December 30, 2015


After working a winter skiing course for NOLS in early December in the mountians of western Wyoming, I had about two days before heading to Cuba with Ava's family.  The adjustment from living in tents and snow shelters to all-inclusive resorts in the humid tropics couldn't have been more abrupt.  I'll try to keep this post in summary form as the prospect of recounting all the events and experiences we had in Cuba is far too daunting.

Rick, Nancy, Maiya, Shaun, Ava and I traveled to Cuba with Backroads on a People to People visa.  There were 20 participants in our tour group, including the six of us.  We had two amazing Spanish guides and a local Cuban guide who was employed by the state.  We spent seven days in Cuba; three near the town of Matanzas, and four in Havana.

The Hollidays (sandwiched by an Elliott and a King) at the Dupont mansion, Xanadu

A requirement of our People to People visa was that we needed to spend all of our time engaging with various locals and generally learning about Cuban culture.  This made for a highly educational trip as well as giving the trip a pretty intense "go, go, go!" vibe.  The following list provides an idea of how we spent our time:

  • Visited an organic farm
  • Visited tourist attractions such as the Dupont Mansion and Hemingway's house
  • Listened to lots of live, local music, and speaking with the musicians
  • Ate at several private restaurants, many of which also served as art museums
  • Toured some limestone caves
  • Spoke with a former professional baseball player
  • Spoke with Marc Frank, an American born Cuban who writes for Reuters and Financial Times
  • Visited several art museums and spoke with artists
  • Had many great and enlightening conversations with our Cuban guide, Oscar, who encouraged us to ask any and all questions
  • Walked the streets of Havana, visiting Catholic churches and a synagogue
  • Hiked through a reforested coffee plantation
  • Visited a small town in the forest with a commune vibe
  • Etc., etc.
Rather than recount all of these experiences and more, I'll summarize my overall impressions and learnings.  I think the biggest thing I got out of this was a first-hand impression of what life in a communist/socialist country is really like.  The US media loves to demonize communism and socialism doesn't fare much better.  We always hear the negative side associated with these types of societal structures, but never the positive.  Speaking for what I observed in Cuba, it's true that people tend to have very little expendable income.  However, you don't need much expendable income when education and healthcare are free and housing and food are highly subsidized.  The education system is so good that one of Cuba's main exports is educated people (e.g., doctors).

Old Catholic church in Matanzas

Of course there are problems with this system, just as there are problems with any system, but my point here is that it is not all bad.  In some ways (education, health care, lack of xenophobia, equity), Cuba is far ahead of the US.  Other than the occasional theft, there is almost no crime.

The cars, and much of the rest of the country, seem to be stuck in the 50's.

The next major learning I'll talk about is my impression of the general state of contentment of the Cuban people.  In the news, we hear about Cubans risking their lives to escape Cuba via raft, directly implying that life in Cuba is so awful everyone wants to leave and some people are willing to risk their lives to do so.  Based on what I observed, this is the exception rather than the rule: akin to saying that everyone in the US wants to shoot up a school because there have been so many mass school shootings.  Everyone we spoke to seemed content with the system and actually had quite a bit of pride in their country, while at the same time recognizing that there is substantial room for improvement.

A sample of the somewhat morbid art that was fairly common

I have many other thoughts pinging around in my head that have yet to land and solidify.  Suffice it to say that I learned a ton and think I will continue to learn as I process my experiences and filter media coverage of Cuba through a realistic lens.  I'll finish with a smattering of pictures, but before I do, I'd like to give my sincere, blog-public thanks to Rick and Nancy for making this trip possible.

We found many adorable dogs, and at times wished we were on a People to Dogs visa

Invasive bamboo, a cow, and a cow reflection at a sustainable farm/restaurant/art studio

Classic Havana

Streets of Old Havana

Cuban National Bird (Cuban Trogon)

Hiking through a former French coffee plantation

Totes adorbs

Also totes adorbs

Baseball practice near Hemingway's house, by far the most popular sport in Cuba

Kitchen Officially Finished

With the delivery of our new refrigerator, the kitchen is now finished (in just under a year)!  From the new floor to the new lighting and everything in between, we're super happy with the way things turned out.  Sure, it looks a lot better, but it's also way more functional and fun to cook in.  Take a look at the before photos to gauge the improvement for yourself.

November 23, 2015

Fun with Pallets

After surfacing a wall with pallets and having it turn out well, I decided to try out a few more pallet projects.  First was the construction of two pallet-framed mirrors for the bathroom.

Total cost of mirrors was about $20 each

Then I picked up my European mount at the taxidermist.  I had originally planned to use a commercial device to attach it to the wall.  After doing just that and finding that it stuck half way out into the living room, I committed to building my own mounting device out of, you guessed it, pallet wood.

Mount complete with tip of second arrow to enter the bull

In the end, I think both projects turned out really well!  Maybe I should start selling pallet things on Etsy.

