Snowstorms & Blizzards!

Aftermath of the great North Dakota Blizzard of 1966

So, it turns out that we do get snow this winter.

Until that snowy first weekend of February, things were looking pretty bleak for winter snowpack. We needed snow, though it was a nasty surprise to get up on Sunday, February 7, with a foot of snow. We’d had snow the day before and we got things cleared and then had to start all over again on Sunday.

I took it easy that morning, having a better plan. I’d crank up my snowblower, which usually gets used about once a year, and move the snow without the big workout. 

I had it gassed up and ready to go, but the machine didn’t get the memo, and for the first time in the 30+ years I’ve had it, it refused to start. So, it was back to Plan A, and shoveling, with that Kenny Rogers tune, “You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille, “ running through my head.

Not too much snow for Kiri, our black Lab, to want to play ball.

The biggest snowfall we’ve had during the 32 years we’ve lived here in Butte was the Christmas Eve of 1996 snowstorm that dropped an official 16 inches, though it seemed more like two feet.

When it comes to heavy snow, I vividly remember a storm that hit southern Iowa in December 1961. We were living in Des Moines for three months while I was going through a new employee training course with the Social Security Administration. I drove to work on a Friday morning at the end of that three-month period. It started snowing in the morning and it snowed all day. There was even thunder and lightning during the storm. At the end of the work day I tried to drive out of the parking lot and promptly got stuck. I gave up on that and started walking towards home. Luckily, somebody picked me up and gave me a ride. 

It stopped snowing by morning and my wife and I walked several miles to downtown. I was able to buy a snow shovel in a pet store, of all places, and found our car where I’d left it, with snowdrifts just about up to the level of the hood. It took a couple hours, but we shoveled a path out to the street. Then we went to a tire store and got a set of chains so I’d be able to drive into our apartment house, three blocks off from the nearest through street, with the U-Haul trailer we’d rented for our upcoming move to Fargo, North Dakota.

We spent the weekend packing and on Monday, Christmas Day, we ate a can of chicken noodle soup, right out of the pot, for our first Christmas Day dinner together, then got in the car to leave town. Six blocks later, I took the chains off and never used them again.

The biggest storm we’ve experienced was in March 1966, when a monster blizzard hit North Dakota. I was on crutches at the time, having fractured an ankle on my first try at downhill skiing a few weeks earlier. On a Wednesday, it started snowing. Co-workers gave me a ride home after work, promising they’d pick me up the next morning. The next morning, the snow was knee deep and nothing was moving. Then the wind started blowing, and for several days we could barely see across the street. 

Strange things happen in blizzards. Our landlord had a basement apartment in the house we rented and his son, who lived in California, was visiting, and parked his new Ford Mustang in the driveway. He’d grown up in Fargo and was there for a reunion with old high school friends, and while the winds howled, he stood by the back door looking out, muttering, “I’m never coming back here again.”

On Sunday, the winds subsided and people started digging out. As for that Mustang, the wind had blown the driveway clear, but the engine compartment was packed solid with wind-blown snow. 

That wasn’t bad. At married student housing at North Dakota State University on the northwest edge of town, drifts were up to the rooftops. 

Beating the Covid!

Your intrepid reporter, getting a Covid shot.

While many in the country were watching or listening in on the opening of the second impeachment trial of former president Trump, my wife and I were able to get our second covid-19 immunization. 

There are advantages to being geezers, in this case being near the front of the line of Phase 1B of the covid-19 immunization program. Even better, assuming we’ve survived whatever after-effects of the shot, and I did have some, we are now pretty confident that the coronavirus isn’t going to get us. We know we won’t live forever, but we’re now pretty sure that we won’t be hooked up to a respirator in an ICU, gasping for air, wishing we’d gotten those shots.

I’m all too aware that some people resist the idea of vaccinations—any vaccinations—for a variety of reasons, most of which are, in my opinion, ridiculous. 

For those of you who pass on vaccinations, especially now the covid-19 vaccinations, I’ll point out that this is the way out of what we’ve been going through this past year.

If you’re sick of wearing masks, tired of social distancing, missing out on hugs and handshakes, the lack of a social life, not being able to go to athletic events, or church or concerts or family reunions, and every other thing you’ve hated about this past year, as have I, this is our way out. 

If you’re tired of living in fear that you might catch it, or that a loved one might catch it, or that a loved one might catch it and not survive, this is our way out.

Our local health departments are the heroes in this long uphill slog to make us safer during the pandemic. My advice is to follow their instructions and don’t try to crash the lines as they work their way through occupation, age and health groups. This race to immunize our local communities, our nation and the world is not a sprint; it’s a super marathon. It’s a super marathon in which all of us can be winners.

Moving on to the latest from Montana’s loony tune legislature, I have to echo comments from my good friend, and former Montana Standard reporter, Nick Gevock, the Director of Conservation for the Montana Wildlife Federation.

Nick wrote about, and it was widely printed in Montana newspapers, one of the dumber things (and there are many!) to come out in the session, House Joint Resolution No. 5, introduced by Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Lolo. Mr. Tschida’s proposed resolution asserts that taxes on firearms constitute an unconstitutional infringement on American citizens’ right to bear arms. 

Mr. Tschida’s bill is, first of all, nonsense. A state cannot unilaterally declare a federal law unconstitutional. It’s an attempt at nullification, a notion long discredited through our nation’s history, though the idea never really goes away.

Second, his bill attacks one of the nation’s great success stories, the Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937, often referred to as the Pittman-Robertson Act, in which a federal excise tax is levied on firearms and ammunition sales for wildlife conservation. The Act was later modified with the Dingell-Johnson Act to also levy a tax on fishing equipment to help fund fisheries projects.

Sportsmen and women, over the years, have proudly pointed to those excise taxes as something we are happy to pay because it helps fund wildlife management, acquisition of property for wildlife management, and to provide public access for outdoor recreation.

A few of the many pheasants I’ve successively hunted on public lands funded by Pittman-Robertson revenues.

Over the years, I have spent many happy days tramping across public lands in Montana and North Dakota that have been acquired or improved, or managed through Pittman-Robertson funds. Some signage has noted the property was a P-R Project, which I once thought it meant it was a public relations project. Nope, it was from the Pittman-Robertson excise tax that we hunters have cheerfully paid so that, hopefully, wildlife could thrive on these lands.

