and that relative level of exertion varies from hunter to hunter, but nonetheless when the sun goes down and the guns go away, I’ve never met a man or woman alive that wasn’t ravenously hungry after a day’s hunt.  Bacon, beef jerky, and beer would cut it…but I’d rather have more.

The Toilet
So we’ve come to this.  Nothing is more misunderstood or more commonly reviled, misrepresented, and joked about than what a bear, or in this case a hunter, “does in the woods”.  Call it want you want, from outhouse to shitter.  It is ubiquitous and simultaneously revered and feared.  That is the one stereotype I cannot shake, and that is the view that we as hunters all have to either use a hideously depraved outhouse or alternatively brave baring our sensitive bits to the wilderness and going in the forest.  Now I’ve visited many outhouses from the rankest and most vile (which I encountered when I wasn’t even hunting…it was at a punk rock festival concert in mid-August, the odour haunts me still) to one’s that have a fair modicum of creature comforts, but I still cannot say that I’ve had an outhouse experience I would define as ‘pleasant’.  I even, at a young age, contributed man-power to actually digging and installing an outhouse.  You learn a lot about yourself in moments like that.  All this said I have no real problem with the outhouse at the end of the day…even the two-man version at one of the deer camps I go to (picture it!).  It is the conundrum of biology that makes it so; that ‘any port in a storm’ approach that sometimes occurs when your stomach is bubbling and you’ve been without running water for a few days.  Making sure you exercise good timing is important too in any outhouse adventure.  It pays to be the first one into an outhouse the morning after ribs and sauerkraut for dinner.  Anything other than first and you may as well hold it for the woods, and this alternative is likewise not without risks.  While I will keep this G-rated (both out of respect for the reader and to protect the guilty…you know who you are and I know that you read this) I have stories in my repertoire about the disasters that occur when you either wait too long and then lose control while peeling off multiple layers of pants and long-underwear or if you get excited and don’t quite get the pants out of the way before squatting.  I’ve already shared one example of the logic that must be employed if emergency strikes and you find yourself without toilet paper (hint…bring an extra pair of socks).  Regardless, the exigencies of our need to eliminate waste make us all equal.  I feel particularly sorry for female hunters in this respect…the one time I took my wife hunting she made me well aware of the intricacies of that particular interface and it is (I argue) the one compelling reason that she won’t take up hunting with me on a full time basis.

So there you have it…a far from exhaustive, but hopefully still informative list.  I am aware in re-reading this that I’ve made all of the above points seem negative through some sort of tongue-in-cheek narrative, but I can assure you that the sum of these component parts do make up what the hunting experience as a whole is.  Just like there is not a catch-and-release component to hunting as I define it, there is likewise no extricating the above moments and experiences from hunting as I know it.  To be honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way…even the outhouse, but only if I’m first to use it.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Fixin’ and Tinkerin’

So here we are deep into the dog-days of summer around my parts and since nobody seems keen on letting me onto their property with some cottontail distress calls and a .243WIN, there’s nothing for me to hunt.  I’ve never met a community that so loves groundhogs and coyotes that they look past any damage those populations are doing.  Oh well.

So what do I do in the meantime to stave off the stir-craziness?  Well, I do what every other dyed-in-the-wool hunter does when the hunting stops.  I toy around with my gear, I tinker with things I ought not to tinker with, and I rig together solutions for problems that never really existed.

Examples?  Sure!

I was fortunate enough last fall to have bluebird weather for pretty much all of my waterfowl hunting.  Didn’t get rained on once; and only got a bit damp and dewy one humid morning in late September.  Despite that I am fanatically putting the WD-40 to all the dry, un-rusted hinges of my layout blind that prior to me slopping them with gunk were in near-mint condition.  I mean downright pristine; now they are kind of shiny and slippery…but I’m good in case I do get some wet weather when I’m goose hunting in a couple of month’s time.  In another semi-related example of waterfowling as a mental illness, I am seriously considering weaving together some kind of homemade “stubble-wrap” (it’s like bubble wrap, but more painstakingly manufactured and infinitely less addictive to play with) to put on my layout blind.  I endured some mild teasing last goose season for my apparent ineptitude when it came to grassing up my blind, so in an effort to protect my ego, I’m thinking of creating some kind of matrix with lawn clippings, decorative corn stalks from the local craft shop, polymer glue, and chicken-wire.  I’m not sure if this would decrease or increase the teasing, but if it garners me another 45 minutes of sleep, I’m all for it.

