A few days ago, I found myself talking trail with a very nice lady when the subject turned to hiking safety. I have to admit that she brought up a few legitimate concerns that I hadn’t thought of. I’ve always considered myself as safe or safer in the backcountry as I would be in any major city or on any highway in the US. That train of thought is statistically correct but does have it’s flaws. Contrary to popular reality TV programs, danger is not lurking around every corner in the wilds. If something does happen though, you’re a long way from help and often not able to call for it. Being prepared to handle whatever problems may arise yourself until you are able to find help is a necessity. Self reliance, freedom and adventure are after all a big part of the outdoor experience. Mother Nature is a beautiful but heartless mistress and is totally indifferent to your well being. Getting home in one piece is up to you. Here are a few tips I’ve picked up along the trail:
Stay Alert – It’s easy to get caught up in the grandeur of the great outdoors but don’t get so distracted that you loose situational awareness. The best way to stay out of trouble is to recognize it and avoid it.
Watch where you’re stepping
Wildlife is fun to watch but keep your distance
Keep a lookout for dead trees and widow makers
Trust your Spidey Sense
Have a plan – Put some research into your pre-trip planning. Especially on multi-day trips. Plans often change but at least you have a good starting point.
Have a good idea of how tough the trail will be
Know where you will obtain water and how much you need to carry
Have a general idea of where you will camp for the night
Check weather forecasts and other relevant websites for alerts
Share Your Plan – Let a responsible friend or friends know where you’re going and what to do if you don’t come back by a certain date.
Give this person copies of your maps and other planning materials
Leave clear instructions on who to call if you don’t come back
Save the social media posts for your return. Posting trip plans could potentially let the criminal element know (a) you’re alone in the woods and (b) your home is left unattended
Come Prepared – There are many items that can make your backcountry experience more enjoyable but I consider these necessities any time I’m more than a few miles from town and in the woods.
Flashlight or headlamp with extra batteries
Signaling device such as a whistle. Remember 3 blasts from anything is a recognized distress signal
Map and compass or GPS
Plenty of water and preferably also some way to purify water
Small first aid kit
Hone Your Skills – All the gear in the world won’t do you any good if you don’t know how to use it. It’s also a good idea to make sure everything works before your relying on it.
Learn which plants, insects and animals to avoid
Practice setting up your tent at home instead of waiting until you need it
Learn to safely start a camp fire without starting a forest fire
Practice orienteering and/or using your GPS
Prepare a few meals at home using your backpacking kit
Don’t go alone until you’re confident with your abilities
Hunting Season – Be extra careful around hunting season. I’m an avid hunter as are many of my friends. The vast majority of seasoned hunters are the most respectful, conservation minded, knowledgeable outdoorsman you will ever meet. Texas is a large place though with very little public land. Those not willing or able to foot the bill to hunt private land are all crammed into a few national forests for a few months of the year. Some are great hunters and some are real Yahoo’s.
Wear brightly colored clothing
Avoid trails at dawn and dusk
Only camp at designated sites
Don’t Over Do It – This is supposed to be fun, remember? Take your time and relax.
Exhaustion lessens your ability to think clearly and can lead to making poor decisions
For many Texans, myself included, several months of the year are spent tapping our fingers in fidgety anticipation. Hours are spent thumbing through books, magazines and catalogues looking for a small fix that will temporarily satisfy our craving. It never works. By the end of summer, most of us can be found sitting on the floor amongst a pile of scattered gear, twitching and mumbling to ourselves unintelligibly. Then all of a sudden it happens. It crept up on us like a stalking jaguar while we were in our dazed stupor. It’s here. It’s finally hunting season.
September 1st is better than Christmas in my book. From then through January, most of my spare time will be spent afield. Dove season begins this glorious progression. It is soon followed by quail, whitetail deer, turkey and my personal favorite mule deer season.