November 18, 2015

Remodel Update

Today was toilet day.  I started by removing our old toilet, which always flushed twice and used a shit ton of water (pun intended) each time.  Once removed, I was able to rip out the old flooring and install cement backer board within the toilet alcove.  With the toilet removed, I decided to be artistic and attempt to duplicate a decorative wall I saw on Pinterest.  The previous day I tore apart and sanded some pallets I acquired for free on Craigslist, so today they were ready for staining, trimming, and attaching to the wall.  Since we already had the stain and I resused the nails pulled from the pallets, all this little project cost me was time and two bloody knuckles obtained while pallet wrestling.

When the wall was completed, I installed a new, high efficiency toilet.  This install in temporary until we pick some bathroom tile, but this way we only had to be without a toilet for about 3.5 hours.

November 13, 2015

Bathroom Remodel

The bathroom remodel has been initiated!  The cabinets arrived during our last bout of traveling, so I tore into the bathroom as soon as I was around for more than a day.  First on the agenda, remove the old, hideous cabinets and tear out the drywall behind them.

Old Plumbing (Single Sink, Centered on Wall)

Next up was to split the plumbing so we can have two sinks.  This involved cutting out a galvanized 3-way junction in the drain line and replacing it with a 4-way PVC cross, and extending left and right.  The water lines were easy to modify, because, well, PEX is easy.

Water and drain lines re-plumbed for two sinks

Similarly, I split the single wall sconce receptacle in two so we can have two sconces, one centered on each sink.  I also relocated with two wall outlets so they wouldn't be positioned directly over the new sinks.

Drywall replaced

Once the drywall was replaced, I took to mudding, priming, and texturing the wall.  With that messy work done, it was time for the cabinets . . . or was it.

After removing the old cabinets and linoleum flooring, I noticed some very compromised (rotten) subflooring.  Out with the bad, in with the good.  Also, we're planning to tile the new floor, so I began researching how to make that happen.  I read about this stuff called backer board (common in the tiling world but new to me) that you're supposed to install below the tile, so I just put a layer of that down over the whole bathroom prior to starting in on the cabinets.

My anal-retentive nature came in handy when installing the cabinets, making sure to get everything even and level in all three dimensions.

So this is where the bathroom stands right now.  We'll hopefully get the soapstone counter top late next week.  Tiling and toilet replacement will commence in the meantime.

October 27, 2015

Sad but Cool

After much deliberation, I've decided to post the video I took of the elk I shot.  This video shows the last few minutes of the bull's life, so if you don't want to see animal death and aren't ready for the unfortunate reality that animals do not die instantly no matter what you shoot them with, don't watch it.

While it is admittedly sad to see such an amazing animal die, it is also pretty unique that I was able to get this footage.  I was about 150 yards away when I saw the bull standing in the field.  By the time I got my tripod set up and camera rolling, it had bedded down.  At first, I wasn't sure if it was the bull I shot, and it actually seemed a little bigger so I was leaning toward it being a different bull.  I eventually noticed signs that it was injured and gradually figured it out.

This footage begins about 45 minutes after my first shot.  Toward the end of the video, you can see part of my second arrow sticking out high on its right side.

I had great difficulty finding a song to put to this as anything remotely happy seemed inappropriate.  For better or worse, I settled on Joshua Bell's sad violin sounds in Elegie-O Douz Printemps d'Autefoix (I can't say it either).

October 07, 2015

Hunting Montana: Version 1.3 (Superbull VxV)

Since my last post I went back out hunting two more times; both with my neighbor, Jeff.  He took me to a place he knew about much closer to town than where I had been going.  On the first day out, we located two cows and followed them around for most of the morning.  At one point I was as close as 113 yards, but couldn't manage to get any closer.  That evening we went back to Missoula so Jeff could use his Neil Young tickets.

A couple days later, we went back out to the same area in search of the large herd(s) we knew were in the vicinity.  This time we were with another of Jeff's friends, Roland.  The three of us hunted hard all morning and were unable to locate any elk.  At 10am we decided to split up and walk through a section of forest and planned to meet two hours later.  At 10:30, I thought I heard a couple distant bugles, but I wasn't sure and I couldn't tell where they were coming from.

After covering closer to a mile about an hour later, I once again heard bugles.  This time, I could pinpoint a pretty precise direction.  I quickly covered ground in that direction with the wind in my favor, periodically hearing bugles along the way.  Eventually I saw a bull elk standing on the edge of a meadow about 100 yards away.  It seemed he saw movement in my direction before I saw it and froze, so all I could do at that point was sit still and wait for him to go back to feeding.  While I was doing this, I noticed several cows and at least one more bull in the woods behind it.  Shortly after, I noticed Jeff in the woods near me, pursuing the same herd.

When I watched Jeff eventually make a move around the right side of the meadow to try and get closer, I backed out and made a move left around the meadow.  I was hoping that we would either push elk toward each other, or perhaps have an opportunity at an elk that happened to stray from the herd.  Sneaking in on the main group in that flat terrain with large stretches of open areas just didn't seem possible.

