10 December 2013

Day Two- The Highground Chase

The first night in any camp for me involves a lot of tossing and turning and adjusting my internal thinking rhythm, gearing down as it were. My mind typically runs a thousand miles a minute and it takes a little time for me to downshift and get rid of the noise which usually happens the first night and thus little sleep.

I stopped putting wood in the stove around ten, letting it die down. I slid into my old Kelty down bag which I had inserted into my HPG Mountain Serape. Between the two of them I believe this would rate for a -10f bag, outside temperature was between -1 and 2 degrees. One of the things I like about this set up is the mountain serape is longer and the open end sort of just lays over covering my shoulders and head. I'm not a fan of mummy bags and using this set up this way gets me past the whole shoulders being constricted issue. Most mummy type bags are not kind to men who wear a size 50 jacket.

The night was silent, the kind of silent that actually makes your ears ring. Ever notice that? When I'm in absolute silence there's a ringing in my ears. Occasionally I would hear a tree pop in the cold and the howling way off to the north but otherwise nothing but still silence.

In my hands, I hold the ashes
In my veins, black pitch runs
In my chest, a fire catches
In my way, a setting sun

Dark clouds gather 'round me
To the west, my soul is bound
And I will go on ahead, free
There's a light yet to be found

The last pale light in the west
The last pale light in the west

And I ask for no redemption
In this cold and barren place
Still I see the faint reflection
And so by it, guide my way

The last pale light in the west
The last pale light in the west

~Ben Nichols

After a time I drifted off to sleep.

I woke to blackness and a cold nose but otherwise toasty and reluctant to roll out of the sack. Glance at the watch, 4:20am, a good two solid hours before dawn. The plan for the day was to hike into the highlands covering the trails until I cut a fresh wolf track then depending on the wind I'd trail the wolf, occasionally setting up a hide and do some calling. I'd be going light and planning on moving most of the day.

A match to my Coleman lantern and I had light in the tent. The night before I'd pre-assembled fire fixins so I could just set it in the stove and get a fire going quickly. This worked though I noted I had more smoke blowing back that the night before. Partly because an extreme low pressure system had moved in during the night, the wind picked up slightly and partly because the narrow flu pipe isn't conducive to a good draw.

Fire going I put the mega percolator on for some good coffee before I set out. I wasn't planning on breakfast this morning, I tend to feel sluggish when I eat a big breakfast. I powered down some oatmeal instead, and tossed some trail food in the pack.

Before I set out I took the time to pre-lay a fire in the firepit I'd built on one of the scouting trips. Dry tinder, twigs, pine branches, and bigger from there. I did this because I knew I'd be back late and didn't want to have to burn time after dark building a fire. Little did I know at the time just how important this action would turn out to be.

I walked away from my camp about an hour before dawn, heading north to the highlands with a light wind burning my cheeks and a heaviness to the air, eerily quiet.

It didn't take long to cut a decent set of tracks.

 Wolf sign was heavy everywhere I looked. In the image to the right you can see where one backed up over that clump of bushes and marked, then scraped with hind legs. I would see this type of marking repeatedly over my several days. I also found several instances where you could clearly see where their fur left marks in the snow where they squatted, I couldn't get these images to turn out very well, just too fine of marks. I also didn't care much for spending time over their scat frankly.

I trailed them for about three hours, realizing that I wasn't closing the distance and it was hard for me to determine just how far ahead of me that they were. Clouds were thickening and there was no sun, it was like some sort of perpetual twilight limbo where it wasn't light out but neither was it dark, just a grey fade out.

Even so I did find some color along the way.

Several times I set up to call, usually stopping where I could see a goodly distance. I'd hit the coyote howl a couple times and each time I'd get a responding howl from somewhere far to my north and east at the time. I couldn't get them to come in though, I'd wait but their response howls never got closer though they were fairly consistent.

At about 11 I topped out on the trail, the tracks cut to the north and east and towards the beaver ponds. I'd come through there back on my first scout so I kind of knew the country and headed on after them.

