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Monday, November 28, 2011

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Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Coldest I've ever been...

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I decided to make the short jaunt up the Blue Ridge Parkway from Ashville to see Mount Mitchell while I was in the area. After all the Parkway itself was splendid and worth the trip even if the mountain was fogged in. The Parkway runs for about 470miles connecting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina to the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. I guess I've seen roughly half and intend to do the whole thing one day. One of those things laying around on the list in the bucket. (every time I read about one of those lottery winners who say "oh I'll just keep working" I have to choke back the urge to find them and punch them.) It was in the upper forties in Ashville and I had a heavy winter coat for the mountain so I figured I'd be fine. Halfway there and the views were stunning and the temps had dropped into the low thirties. Just like on the Foothills Parkway, grouse were everywhere. They are the ubiquitous as well as iconic animal of these high mountain roads and I think I saw at least a half dozen that morning.


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By the time I'd made Mount Mitchell State Park the temperature readings on the car's dash had dropped into the upper teens when I pointedly decided not to look at it anymore. A thin coat of snow covered the ground or at least I thought it was snow but when I parked the car and got out I found it was a thin white ice like the kind that used to build up in old refrigerators forcing you to defrost them. I jumped back in the car pulling on the jacket and rummaging around for the toboggan under the seats. For the wind was blowing. I don't know a better way to put that, tempest?, gusting?, tumult?. Hmm I need a colder word there... All I know is that the wind was a steady twenty or thirty and gusting to somewhere over forty. Which I understand is just par for the course on Mount Mitchell in winter for it a place of extremes. There is a little weather station here close to the summit that from what I gather holds the records for everything nasty weather wise in the state. The coldest temperature ever recorded in the state occurred there on January 21, 1985 when it fell to −34 °F. It is also the coldest average reporting station in the state at 43.8 °F which is way below any other station. Heavy snows can fall anytime from December to March, with 50 inches accumulating in the Great Blizzard of 1993 with an average annual snowfall of 178 inches. The highest straightline wind speed in the state was recorded here at 178 miles per hour! Well you get the picture. I bundled up and headed up the short pathway to the summit. Even with the heavy jacket and hat I was freezing. Not just cold but bone jarring frost bite inducing, hypothermic kind of cold. A few photos and I was running back downhill towards the car.
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I ended up taking a bit longer to hit I-40 as the Parkway was now closed back the way I had come. You could see snow pouring over low spots on the ridgeline as I now turned north to take 80 back southward.

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Two waterfalls in one morning....

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Right off Rt 276, Looking Glass falls is as easy to get to waterfall as I have ever been to. If your ever in western North Carolina and need a quickie waterfall fix this waterfall is for you. Looking Glass Creek is a decent trout stream and as a side note the falls is infamous to the whitewater croud as where noted kayaker Corran Addison ran the falls in the early 90's sustaining a major back injury. Supposedly he was wearing a batman costume while running the drop. Addison is a former olympic kayaker, world champion and nut from everything I've read about him.



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Mingo Falls is located in the Qualla Indian Reservation in Cherokee, NC. It's only probably a quarter mile tops to the falls but it is steeep, so be prepared to climb.
At somewhere around 150 feet tall this is a very very impressive waterfall and worth driving thru the gauntlet of hillbilly golf/bingo/rubber tomahawks in Cherokee to see.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Cataloochie, North Carolina

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Cataloochee Valley is nestled among some of the most rugged mountains in the southeastern United States. Surrounded by 6000-foot peaks, this isolated valley was one of the most prosperous settlements in what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Some 1,200 people lived in this valley in 1910. Most made their living by farming but an early tourism industry developed in Cataloochee with some families boarding fishermen and other tourists who wished to vacation in the mountains. A variety of historic buildings have been preserved in the valley.

Reintroduced in 2001 the elk herd is thriving. Last spring 20 elk calves were born in the Smokies, and out of that 17 survived. It was the park's second good calving season in a row. In 2010, 25 calves were born in Cataloochee, and all survived.
Biologists say the fact that more than half of the calves born this season were females is more good news because it should help the herd's growth in the future. The survival rate among this year's newborn calves was high. Biologists say the mother elk have learned to defend their young against black bears which was a huge problem and are selecting more protective areas to have their calves. Morning and evenings are the best time for wildlife veiwing. As someone raised on whitetailed deer it takes a bit to get used to the sheer size of these awesome animals.



