So Long, Joe Meuchal

Written by Jim Huckabay on December 12, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

Several dozen of us gathered Saturday afternoon at the Fairgrounds here in Ellensburg, Washington, to remember our friend Joe Meuchal (as in “Michael”). True to his nature Joe wanted no fuss made over him, so we just made a small fuss and spent a couple hours sharing memories, laughing, and celebrating a good man who will be well-remembered.

You probably crossed paths with Joe at one point or another over the past decades. He was one of those great story tellers and loyal friends you can’t forget – and wouldn’t want to forget, anyhow. He went to his well-earned reward on his 91st birthday.

Joe was an outdoor guy from the moment he could find his way out a door. He grew up on a homestead on the North Dakota prairie and then in Montana after the Great Depression took the homestead. As a young man he spent summers as a fire lookout for the U.S. Forest Service, times of which he spoke and wrote often. He was a WWII and Korean Conflict vet. He worked forests and spent much of his adulthood as a rancher. Fresh air, sunshine, plants, wildlife, horses, and change were the constants in his life – all of them, he said, fueled his passion for knowledge about the world around him and the forces that shaped it. As long as he was able – as close to the end as possible – he took long daily walks.

If you were there Saturday, you heard about his work with Audubon and the many places – roundtables, committees and boards – where he made certain that someone was speaking on behalf of them. You also learned that even as he was speaking in great detail – scientific names and all – about birds, animals, native plants or weeds, he was devoted to seeing them in the context of a healthy habitat, within the big picture. He often noted that when we restore or maintain a healthy environment, with its variety of habitats, the plants and wildlife will find their proper balance.

I first crossed paths with Joe during the Big Game Management Roundtable (BGMR) – a group of some 50 stakeholders dealing with big game damage to agricultural ground in the Kittitas Valley of Washington in ’03 or ‘04. He was a strong voice for open space and the holistic management of wildlife and livestock. His insatiable appetite for the natural and cultural history of the valley and the region – and his nearly perfect recall of what he had learned from archive after archive – supported the roundtable in finding workable solutions to some fairly intractable problems. When he spoke about the BGMR and his role, he was speaking of his own values: “People are talking; trust is developing… Open communication… A diverse group of people collaboratively seeking solutions to the elk problems within the whole environmental picture.“

Over the years, he often spoke about the importance of kids being free to explore the outdoors without constraint. Only in this way, he insisted, would they fully develop their innate desire to learn all they could about wild things and wild places. A decade or so ago, when we were talking about one of the columns I was writing, he reminded me that without that passion for nature future generations will not do the work for a healthy natural environment that we are doing. On Saturday, a couple of his other friends reminded us of his strong opinions about the importance of outdoor kids.

Joe put together half a dozen books of his well-written and entertaining stories. Copies of various of them are in the hands of friends, but they were never widely distributed.

I thought I’d pass along a couple of the notes folks sent me about our friend.

Marc Eylar described him as an “old hand of many subjects, experienced and well read. Not only could he tell a good story but his ability to just listen and converse with you always left you feeling fortunate to be in the conversation. His laugh would warm your heart and when you were in his company you were content…and so was he.”

Robert Kruse wrote that Joe “possessed a  breadth of knowledge, experience and interest in sharing with others encyclopedic knowledge and recollections in natural science, landscape arts, agriculture, horsemanship and cultural history, to name a few. Joe took us back with him to days long ago and allowed us to experience moments in the past with colorant, spices and humor…to make the flavor just right.”

Maybe the best way to summarize how so many of us felt about Joe is just to let you read the words of his friend Charlie McKinney. “I feel like Joe, in his own way was a kind of Renaissance Man. If it had to do with plants or animals, wild or domestic; land, especially the American west or how people have lived on it or still do, then he was interested. He had a wealth of practical, hands-on experience because he had lived it. But he was amazing in that he could stay right up with you in a discussion of modern range management, forestry, wildlife management or environmental issues. Joe was steeped in the traditional ways but also knowledgeable about modern science and management. Joe maintained a wonderfully open mind to the end.”

A wise man once said to me, “A person is only as big as the number of things to which he or she attends with interest.” Joe Meuchal was a big man.

