Posted by: Bob McMichael | January 13, 2011

The Awning of a New Age

We saved enough clams and did the research to decide on a Fiamma F35 awning for our Eurovan camper. We chose the 8′-2″ version since it covers plenty of ground and cost a lot less to ship to us from the Florida factory than the longer one.

I received the small box with the required bracket kit (Fiamma part number 98655-111) first, which was good since the instructions – if you can call them that – left a lot to be desired and required a bunch of research before I even began.

Fiamma F35 bracket instructions for Eurovan

Fiamma F35 bracket instructions

On the surface, the instructions look very simple: drawings only, no text. Step 1 shows tracing the bracket holes to locate where you’ll drill three holes (per each of the two brackets). Step 2 shows the drilling getting done, with a slashed-circle and numeral 9 above the drill bit, which means nothing to me since I have a Ph.D. in the humanities. I’m guessing it means 9mm, but it could mean don’t drill these holes unless it’s 9 a.m., or if it’s 9 a.m. Call me anal, but I like clarity when I’m about to drill six holes into a $35,000 piece of sheet metal.

Step 3 caused the biggest concern, as it showed a strange looking tool that looked like it was required to insert the threaded sleeves into which the brackets are to be bolted. So I spent a couple hours searching for information on installing one of these awnings, and found nothing. GoWesty sells the more expensive F45 awning, and mentions that a rivet nut tool is required for Eurovan installations. $27. Seems a bit steep, but that’s GoWesty for you. I looked for a rivet nut tool at Harbor Freight ($16), but learned that you need to know the thread specs to get the proper “nosepieces” and “mandrels” (not mandrills, even though a monkey could probably figure this out easier than I’ve been able to) for the tool so that it will install the threaded sleeves. But the Fiamma website (not to mention the bracket instructions) do not give any specs for any hardware, or even if the inserts are metric or SAE; you’d assume they’re metric since the brackets (or at least the instructions) appear to be fabricated in Milan, but who knows these days? Which left me wondering how these awnings, which I see on at least half the Eurovan campers out there, got installed. Obviously I’m either making this way too difficult or am retarded, or both. Clearly I have a problem here, but because of the lack of clarity on how to install this thing I feel compelled to write a blog to assist other idiots like me who might want to do this.

So I emailed Fiamma tech support, asking the size of the drill bit and the thread specification for the rivet nuts. That’s a sentence I never thought I’d write. Anyway, they got back to me pretty quickly: 9mm drill bit, 6mm (M6) rivet nuts. Wahoo!

Rivet Nut Tool

The elusive but required tool

The next day I headed over to Home Depot to find a rivet nut tool. The biggest one they had only went to M5 (5mm). Not surprised (Home Depot almost never has what I need), I headed over to Sears since I’ve had pretty good luck with their tool department. They don’t carry any metric rivet tools. So I checked our local tool rental company (Tates Rents): strike three. I called Harbor Freight since I couldn’t determine from their website if they had metric rivet tools. The person I spoke to had no idea what I was talking about. My neighbor Dave, who’s got more tools than I knew existed, didn’t have what I needed, either. I found a kit on Sears.com for $65, but didn’t want to spend that much. Back to GoWesty and their $27 tool, which I ordered out of shear despairation (intentional conflation of despair and desperation). Call me old fashioned, call me anything you want for all I care; but it would seem – given the necessity of having this tool to install the awning brackets – that Fiamma might raise the price a bit and include this little tool to get the job done. My time is worth nothing, but I still have several hours invested in this, hours I’d gladly have returned to me for organizing my sock drawer or de-greasing used Ziplock bags. Hopefully my tribulations will benefit other otherwise hapless readers in this regard, or at least give them something to laugh about.

