Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Fishing Lassen (And Hiking Too, Of Course)

I took a break from the ongoing pursuit of deer (well, and life in general too, right?) to visit a good friend in California and a trip to Lassen Volcanic National Park.  This might seem completely unrelated to the archery story in the preceding post, and it largely is, except for one coincidental but immensely important detail.  The Lassen area comprises the eastern extent of the historic home of the Yahi people, an indigenous group that inhabited a part of the land that is now California. For the man of the Yahi who came to be called Ishi, Lassen was his back yard and hunting ground.  Ishi later became inadvertently famous as the last of the Yahi when a series of tribulations cost him his remaining family and forced him into the outside world.  

Taken away to San Fransisco where he was studied extensively by academics, Ishi became an accidental window into life-ways then at the edge of extinction. However, the swarm of diseases Ishi was now exposed to took their toll and he eventually fell into the care of a Professor of Medicine named Saxton T. Pope.  An unlikely lasting relationship struck up between the two, and a very interesting transfer of knowledge began.  When Ishi was in good health it was he who became the professor, and under him Dr. Pope began a study of archery and bowhunting that lasted long after Ishi's untimely death (and subsequent autopsy and encephalectomy at Pope's hands).  

Pope and his companion Arthur Young set out with a vengeance to demonstrate that bowhunting, rather than an archaic footnote of history, was a viable and effective method of taking any game that breathed.  Their trip to Yellowstone National Park to collect a grand display specimen for the California Academy of Sciences yielded proof that even the mighty grizzly bear couldn't stand against a skilled archer (never mind the fact that grizzlies were already extinct in California might hint at their vulnerabilities).

Pope and Young were in at the nucleus of the movement that eventually led to Howard Hill, archery seasons, recurves, Fred Bear, fiberglass lamination, the Pope and Young Club, Zwickey, cut-past-center, FastFlight, eccentric cams, peep sights, Lumenok, quad limbs, Swhackers, Toxic Broadheads...and me, sitting in a tree, missing an easy shot at a young whitetail buck early one Saturday morning in September.  Long, circuitous route as it was, I was already linked by history to Lassen before I even set foot there. 

But this trip really wasn't about archery at all.  It was about communing with a dear friend and exploring in the great outdoors.  We set up base of operations in Manzanita Lake Campground, a front country facility right near the northwest entrance to the park.  Doug brought his kayaks along, so in addition to the day hikes you'd expect of me we were able to do a bit of paddling and trout fishing on the mountain lakes therein. 

The first evening we found time for a nice sunset fishing paddle around Manzanita Lake.  Considering this was my first time in a kayak in ages, I didn't completely embarrass myself.  I did rely a bit on the kindness of strangers though, as I got a nice push-off from some bystanders, probably waiting to watch the show in case I quickly flipped over or strangled myself with monofiliment or some other sundry mishap.  After that didn't occur I guess they got bored and wandered off, leaving us with the lake to ourselves.  

Scenery didn't suck.
Although a certain friend of mine was afraid I wouldn't catch anything, I quickly pulled in the biggest trout he's seen on that lake.  Not a bad start for a non-fisher.  Manzanita is catch-and-release only lake so fishy went free after a quick photo op.  Doug didn't catch anything.

No trout were harmed in the making of this picture.

We paddled around until sunset then retired to camp for a hot meal of left-over Asian ribs and accoutrements around a roaring campfire.  Only the serene sounds of the night such as the wind whispering through the pines and the screams of children in the group campsite lulled us to sleep.

I woke up at first light the next morning, as I tend to do while camping.  I left Doug to catch up on his beauty sleep and went out into the chilly dawn air to nose around.  I would have taken more pics but my iPhone actually shut down, presumably from the 30-something degree weather. 

Lassen Peak at dawn
When I returned we cooked up a great breakfast of fresh blueberry pancakes and sausage and headed out on our day trip adventure:  A hike up Cinder Cone.  Lassen is a world of volcanoes, with several great examples of various kinds.  Cinder Cone is a pristine cinder cone volcano (big shock) that is believed to have erupted in the mid 1600's (possibly 1666).  The trail out to it follows the Nobles Immigrant Trail, used by settlers to access the Northern Sacramento Valley in the 1800's.  Not far from the parking area the trail passes a 40 foot wall of boulders that marks the northwest terminus of the Fantastic Lava Beds, a  huge expanse of a'a (pronounced ah ah) basaltic lava that erupted from the base of Cinder Cone.

