I am honored to announce that I have recently been approved for active membership in the Outdoor Writers Association of America.
The OWAA is the world’s leading organization of outdoor media professionals. They are the largest association of its kind too, and the oldest, having recently turned 90 this past April.
I am not quite that long in the tooth, but I can say that membership in this group is something that I first aspired to belong more than 50 years ago.
As stated on their website:
The mission of Outdoor Writers Association of America® is to improve the professional skills of our members, set the highest ethical and communications standards, encourage public enjoyment and conservation of natural resources, and be mentors for the next generation of professional outdoor communicators.
What we’re about:
OWAA is a nonprofit, international organization that represents a diverse group of professional communicators dedicated to sharing the outdoor experience. Members of OWAA are experienced outdoor people, the nation’s best:
film and video producers
bloggers and new media communicators (e.g. podcasters, webcasters)
communications and PR professionals
We aim to offer world-class resources, support, and inspiration for our members as they inform the public about outdoor activities, issues and the responsible use of our natural resources. Through OWAA membership and adherence to its creed and code of ethics, members are commissioned to provide honest, thorough, informed, responsible and unbiased outdoor coverage.
Join OWAA as an Outdoor Media Member
APPLY NOW!OWAA is comprised of nearly 800 individual outdoor communicators from the broad, modern spectrum of outdoor beats, from shooting to camping, backpacking to kayaking, wildlife watching to mountain climbing. From these diverse backgrounds and disciplines, members gather beneath the OWAA banner to hone skills, share philosophies, develop profitable business strategies and network with peers, conservation policymakers and industry trendsetters.
Criteria for Individual Membership
You qualify as an Active Member of OWAA if you meet one of the following:
You have sold and published—in any media—five stories, articles, photographs, videos or illustrations on outdoor-related topics in the past year.
You have published a book or worked on an income-producing film or any form of audio on outdoor-related topics in the past five years.
You are a full-time outdoor communicator in any media. Please see below for a list of qualifying positions.
You are a citizen journalist who writes for a blog or other digital media that is updated with original content at least twice a month and receives 500 AUVs (Average Unique Views) per month over a 12-month period, or generates income.
If you do not qualify for Active Member status, you qualify as an Associate Member if you are paid for some work described above. If you do not join as an Active or Associate Member and are enrolled in a course of study at the secondary or higher education level, you qualify as a Student Member.
OWAA’s bylaws and Board regulate the membership classes, criteria, and application process, and supplement and control what is said here. All applications must be made on a form approved by the OWAA Board, which will require that the applicant agree to be bound by certain principles of the organization, including the OWAA Code of Ethics.
Applicants for Active or Associate Member status must be sponsored by an OWAA Active Member. Both the applicant and the sponsor must verify that the applicant qualifies for the membership sought. Headquarters may be able to recruit sponsors for those desiring to apply and lacking a sponsor. An application for Student Member status must be signed by a teacher or educational advisor of the applicant.
All members must continue to meet membership criteria while in OWAA and may be subject to periodic credential reviews.
OWAA individual membership is intended to improve the personal and professional skills of our members. Individual membership should not be used to promote products, agencies, organizations or businesses.
Professionals working in the following areas qualify for OWAA membership. Other professionals may apply; consult headquarters with any questions.
Newspaper or Magazine writer, columnist, editor, designer or staff member: Works in one of these capacities for print or online publications.
Newspaper or Magazine freelancer: Works for print or online publications on a contract basis.
Photographer/Videographer: Works for magazines, E-zines or other outdoor-related publications.
Illustrator, Cartoonist or Artist: Published in any medium.
Film Editor, Scriptwriter, Director or Producer: Works in one of these capacities on a full-length film or video.
Broadcast Scriptwriter, Editor, Photographer, Director or Producer: Works on television or aired video or audio production in one of these capacities. Guest appearances do not qualify, but guest-hosting does apply.
Book Author, Editor, Designer or Producer: Works on a published book in any of these capacities.
Lecturer/Educator/Instructor/Nature Interpreter: Works in any of these capacities.
Full-Time Employee of Nonprofit Conservation or Recreation Agency: Public relations, publications and public information staff, and others who disseminate outdoor or recreational information.
Employee of Outdoor-Related Industries, Agencies, Associations or Organizations: Public relations and marketing staff.
You can read more about The Outdoor Writers Association of America Here
Acknowledgement of hard work is always appreciated, and we are proud to announce that Target Tamers has recently included us in their list of top hunting websites. – Michael Patrick McCarty
Top 59 Hunting Websites You Should Check Out Today
By Simon Cuthbert
I am sure you would rather be out hunting, but every now and then (when the weather or time is against you) you have to resort to the next best thing – losing yourself in the glory of a fellow hunter’s stories! With that in mind I have tracked down 59 of the best hunting websites packed with videos, pics, stories and podcasts to take your mind where your body can’t be – into the wilderness on a hunt. Here they are in alphabetical order and whether you are a deer hunter, trophy hunter, beginner or expert, there is something for everyone.
The Meat Eater
A popular website that has a mixture of posts & podcasts on all things hunting. With a name like ‘The Meat Eater’ it comes as no surprise that you can find some great, meaty recipes here too. Steven Rinella also hostshttp://meateater.vhx.tv/ and is active on social media.
The Will to Hunt
Will’s blog is about his hunting experiences and learning from others to become a better hunter. You will also find some reviews and Guest Posts on this website.
Through a Hunters Eyes
Michael’s blog is all about his hunting experiences which include fishing, rabbits, deer and more. There are a stack of great articles here!
Todd’s website is mostly product for sale, there are plenty of dvd’s you can buy. There is also a link to the White Knuckle Web Show and that has a heap of great videos that you can watch free here –https://vimeo.com/whiteknuckleproductions
It does not matter if you are a dove hunter, fisherman or deer and big game hunter, this website has you covered. Lots of videos, posts and great information on all things to do with hunting and the wilderness. They have a very solid following on facebook and twitter also.