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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Dad

My father once said, I think after the passing of his brother Roger, that we should write eulogies while the person is still alive. Who cares if cousin It from Boise thought you were a great guy if he never told you while you were alive. Well this evening's deer hunt was a rain out and with a warm fire built in the cabin's barrel stove I'm settling in try and do just that.
The problem with anything like that is the starting. With my father that problem's compounded even futher. For you see my dad did more things than anyone I've ever known. And not normal things either. Did you know he once raised mink? Or built a wooden boat? You see he's the kind of guy who when he wanted a goldfish pond for his patio he didn't go out and buy a kit. Instead he built a concrete one complete with a waterfall made from stones he gathered at the river. For the patio he built, next to the house he built. Just business as usual.
Of course not everything was a success, I'll never forget the summer he and I spent on the Ohio river commercial fishing. During the worst commercial fishing year anyone could ever remember. But those were the exceptions. Even with things he bought Dad was never one to stand pat and leave well enough alone. Every treestand he ever owned had the straps replaced with ones of his own design. They are of course a marked improvement and I set mine up the same way now. Always thinking, tinkering, everything could use a little tweeking in Dad's eyes. I'd love to see a formal resume for Dad. Can you imagine it?
Railroad Worker
Expert gardener
Commercial fisherman
Fur dealer
Tank Driver in the army
Ginseng farmer
Carpenter
Brick mason
Fishing tackle store owner
Worker at an aircraft engine plant
World class taxidermist
The list goes on and on. And somehow doing all this and raising us kids so we never wanted for anything. By the way next time you go down that escalator in the middle of Bass Pro Shop that mount of a big tom turkey strutting on a limb over your head is one of his. All the different Bass Pro Shops of some of Dad's work in them. When he retired from taxidermy they bought out his entire shop, he was that good. My Dad had a natural curiosity about the world around him that led to him knowing more about his world than most naturalists ever do. He wouldn't just tell you the names of the plants on a walk but how they were used medicinally, how the pioneers used then for dye or for fiber, what the different indian tribes used them for. And then follow that up with come over here and look at this bat house I built, some have just moved in...
This love of the outdoors leads to the subject of the brothers and their deer hunting. Roger and Virgil started first. I think Virgil just wanted out of the house. He would just camp and tell stories. hunting was more of an afterthought.
Then one day Dad did the unthinkable. He actually killed a deer. Back in the day when there just weren't very many deer. Nothing like nowadays. With an old wooden Bear recurve bow no less. He was as good of a shot with a primitive bow as anyone I've ever seen. Well pretty soon Roger too got a deer and it was on. I guess between them over the next few decades they must have harvested 60 or 70 deer and became master bowhunters. My favorite memories though were of setting around a campfire listening to Dad and Roger telling the samo storis over again we had all heard a dozen times before. No one minded one bit.
I'm constantly told how much I look like my Dad. Frankly that terrifies me, I just hope I can be half the man he was as well. He was generous and kind and funny and talented. And he just happened to look like just like his father. Which is also even more terrifying since the only person I've ever held in as high esteem as my father was his father. Whatever you do please don't ever judge me in comparison to those two men, no one could ever stand up.
Even in old age Dad never quit building, tinkering. Be built a series of steps and small decks down the steep hillside in front of his house down to the creek. Then bridged the small creek there with a deck so in the summer he could set there in the shade and listen to the water run underneath. Why? I think because he could imagine it, could see it in his mind so he had to build it. He also planted thousands of flowers and plants and became the Highland County Senior Centers resident pool hustler dominating all their local tournaments. I remember we were driving to West Union early one morning to sell some ginseng and out of the blue Dad said I can't complain I've had good health and a good life. I remember thinking no you've had a great life and there will never be another like you. I don't know why I just didn't tell him that at the time...