I’ll close with a quote from Nick’s article. “Don’t let anyone who supports this measure tell you they’re for hunters. In fact, they’re working to destroy our sporting traditions.”

Enjoy the Great Backyard Bird Count!

We have a big weekend coming up. Sunday is Valentine’s Day; don’t forget to do something special for that special person in your life. Monday is the Washington’s birthday holiday, or Presidents’ Day, as many of us call it. 

Those landmark days mean that this weekend, Friday, February 12 through Monday, the 15th, is also time for the annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC).

This will be the 24th annual GBBC, when citizen scientists around the country and around the world break out of the house and take a walk around the neighborhood, or to a local park, and see what birds are out there, and then go online to report sightings.

Last year’s Bird Count set records for the event, with some 250,000 lists of birds submitted, from more than 100 countries, identifying nearly 7,000 of the world’s estimated 10,000 bird species.

We’re having an unusually mild and warm winter, or at least it was until last week when I started writing this column. That means there’s a chance we might find some birds that aren’t often around during a more typical winter. 

There was a morning, back in January, when I was surprised to hear the sound of a robin calling in my neighborhood. As far as I could tell, it was alone, because no other robins were returning its calls. So, I don’t know whether it was late to the southward migration, or if it decided to stay the winter, or if it was taking an early flight north.

About a week ago, I heard some different birdcalls coming from high in an aspen tree next to our house. It was mostly white with some black markings. I’m afraid this one stumped me, as I couldn’t find it in the field guides on my bookshelf. 

At any rate, the GBBC is designed to get a snapshot of where the birds are at this point of late winter, before spring migrations start. 

It’s easy to participate in the GBBC. Go for a 15-minute or longer walk in a favorite area, perhaps taking a camera or binoculars. Keep track of the birds you see and, hopefully, identify. Then go online to birdcount.org and submit your list. 

It’s a good project for a family, or a Scout group, or a class. Naturally, during this pandemic year, if you go out in a group, wear a mask and maintain social distancing. 

The Presidents’ Day holiday, again, is officially Washington’s Birthday, and is observed on the third Monday of February. 

George Washington was born in Virginia on February 11, 1731 on the then-used Julian calendar. In 1752, Great Britain and the British Empire, including the British colonies in North America, adopted the Gregorian calendar, which had the effect of changing Washington’s birthday to February 22, 1732. 

George Washington served as Commander in Chief of the fledgling new nation’s army in our revolt against British rule from 1775 to 1783, with rebel forces eventually wearing down the resolve of King George and the British Parliament to continue hostilities.

Washington was among the first leaders to recognize the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation and urged a constitutional convention to come up with a strong constitution. He became our first president, and later set the precedent of serving just two terms as president.

Unfortunately, like many of the Founding Fathers, Washington left a mixed legacy as he was a Virginia landowner and counted his wealth in the value of his land and slaves, and there were over 300 slaves at Mt. Vernon at the time of his death, though under the terms of his will, they were all freed by 1801.

Nevertheless, George Washington is the only Founding Father who was regarded as “godlike,” and was referred to as “Father of his country” as early as 1778, long before the end of the revolution and his later service as president. After almost 250 years, he is still considered among our best, if not the best, presidents. 

So, this weekend it’s Hail to the Chief, kiss your special Valentine, and check out some birds.

NRA Files for Bankruptcy

AP News photo

So, this business owner was going broke. He was losing customers, and creditors were circling like a flock of vultures. In desperation he went to his pastor for counseling.

The pastor listened to his tale of woe and then advised him, “Sometimes, when I’m troubled about something, I’ll go to the beach with my Bible, sit down, close my eyes, and open the book and let the wind blow the pages, and when it stops I’ll look down and read. You may find your answer that way.”

So, the businessman followed his advice and a year later he came back to the pastor with a big donation to the church, as well as a gift certificate for dinner at the finest restaurant in town. He explained that his business was now thriving and he wanted to express his appreciation for the wise counsel he got the year before.

So, the pastor, overcome by the generosity, asks, “So, when you went to the beach, what did you read when the wind stopped?”

The businessman smiled and said, “Chapter 11.”

I doubt that Wayne LaPierre came on the idea of Chapter 11 for saving the National Rifle Association in quite that way, but that is the NRA’s tactic right now, as the gun lobby group tries to cope with lawsuits filed against the organization from New York’s Attorney General, Letitia James.

A.G. James sued the NRA in August, seeking to dissolve the non-profit corporation because of mismanagement and corruption. Accusations of corruption, I’ll note, are not just from so-called gun-control advocates, but from former NRA president Oliver North, as well as other disgruntled board members.

The NRA announced, in January, that the organization would file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to protect its assets, and then seek to re-charter the NRA in Texas. In a New York Times report, Bob Barr, a former Georgia congressman and NRA board member, commented, “It has nothing to do with the NRA’s financial posture, which is very, very strong. It is simply a legal vehicle to move under protection of federal laws to escape the abuse by the New York authorities.”

The Times story notes that the NRA isn’t “under water,” with more debts than assets. The NRA reports assets worth $50 million more than its debts.

David Dell’Acquila, a former NRA supporter and donor, is suing the NRA and would presumably try to intervene in the bankruptcy proceedings. His lawyer said, “We believe that the NRA’s bankruptcy case is a bad faith attempt to block New York State’s effort to monitor the NRA’s corporate governance.”

I will continue to follow the developing NRA story, but back here in Montana, we have a different kind of firearms issue at the Montana legislature. HB 102, which appears to be steamrolling its way through the Republican-controlled legislature, would largely repeal almost any and all kinds of restrictions on firearms in Montana. 

The bill, carried by Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, would reduce legal restrictions governing open and concealed carry that supposedly reduce Montanans’ ability to defend themselves.

The bill further restricts the Montana Board of Regents and the University System from regulating the carrying of firearms on college campuses in Montana.

From what I’ve seen, about the only restriction that the bill would put on a college student having a gun on campus would be consent from a roommate to have firearms in their dormitory room.

The University System’s current rules go back 30 years to when a Montana State University student shot and killed another student. 

