Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Frozen Water Ride

Snyder Lake Ice
With each passing ride, I discover why I'm loving this bike so takes me places I normally couldn't explore. The lack of snow this "winter" has been a blessing and curse in many ways.  I am a cross country skier and if a snow-less December had happened in previous years (it has) I'd be skulking around, depressed from a lack of kick'n and stick'n.  I realized the other day, it hasn't bothered me so much-kind of surprised me, but because the fat-bike is now in the stable, I just suit up and head out the door for the next adventure.

I frequently ride past a small made made flowage just a mile from my home.  Snyder Lake (and park) is part of the Clark County Forest and sits on the banks of Wedges Creek, which eventually empties into the Black River.  I ride the 29er on ATV trails and logging roads nearby during the warm months, a convenient change from riding singletrack at Levis Mound all the time.  Because we've had plenty of cold days, and no insulating snow, ice formed early on the water and even bridged the small rapids upstream from the lake.  Rain a week or so ago made parts of the big water unrideable slick ice, but where a skim of snow remained, it was perfect.  I found pedaling on the ice almost effortless-the flat hard surface making just a slight rumble-crunch under the big tires.  The ice allowed me to explore side creeks, although thick tag alders soon blocked my progress and shell ice finally gave way under me.
Ice Bridge & animal Stories

As I traveled upstream, I'd have to jump off the Mukluk from time to time as I hit a patch of bare problem, I just scootered across until the next patch of snow.  Water levels on the creek had been higher earlier this winter, so when I ventured deeper upstream and more rapids, I also ran into pushed up ice jams-slabs of ice cantilevered upwards- jumbled in tight high-banked corners of the stream.  These  spots were criss crossed with tracks of otters, who could scoot under the ice into open patches of water gurgling beneath my wheels.  Fisher, coyote and fox tracks also zig zagged back and forth here along with an infrequent tom turkey crossing the now frozen slush.  I love tracking, so I spent as much time as I wanted reading the stories they tell before hopping back on the bike.  The pressure of the moving water finally created a jam and enough open water to prevent travelling any further upstream...I so wanted to keep going for the creek winds on for many miles north.  I found an ice bridge to tip toe across and then up a high bank to a nearby skidder trail and back on dry oak leaves and dirt for the long ride back home.  The fat-bike and the ice I'd just ridden left me wanting more, so in the days ahead, instead of rolling down familiar singletrack, I'll search out ice, snow and sand that can take me deeper to places I've yet to explore.  Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Group Rides

The Wazoo Fat-Bike Boys
 I probably ride alone 90% of the time.  Not sure why that is....maybe a selfishness on my part to just decide it's go time, pull on the bike shorts, grab the helmet and click into my pedals.  Maybe it's part just getting out into the quiet of the forest after a full day of loud energetic students in the classroom.  It could be that riding alone also insures me of pedaling at my pace, with no fear of getting dropped or bowing out of part of a ride.  There is also a chance to "stop and smell the roses" or the ferns or snap a pic of a wolf or Fisher track-something I'm less inclined to do while group riding.  Sometimes I just want to be lazy-maybe not the correct word, but as the racing days are behind me, I don't feel the need (or pressure) to hammer out intervals, or hill repeats, or ungodly LSDs (long slow distance).  Not that I can't or don't do them sometimes, but I don't have to.  There is some freedom and relaxation in that and as I've gotten older, I think that becomes more important.

That said....the group ride can be the ticket some days.  They are especially great when you have new riders visiting "your" trail for the first time. December 26th was that chance.  I'm not supposed to be riding bikes the day after Christmas-it's not right....there should be two skinny skis under my feet-not platform pedals.  Two things have changed however-a new fat-bike in my stable of bikes and 43 degrees with sun.  My intent was to ride the Levis Mound Trail again this day and finish shooting some stills and video of the Toad Road and Northface trails.  As I pulled in, the bike rack laden vehicles and riders making last second adjustments to their fat-bikes, changed that plan. 

Some of the riders checking air pressure and donning warm riding clothes I've met once or twice along the way biking here during summer months.  With the surge in fat-bike riding, (and warmer temps) I'm sure bike racks at Levis Mound in winter months will become more common.  They invited me along saying they were "old slow guys" which, you know, because they said it -was not going to be true.  I saw it as a chance to "film" riders on our trails-a nice and different perspective from my usual solo ride views.  When leading a group-you do feel as though you need to keep the speed up-not so much a macho thing as it is just to keep a steady pace-these guys drove a long way to ride here this day.  I'm not a climber, never have been, so the quads were quivering when we reached the top of the mound.  Luckily (for me) others in our group needed to find their lungs as well.  We did the obligatory tour of the top of the mound and then I dove in behind Gary, who was riding a pugsley-I wanted to get a riders perspective of fat tires descending Toad Road, one or most technical trails and home of "Plummers Crack."  Shooting video going through the rock chute would be a hoot and good test of the bikes, as would the remainder of the screaming downhill.  As trees blurred by me, I realized group riding-especially trying to stay on someone's wheel, takes the speed up one, two or three notches.....which, thinking about it later felt really good.