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Bad Year...a short story

The first morning a forked horned buck walked right under the tree. Materialised actually. He just looked up and there he was, standing there in the middle of his shooting lane. And there the buck stayed for the better part of an hour before walking off. Then ten minutes later a twig snaps and there he is again. It was one of the few times he could ever remember when a deer overstayed his welcome. By the time the young buck walked off he was stiff and exhausted from not moving.
Then finally off to the cabin for four days. The first morning rain was forcasted so he brought out an umbrella contraption his father had given him. He climbed the tree fine with the rain shelter bungee corded to his stands frame. Fifteen minutes later he was still struggling to mount it solidly to the tree. In theory a u shaped hanger strapped to the tree and below this hung a camo umbrella hung with a small bolt and wing nut. The problem was the umbrella wouldn't open completely and still hang off it's bracket. He was still trying to mount it into it's bracket when on the ridgeline a deer began to blow. It's only fifty yards or so to the ridgeline so the deer must have been very close. Later climbing down he walked up there and found a rub on a pine tree five inches thru. Right then down over the bank a grouse began to drum. The guidebooks all say that grouse drum in the spring to attract a mate. But he heard their odd drumming here every fall. At a distance it sounds like someone trying to start a small lawn mower but not quite getting the job done. Vvvrummp. Vvvrummp. Then a pause and then vvvrummp. A few times he had actually been lucky enough to see a grouse drum. Each time the bird would hop up on a log lying on the forest floor and just stand there looking things over. Then finally puff up and drum stiff bowed wings against it's body, vvvrummmp. Then the bird stands there a bit looking over his little piece of woodland before repeating the whole thing over again.
That evening he left for the tree right after lunch planning to hunt till the rains came. Well the rain never came and six hours later he climbed down stiffer and even more exhausted than the forkie had left him. A beautifull doe ghosted out of shadow looking like she was coming his way then just disappeared like smoke back into the woods. Just that way right at the end of his vision in the woods ran a staggard line of small pines thru the thicket. This created a line of green and shadow that drew his eye waiting for the deer to appear. Over the last few years he had taken several nice deer from this tree and every one had stepped out of that line of green and velvety shadow. His tree was perfect easily the best stand on his property. A maple just the right size to climb that he felt safe climbing to the end of his pull up rope in. Right in front of his tree close enough that he could lean way out and touch was an oak. A perfect oak that reliably produced lots of acorns to draw deer. Plus like many oaks it had small branches, twigs really growing up the length of its trunk from allmost right at ground level up to the first big branches. High up in the maple he was hidden behind the oak to any approaching deer. The next morning found him up the same tree again. About eight thirty a limb popped out towards the pine thicket and here came a buck. The wind swirled wildly about but the deer was coming fast and he thought it should be under his scent. But then the buck froze. Two steps from where he could shoot it. It stood there then raised it's head sniffing the wind. Up and down twice went the bucks head like a horse snorting at the reins. Then the buck just turned and began to sneak away. It slowly, slowly raised it's tail and snuck back the way it had came. Then just squirrels and chipmunks to pass the time till it was time to climb down. It was warm, too warm for november really and the chipmunks and squirrels were everywhere taking advantage of indian summer. After lunch he headed back up the ridge towards the stand. Long ago, before he had bought the place a decade ago, a large pine had fallen and it's wreckege lay beside the trail. Over the years he had tried several times to capture the essence of the strength and drama of this grand old wreck of a tree in a photo but the pictures never could create that feeling in him the old tree did. Today the old tree rustled and made scratching noises. He froze and a fence lizard scrambled out into a sunny patch. No doubt wondering what was wrong with the calendar that it should be out in mid november. Far away he could hear dogs running, baying on a track. Every day he heard them somewhere chasing the deer.