From what I’ve seen, University System administrators and faculty widely oppose the idea of students packing guns around on campus. The ASUM, the student government of the University of Montana in Missoula, has gone on record opposing it.

From my standpoint as a lifelong gun owner, hunter and shooter, I really am disturbed by this push to have everybody carrying guns around. Would you feel comfortable having people carrying assault rifles in the state capitol, such as happened in Michigan last year, or college students, full of beer and testosterone, carrying concealed handguns?

I certainly don’t.

Let Keystone XL Die!

Protesters in Lincoln Nebraska in 2019. AP Photo.

The announcement, a week ago, that one of the first actions President Joe Biden would take would be to reverse the previous administration’s approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, received a predictable reaction from Montana’s politicians.

For better or worse, Montana politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike, have, by and large, supported the Keystone XL pipeline project, primarily from the jobs standpoint, temporary as they are. There was also the possibility that the pipeline would carry some crude oil from the Bakken oil field of North Dakota and eastern Montana.

The pipeline has had a controversial history. The Keystone pipeline system plan came into being in 2010, and it’s co-owned by TC Energy, a Calgary, Alberta energy company, with a presence in Canada, Mexico, and the U.S., and the Government of Alberta. 

Several phases of Keystone are operational, with a pipeline running from Alberta, through Saskatchewan and Manitoba, then entering the U.S. in eastern North Dakota, going south through the Dakotas and Nebraska, where it branches off to route crude oil to refineries in Illinois and the Gulf Coast.

The Keystone XL pipeline, if completed, would run a larger pipeline through a shorter route, crossing across northeastern Montana, with a connection in Baker, Montana, where it would also take on crude from the Bakken oil fields. 

While crude oil from the Bakken is part of the project, crude oil from tar sands in northern Alberta would be the main product.

The XL project has been controversial, with many starts and stops. Issues have included giving TC Energy rights of eminent domain to run the pipeline through private property, over objections from private property owners. In 2015, Congress approved construction of the line. President Obama vetoed that action. In later developments, Secretary of State John Kerry determined that the project was not in the public interest, and President Obama denied a federal permit for XL.

In his first week in office, President Trump issued a memorandum to revive the XL pipeline, and in March 2017, he signed a presidential permit to build XL. Despite this, there have been numerous legal challenges and the most recent court decision came when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a request from the Trump administration to allow construction of parts of the pipeline that had been blocked by a Montana federal judge, Butte native Brian Morris.

While Keystone XL may currently be stalled because of court actions, economics may be a larger factor in the long run.

According to a New York Times story, economists estimate that producing petroleum from Canadian tar sands is only profitable when global oil prices range between $65 and $100. In 2020, global oil prices averaged around $40 a barrel, and are projected to stay below $50 a barrel through 2022, according to estimates from the Energy Information Administration, the statistics office of the Energy Department.

The Times story quotes Kevin Book, of ClearView Energy Partners, a research firm, who says, “The Keystone XL has been pending for a decade. If you can go one decade without it, investors might reasonably question if you can go three.”

While the Biden Administration was expected to cancel XL approval from the standpoints of climate change and of moving away from an oil-based economy, reversing Trump policy, there are many issues with XL. 

The pipeline would cross both the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers in Montana, with serious risks of oil pollution in both Montana and North Dakota if a pipeline ruptured. In 2019, the existing Keystone pipeline ruptured and caused a big mess in Walsh County, North Dakota, where we lived prior to our move to Butte in 1988.

Producing petroleum from the Alberta oil sands involves injecting steam and chemicals deep into the tar sands to melt and extract petroleum. It’s costly and environmentally damaging.

Something I often wonder is why can’t Canada refine the petroleum and export the gas and oil, instead of sending crude all the way to the Gulf Coast?

In short, I applaud the new Biden Administration’s actions to let Keystone XL wither on the vine. It’s not worth it.

Our Nation’s Capitol

Our nation’s capitol, a shrine of democracy.

“Awe and reverence. I remember the first time I entered the U.S. Capitol. I was 14 or so. I came down from Pennsylvania by train, and I was overwhelmed by the glory of the place. This was where Lincoln and Henry Clay had worked. This was where the 13th Amendment was passed, the Land Grant College Act, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Act. It was such a beautiful building, I was stunned.” David Brooks, New York Times, January 9, 2021.

David Brooks, an opinion writer for the Times wrote those words to preface his disgust at the invasion of the nation’s capitol on January 6.

Those words resonated with me. In May 1962, I was among a number of relatively new employees of the Social Security Administration to go to SSA headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland, for three weeks of training, in addition to three months of training we’d had just a few months earlier.

On our first weekend, a group of us decided to rent a car and go see the sights in Washington D.C. 

We started the tour by doing something we couldn’t do now, for more reasons than one: we took the steps to the top of the Washington Monument. It was a warm, humid and sunny morning and after that climb, the only thing we could do, after getting down, was to find an air-conditioned bar and drink some cold beer.

After recovery, we did some serious touring, visiting the Lincoln Memorial, the Smithsonian, Arlington National Cemetery, with the Tomb of the Unknowns, the Iwo Jima memorial, the Lee-Custis Mansion (now renamed Arlington House), overlooking the peaceful hillside where, a year and a half later, John F. Kennedy would be laid to rest.

We walked up the steps of the Capitol Building, taking in the majesty of the “People’s House,” where our laws are made, and where so much history has taken place. We went to the visitors’ galleries above the House of Representatives and Senate.

All in all, for a day trip, we did a pretty good job of seeing the sights of our nation’s Capitol. 

In 1976, we went to a conference in Washington D.C. and that time we got to tour the White House, where a tour guide explained that President and Mrs. Ford were gone that day, “Because they didn’t want to spoil our tour.”

While I have been to Washington D.C. several times, I’m by no means an expert on the city but like David Brooks, I cherish those visits and the opportunities to see and walk where our nation’s leaders have served and made history.

Also, like David Brooks, I was angry when news bulletins started coming about the mob scene at the Capitol, especially considering that our President, Donald Trump, incited riots to intimidate Congress from accomplishing the normally mundane counting of the Electoral College votes. 