We re-grouped at the bottom with only one reported "forced dismount" story.  Some slight air pressure adjustments were made and we set off north west to Trow Mound to catch the new "Wolf Run" trail and then Sidewinder and more shooting.  By the time we had made several more ascents, my legs were toast.  Hated to admit that, but they burned in a good way and the end result is I knew I'd pushed myself a little this day-something I don't do so much when solo.  Pushed the climbs, pushed the descents, took some risks...and that's not all a bad thing. 

The fat-bike friends had one more climb in their legs (in order to fly down Cliffhanger), so I led them to their next climb and wished them well.  This had been a fun couple hours-unplanned, and it always seems those are the best rides of all.  I had a great time showing off the trails and for the first time, riding in a group of fat-bikes (there were a pair of skinny bikes along as well-man those tires look so small now!) and being in a group dynamic.  I'll still most likely keep up my quiet rides, but on this day, it was great to hear the whirl of freehubs, clicking shifters, a squeal of disks and rumble of many pairs of fat tires on frozen ground.

Monday, December 12, 2011

First Rides

I doubt I could have picked a better day to really dive into the Fat Bike scene- 27 degrees, no wind, 2-3 inches of snow, some virgin singletrack, some packed ski trail, all the while basking under a clear morning sky at my favorite trail-Levis Mound.  Oh, and atop a brand spankin new Salsa Mukluk 2!

The fat bike bug started biting over the course of the past 3 years while at Gnomefest, luckily enough to be held at my home trail.  The Gnomefesters, being friendly and unselfish, were more than happy to slip a fat bike under me for a test spin- (It’s kind of unbelievable how many Fat Bikes are along in the quiver of bikes at Gnomefest).  I never had a great chance to really test out the rides of these bikes-maybe a quick 1/2 hour or so, but I always returned smiling.  And maybe that smiling, and rumbling over, around and through everything out on the trail is what mountain biking needed to be for me again.  I just finally knew that I’d pull the trigger at some point soon and my bank account would be a bit smaller.  The Fat Bike gospel according to guys like Adam, Marty and Gomez was spoken and would soon have me swiping my card- it was time.

On one of the coldest snowy days last winter, as I was about to start a session of ski trail grooming at Levis Mound, a car pulls up, Fatback on the roof rack, with a guy quickly jumping out to ask if he could ride here.  “Ahhh, sure, but the snow is a bit deep….and please stay on the singletrack.”  I really wondered how well he’d do in these conditions-but several hours later, I noticed he’d crossed the ski trail many times while exploring the Levis and Trow Mound singletrack-very impressed!  That started my internet search, scouring all the sites, reading up on those Fatbacks, 9:Zero:7s, Mukluks and Pugsleys and this past fall, the Northpaw.  Trying to decide which bike direction to go wasn’t easy, but sometimes it’s not the bike so much but people (like always) that make the difference.  I’d met Adam while on a Sunday morning cruise at Gnomefest, and of course he, and other friends were riding fat bikes.  Adam is the bike shop guru at, “World of Bikes” in Iowa City and started counseling me on possible rides to fit my style.  

 My first winter love is cross country skiing, so although I wanted a winter ride, I also knew most of my Fat Bike riding would be in warmer months.  Fortunately, besides Levis Mound, I live a mile from the Clark County Forest and hundreds of miles of old logging roads, game trails and snowmobile routes to roll big wheels on.  So decision time-the divine blackness of the Salsa Mukluk 2 and a swap of some red Surly Rolling Darryl’s (thank you Adam), became the bike for me.  The complete build was in his shop and has a great mix of Salsa, Surly and Sram components-a good value.  In full disclosure here, I’ve mountain biked for over 25 years, I am not a fat bike expert-and have limited experience riding the big bikes and everything that rolls along with them.

Knowing these bikes are not exactly svelte and have a lot of rotating weight, I worried that it may be really slow in the handling department-a feeling that quickly disappeared as I wound thru the singletrack and navigated several snow covered bridges on the Snodgrass trail.  In fact, the neutral handling of this bike was the biggest surprise-it went where I wanted it to go.  It seemed some other bikes I’d ridden would take a little more effort to overcome the gyroscopic effect of all that rotating mass-not here.  The snow had only been packed by browsing deer, so the Larry up front and Endomorph in the rear, had to do all the packing.  I tried to adjust the tire pressure to a level that balanced snow traction and ease of rolling on any packed snow I’d find.  Adam had set up the bike with the Salsa Bend 2 bars dropped slightly down, which fit my riding position well.  I’m 6’ and the large Muk frame was a perfect fit for me-top tube and stem was a good reach and the standover, with the generous room made hopping off and on easy. 

Besides great handling, the bike climbed well-granted, I needed those low end gears (my legs have been “off” for a while) to get up to the overlooks at Levis.  Some of the trails ascending can be very technical and rocky, and now snow covered, so to give the bike a fair shake, I wanted to ride those the most.  Toad Road, on the north side of the mound, had the deepest snow (with just a huge wolf track to pack things down) but settling into a spin in the granny got me to the top.  I was able to cruise the singletrack around the top of the mound with ease, exploring the overlooks-some with snow, some blown down to the sandstone-didn’t matter, the bike rode it all well.  We had just completed a new trail off the top of the mound this fall-“Corkscrew” and that also made my list of must-ride-to-test-bike descents. It was fresh snow, very steep at the top, some rocky drops and then swoopy contours as it nears the bottom.  Dropping off the rim, the bike quickly picked up speed, but just feathering the excellent Avid BB-7 disks kept things very controllable.  The Muk flowed thru the rocky drops easily and the settled into the lower part of the trail-some pedaling required though the deeper snow.  A bit less air in the tires would have helped control downhill off camber cornering but I’m still on the learning curve there.  Big smiles when the trail dumped me out on the ski trail below.