Still no sightings of them or the sun.

Beaver sign

From here things thickened up a bit. Turning more into the sphagnum moss and Labrador tea country that screams Boreal northwoods to me.

I worked through this country for several more hours, then they cut right and towards the south into some thick stuff that I just couldn't follow them through. I decided to circle south but on the trail where I knew it would come out in a large open area with major beaver activity. The hope was to set up there and maybe catch them coursing through.

Beaver country.

I scraped away some of the snow to see the ice, air bubbles here and there. An eerie feeling looking into those black depths below.
I stayed in this clearing, set up near the beaver mound. I hit the howler and got an immediate response from the southern tree line. My adrenalin went into overdrive and my heart started pounding in my chest, thudding like a jackhammer, they were close! I got the binoculars up and started searching the edges in the area I thought the howl had come from. My hands were shaking from both the cold and their proximity. I was breathing hard and knew if I was ever going to make a three hundred yard shot if it presented itself I needed to calm down right now.

Passing from left to right along the distant tree line I thought I actually saw smoke in the trees but it wasn't moving right, it wasn't smoke. It was a grey loping through, in and out of the tree line! I went to the rifle and got it shouldered, swinging in the direction I picked him up in the scope but at a trot now. I could feel my pulse in my temples, the cross-hairs bounced with each beat. I forced the air from my lungs and bore down trying hard now to get a line. Almost there, I could see the bushy tail as I swung faster when he slipped deeper into the trees. No line, I got to my knees trying to find him again. Then I felt it, a crawling wind hit the back of my neck, I struggled trying to find the wolf again in the trees. Nothing, then something, farther still to the right now but in the bush. I brought the rifle up to see if I could get a good sight picture when a howl lit me up from my left, so loud and soul ripping it scared the crap out of me! I jerked left to find where it came from.

Another wolf and this one was black was less than a hundred yards  running away from me at a hard angle and a good clip. A black and close, I so wanted a black, I turned, bringing the rifle up and hoping the wolf would turn. Too late, he was in the trees. I howled and looked for the grey, howled again, nothing. I felt like my heart was going to explode!

Nothing nothing nothing, adrenalin crash and darkness was coming. I sat there for an undetermined amount of time, trying hard to get myself under control. So close and two, I'd never even saw the black until after he howled. I was so focused on the grey I hadn't bothered to look hard for any others. I kicked myself over that repeatedly. My hands were trembling. I've had the fever before but never like this.

Darkness was upon me and I was a good four miles from camp. I knew the area and so set off south and east back towards the main trail, crossing the beaver pond. My mind was racing as I relived the moment in my mind over and over again. Then there was a boom and the earth was not solid, there was a horrific crack and a searing slicing pain in my legs as I went down hard onto my chest, smashed my face into the ice and felt my legs lift. I'd busted through the ice.

Time slowed and I rolled off to my left pulling my burning legs out of the hole. I could hear the water now as it rolled beneath the ice I was laying on, the same ice that was popping and cracking under me. So stupidly preoccupied and distracted was I that I'd walked too close to where the water was moving and the ice was thin.

I crawled to a clump of alders and pulled myself upright. Stupid stupid stupid, I cussed and cussed loud. My legs were burning to numbness. I was about four miles from camp. All this happened in a matter of tens of seconds. I needed to make a decision.

On the idiot box the typical 'survivor trainer-instructor-actor-talking dude' now talks about how important it would be to get out of the wet clothes, get a fire going, get dried out. As I thought about that I snorted a chuckle and asked myself what would IT do? No not that IT, I mean Israel Turley? What would he do? Well he'd probably spit a forest fire on the ground with his man in a ditch exercise and call it good. I ain't Iz.

