Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Spur of the Moment Bag Packing

The middle of November is right in the thick of almost every hunting season here in Nebraska, and I spend a lot of time in the woods, and cleaning meat at this time of year.
Though, during the last few years, I've been on a bit of a withdrawl from this passion, because college has kept me busy in the city. Not to mention those darn group projects. You know, the group projects were the team always wants to have weekly meetings to discuss nothing important. Yep, you feel me? Well, I was suppose to have one of those meetings tonight. Then, they canceled it about 5 minutes before I was about to leave. Said something about not having a reason to meet..... I love it when people use common sense!! It makes me happy!!!!
So this is what I reasoned: It's almost 8:00pm about 20 degrees F out, Genetics for tomorrow is canceled, and I don't have work until 2:00pm..... I'm going bag packing!!!
So after my wonderful epiphany, I grabbed my sleeping bag, a tarp, and my .22. Then loaded the ol'

Jansport bag pack I found at a garage sale a while ago, and out the door I flew. Some of the Wildlife areas around me close down the park roads, to save on tax money, because then they don't have to pay park workers for winter maintenance. These parks are still open to hunting and fishing, you just have to park on the main road and trek in (just the way I like it).
After locking up my car, I walked until I couldn't hear the road anymore, and decided I was good and lost. First, a little recon to make sure the places was decently safe. Then, pitch the tarp, and off into the dark to see if I could find any coons.
The funny thing about Raccoon hunting is this, all my friends are usually much more successful than I am. But then again, I hunt raccoon the legal way. My preferred method of raccoon hunting is to sit in the bush, all lights off, and call them in with a raccoon squawl or a fighting coon call. This usually works great if the coons are close by, but that's not always the case. Tonight was a peach of a night to be out though! Cool as a cucumber! and calm too; I could hear everything! A few lone mice flipped leaves looking for food around me. I could hear the uneven sound of rabbits loping around through the scrub. And what is more, I could hear the scratch of claws supporting a heavy body scrambling around in the tree tops. That's a good sign! After a good sit, with nothing coming in to my calls, I decided to check out the area where I heard the coons up in the trees. I've found coons will often times hear you coming towards them, then they will find a fat branch, high up in a tree, to hide behind; virtually invisible to the naked eye at night.
I decided to head back to camp around night time noon (that's mid night for all you day time folks). My shelter was a tarp, a sleeping bag, and the clothes on my back. The whole thing was just an idear I thought of on my way out here. I call it, the tarp burrito, you can check it out in the YouTube video here>>>>>
The whole shelter actually kept me pretty warm the whole night, granted, the majority of that success comes from dressing properly for the occasion. I slept in all my layers, these include a polyester tshirt as the base layer, then fleece long sleeve and pants, then a tightly woven wind and rain proof coat and snow pants. I was content as a fat coon in a nice den :) As I flipped back the tarp to great the balmy 20 degree F morning, I had to do the full round of stretching to work the stiffness out of the joints. Then, off to the woods I went to collect some chow!
In the day light, I could easily see habitat and what I wish I would have see last night. I saw plenty of narly old coon den trees (oh, I'll be back another night. You can count on that!) And I finally spotted a squirrel dart up a huge cotton wood tree in the distance. As I neared the tree the squirrel was no where to be seen, but I would consider myself as close to a professional squirrel hunter as they come, and I know the ways of the squirrel! (You may laugh, but its true :D ) I parked my hieny about 20 yards away form that tree and worked my magic, which entails a whole lot of nothing. The trick with squirrels is a little patience and know-how. You see, squirrels will climb a tree and hid on top of a branch so you can't see them, but they're curious. They know they didn't hear you leave, so they quietly sneak over to another branch and peak their head out to watch. If they see you, they'll just sit there and watch you, and if they don't see you, after five or ten minutes, they'll start to move again. So I just sat there, enjoying the view, and on the other side of the tree, I spotted the rust-red colored head of my Fox Squirrel peaking over a branch at me, and that's all I needed. You don't have to worry about moving too much as you get into shooting position, they won't move. They think you haven't spotted them. So I raised my Ruger .22 and squeezed off one shot, which is all I ever need, and I had breakfast!
Back at camp I went to work skinning the squirrel and preparing a fire, which you can check out on the video if you fancy that too :) Whenever I cook any meat out in the wild, I prefer to cook it as a stew if I have a metal container of some sort.
First, I just think it tastes a lot better, and second, you will loose a lot of nutrients to the fire if you just roast your food. Essentially, when roasting food, the fire will burn off some of the nutrients your body would normally burn, and out in the wild, you'll need all you can get! I just bring water to a rolling boil, chop the meat into as small of pieces as my cold hands will allow, and cook it until it's not red on the inside. I know, my cooking is really sophisticated. But there's just something about harvesting your own food, cooking it over a fire you started with a spark, and surviving like our ancestors did. It just connects you; it completes a fella and feeds the primitive fire within us all. Don't misunderstand this now, survival really sucks! You're hungry, cold, and aching all over most of the time, and you feel miserable. That's why we all live in houses with heating and plumbing and the works. But knowing you have the ability to make it out there, to survive, well it makes you feel pretty boss, and gives you a new perspective on life. I encourage you to get out there and feed your wild within!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Franklin's Gulls for Fall Break