Since I groom the ski trails here, I gave myself permission, for testing purposes only, to take a spin on the packed surface to reach another singletrack.  “Okay, so this is easy”….and turning around, the big footprint of the tires barely left an impression-I can’t wait to get on some sno-mo trails this winter!  Some hunters had taken a deer out on the ski trail, so I followed their drag and then hit the last section of skinny trail- Lower Hermosa (AKA “Beer Run” as riders blast out the flowiness to the trailhead).  This had been packed by two fat bikes the previous week, so I could really keep my speed up…as long as I stayed in their tracks.  The bike felt great and soon I forgot I was on anything other than a mountain bike on a trail…as it should be.

The great thing about riding this time of year, and on this kind of bike, is that the riding experience is so different and the trails are all new again.  For me, on my home trails, that difference can rejuvenate riding.   My thoughts were not that I was riding a fat bike, but rather I was just riding-riding anywhere I wanted really.  The Mukluk was better than I’d hoped on this first ride-great handling, quality components, and stellar looks.  Just one concern-that my skis may get just a bit jealous if the bike gets more snow time than they do this winter.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Winter Wonderland Hunt

I've never seen snow like this-it was almost fake in it's Winter Wonderland over-the-top snow flocking.  Even clothes lines were piled 3" high with clinging whiteness.  Every possible twig, branch, and blade of swamp grass were coated with snow, changing in one day a wet soggy landscape into something we'd see in a snow globe.  I loved it.

Rewind 48 hours.  I had made the trek down to LaCrosse to take delivery of a new bike-not just any old bike, (and in my racing years, that was every year!) but a "Fat Bike"....a really fat bike.  Needless to say, it will extend my riding and smile when I'm out in the county forest this winter... but that story is for another post.  The forecast started a week ago-"Winter Weather Advisory" and I'm usually pretty pessimistic about what the TV weather man has to say, so not worried about my travel.  Besides,  I had just a few overnight hours to wait before I had a chance to muzzleloader hunt the famous St. Joseph Ridge, south east of La Crosse and the bike would just have to wait.

The Muzzleloader hunt was a last minute plan that fell into place when I needed to make the trip to LaCrosse.  My good friend Kirk guided me on his father in laws property high up on the ridge- land that he's told me about and I would love a chance to hunt.  The rain and snow forecast didn't deter us and we set out up icy hwy 33 to "The Ridge."  Long story short....we made our way in the dark to a ridge side ground stand and spent the next several hours watching squirrels.  Fog and rain would move in and out and it looked like that would be the only thing moving (which ended up being true).  Later,  a few push drives produced nothing, so we fired off the load (to help dry the gun), wiped and oiled the smoke pole down and called it a day. 

Heading back from LaCrosse in pelting rain, the prospects for an additional hunt were slim.  The rain gave way to snow exactly one mile north of Sparta and stayed with me the rest of the drive home.  As the day wore on, the ground and trees became more and more coated and I began to think maybe chasing rooster pheasants may work out instead.  It would give Molly another chance to hunt after this long gun season layover.  The following day, after giving the deer hunt another try (no luck) the lab and I headed over to try our luck on birds.  I figured we at least would see pheasant tracks and know if they were around.  That was the plan.  The 40 minute drive was just an amazing scene-snow on everything and bending trees to the ground.  The large blocks of tall grass we hunt were plastered to the ground and even though Molly nose checked hundreds of spots, all we put up that day was one grouse-no roosters to be found.  Oh, Molly did bring me a pheasant wing-freshly chewed on by some thankful coyote I'd imagine.  Either way, we had a nice long hilly hike back to the truck and just appreciated another chance to load the double up and hunt.  The hunting with Molly will soon give way to cross country ski season, a bittersweet thought, for it's been a great fall for her, but for the moment I'll just savor the cold air and the new landscape before me ready to be discovered all over again.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Other Kind of Hunting

November 20th, 2011-Town of Mosinee
This is not a book review or a recollection of an opening weekend of deer hunting, those are left for more focused writers than I.  No, these are thoughts taken from notes scribbled with cold hands on a tattered notebook while spending lots of quality time in a tree.  There were two firsts for me this opening gun season weekend.  I’ve hunted whitetails for the past 40 years in Wisconsin, both gun and archery,  but this year, not a single deer ventured into my little corner of Marathon County.  I’m not a hunter who gets wanderlust after a few hours of solitude-I try my best to stick it out, all day, everyday during the gun season.  My backpack is stuffed with all the essentials-a thermos, a sandwich or two, extra shells, reading glasses (now days) and a good book.

The other first I had was starting and finishing a book in two days….two “sittings.”   Sure, I’ve had some that I could barely put down- Norman Macleans’s “A River Runs Through It” comes to mind, but rarely in my daily life do I take the time to sit still for so many hours and dive into a book cover to cover not wanting the last page to arrive.  Am I a bad hunter because I peer down from my stand to scan a few sentences?  In my mind, no, it's part of the hunt, an escape, and the senses are still alert.  This year, having long hours of quiet and a blanket of snow for easy viewing, made drifting off into a book pretty easy.  Any creature within a hundred yards of my tree would have a difficult time passing by unnoticed (at least in my mind).

