Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Demise of the Blue Grouse and the Extinction of 4-Wheelers

Sue and I bought our first real pick-up truck for our move to Alaska. It was a 1984 Ford F150 4X4 with a single cab and a full sized bed. This was the basic truck back in the mid 1980’s and it even had a manual transmission. There weren’t many extended cabs, double cabs, crew cabs, and maxi-cabs like there are today. Nowadays, it’s a rare thing to see a regular cab pick-up with a full sized bed. We kept this truck for several years and through our first 2 kids. We just piled in and went places.

After a few years in Alaska and Nevada, we returned to Idaho, and one of my favorite things was to load up two 4-wheelers and go Blue grouse hunting on the forest roads of Boise County. Blue Grouse are the kings of the forest grouse because of their large size. However, they are not too bright, and not too fast. The term ‘bird brain’ may spring from the Blue Grouse’s intellect. They sometimes look blue in direct light but mostly they seem to be gray. I felt like I had a lot in common with the Blue Grouse and I always liked trying to match wits with these brainless birds.

My father owned two 4-Wheelers upon our return from Alaska. He was always willing to let me borrow them, as long as I promised not to make him go with me. The smaller of the two 4-Wheelers was a Suzuki 185. Two people could easily lift it into the back of the truck by lifting the front wheels up onto the tailgate and then lifting the rear and pushing it in. One person could do it in a pinch. I would then turn this little 4-wheeler sideways, in the very front of the truck bed. After that, I could lift the second 4-Wheeler into the truck and push it up against the side of the little one. They fit pretty tight and the tailgate would shut behind them so they couldn’t move around at all. No straps, no ramps, no trailers needed. It was a great set up and made the trips into the mountains quick and easy. The infamous brother-in-law Bill often accompanied me on these trips, as his mind matched up well with the Blue Grouse also. He was always willing to show me how strong he was when I would challenge him with phrases such as, “I bet you can’t lift that little 4-Wheeler into the truck by yourself”. He would prove me wrong every time I would say that, which turned out to be pretty often after long days of chasing grouse, chuckar, deer, and elk through the mountains all day. He would lift the front end of the little Suzuki on to the tailgate and then grab the back rack and hoist it up and in the truck. He would then turn and smile at me and brag that his grandfather always told him that he was strong as an ox, and just as smart. He was always real proud of that compliment.

I spent several years with this truck and the two 4-wheelers and I would also take the kids up the trails as often as we could get away. As kids got older and busier, it became harder to do. Eventually my dad sold his 4-Wheelers and I sold the truck and moved on to a mini-van. The mini-van only lasted about a year and a half until I was finally able to convince my wife that a 1992 Ford F350 7.4 Liter Crew Cab Turbo Diesel 4X4 would be much more sensible and practical for our family of 6 than a mini-van could possibly be.Many years have passed by and last fall Bill called me and said that we needed to go Blue Grouse hunting again. I was all in. Bill said he had an ATV that we could take and ride up the old 4-wheeler trail. He said that an ATV is an All Terrain Vehicle and it looked a lot like a 4-wheeler, only better. He explained to me that there is no such thing as a 4-wheeler anymore, they’ve all been replaced with ATVs. These new ATVs are bigger and stronger than the old 4-wheelers. I pondered over the end of 4-wheeler for a while and then reminisced about riding them up and down the mountains and only rolling that little Suzuki twice. I then decided that progress must go on and that these new ATVs must be an improvement or the 4-wheelers wouldn’t have gone extinct. I now had a Toyota Tundra crew cab with a 6.5 foot bed. I figured that would be plenty of room for one of these new ATVs. The day before we were to go grouse hunting, I decided to check the Fish and Game regulations to make sure the Blue Grouse season was still the same, and to check the open units and limits. My digression for the day is below

The Fish and Game regulations used to be a small booklet of 10 or 12 pages and were pretty easy to find the season dates, limits and open areas. The new regs are 80 or 90 pages per booklet, and there are several booklets. There are pages and pages of advertisements, explanations of what weapons can be used, specifications of weapons, bullets, types of scopes, arrows and broadheads. There are tables of shooting hours, sunrises and sunsets, as well as maps, animal descriptions, pictures, and natural habitat research. These regs are also color coded for recent changes, units, zones and special permit hunts. They explain how some hunts are restricted to specific units while others are in certain zones. Zones are made up of parts of 1 or more units. Deer hunts are in units but elk hunts are in zones. There are then long legal descriptions of each unit’s boundaries. Hunters pretty much have to carry the regs with them nowadays and when an animals is sighted, sit down and read the regs to determine where you are, which unit you’re in, which zone you’re in, what’s the date, what time it is, what kind of animal you see, is it male or female, how many antler points does it have, what weapon you are carrying, in order to determine whether you can shoot said animal where it used to be standing.

End of Digression.