Safe and Fun: Family Recreational Shooting

Written by Jim Huckabay on December 5, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

Tomorrow evening, Dec. 6, at 6:00, the Light Rifle Class League for winter family recreational shooting starts at the Kittitas Valley Rifle & Pistol Club range here in Ellensburg, Washington. The 16-week league happens at the range at 608 West 15th (immediately west of the city shops).

It still surprises me a bit that, no matter where or when I mention the this or any other family-oriented small-bore shooting league, someone has a story to tell about learning to shoot with an old .22 rifle and some adult family member – and a wonder about why we don’t all give ourselves that sort of fun anymore.

The way the world looks at firearms has changed – as we see pretty regularly. Yet, an innate sense of the need for people to learn to handle firearms safely – and with the pleasure so much of our population took from recreational shooting just a generation or so ago – still burns in parents and families. Maybe it’s true that every kid who learns to safely enjoy handling and shooting a simple firearm makes society’s future a bit more secure.

I regularly hear parents talking about wanting their youngsters to learn to be safe around all sorts of firearms. It’s nothing new, really. The last of the Hucklings and I were on one of Captain Don’s boats out of Westport a decade plus back, chasing sea bass – rockfish – on the Pacific Ocean. On the boat with us was a woman and her 12-year-old son. We were enjoying the fishing; her son and the Hucklings were nuts about it. Over sandwiches she explained that the boy’s father split when he was born, and she was determined that the boy grow up with what she called a “solid foundation for life.” The men she most admired – solid and balanced in their lives – fished and hunted and cooked what they harvested. As a city girl, she said, she hadn’t had much of that, but determined that her son would, and enrolled every mentor she thought worthy. He had done a bit of .22 shooting with a friend and his wife, and she was now looking for an organized, regular target shooting opportunity, so he could grow up “relaxed and safe around all the guns that surround us these days.”

There were not as many of those organized ranges as she expected, but I heard she found the kid a shooting home. I’m guessing she got her boy reared to be one of those men she admired.

I don’t pretend that learning to shoot well and safely is the only way to a solid adulthood. I am certain, however, that every kid who has proper training in a fun and relaxed setting will be better able to deal with potential firearm problems down the road than one who hasn’t. Our good luck here in Paradise is that the Kittitas Valley Rifle & Pistol Club offers – in the midst of its competitive league activities – its family-centered Light Rifle Class League for winter shooting.

If you have a .22 or a good air rifle and want to involve your family in a winter-long program of inexpensive fun, instruction and good shooting, this is your opportunity. Come to the club’s HQ (608 West 15th Avenue) tomorrow and meet the range and those who operate it. If you can’t make it tomorrow, you will still be able to sign up for the winter league. I can assure you, based on a long history of shooting and countless conversations with other shooters, the training and shooting pleasure of this winter will still light your youngsters’ eyes a half dozen decades down the road. You will make a family memory that will never fade.

Here is an opportunity for you and your family to develop the skills, patience, discipline and confidence that family recreational shooting programs promise and deliver. It starts just in time to be one of the best Christmas gifts you will ever hand your household.

Hal Mason and other officers will tell you that KVRPC’s Light Rifle Class League is a “do your own thing night under a rangemaster’s watchful eye, and a lot of fun. We have swinger targets and paper targets, and at times we set up some steel critters. All in a warm safe environment. Cheap too.” The 16 week league program starts tomorrow. Bring your favorite .22 caliber rifle or .17 or larger air rifle (under 10 pounds) or even BB gun, ammo and a desire for safe fun. Everything else will be waiting for you; regulation 10-bull NRA targets, a modern heated range facility, the direction of a qualified range master and coaching as needed/desired.

One other family-related opportunity at the KVRPC range is the NRA Basics of Pistol Shooting for Women class, taught by Marilyn Mason. No previous experience or NRA affiliation is needed to learn the skills and earn a course certificate. Reach Marilyn at 509-962-3002 or

The KVRPC range is at 608 W 15th in Ellensburg. Everyone who enjoys shooting light rifles is welcome to come, learn about, and take part in the 18-19 shooting season. Call Mel Goudge at 509-925-4285 or Hal Mason at 509-962-3002 for more details

This range and opportunity is for you and your family. This is for you to discover (or rediscover) the joy of safe recreational shooting and the deep pleasure of watching kids or grandkids develop skill and confidence as they punch little round holes in paper. This is for lifelong pleasure.