Fiamma F35 Bracket Kit for Eurovan Camper

Fiamma F35 Bracket Kit for Eurovan Camper

The big day came. I’d been dreading it, mostly because I hated the idea of drilling holes in the Eurovan. I needed a 9 millimeter drill bit, but didn’t have one and didn’t want to make another fruitless sojourn into the bowels of Boise to look for one at the non-metric conspiratorial network of commercial establishments some over-generously refer to as stores. I searched the Internet for an SAE equivalent: the closest was 23/64 (.359″), which equates to 9.128mm. I drilled one hole with my 23/64 bit into a piece of plastic (one of my Nordic ski wax scrapers), and tested the rivet nut: fit like a glove. So I traced the bracket holes with a pencil onto the van and drilled a hole, sweating bullets with every revolution of the over-sized bit. Seemed a little bigger than the one I’d made in the plastic, so I took the 11/32 bit and used that to drill the second hole: too tight. So I went back to the 23/64 bit and got all three holes for the front bracket drilled.  Stressful.

Using GoWesty's rivet nut tool for the first rivet

Using GoWesty's rivet nut tool for the first rivet

The first rivet nut was tough to set because I didn’t know what I was doing. It took a while to figure out the position to get the tightening bolt in and where to hold the stabilizing bar. I also wasn’t sure how tight to make the rivet nut, but the tool ran out of threads at what seemed like the perfect spot. The rivets seemed tight, so I put the silicone sealant around each one, placed the bracket and its rubber pad over the rivet nuts, and tightened them down with my 10mm ratchet. Again, I wasn’t sure of the torque to use on these aluminum rivet nuts, and I’m still not. (Stay tuned to this blog for our road trip plans; if you want to follow us and I didn’t tighten the bolts enough, you might end up with a free awning.)

Tightening the first rivet nut

Tightening the first rivet nut

I made them as tight as I dared, but hope to get more info from Fiamma about this when I talk to them on Monday about the damage to the awning I discovered upon installing it.

To place the rear bracket, I went to the Internet to look for photos of awnings on Eurovans. I wasn’t sure whether to have the front of the awning hang over the front passenger door. Since we have the 8′-2″ model, and the sidewall mounting brackets for the awning legs (if you don’t want to or can’t stake the legs into the ground but want to secure the support legs onto the van, like if you were camped in a Wal-Mart parking lot) would need to be clear of the front passenger door, that pretty much sold me on keeping the awning mounted just to the front edge of the sliding door. Which meant that I had 97.5″ from outside to outside of the brackets. I gave myself some breathing room on the rear bracket mounting spot, and drilled the holes, deburring with a flat file, and installed the rear bracket in a fraction of the time it took to do the first.

First one down, one to go

First bracket installed, one to go

Once both brackets were tightened down, I took the F35 awning itself and test hanged it on the brackets – miraculously it worked out, but because of the cracked plastic end cap sustained during shipment I couldn’t finish the job and tighten the awning down and do a test set up. I’ll have to get Fiamma to send me a replacement cap and figure out how to remove the busted one and reinstall the new one, which I’m a bit concerned about since they appear to be riveted in place.

Anyway, most of the job is done (as far as I can tell). I hope this sheds some light for the next fool who decides they want to do this themselves. One thing I know is that we had damned well better use this thing on our next trip. I’ll be looking for places that are awning-worthy campsites. If we find any, we’ll post some photos. Stay tuned.

Fiamma F35 installed on Eurovan

Fiamma F35 installed on Eurovan

Damaged in shipping - busted plastic end cap

Damaged in shipping - busted plastic end cap

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Posted by: Bob McMichael | December 19, 2010

Almost Heaven

“A Lewis person will be homesick in heaven.” From Around the Peat Fire.

On the stunningly bright, crisp morning of August 21, 2004 Leslie and I walked into a black house at the Na Garrannan village on the Isle of Lewis in the outer Hebrides of Scotland. Competing with the enveloping smells of a smoldering peat fire, brewing tea, and hay from the byre next door, and the sights of a cramped but efficiently organized living space with a surprising amount of natural light was the sound of Gaelic psalms undulating out of the little CD player on a tiny table in the corner like the swells of sea water rushing unobstructed from the cold North Atlantic just meters away. This sound, a Presbyterian church full of Scots responding to the precentor’s lining out of Gaelic scripture praising the glory of God, enveloped me more profoundly than the peat smoke did.