The quality of dove hunting in Texas usually ranges from good to fantastic, especially in the Western and Southern parts of the state. Find an area abundant with native sunflowers, that has a stock pond or other water source and there will be dove. The best time to hunt them is in the evening when they come to water and roost in the larger trees near water.
After giving my gear selection a once over to make sure I wasn’t missing anything, I quickly threw everything in my Jeep for the roughly 500 mile drive to a family ranch near Snyder, TX. I arrived just in time for the evening hunt. I’m no weatherman but I know of one meteorological phenomena that occurs every year without fail. In a dry area of the state that only averages 12 inches of rainfall per year, it will come an absolute downpour opening week of dove season. Every year, it never fails to rain hard enough to leave standing water all over the place and screw up the idea of pass shooting around a pond while the birds come to water. This year was no exception.
I had barely put my game bag on when it started pouring. There was sunshine on all sides of the big, dark cloud hovering above me. “Figures”, I thought as I sat down to enjoy a refreshing adult beverage and wait out the storm. An hour or so later, I found myself sliding all over a muddy two track road toward the spot I had chosen. Normally an excellent place beside a pond surrounded by sunflowers, mesquite and hackberry trees, I knew it wouldn’t be very productive after a rain like that. I hadn’t traveled 500 miles one way to sit at the house though.
It was a pleasant evening spent listening to bullfrogs and coyotes, enjoying the sunset and waiting for passing birds. Only four singles flew within range and I managed to down all four birds. I was impressed with myself. I fancy myself a savvy shotgunner with some justification. I can regularly break above 90% on the local clays course and 95% is a fairly common occurrence. As I type this, the shelf behind me is littered with trophies and plaques as testament to my claim. In my case, that all goes out the window when bird hunting. They don’t fly straight like clays and have an annoying habit of flying by when I’m not paying attention. They should be ashamed of themselves.
The next day showed more promise. The standing water had dried up for the most part and I had high hopes for the next few days. I spent the day running around working on other hunting equipment and getting things set up for deer season. Along the way, I ran across a big Western Diamondback. I normally leave snakes alone as they do a lot of good in controlling rodent populations but I’ve had my eye out for a big one who’s skin I wanted for a project and this one would do nicely. On the off chance that one of you has never ridden a few miles on a 4-wheeler with a wriggling, headless rattlesnake smacking you in the butt with his tail, let me just say it’s a little unnerving.
That evening, I filled my canteen with a little something to keep off the chill and stave off boredom in the event the birds weren’t flying again. I went back to the spot I had been the previous evening. There was very little action until just before dark, by which time my canteen was getting low. I’m sure that had nothing to do with the fact that I had apparently exhausted my supply of wingshooting prowess the day before. The few birds I hit we’re purely by accident I can assure you. Some day’s you’ve got it and some days you don’t. I did not have it on this day. I ended the hunt that evening with 4 or 5 birds. I had botched several more attempts by not paying attention and/or shooting poorly. There were a few more birds flying than there were the evening before but still considerably less than normal.
All the conditions seemed perfect this year for an excellent early dove season. Stock tanks are full and sunflowers are abundant but birds are few and far between. I’ve heard rumors of the migration starting early this year. I’m not sure if that’s the problem or all the rain we’ve had this year across the state has scattered the birds. Whatever the case, most of the people I’ve talked to had a similar opening weekend. Hopefully things will improve as the migratory birds start pouring in.
Let’s also hope the hunting gods have gotten the shenanigans out of their system and will send some better weather this way for the rest of the season.
While browsing the aisles of a local sporting goods store yesterday, I was reminded of a growing and ridiculous trend in flashlights, headlamps and other personal lighting devices. “Why would you spend that on a flashlight?” a woman said to her partner. “Because it’s got 300 lumens. I need all the lumens I can get for hunting season this year”, the misguided man retorted. I pretended to look at something close to them and giggled to myself as he explained the 5 different strobe settings, 3 different color lights and all the other whiz bang features that would obviously not have anything to do with his hunting success.