As I moved around to the left, out of view of the herd, I planned to get even with them and hang close until an opportunity presented itself.  Sooner than I expected, a tremendous opportunity came my way in the form of a 5-point bull.  I heard and saw him at the same time.  He was trotting across my field of vision, coming directly from where I last saw the herd.  He was also getting closer as he came in and crossed in front of me in the moderately spaced aspen trees.

I already had an arrow nocked, so I pulled out my range finder.  In a matter of seconds I realized that this encounter was going to be close enough and fast enough that I wouldn't have time to use it.  In fact, I barely had time to put it back down.  Unable to find a place to quickly set it down with minimal movement (the bull was now within 50 yards), I stuck the range finder between my legs and drew my bow as soon as the bull's head passed behind a cluster of aspens.

At full draw, I rotated with the bull keeping my 30-yard pin near his vitals.  After trotting through a couple of shooting lanes, it seemed my rotating motion got his attention.  He stopped, looked at me, and I released instinctively.  I couldn't tell if or where my arrow hit him and he immediately ran off, but not far.  I saw him run about 15 yards and stop to rest behind a thicket of thick, brushy trees.  I could make out his silhouette through the thick tangle of branches.  I thought that if I made a good shot and guessed the distance right, I might watch him fall and die right there in the next few minutes.  Just in case, I nocked another arrow.

Instead, about one minute later, a car drove by on a seldom-used gravel road.  When the car was within about 20 yards of the bull, he bolted and ran back in the direction he came from.  As he passed through a shooting lane at a high rate of speed, I made the best cow elk sound I could with my mouth.  He immediately stopped to investigate the sound and was met with a second arrow as he did so.  This time I could see the fletching of my arrow sticking out of its side as it sprinted off.  It was high, but at the time looked like it still might have been in the lung region.

I decided to wait 30 minutes before searching for blood and tracking the bull.  A minute after my second shot, Roland came walking out of the woods to my left, the direction the bull was heading.  He said he saw the bull but had no idea I had shot it.  He also said that he had been cow calling as he walked in my direction just for good measure, having not heard the bugles and having no idea there was a herd nearby.  While I never heard his cow calling, there is a good chance the bull did and was heading toward Roland to investigate.

I relayed my story to Roland and we did an initial search for blood where the bull had stood before being spooked by the car.  We didn't find a lot, but we found enough to confirm that my first arrow had hit the bull.  After a half hour, we followed blood for about 20 yards before we lost the blood trail.  I decided to go ahead in the direction the bull had run and hopefully find a dead elk on the ground.  After traveling in about 150 yards in that direction, I stopped to get my bearings.  In looking around, I noticed a bull elk standing in the field to my left, about 120 yards off.  He looked bigger than the one I shot, and I quickly tried to get Roland's attention as I set up my tripod and video camera.  By the time I got my camera set up, the bull had bedded down in the meadow.  I told Roland how I would go after this bull, and he was soon off on a stalk to get within range.

As he stalked, I stayed by the video camera and watched the bull.  He was bedded and occasionally looking around.  At one point, he seemed to wallow around in the dry grass and dirt.  I soon saw him lay his head on the ground, which was my first indication that this bull was wounded and may very well have been the bull I had shot.  My view of the bull was mostly obscured by grass at this point, but I could barely make out its belly moving up and down as it breathed.  A few minutes later, the movement stopped.  Now I was sure this was my bull and that I had just observed and filmed the last 10 minutes of his life.  I walked out into the field, flagged down Roland who was about half way to closing the distance on the now dead bull, and we walked up to it together.

The experience of walking up to this massive, majestic, and beautiful animal after watching it expire was too much for me to comprehend at the moment.  I thought about the previous 13 days I had spent pursuing elk in Montana, the previous five years I'd spent honing my sills to help make such an opportunity possible, the mentoring I'd received from Jake to help me believe that shooting a bull elk with an arrow was even possible, the missed shot I had at a cow earlier in the season, and the luck required for this encounter to have happened.  The understanding of the process of shooting, dying, butchering, and eating was particularly intense with this animal, mostly because the dying part typically happens out of sight.

When these feelings were combined with the elation I felt at not only filling my elk tag, but harvesting a bull that would pretty much fill up the rest of our freezer space, I wasn't sure how to handle myself.  Although a modest 5 x 5 bull, I've decided to name my first bull "Superbull VxV".

After taking several pictures, Roland and I went to work skinning and quartering the bull.  Our forensic analysis revealed that my first shot was a little far back and likely a single lung, pass through shot (with the same arrow I shot the deer and pine tree with earlier this year, which I sadly wasn't able to find).  My second shot hit higher than I thought, striking the bottom of the spine above the lungs.  Given the rushed nature of both shots, I feel good about the shot placement.  However, I know that better shot placement would have resulted in a quicker death and I now have a better idea of what to work on to become an even better shot.