I did what I've always been pretty good at doing. I un-slung my rifle and started off at a quick jog. I had a couple things in my favor. One, I wasn't that far from camp and I knew exactly where I was. Two, I'd been wearing pac boots and gaiters over wool pants and I'd only gone in to just above the knees, I could feel the burning cold but I felt like if I kept myself moving I could do the four miles in motion and deal with the freezing clothes when I got there. I might be aging but I ain't that old.

I settled into a trot and pushed. Jogging in pac boots in sloppy snow with burning legs and a nine pound rifle isn't something I'm used to. The shock pain from the cold was wearing off and my body heat was climbing from the exertion. I was sweating in no time, something I don't like to do in the cold under normal circumstances but all I needed to do was get to camp. I went all in, betting I would make it.

A little over an hour later my lungs were busting. It's been a long time since I actually had to run with a rifle in my hands. Camp was in sight though and I was going to be fine. I started dropping and grabbing gear at the tent and moved to the fire ring where I'd laid out the fire in the morning.

No, I did not fiddle with a firesteel or a lighter, I didn't play bushcraft. I dumped some Coleman lantern fuel into the fire bed and tossed a hurricane match into it. This is how you get six foot flames in a right now kind of way.

I stood there in dry wool thermals less than five feet from the fire and drank in the flames. In the darkness and the dancing of fire and shadow I grinned, a big tooth flashing grin of a man absolutely alive.

It was only the end of Day Two.


  1. wow man! This is getting good! Perfect example why I say you must stay in some kind of shape if you want to play in the outdoors! My heart is pounding! Can't wait for the next chapter! Do you write books?

    1. Thanks, and couldn't agree more on getting in shape, a couple years ago I don't think I could have pulled that off. I've been working hard on dropping weight and improving stamina and wind, certainly paying off.

  2. Woowww.... Man.
    I can feel the adrenaline pumping on this side of the screen too!
    You should take to writing!
    I can relate to some of the emotions you mentioned; that eerie blackness of the water that grasps for you inners, the pumpin' adrenaline and the wry grin in the end for making it, feeling like superman and a greenhorn at the same time. Is that you shuffling around or are your teeth chattering at 2:46?

    1. Thanks Ron. At 2:46 that's a little bit of both, shuffling, teeth chattering, breathing hard.

  3. Holy smokes!! Felt like I was right there with you at the wolf sighting... Then the ice, thank God you have planned ahead and are in good shape. That really drives home to me that I need better conditioning, don't think I could run 4 miles, of coarse if my life was on the line I might surprise myself. Great thinking and way to plan ahead. I agree with the others, you should seriously give writing a try. A nice wilderness adventure novel or something. From years of reading your blog they could be mostly true story based.

    1. Thanks Todd, I appreciate the compliments.

  4. Wow. I know I'm probably not alone when getting to the "through the ice" part when my mind went immediately to Jack London's "To Build a Fire". Digging the blog and the story of the trip and looking forward to what you mean when you said earlier that the howling now means something totally different for/to you.

    1. That parts coming friend. Thanks for the compliment.

  5. Here's the thing. I *know* things turn out okay because you're blogging. But I swear there for a minute, I almost forgot!

  6. What caller are you using on the wolf hunt?

    1. Couple different mouth calls, distress call, a howler both coyote and wolf. E-caller was an ICOtec GC300.

  7. Great blog entry. Can't wait for the rest of the story to unfold. Keep up the great writing.

  8. Enjoying the read and the adventure..... keep it coming!

  9. Like others have said, great story! I feel like I'm there with you ( though much warmer in my chair :) ). Can't wait to hear hat happens next!


  10. Yes! To be alive! Great part 2! Even though that Ben Nichols song is about Blood Meridian, this reminds me of The Crossing. Good work bud!

    1. Thanks UL. Another McCarthy fan, going to have to read The Border Trilogy now.

      Thanks again man!

    2. I love The Crossing as much as any other thing he's written. Brings out the boyhood wanderlust of those of us afflicted in the rural west. Do read the Border Trilogy. It's about as close to a sad modern cowboy life as we can attain these days. Born at the wrong time I tell ya. Born at the wrong time..