As any other college student, I was very much looking forward to fall break, and of course, I planned to spend every minute outside, in the bush, and away from the city. I was struck with a brilliant idea of going swimming with some water birds. So Monday morning I was up before the sun peaked over the roof tops around my house. I wolfed down a bowl of cereal, then threw a towel and my camera gear into my pack, and proceeded to the garage to squeeze into my wet suit (I would much rather put a wet suit on in a mildly warm garage as oppose to the brisk beach of a lake) I also threw my work coat and jeans on over my wet suit, so I wouldn't look like a goof at the gas station when I filled up my car. I then shouldered my pack and strode out into the cold dark suburban air. A quick double check in my car's trunk to make sure my flippers and breathing tube where with me, and I was off!
As I rolled into the Wildlife Management Area (WMA) I was pleased to see I would be the only one there (There's just something interesting about a fella in a wet suit that makes spectators out of most Nebraskans). With my swim gear in one hand, camera gear in the other, and pack on my back, I soon realized I probably could have left half of this at home, and with insulation of my wet suit and work coat, I felt like a walrus crawling across the Sahara desert.
Words can't describe the feeling of being a Walrus with too much blubber.
After lugging all my equipment the longest mile in my life, I was greeted with the sight of one of the most beautiful lake coast lines in these parts. This secrete spot consists of a 30 foot high cliff face that extends a good 80 yards along the lake, with a decent silt sand beach below. It isn't much for swimming because the water is only a foot deep for at least 50 yards out. But these shallow mud flats attract a plethora of different water fowl. My hopes were to find some out past the mud flats in the deeper water, so I could swim under and catch one. However, on this cold morning, I found the flocks were holding tight and resting on the mud flats.
As I scoped out the lake shore for hunters or hikers, I realized, it's going to be pretty darn hard to sneak up on these birds if they are in the shallows, as I will not have the invisibility cloak of water to cover my body. I found a good chuck of bark and figured I would where it as a hat to at least break up the outline of my head. I zipped up my wet suit, threw on my wet boots, face mask, and goggles (though I probably would not need them). I left my gloves behind, so I could operate my water proof camera, (HUGE MISTAKE!) I didn't make it 20 yards in my approach before my hands were burning numb and I had to return to my launch point to muscle my wet gloves onto my lifeless hands. Okay, take two! I slipped back into the water like a crocodile, so as not to make any noticeable ripples, and began my second approach. It's important to realize, I'm a log in 8 inches of 38 degree F water, and I have to move at a rate of maybe 10 feet per minute, because I'm a log. It's cold!

Many of the Franklin's Gulls towards the inside of the flock
Take this time to rest, while the birds on the outside of the huddle
 stand watch
My approach brings me closer and closer to a flock of Franklin's Gulls. These are a smaller vision of the classic Sea Gulls we all see in the summer time. Franklin's Gulls are a strong social bird, commonly found in large flocks. In my case, it would seem as though I didn't find just a flock, I found a whole nation of Franklin's Gulls.

