11 December 2013

Day Three - The Lowland Hustle

The deep winter chill faded from me as steam poured off  my head in the cold night air. The fire fought a valiant fight against the wind that now fell into camp from the north and west.  My concern began to grow when the wind shifted from the south east and began a steady flow from the northwest. Systems coming from that direction coupled with low pressure spells snow this time of year. I filed the concern away for the moment.

I was tired and hungry and had to do something about at least one of them. I dug my Mors Pot out of my pack and a couple cans of beef stew from the food locker. Dinner was going to be simple, dump some stuff out of a can into a pot add heat, consume. I just didn't have the energy for anything else. Between the jog back and the adrenalin dump I was crashing fast and hard.

I hung the stew via pot hanger over the fire and settled in to the relative warmth of the fire. I chuckled to myself as I recalled the old saying about 'Indian build fire small, sit close, white man build big fire set far'. What never seems to follow that old saw is the Indian is shivering, the white man is sweating and the dog between the too is happy as hell! I had a pretty good fire going and was still close, I could feel the cold washing away in the heat.

As I stared into the fire spitting angry sparks and embers into the cold air as if in defiance my mind went back to the beaver mound and the pair of wolves I'd encountered hours earlier. I wondered if the travel direction was random or if that was part of a circuit. As I'd tracked them earlier I'd become familiar with that group. There were three wolves, a fourth joined their tracks at one point for about a mile and then headed to the west, away from the trio's direction of travel. My guess was that was a lone wolf and had followed the trio's trail for a time same as I had. On two occasion the trio had split up, one continuing on the main trail and the other two going separate directions, east and west into the trees. Both times they would rejoin the one that had maintained the northern route on the main trail. It is my deduction that they were hunting for a scent trail, perhaps not getting anything on the wind they were searching the ground in swings left and right trying to pick up a scent trail. Had they done so I believe they'd have howled their small pack back together to pursue whatever they'd found. 

Based on this I think they hunt in a circuit, covering a patrolling type of route through their turf which made me wonder if that area near the beavers was a routine or a one off. If a routine I needed to understand the frequency, was it daily which I doubted, or every three to five? I'm fairly certain it is weekly. In all of the wolf tracks I'd seen and trails I'd followed none were doubles, they were singular in direction and made by three and at one point four wolves. They were not lapping their trail, my snow was relatively fresh at three days old. This told me the circuit was more than a three day span, at least this was my theory.

If my theory was accurate, I admitted to myself somewhat dejectedly, it meant they wouldn't be back through there for another three days unless something drove them to it or altered their pattern. Certainly my presence could possible drive them out of their habit or even out of the range potentially. I needed to adapt to this and come up with a plan.

Stirring the stew in the pot and putting it back on the hook, it occurred to me that just about everything works in circles in the natural world unless artificially impacted by man caused changes. Everything circles, from fish to birds to deer, so why not wolves? And if they were circling where would their pattern take them next? I'd been where they were, somehow I needed to be where they were going to be, I needed to get in front of them or alter their pattern to cause them to come to me.

A pop and a zinging spark blew up out of the coals, the wind had gotten stronger. Stew was done, time to provide employment for one of the spoons made by kcardwell of bushcraftusa.com forums. Man makes a mean camp spoon and spork!

Eating that hot stew I went back to the idea that everything circles. If the wolves were headed south and east earlier, circling wide and at the time the wind was coming from the south east as well it meant they were nose to the wind hunting. The wind had shifted though and was now out of the northwest. Did that mean they'd return to the north now, heading into the wind?

That valley of beavers is a long one, and a whole other beaver family group had mounds about five miles north and west of the mound I was at today. What are the odds I thought, that they'd pass through there and if so when?

My spoon hit the bottom of the pot bringing my mind back to the right now. Pot was empty, time to do something about the tired part.

No fire, didn't have the energy to fight the stove and I'd already cooked so there was no point. I was dry and tired, the bags would be good enough for the night. 

It didn't take long to fall fast asleep, and when I woke it was 4:30am. I hadn't woken once during the nigh, not sure I even moved.

Cold camp again though this time I took some good sized chunks of smoked ham, a couple/several slice of pumpernickel bread and put them in the pack with the normal trail food. Relaid the fire structure in the pit and set out for the lowlands and the beavers.

The air was definitely heavier, I could feel moisture building, my knees and right hand were aching. Cold and wet and bad joints ever the reminder that we did something wrong when we were younger.

Coming into the Valley of the Beaver as I started calling it entails walking down a an old logging road and into the lower elevations and some wide open vistas though it starts small.

Before long I was into thick tracks, they were everywhere though oddly they were all only going in one direction, again this was confirmation for me of sorts that they travel almost exclusively nose to the wind.

Looking out into the basin.

The tracks were becoming more concentrated...
They've absolutely crushed this area!