“For the wild animal there is no such thing as a gentle decline in peaceful old age. Its life is spent at the front, in line of battle, and as soon as its powers begin to wane, in the least, its enemies become too strong for it; it falls.”
– Ernest Thompson Seton, Lives Of The Hunted, 1901
There is a place I have been that many elk hunters must eventually visit. The mountains may shine amidst spectacular landscapes and it may look like typical elk country, but somehow things are different there. It is a land of mystery and natural forces inaccessible by horseback, jeep or other conventional means. Inward rather than outward, it is a journey of the heart on a path unique to each individual. It is a place you only know once you get there.
I found myself in such a place some years ago, while archery hunting in the high desert country of northwestern Colorado. Elk hunting had been my passion for a couple of decades, more often than not with bow and arrow as the weapon of choice. I’d hunted more than a few of Colorado’s limited-entry units with a fair amount of success. And my overwhelming concern had always been the pursuit of the big bull – the bigger the better.
He filled my dreams and consciousness and became part of my daily motivation for living and working in Colorado. I would find him, and I would launch a broadhead deep into his chest. Of course, with that event, fame and fortune would soon follow.
I have always paid attention to “The Book”, and to who shot what where. I wanted very badly to be one of those fellows with the 27 record-book entries, who had just returned from Montana or Mongolia, or that private ranch many hunters drool over. You know the ranch of which I speak, the one with a Boone and Crockett bull on every other ridge. I wanted all of it, the recognition from my peers and the life that would come with my great success. The more entries the better and as fast as possible. I ran for the goal and rarely looked back. I can’t say nothing else mattered, but by god it was close.
Then, one long-awaited day, I found myself hunting a special-permit area in Colorado. It was indeed the land of the big bull, a trophy area of epic proportions and about as fine a spot as one could hunt without paying the big money. The animals were there. I had a tag, and I would fill it. I would take what was mine and move on.
I hunted a grueling 10 days. The terrain was rocky and mostly open, with occasional brush patches and stunted cedars. It looked like a moonscape compared to the timbered high country I was used to hunting. Getting close enough for a shot was tough, yet I was able to pass up smaller bulls and often found myself within arrow range of elk that would make most hunters light-headed. They made me light-headed. They were the biggest-bodied elk I have ever seen, with towering, gleaming branches of bone. They looked like tractors with horns.
As so often happens in bowhunting, however, something always seemed to go wrong. I made so many stalks and had so many close calls, the events are just a blur. I eventually missed not one but two record-book animals. Each time a shaft went astray, I screamed and wailed with self-pity, cursing my rotten luck and the useless stick and string in my hand. The prize was so close, yet always so far away.
Toward the end of the season, I glassed a small herd a couple of miles below me. Two were big bulls. One had cows, and the other wanted them. They were bugling back and forth and generally sizing each other up. I hurriedly planned a stalk and rushed downhill toward my dream.
I stalked and weaved and became enmeshed in a moving, mile-long skirmish line. More than once I slipped between the two animals as they worked their way through the brush and cedars. I saw flashes and patches of hide but was never able to loose an arrow. I knew that within few minutes a monstrous set of headgear would be laying at my feet. I felt I had been waiting for this moment all my life.
Soon the largest bull swung into the open sagebrush a couple of hundred yards below me, followed closely by a small herd of cows. Words cannot describe his magnificence. He was one of the finest specimens of elkness I have ever seen, with muscles that bulged and rippled under his skin. He was a bull of unique and exceptional genetics with a massive and perfect rack that appeared to stretch behind forever as he laid his head back to bugle. He was certainly at his absolute prime and, if the truth were known, perhaps a bit passed it and didn’t know it. He took my breath away. Then I remembered why I had come.
Meanwhile, the smaller and closer of the two bulls had become even more vocal, and soon it became obvious he would pass very close to me on his way down the hill. He was not quite as large as the old bull, but he was big enough all the same. My bow was up and my muscles taut as I began my draw – and suddenly he was running and he was gone. I watched spellbound as he broke into the open and headed for the elk below us.
It was one of those unexplainable moments when time stands still, and you become something more than yourself. I could have been a rock or a tree or an insect in flight. I was at once both an observer and participant in the great mystery, a part of something far larger than myself.
The air was electric and my body tingled as the two warriors squared off. The cows felt it, too, and crashed crazily over the ridge. It was as if they knew something extraordinary was going down and wanted no part of it. The bulls screamed and grunted wildly at each other from close range, with quite a bit more intensity than I had ever witnessed. And suddenly they were one. They would have made any bighorn ram proud, as they seemed to rear up on their hind legs before rushing and clashing with a tremendous crack. I watched as they pushed and shoved with all their might, a solid mass of energy and immense power surrounded by flying dirt and debris.
They showed no signs of quitting. Soon it dawned on me that they were too preoccupied to notice what I was doing, even though there was virtually no cover for a stalk. My legs carried me effortlessly over the rough and broken ground, and I was giddy with the exhilaration of the end so close at hand. The larger of the two was obviously tiring, and I remember feeling a pang of sorrow for an animal that would soon be beaten, probably for the first time in a very long time, and would now have to slink off humiliated and cowless.
They pushed and they struggled and, for a few moments, seemed to have reached a stalemate as I neared bow range. The old bull hesitated, then pushed, and when the other bull responded, the old bull spun like a Sumo Wrestler, took the uphill advantage and charged. I stood dumbfounded as the two hit the top of a shallow ravine and disappeared from view.
When I reached the edge of the drop-off, the fight was over. The old bull crawled slowly out of the ravine, managing to keep the only two trees between us all the while. He moved sorely and looked like he had just survived 10 rounds with Mike Tyson. I was probably the least of his problems.