The trend in question here is the use of high powered tactical lights in the great outdoors. Lets face it. Anything labeled “Tactical” is going to sell nowadays. We all have overweight, middle aged buddies who sit on their tactical couch every night, playing with their tactical gear, stuffing their face with tactical food, drinking tactical beer and thinking of what they will do if they ever get into a tactical situation. It’s silly but true.
For those unfamiliar with the design, I’ll describe. They are small, very high powered flashlights that can be handheld or weapon mounted. They use a type of Cree LED bulb that puts out a much brighter light than traditional models. They’re designed to illuminate a target for fast acquisition and momentarily disorient the target with the ultra bright beam or a series of rapid strobes that some models feature. Most feature some sort of sharp scalloping on the edge for use as a hand to hand weapon. Current models range from 200-800 Lumens, which is a measure of light by the way. In a defensive (or offensive for that matter) scenario, they might serve admirably but…
These high performance units come at a substantial cost and have many other downsides for general outdoors use. It’s not uncommon to see the latest, greatest models sell for $250-$400. The high powered LED system drains batteries like The Energizer Vampire when used on any but their lowest settings. CR-123a batteries are considerably more expensive than their AA or AAA counterparts. Most models don’t dim when the battery is getting low, going directly from bright to off. Changing modes / programming involves an annoying and confusing series of taps on the switch and the scalloped edges hang on everything they touch and tear up your pack.
I fell victim to this craze a few years ago. It didn’t take long for me to learn my lesson on a Whitetail hunt in Central Texas. Driving from my stand to pick up a buddy for the ride back to camp, I received a text message that he had arrowed a nice one just before dark. We entered the woods with our fancy new lightsabers to retrieve his prize. Every tick and blade of grass was illuminated as if it was daylight… for a little while. It was a long tracking job and his light died an hour into it. Mine had fresh batteries and held up a little longer but not long enough. By the time both lights died, we were closer to camp than we were the truck. It was a brutal walk to camp in the dark to retrieve batteries and extra lights. We were a bloody mess from fighting a losing battle with the thorny vines inhabiting that region of the state. Those terrible thorns could have easily been avoided if we were able to see them before walking into them.
For my money, I’ll stick to more reasonable (in both light output and price) models. My personal favorites being the AA Mini Maglite series. At 97 max lumens, they put out plenty of light for anything I’ve ever needed and 11 hours of burn time on high (32 hours on low) is good insurance that you won’t be walking home in the dark.
“Let’s go skiing”, she said over dinner on evening. “Sure”, I replied as I fiddled with whatever happened to be on my plate at the time, hoping this was a passing idea that wouldn’t come to fruition. “You do know how to ski, don’t you?”, she asked. “Of course I do”, I said. I had actually spent quite a bit of time in the mountains and had been on a few ski trips. The fact that I’d never actually had skis attached to my feet seemed academic. I had always been more of a sleep till noon, have some drinks at the lodge and go to the tube hill kind of ski vacationer. I had seen people skiing. It didn’t look hard. Besides, YouTube is my friend and I was sure there would be plenty of useful information available on the subject if this turned into a reality.
A few days went by without any mention of our previous conversation. Just when I thought I was in the clear, a box arrived. This is common at our house. Between Cecily’s home business and my never-ending projects, boxes arrive daily. This one was big but didn’t weigh much. I assumed it was some sort of packing materials and sat it on the coffee table. Minutes later, she swarmed over the package like a plague of locusts. Devouring the tape and cardboard and holding up her prize like Mufasa in The Lion King. This was not packing materials. This was a ski suit. “Damn.”
After a small amount of consideration, I resigned myself to the fact that there was no way I was getting out of this trip. “Maybe I’ll like skiing”, I thought. That night in bed we booked flights, rented rooms, bought lift tickets and took care of all the other pre-trip necessities. Copper Mountain had the best rates on lodging and lift tickets at the time and became our destination.