Edge of the A'A

The trail is not super long, and soon Cinder Cone itself loomed 750 feet above us.   

The trail up the actual volcano was like walking on beach sand (or a trail chewed up by horses) but at a 30-35 degree incline.  Quad-buster for sure, but with great views.  Interesting observation, the volcanic soils around Cinder Cone seemed to support no vegetation but a healthy stand of pine trees.  Cool how soil chemistry can influence community composition, no?

Half way now, I think I can, I think I can.  Like a natural cardiac stress test.

Cinder Cone has a cool double rim, though to be caused by variations in the eruption sequence. Trails follow around both rims and down into the crater itself.

We took another trail down the cone so that we could circle around the south side of the volcano, past the outflow vent of the Fantastic Lava Beds and along another section the Nobels Immigrant Trail. 

Fantastic Lava Beds vent
Base of the cinder cone, trail alongside.
After the Cinder Cone trail we ate a quick late lunch then put our kayaks out into nearby Butte Lake, where the Fantastic Lava Beds go right down to the water's edge.  This time I could eat what I caught, so the game was afoot.

Lava beds on the shoreline.  Evidently great for fishing.
Doug headed over to the forested shoreline, expecting to find fish nearby.  Not knowing any better, I went right over next to the barren lava flow and tossed out a cast.  A few seconds later I was calling my friends name so hard he thought I had capsized.  A big ol' rainbow trout was on my hook, straining the low-test line.  It was a beauty both in its rainbow sheen and its lovely edible girth!  We strung it along behind the kayak and headed off, Doug now intently interested in the basalt shoreline. 

Doesn't look it here but that's a 14 inch trout.
I caught another smaller rainbow a little further along, insuring our dinner protein.  Thereafter my curiosity outweighed my continued interest in fishing and I leisurely paddled around, exploring the lava inlets, my trout stringing along behind me.  Too soon the sun went down below a trio of volcanoes and we packed up and headed to our culinary reward.  Doug didn't catch anything.

From left to right:  Cinder Cone (cinder cone volcano), Lassen Peak (plug dome volcano), Prospect Peak (shield volcano)

I'm going to eat you little fishy!
'Cause I like little fish!
The second morning was much a repeat of the first, I took an early morning stroll then after a big shared breakfast we headed out on a day hike.  This time our destination was Bumpass Hell, an active geothermal area.  It is named after Kendall Vanhook Bumpass, a cowboy who was leading an expedition to the area when his leg broke through the mud crust, resulting in massive scalding that eventually caused the loss of his leg.  I'm sure to Bumpass it did indeed become his idea of Hell. 

Bumpass Hell was much kinder to us.  We decided to take the back trail to the place, past a Cold Boiling Lake (more like cold bubbling puddle this time of year) and up a steep trail with great views.   We saw a mother bear and two cubs, fortunately before we stumbled over them.  They were gobbling up manzanita berries, fattening up in the last days of summer.  In fact, the whole landscape had that feel of waiting, prepared for the first of the winter storms to settle in. 

After a long climb up we finally came over a ridge and arrived at Bumpass Hell.  The steam and vivid colors were a big contrast to the green and brown later summer landscape we just traversed. 

Lots of volcanic material degraded to clay minerals by the hot, acidic waters.

No leg scalding for me man, I'm staying on this here boardwalk.

Supposedly those are pyrite crystals making this pool dark grey.
We finally headed back down and made our way back over to Manzanita for the evening.  We had great weather for two days but the growing wind, dropping temps and clouds on the horizon heralded the approach of the first winter storm.  The mild end-of-summer day was holding out for a few more hours though, and we headed to Manzanita Lake for one last evening of fishing.

Chaos Crags, Lassen Peak with it's cloud, and my friend.  Great last look.

Oh yeah, and Doug finally caught a fish!