I found the other bull where I knew he would be. I sent a shaft his way and ended what remained of his life, although his fate had already been sealed. A very long tine had done its job as well as any arrow ever could.
I collapsed by the side of that marvelous creature as if I were the one who’d just been beaten, and in a way I had. I stared off into space, confused, a little angry, and barely able to grope around in my pack for a gulp of water, half laughing, then crying. I don’t know how long I remained there before a distant bugle brought me back into the moment, reminding me of the work at hand and the long uphill walk back to my truck.
His head hangs in my den now, and I still stare at him in wonder and amazement. When my friends and family ask why I didn’t have him officially scored for the record book, I usually mumble some vague and incoherent answer, as the right words never seem to come.
For some reason, antler measurements have ceased to matter to me. It has something to do with realizing animals are much more than the sum of their parts. Hunting and the hunted remain a significant part of my life, but my reasons for hunting, and my life in general, have changed in some way I have yet to fully understand. Perhaps more than anything, I realize just how much I love to hunt. And that in itself is more than enough reason for doing it.
The bull’s proud head on my wall will always serve to remind me of that special place I have visited and hope to never forget.
I am, and will always be, forever humbled. Perhaps you have been there yourself.
“Elk hunting runs deep. Not that it’s always fun, because it isn’t. It’s a contrast in superlatives, ranging from agony to euphoria, and it will stretch your senses to the limit. It raises you higher, drops you lower, deep into your body, mind, emotions, and soul. You may like elk hunting, you may not, but definitely you won’t forget it”. – Dwight Schuh, Game Country, October, 1989
“A Bowhunter is a Hunter Reborn – Forever…” – Michael Patrick McCarty
Death Is A Most Serious Business
Unknown Artist Signature
Directly above is a photo of an original print from my personal collection. I have owned it for several years, and in fact found this at an antique store not long after I wrote this article. As you might imagine, it means a great deal to me.
I am unable to translate the title, nor identify the artist. I would love to do both, and also give proper attribution to the artist.
For Todd, it is a fitting end to a 26 year quest to draw a tag in one of Colorado’s Best Game Management Units.
I can’t wait to hear more of the story, but it certainly looks like it was well worth the wait.
Congratulations Todd. If anyone deserves a great bull elk, that would be you!
And to Ian, have patience, for no doubt, you will hunt there one day too…
We were all young once too!
“In my mind’s eye, I see young elk calves frolicking and playing tag on the green grass of summer, some with light spots on their skin. I see a mystical creature walking in and out of view among the flickering shadows of a frost covered, autumn meadow. I see hunting camps and friends, animated and laughing. I see tired men sweating under heavy loads of meat and horn, winded and worn out from a hard day, but energized. I see impossibly large steaks sputtering on a hot aspen-wood fire, next to a glass of good, smoky whiskey and some cold, clear, creek water to wash it down. I see a young boy, now a man, describing his first kill while beaming with a grin so wide that it fills the sky. I see a father standing behind a boy who is so proud that he can not speak, but says it all with one look. I see more than I can comprehend. I do not have the words. I see way too much, and maybe not nearly enough”. – From Sacred Ground, by Michael Patrick McCarty
Just about everyone with a most basic understanding of the natural world knows to stay away from the back-end of the black and white critter called skunk. Forget that little fact and they will be quick to leave an indelible impression upon your person. Or ask any family dog that has disregarded that squared up stance and upturned tail and suffered the indignity of a well-aimed spray. Unfortunately, this is a minor inconvenience when compared with the real damage often inflicted by their front end.
Skunks possess powerful forelegs which they use to burrow and scratch about for food. Digging and the churning of earth is really what a skunk is all about. They are also great fans of a free or easy meal and a frequent backyard visitor. A poultry dinner is top on their culinary hit parade, and they are notorious nighttime raiders of the barnyard and chicken coop. Their tunneling skills are legendary and deviously effective, much to the chagrin and unmitigated consternation of small animal breeders and poultry keepers for hundreds of years.
I was reminded of their penchant for tragedy when I entered my pigeon keep a few days ago. The telltale signs of the obvious break-in were written plainly on the ground, as was the bloody aftermath. Once again, the scene screamed of dastardly polecat, and the wind held the last remnants of that unmistakable and musky perfume.
I soon discovered that my favorite bird was among the casualties, and it hit me like a primordial punch to the solar plexus. He was the biggest of our Giant Runt’s, and he had always been scrappy and bold and proud. I had bred him down from a successive line of top-notch parents and he had never let me down in the squab producing department. We called him “the bomber”, and I had always looked for him first amongst his comrades.
Skunks have an uncanny ability to make it deeply personal in some unpredicted way. We have probably lost more birds of various kinds to them than any other predator, though I have worked hard to stem the tide. Once locked on to a target they can become incredibly determined, often working for several days to accomplish their clandestine mission. You have a full-fledged skunk problem when they do, because they will not give up without a fight. They can be incredibly bull-headed about it all. Once joined in battle they generally need to be forcefully persuaded, often with hot lead, to see the error in their ways.
They are also extremely good at pointing out the errors in yours. An unwanted entry means that you have not done your job as an animal husbandman, whether you care to admit it or not. It means that the cage or coop is not built as well as it could be. Or perhaps that small repair you have put off has returned to haunt you. In the end it is your fault and your’s alone, although I cannot say that the acceptance of such responsibility can make one feel much better.
It would be easy to hate the skunk out of hand, but I refuse to accept such an easy fix. A skunk is a skunk after all, and he is just doing what he was designed to do. They are a necessary and vital component of a healthy ecosystem. Perfect in form and function, they are more than beautiful in their own way.
Still, I am sad for the loss of our pigeons and it will be some time before I can stop myself from looking for the big guy. I have no doubt that he faced his end as best he could, with dignity and noble character. In my mind I like to picture him wedging his body in front of his mate, staring his adversary down and delivering a solid shoulder punch or two before being overwhelmed. At least I’d like to think so.
