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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Time alone in the woods makes hunter’s mind wander

Morning light strikes a hillside as a hunter hikes through woods in Montana seeking game.  (Brett French)
Morning light strikes a hillside as a hunter hikes through woods in Montana seeking game. (Brett French)
By Brett French Billings Gazette

BILLINGS – Seen from a distance, I am a pumpkin on toothpicks.

My hunting clothing collection is not trend-setting, form flattering or svelte. Instead, the five layers of synthetic materials, wool and fleece piled onto my torso are cocooned in a hunter orange coat so large that I appear ready to tumble over sideways.

(If I did fall, I imagine myself beetlelike and incapable of getting up, hunting boots flailing in the air unable to gain traction.)

There’s a practical reason I am so rotund and orange. Being outdoors in the cold is all about comfort for me, damn the hunting world’s fashionistas. Plus, who wants to wear expensive clothing that might get bloody, torn and seriously soiled?

I may not look good, but my conscience is calm when crawling through brush or handling a hunting knife.

Such tactics avoid the often heard phrase “This is why we can’t have nice things” applied to the gear I’ve banged up, lost or completely destroyed. The solution: Start with gear you don’t care about. The junkers in my driveway are testament to that strategy.

Hot heat

Luckily, once back at hunting camp I can peel down to only four layers of winter clothing. The poorly laid floorboards creak sadly as my bulk shuffles between the warmth of a bunk-supported sleeping bag and the wood stove that greedily needs more fuel to offset the cold air seeping in through unrepaired cracks.

The wood stove is a bit frightening when I stop to think about it, kind of like having a pet fire-breathing dragon. Here is a man-made device that barely contains searing hot flames. The stove is placed inside a structure that is nothing but large pieces of firewood.

If the smell of smoke were a sign the shack was on fire, I’d never sleep because there’s a crack in the stove that constantly leaks. Luckily for me, I will never die of smoke inhalation because of the holes in the walls.

A friend once recounted a tale of his father’s hunting camp when they got the stove so hot it burnt through the wood floor. Seems like they should have smelled that happening, but maybe they had stoked it up and left for the day. Once the stove dropped, the stove pipe disconnected and filled the cabin with smoke. It makes for a great story, but imagine the fear of being there when it happened. What the heck do you do?

Despite such horror stories, it’s hard to dismiss the direct heat that an old wood stove radiates. It’s so instant compared to the newer, safer, crack-less wood stoves.

3Bs

Before driving to hunting camp there’s the obligatory trip to the grocery store to purchase the necessary fuel after strenuous days of hiking, stalking and packing out game. For me, that is the three Bs, a food pyramid no doctor would endorse. Well, maybe a witch doctor would.

The three Bs are: bacon, barbecue potato chips and bananas. There is sometimes a fourth B. I will leave it up to your imagination what that B might be.

My nephew’s friend takes the opportunity of hunting camp to go on an all-sugar diet. He has never met a vegetable he will eat. The closest he comes is salsa, and his body once even rejected that source of natural vitamins.

By this time of year, the checkout clerks are so used to seeing bad hunting bachelor purchases they don’t even raise their eyebrows at our poor diet choices. It seems like it would be easy to judge if you worked in that position.

Smile

For the first time this year, my friend loaned me a couple of game cameras to see what was moving near hunting camp when no one is around. Some people capture dramatic photos of a mountain lion bringing down a deer in their yard or a grizzly bear taking a midnight stroll. For me, the camera mostly captured photos of the neighbor’s black Angus cows. The most unusual visitor was a nighttime skunk. I’m glad I wasn’t there when Pepè Le Pew visited.

I thought about setting up the game camera inside the shack to see what the mice are up to when I’m not around. They sure have become good at avoiding the baited traps we’ve set up. I even tried tying a piece of popcorn to the release with some dental floss. The mouse took the popcorn and then flossed because one of the corn hulls got stuck in its teeth. I hate when popcorn gets stuck in my teeth, too. I could relate.

Speaking of odd animal behavior, I saw a couple of bull elk on the neighbor’s land recently, pushing each other around in mock battle and emitting the most timid little high-pitched “mews” while clashing. Maybe that was their way of saying, “Breeding season is over, please don’t hurt me.” But to see such large beasts physically tussling while sounding so puny was an odd contrast.

Imagine hairy, burly wrestlers mewing as they grappled.

Mulling

This is the problem with hunting season: Too much time to mull strange thoughts. Or maybe it’s a way to clean out the clutter built up in the brain over the other months of the year. That sounds healthier.

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