All about Those Bird Counts

Written by Jim Huckabay on November 28, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

Last week, Gloria Baldi (long time active board member of our Kittitas Audubon Society) and I were discussing North American bird counts and dates for upcoming local counts. As the family-friendly Thanksgiving Bird Count was about to happen, Gloria thought I might be interested in an article about its possible demise.

Our conversation got me thinking about the four birdcounts about which we most often hear, their importance, and how little many of us know about them. Start with the just-completed Thanksgiving Bird Count, then look to the Christmas Bird Count. In mid-February the Great Backyard Bird Count happens, and in spring, across North America, the Breeding Bird Survey will happen. At a variety of levels, these counts involve huge numbers of birders, and give us insight into environmental conditions over time.

The article Gloria sent me was from the North Coast Journal, published in northern California’s Humboldt County. Kimberly Wear’s piece, “Bye Bye, Bird Count” focused on John Hewston, a retired prof from Humboldt State University and the coordinator, for the past 25 years, of the Thanksgiving Bird Counts.

The Thanksgiving count was started by professor Ernest Edward of Sweet Briar College in Virginia in 1966. Hewston took over tracking the counts in 1992. The count was designed to be simple; those who want to play get their forms online from a site publicized each year, pick a 15-foot diameter circle (often easily watched from inside the house) and spend an hour counting the birds that appear in the circle. The results of the nearly 500 counts are recorded and supplied to all participants, as well as to various scientists and organizations which monitor bird populations and trends – the 50 years of records are highly valued.

Hewston was drawn to birding nearly 90 years ago. “In those days,” he was quoted as saying. “that wasn’t anything anyone did but little old ladies in tennis shoes.” His lifelong love of birding led him to create newsletters and surveys – and the Thanksgiving Bird Count. He is now retiring (at the age of 93) from his tallying and tracking duties. The future of “his” count is unknown at this time.

The Christmas Bird Count (CBC) was proposed by ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, an officer of the fledgling Audubon Society. Observers and serious scientists were alarmed about declining bird populations and the counting started on Christmas Day 1900. This year is the 119th year of the count – the longest-running citizen science activity in North America.

Starting in November of each year, birders wanting to in participate in the CBC can sign up and join in through the Audubon website. Then, on selected days between December 14 and January fifth, thousands and thousands of volunteers across the continent will face whatever the weather offers to count birds in a 15 mile diameter “count circle.” Generally, at least 10 volunteers count every bird they see in each circle, following specific routes or watching feeders. [Note that the Ellensburg, Washington, CBC will happen on Saturday, 15 Dec. Gloria Baldi, 509-933-1558, will have more information. The Cle Elum count will be on Monday, 17 Dec. with details available from Michael Hobbs at]

CBC data collected over the almost-119 years allow Audubon researchers, biologists, wildlife agencies and other stakeholders to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America. With other surveys, the century-plus of data provides a picture of our continent’s bird populations in time and space. That long look is critical to understanding birds and the habitat on which we all depend.

The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) started in 1998. This citizen science project happens annually in mid February. GBBC is a four-day event involving the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. Birdwatchers all across the globe are asked to count and report the birds in their home areas. Data is returned online and compiled for use in scientific research – and is generally available in near real-time. A number of other birdwatch events are now coordinated with the GBBC, and, under the watchful eye of expert birders, the solid data is widely informing awareness of population and habitat changes of common birds.

The North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), undertaken during nesting periods, is a joint project of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the Canadian Wildlife Service. The data from this survey, launched in 1966, forms much of the basis for the range maps found in field guides.

The survey counts along approximately 3700 active routes in the United States and Canada. Thousands of experienced birders participate each year, providing information used to produce continental-scale relative abundance maps for bird species observed, and some insight into population changes.

Bird counts are important. While the Thanksgiving Bird Count may be drawing to a close, the other counts will continue, and there are plenty of ways for the growing numbers of birders to help with similar ongoing efforts. After all, Hewston noted, “It’s a cool thing to do now, which it didn’t used to be.”

On Being Thankful

Written by Jim Huckabay on November 21, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

Webster’s New World Dictionary does it this way: “Thanks’giv’ing. 1. A formal public expression of thanks to God. 2. An annual U.S. holiday.”