“A Grouse Hunter’s Almanac- The Other Kind Of Hunting” is the book that made it’s way into my day pack after sitting idle on a shelf a year after I picked it up from a book store.  It’s penned by Wausau writer Mark Parman, and with full disclosure here, he is a friend of mine whom I’ve spent time with over the years on skinny skis, mountain bikes and at our family deer camp along with a few grouse and woodcock hunts years ago.   I follow Marks writing in Silent Sports Magazine, where he is one of the editors of cycling and  cross country skiing articles and occasionally venturing out on other subjects, usually slipping in a hunting reference or two.  Mark is the consummate bird dog hunter and specifically, a grouse hunter.  That is the “Other Kind of Hunting.”

As with all opening day deer hunts, the first several hours are intense-every twig snapped is checked out, every red squirrel sounds like the next big buck sneaking thru the brush and there is no time for reading.  All focus is on…..everything.  As the morning lengthens and the woods slowly wake up, I find myself relaxing somewhat, realizing this year the typical flurry of the hunt, those first couple hours, has passed me by.  As the first day passed into the second of the weekend, I would see and hear exactly zero deer.  As mentioned-a first for me.  Unlike some in the woods this weekend, I wouldn’t blame wolves, bears, the DNR or ….cougars, for it’s called hunting, not shooting and it is that way sometimes.  Mark mentions not pulling the trigger or killing game as often now as when he was a young hunter, and I can understand that.  This year, Mother Nature didn’t give me a choice.

So finally after several cups of coffee, and the forest quieting down, I felt I could settle in and begin my read. Inside the dust cover, a quote by Aldo Leopold set the tone for the pages that would follow-  “There are two kinds of hunting: ordinary hunting and ruffed-grouse hunting.”  Any criticisms of the essays contained in the book could only be made by non hunters….non-gun dog hunters.  For us (and I include myself as a lover of hunting dogs and all things birdy) Mark strikes a cord with his tales, stories where the details and names may be different, but we can insert ourselves deeply into them which take us right into the tag alders and popple with Gunnar and Ox or our own dogs.  I had a difficult time just getting past the first sentences Mark had written.  My thoughts were- “Thanks a lot Parman!” for in the preface, he describes Gunnar and Ox, his hunting companions I had a chance to hunt over years earlier, who sadly had died before the completion of the manuscript.  In his essay- “In Praise of Old Dogs” the words on the page before me blurred from wet eyes reading the final description.  I knew full well why- Ruger, my beloved Golden Retriever, has been gone for less than a year and thoughts of so many grouse hunts with him quickly returned…and how much I missed him.  I more than understood the words Mark had written there.

It was interesting reading a book with names and locations you know well, for some of the grouse woods Mark describes are ones I’ve hunted in the past.  Places like the swamp he describes in an opening essay, are a scant quarter mile from where I sat reading this opening day.  As the stories pulled me in, my mind went from the grouse haunts described in his words back to the sleet striking noisily on the curled red oak leaves outside my stand.  Look, listen, scan…then eyes back to the pages of the next story I couldn’t wait to read.  Back to an October flush in the Nine Mile Swamp (as we always called it growing up) or New Wood, then onto a full chapter on “sauntering” or the tales empty shell hulls or a winter track in snow can tell.  I could relate well to these. 

Leaves shuffle below me and my attention is snapped back to this November in the deer woods.  A red squirrel as usual.  From time to time, it became noticeably darker, as the weather tried to change from rain and sleet to snow. With that, bringing a change of sound which I need not look up to know what was happening outside the book.  Light rain strikes the leaves softly, not yet a pelting sound, then suddenly sleet takes over and the sound is more metallic and hearing any animal approaching would be difficult.  The pellets gave way to the softness of snow landing on the oak, and all sound is muffled.  Snow has the effect to mute all sounds now-distant gun reports or a nearby foot fall on the forest floor.  On this day, the sound changed in waves as the precipitation moves between frozen and liquid.
 It became increasingly hard to bring myself back from the stories of Gunnar and Ox and the author to the deer hunt.  A Hairy Woodpecker flits by and rakes the bark of the nearby black cherry tree-my eyes lift for a quick scan of each shooting lane, and back down...all clear.  I was lost in this book.  Parman describes “Getting Lost-Staying Lost” in one essay, which is a bit different than the state I was in while reading, but one I understood well.  Hunting a new unfamiliar area is a little present to oneself because it is full of so much discovery.  We only get that chance once.  I remember a quote from my learning years in the woods, perhaps from Daniel Boone or some other woodsman-“I’ve never been Lost, but I have been a bit bewildered at times.”  I believe, like Mark, that being lost in a hunt isn’t always such a bad thing.  I usually pride myself at being good at a sense of direction, of scanning a map and formulating a plan for the hunt (or hike, ski or mountain bike adventure).  Of course, as Parman describes, a bird dog changes all that, the hunter following where the dog leads and any logical plan for the hunt can quickly change, but that is the nature of hunting.  A good thing once again.