It also sounded strangely familiar to a recording I’d gotten during grad school of a black congregation at Clear Creek, Mississippi, a recording made by an Irish ethnomusicologist named Therese Smith whom I studied with at Brown. The feeling I got hearing the Gaelic psalms in that black house transported me to the ecstatic moment I first heard the Clear Creek recording. If you’ve heard the Delta blues of Robert Johnson or Bukka White you’ve heard the sonic progeny of this sacred singing. “Free Heterophony” is what the musicologists would call it. And the irony of that description would not be lost on the Clear Creek folks or the Presbyterian Scots, many of whom fled Scotland during the Highland Clearances and ended up in the deep American South.

According to the notes on the Scottish recording, the primary musical influence for this singing style is piobaireachd. I have tended to come to many precious things backward. This is another example. I started my musical journey in life with the Beatles, a British group heavily influenced by the blues but intent on camouflaging and re-purposing that influence (unlike many of their subsequently famous countrymen like Clapton and Jagger). I heard Coltrane before Robert Johnson, and Jaco Pastorius before Jimi Hendrix. But I did hear Beethoven’s Opus 111 (his last piano sonata), which features a section that Scott Joplin absolutely must have known intimately, before ragtime, so that was maybe the chronological exception in my musical trajectory that proves the rule.

What I’m getting at is the joy of finding the precedent links between my sonic milestones. For reasons I still don’t understand and have learned not to care much about anymore, I became obsessed with African American music and its creators’ social, historical, and cultural “situations” when I was a teenager. I carried that interest through college and graduate school, wrote a book about white people who loved jazz and what black musicians thought of them, and then quit that business and moved to the very silly, right-wing state of Idaho (which I love despite its tragic flaws), and took up the bagpipes.

This was not a planned self-discovery mission, just chance with a little intention and a bushel of irony thrown in. But in learning the bagpipes, I have come to find I’m most interested in piobaireachd because – for me – its sound completely eliminates any sense of physical being, just as the psalms I heard on the recording in the black house and from the Clear Creek recording, and from Robert Johnson, Coltrane, Hendrix, and untold other existing and future sound artifacts to which I’m genetically (or not; who cares?) predisposed to respond with what Barthes refers to as “jouissance,” the blissful yet momentary destruction of self in response to sensual stimuli. Maybe this is a way to practice for a body-less afterlife… If that’s what heaven is then this stuff is heaven on earth.

I wonder if the Lewis people who are homesick in heaven ever heard those psalms, or piobaireachd, or Beethoven or Robert Johnson?

 

Posted by: Bob McMichael | December 1, 2010

Hospital Craft Fair

Taisie Design's spoke-nipple bracelets

Taisie Design's spoke-nipple bracelets

Yesterday I had the good fortune to help Leslie display her Taisie Design products at the St. Al’s Employee Holiday Craft Fair & Bazaar.

Twenty-eight employees from one of Boise’s largest employers showed and sold a weird variety of things. Something for everyone and every taste category. Home-made soaps, wreaths made of pages ripped from Plato, some gorgeous photographs of Idaho wilderness, crocheted caps, snow globes (reminding me of a legendary endoscopy department – Leslie’s home turf at the hospital – story about retrieving one of those cheerful holiday knickknacks from someone’s nether region).

Taisie's booth

Taisie Design's table

Display spots were first-come-first-served, and we got one of the last ones, situated next to a couple hawking ceramic tiles with mostly Mormon religious images and words. They weren’t as busy as many of the other vendors.