It makes me wonder what other beastly trials and backyard tribulations take place under cover of the dead black night.
Skunks can have devastating effects on waterfowl nesting success, as well as on upland game and song bird populations. If you would like to learn more about the dynamics of predation, we recommend that you pick up the classic work titled “Of Men and Marshes” by Paul Errington.It is a fascinating and eye-opening read. We often have a copy for sale. Please email for availability.
— *Historically, skunks have been classified in a subgroup within “the weasel family”, or Mustelidae. Biologists began to understand that they had been misidentified all along. They were assigned new classification in the late 1990’s, and now belong to the family Mephitidae. So you see, they never were a weasel, after all.
Now reported at nearly four million acres, bobwhite management across 25 states is up 24 percent over the 3.2 million acres reported the year before — or 771,345 acres added — according to NBCI’s Bobwhite Almanac: State of the Bobwhite 2018. That’s just one insight provided by the eighth annual report by the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI), its 25-member states and partners on progress in restoring wild quail to the landscape.
“Because habitat is managed for bobwhites doesn’t necessarily mean quail are there,” cautioned NBCI Science Coordinator/Assistant Director Dr. Tom Dailey in reference to the Bobwhite Habitat Inventory Index. “It means it’s suitable for bobwhites in the year it’s reported or will be in the near future. It can take some time after initial management for a population response. But habitat management is trending in the right direction.”
*Bobwhites have always been near and dear to my heart, and it is heartwarming to know that groups like the NBCI are working so hard to preserve one of our most cherished gamebirds. The future of bobwhite quail may very well depend on private land partnerships such as this.
Today I hunted Mule Deer on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Climbing hard in the false dawn from the river below, I soon found myself enveloped in a gray, somber day, with light rain, low clouds, and misty vapors all around. It seemed a most appropriate collection of weather conditions for the moment at hand.
This is, however, not so much a story about big game hunting, as it is about, something else. I fully intended to kill a deer, but in the end, did not. Neither did I see a deer, and not one fresh track appeared in the mud within the view held tightly below the bill of my hat and hood.
Perhaps it was because the mulies were still tucked into cover, discouraged by the heavy rains of the last few days. Or perhaps it was because our usual snows had yet to appear in even the highest parts of the high country, and the deer had not yet migrated down to the lower elevations. Maybe, just maybe, it was just not the day to kill a deer.
But I came for other reasons too.
Fourteen fire fighters died on this mountain on July 6, 1994. Officially named the South Canyon Fire, it began with a lightning storm on July 2, and rapidly escalated from there. Fire crews were scrambling to catch up right from the start, and the town of Glenwood Springs was solidly in the crosshairs.
Residents prepared for the worst in terms of property damage and financial ruin, but no one could have predicted such a shocking course of events.
I remember exactly where I was sitting when the announcement of their deaths was relayed over the local radio. The impact of the news hit me like a sledge to the most vulnerable parts of my innards, so close to home, and not just because it had happened right down the road.
I was a fire lookout on a high peak in the Salmon River Wilderness of Idaho in the early 1980’s, and then after that an occasional firefighter as part of my duties with the U.S. Forest Service. I would like to think that I know just a little about wildfire, though I hate to imagine the panic and abject terror they must have felt as the flames overtook them.
Wildfire can put a fear in you like no other natural force on earth, and I have felt that fear firsthand. Fighting fires is an unnatural occupation, but one, nevertheless, that must be done. I would not be exaggerating to say that I have sweated and toiled alongside some of the most dedicated and indomitable people the planet has ever known. I became a far better person as a result.
Once, so many years ago, I called in a small lightning strike from my perch atop the mountain and then watched in utter amazement as a dozen smokejumpers hurled themselves out of a perfectly good airplane, only to land in a field of jumbled boulders and dead and dangerous snags for their troubles. They successfully contained the fire over a 24 hour period, without rest or sleep, and then humped their gear through snarled terrain to an exit point a few miles away. Those observations continue to influence my opinions on what it means to be “tough”.
Who would do that? Who would risk their lives to save oak brush and pinion and homes, often against impossible odds? Why did I do it?
That answer has never fully come to me, and it is far too easy to put myself in their boots. This could have been me. It might have been me, dying down in hot winds and flame, under some not so different circumstances. I feel for them. I grieve for them. They are my brothers, and sisters, who have left us behind far too soon.
Fire will have its way once it makes up its mind, and there is nothing to be done for it but to get out of its way. They did try, we know that they tried, but only nature and god knew their fate in advance. And though I cannot speak for them I would like to think that their soul’s may find some comfort in knowing that the South Canyon Fire and their ultimate sacrifice changed forever the way that wildfires are managed and fought.
Fire, in its infinite wisdom, consumes all that is presented before it. It does so without judgement, malice, or aforethought, no matter what we may believe. But life returns, and wildfire is also the great rejuvenator. It cleanses with impossible heat and complete conviction, and clears the way for new growth and replenished habitat in an endless circle of beginnings and endings.
In this case it created many hundreds of acres of mule deer winter range, and in the end, improved wildlife habitat for a multitude of creatures. It would seem far too small a compensation for so many human lives gone, but then, who am I to say? I am but one man, often so lost, in such a vast and unpredictable universe. Perhaps it is not for me to judge what is right and what is wrong, fair or unfair, nor to fully understand the true meaning of it all.
It took me twenty years to visit this place; to brace myself for the painful journey. I did not know them. I never met them, to my knowledge. But, I do feel them there, watching. I hope that they are not too sad, and that they do not miss this world so much. I pray that they feel some peace in knowing that they were doing some great things in the world, on that mountain of storm. I have no doubt that they never felt more alive, fighting for what they believed, in that wild and untamed country that they loved.