“A Grouse Hunters Almanac” roughly follows a Wisconsin grouse season, from early warm leafy days, through the prime 6 weeks Parman talks about in October and early November.  There is the interruption of the deer gun hunt and associated herd reduction seasons, which start to signal the end of his beloved bird hunting.  The book finishes with the last days of the year, still open for grouse, but more for a chance to get back into the woods with shotgun in hand and dog alongside.  Not only does Mark follow this yearly cycle but also the seasons of the hunter and dog’s lives, which become so intertwined.  In “Gunnar’s Last Hunt” and “Counting in Dogs” I struggled to turn the pages and my reading pace slowed for I knew how these stories would end.  A short distance from where I sat, I remember a last hunt, the final day cruising my dads land for “partridge” with Max, my first dog.  A good wing shooter I am not, so on that cold December day, when Max hit a scent cone, pushed headlong into black berry brush and popped a grouse into the air, I amazed myself at connecting on the bird.  He dove in and brought the bird back to hand, wings still flapping his face and I couldn’t praise him enough, knowing he had been sick with cancer during that fall.   Like Parman and his Gunnar, at the time I didn’t realize this would be our last hunt together, but in reflecting on it later, that one flush, that one shot and one last retrieve is the way all old dogs should spend their last days afield.  Since that day, two other dogs would hunt with me, Dewey, a black lab and Ruger, a mellow golden retriever like Max before him.  Not pointers like Marks preferred hunting dog, but still, a hunting companion who can make all the difference in the world while clawing thru brush on a bird hunt and ones who are sorely missed because of the memories they made.

 Those dogs never quite lived up to Max in the woods, but like Parman, the arrival of a new dog helped ease the pain of losing a faithful four legged partner.  A year or so ago, Molly arrived, not a pup, but a four year old and just like all the promise Fergus brought to the Parman home for future trips to the wood, so Molly for me.  So far, she has done well, but it’ll never erase the pang of old dogs lost.  In  “Counting in Dogs” I found his final essay to be the perfect words to conclude the almanac.  More stories will be written of future hunts, but for this book, this chapter brought me back to reflect on life, my relationship to the outdoors, time spent there with my dogs and how all too quickly we all find ourselves past the prime days of October.  “That day, with Ox hobbling beside me, my life, measured in dogs, looked terribly short.”  With those final words, I realized as well, that if Molly is blessed with a long lab life, like Mark, I may only have one more dog to share my fall hunts with.  And maybe that thought, more than any other from this book, is what hung over me on this November day as I slowly, very slowly closed the cover...not wanting the story to be over.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Hay Creek Hunt #2

Molly and Me ;)
Sometimes there are advantages in numbers. Or to say it another way, numbers do count. I had written a couple weeks ago about a first hunt on a game farm and the experience of hunting over placed birds....not as easy as one would think, even with dogs. A that time, my good friend Dave and I and our two labs spent the better part of a day at Hay Creek Game Farm near Sand Creek Wisconsin and returned home with seven birds and plenty of stories on the drive back.

We returned to visit Bill and Lynn at Hay Creek again, this time armed with two other great friends, Mike and Moe, two hunting companions who usually make the trip to North Dakota each year with us. The trip west couldn't happen this year, so I suggested we get the dogs to the game farm where they would get plenty of shooting and the labs a great workout. Once again, our hosts did an excellent job of making our hunt memorable. Adding two more shooters and two more shotguns to the mix on the same number of birds, almost assured us of a decent percentage of pheasant to take home this time. Dave and I managed seven of twelve birds, but this time, the four of us would take eleven for twelve, although a few were scratch birds. Bill had asked us how hard of a hunt we wanted, so we decided to take the hunt up a notch and the birds were scattered over a much larger field, with tougher cover. Putting those birds up was no easy matter, and without the dogs I doubt we'd have found many at all. The advantage of four of us was we could cover ground more thoroughly and the labs would work back and forth between us until a scent cone hit them and it was bird-on!
Tall Grass Rooster and Molly
I've found that there is nothing more enjoyable than watching the dogs do what they are bred to do. It absolutely makes the hunt. Barley, the chocolate lab veteran has a great nose and seldom is wrong when she gets birdy.  Molly, my new black lab, continues to improve each hunt and complements the older dog (who is related, from Dakota Labs Kennel in Chippewa Falls) and I couldn't be more proud of her progress. Even with four of us marking downed birds in tall grass, without those noses and retrieving instincts, we would have lost many of the birds we put down.
Mike and Dave with Tough Bird
Any hunt will have it's share of ribbing and joking around, but adding our two hunting partners to the mix I think multiplies the laughter by a factor of ten. Doesn't matter if it's a great crossing shot made or missed or perhaps a connection with a bird a bit to early in the pellet spread, someone will say something about it. As serious as we are about bird hunting, wanting to be safe and successful, it's the story time afterwards  around the pick up that makes these hunts so much fun and memorable.
The first Field Pass
After the hunt, we quickly dressed the birds and headed them for the cooler. Bill meanwhile, gave an impromptu demonstration of a few of his high quality labs who were dying to get out of their boxes and train a bit. It was amazing to watch how well each dog performed for Bill, who spends countless hours on voice and hand signals. These are national champion caliber labs and it was fun to see performance at that level. Molly and Barley would have a long way to go, but at this point of the day, they were content to rest in the truck and watch the show as well. They were spent.

