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.

Armistice – 102 years ago today

Veterans Memorials at Stodden Park in Butte MT. From L to R, Korean Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, WWI Memorial. The WWII memorial, a statue of a Guadalcanal soldier is the other side of the Vietnam memorial. There’s construction fencing around the area to protect an expansion and landscaping in front of the shell.

At 11 a.m., 102 years ago today, the cannons fell silent across the Western Front, as an Armistice agreement signed at approximately 5 a.m. (Paris time) went into effect, calling for an end to hostilities at “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.” 

In late September, the German Supreme Army Command informed Kaiser Whilhelm II that the military situation had become hopeless and a series of diplomatic negotiations for an end to the war began. There were rocky points along the way, with a breakdown in negotiations in late October. The German soldiers were exhausted, however, and desertions were on the increase. There was also a sailors’ revolt in the German navy. Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated on November 9.

Faced with the breakdowns in the ability to continue hostilities, the German delegation signed the armistice agreement in the early morning hours with a ceasefire at 11 a.m.

Tragically, the fighting continued to the final minutes, with 2,738 men killed in those last hours. 

Many artillery units continued to fire on German targets to avoid having to haul away unused ammunition, as well as to ensure that if fighting resumed they would have advantageous positions. A battery of U.S. Navy 14-inch railway guns shot their last salvo at 10:57:30 a.m., timed to land far behind the German front line just before the scheduled armistice.

An American soldier, Henry Gunther, is recognized as the last soldier killed in action. He was killed one minute before the armistice when he charged some astonished German troops who were aware that the cease-fire was about to take place. He had been despondent over a reduction in rank and was apparently trying to redeem his reputation.

The last fighting in the war ended about two weeks later, when word reached the King’s African Rifles who were still fighting in what is now Zambia. The commanders of the British and German forces negotiated protocols for their own armistice ceremony.

There were later investigations as to why so many soldiers died in those final hours of the war after the Armistice had been signed. Congress opened an investigation to find out why, and if blame should be placed on American Expeditionary Forces, including General John Pershing. 

Armistice Day is still celebrated on November 11 in many countries, and we will recall there were global commemorations of the centenary of the Armistice on November 11, 2018, with more than 60 heads of government and heads of state gathering in Paris. Many western countries have renamed the observances as Remembrance Day. 

In 1926, Congress passed a resolution asking President Calvin Coolidge to issue annual proclamations calling for the observance of Armistice Day with appropriate ceremonies. In 1938, Congress approved legislation establishing November 11 as a legal holiday, “a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace…”

In 1945, a World War II veteran, Raymond Weeks, had the idea to expand Armistice Day to become a day to honor all veterans, not just those who died in World War I. In 1954, Congress passed legislation changing Armistice Day to Veterans Day. In  1982, President Reagan honored Weeks with a Presidential Citizenship Medal, honoring him as “the father of Veterans Day.” Weeks died in 1985.

For several years, in accordance with the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, Veterans Day was observed on the fourth Monday in October from 1971 to 1977. In 1978, the day was moved back to November 11.

I still remember Armistice Day ceremonies in my Minnesota hometown prior to 1954. This was a time when many World War I veterans were in the prime of life, the business and civic leaders of the day. World War II was still a vivid memory for most people, and the veterans of that war were getting established in life and starting families. The Korean War limped to a cease fire in 1953, and loss of loved ones in that conflict was a fresh, bitter memory.

While the “war to end all wars” was a failed promise, we honor those veterans, living and dead, for their valor in service, and continued dedicated service to our country. 

Post-election Stress and the Outdoors

A mountainside watercress spring – a constant in a turbulent world.

Hurrah! It’s November 4 and the political campaign is over.

To be sure, the campaigns might be over, but I’m fully aware that politics is not over. While there are still votes to be counted around the country, I’m hopeful that by the time you’re reading this we’ll have some sense as to the winners and losers, and things can begin to sort themselves out. Whether or not we like the results of the election I’d suspect most of us will appreciate being able to turn on our television without being bombarded with the mud-slinging and innuendos of this year’s political commercials. Both my wife and I cast our ballots in mid-October; so all those commercials were wasted on us. I got really adept with the mute button, as well.

Along the political theme, I’d like to share some thoughts I put in my new book, Golden Years, Golden Hours, in a chapter titled, “Life Goes On.”

In the mountains, on a sunny, late afternoon, there is quiet, peace, and a sense of serenity.