We kicked off this week of being thankful at one of our regular scholarship dinners Sunday evening. The meal always involves a prayer of thanks, great food, and lively conversation about recent or distant moments for which we are grateful – weddings, health, time with friends and family, and those who deeply enriched our lives before dementia, Alzheimer’s, or time led them on to their final rewards. We smiled and laughed and commiserated – a good start to this week of Thanksgiving.

I’d guess we’re all still thinking about these moments and the folks who made them.

Every year about now, I savor the last Thanksgiving with my stepdad – my Dad – Ray Fontes. He fell madly in love with my Mom when I was finishing high school. Quick with a quip and grateful for all he had, he showed me how to pull a family together with humor, acceptance, and a big loving heart. In exchange, I taught him to hunt antelope – I got the better of that trade.

At the turn of this century, Dad’s Alzheimer’s had him in a nursing home. I bailed him out for Thanksgiving dinner at Aunt Millie=s. He ate well, and seemed content, but Alzheimer=s kept taking him somewhere far away from the rest of us. Back at the nursing home we hung out for a few hours. We talked about hunting and fishing and memorable Thanksgivings. Now and again, his eyes lit up.

He smiled when I talked about that 1961 holiday. I was a DJ at KATN, Boise’s small country (country-western in those days) station. I produced a daily program, “Idaho Outdoors,” and interviewed folks like outdoor writer Ted Trueblood, Idaho Game & Fish’s mouthpiece, or anybody else who did fun outdoor stuff. One of my sponsors was George Dovel, who flew people back into the Salmon River Wilderness – River of No Return country.

George kept offering to fly me up onto the middle fork of the Salmon, to stay at one of the camps for a couple days. That late November, I got a few days off for a wilderness deer hunt. He warned me that I might be late getting back if the camp got snowed in, but I knew that couldn’t happen, so off we went. He dropped me at the Mahoney Bar camp, run by a Swedish guy and his wife, Maude.

Three planes were parked at the end of the dirt landing strip scraped from the mountainside above the river. Three women and six men were at the camp, in from California and Boise. They made me welcome.

After a good hunt and a relaxing couple days in camp, I was packing my gear when it started snowing. “Happens almost every year,” Maude said. “So what do we do?” “Well,” she said, “We plan Thanksgiving dinner!” Everybody pitched in gathering firewood or herbs, or preparing food. For that Thanksgiving day feast, we ate most of a deer, a small turkey stuffed with wild sage dressing, rolls and several pies – all prepared in or on a sheepherders’ sheet metal stove. After dinner, we played cards until the moon was up.  And talked about being thankful.

Ten days after he’d lifted me from Boise, George dropped me back in civilization. As I climbed out of his Supercub, I could still smell that wilderness kitchen. I remember nothing about how I made up the week of work I missed, but every Thanksgiving, the aromas put me back in that camp of thankful people.

That business about talking “with” dad was not entirely true. His eyes seemed to light up at the story, but he never said a word. Mostly, he stared off into some other dimension I couldn’t see. He=d chuckle when I said something I thought might be funny, but mostly I beat my gums about that Thanksgiving in the wilderness. And pretended we were, again, actually conversing about that beloved country up the River of No Return.

I am forever thankful for having Dad in my life – and for that final “conversation” moment.

There is so much more on my list – probably on yours, too. I am thankful that my grandkids all have a sense of belonging to the earth – that my Hucklings take time away from their “survival” obligations to chase wild plants and insects and fish and game and to taste wild air with my grand-Hucklings.

I’m thankful for this place with its wild things and wild places we can enjoy most anytime of the year nearby. I am thankful for the fish and game which sustain my family. And that we are able to harvest it within a couple hours of our home.

I’m thankful for the people who enrich our lives with their laughter and spirit and faith and love as we daily celebrate Paradise. I am grateful to live in a place where gentle breezes bring us ever-changing fresh air.

So, here=s to the season: to food made medicine with gratitude and prayer; and to your good health from joyfully consuming gifts of the earth.

Happy holidays.

Hypothermia – A First-Hand Perspective

Written by Jim Huckabay on November 14, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

It was an off-Reecer Creek meeting of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Society. The subject on the floor was our coming 2018-19 El Niño winter, and concerns about outdoor activity and hypothermia.