I know that there were hunter’s among the group, and I hope that they approved of my visit. I came to hunt deer, for myself, and for them. I came to honor the offering of kindred spirits, and bow my head in reverence. I hope that they were able to feel some of the joy that I feel when I hunt, a free man with a rifle on his shoulder and miles of unexplored territory ahead.
They remind us that life is precious, and short, and that any time spent hunting where there is still room left to roam is not to be taken for granted.
We will not forget.
May they rest in peace, with eagles overhead, and mule deer, and wild beings, and life, all around, forever.
“In storm and cloud and wind and sky, In heart and mind and hand and eyes, A bond still binds too strong to tell, All those who flew with those who fell”. – Anonymous. Found on the Plaque at The Storm King Memorial
“Time is the hunter of all men, and no one knows this better than we do. That knowledge gives us perspective, and direction. A hunter is never lost in this great big world, not in life, nor even in death… “- Michael Patrick McCarty
You can read more about the Storm King Fire and Other Fires Here
Below, are a few excerpts:
“For many of the specially trained crews that battle mountain wildfires in the American West, it was a blaze that made it more acceptable for firefighters to speak up or even decline assignments they consider too dangerous—once a rare occurrence that could result in a firing or ostracism in a profession that requires aggressive, type A personalities. No official report articulated that change, but among many firefighters it was an understood lesson of South Canyon.
The South Canyon blaze, which scorched 2,115 acres, accelerated technical advances in battling wildfires, from a new generation of fire shelters—small, protective “mummy” bags carried by firefighters that can be their defense of last resort from flames—to improved communications. “Immediately, we all had radios,” said one South Canyon survivor, Eric Hipke.
South Canyon also sparked more scrutiny of fire officials’ decision-making and strategies in battling deadly fires, and led to changes in the National Weather Service’s fire weather forecasting division, which doubled its number of fire weather forecasters and found ways to deliver up-to-the-minute weather information—including crucial details about wind, which can fuel a fire and its direction—to forecasters in the field. (Related: “Overwhelming Cause of California Wildfires: Humans.”)
After South Canyon, “incident meteorologists became rock stars,” said Chris Cuoco, the meteorologist whose accurate prediction of a dangerous weather shift during the South Canyon Fire never reached the firefighters on the mountain.
It’s widely accepted within the firefighting community that these and other lessons of the South Canyon Fire have saved lives during the past two decades. Even so, the dangers of fighting wildfires in the hot, dry summer remain real”.
“The country knows. If you do wrong things to it, the whole country knows. It feels what’s happening to it. I guess everything is connected together somehow, under the ground.” – Lance Williams, Koyukon Elder, 1975
Animal signs and tracks have always fascinated me, no doubt encouraged by the knowledge that a living, breathing creature just laid them down and might be standing just over the next rise. Tracks are a record of nature’s wanderings and little doings, scratched and scribed on mother earth’s own back. They are placed there, as new each time, for those who wish to follow and investigate.
Temporary and ephemeral, they sing with animal promise and life eternal, bursting of meanings far greater than their small impression would indicate. They speak of purpose and plan, reward and desire, and adventure for all.
Tracks lead, I must follow. I aspire to ponder the possibilities of their message, and to attempt to practice what they may wish to teach. I wish could read them better. Maybe I can decipher them in this lifetime. I am determined to try.
I am a particularly fond of elk, and I am a dedicated student of elk tracks. Their shape intrigues me, and I like the way they cut deeply into the ground as if searching for the planet’s center, releasing the earth’s rich, dark aroma to mingle with their heavy musk. There is nothing subtle about the way that an elk marches through life, churning and slinging dirt and mud while becoming even more solidly rooted to the ground. It grounds my wandering boots as well. They pull me deeper into the ground with each step. I feel freer, calmer, and more fully connected to my life.
Their tracks tell their story, and I gain insight and know the characters more intimately through the added layers of each successive chapter. It is a long and complex tale. I have trailed along wherever and whenever I could. Later, my mind wanders, and I am on the move again, reliving old trails and experiences even when my body is somewhere else.
The characters in this tale are many and varied, each with their own unique qualities, motivations, and point of view. I can read the developing plot on the ground, at my feet, and just ahead. Here are tracks large and small, first meandering slowly, then running. Some are evenly spaced and calm, some are random and hurried. Yearling elk lay them down, as do old dry cows, new-born calves, and antlered bulls small and large.
They document the every day struggles, their hopes, their fears, joys, and occasional sufferings. I can picture in my visions the upturned head of an alert mother, nostrils quivering and searching for unwanted and dangerous scents. Ahead of her, I see a battle-scarred old warrior bull, standing tall in its last footprint, bugling and aching for a fight. It’s all written upon the ground, in the signs of animals and tracks.
Tracks have led me to vibrantly green, sundappled forests so beautiful it was difficult not to cry. It was tempting to lie down there forever, quiet and unmoving, until my body turned to stone, left to weather and crack and fall upon the earth.
I stood again, to wind my way through sage covered flats, with pounding rain and fog so thick that one is forced to look only down, watching the rain drops from your hat land squarely in the elk track below. Shielding my eyes from stinging, wind-driven snowflakes, I have waded through the unbearable snows of a terrible winter to find a calf’s last struggles against barbed wire and fence, too high.
More than once I have explored an anxious trail of tracks patterned by a solitary elk, and observed the paw prints of a mountain lion, or a bear, on top. Moving on intently, I have found only piles of hair or a few shards of bone in the last impression, with no elk left to pursue.
Backtracking upon tracks I was stepping on, I have been confronted with the reality of mountain lion or bear tracks covering my tracks, in turn. Tracks have led me to the center of nowhere, and back again. On the way I found myself, staring back. I am always looking for the next track to chase, eager to discover where it may lead.
My life is surrounded by elk and their tracks. apparently, I’ve made sure it worked out that way, without fully realizing it. Tracks lead past my house on their way to hay fields below, and I often stand in them on my way to our garden. Even at work, I look for them out of the corner of my eye, knowing that they are often just yards away from my comfortable shoes.