When Roland and I were about half way done, Jeff walked over to us from where he had continued to pursue the herd after I shot.  Jeff had no idea I had shot or that I had even found the herd, so it was completely random that he happened by us on his way back to our meeting location.  He had managed to call a bull to within 50 yards but never had a shot through the trees.  Jeff helped finish cutting up the elk and we all worked hard to get the meat and antlers back in camp just as it got dark.  It's hard to imagine a more intense, powerful, emotional, and rewarding experience.

September 27, 2015

Hunting Montana: Version 1.2 (Jane Doe's Last Stand)

I just returned from another three days of hunting for elk in the Beaverhead Mountains.  I was in the same place as a I was a few weeks ago where I had no trouble finding elk every day, but this time they were elusive.  In two and a half days, I saw/heard exactly zero elk and scared a handful of deer: and this is supposed to be approaching peak rut when they become easier to find.  Frustrated, I decided to move south during the middle of day three, closer to where I had the mountain lion encounter (see Version 1.0).

In this new area, I discovered a road was closed that I was anticipating being open.  In this, I saw an opportunity.  Instead of hunting from my truck each morning and evening, I would backpack in to this difficult-to-access basin and see if I couldn't stir up any elk in the next few days.  Thirty minutes later my backpack was packed and I was headed in.  By 3:00 pm I had my camp set up, including tent, hammock, and bear hang.  I left around 4:00 to head up the ridge I was camped near.  There was a road (shown on my map) traversing the ridge about 2/3 of the way up, which I assumed would also be closed.  When I got there, I found a fairly well maintained road with recent tire tracks.  Did I just walk a whole bunch and delude myself into thinking I was in a more remote area than I really was?  Probably.

I would periodically bugle and hope to hear a response either above or below me as I followed the road, at the same time walking quietly in hopes that I might discover an elk before it noticed me.  At about 6:00 I was a good two miles from my camp when I saw a white ungulate butt near the top of a meadow.  Given our separation, I could easily tell it was a doe.  My first thought was, "Just my luck.  I finally found fur and it's something I can't shoot."  I used my range finder anyway, which told me the doe was 78 yards away.  Where I had been hunting previously, I could only shoot antlered mule deer.  After further internal mental debate, I convinced myself that I had moved far enough south that I had entered a different hunting unit, and in this unit I could only shoot antlerless mule deer.  I realized this about the same time I noticed three more deer, all does, following the one I initially saw.

I've got fur in sight, it's legal to shoot, and they're just on the edge of my maximum shooting range.  They're all feeding downhill through the meadow, which means they'll continue to get closer until they get to my elevation.  There's a large tree in the middle of the meadow with branches all way to the ground, so I take a few steps to position myself in the trees at the edge of the meadow to shoot as soon as they come out from behind the big tree.  My shooting lane is wide enough for them to take about 10 steps and be within the window the whole time.  At the rate they were moving, this should be more than enough time to range and shoot one of the deer while they fed.

Of course, it can't be that easy.  When the deer come out from behind the tree, I ranged them at 55 yards, but they didn't stop and feed.  They walked about 15 steps before going back to feeding, not giving me an opportunity within my window.  Now the tree immediately to my left was blocking a clear shot, and I was in a kneeling position.  With four deer about 50 yards away, I had to stand up and take three steps in dry, crispy, crackly ground.  I waited until all four heads were down feeding, and I stood up.  Several seconds later, I took a step, but didn't weight that foot until I was sure they hadn't seen my movement.  Weight foot, wait several more seconds until all four heads are feeding again, and repeat.

I now had a clear shot, but I was less hidden by the trees lining the meadow.  I ranged the largest deer in the group at 53 yards.  I slowly brought by bow up to draw position and waited for that deer to turn broadside, which she did a few seconds later.  I drew by bow and noted that none of the deer seemed to notice.  I sighted my 50 yard pin just above where I wanted to hit, focused on my target, and released.  To say I was determined not to screw up the shot would be to put it mildly.

I couldn't see my arrow or where it hit, but about 1/2 second after the release, I heard a sound I'd often heard described; the slicing, hollow, thwack/thump of the rib cage taking a high velocity impact from a razor sharp object.  Even so, all the deer ran 15 yards to the opposite side of the meadow, none of them acting injured.  A few seconds later I thought I saw the white flicker of a tail, which I interpreted as Jane's end.  After 10 minutes of waiting, I went to search for my arrow.  Unable to find it, I began looking for blood.  I didn't see any right away, so I started to second guess the sound I heard that made me so certain I'd made a good shot.  Five yards from where she was when I shot, I found a good quantity of blood on the ground.  I followed the blood trail and found a dead deer about 10 yards inside the tree line, about 25 yards from where I shot her.