Forecasters are suggesting a fair amount of midwinter snow and/or rain along much of the coastal part of Washington, with strong suggestions of a relatively mild and dry winter for the rest of us. “So,” Homey mused, “this means hypothermia is not a concern for campouts this winter?” His question triggered flashbacks. “Well,” I smiled, “even a mild winter is still winter! Dress properly, pay attention to the weather, and use your brain. Hypothermia does not require freezing temperatures. I learned a critical lesson about hypothermia on a rainy, windy, 40 degree night. It was just this time in November, three decades ago – maybe the longest night of my life.”

My good friend Joe Zbylski had hunted at extreme elevations around the globe. Between us, we had more than 1,200 nights outdoors, with many in severe weather. As a physician and surgeon, Joe was an expert on hypothermia. As a meteorologist, I figured I was, too.

Mid-November, we headed into the Galiuro Mountains of southeastern Arizona after years of planning to hunt the little Coues whitetail, a beautiful desert cousin of the critters up north. (First scientifically described by US Army physician and naturalist Dr. Elliot Coues while at Fort Whipple, Arizona, 1865-66, “cows” is the proper pronunciation, but many call it “cooz.”) Two days in, we decided to move to a more remote location.

We drove up into a saddle between the two highest mesas in the area. We could reach remote country that hadn’t been hunted much, and scouted the country in opposite directions.  That afternoon, I took a Coues buck in a draw off the south mesa. We met at supper.

Joe was lusting after the country to the north, but it would require a spike camp. He decided to hunt south the next morning, and, if he found nothing, we’d pack up onto that northern mesa. I was all in – I really wanted him to find a buck.

Our weather had been picture perfect: sunny 60 and 70 degree days and crisp, starry nights. That morning, while Joe was south, I talked with three young Arizona hunters. One of them expressed concern about a “feeling” that a storm was coming. I looked around. A few clouds, but no evidence I could see for a storm and nothing on the radio. The kid was clearly wrong.

I carry a notebook and pen wherever I go. Following are the actual entries I made that night, holding a little Mag-Lite in my teeth.

“9:00PM.. I’m huddled in a WET down bag on top of Table Mtn. Raining off and on heavy w/wind I guess at 30-40 mph. 40+/- degrees. We packed up here this afternoon–took 2 1/2 hrs. Hard, steep climb–cliffs/rocks. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Who knows about these Nov desert storms?  Not me! Not cold–just wet (a little) and wishing I could sleep. Joe is snoring away. We just carried along a light rain fly & it ain’t much. Had a good supper. Did see two deer–one buck–when the weather broke for awhile at sunset. Otherwise it’s been foggy rainy and windy! Thinking about the kids.

“11:00PM. Water wicking into/onto my bag, all over my back. Made couple adjustments w/rain fly, but little help. Wind is so strong, can’t keep it away from my bag. Trying not to move because most of me is warm, if VERY uncomfortable. Right foot in a pool of water…feet OK–thanks God, for wool. Meditated again.

“11:38. Very uncomfortable–legs, butt ache terribly. What if I got rain gear from pack and walked back to truck? Could walk around and get out of wind? Would work? ..Can’t sleep, time crawling. How will I get through nite?

“12:25. Both feet soaked, not cold. Back and both shoulders/upper arms soaked–only cold on the TOP shoulder, exposed to rain fly still whipping around. Down side wet..but warm. All wool good. Still so cramped. Turned over–difficult, very squishy, more comfortable.

“1:18. Ask Joe how he’s doing–rain fly doesn’t sag him so much. Says Oh just grat! Off & on perods of uncontrolble shaking. Think I’ll walk back to truck. Walk around otside to wrm up a little? Bad idea, says. Wet & windy still. Joe hands me Hershy minute ago. Almonds even. Helps. Only forearms & shirt pockets dry. Must protect journal, pen, glasses. Don’t standing this til light.

“1:45 Oh God. Now I see. Had chance to hear the kid about storm. Really wanted to get up here…Joe to hunt this place. Two guys w/100s fall & winter nites! And we din’t take tent–just this damn water retarded rain fly. One little screwup. Not using intuition..trying to FORCE WX to be OK. Meditat agin. And agan.

“3:00 Somtimes lesons com HARD. very hard.”

Morning finally came. The fog dispersed, the sun was warm, the desert was beautiful.

Be careful out there, Homey. Hypothermia can sneak up on you. Every time I go out, I remember.