Soon after climbing the tree a flicker flew into an oak twenty feet away. Unlike most species of woodpeckers, Flickers forage mostly on the ground. though no one had bothered to tell this gut that as he spent ten minutes combing over the bark of the oak giving him the best look he'd ever had at one. This was also the same tree he had gotten his best look at a barred owl from. Seeing the bird land out thru the woods at dusk, he made a sucking kissing noise on the back of his hand squeeking like some small creature in trouble. The owl flew closer. He squeeked again and it flew unto a limb fifteen feet away. Decked out in full camo from head to foot he was a mystery to the owl. The owl bobbed its head up and down in that way peculiar to only owls trying for a better look. Finally it just sat there. Looking out over the woods. The owl turned it's head 180 degrees looking directly behind it. He squeeked again, more head bobbing and staring. This went on for twenty minutes. Often, most nights really, he would hear the owl hoot on the hillside behind the cabin. Who cooks for you...who cooks for you all... He had come to think of the owl as an old friend. A silent and deadly hunter watching over his woods at night. But why then announce to the whole woods you were there every few minutes? Maybe that was the point, for the benefit of the nervous deermice, the meek voles hidden in the leaves. Who cooks for you... Where did that come from? nowhere, everywhere. Who cooks for you all... maybe I should be over there, yes that looks safer. Scurry, rustle, and death sweeps in on silent wings. He often found the feathers of wild turkeys in the woods, once he found a wonderfully marked feather from his owl. What a difference, you waved the the turkey feather fast like beating wings and you could hear it. A soft whoosh whoosh whoosh. Wave the owl feather and nothing, just silence.
About an hour after the flicker he caught movement thru the trees. It was a deer coming his way. Slowly relaxed it took seemingly forever to get there. This made him nervous. More nervous than he had been on a doe in a long time. Finally she stopped about twenty yards out and nosed around for acorns in the leaves. There was just one little branch in the way hanging down right over the does chest. Take it easy he told himself, She's not going anywhere. Slow down. Her head came up and she took a step forward standing there alert. Then relaxing and nosing around in the leaves again. For once he could follow the flight of the arrow thru the air. Most of the time allmost all of the time you let the arrow go and the deer exploded away and you can't really tell what happened. You have a feel for what happened but you can't really know for sure. This time the light was just right, the deer was just far enough out or something, something, and he could follow the arrow. Watch it bury right behind the deers shoulder leaving a dark spot on its side. A messed up spot in it's sleek hide. The doe turned in a motion to quick to follow then bounded away. Right as it was swallowed by the woods it stumbled, more missed a step really, and then was gone. He sat there for a long time reliving the experience before climbing down. There was the arrow, seemingly perfect, except for a thin covering of blood from end to end. The deer didn't go far. But he tracked it out, painstakingly going slow trying to learn more, something that might be a big help some other time. What he didn't know, sometimes you never know till something clicks and helps you.
He used his nylon safety strap to drag the doe further away from the tree before gutting her. No matter how many times he did this it didn't help. It was nasty business much worse than butchering the carcass later. The lungs, the heart, the enternal organs were fine, enteresting even. It was the stomach, especially if you ever accidently slit it open that was foul. He knew that when he came back in a week all traces of the gut pile would be gone, turned into possum, fox, and coyote.
Not far from the cabin a man processes deer. It was a run down sloppy place, a mix of prefab sheds and old plywood. But the tables, the equipment was clean and thats what counted. Plus he was cheap and would save him the long drive home so he could hunt some more. That night was cooler and he built a big fire. He'd brought a sandwhich toaster. A fancy version of the ridiculous metal hot dog sticks sold at walmarts everywhere. But this had a box on the end just the size of two pieces of bread. Two pieces of buttered bread with turkey and cheese inside. It is probably the best thing he'd ever had cooked out camping. In the distance he could hear the dogs chasing another deer thru the darkness.
And then there was nothing. Two days passed. Then three with no deer seen from his stands. Maybe now just turn your monitor off and just stare at the blank screen for a while, a long while, a hour or two possibly to get across something of the feeling of three days of four hours in the morning and four and sometimes five hours in the evening and nothing. The only interesting thing that happened was one evening right at dark a tufted titmouse flitted around his tree fussing. A titmouse is a tiny bird that travels the winter woods in mixed flocks with chickadees and downy woodpeckers. The woods will be silent one minute then full of life the next as these flocks move thru the winter woods. But this titmouse was different he hung around fussing. Then finally as darkness edged ever closer the tiny bird flew to a snag. A tree six or seven inches in diameter broken off ten or twelve feet up. There the titmouse disappeared right into to the broken end of the snag. There must have been a hollow spot here. Probably the reason the tree broke off in the first place. Now just the right size for a tiny bird to wedge itself into, fluff up and survive another cold winter night.