I work as a security guard, and my “office” is a “shack” at the main entrance of a golf course, country club, and home development. The sprawling property is interspersed with large homes on small lots, with much open space, and for now, many vacant house lots. A river runs through it. Public lands are near and expansive. Elk and mule deer are a commonly seen, along with a variety of smaller animals, birds and waterfowl. I am a most fortunate person.
You might say I have a room with a view. Red rocky ridges, sparkling clear water, and manicured greenery wrap around and fill the big windows of the small building. To the south, Mt. Sopris looms above us and refuses to be ignored. Broad shouldered and solid, with a long, deep blanket of shimmering snow fields below her twin peaks, it is one of my favorite and most comforting friends. The Ute Indians revered her first, and named her “Mother Mountain”.
Somehow I feel that she is watching, and that she is caring and protective of the many beings down below. I look to her often, and wonder what she would have to say about our human doings. She already knows that all is not always well in paradise.
“Mother Mountain” has a grand view of the “eagle tree” on the property, and a section of the development has been declared off-limits to all activity in an effort to honor the pair of bald eagles that raise their young here every summer. It is a grandfather of all trees, a towering ponderosa with heavy, thick branches, perfectly placed on the bank of a sweeping curve in the shallow river.
The eagles have been raising their young here for decades, perhaps millennia, or more. They have seen a lot, these eagles. The place would not be the same without them and it is a credit to the developer and others who planned it.
In the spring and summer people talk of them and wish to see them. They call for the daily eagle report. They are famous, they are legend. Homeowners and club members can see them whenever they wish. Outsiders cannot. We must protect the eagles from disturbance, we say. To appease the general public, we occasionally host a coordinated observation tour to show everyone that all is well in eagle world. It’s the least we can do.
However, limited and brief access does not satisfy the public demand. Most of the excited, would be visitors arrive by vehicle unannounced, without appointment. They wish to watch the eagles and they want to see them very badly. They are curious about their eaglets and they can’t wait to take their picture. One of the parent’s may return with a freshly caught and wiggling trout to feed the young, and they want to encourage them on. For their own reasons they are humans who want to be part of something else, something wild.
Birders and eagle lovers can be very determined folks, and they do not like to be turned away. But we do, because we must, and we can. After all, it is private property, you see. Members only, I’m afraid.
The private in private property can define and expose some harsh realities. It means that something, in this case the eagles, belongs to someone else. They are not for you. When I deprive someone of the eagles, I know that it was not my idea and that I am only doing my job, but that does not make me feel any better. I must wonder, as I turn to Mt. Sopris and ask, what would “mother” say”?
My head is out of the office as much as it is in, and when I slide the door open to greet a guest I cannot help but look in the direction of the river and the eagle tree. Perhaps I can catch a glimpse of that distinctive white head flashing in the light of a low sun, as it soars calmly over the back of an elk on its return to the comfort of the family nest.
After sunset, the night belongs to the elk, particularly during the long, cold nights of winter. I often can hear them calling back and forth to each other, conversing in a language as old as time. They paw and crunch through the snow just out of range of approaching headlights. On moonlit nights I can spot them weaving around the trees near the building, a ghostly apparition that begs me to leave my confines and join them. Unobservable to the casual traveler and yet so close, it is our little secret, the elk and I.
During the worst days of our long winters, the elk congregate on the property to escape the heavy snows of the high country. Skiers on their way to Aspen, most of them apparently from elkless places, slam on their brakes and leave the highway. They can’t believe their eyes. They shower me with questions. Is that an elk? How many are there? Where did they go? How long will they be here? They want to see the elk, and they want to see them very badly. They need to see them. Why are the elk here, they ask? I do not know the answer to that last one, but I am glad they asked. That is the million dollar question, after all.
I want to grant the them access, because I love the fact that they are so completely enthralled with an animal that I love too. Instead, I must say no, and turn them away. It is that private property thing again, rising to rear its ugly head. The elk are standing on private property, I explain. It is a private subdivision and a private club. The message is clear. They are “our elk”, not yours. They may wander about on public land most of the year, but they are “our elk” now. They are not for you. I cannot let you past. I cannot accommodate your request.
Most of the time they look past me and through me as if I’m not there, eager for another elk sighting. They plead and they reason, hoping to gain some toehold to hang on to and work a crack to break my resolve. They cannot believe I am blocking their way, incredulous at my lack of compassion and understanding regarding their need. I stand uninvolved, professional, resolute. They do not know that I wish for them to see them too. I cannot let them see the inner workings of my conflicted mind. If I only could…If they only knew…
The west is not the west that I came to 35 years ago. More populated, yes, but different in ways apart from the addition of people. Attitudes have changed. Colorado has become more and more like…other places. It has never ceased to amaze me how people come here to escape the problems of the place they have come from – and then promptly try to change the new place back into the old place they just worked so hard to escape. Too often our stunning views become valued most for the picture through the picture window in the great room of the palatial house on the new hobby ranch estate.
Here, as in many areas throughout the west, the trophy houses perch like sentinels above the river, on guard against the boatman who pass on the public waters below. In Colorado only the navigable and flowing water is public; the river bottoms and shorelines are private. May the heavens part and jagged thunderbolts smite the poor, unwashed soul who touches the river bottom with the metal of boat or anchor, or wader covered foot. They are watching, and the fish policemen are but a moment away. I should know. I am one.
The fish, of course, belong to the public. The finny creatures are managed by people who work for a public wildlife management agency, which is funded with public funds, paid primarily by private citizens who purchase a public fishing license with their private dollars, which pays for the public fish managed by the public wildlife management agency. Yet, there seems to be some confusion over who owns the fish.