This is probably as good a time as any to point out that Cecily has literally been skiing since she was able to walk. There’s a picture floating around the house somewhere of her thrashing fresh powder like Mikaela Shiffrin at about 5 years old while wearing a skunk skin cap. As much as I would like to use that photo in this post, it’s probably in my best interest to refrain from doing so.
I spent quite a bit of time over the next few weeks reading and watching videos about skiing. I was becoming much more confident that I wouldn’t have any trouble. I’d watched a short series of beginner videos before I moved to the more technical things like ski jumping and back country skiing. The latter holding my attention more firmly than the prior.
Arriving in Denver, we rented a car and drove the 80-ish miles West into the mountains toward Copper. For those that have never been, Copper Mountain is divided into three “villages” but has a great network of busses that constantly go back and forth between them. West Village (Where we were staying) is where the more difficult slopes are. Center Village is where most of the intermediate trails are found and East Village is the bunny slopes. We rented our skis and made our way to the condo to get rested up for our adventure the next day.
A short bus ride the next morning brought us to Center Village where we made our way up slippery steps to the lift area in what I can only describe as the most uncomfortable footwear ever designed. Whoever invented ski boots was a masochist at heart. Comments like “your toes are supposed to touch the front” and “they’re not supposed to flex at all” have no place being uttered in an establishment that sells or rents footwear. Stepping into my skis, I muttered to myself “you’ve got this”. I did not have this. I fell twice on flat ground in the 20 yards between the stairs and the lift.
For those intelligent people that have chosen to never get on a ski lift because they’re death traps, I’ll explain a bit about how they work. They don’t stop. There constantly going round and round, scooping people up. When you get to the top of the mountain, you’re supposed to hop off just before the thing makes its turn and ski down the mountain. This whole situation looked very dangerous to me at the time but no one else seemed concerned and we were next in line.
The couple in front of us had gotten on their lift and we had a few seconds to get from where we were to a red line where you’re supposed to stand in order to get lifted. I pushed off with my poles and started shuffling my feet toward the spot. Cecily was already in position. It became apparent that I was not going to make the few feet needed to reach the chair as it swung around the corner toward our mark. At the last second, I dropped my poles and lunged toward the contraption. Clinging for dear life, I dragged myself onto the chair. I could tell I had done well by the clapping that had erupted behind us. “Someone buy that guy a beer!” I heard the lift operator say as we were being swept up the slope.
Now I’m a big, tough outdoorsman. Spiders, snakes, the dark, being alone in the woods, redheads and other dangerous game do not scare me. Heights are a different story. I’m not really scared of heights as much as I am scared of falling. I know how clumsy I can be and I know what happens when people fall from tall things. I found myself sitting on a rocking park bench that swivels, attached to a wire rope 40 feet in the air. To say I had a white knuckled death grip on this thing would be an understatement. All the while, trying to remember what the video I had watched said. Something about pizza slices and falling backward if you get in trouble.
“What happened back there?” she asked as we slowly made our way up the mountain. “It’s been a while. Might take me a little time to get the hang of this”, I said.
As we neared the top, I watched other people exit the lift. We passed a sign reminding us to keep our ski tips up. This didn’t look too bad. There was a mild slope that culminated in what seemed to be some sort of staging area where people waited for their companions or got their things together. I exited the lift fairly uneventfully and made the short distance to the staging area without falling. The group behind us had brought the poles that I had lost at the base. Maybe I was starting to get the hang of this.
I pushed off from the staging area and made it about 15 feet before I fell. Got up and tried again. I made it another 15 or 20 feet and fell. Got up and tried again. This went on for what seemed like a mile until it happened. I was skiing. I had figured it out. I made it 50 or 60 feet and had built up quite a bit of speed before I realized I didn’t know how to turn or stop. I tried the pizza thing and my skis crossed, causing me to fall forward, hard in an abrupt stop. The tip of one of my skis (neither of which were attached to my feet anymore), caught me right in the chest and knocked the wind out of me. “Are you ok!?” Cecily yelled up from a position below me. “I’m fine!” I replied. “You go ahead. I’ll meet you at the bottom”. I was not fine. I’ve had broken ribs a few times before. I know what they feel like and that they feel like that for weeks. This was going to be a long trip.