Franklin's Gulls are distinguished by the white patched around their eyes,  and the black blotch, that looks like they're wearing a pair of Beats head phones, which spans across the top of there head to each eye. Another unique characteristic of these birds is a red bill. During the summer time the Franklin's Gull's bill turns a cherry red, and changes to black during the fall and winter time; if you look closely you can see a bit of red coloration on the bill of this Franklin's Gull.
I can only imagine how tired these birds must be, flying all the way from Canada to Argentina. What a vacation!! That must be why many of these birds towards the middle of the flock are sleeping. I learned the birds on the outside of the huddle keep watch and constantly chirp to communicate with the other birds, while the birds towards the middle close their eyes and rest before a day's flight.
The interesting part of approaching these birds was that they never flew off. They generally just scooted back away from the oddly shaped log that was crawly through the mud towards them. My approach finally ended as the flock broke into an absolute cloud of birds. There were so many over head that they shaded the sun from shining through.As the birds settled back onto the mud flat, I retired to my shore camp, tore off my wet suit, and dried off, reflecting on the amazing experience of the nation of Franklin's Gulls.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Juvenile Bull Snake

After a successful morning of bush-wacking, and adventuring to new virgin territories. I stopped by my car for a bit of a pre-lunch (a banana and granola bar, if you were wondering). I quick changed into some shorts and my Merrell Trail Glove trail running shoes. These Bareform shoes are the lightest, quietest shoes my feet have ever have the pleasure of inhabiting. I bounced off to the next trail head feeling like my feet had wings.
This afternoon, I planned a quick 3 mile trail run before I would leave the park. Over-pass Trail was the habitat of focus for this trail run. A steep up hill switchback led to a mile stretch across the bluff ridge which over looked the great Missouri River, before the trail ducked back into the woods. The trail was pleasantly littered with walnuts and acorns, and I could feel every bump or root in the trail through the Vibram soles of my Trail Gloves. It was a perfect 73 degrees afternoon.
This little Bull snake was trying to warm up in the afternoon
sun, on the hiking trail.
As I was scanning the trail for any roots or tree branches that might trip me up, I noticed a familiar tan form with black blotches down the length of his slender body. A Bull snake!!! What a marvelous find! He was only a juvenile, I wouldn't put him past 3 years old, in my opinion. Bull snakes at this age can be great filming subjects, because they haven't experienced many human interactions yet.
So I methodically set down my pack and began setting up my filming gear. It's important to remember, snakes react to fast, sudden movements. Snakes can sense your foot step vibrations through specialized sensor organs in their bellies. So generally a snake knows your presences before you are aware for theirs. Yet snakes will often times just stay still; this is because they know they are relatively camouflaged and if they moved they would give away their position. Therefore, by using slow, normal movements, you act like you haven't noticed the snake, and he feels unthreatened and content with staying put. But once you leave the area, you can bet the snake will give up his camo position and find a safer place to chill.  
Here the little champ is trying to act big and mean by hissing.
This little Bull snake posed for a few pictures like a stud, and was generally docile for filming. He even mustered up a few tail rattles and hisses for some awesome talking points in the video. I released the little champ, snapped a few final pictures, and was on my way down the rest of the trail. Check out the YouTube video here  It turned out pretty good, besides the sun glare.
Filled with a sense of enrichment and satisfaction which only the wilderness can provide, I returned to my car and bid Ponca State Park "Good bye." Until I return next year, my wilderness adventures will continue on, and hopefully I can share my adventures with all who are interested via Wildimpact!!!

Monday, September 30, 2013

Sunrise Hike out at Ponca State Park

I was looking forward to this 'business' trip all week. Lucky I finished all my studies early. So Friday, after class, I drove three straight hours North to Ponca, Nebraska. This weekend was a much anticipated event for all Nebraskan outdoorsmen and women. The Missouri River Outdoor Expo attracts  thousands of outdoors enthusiasts to Ponca State Park during this weekend, and the outdoor involvement program I work for always has a booth set up for this event. I worked the booth all of Saturday, and Sunday I was free to play!
I decided, instead of sleeping in on Sunday, I would rise before the sun, and hit the hiking trails. So Sunday morning, I ate my breakfast as soon as the hotel lobby opened, and I stuffed an extra banana in my pack for the day. It was a quick 20 minute drive to the park entrance, where a Game Warden greeted me with a gruff morning voice, "You a volunteer for the Expo?" to which I replied, "I'm just a hiker, heading down to the Corps of Discovery and Prairie Loop trails." He waved me in with a smile. After I parked and made ready my pack with the morning's supplies, I walked with a hop in my set up to the trail head. My Merrel Chameleons made my feet feel like I could walk for days without tiring. 
As I crested a bluff next to the Missouri River, I was greeted by a beautiful sunrise!