The next week he was back for five more days. That morning a heavy frost covered the ground. He was hunting in the bowl. A large bowl a couple hundred yards across. Here last year he had watched a nice buck work a scrape. Pawing it out, then rubbing the pre-orbital gland on its forehead against the overhanging branch before walking right under his stand. The first light of day lit up the trees all along the rim of the bowl while the rest of the bowl remained dark. Here oaks held tightly onto their leaves after all others but the beech leaves had fallen. The oaks shone like polished brass in the first magical light of day. Slowly the line of brightness crept down the bowl waking the squirrels and chipmunks. Small scurries and rustles as the woods came to life. One big oak in particular held the squirrels attention. Up and down it's trunk they ran, it's topmost branches shimmered and shook with their movement. Every momment or two acorns rained down out of it's branches. Then across the bowl, crashing in the bushes. Here they came. The deer chasers. A big mutt, half german shepard and half something shaggy and a big mixed hound. Neither wore a collar. They hit his trail and froze. He marveled at their noses, after all, he had worn rubber boots as to not scare the deer. The mutt sniffed down his trail a bit going away from the tree while the hound came towards him. Carefully and silently. It trailed him right to the base of the tree and stood there sniffing where he had put the stand togethor. At twenty feet straight down the arrow sounded like a 22 as it hit in the spine. The hound dropped instantly and kicked for twenty seconds or so. Unlike deer, dogs have not learned to look up and the mutt cautiously approached sniffing at the dead hound. The arrow missed its spine but solidly got at least one lung. The big dog spun in a cirle growling and biting at the arrow before taking off the way it had come. It entered the high weeds and brush at the bottom of the bowl but never came out the other side.
He felt nothing at the killing. Certainly no elation but no guilt either, it was simply an unpleasant thing that had to be done. He wondered how many fawns they had killed that spring. That evening he walked up to where the gravel lane that ran past his cabin crested a big ridge before dropping over the other side down to a little valley with some houses. Here at the crest an old logging road crossed the gravel lane at a right angle then wending off both directiones thru the woods. He turned right following the logging road for a couple hundred yards then turning right again down a spur ridge running back towards his cabin. This was off his property but belonged to a land company that was holding it for timber and open to all the locals to hunt. He saw the first rub fifty yards away. On a small tree eight inches thru. As he approached he saw more. Lots more. In a ragged line seventy five yards long there was at least fifty rubs all on stuff five to eight inches thru. The rub line line into a patch of impenetrable cover. He was very excited. This was probably his best chance at a big trophy buck in several years. But he was worried too. No trails or doe sign. This was this one deer's bedding area. It's core area and trying to hunt just one deer, a single deer, on public land was also the road to madness. And so began the big sit. He was oh so carefull not to touch anything or brush against anything coming or going. The tree was good, he could go all the way to the end of his rope and there was clear shooting lanes. The first day he thought he might have heard a grunt back in the cover. Or maybe not. The next morning it was still. One of those mornings where sound carried and you could hear the train pass seven miles away just like it was right at the end of the lane. He could plainly hear the scrape scrape of the bucks antlers on a tree down in the cover. Over and over. He was very excited expecting any minute to see the deer. He kept mentally telling himself, now don't rush the shot, take your time. But the deer never came. That evening at dark he could hear the buck in the leaves but never saw him. But it would only take one mistake. It was the height of the rut and for all he knew the big buck was a mile away chasing does. But it would only take one slip up and he would be there waiting. Just one morning staying out too late chasing does and coming in after daylight to bed.
Two days later he heard the crunch crunch of leaves at dusk. The steady walking of a buck. He got ready. Crunch. Crunch. But darkness was coming fast. Finally the deer passed at thirty yards. Just a general shape in the twilight, too dark to shoot. And so it went. November, it's own season, the best season, was frittered away and now he knew what was coming. The cold. The bad time hunting in the cold of December, the snow of January just to get something, anything for the freezer. He had gambled on the big buck and lost. As he knew going in he would. But when the chance comes you have to try it.