Angry? Maybe enraged would be more accurate, and I was enraged at Senator Steve Daines and Representative Matt Rosendale, for their roles in aiding and abetting Donald Trump’s attempts to overthrow the election. In earlier messages to Sen. Daines, I asserted that he and his Republican colleagues should be telling Trump to face up to the truth that he lost the election, instead of playing along with and encouraging Trump’s fantasies.

Today, most likely before you’ve read this, we have witnessed history again, with the inauguration of Joe Biden as President and Kamala Harris as Vice President.

I’ve been reading “A Promised Land,” President Obama’s autobiographical account of his early years and first term as president. He wrote, appreciatively, of how, in sharp contrast to Trump, President Bush facilitated an almost seamless transition in power from his administration to Obama’s. I recall President George H. W. Bush’s gracious handwritten note to President Bill Clinton, welcoming him to the Oval Office. 

At this time of transition, we might remind ourselves that all these presidents and politicians will, at some time, be part of that “ash heap of history.”

For Donald Trump and his lackeys, I suspect it will be the dung heap of history.

Filling that Gap Between Hunting and Flyfishing

Riding the lift at Discovery Ski area in western Montana.

If you’re looking for more hunting outings, you’d better hurry up.

The waterfowl hunting season in the Pacific Flyway areas of Montana closed, temporarily, on January 10. It will reopen for one more weekend, from January 16 through January 20, and then it will be finally over, the last of the general hunting seasons.

Then, after shotguns and rifles have been cleaned and put away, gear re-organized and stowed, and other end-of-season rituals have been done, the question then becomes, “Now what?”

From the standpoint of writing about the outdoors, this is the challenging part of the year, this long stretch of time between hunting and fly-fishing.

Of course, this is an odd-numbered year, meaning that the Montana Legislature is in session. I hope I’m proved wrong, but with both houses of the legislature controlled by Republicans and with Republican Greg Gianforte our governor, I fear that there will be a lot of whacky legislation emerging from the legislative sausage making machine, as there won’t be a temporizing influence from the governor. I fear attacks on public access to public lands and waters. I fear political meddling in our highly professional and highly regarded Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks agency. 

I fear whacky legislation on gun issues. College students bringing AR-15s to class? No vetting or permitting of concealed carry? That’s just starters, I fear. What could go wrong? Consider the rioting in Washington D.C. last week.

With Covid-19 cautions, it’s going to be a challenge to get people to go to legislative hearings to comment on potentially bad legislation. 

With Covid-19, having a public rally for our public lands, as we’ve had in recent legislative sessions, would be a super-spreader event. 

Of course, the best antidote for depressing news is getting outside and doing things.

Lots of people enjoy ice fishing, and for many, winter is the best season of the year. Georgetown Lake, west of Anaconda, Clark Canyon Reservoir, Ruby Reservoir, and Willow Creek Reservoir, also known as Harrison Lake, are popular destinations for local ice-angler enthusiasts.

I’ll confess that, while I have done a fair amount of ice fishing, it doesn’t really appeal to me. I regularly drive by a lot of anglers on Georgetown Lake on my way to Discovery Ski Area. It’s a great place to ski, whether on the groomed downhill ski runs or on the many cross-country trails in the immediate area. With covid precautions, it’s going to be a little different, especially for food service. Check their website, www.skidiscovery.com for details. Packing your own lunch may be a good option. You might also do a snow dance, as snow cover is still pretty thin.

While I don’t particularly enjoy fly-fishing when it’s really cold, it’s still an option on many area streams, especially streams with relatively stable temperatures, such as Poindexter Slough, just outside of Dillon, or the Madison River at Beartrap Canyon. As always, it’s a good idea to check the regulations for seasonal rules regarding closures, catch & release rules, etc.

Hunting is still an option. There are elk shoulder seasons in a number of areas, and seasons can be open until February 15.

Rabbit hunting is an option, as well. There are no closed seasons for bunnies in Montana, whether cottontail rabbit or jackrabbits and snowshoe hares. In addition, cottontail rabbits and snowshoe hares are really good eating. Jackrabbits (which are also a hare) are also edible, though it usually takes a different preparation. I recommend Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook online (honestfood.net) for tips on cooking almost any wild game, especially some of the lesser–known critters, such as rabbits. Incidentally, I’ve met many people who made it through the Depression, thanks to the lowly cottontail rabbit.

Bunnies also come with an abundant supply of fly-tying material, a nice bonus in addition to food on the table. 

That brings me to one of my favorite winter activities, tying flies for the next season. There’s nothing like tying flies on a cold and blustery afternoon, and thinking of warm summer days when we can use them on area trout streams.

One Last Pheasant Hunt

Kiri searching for pheasant scent.

A rooster pheasant flushed from a clump of grass. My shotgun was at the ready, but that clump of grass was about 50 yards away, well out of range, so that pheasant lived for another day.

I lived for another day, as well, but as far as pheasants are concerned, that next day of pheasant hunting will most likely be next October, as Montana’s 2020 pheasant season closed at sunset on New Year’s Day.

My record on end-of-season pheasant hunts is pretty dismal. To be sure, I have brought pheasants home from December hunts, but it’s not often. Wild pheasants, at the end of the hunting season, are seasoned survivors. They managed to survive the summer, a time when pheasant chicks are fair game for a whole variety of predators, from snakes, to skunks and foxes, to hawks and owls. Life is a challenge when you’re at the bottom of the food chain.

Pheasants that survive to adulthood soon learn about other predators—the ones carrying shotguns, following bird dogs of one kind or another that follow their noses through thick grass, weed patches and brush in search of pheasant scent. The pheasants that stick around to be sniffed out by dogs are, by late December, considerably thinned out.

Pheasant hunting is in my blood. I grew up on a farm at a time when pheasants were plentiful in southern Minnesota. My first hunting, as an innocent teenager (assuming there is such a thing) was for pheasants. I’ve lived my entire life in states that offer pheasant hunting. I’ve hunted pheasants on bluebird days in early October, in snowstorms, and in subzero temperatures. Even when the odds are stacked against us, I enjoy being out there.

I couldn’t blame the weather for my lack of success on that last hunt of the 2020 season. The temperature in the early morning was below zero but by late morning it was in the mid-20s when I started walking. The sunshine felt warm and, unusually, there wasn’t any wind to speak of.