To me, a hospital is a bizarre place to have a bazaar. I’ve been in libraries that were ten times noisier than St. Al’s. The large room, lit by scores of very cold fluorescent lights, was nearly silent despite all the vendors and a fair amount of shoppers. I overheard several people remark that it seemed strange not to hear holiday music in the background.

Some of Taisie Design's items

Some of Taisie Design's items

Call me biased, but Leslie had the nicest display in the room. Earrings, necklaces, bracelets, tiny mosaic rings, mosaic mirrors and picture frames, and fly-fishing lanyards — hundreds of hand-made, intricate, carefully designed and fabricated items, each with a remarkable uniqueness yet cohering with the Celtic-inspired aesthetic she has adopted for her creations.

Taisie earrings

Taisie Design earrings

Leslie’s a perfectionist, and it shows in her stuff, from the items themselves to how they’re displayed: the earrings each carefully inserted into tiny holes she punches into a folded business card, with beautiful handwritten descriptions of each pair on the inside or back of the card, then hung on copper wires whose ends are coiled into her signature spiral, filling a chalkboard background inside an old window frame…

So I’m proud of my wife. Is that so wrong?

Posted by: Bob McMichael | November 6, 2010

Chukar hunting with Angus


Angus and I headed to the hills yesterday to see if we could find some chukar. These birds live in steep, rocky, hard to reach places. It is always a workout, and those who hunt chukar regularly are obsessed with it, and in very good physical condition. And their feet usually hurt because of the fact that the birds are never on flat ground but always on steep slopes. They are easy to shoot – if you’re lucky enough to find them – but very hard to hit because they are fast, savvy, and have mastered the art of surprise. But they are very good eating and the activity brings a lot of other fulfilling things to the table, like amazing views and happy, well-exercised dogs.

Angus had never sought chukar, partly because I stopped taking Glenna hunting due to her 20-mile range. She had an incredible nose for birds and could find anything anywhere. But she hunted for herself, and when the covey broke she would spend the rest of the day – literally – chasing each bird down and into the next county. She excelled at making sure there would never be any birds near me.

So I had no idea how Angus would do because he’d never had his nose on these birds and I’d never seen him point anything. I hadn’t done any serious training with him, and didn’t expect much from this outing other than a good workout. But I am very pleased to report that – after he stumbled into a covey and chased a few down – he used his nose to find four coveys and even pointed them. The birds broke because of my approach, and I missed all of the eight shots I took (time to start shooting skeet). But my little dog with tiny feet covered the ground carefully, thoroughly, and successfully while staying close enough to me to make an excellent hunting partner. I couldn’t have been happier with him, and look forward to our next attempt at bagging some of these amazing birds.

UPDATE (Nov. 20): We’ve now been chukar hunting three times. Waiting a week for our second outing was almost impossible.  I spent most of my waking hours reading and thinking about chukar and guns and bird dogs.  When the day finally came, we headed back up the hill and got into birds even sooner than before.  Angus busted the first covey but after that knew exactly how close he could get before locking up and lifting his little front foot as if to say, “I believe I have them pinpointed, sir.”  As usual, I whiffed.

Until the last covey we saw that day.  He pointed, I flushed and somehow managed the composure to follow one bird, get the line, and shoot.  Miracle of miracles, the chukar cartwheeled to the ground, ending up about 100 yards below me down a slope as steep as Carter-era inflation.  Angus, following the birds, saw the one I hit and found it at the base of a sagebrush.  I never would have found it.  He grabbed it with his mouth, looked up at me, and proceeded on a beeline back up to me, grunting with pleasure as he dropped the bird at my feet.  Not being particularly religious I had no prayers to recite, nobody or no thing in particular to thank.  Just Angus.