The numbers of pheasants lined up at our feet for the obligatory group hunt photos (labs, of course, included) really didn't matter. Rather it was the number of memories shared with best friends from this perfect day in November in NW Wisconsin that count, and how these stories of the day will probably change over the years. So in this case, those numbers do count.  And that is just fine with me.
Six Hunting Companions

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Twangfest 29

Norb in Game Face Mode
There are things that we sometimes do that require effort, that are outside of our daily routine.  Things that would be easier if we didn’t bother, if we stayed in our comfort zone of modern life instead of stepping outside (literally) to live something greater from time to time. To live life.  Those were my thoughts on the first late night of Twangfest this past week when I looked up into the night sky at all those billions of stars, listening to the darkness and the muffled sound of guitar and song from inside our trailer.  Yes, this weekend does require effort-gathering all our hunting gear (if we can find it), driving or flying hours to arrive here in the Black River country, buying food and supplies and leaving everything else behind for a few days.  But the payoff could not be greater, a chance to be back together with hunting partners and friends every year at this same time.  To spend countless hours in the stand, seeing, hearing and smelling what we miss in our usual routine.  To be a participant in the hunt instead of an observer and to ever dream of that chance at a trophy.  Trophy or not, time spent in the woods at Twangfest is always a success.
Movement in the Pines
This year was the 29th or…….30th anniversary of “Twangfest,” a term coined many years ago for a weekend campout and bow hunt in the hills near Black River Falls, Wisconsin.  At that time, we were young, mostly in college at UW La Crosse and would make weekend pilgrimages to hunt whitetails as a break from study and jobs.  Soon an idea was born to camp and hunt-requiring a lot of scrounging for a bunch of college kids then.  Years rolled into decades, and we all moved onto real jobs, families,  and other locations. New family came into our lives and sadly, the loss of family members as well, but one thing remained a constant-our annual return to the archery deer camp called Twangfest.
The Nixter
Our love of the hunt and hunting brought us together then, and remains the key ingredient even now, but the camaraderie, brotherhood and music, food, drink and laughter is what bring us back.  It is the first thing on my calendar each year.  It has always amazed me that for many of us, this is the one time each year we see each other, but it feels like yesterday.  That is how strong the friendships are here.  The first meeting is the best- real man hugs and a genuine joy of being back together.  That lasts for all of a few minutes and then the unloading of tons of gear begins-quivers and bows to beer and brats.  Sleeping bags, guitars, and the latest do dad from Gander Mountain and Cabelas.  Piles of food, and camo clothes and boots lay scattered inside the trailer in an instant.  There is also a sense of urgency as well-this IS the first day and we have had dreams of that big buck-fueled by recent game cam photos and smart email chatterin in the days leading to this.  Within an hour, dust is settled and civilian clothes are now exchanged for camo clad men, fittling with sights and arrows and few practice shots.  Soon the sound of my tapping toe impatiently waiting to “get going” and begin the actual hunting phase of the weekend.  We eventually are bouncing down the logging road and soon hours pass in the stand we again realize how much we are blessed to be able to experience this.  Yes, it took effort, but to be out here…in nature, in the woods, is primeval and beautiful and deep down something we long for I believe.
The Morning Hunt Report
Each morning and evening hunt (with just enough time for a sandwich in between) is always followed by the deer report.  “What did you see?”  “Okay, what’s the scoop?” And of course, there are tales of misses (me this year sadly at a large large buck), getting nailed down by a too smart doe, “bambies” milling around and the grunts of big bucks chasing.  The stories are again re-told at every stop as we pick up all seven of the hunters on the way back to camp.  Sometimes the stories even change, which is all okay with me.  Over the past 29  (or thirty) years, we have had many good years of harvesting a deer or two…or three.  Some does, some very nice bucks, but not always, and that is okay as well.  It’s all about the hunt and the brotherhood.  Funny, I don’t think I use that term (and I do mean it)  in any other context all year, except in describing these guys I spend the first week of every November with. 
Lem on Johnny Cash
Besides the pursuit of deer, music has become a central element in the fest.  Our group is blessed with several talented musicians (not including myself) and before the meal is done and dishes washed, guitar cases are flung open, cheater glasses on (to read lyrics now a days) and endless tuning begins.  Requests are made and familiar songs ring out inside the trailer or around the campfire.  Favorites include “Ladder Stand,” “Paper Products (from Mosinee)," and a new hit-“The Easement Blues,” along with lesser know songs of Elton John, Peter Gabriel and REO Speedwagon .   Song and laughter continue until the realization that the wake up call (my duty it seems) comes early and we better retire.  Music has entertained us over the years, as well as skits, impressions and other ridiculousness  which we so love and leave our guts sore from laughing all weekend.
The Bus Stop
The “last day” feeling always starts for me on the evening hunt Saturday.  Knowing  that this is the last night stand, that our time is drawing (pun intended) to a too quick end leaves a pit in my gut.  One last chance for that well placed shot and maybe a buck of a lifetime.  Not everyone can stay til the end- too long of travel back home or family commitments take some away early and there is a sadness when each guy pulls out of the logging road.  The final morning is the hardest….knowing that getting a deer today will require a lot of extra effort to get back to camp, pack, transport home and process before the work week, but we just have to try one more time…this still is about the hunt and you have to put the tree time in-there are no shortcuts.
The Mid-day Break