The first pheasant my Lab, Kiri, flushed was clearly a protected hen pheasant. I watched it fly off, keeping an eye on Kiri’s whereabouts, hoping she’d also sniff out a rooster. 

A little while later, Kiri flushed another pheasant. I couldn’t tell, for sure, whether it was a hen or rooster, though as it sailed out of sight I couldn’t help but think it might have been a rooster. 

A handsome whitetail buck bounded out of one brush patch. He seemed pretty casual about it, however. He evidently understood he was out of season and didn’t have to worry about me. 

I watched Kiri work a weed patch and finally give up on it—a moment too soon, as a rooster flushed from a distant corner of the patch, safely out of range.

A little bunch of mule deer sensed danger and moved out of the sagebrush where Kiri and I were walking, bouncing their distinctive way to a hillside a couple hundred yards away. Then they stopped and looked back, as mule deer often do, a behavioral trait that has turned many mule deer into packages of steak and hamburger in hunters’ freezers. They had no reason to fear me on this day.

A frozen “waterfall below a beaver dam.

Finally, as the sun was starting to drop, and the air was starting to feel chilly, Kiri and I finished our walk, empty-handed.

I made a stop at the landowner’s house to say thanks for letting me hunt, once again, and then we drove home in the setting sun.

It seemed like a long time since Kiri and I made our first walks of the season on some high mountainsides in search of blue grouse. Since then, we’ve walked golden aspens for ruffed grouse, and prairies and grain fields for pheasants. 

While I was disappointed at not bringing home any birds, I have pheasants in the freezer and in coming months we’ll be enjoying some gourmet pheasant dinners, as well as fly-fishing with some pheasant tail nymphs made from bits of pheasant tail feathers.

Farewell to 2020 and Farewell to Some Outdoor Heroes

Joel Vance, outdoor writer/editor, mentor and beloved leader among outdoor communicators.

We’ve just about made it to the end of 2020, a year that many people regard as “annus horribilis,” the Latin for Horrible Year. It was a year for bitter politics, an impeachment, and to top it off, a global pandemic that has now killed (as of a week ago) over 320,000 Americans, with deaths continuing at the rate of 3,000 or more per day. 

A surprise for the year was how Americans re-discovered the great outdoors during the pandemic. After people found themselves in lockdowns, working from home, learning about Zoom calls, they found that they could escape many of the pandemic frustrations by heading for the outdoors. People bought recreational vehicles and hit the road for fishing, touring and fresh air. It now remains to be seen if this surge in popularity for the outdoors sticks, or if people will return to their usual more-organized recreations after people are immunized and we can go back to pre-pandemic pursuits.

2020 marked the passing of heroes of the outdoors. Among the departed is Gen. Chuck Yeager, the WWII fighter ace who became the test pilot who first broke the speed of sound, among the many accomplishments of his long career with the Air Force. He also had a long love of the outdoors and is remembered fondly by the many people who had opportunities to hunt or fish with him.

Here in Montana, we lost Jim Posewitz, a giant of conservation, as well as a leader, author and ethicist. Posewitz died on July 3 at age 85. In addition to his body of work, he left behind living monuments, such as the free-flowing Yellowstone River and the Wild and Scenic Missouri River through the Missouri Breaks.

I’ll also note the recent death of one of the greats in the world of outdoor writers. 

Joel Vance, who died on December 9, at age 86, was a beloved leader, teacher and mentor to outdoor communicators around the country.

Joel grew up in Missouri, and earned a degree at the University of Missouri Journalism School and his first job out of J-school was at a newspaper in Montgomery, Alabama, covering civil rights. 

His journalism career was interrupted by military service, fulfilling obligations after Army ROTC in college. 

After completing military service, he returned to journalism, first as a sports writer, before embarking on a long career as an outdoor writer. While he wrote stories about hunting, fishing, bird dogs, especially French Britannies, and even church lutefisk dinners during grouse hunting trips to Minnesota, for many magazines, along with a bunch of books, he is best remembered as editor of the Missouri Conservationist, the publication of the Missouri fish and game department. 

Joel was an active leader of the Outdoor Writers Association of America (OWAA), serving as president and over the years earned about every award and honor OWAA has. He led or taught many writing workshops, and was introduced at one of them as “the editor from hell.”

Joel had a regular column with Gun Dog magazine for many years until declining health forced him to mostly retire from freelance writing in 2015. Joel continued to write weekly blogs, musing on many topics, until a couple weeks before his death. 

I got to know Joel when I first went to an OWAA conference, and introduced myself to him, first because I’d read his work for many years in Gun Dog, and also because we were next to each other, alphabetically, in the membership directory. 

When I recently published a new book, Joel was one of the first to order a copy, insisting that he pay the full price, not wanting a complimentary copy, which I had actually planned on. He wrote me a brief note, “Savoring the book. Fine writing. I’m envious of your proximity to legendary hunting and fishing and the many years you have to enjoy them. With admiration, Joel.”

To be honest, I don’t know how many more years I have for hunting and fishing, but from Joel, the editor from hell, “Savoring the book. Fine writing,” is something I’ll treasure.

An Old Curmudgeon’s Christmas

For lack of a better model, the author modestly nominates himself as Old Curmudgeon

Once upon a time, an old curmudgeon lived in a small town. He rarely missed opportunities to be grouchy. 

At homecoming in the fall, he’d grumble that homecoming queens were prettier when he was young.

 When an enterprising young person opened a new business on Main Street, he’d predict business failure before the end of summer. 

The old curmudgeon was, not unexpectedly, at his worst around Christmas time. Bright Christmas lights and the thought of cutting down a perfectly good evergreen tree just to put in the house for a couple weeks and then throw out in the trash seemed ridiculous. His personal hero for the season was always Ebenezer Scrooge; that is the Ebenezer at the beginning of Dickens’ story, not cheery Scrooge at the end, after his night of Christmas ghosts.

No, the old curmudgeon (and let’s just call him O.C.) thought, “Bah, humbug!” was an appropriate and fit comment for the Christmas season, and all the rest of the seasons, too. If there was an occasion worth celebrating, it probably deserved a Humbug!