Upon closer inspection I realized I'd made a perfect double lung shot, and the doe was even larger-bodied than I had thought.  It was now 6:30, only 1.5 hours until dark.  I was two miles from camp and four miles from my truck.  I was now glad that the road I had been walking up seemed to be open, because the deer had expired about 150 feet from it.  Over the course of the next three hours, I did the following:

  • gutted, skinned, and butchered the deer,
  • hauled the meat in game bags up to the road,
  • tied the meat up in a tree,
  • walked two miles back to camp,
  • packed up my camp,
  • walked two more miles with a full pack back to my truck,
  • drove up the 4WD road to where I had left the meat hanging,
  • packed the meat in the cooler,
  • made one last attempt at finding my arrow, which I eventually found firmly embedded in the ground, and
  • started driving home with a cooler full of meat!
It was a goal of mine to redeem myself by making a good shot on a deer or elk after shooting a pine tree instead of an elk earlier this year.  While target shooting, every shot is a double lung kill shot out to about 70 yards.  Shooting at live animals has proven to be much more difficult for me.  I get too excited, think that the animal is going to move, and rush the shot.  Now that I've proven I can make a good shot in a real situation, I hope I can make it a habit.

Firsts:  This is the first mule deer I've ever shot, the first non-Whidbey Island deer I've killed with my bow, and my longest kill shot by about 20 yards.

The Arrow:  The arrow I recovered late at night was no more worse for the wear.  It also happens to be the same arrow I shot into a pine tree earlier this season and proceeded to excavate with a bone saw.  With a bit more luck, this same arrow will shoot a pine tree, a mule deer, and an elk in the same year.

Jane:  I referred to this deer using the non-so-clever name of  Jane Doe.  I've come to realize that naming the animals I've killed is commonplace for me.  I believe I do this to single out the particular animal, thereby recognizing it as a unique being and appreciating the fact that I have ended it's life in order to feed my own.  I know if Jane had a choice in the matter, she'd still be running around in the woods, dodging hunters, cougars, wolves, etc.  Nonetheless, I thank her for her sacrifice and the resulting meat in my freezer.

September 23, 2015

Shed Foundation Complete

I took a break from elk hunting in Montana to help Kris hunt elk back in Washington.  While he didn't shoot one, he had a couple of close encounters and came closer to sealing the deal than he ever had before.

When Ava and I returned to Montana (she was teaching a course for the Y in Seattle while I was hunting with Kris), we had our sewer repair/stump removal/gravel delivery scheduled.  With that out of the way and gravel on hand, I was able to complete the foundation for the shed that I had previously excavated.

The basic idea was to lay out the free, used railroad ties to support the walls that I will be framing in the next phase of things, level the ties, fix them together with metal braces, and backfill around the ties.  I placed, leveled, and compacted about 3 inches of gravel below the ties prior to setting them in place.  I also oriented the ties vertically to maximize the depth of the bottom of the tie; thereby minimizing the potential for frost damage to the foundation.  Because the ties varied slightly in size, burial depths range from about 7.5 to 9 inches below grade.

The gravel inside the ties will be the floor of the finished shed.  The framed walls will be nailed directly to the railroad ties.

Now that this phase is complete, I feel better about going back into the mountains in pursuit of the glorious wapiti.

September 11, 2015

Hunting Montana: Version 1.1

I just returned from spending a few more days in the forest searching for elk.  On my first night out I was sitting quietly at a pass in a ridge, waiting for a few more minutes to tick by, when a coyote trotted by within 10 yards of me.  It didn't realize I was there until it had passed me and got downwind, at which point he paused momentarily to glance back at me, then his pace quickened until he was out of sight.

Later that evening I was still-hunting further up the same ridge when I noticed a cow about 100 yards ahead of me, heading in the same direction.  One cow soon turned in to three, and I was able to close the distance to about 60 yards.  I followed them at this distance for a while, waiting for an opportunity to present itself for a shot through the thick pine trees.  Eventually one of them saw me and the game was over.

A quick note on my tactics:  the elk in this area were not bugling yet, so locating them via sound was out of the question, unless you already happen to be very close and hear them breaking branches as they walk.  Dense forest covers about 100% of the area I was hunting, so spotting them from afar was out of the question, eliminating the common "spot-and-stalk" method.  Given this situation, the only way I could find to locate the elk was to walk slowly and quietly through the forest until I saw one, hoping that I would see it before it saw me.  I like to think of this as the "hope-and-stalk" method, but it is more commonly referred to as still-hunting.

The following evening, I hoped really well and my hope-and-stalking found me in the vicinity of two bull elk.  Before I saw them, one of them barked, which is an undesirable sound as it means they've detected something suspicious.  The bull that barked (we'll call him Barker) ran off, only to return a minute or two later when the other bull didn't follow.  Barker continued to bark every few seconds for the next 20 minutes, all the while peering through the trees in my direction from about 60 yards away.  I couldn't move with that much attention, so I hoped that by holding still he would forget about me and go back to feeding.  He eventually did go back to feeding, but not without occasionally barking and regularly looking in my direction.  At one point I drew my bow when Barker was headed for the one opening in the trees where I had a slight hope he would pause and present a shot, but he didn't and the shooting ally wasn't very good anyway.  Eventually they fed out of sight, so I took my boots off, put on my extra pair of socks, and tried to sneak in for a shot.  I got back to within about 60 yards when Barker's barking frequency escalated.  I had been pegged.  Eventually the other bull got on board with the looming threat that Barker had been barking about and they fled the scene.

