On Being Goosed

Written by Jim Huckabay on January 10, 2014. Posted in Uncategorized

On Sunday, we took a drive out into the Columbia Basin.  We went to see Buddy Morris, to continue work on the book we are putting together.  When I talked to him, arranging the time for our confab, he said, “Oh, great day for a drive!  You’ll see lots of Canada geese—all over.  They will have your mouth watering.  And I know a couple guys who would show you where to lay out in a field and freeze your a#@ to get some.”  I have heard such offers before.  We saw no geese on the drive.
You know about Canada geese, right?  Over recent decades, all over the country, Canada geese have transformed from magnificent delicious game birds to urban vermin.  At the same time, in more rural areas, we still awake on late fall mornings yearning to hear the honking of wild Canadas trying to decide if our decoy spreads are worthy.  We hunger for a wild goose hot from the oven, or some of the late Gus Mircos’ incredible goose breast medallions.
This juxtaposition of goose images got me digging for a decade-old email from Colorado buddy Gus.  We did morning shows together for a few years at KOA Radio in Denver.  Gus loved hunting and eating geese, and we shared many crisp mornings among his self-described “brilliantly-arranged decoy spreads,” and many afternoons chasing pheasants.  Gus lived north of Denver, in an area where the geese were both urban vermin and wild sport.  “Hey Jim,” he wrote.  “Just finished your column on Pheasant Farms…and just got the goose blind dug in yesterday.  Looking forward to popping a few next weekend…my part in ridding the area of sky carp.  Yummm.  Stay well!”
Morris’ offer, and reviewing Gus’ email, stirred a memory way back in my mind. About this time in 1990, editor and buddy Brad Johnson called to tell me of incredible wild goose hunting in Northeast Colorado.  This was Gus country, only a few years after tens of thousands of Canada geese had taken ownership of Denver’s parks and green places—never leaving town.  Brad was so excited that I was quickly seduced into an end-of-season wild goose adventure.
Our departure time got earlier each time we talked about the trip.  After a big snowstorm the day before our hunt, Brad called to move it to 3:30 a.m. (“Just to be on the safe side…”).  As we rolled north on I-25, Brad filled me in.  We would have breakfast with his buddy Ben and a couple guys from Ducks Unlimited, then head into the cornfield.
Breakfast—as always on such mornings—was perfect.  Everything seemed normal as we psyched ourselves for the thousands of geese that would pile into our decoys. Brad hummed happily to himself.  He and I would share a blind, while Ben and the DU guys would be in another. My first hint about the back story of the day came when the straight-faced young farmer said to Ben, “Boy, you shoulda seen ’em yesterday…the skies were filled!”  Brad and Ben smiled at each other.
The sun rose into a flawless blue sky, as we grew anxious in the pit.  Brad bragged on Ben’s ability to predict the best goose days…  And how he never missed…

As the sun climbed, Brad borrowed my binoculars to watch geese flapping on the distant Jackson Reservoir.  “Yup,” he’d say, “they’re getting ready..”  Each time I looked, those flapping wings were in the exact same spot.  “Anytime, now,”  He’d say.

10 a.m.  I looked again at the flapping “geese” on Jackson.  “Brad,” I ventured, “those things are starting to look pretty mechanical to me.. Like battery operated wings, or something..  And why would a goose come clear out here when metro Denver has all that greenery?” “Oh no, I’m sure they’re geese.  They’re all over up here.  Just be patient.”  Then he hummed and smiled.

At one point, I looked toward the other blind.  Ben and the DU guys were lolling in the decoys.  When they saw me watching, they waved us out.

11 a.m.  Brad talked me out of leaving the blind, and angrily motioned for them to return to theirs.  “Hmmm,” I thought, as unacceptable possibilities crept into the back of my mind.  Then, I thought, “Nah…”  We threw snowballs at the decoys and looked at flapping geese.

12:00 Noon.  More snowballs.  Brad confirmed with me that it was Noon, then climbed out of the blind.  Ben brought us lunches.  Brad and Ben agreed that I’d stayed in the blind ’til noon.  Brad hummed and smiled.  Ben frowned.