The private property proclamations and numerous no trespassing signs are placed strategically and obviously to remind the boatmen not to stop. The signs imply the desired message. You may pass but do not enter. Wet your lines and be on your way. The area is designated as catch and release, the sign says, so put our fish back too. Like the elk, and the eagle, they are “our fish”, and not for you. I blissfully fished on these river banks many, many times over the years, with the eagles over my shoulders. There were no signs or houses then. I quit fishing here, a lifetime ago. Somehow all of the joy has long since been squeezed out of these troubled waters.
I like my job well enough. Like many people I have too many bills to pay, a mortgage to service, and promises to keep. I must work, but the duty does not particularly suit me. I struggle with my inner wranglings, and find it difficult to relate to people on equal or near equal terms, in an effort to provide what they need. Mind reading and the decoding of a person’s unspoken and true desire is not one of my strong suits. Oh how I wish that it was.
On the other hand, my desire is clear. I would prefer to be glued to a hot track, or directly connected to a pulsating and surging fish. I want to be the eagle, to fly away, circling ever upward and screaming fiercely in a bold, blue sky. I do my best to smile. No one has ever asked my opinion about anything substantial. In the end, I am a glorified Walmart Greeter, waving contentedly like a trained and tethered circus monkey, guarding a lifestyle at my back that I could never attain financially, but would never chose if I could.
To be fair, many of the residents love the elk and respect and cherish the gift of wildlife around them. They wish to help much more than harm. Most of the rest are nice enough. Some of the others, not so much. Some of the not so nice have long since moved away. Selling out, they were eager to move on to the next better place and conquer new-found worlds. Godspeed. I wish them well.Still, innocents abound. Only recently, a woman stopped to talk to me on a chilly and uneventful evening. She wanted to tell me her story of a deer, closely reliving it as she spoke. It was standing on her drive as she left the house, passing very close to her driver side window as she drove away.
Se had my undivided attention, as I am happy to talk deer. I was happy that she was happy to talk about a deer. She was captured by the sight, describing the encounter with wide-eyed animation. Then she exclaimed, “scarrreeeeey!”. Scary, I thought. You were scared….of a deer. A pie eyed yearling doe, harmlessly chewing grass and ready to bound away at the slightest provocation. Did I hear correctly?
I stood speechless and dumbfounded, and I am sure it read on my face, though I tried to hide it. What could I say to this nice lady? How could I respond in a manner that would make any sense? My mind could not work fast enough to process the statement or understand all of its pregnant ramifications. We were two ships passing in the middle of the impenetrable black night, and our cargoes could not be interchanged at sea. I had no frame of reference to draw from, no common ground to reach for, nor stable platform to commiserate from. I could only offer a curious smile, left to cock my head, and ponder how anyone could be so tragically out of touch from the natural world.
It reminds me of a similar story, from a similar place, told to me several years ago by a security guard who had manned his lonely outpost for more than a decade. The gated community was unfenced and surrounded by tens of thousands of brush and forest and home to a variety of rocky mountain wildlife. The entry gate was not a security gate at all, consisting of one bar which could be raised or lowered by the guard. He told of a homeowner who called late one night to inquire if he had perhaps had a sighting on her cat, which had been missing for several days. He jotted down the information for his report, doing his best professional security guard imitation. Trying to help, he sadly and patiently informed her that, since the cat had been missing for an extended period of time, she might want to consider the possibility that the cat had been captured and killed by one of the area’s many coyotes. She grew quiet on the other end of the phone line, than disconnected. The guard felt bad that he had been the one to broach the subject of bad news.
A short time later, the woman called back to yell and scream expletives, and then added “How dare you let that coyote through the gate”. She demanded the phone number of his supervisor, which he promptly passed along without additional comment, not wishing to add any additional flame to the fire. He never forgot about the incident though, and laughed gleefully as he told it, still not quite believing himself that it was true.
He said he wished he had told her that he would now be sure to interrogate all coyotes arriving at the gate. By the way, this is the same man who tracked Ted Bundy, a noted serial killer, through the snow at night after he had escaped from the county courthouse in Aspen, but that’s another story.
Coyotes are bad actors as far as many people are concerned. They receive a lot of press in our neck of the woods, most of it not favorable to the coyote. Not long ago our security office received a complaint. A coyote had grabbed a small dog from an unfenced yard in full view of the owner. There was nothing they could do. The dog was not seen again, and it was a traumatizing occurence for all concerned, particularly the dog. apparently, there had been a report of a suspicious coyote submitted the previous month. The homeowner wanted to know why the security staff had not been on top of the situation. Why had we not done more to prevent the incident? Why, indeed? It was just being a coyote, and doing what a coyote does.
It can be said that gated communities have complex and conflicting issues all their own, mostly because they lack exactly what is most obviously missing – community, and the comforts and security of it. People often become isolated, separate, and disconnected from each other. Money only magnifies the distance between them and it cannot save you from yourself. A pile of currency may humor the fantasies and massage the ego, but in the end the burdens of wealth may make real things worse.
You cannot contain nor confine the natural world, no more than you can hold it out. You can try to hold her at bay and at arm’s length, but in the end fences and guards cannot accomplish the desired effect and will only delay the inevitable. Humans can deny their interconnectedness to nature, but that does not make it true.
I think about these things while on patrol. I can not help it. Perhaps I think too much, and read too much meaning into circumstance. I see a vacant lots with elk standing on them, and think about the homeowner who sent in a photographer to take a picture of his property. He thought it would be a great selling point to pass around to prospective buyers. I wonder if he had considered that once sold, and house built, there would be no room left for the elk to stand. I drive about, stop to rattle doorknobs, check windows, look for coyotes and other suspicious characters. What do I say when I find one? Will they listen? What would they like to tell me?