The next morning I encountered a lone cow while hoping-and-stalking.  This time I caught her completely unaware.  I quickly pulled out my range finder, which read 42 yards.  I then nocked an arrow, and with all my fidgeting the cow stopped walking and turned to look my way.  Under normal circumstances, this would be a pretty easy shot.  Yet once again, there were copious trees in the way.  Where she stopped, I could see her vitals through a narrow, 3" gap in the trees, but I had to lean far to my left to take advantage of it.  With the cow looking right at me, I was afraid to step to my left, so I came to full draw, leaned awkwardly out to my left, sighted for a 42-yard shot, and released.  That cow will live to see another day, but the pine tree on the right is dead vegetarian meat.

I went back and forth emotionally between being upset at missing the shot (one I should have made), and thinking it was somewhat comical that I just shot a pine tree.  I had visions of chopping down the pine tree, cutting it into small rounds, and stacking it in my chest freezer.  Life goes on, for both me and the elk.  Perhaps this shot error was a blessing in disguise.  I've never hunted bulls during the rut before, and by the time I have another opportunity to hunt, the rut should have started.  With the generous Montana archery season, I have confidence I'll be able to fill the freezer with something other than lodgepole pine.

September 08, 2015

Hunting Montana: Version 1.0

I just returned from my first stint of hunting in Montana.  It began with three and a half days of scouting for sheep in the Tendoy Mountains.  During this time, I saw exactly 0 rams, 0 ewes, and 0 lambs.  The area was huge and the population of sheep was a diseased and dwindling 30 to 40.  I did have a great time walking around in the mountains and spying on imaginary sheep through my binoculars and spotting scope.

On the first day, I saw 5 pronghorn, a coyote, and a couple rabbits.  This was my most eventful day as far as seeing wildlife.  It seems the hoard of hunters in the area quickly sent all fur-bearing animals into hiding.

Despite not seeing any sheep, I gave it a go on opening day.  I woke up to cold temperatures and foggy skies.  As I hiked up the hill to search for sheep, I assumed the fog would clear and I'd be alone up high with only the hard core hunters, giving me a better chance.  Then it started raining.  Then the rain turned to snow.  By late morning, the skies cleared and I was able to glass a large area, once again turning up nothing.

The fact that I am more of a meat hunter than a trophy hunter became very apparent during these first 4 days of sheep scouting/hunting.  What I really wanted to be doing was hunting elk, which yield a much higher meat reward upon success.  So, after admitting this to myself, I decided to pursue a raghorn bull elk that two people I encountered reported seeing a few days prior.  Both times he was seen it was in a relatively small patch of trees surrounded by open country, so I figured there was a good chance he was still in there.

I awoke the following morning, this time to clear skies, 20 degree temperatures, and thoroughly frozen ground.  I made my way in about two miles to where the bull had been seen and was at his patch of trees at first light.  I slowly and sneakily made my way through the trees, ultimately discovering that the bull had previously vacated this place he once called home.

Having had enough of not seeing animals, I gave up on sheep hunting and headed for more promising elk country, of which Montana has much.  While driving I saw two buck mule deer and two pronghorn, the first fur I'd seen in quite a while, excluding squirrels.  I pulled over in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, near the Idaho border in an area I'd heard held quite a few healthy elk herds.  That night I still-hunted up a drainage, spooking two bucks and an elk at close range.  Even though these encounters were far from presenting an opportunity to shoot an animal, it was much more excitement than I'd had for the last several days of hunting.

The next morning, I woke up early and made my way up the drainage to an area I knew had good feed and elk were more likely to be at that time of day.  As I got close, I heard a bugle.  I'd heard many bugles before, but this one was much more exciting because I actually had a tag to shoot the animal that made the sound.  I quickly made my way toward the bugle, careful to keep the wind in my favor.  After about 150 yards of moving quickly, I slowed my pace and soon saw elk through the trees about 100 yards off.  I remained about this far away from the herd as I paralleled them up the drainage, which I was in and they were sidehilling just above.  I decided to dog the herd (trail them at a distance), in hopes that an opportunity would present itself in the form of the herd bull or a satellite bull.  After 15 minutes of this, the herd spooked but didn't go far.  I was pretty sure I hadn't made myself visible, and the wind was still in the right direction, but you never know what 35 pairs of elk eyes can see.  They didn't go far, so I continued to pursue them up the hill.  When I was about 80 yards from the nearest cow, they spooked again, and again I thought I was being pretty conservative.  Immediately after they spooked, I saw a mountain lion run across the hillside directly between the herd and myself, about 40 yards away.