During the night the storm front rolled in, a steady rain lashing the tent well past sunrise.  We finally pushed our way out into the gloom, crammed our sopping gear into the truck and headed back to the city.  On the way out we heard from a ranger that there was slush at the higher elevations, and I'm sure our lovely trail to Bumpass Hell was an icy mess.  I wondered about our bear family, curled up with their fur and fat.  But no matter, they were well prepared for it.  As for ourselves, we had great weather for a few days, and I think we did a good job of catching the last of summer there in Ishi's back yard at Lassen Volcanic National Park. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Theory vs. Practice, In Which The Archer Receives Another Step in His Education.

Picture it:  North Florida, 2013.  A not-so-young-anymore man sets out down the trail to his deer stand in the almost-cool predawn hour.  The sounds of the night call out of the flatwoods as the small pool of his headlamp opens and closes in his passing, lighting the way to the edge of the swamp.  From there reflective blazes mark the way around the drying muck to his tree stand, carefully placed against a pond cypress tree, it's position along the confluence of game trails chosen after careful deliberation weeks before.

That not-so-young man is your's truly, of course, and I was beginning the morning hunt that marked both opening day of archery season 2013 and the christening hunt at our new lease, my portion of which I've dubbed Blueberry Flatwoods.  It's a ten minute walk from where I parked my truck to my stand, short by my public land standards but still far enough to enter another world.  The stand is placed on the edge of a clearing beneath the swamp canopy.  In wet times, such as earlier this year, the area is under standing water.  Now, Mid-September, it was still soggy but rapidly drying out.

I scouted this area back in the heat of summer (not that it isn't still hot here, but only just a bit too hot, not stupid unbearably hot).  The section of swamp that crosses B.F. is roughly shaped like an inverted cross.  I was in the eastern limb.  The southern branch reaches to the property boundary, while the northern limb intersects the road through the property, a favorite crossing point for deer.  The western limb contains ares of deeper water.  It is all surrounded by flatwoods planted in slash pine but with a very diverse understory, brimming in places with the namesake wild blueberries.

Several game trails (presumable only deer, as we have seen no confirmable hog sign) converge on and cross the branch of the swamp I have chosen.  It was here I captured several does and at least one buck on game camera several weeks earlier.  Just natural features, no corn or other bait involved.  I felt pretty good about the place as I settled into the tree stand with my Therma-Cell warming up to keep the six-legged "swamp angels" at bay, bow across my lap, ready to watch the world wake up in the gloaming of the new day.

Only a few minutes later I heard something approaching fairly quickly from the direction I came in from.  It sounded like a deer so I got my bow ready.  A few moments later I vaguely made out a deer approaching, its winter grey coat flashing through the leaves.  Still too deep in cover for a clear shot, this deer came right up near my stand, finally half-entering the opening only about 6-7 yards away.  I froze, but I could now make out antlers.  The dim light made it difficult to tell exact detail but it looked like an older, large-bodied (for Florida) buck with a small for it's size rack, perhaps a 6-point.  Unfortunately, even though this buck was super close I was now in his direct line-of-sight and couldn't move unseen. Just a couple of seconds later it hopped back into cover.  It never really startled, so I presume it did not know I was there, but worked its way rapidly around the south edge of the clearing, behind too much cover for a shot, and away to the west.

Of course, I thought this was amazing, only on my stand a few minutes and a very desirable-sized deer had already made a close appearance.  I thought a little about the savory stews I'd not be making from that guy but had little regret, he never presented a decent shot at any rate.

I settled back down and continued my silent observation. Only about 15 minutes later I could hear another critter approaching from the same place deer #1 had appeared.  This one wasn't as loud, and I was soon lucky enough to see why.  A much smaller-bodied but definitely adult deer (it was much lighter now of course) worked its way towards me, more slowly than the previous deer but on the same path.  I had my bow in a better position this time, ready to draw. 