I wonder what other people see and why they see it. They see elk tracks on expensive turf, ripping away and tearing at their summer fun. They see elk chewing on expensive trees and ornamental shrubbery. They see a sales pitch, a paragraph and photos in a glossy brochure in a carefully crafted promotional campaign. They see a nuisance, or an asset, depending on the need. They see competition, and not cooperation. They see profit, but only for themselves. Elk are something they own and can do with what they choose.
I see an animal having more and more trouble finding solid ground on which to live. I see an animal searching for the critical winter range of a valley floor, wondering where it has gone. I see a field where tall grass once waved in the wind, now smothered over with choking and lifeless asphalt. I see an animal staring at a tall wire fence near the shoulder of a busy highway, dodging cars and trying to find a way to put its nose in the river for a drink of water.
In my mind’s eye I see a mystical creature walking in a frost covered autumn meadow. I see young elk calves frolicking and playing tag on the green grass of summer, some with light spots on their skin. I see hunting camps and friends, animated and laughing. I see tired men sweating under heavy loads of meat and horn, winded and worn out from a hard day, but energized. I see steaks sputtering on a hot aspen fire, with good, smoky whiskey and cold, clear, creek water to wash it down. I see a young boy, now a man, describing his first kill while beaming with a grin so wide that it fills the sky. I see a father standing behind a boy who is so proud that he can not speak, but says it all with one look. I see more than I can comprehend. I do not have the words. I see way too much, and maybe not nearly enough.
Some time ago I walked around to the back of an empty, imposing house and came upon the sight of elk tracks on the concrete patio and walkways of a protected, hidden yard. Tall evergreen trees surrounded us like a natural cathedral. It had just snowed, and the tracks stood out like a beacon in the dazzling sun.
The sight stopped me quite dead in my stride. It was as if I had walked squarely into the solid concrete walls of some plainly obvious yet unseen building, as a great hand with extended finger descended from heaven to point them out in quivering disgust.
Kneeling in the snow by a gleaming steel barbecue, I felt light-headed and unsure. The earth moved beneath me as I did my best to control my revulsion and rising anger. Why the full force of it hit me so hard that day and at that particular moment I do not know. But it was real, and it was painful.
There is something terribly striking about the placement of elk tracks on concrete. It is an assault on the sensibilities of common sense and a great festering wound upon all that is spirited and free. It screams of wrongness and wrong-headedness, and of cleverness driven past it’s acceptable limit. The tracks document a trail of horrible mistakes and destructive paths. It is a unconscionable sacrilege.
No man should have to witness it, nor bear it. No man should have to try. The snow will melt and the tracks will disappear, leaving behind them only the promise of what might have been. I can read meaning into most kinds of animal tracks, but no matter how hard I may try I can find no sign on the cruel and heartless soul of concrete walks and driveways. I am, and have always been, a hunter. I must have fresh tracks to follow.
At that moment I see through other eyes, from some other time. A hint of memory flashes and reveals this place as it looked long, long ago. I see the ancestors there, huddled in the mist beneath heavy robes of fur, watching, waiting. I see their spears and primitive weapons, eager to sink their sharpness into hide and flesh. I feel their footfalls and their labored breath heaving in their chest. I feel the spear’s blade upon my hand, at the razor’s edge of all things. They are but a heartbeat away. They walk upon sacred ground and I can see no concrete under their feet. They may wish to look you squarely in the eye and disagree with your opinion as to owns this place. They told me so themselves.
This I know. The earth is the most patient of all living beings. She measures time in a fashion quite incomprehensible to our limited and mortal minds. The putting greens of the once great golf course will soon vanish into the recovering landscape, reverting to more normal flora and natural grasses as tall as a man. The houses will fare badly in the coming storm and other elements, and will eventually succumb to leak and decay as they list and slide to their knees upon the welcoming ground. Even the unforgiving concrete will crack and crumble, to be pounded into sand by the hooves of countless four leggeds, then carried away effortlessly by the healing winds. The land cannot and will not be owned, only borrowed for a brief moment along with the nurturing grace of god.
We do not own the elk, the eagle or the fish. Left to their own devices, they will remain here long after we are gone. Yet, if we are not careful they will disappear on our watch, to die the death of a thousand cuts and little insults. Our race will leave behind only the foul memories of a petulant child. Our legacy will be defined by the actions of disrespectful tourists, scratching impetuously and carelessly atop an improbable blue ball as it hurdles and spins through the limitless universe. How can we be so unaware of the magic at our feet?
Mother Earth asks only that we treat her with reverence and respect, and she is happy to provide all that we need in return. “It’s not to late”, she whispers. Can you hear her? Her heart is our heart. It is our choice.
Either way, life on this planet will continue in one form or another, with or without the puzzling, and sometimes troubling beast, called human. I will follow her track until then.
“one of the best aspects of our community is that we have the freedom to control access” (anonymous homeowner). Categorized under the ever more popular category – “You can’t make this stuff up!’.
“You live in a place full of light bulbs and chrome and rare fillets and box top contests. But when you die, you die in a place of mountains and sky, earth and fire, stars and the sea.” – John D. MacDonald, All These Condemned.
*This unique collection of new nature essays forthrightly addresses the environmental conditions and concerns of the 1990s. The contributors include an anthropologist, a filmmaker, and several novelists and fly fishermen and women as well as established nature writers like Wendell Berry, Gary Nabhan, and Bill McKibben. Subjects range from hiking in Alaska to viniculture in France, and the tone and style vary from the Swiftian satire of Robert F. Jones to John Murray’s personal meditation and Wendell Berry’s passionate biblical rhetoric. Yet these diverse essays are bound by a single theme summed up succinctly by Mary Katherine Bateson: “Ethics follow efficacy.” Because we humans have become so many and so powerful, we must become environmentally responsible; we must reform our greedy, exploitative relationship to the natural world and learn to share the planet’s wealth with other species and future generations. – Joan S. Elbers
A Journal of Wild Game, Fighting Fish, and Grand Pursuit