Then a strange thing happened. Many of us called it “2020.”

As the year developed, O.C. started getting this strange feeling that being the town’s Old Curmudgeon was getting to be a crowded field. 

He first noticed it as the political season started heating up, what with an impeachment trial in January, and then party primaries, as contenders vied to take on the incumbent president.

As the year wore on and the final candidates emerged, people started yelling at each other and calling each other names. O.C. looked on it all and wondered, “Where did all these amateurs come from?”

Of course, every other year is an election year of one sort or another, so O.C. was ready to laugh it off, except a new factor came along. Nothing serious, just a world-wide pandemic, called Coronavirus or Covid-19.

Some people were ringing alarms over this new disease, while others said, “No big deal. It’s no worse than the flu.” People in authority in some places said, “We’re got to shut things down and reduce the probability of disease transmission.” Some people yelled out, “Bah, humbug!” 

Other people in authority said, “This new disease is nothing to worry about. Come, let’s gather together and celebrate weddings, graduations, and motorcycles. What could go wrong?” Then other people started yelling, “Bah, humbug!”

No matter what happened, however, more people kept getting sick and many people died, some, with their dying breaths croaking out a hoarse, “Bah, humbug!”

In the middle of all this, an election took place, and after the votes were counted and winners and losers were decided, people of all political stripes and persuasions started yelling, “Bah, humbug!” 

O.C. finally couldn’t take it any longer. 

O.C. went into his shop and created a big sign and then walked down Main Street with his sign, a sign saying in big letters, “Peace!”

People watched him walk by, wondering, “Isn’t that O.C.? What’s the deal with him?” Finally, a group of civic and business leaders caught up with O.C. and asked him, “What’s the big deal?”

O.C. grumbled and started explaining. “For years, I’ve been perfectly happy being the town’s old curmudgeon. I thought someone had to be grouchy about things, but I can’t take the competition anymore.”

He continued, “Look, people, it’s December. We celebrate Christmas in a couple days. We just had Hanukah, the celebration of light. Next week is Kwanza, a celebration of African-American culture. If you really have grievances, today is Festivus, that airing of grievances from that Seinfeld episode. Lighten up!”

The people stood there, shocked at O.C.’s message, then started nodding and smiling at each other, and started to give each other elbow bumps as a sign of peace.

The mayor turned to O.C. and said, “Thanks, O.C. We needed this reminder that we really need to work at getting along together in these times. You know what? After New Year, we’re going to give you the Key to the City.”

 O.C. uncharacteristically smiled a moment, then growled, “Bah, humbug!”

Vacuum Bottle Adventures

My trusty Stanley bottle, ready for more outings.

Last week I wrote about a successful deer hunt a couple days before Thanksgiving Day. I didn’t include a footnote to the outing.

When my friend, John Jacobson, and I were getting ready to hit the road for home, I was organizing my gear, putting things away and otherwise making sure everything was accounted for.

Then, I realized what was missing. My trusty Stanley thermos bottle wasn’t where I’d last seen it, when it was rolling around on the floor behind the front seat of John’s truck. I mentally reviewed where and when we’d stopped in the course of the day’s hunt, and when I’d poured a fresh cup of hot tea from my bottle.      

I could only guess that on one of those stops the bottle rolled out without my noticing it. I mentioned to John that it was missing and he got a look of dismay on his face, so I added, “But we’re not going to go back out and look for it.” It would truly have been one of those needle in a haystack searches. John had a visible look of relief on his face when I said that.

Some terms that we use, such as thermos or Kleenex, are examples of an eponym, where a brand name for something has become the commonly used name, regardless of who makes it. Thermos, for example, has become the generic word for vacuum bottles. A German company, Thermos GmbH (an abbreviation of a German term for a corporate entity) originally registered a trademark for vacuum bottles, though it became the common name for all vacuum bottles. In 1963, a U.S. Federal court ruled that a lower case “thermos” was a generic term for vacuum bottles, though Thermos (with the capital T) is still a registered name for Thermos products, which are now owned by a Japanese company.

I couldn’t remember how long I’ve had that Stanley bottle but it has been a long time. It replaced a long line of glass-lined vacuum bottles that I had replaced or bought replacement liners to replace a broken glass liner. Glass linings are fragile, and a tumble in the back of a pickup often results in a cup of cold coffee or tea and an unhealthy helping of broken glass.

The all-steel Stanley vacuum flask was invented by William Stanley in 1913 when he discovered a welding process could be used to insulate a vacuum bottle with steel instead of glass. He started mass production of the Stanley bottle in 1915. He didn’t live long enough to see the success of his invention as he died in 1916, at age 57. Over the years, there have been a number of corporations that have owned the brand, including Aladdin, which acquired the rights in 1965. In 2002, a Seattle company, Pacific Market International acquired it, and moved production to China.

I was relieved when John called a week ago to tell me he found my Stanley bottle where it had rolled under a seat, and brought it over, and it’s now awaiting another outing.

That brought to mind a story that, near the end of his life, the late flyfishing legend, Bernard “Lefty” Kreh told a former colleague, who recorded the conversation and posted it on Facebook. 

Years ago, Lefty bought a Stanley bottle, then had it dipped in a rubber coating so it wouldn’t make so much noise rattling around in a boat. He loved that thermos.

Lefty told of taking his young son, about age 5 or 6, fishing, and in the course of the day, the boy accidentally dropped the thermos overboard, much to Lefty’s dismay.

At the end of an otherwise fun day of fishing, Lefty and his son were on their way home, with a sleepy boy cuddled up against him and Lefty mused, “Someday, son, you’re going to be a grown man, and I’ll be an old man, and then, maybe, you’ll take me fishing, just like I took you fishing.

The boy pondered that a moment, then responded, “Will I get to cuss you out, too?”

Earning Our Venison

Sometimes, it’s too easy. Of course, the rest of the process is how we earn our venison.

I went out in search of a deer a couple days before Thanksgiving, with my friend, retired physician, John Jacobson, on a southwest Montana ranch that has been putting venison into our freezer for the last 20 years or so.

It didn’t take long to spot deer, as a good-sized deer bounded away as we drove into a field. A moment later, another deer, a much smaller antlerless deer, trotted away.