The deer came out right where the other had stopped just minutes before, revealing itself as a young buck with a 4-point rack.  Except this time the deer kept on coming, out into the open.  It made its way at a walk right in front of me, still in the open, totally broadside, 8-9 yards away, head down, oblivious to my presence.  To be honest this startled the hell out of me, way beyond my wildest dreams.  I gave a silent "Do it!" to my immobile arms and I shifted my bow into shooting position and drew back.  I remember thinking, wow, it doesn't even hear the arrow draw from this close.  Right there he was, broadside, stopped.  Crazy easy shot...

Then it all just flew out the damn window.

Honestly the actual moment of the shot is a blur.  I believe I came to full draw, but I know I didn't pick a spot.  I was just washed over with a blinding moment of panic and what should have been an easy shot, one that I've practiced many times, went flying free and clear over the deer's back.

A wave of shame and anger at myself crashed in my brain.  How could I be that damn stupid?  Such a rank amateur! But then I realized the buck hadn't spooked.  He jumped away from the arrow when it half-buried itself ineffectively in the muck but now he was looking back at it inquisitively.  He still had no idea I was there.  I collected my shaking hands to slowly pull my backup arrow (Clippy, my favorite target arrow because the fletching is already somewhat damaged) and get it nocked.

No, this story doesn't have a perfect ending.  By the time I got Clippy ready to fly the buck had wandered back into cover.  I could see him looking around, sometimes at me but not always.  He was onto something, and finally accumulated enough input do decide he should be elsewhere.  He blew a few times and half-ran off, still not panicked but ready to be somewhere away from where sticks with feathers fall on him and strange shapes lurk in the trees.

I was left there alone with my thoughts, mentally flogging myself with wild enthusiasm.  The rest of the morning was uneventful.  As rationality finally returned (its hard for me to stay in a mental hole in the woods) a group of squirrels milled up behind me and finally decided to start scolding the blob in their path.  I guessed no deer was going to show up with that going on so I called it a hunt, and collected my things to head back to the truck.  But before I climbed down I did one last thing.  Choosing a leaf on the forest floor as a target I focused, drew and released.  The arrow thucked into the ground two inches away from it.  Two more leaves, two more arrows with comparable results.  Strange, guess core ability wasn't to blame. 

By this time I'd convinced myself that I had been overcome by a common nervousness that many novice hunters (which I certainly still am in many ways) fight with.  Target panic, or buck fever, or whatever the hell you want to call it.  Now I've had that experience, I told myself, and next time I'll avert the panic, grab the wheel instead of going for a lovely little backseat ride on the control bus and drive that arrow right home.  But as the soft rain of love bugs squashing against the windshield attempted to sooth me with their gentle plopping, I knew something else was wrong, some other piece was missing. 

Later at home after I told the story my husband added a simple observation that rocked me again.  "Maybe you just didn't want to kill it."  The words had a profound impact, and I knew them to have truth.  Now that I've mulled that over I believe the missing piece was that I just didn't want to kill that deer and it factored into my miss just as much as any "buck fever". 

Why didn't I want to kill it?  I'm not completely sure.  Partly because of sympathy for the animal, it was obviously a young deer, but maybe I just wasn't ready yet.  And I'm not sure what that means, but the more I think of it, I think that was a big part of it.  I did my time practicing, sure, I was halfway decent at target shooting. I think I was physically ready, but I just wasn't mentally ready to kill again. 

A friend of mine recommends for someone who wants to kill deer to spend a season or two hunting small game like squirrels, to get used to the idea of killing.  I'm not sure I'll go that far, but he has a point.  I've killed deer, yes, but always with the detachment of a gun, and always with the reinforcement of others.  This deal with me with a bow, alone, in the woods is in many ways a new thing.  Yes, I've done it many times now, but maybe the last two seasons were really a dry run of sorts, getting me used to the idea of taking the equipment out, learning to sit silently, reading the woods.  But this, this was the very first shot.  The first moment of truth, as it were.  

Now the big question, when am I going to be ready?  Did it just take this one time to jump start the learning curve?  Or will I have another T-0.5 abort the next time I draw back on something other than a leaf?  Or am I just going to start Blueberry Flatwoods Wildlife Sanctuary?  I don't think it will be that extreme, I am pretty sure I can eventually face a death in the deer woods.  Only time, luck and experience is going to tell me when.

Let it be a clean kill or a clean miss, nothing else.