All of those tracks terminated at a spot where they could reach running fresh water. Other than where I busted through the ice this was the only fresh running water I found in the area. They had easy access to it and they clearly were taking advantage of it.

I knew this was a good area, the sign was prolific, the line of sight in all directions was fantastic. I had fresh water and ease of movement drawing them to this area. I started looking for a good place to set up near the beaver mounds. It didn't take much looking to find. I spotted an old root base from an ancient tree that had been blown over who knows how long ago. I cut some rushes and laid them into a mat on the ice to keep my knees from freezing. I settled in and waited. In the distance I could see the clouds were colliding with the trees, the sky was indeed falling to earth.

I spent several hours here, calling from time to time and waiting through others. I received no responses to any of my calls, just nothing. I decided to track again and began following them towards the mounds and ultimately the northern tree line.

The beavers had been busy, this was a two mound pond and they were in good repair meaning very likely a family in each. Their work was evident all about the mounds. Oddly enough it struck me that is looked like they were in mid-feast and suddenly just left their work and food where they dropped it and did not return.

I followed their trail to the point where it entered the trees, low and into the firs. I could barely see twenty feet into the trees, it was damn thick. I decided to forge on and into the tree line. It was so tight there was no point in the rifle, I slung it across my back and over one shoulder so it would stay put and opened the back zippered compartment on the HPG Kit Bag, providing easy access to the pistol should it become needed. I was skeptical of needing it but I was a Boy Scout and continue to be prepared.

I traveled through the dense bush for a couple hours and just couldn't do it anymore, I couldn't make much headway and I was certain I wasn't going to happen upon a den or a group of bedded wolves, just was not going to happen. I took stock of the rate of mist up that was occurring, the clouds were falling to earth and visibility was fading. I made a decision to still hunt back in the direction of camp. If I made it all the way there without getting distracted I'd have lunch and plan on a hide set for the afternoon hours.

About an hour into the trip I spotted a flicker of movement in the distance, the mist made it very hard to tell what it was. I brought the field glasses to bear searching where I saw the movement. It took a minute to figure it out. Take a look at the image below, it's right in the center but damn if it ain't hard to see, it's at absolute center of the image.

Maybe this helps?

I watched him through my glasses, waited for him to be looking the other direction and moved forward. Slowly but surely set after step I did this until I was inside his security zone and either he was mad and indignant that I was there and just decided to ignore me, or the mist had gotten so thick he didn't want to fly. Either way a moment of a lifetime unfolded, you simply do not see these big guys often or ever get this close to them. 

Sometimes called the Phantom of the North they are most commonly called the Great Grey Owl or Lapland Owl. They are the physically largest owl in the world, wingspan can exceed five feet from tip to tip and are often thirty inches from head to tail. I felt blessed to have gotten so close and watched him for so long. He never did fly off, I turned after a while and headed to camp leaving the old indignant bastard to his mice hunting. When I returned hours later he was gone.

The rest of the hike back to camp was uneventful other than me thinking about bacon and eggs and coffee and a fire. My appetite sure turned up a couple notches just thinking about it!

They say hunger is the finest spice, sure seemed like it.

To be continued....


  1. The three parts are great looking forward to the next

    1. Thanks Dan, conclusion will likely be Sunday...

  2. Well written; I can feel everything except the cold. Somehow, I'm sensing a calm before the storm - and perhaps in several fashions.

  3. Many thanks for sharing your opinion here. I really like it.

  4. Before your adventure I was wishing I was tagging along.... Now I'm happy to be reading about it under a warm quilt with a mug of hot tea! Exquisite writing as always. Maybe in the summer....

    1. Maybe we could do a Boundary Waters excursion...

  5. You sure now how to build the tension, Mr.!
    Just the owl episode would've made my day. Love your kitchen and cutlery!

    1. It was a heck of an experience and I enjoyed all of it, though standing twenty feet below that owl and him staring at me was certainly one of the highlights.

  6. I started off leaning back in my chair reading with a hot cup a tea and finished with the tea pushed aside, goose bumps and my nose about an inch away from the screen. A fantastic adventure so far!

  7. So well written and exciting to follow. That owl is amazing. We had some great horned owls staying in our elm tree for about a week or two this last summer. Amazing birds.

  8. I feel like I'm reading a book as each chapter comes out! Nice writing Jim!

  9. Great writing and pictures! What a treat to see a Great Grey too. With all the sign, including the owl, you obviously scouted a great track of land.

  10. Great write up as always! And the photos!

    Where did you come across the cool wood mug and the plate? Very nice.

    Blue skies,

    1. I don't recall exactly, the mug I believe was carved in the early 1900s and has a silverplate lining that can be removed. I took a wood burner to it and made it my own. I don't have a source, as far as I know it is unique.

      The plate was a gift, it's a simple hammered tin.

      Thanks for the comments/compliments!