This was the first mountain lion I'd ever seen in the wild, and it was impressive to see how quickly and stealthily it moved in rugged terrain.  I only saw it for a couple of seconds as it streaked across my field of vision, after which it vanished back into the nothingness whence it came.  I followed the herd up and down a mountain for the rest of the morning, but was never able to get close without being detected, and regularly kept an eye out behind me.

I'm headed back out for another stint in the woods soon, hunting elk in yet another new area.  Hopefully this will result in more exciting stories like this, ideally yielding freezer fodder.

August 30, 2015

Shed Project

With the kitchen project finished, next on the list are remodeling the bathroom and building a shed in the backyard.  Cabinets are ordered for the bathroom, but nothing substantial has happened yet.  The shed foundation, however, is well underway.

Space where shed will be located, squeezed into the corner of the property

The shed will be 14 ft long by 5 ft wide in order to maximize internal space while still fitting in our limited space.  I also wanted to place the shed on the property line to best utilize yard space as well as act as part of the fence (forthcoming project).  In order to not be subject to setback requirements, the shed must be no taller than 8.5 ft.  To maximize vertical space, I'll be building a subgrade foundation consisting of railroad ties.  Eventually, the framed walls will be nailed directly to the railroad ties, with the floor of the shed consisting of compacted gravel inside of the ties, at the level of the existing grade.

After one pretty full day of digging, I had most of the foundation excavated

I haven't yet mentioned, but I have two side goals related to this project.  One is to complete as much of it as I can using a minimal amount of power tools (hence digging the entire foundation by hand using a shovel).  The other is to obtain as much of the building supplies as possible from reused sources.  Not only is this a greener way to build something, but it's also less expensive!

Fabric placed, ready for gravel

Barely visible in the above photograph is a while PVC pipe exiting the house and popping up inside the foundation perimeter.  I excavated and installed this conduit to possibly bring utilities to the shed in the future.  The stump barely visible on the far right of the above photo is going be removed by the same people bringing in the gravel (and repairing the sewer line between the house and the stump), so we'll see how soon we can get this all scheduled.j

The project schedules for both the bathroom and shed projects will likely be delayed due to hunting season.  I have plans in September to archery hunt for bighorn sheep, elk, and deer in Montana, so hopefully some worthy blogposts come of that as well.

August 23, 2015

US State Highpoints (the ones that matter)

The other day I realized that I've reached the summit of many of the state high points in the west.  I'm not sure how serious my attempt will be, but I'll try to tick off the rest when the opportunity arises.

The day after Matt and I climbed Shoshone Spire, we hiked Borah Peak, Idaho's tallest peak.  We hiked a trail that gained a little over 5,000 ft in 3-1/2 miles.  The hike involved about 150 yards of Class 3 scrambling but was otherwise just a steep hike.  We started hiking at 4:15 am and reached the summit 3-1/2 hours later.  As this was a Saturday, and apparently this is a popular thing to do on the weekend, we encountered about 200 hikers (all going up) on our way down, most of which were freaking out at the Class 3 section.  Matt wrote a more detailed post on his blog.

Matt approaching the summit shortly after sunrise

With Idaho ticked off the list, this is where I stand:

State High Points Completed:

  • Oregon: Mount Hood - 11,249 ft
  • Colorado: Mount Elbert - 14,440 ft
  • Alaska: Denali - 20,237 ft
  • Washington: Mount Rainier - 14,411 ft
  • Wyoming: Gannett Peak - 13,809 ft
  • Idaho: Borah Peak - 12,668 ft
Still on the list:
  • Montana: Granite Peak - 12,807 ft
  • California: Mount Whitney - 14,505 ft
  • Nevada: Boundary Peak - 13,147 ft
  • Utah: Kings Peak - 13,534 ft
  • Arizona: Humphreys Peak - 12,637 ft
  • New Mexico: Wheeler Peak - 13,167 ft
While this is only half, most of the mountains climbed are the most technical/challanging.  We'll see how things go, but now that I have a list it'll probably happen.

Shoshone Spire - South Face

I met up with a past student, Matt, about a week ago for some outdoor adventuring.  We had originally planned to backpack and maybe climb something in Glacier National Park.  After arriving there and paying the $25 park entrance fee, we discovered the fire/smoke activity to be unbearable.  Opting to cut our losses, we bailed back to Missoula to regroup and come up with an alternative plan.

I'd heard through various channels that the South Face of Shoshone Spire in Blodgett Canyon is a must-climb.  After thoroughly stalking this route on the internet, we concluded that we had no idea where in Blodgett Canyon to find this spire.  Other route beta was also limited, so I'll write this up in hopes that people looking for similar information will find it here.

As we had no idea where to find this spire, we chose to backpack up the canyon, looking for a feature matching the photos we had seen.  About a mile up the trail from the main Blodgett Canyon parking area, I saw what I thought was the peak.

Shoshone Spire is the smaller pyramidal feature between the two large faces

After hiking 2.0 miles along the trail, we were standing directly across the canyon from Shoshone Spire, which is on the north side of Blodgett Canyon.