Angus's first chukar taste of chukar

Angus's first taste of chukar

It’s weird to underestimate something you adore, but I had vastly underestimated Angus’s natural ability.  We’ve been out regularly for a while now, and he’s the quick study I never will be.  Last week, despite usually being careful to keep to the ridge tops so as to stay above the chukar, we found ourselves fairly well down a slope.  I came around the ridgeline to find Angus pointing, facing up the hill.  “Crap,” I thought, “they’re above us and running straight up the hill.”  I told Angus to “find the bird” and he heaved his wee frame up the hill after them.  I was fried and couldn’t follow, figuring my only chance was that he’d bump a single down toward me.  Ten seconds later I heard chukar music and managed to connect on a long crossing shot.  A few seconds later Angus comes wheeling downhill, finds the bird, and brings it back to me.  “Mission accomplished, sir!  What’s next, sir?”

It’s discoveries like this, which might simply be good luck, that make all the other problems of life seem – at least temporarily – so insignificant.  But the best part is that Angus, after waiting three years for me to wake up and smell the chukar, is finally doing what he’s wired to do.  Maybe he’ll teach me something in his spare time.

Last Wednesday Leslie had a day off and came along for several reasons: she had some new boots she wanted to try out (see her blog about that!), she wanted a good workout, and had agreed to take photos and video. Check ’em out below…

Idaho Big Chukar Country

Idaho Big Chukar Country


Better than the stairmaster...

Better than the stairmaster...


Angus drinking from my water pouch

Angus drinking from my water pouch


Best friends forever

Best friends forever


Angus points

Angus points in classic fashion


Angus's second retrieve

Angus's second retrieve


A chukar in the hand

A chukar in the hand

 

Posted by: Bob McMichael | November 3, 2010

Last Train to Clarksville

I was on the treadmill at the YMCA today and this song came on my Shuffle. For some reason it hit me like a ton of bricks.

Why? I’d heard Cassandra Wilson’s cover before, but never in inescapable circumstances like this. Earphones. Long stretch of time ahead. Getting nailed by music has always been a perk of life for me, but it has been a while. Today was as good a surprise as any. But still, why this song?

As so often happens with this the kind of surprise attack, today I was able to get sucked deep inside the sound. With each beat, I felt the syncopated brushes and distorted guitar washes and Wilson’s scattish vamping crossing the bridge of my nose from the center of my skull and out both ears with the same pulses going down the solar plexus. Yeah, feedback, reflection, penetration, fulfillment, joy. I caught myself smiling from ear to ear, and soon I was laughing as I pounded the belt on the treadmill and staring at the mothers floating their babies in the swimming pool. I love getting taken this way. Hit and run.

The Monkees’ debut single and number one hit in August 1966, the tune resonated with soldiers heading to Vietnam. They wanted to spend their last possible hours with their loved ones, unsure if they’d survive the war. As a child, hearing and watching the Monkees do this on their Saturday morning show, I had no idea. Today I didn’t, either, until I got home and looked it up. But something in me must have known. Collective memory?

I used to write about music a lot. I haven’t for over a decade. This song is too good. It brings some stuff back that got too hard for me to deal with. Most difficult is the discovery that emotionally provocative songs (we all have our own) paint visceral images of an ideal world. I could speculate on why this song got me today (the day after the mid-term elections went sour for the Democrats), but it doesn’t matter. The toughness of this – which partly led me to stop writing about music – is that the ideal world you get in the ecstasy of music is only that, and usually it’s painted in stark opposition to reality. The irony of the joy I heard in the Clarksville song today is obvious, and what have we learned since Vietnam?

So what? Keep listening and be nice to people.

Posted by: Bob McMichael | October 29, 2010

Elk

spike elk in lodgepole timber

Spike elk in the lodgepole on opening day

After ten years of trying, I finally killed an elk this season. I can no longer claim to be the world’s most avid unsuccessful elk hunter. The following is a start-to-finish account from field to freezer, intended for those who don’t understand but are willing to try…

Learning

Figure out what kinds of places elk like and why they like them. Look for evidence of their recent presence. The best example of recent “sign” is fresh poop which usually looks like a pile of Milk Duds.