Finally, I GOT it.  There were no geese outside metro Denver.  Brad and Ben knew it.  With nothing else to do bet on until the Super Bowl, Brad had bet Ben that he could get me on the road before 4:00 a.m. and keep me standing in the middle of a cold empty cornfield until after Noon.

I know money was exchanged; Brad even bought my lunch.  “Look at it this way,” he said.  “Ben didn’t get a single goose, and you and I never missed a shot all day.  Perfect!”  He was humming and smiling.  I was pretty sure I’d been goosed.

Now I’m thinking maybe I need to know a little more before heading to the Basin for geese.

Toward Tomorrow–A Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights

Written by Jim Huckabay on January 3, 2014. Posted in Uncategorized

About this time a year ago, Jerry Pettit and I started a conversation about firearms.  Sometime not long after, we began discussing my ideas about a Washington Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights.

Upon my return from Christmas in Denver, I intended to pick up the banner again.  As so often happens when I put an intention into the Universe, the conversation becomes richer with intervening Denver moments.

I have a fair number of young Grand-Hucklings.  All of the Hucklings who are parenting them have had extensive experience with firearms and the outdoors, and an abiding interest in their children’s outdoor connections.  Our conversations about my hope for our statewide Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights, and the safety and skills training which might accompany it, were positive and straightforward—it is critical for kids… and for our future.  Given that these Grand-Hucklings range from three to 19, somewhere in there were conversations about age-appropriate training and outdoor opportunities.

The day after Christmas, my nineteen-year-old grandson stepped off a commuter train on Denver’s east side.  Preoccupied with his University of Denver homework and his Kempo training, he realized too late that he was at the wrong station.  Almost immediately, a young man shoved a handgun into his chest, and said “A bullet in your chest or get down!”  Two others stepped in behind him, gently prodding him with knives and making small cuts in his coat.  They relieved him of his laptop, his new cell phone and his wallet, but left him with his textbooks.  No stranger to firearms and their handling, and well-practiced in the inner stillness of the proper Kempo response to sudden attacks, he remained calm and quiet.  His first thought, he told us later, was “Why won’t he just say ‘Please?’”

Some hours after, a woman found his ID in the trash a distance from the station—and the $2,000 check my son had given him for tuition.  The police took his statement and seemed genuinely concerned about the robbery (as well as security around these commuter rail stations), but without bloodshed, the incident apparently became a lower-priority problem.

On my drive back to Paradise, I found myself mulling over what I had NOT heard in the half-dozen or more times he retold the story of being robbed.  Not once did anyone ask—other than the police—anything about the three guys’ ages or their ethnic/racial backgrounds.  Over and over, I wondered if that was because such information just isn’t important anymore, or because we all knew already.

I have written about this stuff and I have spoken widely about this stuff.  The bottom line is that more and more kids are learning to live without an earth connection, and that shows up as a sort of generalized fear in their lives.  That fear is what causes so many young men to turn to violence—to a meanness—as a coping mechanism.  I have no doubt that it is only through some hands on connection that young people develop a true sense of responsibility for themselves and others, and a sense of security in our own lives.

Over a couple decades of my life in Denver, I helped get many inner city and disadvantaged kids into the outdoors with the intention that they develop a connection with Nature which might ground them and help them navigate difficult times.  I watched many of them blossom and light up, and I had genuine hope that none of them would one day shove a firearm into a person’s chest.  Making sure children know that they have a fundamental right to connect with Nature and be exposed to the range of ways that we all connect is a huge step forward, I think.

Thus, Jerry and I continue pursuing thoughts about firearms, a public conversation about the issues with which people across America are struggling, and the proper form for our proposed statement of kids’ outdoor rights.  As an active member of the Washington Sportsmen’s Outdoor Caucus, the 95-year-old Kittitas County Field and Stream Club (the oldest organized sportsmen’s group in the state) will present our proposed resolution to legislators who have already agreed to sponsor it.

It isn’t yet in the form we want it to be, but below is a pretty good idea of what we will pass along to Senator Roach’s Legislative Assistant, Charlie and the other sponsors.  “The children of Washington have the right to discover and experience the outdoors through activities including the following: Create an outdoor adventure; Explore a trail; Camp under the stars; Go fishing; Discover nature; Explore Washington’s heritage; Go on a picnic; Play in a park, in the water, in the snow, on the rocks; Go hunting; Learn to be safe around firearms and other outdoor tools.”