All too soon the packing and cleaning start in a flurry.  A good friend lets us use the old trailer (and his land) as our Twangfest HQ and to him we are indebted.  So we take extra care to leave everything better than we found it and leave behind enhancements (hopefully) for the other hunters who stay here.  Since some of the guys live out of state, they usually are on the road first-hours of travel for them ahead.  I’m the lucky one I guess, a short half hour drive to Neillsville and I’m back home, still wanting to turn around and drive back up those bluffs to hunt a bit longer.  But the one key thing would be missing, and it would not be the same until next year, when that band of brothers return to again to live Twangfest another year.
The Twangfesters of 2011

Monday, November 7, 2011

First Game Farm Hunt

In a effort to get more birds in front of my lab-in-training, I decided to look into booking a game farm hunt while in North West Wisconsin. I had four days to hunt and besides checking out some state land and the Rusk county forest, I thought a first time game farm hunt might be a good thing to try. I have real mixed feelings about big game "ranches" but look at small game farms as a chance to train the dogs, and get some shooting in, which can come few and far between at times on my own. Checking the area, we found Hay Creek Game Farm outside of Sand Creek WI. Bill, the owner and his brother in law partner run a nice, high quality farm, with plenty of opportunities to hunt. Dave and I were rookie preserve hunters, so armed with a lot of questions, we made the hour drive over through sprinkles and overcast sky with our gear and labs in tow. Bill was great about just letting us scratch hunt birds on their section of property until our scheduled hunt time. Scratch hunting is like the "real" thing and we scoured the edges of fields and marshes hard, putting up just a couple birds, but giving the dogs a chance to really work.
Dave and Rooster

When our scheduled hunt started, we were a bit skeptical of the small field we were to hunt-how hard could it be to find the birds there? Plenty hard! That small field became a two hour hunt and we never did put up all the birds that were supposed to be in there. The dogs figured things out after a while and I loved watching those to labs work like Hoover vacuums sucking up scent as they worked the cover. Even though the most wily roosters escaped too far out, we did manage to put a half dozen birds down that the dogs eagerly retrieved. By the end of the day, we (and the pups) were plenty tired and it was off to clean our game and spend more time chatting with Bill. He does some great donations for hunts, supports young hunters and makes a game preserve hunt attainable for the average working man. Overall a great day spent in the hills of Dunn County and a super experience for us and our four legged hunting partners.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Pheasant Hunting with the Pups

Molly Set for action

This past weekend offered up a chance for a couple pheasant hunts in north west Wisconsin with my good friend Dave, his chocolate lab Barley and my rookie black lab Molly. Since Molly is still learning the ropes of bird hunting and what she is expected to do, I thought a round of pheasant hunting may be easier than crawling through the thick tag alder swamps of the Blue Hills near Bruce, WI like we normally would do. I started researching areas to hunt and found the Tom Lawin Wildlife Area* near Jim Falls. The DNR stocks hens and roosters there and since it would be a week day hunt, maybe the pressure would be a little less (wrong). Besides, it was a chance to scout duck hunting as well since we had never been in this area.

The habitat here was perfect, tall grass prairie, mixed brush and cornfield edges with plenty of cattail swamps. Very similar to the terrain we hunt in north Dakota. The dogs seem to pick up scent from time to time, get birdy, then return to normal patrol mode. Nothing going after a solid two hours of hunting. We decided to try another section of the wildlife area, were fields were smaller and a good wet swamp running through it. Corn was being cut nearby so maybe we'd do better here. That proved to be the case as the dogs hit on fresh scent and put a covey of hens up (legal to shoot here with proper pheasant stickers). I managed to put one down and Molly did well on the retrieve. A rooster crowed nearby, but we failed to find him. We managed to get one more bird up when Molly dove into some tall grass cover, but I managed to just take a few branches off a tree as she flew off.

The amount of birds in the game pouch really didn't matter, we hunt to have a chance to shoot and sometimes the misses are far better stories later than hits. The labs had a great time and my young one seems to learn more and more every time out, which is just great to watch. Perhaps on a different day, closer to when birds are stocked, we'd had better shooting and more action, but again, one can still have a very successful hunt without a limit to clean. The best part, as always, is relaxing afterward next to the truck, chatting up the hunt and on this day, watching the snow clouds move in from the west and knowing we'll be back in the field soon.
Steve, Molly, Barley and Dave

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Lovin The Tamaracks

The Slightest Curve
The Tamarack.  Our only conifer that changes color and sheds it's "leaves" (needles) each fall and when it does-it's showy and beautiful.  A scouting slash hunting trip down a forest road in western Clark County lead me past swamps I used to visit frequently.  The destination was a man made dyke from the 1960's where ducks have been hunted in the past.  It's tiny, barely enough water for a canoe and decoys, but years ago, it did produce from time to time.  It was also a chance to check out grouse spots during the bumpy ride out there.  No ducks when Molly and I arrived, but we did bust a pair of immature Bald Eagles perched out on the drainage ditch.  The place has potential for a future hunt in any regard.
That rough "road" is Abbot Ranch Lane, and I'll assume at one time, someone tried to run a farm out here, but the soils are poor and draining the swamps did little to help.  It's now all a part of the county forest and offers prime hunting and outdoor recreation instead.  Also a chance to see and photograph the most colorful of wetlands....which I love.  Something about that spicey swamp smell that is the best perfume any outdoorsman could ever want and which brings only the best memories back from hunting trips in the past.  Well worth slowing down, taking a breath and appreciating what's before us for a minute or two.
The Swamp Bouquet