Elk droppings

Elk droppings

The darker and slimier it is the smaller the gap between their presence and yours. Sometimes, when the wind is right, you can smell them, getting nostrils of musk.

In the early fall, you look for elk in woods that are not disturbed by nearby roads or ATVs. They like to be left alone and are very sensitive to intrusion. They can hear better than you, can see better than you, and can smell better than champion bird dogs. In other words, if you sneak up on elk you’re either very lucky or extremely skillful, or both.

Elk rub at the edge of a logging road

Elk rub at the edge of a logging road

Other things will tell you if elk have been in the area recently: tracks and rubs are the two most convincing signs. Animal tracking is an art and a science, and you need to learn to distinguish between all the different ungulates in the woods: cattle (if the area is grazed), white tail deer, mule deer, moose, and elk all have distinctly different prints. Within each species, the sex and age of an animal shows itself in the print. Also, reading prints well will tell you how many animals were together, how fast or slow, and what time of day they were traveling.

A rub is a smaller tree, usually a conifer, that a bull elk has more or less demolished with its antlers. The bulls get in the habit of rubbing the velvet off their antlers in the late spring and early summer, and keep doing it throughout the fall even though their velvet is long gone. By looking closely at a rub and touching the sap exposed on the skinned trunk you can tell within a narrow window how recently the bull was getting medieval on the tree with its rack.

Outside of sheer luck, intentionally seeing elk or any other wild animal in the woods requires studied attention and gathered knowledge. You have to know what you’re doing. You have to know something about the animal, what it likes to eat, what its habits are, what it doesn’t  like. This is the crux of hunting.

Scouting

Lodgepole pine forest

This is what the lodgepole forest looks like from the outside

The main reason I hadn’t killed an elk until this year is that I didn’t have time to scout. If you haven’t hired a guide and are hunting on public land, hunting without scouting is needle-in-haystack stuff. Scouting means finding a group of animals and drawing a kind of mental map of the area they inhabit, and monitoring it for a period close to when you will hunt. Over the past several years I had seen and heard an increasing number of elk in the area I chose to hunt this year. This was the first year I had a tag to hunt here; previous years I hunted – also without scouting – other places in different parts of the state. I chose my areas based largely on the ambiance and no motorized vehicle regulations, half hoping and half thinking elk would be there. I learned this the hard way. There’s nothing more frustrating than hiking a couple of hours in the dark to a place you think will produce a good hunting experience only to have five guys on ATVs roll up in front of you just at daylight, driving off any animals that might have been in the area.

This year, I had time to scout. I spent hours walking very slowly, stopping, listening, looking for sign, monitoring the wind, hanging out, and enjoying being in the house of elk. Once I mapped their environment and noticed and understood small changes in it, I learned prevailing wind patterns so I could plan to approach them always with the wind in my face. If they smell you, they disappear. To combat swirling wind and unpredictable changes I did three things: stored all hunting clothes and gear in a large plastic bin with pine and aspen boughs; showered with no soap before I went out; and anointed my clothes and boots with elk urine (purchased from a sporting goods store).

Over a period of several weeks I was able to spend quite a few hours keeping track of the group of elk I planned to hunt, taking care not to get too deep into their territory so that I might disturb them and encourage them to find another place to hang out. I also hoped for no major weather changes between the end of my scouting and opening day, as a hard freeze, for example, might render the grass they grazed on unpalatable and force them to higher elevations in areas I hadn’t scouted.

Inside the lodgepole

Inside the lodgepole - notice the deadfall

In the zone I planned to hunt with my rifle I could only kill a spike elk, which is a male about a year-and-a-half in age with “spike” antlers that have no branches longer than an inch. Spikes are not trophies, but sought by those who want good meat. Older, larger bulls with huge antlers that make for good trophies and great bragging do not make for the best eating. This meat can be pretty tough. From a “harvesting” perspective, I am in it primarily for the meat. But spike elk are fairly rare, comprising only about five percent (give or take) of the elk population in a given area. Since I figured there to be about twenty to thirty elk in this spot, scattered throughout the timber and half-meadows, I guessed there might be one or two spikes.