Here’s to 2014, and building a foundation for our children’s safe outdoor future…

A Gift: Another New Year

Written by Jim Huckabay on December 27, 2013. Posted in Uncategorized

Wow, 2014, already…  This is new ground for me.  It appears that I have now outlived the men in my family for seven or eight generations.  You may have stumbled into the same experience.  This probably calls for a rendition of Auld Lang Syne, or something; it seems to be a sort of double opportunity to make the most of another great year in Paradise.  So what are we to make of this much anticipated—or surprising—shiny New Year?

You likely recall that I gave up on New Year’s Resolutions quite a while ago, right after The Old Man went back to the other side.

In the summer of 1980, my father (he’d called himself The Old Man since I was a small boy) and I spent a week of long days at my Denver home reminiscing and talking about anything and everything either of us ever wanted to know about the other.  We both felt we had happily completed a huge number of unfinished conversations.

Late in the following January, I found myself taking a series of hops from Denver to Wenatchee to deliver his eulogy.  As the commuter swept over the Columbia and dropped onto that runway, it dawned on me that he’d left me with a greater gift than I might have ever imagined. I realized that I had already failed to keep most of my New Year 1981 resolutions, and the whole idea seemed rather pointless.

At the service, I started thinking about completion.  For some time after his death, I wrestled with a deep empty place inside.  Oddly, at the same time, I felt complete about our relationship.  It had to be because we had taken the time to complete our time the summer before.  I left his funeral feeling that “completions” were probably more valuable than “resolutions.”

After that, I mostly spent the latter part of each year working to free up the new one.  That mindset pretty quickly corresponded with some pretty cool events and occurrences.  Case in point: business dating back to 1961.

I was a 19 year‑old DJ for a new country and western radio station in Boise.  Field & Stream Magazine’s Ted Trueblood, arguably one of the two best and most popular outdoor writers in America, lived in Nampa, just down the road.  I wanted to do a daily feature on Idaho=s outdoors, so I found a sponsor, and lined up guests.  I knew there was no way Ted Trueblood would talk with some local kid on the radio, but on a hunch I called him.  He was delighted, of course, and was a weekly regular until I joined the Air Force.

Like a million others through the 60s and 70s, I wrote and submitted articles to outdoor rags and mags, trying to get one of those elusive “writer” or “author” stipends.  At one point, I could cover my desk with rejection slips in one or another color, size or type.

I often thought about writing to Ted, but figured he probably had enough to do.  By 1972, the pile of rejection slips was still growing, so I wrote him, asking for any coaching he might have.  What I got back was amazing.

He went through my story line by line, typing out his comments.  He gave me encouragement and advice.  He thought I had ability, and pointed out that he would discourage me if he thought I should forget writing.  I was struck by his kindness and generosity.  By then, I was heading to Colorado to profess at CU, and I let the writing sit.  I vowed to someday properly thank him.

In the mid-80s, Ted Trueblood died.  Soon after, I met his son, Jack, who worked for Idaho Fish & Game.  Then, I crossed paths with Clare Conley, Ted=s old editor at Field & Stream.  I wrote a long letter about my experience with Ted, dug out his letter, and mailed the package to Conley and Jack—on New Year’s Eve, 1986.

The following year, for the first time, I got paid for my writing.

These days, I have questions I start asking myself right after Christmas.  Questions like AWho did something this year which changed your life, or a way you did something in your life?@ or AWho got you out fishing or hunting or outdoors when you figured it wasn=t going to happen?@ or AWho made an impossible day workable with a kind word or a pat on the back just when you needed it? or AWho showed you a new fishing hole, or a new technique for fishing an old one?@  New questions come up every day.  Answering those questions, with the right mix of gratitude and action, helps me spend the end of an old year successfully freeing up the new one.

So here’s to 2014!  And to being free to receive all it will offer each of us.

The Art of Last Minute Gifting

Written by Jim Huckabay on December 20, 2013. Posted in Uncategorized

Not exactly last minute, since there are days and days left, but let us consider possibilities.