I also just can’t keep my hands of my firearms right now, and this is something I’ve come to be quite comfortable with over time.  It seems that every July and August finds me almost robotically cleaning, oiling and then re-cleaning and re-oiling all of my weapons…even ones I haven’t used since their last cleaning and oiling.  To the untrained eye this may seem like classic obsessive-compulsive behaviour.  So what, like you’re so well-adjusted?

Game calls have a special place in my heart, as anyone who frequents this forum is well aware of.  The summer months become a symphony of wilderness sounds in my house, as I tune up goose and duck calls for the workout they will be receiving from early September right through to January.  This year I’ve heard a rumour that there will be a summer turkey calling contest as well for me to attend, so whereas in the past the yelping, cutting, clucking, and purring normally stops it has this year remained a fixture of the noise that permeates my house.  I am likewise preparing to re-attend and re-embarrass myself at the Ducks Unlimited Goose Calling Contest in Toronto this August, so I often find myself seamlessly swapping out my turkey diaphragm calls for my Tim Grounds Super Mag: if you haven’t heard such music, I assure you that you are missing out.  Throw in the tantrums of a bossy three year old and the wailings of a ten week old baby and you have the makings of a cacophonic maelstrom of wilderness and human language.  When the calling ceases, I am feverishly working, almost in mad scientist fashion, to tweak and tune my instruments in an effort to smooth out any sour notes…so yes, I’m aware that most of those are due to operator error, and no I don’t care.  I’m too stubborn to learn new methods so I’ll just reverse-engineer the calls to suit my style.  Yes, I know that voids the warranty.

Of special focus this year is physical fitness.  Before anyone that has actually met me starts giggling, know this is based solely on my recent broken leg.  I have not turned over some radical new leaf, and I will continue to consume fried meats, potato chips and dip, bacon and eggs, and the occasional cold beer.  Maybe some fruit and vegetables will fall in there by accident, who knows.  I have, however, found that the long term sloth that I became accustomed to during my recovery has left me woefully weak in a cardiovascular sense.  Since we don’t normally drive into the places we hunt (no one in our group owns a waterfowl trailer, and I don’t ATV much in deer season) I am making an effort to get jogging for the next 90 days or so.  When I’m hunting, I like to save my breath for making snide remarks and using a goose call; I’d rather not be winded and gasping just from bringing in a gun and some dekes.  Plus, it is nice (and cost-effective!) to fit into all the gear I wore last year.

All this preparation however, comes at a price.  We are preparing our house for sale, and being out in the garage clanging away at gear or blaring on various and sundry game calls does make me less available for things like de-cluttering, home staging, picking paint colours, and providing my thoughts on carpet patterns.

Don’t worry friend, I’m managing even without those simple pleasures.  I sense that these chores that my wife so graciously takes on while I do my important hunting prep are somehow mysteriously linked to much of my gear disappearing into Rubbermaid boxes that are sealed with intricate and completely impenetrable webs of duct tape.  Luckily I have a variety of secret stashes where I can squirrel away all I need to ensure my continued efforts are not thwarted.

All in all, the coping process as I count down to the opening day of goose season (which is the first sure sign fall is coming as far as I’m concerned) is going pretty well.  I’d be happier if the regs would just come out so I can go buy a license and really put preparations into high gear, but that usually isn’t for a few weeks yet.  For now, it is just time to enjoy the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer.  Enjoy your soda, pretzels, and beer.