Through binoculars, we watched the deer and confirmed that the larger deer had antlers. I really wasn’t looking for antlers on a deer, other than knowing that if a deer has visible antlers, we know it’s an adult deer that will produce a meaningful amount of venison.

We watched it move into a distant fence corner, where it seemed to settle down, and then it lay down. Then it got up and jumped over the fence and disappeared from view in a line of brush on the other side of the fence.

John said, “I think we can drive over there and maybe find it.” 

He was right. I spotted the deer bedded down in the shade of dense brush but with its head up and looking right at me. 

Some Native American traditions subscribe to a philosophy that the animals we’re supposed to take will offer themselves to you. Over the years I’ve come to accept that belief, because that’s the only way I can explain the success I’ve had over the years. 

I’m really not much of a deer hunter, as my main hunting interest is upland game, such as pheasants and grouse, and after it gets cold, I also like to hunt ducks. But, if we want venison in the freezer, we have to go hunting, and time and again, the deer I’ve brought home have mostly stood out in the open while I fumbled with my rifle and found a good rest so that even I could get an effective shot at it. This deer was just like the others. 

I had a clean shot and the deer died instantly. 

The next trick was to get to it. There was a little spring creek that separated us from the deer, and we’d be over our knees in muck to get to it. So, we went back to where we first saw the deer, and then walked to that fence corner and to the deer on the other side of the fence. As these things work, by the time we had the deer dressed out and loaded up, it was a good two hours from the time I fired my rifle.

It was late afternoon when we got home and got the deer hung up in the garage. After dinner, I spent another hour skinning the deer. 

Our daughter, Erin, drove down from Helena the next day to help with the job of converting that deer carcass into cut and wrapped meat in the freezer. I worked in the garage doing the rough cuts, while Erin cut the big chunks into dinner-size cuts, and my wife wrapped the meat, now ready for the freezer. 

All in all, I’d guess that the original half-hour hunt on the ranch resulted in about 25 person-hours of work after the shot was fired. 

Appropriately, most of the work was done by Thanksgiving Day, when we were able to give thanks for the bounty of the land and the spirit of the deer that will nourish our bodies with nutritious, locally and organically grown meat through the coming months. 

A few days after Thanksgiving, my wife and I made our annual Christmas tree hunt in the mountains, and in a shorter than usual search for that wily, wild, perfect tree, we picked one out and loaded it up for the trip home.

With grouse, pheasants and venison in the freezer and a fragrant pine tree in the living room, ready for decoration, we’re in Advent mode, getting ready for Christmas.

A Trophy Pheasant Brings Back Memories

A pheasant to remember.

The 2020 general deer and elk season is over. The end of these five weeks means a lot of Montana households have venison in the freezer. Of course, a lot of households have also learned that venison in the freezer isn’t a sure thing.

I’m actually starting this column the night before going out in search for a whitetail deer. I’ve been pretty lucky in recent years. We’ll see if the luck holds, and I’ll report on the hunt later.

For now, my mind is on pheasants and, particularly, on my last hunt, with a connection to a long ago hunt.

I made a one-day trip up to my pheasant haunts on the Rocky Mountain Front a week ago to hunt a ranch I’d planned to hunt back in October. However, we cut that last camping trip of the season short, when a winter storm warning threatened to make us snowbound at Freezout Lake.

Since then, several winter storms have swept across Montana. We’ve had subzero temperatures, and then we’ve had mild weather and most of those snows have melted. So I took advantage of relatively mild weather for a fast trip to the prairies.

We had mild autumnal-like temperatures, but with a major wind chill, it was more like an expedition on the arctic tundra. But, that’s why we have jackets and gloves.

About five hours later, I concluded the hunt when my Labrador retriever, Kiri, flushed a rooster pheasant from a weedpatch next to a wheat stubble field. It was kind of a long shot, but the bird dropped to the ground. It got up running, but Kiri was on the job and put an end to that nonsense. We’d gotten our limit of three pheasants for the day.

It wasn’t that pheasant that gave me a thrill, though it was a beautiful, long-tailed rooster in all the gaudy colors of those Asian immigrants.

A couple hours earlier, Kiri and I were poking around in a grassy draw and she put up a rooster. The bird first flew directly at me, then swerved to fly behind a tree. When it reappeared on the other side of the tree I had time for a couple fast shots and the pheasant went down, and Kiri was there right away to make sure it wasn’t going anywhere.

When I got up to it, I gasped at the bird’s tailfeathers. These were seriously long tailfeathers. We were about ready for a lunch break so when we got back to the truck, I laid the bird out on the tailgate and got out a tape measure. The feathers measured out to 26 and a half inches.

A limit of Montana pheasants.

My first thought was, “This is one for the taxidermist.” 

Now, let’s time-travel back to November 1972. On a mild, overcast Sunday afternoon, I went for a hunt on a favorite ranch with Sam, our black Lab of the day. We flushed a pheasant from a clump of willows and I managed to hit the bird. When we found the bird, I had a similar gasp of wonder. That pheasant had tailfeathers that I later measured as an even 26 inches. 

I considered taking it to a taxidermist, but I concluded that a pheasant dinner was worth more than the cost of taxidermy. 

For 48 years, I’ve been regretting that decision. We do have a beautiful North Dakota pheasant mount from the late 1970s, but that bird had just 18-inch tailfeathers. A nice bird, but not a trophy.

Since then I’ve taken many pheasants. Some of them have had long tailfeathers, but none as long as that long ago Tongue River rooster—until now.

I took the pheasant to the taxidermist this afternoon and told him my story and, while he’s a lot more used to monster bull elk and mule deer, he appreciated the rarity of the pheasant. “Heck, that’s the equivalent of an 8-point elk.”

Of course, after he quoted an estimate for the job, I regretted even more not having that 1972 bird mounted! Prices for everything have gone up and taxidermy isn’t exempt.

Give Thanks for the Outdoors

Social distancing – Montana style

The charcoal grill is heating up, getting ready to receive its sacrificial offering, a spatchcocked turkey, as I start contemplating this Thanksgiving holiday in this surreal year. 