We’re now halfway through the hunting season and before the season finally ends in January, we’ll be in winter and mild, sunny afternoons of autumn will be a pleasant memory. On the other hand, we have finally arrived at the end of the political season with most of the votes counted and winners declared. We could have a new president (or not) and the rest of the political pecking order, from the nation’s capitol to local courthouses and city halls, will be pretty well sorted out. No doubt some fear the sky is falling while others are celebrating.

In any event, now that the political season has ended, we can get back to the basics. Stock markets go up and stock markets go down. Politicians win elections and politicians lose elections. We’ll take a day (or more) to celebrate or mourn over our favorite candidates and then life goes on.

This doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in politics. In fact, I’m kind of a politics and news junky. I have strong feelings about a lot of issues and candidates. On the other hand, during a long career as a Federal employee I walked a careful line to avoid violating Hatch Act prohibitions against partisan politics among Federal employees. It was rather liberating, after I retired from government service, to be able to volunteer in some political campaigns.

Still, campaign seasons come and go. Candidates win and candidates lose. If it seems, occasionally, that my fellow voters don’t have the sense to come in out of the rain, I’m pretty sure that in the next election that some of them will come around, Political pendulums do swing both ways.

We actually escaped Montana politics for a few days this past week, to go to visit our son, Kevin, and his wife Jen, in Minot, North Dakota, and to spend several days in pursuit of pheasants on the prairies. There weren’t any hot political races there this year, so there wasn’t quite so much political uproar going on, though covid-19 more than made up for it. Hopefully, I’ll have a pheasant story or two to share in coming weeks.

Now that we’re back home I’m looking forward to, I hope, some better weather and some more outings in search of ruffed grouse in nearby mountain foothills. I plan to visit one of my favorite spots in the next few days, where there’s a magical place at the bottom of a hillside where springs nourish a bed of watercress before the spring’s waters join the small stream farther down the hillside. 

In a changing autumn landscape, that spring is a constant, with a steady flow of crystal clear water and the Kelly green of watercress that contrasts with the color of all seasons. It’s also the source of an annual watercress salad, a hunting season bonus on which, unlike grouse, we can depend.

The political season is finally over—for a little while. It’s time to get back to hunting.

Pheasants on the Rocky Mountain Front

A panoramic view of the Rocky Mountain Front from east of Fairfield MT

Over the years I’ve learned to love the Rocky Mountain Front. While much of the countryside is farmland, especially the parts of the countryside where I hunt pheasants, there is always an element of the wild in the pastoral landscape.

For example, there is the ever-present possibility of an encounter with grizzly bears, which have been expanding into their historic range on the plains. Thankfully, I haven’t had the pleasure, but it’s something you don’t put out of your mind.

Then there’s the wind. When storm fronts come over the mountains, it usually comes with strong winds. Hurricane-force winds. A blizzard can roar across the plains and instantly cover the landscape with a blanket of snow. Then there are the Chinook winds that can melt that snow in a few hours.

We were reminded of those winds a couple weeks ago when we made our annual pheasant trip to the Front, camping at Freezeout Lake, near Fairfield, for our last camping outing of the season.

It was breezy on the drive north but we had no problems. We set up camp and settled in for the night as wind-driven rain lashed our trailer. When we went to bed the skies were clearing and winds were calm.

At midnight, however, the roar of wind awakened us, and our trailer rocked and groaned with the wind gusts. It was hard to sleep through it, especially when Kiri, our Labrador retriever, wanted to get in bed with us, because she was scared. Sometime in the wee hours, the wind subsided and I got on with the real reason for the trip.

Kiri searching for pheasant scent in barley stubble.

For my first day of hunting I went to a farm near Choteau, one of my favorite destinations for over 30 years. Last year it was a bust, as the farmer who rents the cropland had cattle there, which trampled the entire wildlife habitat. This year, the cattle hadn’t come yet, and there was lots of cover, though not many pheasants., Kiri did put up pheasants, but the roosters that flushed all got up out of shooting range, except for the two that got up when I was crawling under a barbed wire fence.

On a second day of hunting, on the Fairfield Bench area, Kiri charged into a clump of willows and suddenly pheasants were flying everywhere. It has always been my observation that when a dozen pheasants get up they’ll all get away unscathed, and this was the case this time.

We kept on hunting and searching for scent and Kiri flushed rooster pheasants for me, one at a time. I had successful shots, folding two pheasants.