Shoshone Spire as viewed from the south - the South Face route follows near, but not on, the left skyline

Finding the route much sooner than anticipated, we hunkered in the shade near the creek for the remainder of the day in 95 degree weather.  After about an hour, we saw smoke from a forest fire up high on the ridge to the southwest.  As we were pondering trying to call it in on Matt's cell phone, we saw a plane fly overhead, aiming directly for the smoke plume.  We spent the next few hours observing an aerial strike on the smoke plume, which seemed to mostly abate around sunset.

The next day, it took us about 30 minutes to travel from the creek to the base of the climb.  There is a good climber's trail going up around the lowest cliff band just east of the peak, which continues west to the base of the climb once you gain the main ledge.  I estimate the total car to base approach time at about 1.5 hours.  With many route variations reported and debated, I'll focus on what we did.

We started the first pitch in a left-facing corner near the far west side of the face.  This pitch can be characterized by good crack climbing with a handful of 5.8 moves.  We belayed at a tree with rap tat off to the climber's right after about 180 ft.

Matt leading up the first pitch

The second pitch was much mellower, consisting of 4th, easy 5th, and possibly some moderate 5th class moves depending on the exact route.  The second pitch brought us to the main ledge separating the blockier looking lower band with the cleaner looking upper face after a full 200 ft.

The third pitch began with the "railroad tracks", two parallel vertical cracks marked by a fixed pin and an old, fixed cam (5.8+), both of which are visible before leaving the ledge.  After about 25 ft, you negotiate a small roof and exit onto easier, choose-your-own-adventure terrain.  We ended the third pitch after about 150 ft at a mostly hanging belay as there didn't seem to be any belay-worthy ledges in this vicinity.

The fourth pitch is characterized by a multitude of flaring cracks with frequent loose blocks.  Although one of the easiest pitches of the climb technically (5.6 - 5.7), I found this pitch the most scary due to difficulty protecting it and the frequent loose blocks.  However, you must endure it to get to the final "money" pitch.  We ended the fourth pitch in an alcove on the left arete after about 180 ft.

The fifth and final pitch was totally rad.  We went more or less straight up, about 10 ft east of the left skyline.  There are several small roof features to negotiate on this line, none of which are harder than 5.8 and the pro is great.  We belayed about 25 ft below the summit on the left skyline in an alcove with lots of loose blocks of various sizes after about 195 ft.  I believe this is the standard finish as it is easy to walk north and around to the true summit, avoiding the big, nasty roof protecting the true summit from a 5.8-ish direct ascent.

The descent was pretty straight forward and can be done easily with a 60 m rope.  From the summit, head north and find a climber's trail that descends north and east through Class 3 terrain.  This trial leads all the way down to the main ledge separating the clean upper face from the blocky lower cliff band.  The trail ends at a large pine tree with lots of tat (we found four lines of tat attached to two rap rings).  We rappelled 25 meters to an intermediate rap station (solid horn slung with two pieces of webbing).  A 10-15m rappel from here gets you to the ground.  Note: seems a 70m rope would get you real close to the ground in a single rappel.  Most people report bringing an extra rope and do one double-rope rappel, but this seems unnecessary unless you're planning to use two two ropes for the ascent.

Descent beta photo

Route Beta - The way we did it, anyway

Knowing what I know now, and considering that we moved well but not fast, a sound car-to-car estimate would be about 9 hours.  While there is no need to camp near the base as we did, it might be useful to know that there are a couple of good sites for small tents near the creek, shortly after leaving the trail and heading due north toward the peak.  My overall impression is that this route goes at 5.8+ with the added element of alpine-style route finding.  As it's my only climb in Blodgett Canyon to date, I can't comment on how it compares to other climbs in the area, but I'd definitely recommend it!

July 21, 2015

Teachin' and Learnin'

I've spent about 4 of the last 5 months working in the field.  First it was a 3-month semester that included a 10-day Wilderness First Responder Course, 2 weeks of snow camping and skiing in the Wyoming Range, 2 weeks of white water canoeing (which I skipped out on), 4 weeks of backpacking and canyoneering in Southern Utah. and 2 weeks of rock climbing.  After the semester I had almost a month off, then I went back out on a mountaineering course in the Wind River Range.  I've attached a few select pictures to tell the story of remote weirdness and adventure.

Nearly the entire semester course on top of the wind-swept Horse Mountain in the Wyoming Range

Me rappelling into Golden Cathedral in Escalante National Monument - perhaps the single coolest place visited in these few months

Co-instructor, Elyse assists at the bottom of the rappel to help avoid the deep spot

River crossing in the beautiful Wind River Range with Gannett Peak in the background

Second rope team approaching the summit of Gannett Peak, the highest point in Wyoming

Clementine made it to the top of Gannett with us!
Two days after climbing Gannett, I took four students to climb the slightly lower but more techincal Mt. Woodrow Wilson

Max and Lincoln on top of Woodrow Wilson - Gannett Peak in the background