I looked through the bird regulations a couple of times but there was no longer a Blue Grouse season listed. I couldn’t believe it, what was going on here? As I looked closer I discovered there was a new grouse season in the same area and at the same time as the old Blue Grouse season. This new grouse season was for a bird called the Dusky Grouse. I had never heard of such a bird. I read about their characteristics and even looked at a picture. Dusky Grouse looked eerily similar to the Blue Grouse. These Dusky Grouse must have slowly moved in and taken over the Blue Grouse range and the Blue Grouse must now be extinct or endangered. When I figured that out, it motivated me to go out and shoot all those pesky Dusky Grouse for ruining our Blue Grouse hunting.

Bill has never been one for reading the regulations, so I called him up and told him that there is no more Blue Grouse hunting in Idaho, and that Blue Grouse appear to be extinct. Bill was overcome with disbelief and anger. I calmed him down by telling him that there is a Dusky Grouse hunt in the same area that is open. He had never heard of a Dusky Grouse either but was immediately interested. He then wondered if we were capable of matching wits with these new fangled birds. Bill asked what Dusky meant, and I told him I wasn’t sure but to me it sounded like the time of day just before it gets Darky. We set our sights on finding some of these Dusky Grouse and thinning them out so maybe the Blue Grouse could make a comeback.I got to Bill’s house early the next day. He was wearing his camo baseball cap that he always likes to wear, he says it keeps people from seeing what he is thinking. I used to be skeptical of this theory until one day I realized that I can never see what he’s thinking, and I know him pretty well. He pulled the ATV around to my truck and I was shocked at how big it was. ATVs were much bigger than 4-wheelers. I didn’t think I’d be able to help lift it into the truck so I started to say to him that I bet he couldn’t lift that into my truck by himself when he stopped me and said that you don’t lift ATVs, you drive them up a ramp. He pulled a big folding ramp out of the garage and set it on the tailgate. He then rode the ATV up the ramp and into the back of the Tundra. Only it didn’t fit. I couldn’t shut the tailgate. This ATV was too long for a 6.5 foot bed! We then had to find some straps to tie it down so it couldn’t fall out. We then had to strap the ramp down too. I kept thinking about how great progress is. We now have huge ATVs, small truck beds, no Blue Grouse and 90 pages of color coded regulations with advertisements. I was beginning to understand why old men are cranky and talk about the good old days. We made it to our hunting spot, drove the ATV down the ramp and headed up the mountain. We had a loop we used to ride that went gradually up one side of a mountain and then came down pretty steep and quick on the other. It was about 12 or 13 miles up and 5 down. We rode the long route up to the top and didn’t see any Blue Grouse, which wasn’t surprising as they were extinct, but we didn’t see any Dusky Grouse either. I remembered that the steeper downhill was usually better hunting. We got off the ATV and walked down the hill a while. After less than a mile, Bill said he was going back to get the ATV and that he would ride it down the way we came up. I asked him why he didn’t just ride it down this steep trail that is shorter. He said that this was an old 4-wheeler trail and an ATV wouldn’t make it down. The 4-wheeler trail has got some narrow places and some bad spots in it, so he had to go down the other way. You sure wouldn’t want to get an ATV stuck, or roll it on an old 4-wheeler trail. I told him I would just walk down the old trail and meet him back at the truck.As I walked the old trail I thought again about how great progress is. How we now have smaller trucks, much larger ATVs, and much more complicated regulations, and how this is so much better now. I waxed a bit nostalgic about the 4-wheeler and the Blue Grouse now being extinct. I ended up shooting 3 or 4 of those Dusky Grouse on my way down the trail and I enjoyed the walk and views. The Dusky Grouse looked just like Blue Grouse. They were slow and not very bright, so we matched up well. In fact, I couldn’t tell the difference between them and the old Blue Grouse. I suppose I could get used to hunting the Dusky Grouse as much as I might miss the Blues. And I suppose progress is a good and necessary thing. I tried to vow to myself that I wouldn’t become a cranky old man and talk about the good old days, but my heart wasn’t in it.

Oh by the way, when my Dad sold his 4-wheelers, I bought the little one. I still have it and it still runs fine. But don’t tell anyone. We kept the Ford F350 for 17 years.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Bear Stand

Recently, I noticed that the string on my bow was broken and needed to be replaced. I took it to Cabela’s and walked back to the archery section. I was amazed at the new technology in bows, the new styles, fancy cams, wheels and cables. My Martin Firecat is a bit over 10 years old, but is way out of date. I also noticed how the price of things has gone way up. I suddenly liked my old bow just fine. My new string cost me $68.00. 15 years ago I could get a dozen arrows, a string, and some other options for that price. As I paced around waiting for my string to be installed, another $25.00, I noticed a tree stand. It was huge. It had ropes, clamps and chains to keep it attached to the tree and leveled. It had a padded chair and backrest, a retractable roof in case of rain or sunburn, and even a safety harness to clip into to keep one from falling out of the tree. The fabric and paint were all matching camo patterns. It also came with metal steps and handles that you screw into the tree to make the climbing easier and safer. It looked like something I might need, although I wondered if I could ever find it again if I put it up in a tree. As I stared at this fancy $1,200 behemoth, my mind wandered back to a simpler time, a time when tree stands were less complex and less expensive.