Gold and Rain Approaching

Home of the Green and Gold

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Nate and Ena

Earlier this fall I was asked to shoot a wedding for some friends of mine from the Sand Creek Brewery in Black River Falls.  I've gotten to know Nate and Ena over the past couple years during stops at the brewery or at brew fests across the state that Sand Creek is attending.  Nate is an assistant brewery there and whips up some pretty tasty homebrew as well (some of which he served up at the wedding reception).  They had seen some of my work and asked if I could shoot some casuals at their small, low key wedding.
The ceremony was held at Lake Wazee, an old iron mine site, now the deepest fresh water lake in the state.  They had selected a nice overlook above the lake to take their vows and I was excited to have such a great location to shoot.  The service was really short, so I did my best to fly around and get as many images as I could-no hour long sermon here!  The couple didn't want to do a ton of group shots (thank goodness) but I did scout out a couple nearby spots that still had good fall color where we could do at least a few photographs.
The reception was held at the brewery, and heading in I knew the lighting would be tough.  Cranking up the iso helps, but I'm always fearful of getting too noisy of pictures, and I don't have fancy strobes to help out.  Besides, I didn't want flash to intrude on the location and guests.  It was a fun shoot with good friends and family and I hope they like some of the images from this special day.
The Kiss and Smile
Nate said he really likes black and white, so in many of the shots I saved two versions for them-I really liked this moment with the couple.
The Bridesmaids
Nate and his Men
You may Kiss the Bride...Again.
Last Minute Details
 Genuine Smile
 Sand Creek Reception
 Wedding Homebrews and a Favorite
 Unity Candle

Monday, October 17, 2011

First Bird

I'd waited for this day for way too long-a year and a half to be exact.   I've owned Golden Retrievers and Black Labs through out much of my adult life and some have been okay hunters, some just along for a walk in the woods.  Both are fine, but since taking up hunting in North Dakota the past six years and watching a friends lab work both ducks and pheasant, I knew my next dog was one I wanted as a hunting companion-trained to the best of my ability.  As luck would have it I found a kennel in Chippewa Falls that was ending their business and the owners retiring and they had several dogs looking for a home.  I had all intentions of getting a Chocolate Lab they had,  but as sometimes happens, a young Black Lab named Molly choose me.  "Dakota Labs" had an excellent reputation of raising champion labs, in fact,  Molly would be related to my friends dog we had had so much luck with in the Dakotas.  If Molly was anywhere close in ability and instinct to that dog, I'd be happy.

Fast forward a year, and Molly ended up starting her training with me, then unfortunately had a couple surgeries and almost 6 months off from any kind of hard work.  She missed last falls' hunt completely, but gradually started improving health wise.  I was determined to get her out finally this fall.  A friend who trains Griffins helped with tips and a few pigeons and we started to work again this spring and summer.  She loves retrieving of course, and I gradually introduced the gun.  The loud report of a shot didn't bother her at all thank goodness and she seems to have a super nose and tons of enthusiasm.  

Our North Dakota trip didn't work out this year, but I reserved a hunt at a game farm up near Sand Creek to give her a lot of birds to smell.  Hoping she does well there in a few weeks, I just had to get out beforehand to see how she'd do and this weekend I found a spot where the DNR owns land and stocks pheasant from time to time.  So I loaded the truck and drove over in the morning.   There was a DNR Warden parked there so we visited for a bit-very nice officer from the Eau Claire Region, who told me where to try and thought this would be a good place for the young dog.  We headed out,  20ga. double in hand and started working the really this hilly mixed habitat.  Molly seemed to bound with joy, never getting too far out.  Windy on this day, so we tried to work into it where we could and soon she got "birdy"  I quickened my pace to keep up with her and soon had a rooster in the air cackling-I shot twice and missed.  Another rooster crowed below in a swamp, so we worked our way down.    I had seen another rooster bumped by a hunter and sail up and over some trees, so I figured there must be a field there-yup.  We worked our way around that one and again,  Molly had the nose nailed down on something.  She worked the edge of the field for a minute and then a flush of color and another rooster got up-this time I connected and down he went.  Molly saw the pheasant, went in and got him-first bird she's picked up.  She brought it back to me and I just felt like a proud father or something!
Limit was one bird this weekend there, so we walked out in the sun and wind and I was just so pleased with her first time out ever!  Drove back home happy as a clam, dressed the bird and then started preparing a slow cooker recipe for it.  The rest of the day I was just giddy knowing all the training, and patience paid off and look forward to our next trip afield.

Friday, October 14, 2011

A Fall Sampler

The Back Yard
There are so many pictures to be made in the fall, yet sometimes it can be very frustrating because it's all been done before you know?  Not by me maybe, but by someone and when looking at others' photos I start to wonder why I should even press the shutter.  Because........ sometimes you just have to, just have to get those photos out of the way.  But to be fair to myself, I also have to because no matter how many fall photos others have made, I still love it, love the colors and smells so most likely, every year, I'll be out there clicking away just for myself.

In any regard, here are some I liked during a couple hikes lately-a week later, most of those colors are on the ground-wind and rain made sure of that quickly-sad, but it's the way of the seasons.
Molly at Attention

Red Oak Complementary Colors

Red Oak Depth of Field

Molly after the Storm