I’ll note that because of family scheduling, we celebrated, or at least feasted, a week early, also taking advantage of a temporary return to autumn weather for outdoor cooking.

If you’re not familiar with “spatchcocking,” this means that we’ve cut out the backbone of the turkey and splayed the bird out so it’s relatively flat. I was kind of tentative the first time I tried it, but after several chickens during the summer, we decided we were ready to try a turkey.

It goes without saying, but this has been a cockeyed year. As if election years aren’t crazy enough, an election year in the middle of a global pandemic raises the craziness level by some mathematical degree above my understanding.

It seems ages now, but it was just eight months ago that the reality of the global pandemic came to Montana. On the evening of March 13, the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited had its fundraising banquet, right on schedule. TU volunteers had planned for potential risk, with hand sanitizing stations around the area, and various wipes and other hand-cleaning supplies at tables. Still, the news of the first covid-19 cases in Butte and Montana was certainly in the buzz of conversation that evening.

To the best of my knowledge, that TU banquet was the last large indoor social gathering we’ve had in Butte. The next day our local public health people issued cancellation notices for churches, concerts and other groups and we started learning about wearing masks, washing hands, and social distancing. Also, it seems clear that we dodged a bullet with that event. If we had a similar banquet this month it would be a super spreader event and in coming weeks we’d be counting the resulting hospitalizations and covid deaths. 

All of this is background for what became one of the surprises of this insane year: people learned to appreciate the outdoors.

For better or worse, with a need for social distancing and shut-downs of so many other activities, people took to the outdoors.

We found public land campgrounds to be full and running over much of the camping season. Other people have reported going to National Forests and finding someone camped in just about every pull-out where it was possible to set up a tent.

There were economic surprises along with this. Angling Trade, an online service to the fly-fishing business community asked readers how business was for 2020, and 44 percent of responders reported having a record year and 17 percent reported one of their better years, if not a record-breaker. This isn’t a scientific poll, of course, but it is an indication that at least one segment of our economy is weathering the pandemic better than might be expected.

While it seemed that a lot of people that headed for the great outdoors came to Montana, we’re not alone, in that respect. 

The Washington Post recently reported on an influx of tourists in the Tahoe Lake area along the California/Nevada border. Tahoe apparently has a lot of bears in the areas that also attract tourists. Regular visitors to the area apparently know better than to leave doors unlocked or ground floor windows open, and seem to get along with only minor difficulties. One Alabama visitor, however, decided every bear sighting was an emergency and called 911. After a number of calls, the police department told him to knock it off and they’d arrest him if he made any more calls to report bear sightings.

So, on this Thanksgiving holiday, let’s give thanks for our great outdoors, and particularly our public lands and waters. In a year of pandemic, politics and unrest, many people found or rediscovered the outdoors as a place that, compared to everything else going on, actually made sense.

As for that spatchcocked grilled turkey, it was delicious, though I felt kind of cheated, not having stuffing and gravy. 

There are always trade-offs.

Old Dogs Remember Old Tricks

Kota enjoying a break from hunting.

You want a friend in Washington? Get a dog.” Harry S Truman.

Whatever your feelings about the presidential election, our next president will have at least two friends in Washington, as there have been postings on social media of Joe and Jill Biden with a pair of dogs, including a German shepherd that came to the Biden household as a rescue dog. 

As all presidents come to know, there are days when they feel downtrodden and rejected; even betrayed by people they considered best friends. 

Presidents who have dogs can weather a lot more stormy weather when they have a dog that will always greet them with a wagging tail and a happy face.

Dogs are special, and, perhaps, old dogs are even more special. This week’s story is about one of those old dogs that made our annual pheasant trip to North Dakota a little more special.

Our son and daughter in law, Kevin and Jen, had two dogs, a little Yorkie and Tori, a big yellow Labrador a couple years older than our Lab, Kiri. Then, about a year and a half ago, they adopted another Lab, Kota (short for Dakota). The backstory is that a friend of a friend owned Kota but was moving and would be unable to take Kota with him. 

Kevin and Jen decided to adopt Kota, as otherwise he would have been euthanized. Kota made a successful adjustment to his new family and he’s really a sweet dog.

We took our annual family pheasant trip to North Dakota on the last weekend of October, and on my first planned day of hunting, Kevin had to stay in town to work, so Kiri, our black Lab, and I went out and had a successful day. It was damp and chilly, but we finished the hunt with our limit of three nice pheasants. We also discovered, after getting back to Minot, that she’d gotten a nasty cut on her chest, probably from a barbed wire fence. 

I spent the second planned day of hunting getting her to a veterinary clinic to get stitched up. 

On Halloween Day, Kiri was on the injured reserve list, as was Tori, who has a pesky problem with a paw infection. Kota, age 10, was the only dog of three able to hunt.

The surf was rolling on Parshall Bay on Lake Sakakawea

It was a nasty day, with gale force winds roaring across the prairies, and turning Lake Sakakawea, the big impoundment on the Missouri River, into a mass of whitecaps.

It seemed a hopeless day but in the first few minutes of our walk, Kota went on point at the edge of a weedpatch. A pheasant rooster took flight and I had an easy shot and dropped the bird. Kota had an easy retrieve, trotting over to where the bird fell and picking up the dead bird.

I asked Kevin, “Is this his first retrieve for you?” Kevin paused, and affirmed that it was.

With a bird in the bag, Kota had extra bounce in his stride as he resumed the fresh for fresh bird scent. With the wind drowning out other sounds, it was hard to keep track of Kota, as he plowed through tall grasses. In fact, at one point we had no idea where he was. Then we spotted a pheasant flush from the grass and we figured that’s where Kota was.

Sure enough, we found Kota about where the pheasant flew out, and he seemed happy to see Kevin. He was also exhausted—on the verge of collapse. We shared a couple candy bars with him and after a rest he was ready to hunt again. In fact, he’d found his second wind and it was a challenge to keep up with him.

Kota, an old veteran of the pheasant fields.

As it worked out, we didn’t get any more shots at pheasants that day or the next. Still, it was a special time, as Kota stepped in and worked his heart out in search of pheasants. 

Kota is an old dog and we don’t know how many more hunts he has left in his career. But, for a couple days, he showed off, doing what he was born to do.