In my mind, any outdoor gift—last minute or not—ought to make or represent a connection between the giver and getter.  Gifting is about connecting with people.  A real gift acknowledges that connection and the people on both ends of the exchange.  Such a gift, given freely and joyfully, may last forever, and will very likely have no price tag.

I learned that lesson a long time ago.  You’ve probably heard this tale before, but the experience changed my life, and I like to hear it again from time to time.

On a warm summer afternoon in Denver, about four decades ago, eleven-year-old son Tim wanted ice cream.  I was mildly preoccupied with chores, but it seemed like a good day for the three mile hike.  We told his mom what we were doing and set out.  Along the way, we studied clouds and plants and bugs and a dead cat and a soil horizon exposed in a road cut.  We laughed and questioned and felt wonder.  On the way home, in this space of wonder we had created together, we ate our ice cream and studied it all again.

Months later, during a tough work week, I had a five-evening stretch of hauling Tim all over Denver to pick up scouting uniforms and paraphernalia.  Wherever we went, it seemed, they had just sold out what we needed, and sent us elsewhere.  That weekend, I was short-tempered and in a paper grading marathon, when he complained that we hadn=t spent any time together.  With the young man temper The Old Man left me, I snarled at him about wasting our evenings all week chasing scouting stuff–together.  He wrinkled his brow and looked at me, clearly confused.  “Nahh..  We haven’t spent any time together since we did that ice cream and bugs hike, dad.”

After that stunning revelation, as part of each kid=s Christmas or birthday gift, I gave a block of time to be happily spent doing something the kid wanted to do.  To this day, my Hucklings rarely remember toys, or stuff, but nearly always recount times we spent joyfully doing their thing.  It works for adults, too.

One of my favorite outdoor holiday family “activity” gifts has to be wildlife watching and photography.  Grab the kids and whatever photo taking devices they have—or pick up some of those little disposable cameras—and go look for wild critters.  Take binoculars and spotting scopes, and hot chocolate, coffee, cookies, sandwiches or whatever else your gang needs to make an outdoor adventure memorable.  The part that brings it all together is loading the images into a family photo file or scrapbook.  (If they shoot film, get it to one of the one-hour processing places around town, and then load the digital images or photos.)

Here in the valley, wildlife is all over.  Lower Cooke Canyon, Coleman Creek, Reecer Creek or Manastash Road will get you into wintering range for seeing deer.  Bald eagles are beginning to show themselves in the valley and in the Canyon.  Elk are most likely up Joe Watt Canyon and scattered over to the Heart K Ranch at the mouth of the Taneum.  Down the Yakima Canyon are deer and several bunches of California bighorn sheep (watch traffic and both sides of the road).

Drive to the elk feeding at Oak Creek Wildlife Area and bighorns feeding at the Cleman Mountain Site.  Both sites are near the point west of Naches where Highway 410 and Highway 12 split.  At the intersection, turn north onto the frontage road and follow it to the bighorn sheep feeding site.  You cannot miss the fencing and the signs.  For the elk feeding, turn south onto Highway 12, and look for the signs (and elk) on the right.  Critters should be now showing up.  It is worth the drive, and kids get very excited about being the first to spot some critter or other.

All the local outdoor gear shops are still open.  (By the way, if you opt for gifting a Tannerite exploding target, please attach a caveat about cleaning up the resulting mess in our outdoors.  One of my favorite homeys properly chewed my backside about ignoring that reminder..)

You have time, too, to consider the merits of homemade gifts.  I have hand-knitted scarves and sweaters, an ammo box made by a close friend and an old leather “possibles” pouch for small things that want to be together.  All are treasure lasting far longer than it took to make them.

In 1955, I asked Grampa Minshall about a scarf he wore outdoors.  He said Grandma made it the first hunting season they were together.  He wore it on wintry 1899 mornings in Fort Collins, Colorado, when he and his chums made a few bucks market hunting ducks and geese.  The scarf looked that old, too, and he patted it every time it went around his neck.

Autographed copies of the updated third printing of my “WILD WINDS” book are still available at Jerrol’s and the University Store, along with a lot of other great outdoor reading.

Last-minute Christmas or other gifting is simple, I think.  Whatever you give, imbue it with joy.