In the late 1980’s my wife and I moved back to Boise from Alaska. Much to my wife’s chagrin, I started spending more time with her brother Bill. It turned out that Bill and I had much more in common than anyone would have thought. We both liked hunting and fishing, and we played a lot of basketball together. We also found that in our teenage years, we both apprenticed under the same, little known but often followed, Greek philosopher, Dipp LeSchiticus. Bill talks like he was an honor student, but I never worked that hard at it, much like my high school courses.
When each fall rolled around, Bill and I spent a lot of time hunting and fishing together. Much of our hunting involved Garden Mountain. We hiked up and down the mountain a few times as well as riding 4 wheelers up the trail from Zimmer Creek. There was also a drivable road up the backside all the way to the top. We drove this road quite often. Back then, last few miles were a narrow, brushy stretch that scratched up my truck and tore the vent off the top of my camper shell the first time in. We always drove my truck after that because it was already scratched and torn up a bit. We would camp at one of several places on the top of the mountain, among them, the now infamous Dead Cow Camp.

My mind wandered to one particular spring. Bill and I were bored and antsy to get outside. We decided we should get out on the spring bear hunt and look for bears. We also figured that we should build our own tree stand, put out some bait for the bears, and just wait for them to come to visit. We knew there was still snow on Garden Mountain but thought we might be able to get to the top. We loaded up my truck with two 4-wheelers, two wooden pallets, various lengths and sizes of lumber, nails, hammers, saws and various other tools. We also tossed in our first round of bear bait. Old jars of fruit, a couple bags of old grain, and some fish and game meat left in the freezer for too many years. My truck had the Beverly Hillbillies look going on as we left town early one Saturday morning. The road up the mountain was on the North side. There was still some big snow banks in places so the truck didn’t get far off the valley floor before we hit deep snow. We pulled off to the side and unloaded all our equipment and supplies. We bounced the 4-Wheelers off the back of the truck and fired them up. It then took us at least an hour to load the pallets, tools, and food onto the 4-wheelers and strap it all down. I ended up sitting on the pallet’s edge as it was much larger than the 4-wheeler rack. We started up the mountain and made pretty good time in some places. The shady, protected corners were still snow covered and a few times we had to stop and muscle each 4-wheeler through the drifts. The higher we got the deeper the snow became and we were wearing ourselves out fighting uphill through the snow. We finally realized that we were not going to make it to the top, although we had gotten pretty high. We remembered a spot near the top that we had frequently seen game and had even shot a deer there a couple years back. We fought our way to that ridge. We arrived well after noon and unloaded our treasures. We only had to carry them about a hundred yards through the thick snow. We selected a spot about 25 feet high in a big pine tree and went to work. We spent hours climbing up and down the tree, cutting pallets and boards to fit, pounding nails and tying up ropes. Late in the afternoon we were exhausted, but, we had a pretty nice bear stand. It wasn’t quite level, it sloped down a bit towards the ground in the front. There was potential for slivers in the rear end, as I had learned from sitting on the pallet on the ride up, and it teetered back and forth a little bit. But overall it looked pretty good. We had even pounded some boards into the tree for steps. There was no padded chair, safety harness or rain cover, but we didn’t plan to hunt in the rain or fall out of the tree. We laid out the fruit, grain and frozen fish in an area open to the stand. We were pretty darn proud of ourselves as we packed up the empty jars and tools and readied ourselves for the trip down. Driving home we talked about how often we would bring up more bait and how one of us could sit in the stand and the other could hunt higher up the mountain. It was going to be a good spring hunt.

The next time I saw the bear stand was about a year and half later. I was driving up and over the top of the mountain to meet Bill for an elk hunt. I thought of that tree stand while driving that section of road. I stopped and got out. I walked the hundred yards off the road and looked at our stand. I found it easily enough. It was still in pretty good shape and seemed to be holding up fine. I noticed a game trail going by that looked like it had regular use. Some of the grain we left had sprouted and grown and it appeared to be nibbled on by the wildlife. I told myself that someday soon I would come back and sit in this tree stand and wait for the animals to come by.
I realized that it has now been about 15 years since we built that stand and somehow I’ve never actually sat in it and hunted. I’ve only been back there that one time.

I ended my day dream as the Cabela’s guy called to me and said my bow was ready. I retrieved my bow from him and gave the fancy tree stand one last look. Walking out of the store, I vowed to stop and check out the bear stand the next time I drive up the backside of the mountain. I’ll let you know what I find.
February 15, 2011