After a lunch break, we took another walk, but this time we saw just one hen.

At this point, I called it a day and we went back to camp where we packed up and hit the road for home.

Remember those winds of the Front? I was planning a third day of hunting, but the latest forecast was for another day of high winds, followed by a winter storm warning for the weekend. From past experience, I know that hunting pheasants in strong winds is kind of crazy. Birds get up and as soon as they catch the wind they’re gone, as if jet-propelled. With the winter storm forecast, going home seemed the best option.

Alas, there was a third farm I planned to hunt and had already lined up permission for that third day of hunting that didn’t happen I regret missing that day, but we have no regrets for going home and staying warm and dry.

Since then, more stormy weather has hit the Rocky Mountain Front as well as most of Montana. I’m sure elk hunters were happy about cold, snowy weather this past weekend. Early cold snaps can put elk on the move for easier living.

In any event, the pheasant season goes through New Year’s Day and I’m pretty sure there will be Chinook winds that will melt the snow and I’ll have another chance to invite some Rocky Mountain Front pheasants to come home with me for dinner.

Huntin’ Season About Here!

The wait is just about over. 

A memory from the 2019 season.

The Wait is just about over.

While thousands of Montana hunters have been out doing their thing, whether it’s upland birds, archery hunting, pheasant hunting, waterfowl hunting, etc., the big day for the rest of us is this Saturday, October 24, when the general deer and elk seasons start at sunrise. 

From then, until sunset on November 29, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Montana hunters, as well as non-resident hunters from around the country, will be criss-crossing the state in search of mule deer, whitetail deer, and, of course, elk, the big deer that fills freezers.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that upland bird and waterfowl hunters have put their shotguns away for the duration, either. In these coming weeks just about everybody who hunts will be out in the great outdoors pursuing their passions. 

For example, most people look at the “general” deer and elk season as the rifle season for big game. It is, but archery hunters will likely still be out in the field hoping to take their deer and elk the old-fashioned way. 

Of course, even the most dedicated pheasant hunter will likely take time out for a deer or elk hunt. In my case, I’ve been lucky the last few years, getting nice whitetail bucks on a one-day hunt. 

As hunters head for the mountains and prairies in search of game, it is important to remember some basics.

First of all, big game hunters, including archery hunters, must wear a jacket or vest with 144 square inches of hunter orange, or blaze orange, if you prefer. While it isn’t required, I strongly recommend that upland bird hunters also wear hunter orange, as well. Believe me, pheasants and grouse pay no attention to your orange vest. For that matter, I’ve had deer walk up to me in the woods. It’s motion and scent that alarms deer and elk.

I also advocate that hikers, bird watchers, farmers, ranchers, and anyone else out in Montana’s fields and forests should wear orange in these coming weeks. It only makes sense to let anybody in potential shooting range know that people are around.

Respect private property. Remember, whether you’re hunting ducks, pheasants, or elk, you must have permission to hunt on private property. A landowner doesn’t have to post their property to keep out uninvited hunters, though it seems most do. 

Millions of acres of Montana farm and ranch lands are open to public hunting through the Block Management Program. Keep in mind that going through whatever hoops are there, whether simply signing a register at a sign-in box, or making a reservation and getting a permission slip from the landowner, is part of the process of legally hunting on that private land.

If you harvest a deer, be aware that it may be infected with chronic wasting disease. If there’s any doubt in your mind, especially if the animal looks less than healthy, have it tested before consuming any meat from the animal. The FWP website tells you how to do it.

In any event, be careful and be safe in these coming weeks, as the seasons change from autumn into winter. Above all, have fun. Whether your outings result in a freezer full of venison or not, it’s a great time to be with friends and family.

Changing topics, I’ll note the death of Frank Cook, of Butte, on October 5. Frank was a nationally ranked competitive pistol shooter, who competed, and won championships, all over the U.S. Frank died after a long struggle with cancer. 

Sometime around 20 years ago, I did a profile on Frank for the Montana Standard and in the process spent a most enjoyable afternoon interviewing Frank in his “man cave” in his garage, where he did reloading and other gun stuff. 

Frank would also occasionally come and play tennis in our morning tennis group. 

I can confirm that, whether on the shooting range or on the tennis court, he deserved the nickname we gave him, “Deadeye.” Whether he was using a pistol or a tennis racket, he didn’t miss many shots.

Rest in peace, Frank.