Merry Christmas…

Winter and Death

Written by Jim Huckabay on December 13, 2013. Posted in Uncategorized

It was one of those off-Reecer Creek meetings of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association.  The subject on the floor was the bitter cold, the winter looming and how the wild critters of Paradise will manage this year.  Although NOAA and the National Weather Service models are calling for a close to average winter for us, homeys are quite aware that anything can happen short term.  Thus, the questions posed about our wildlife—and maybe a concern or two about how we humans deal with winter.

As is usual in these conversations, the first subject up was survival of the youngest—the deer fawns and elk calves.  In a given hard winter, the youngest are the first to go, and the sight of a struggling youngster always pulls at the heart strings.  Of course, this is pretty much as nature designed it.  Watch wildlife in a feeding area during one of those winters and you will see does and cows actually driving calves and fawns off food.  Think about it: if the females die, how will the herd recover?  The very old are the next to go.  And how many males do you need?

Winter is the limiting season for wildlife: the time when habitat is most limited and wild critters are most at risk.  Once a deer or elk has lost 30% of its total body weight, it is generally doomed, even if it receives food, or spring comes.  In any given winter across the colder regions of the planet, it’s not uncommon for ten or twenty percent of big game herds to starve, and die.  It can be hard to watch, and makes for dramatic headlines.

A couple of us flashed back to the hard winter of ’96 and ’97, and that headline: “Sad plight of the orphaned elk calf.”  Of course, elk calves are expected to be on their own by winter, so the fact that the calf wasn’t with other elk (which it would have normally been) did not make it “orphaned.”  It did make an interesting headline, and fodder for a community wide conversation.

Mostly bones and a distended stomach (a clear indication of starvation or inability to digest food), it took up residence on the patio deck of a home off Hanson Road, and the homeowner called 911.  As we recalled the story, dispatchers had recorded the call as “an attack by a bull elk in the Manastash area west of Ellensburg.”

Responding officers threw snowballs and fired shots into the air to scare off the calf, to no avail.  Yelling and threats of arrest were equally ineffective.  Eventually, Fish and Wildlife responded.  The calf already had two hooves in the Spirit World, and was put down with a clean shot.  Sad, but likely in keeping with the natural order of winter.

As the calf drama unfolded, Morris Uebelacker and I were introducing some of our students to a film study of Cree Indian winter life in the boreal forests of northern Quebec.

The video detailed the lives of three Cree families who shared one family’s hunting territory (territories are “rested” for a year or two so that game stocks are not depleted) over a long winter.  The sixteen members of the three hunter‑gatherer families shared one cabin for the entire time.  They ate a lot of beavers and snowshoes (hares, not the footwear) along with a couple bears, some fish and birds.  Viewers saw ceremonies of respect, skinning and cooking, as well as the organization enabling the three families to thrive in close quarters.

Near the end of the story, as spring finally approached, the men killed four moose cows.  Unborn fetuses were laid out in ceremony and given a last meal from their mothers, who would now sustain the Crees. The story was told in a straightforward way, without the “romance of the hunter‑gatherer way of life” stuff the students expected.  We figured the students might have adverse reactions to seeing creature after creature being reduced to food and cash‑crop hides or furs, but their responses were as straightforward as the story itself.

One vegetarian in the group did express some revulsion over the killing and eating of so many creatures, but an understanding of why.  Other responses fell roughly into three categories.  Several were surprised at the “modern” tools used by the Crees, given the very primitive on‑foot food gathering necessary to survival for the three families.  Probably second was an amazement that three families could live so happily and peacefully for seven or eight months in a one‑room cabin.  Last was surprise that these people, living in such harsh conditions, so close to the edge of food supplies the forest had to provide, were so well‑adjusted in this day and age.  While only one student wanted to go live with the Crees, most felt that there were things we, as humans, could learn and understand about living more in balance with earth and each other.

For our class, the whole experience—the close-up elk calf drama and far away Cree survival—was surprisingly unromantic, but real.

Down through time, winter has been the season of death for all living beings.  For wildlife, for the Cree people and other hunter‑gatherers, winter is the hard season.  Of course, we advanced, modern‑living humans have insulated ourselves from all that.

Or have we?