And  that was enough to make my day, but I was excited for everything else this morning would bring!
As I continued up the trail I was anxious to see some wild life, and not 15 minutes later, I spotted 6 turkeys (3 gobblers and 3 jakes) as I crested a hair pin in the trail. I stood stock still as they examined me from 70 yards away. Luckily, they continued sorting through the leaf liter and scratching up any food items they could find. After they crested a hill, I made my approach. Mouth open, ears keen, and eyes searching for their movement as well as any potential noise-making foot steps that might give me away, I stalked up the hill. As I reached the top, I heard a boy talking to his father and I then saw their camp site. The turkeys must have veered off across the ridge and down into the valley to my right. And sure enough, as I followed the trail around I met the turkey troop again. As it turns out, these turkeys seemed to be used to people in the camp sites, and weren't much of a challenge to observe.
As I continued on, I came to a four way cross in the trail, and after referring to my map, I found which turn to take to continue down the Corps of Discovery trail. But shortly after, I came to a sign read "trail closed 8:00am-5:00pm for horse rides" I thought it was odd the hiking trail had not marked the notice at the trail head, so I spent a good amount of time walking up and down the trails referring to my map and concluded I was right on the Corps trail and I would just have to listen for horses. I knew the horse rides were usually scheduled on the hour, and it was about 10 past 8:00. I knew sooner or later I should be hearing some hooves. Rather than risk being discovered on a closed trail, I did what I do best, and I got lost. For some reason I feel most comfortable when I am lost out in the bush. In retrospect, a bushman is never truly "lost" because the bush is our home, and we can navigate to any place we may need to. But none the less, I bush-whacked along the side of a bluff, and noticed the incline was getting steeper. So much so, that when I slipped, the only thing that would catch me, and arrest my tumbling down the full slope, was the thick vine-like undergrowth. I was able to observe some Cedar Wax Wing birds on the bluff slope, as well as various unique deciduous trees, and a stellar view of the flood prairie. 

I decided the situation was too risky to continue along the bluff side, and I needed to somehow bush-wack over to the Prairie Loop trail anyway. But along the whole hillside which I had been traveling on, my descent was blocked by a 50 foot shear drop. 

This happens a lot in the Loess Bluff hills along the Missouri River, when the loess dirt compacts into a shale-type rock, and erodes away, leaving and impressive climbing face (if only the rock material didn't break when you grabbed or stood on it). I found a crack in the face formed by water draining down the face. Though there wasn't much to stand on to navigate down this crack, I was sure I could throw a few solid elbow and knee jams in there to climb down it.

As I approached the crack, I noticed a ball of silver fur sticking out the side of the cliff face. A badger? Possibly. I waited, and waited, and soon enough I found it was not one, but two raccoons! living the high life in this "prime real-estate with a view"! And though I'm not bothered by any animals, I was cautious of these guys because their borrow was a mere five feet from where I need to enter this climb. 

As I started down the face, occasionally glancing back up at the borrow to check for any raccoons coming to join me on my climb. And about half way down, the frail dirt-rock crumbled beneath my foot. I arrested my fall with a quick elbow jam in the crack and by smearing every other part of my body to the cliff face. It was at this point I realized a sinking feeling  of  "Oh crap! this could actually not turn out so good" as I stared to the bottom still 30 feet below. But a few more cautious elbow jams and fist jams allowed me to descend far enough to jump to the bottom ledge. Dirt clods and plant fragments showered me as I completed the decent. My pockets, gloves, hairs, and bag pack were filled with dirt when I reached the bottom. I was thankful to be safe and filled with a sense of adventure and accomplishment.

The rest of the hike was full of beautiful prairie walking and exploring some neat rock slides. That afternoon, I decided to strap on the light weight Merrel Trail Glove shoes for some trail running!