I sat on a log at the edge of the tree line for a few minutes to collect myself and make sure I wasn’t coughing up blood. As I sat there, a ski patrol guy came whizzing down the trail and pulled up short where I was sitting, followed by a few others and a stretcher of some sort. “Are you ok”, he asked. “I’m great. How are you?”, I replied. He told me that someone had called from a ski lift and said that I guy in a blue jacket was in big trouble up here. “That must be the buddy I’m waiting on” I lied. “He doesn’t really know how to ski.” They fanned out down the trail and might still be looking for “my buddy”, for all I know. I hated to fib but there was no way I was riding down the mountain in one of those little stretcher/sleds they were pulling behind them.
Once the coast was clear, I hoisted my skis over my shoulder and walked the rest of the way down the mountain where I found Cecily waiting for me at a coffee shop. I told her about my ribs, that I was done for the day and would hang out in town while she was skiing. As soon as she started back toward the lift, I called the ski school that we had passed during our bus ride. They asked a lot of questions about my experience level and recommended a group class for 8-12 year olds that was starting in a few hours. Negative.
I inquired about private lessons. They had an opening the next morning which I gladly accepted. I was starting to get pretty sore and wanted no more to do with skiing that day. I found a liquor store and went back to the condo to lick my wounds and medicate myself.
By the next morning, it hurt to move, it hurt to breathe, it hurt to think about moving or breathing. We still had several days of this though, so I sucked it up and met the instructor at the designated spot. He arrived and I explained most of yesterday’s story. I left out a few non-vital details. “You sure you wanna try again today with broken ribs?” he asked. I did. We entered an area with a sign proclaiming it the Rug Rats course. It was full of little kids that were skiing much better than I had thus far. The course had a very gentle slope to it and is marked every 10 yards or so with a strip of carpet to stop you so you didn’t build up enough speed to hurt yourself. I liked that idea. I’ll save you the uninteresting details of the next few hours. Basically, he made me practice stopping and turning until I had the basic idea. Once he was confident that I wasn’t going to rocket off the side of the mountain like Chevy Chase in Christmas Vacation, he said “let’s go skiing!”.
We got on the lift and he lowered the safety bar. What? Safety bar? No one told me these things had safety bars. I relayed that information and he said… You should have a talk with your girlfriend. It was very unsafe for her to take someone that had never been skiing before down one of those blue runs. She should have known better. “Yeah, she should have” I proclaimed.
I made it a point to go very slow for the rest of the day. Mostly because I knew how bad falling again was going to hurt. I ate it a few more times but wasn’t going fast enough to do any damage and remembered to fall backward. On the second or third trip down, Cecily came flying down the mountain and pulled up next to us. “How’s it going, guys?”, she asked. “Great, but I need to have a talk with you ma’am”, the instructor said firmly. I grinned sheepishly as he chastised her for toting someone who’d never been on skis up an intermediate trail without even showing him how to get on the ski lift or stop. She held up her hand and in her loudest teacher voice said “WAIT! This idiot told me he knew how to ski. He watched a couple of YouTube video on it and thought he was a professional. He didn’t tell me it was his first time until last night!” By this time they were both looking at me like I should be wearing a football helmet and finger painting. The rest of the way down the mountain and into lunch I was relentlessly (maybe even deservedly) picked on by both parties.
The next few days were uneventful but fun. A little painful at times. We found some good eats. I made a few more runs. Cecily skied quite a bit. We had a great time at the tube hill and did some shopping. Getting on the plane in Denver she asked, “Can we go again next year?”. “Sure”, I said. “You do know how to ski, don’t you?”, she asked.