Until two days before opening morning I had only encountered large bulls and a few cow elk in this spot. On my last day of scouting, however, I saw at close range but in heavy timber what looked like a spike moving back to its bedding area after a morning of grazing. I didn’t get a good enough view of its antlers before it vanished to know if there were any branches on it, but I knew it was a spike whose harvesting legality remained up in the air.

The Hunt

On opening morning, as luck would have it, the weather had remained stable in the few days since I last scouted. I left the cabin on foot just as it was light enough to see my feet, about 40 minutes before sunrise. I walked quickly but slowly enough to hear the sounds of the forest, hoping to hear some bugling which would let me know the elk were still hanging around. I headed up along a creek that ran next to an old logging road that had been closed for over a decade, which is why the elk have come back here. ATVs can’t legally drive around this area, so the wildlife find it much more appealing.

As I got close to my “ground zero” spot I heard an ATV puttering slowly, and illegally, up the road ahead of me, clearly road hunters on a 4-wheeler. This changed everything. I debated whether to give up the hunt and try to find the ATV so I could report its license plate (if it even had one) to the Forest Service but decided against that since even if I had a photo and the license number there was only a tiny chance anything would have been done. I cursed the portion of humanity that feels exempt from following rules that benefit everyone. But I consoled myself by thinking that these idiots probably wouldn’t see any elk. The sound of the 4-wheeler would most likely keep the elk in the woods, where the motorist probably would not go and where I planned to find them.

I decided to keep looking and listening for elk, moving extremely slowly. Taking five steps and stopping, listening for sounds of large animals moving. One thing elk are sometimes not careful about, which is ironic, is stepping on deadfall. When a 500-pound animal places its hoof on a small dead tree or branch lying on the ground, you can hear the snap quite a ways away.

Heavy timber

It's tough to get a clear shot at any distance in heavy timber like this

Before too long, once I was deep in the heavy timber, I heard a few such snaps. So I crouched down and noticed I was on a faint game trail. Scanning the small gaps between standing lodgepole trees, soon I saw movement. When you’re in timber this heavy visual perspective changes and things take on different optical relationships. What I saw initially looked like a house of tan fur moving about a mile an hour from right to left, coming toward me at an oblique angle. Then I glimpsed dark fur: neck and head. Then one antler: left spike. Then another: right spike. No branches. The snapshots I got as the animal slalomed its way through the trees collectively made it a legal spike elk. I kept doubting this because of the length of the spikes and the size of the animal. It seemed too big.

I watched it a little longer with the binoculars and confirmed I could shoot. I raised the rifle and found him through the scope. I could not see the whole animal, just the vitals: a small area just behind the elbow and a little below the halfway point on the body. I wanted a clearer view, but he was in a position to move farther away from me and I knew this would be my best chance to fill my tag this year. For an instant I flashed on recent years when I passed on good opportunities and had to live with the regret until the next season. I mentally noted the approximate distance – about 80 yards – stabilized the shot (right knee down, left elbow on left knee) and squeezed the trigger.

The Kill

A lot of things go through your mind when you squeeze the trigger. My first thought: I hope I missed. I’m not sure why this was my first thought, especially after ten years of trying and failing to kill an elk, but I knew I hadn’t missed.

The crack of the rifle shot broke the serene silence of the timber in the still, cool morning air. The spike quickly did an about-face, and bolted more as a response to the sound than to being hit. He didn’t go far before stopping, but I knew that unless you waited at least thirty minutes after hitting a big, resilient animal that you could alarm it to run for miles and reduce the probability of recovering it with each step. I knew that most animals hit well in the vitals will – if they don’t feel they’re being pursued – go a short distance, lie down, and die peacefully (or at least more peacefully than fighting for their lives with a wolf or seeing the hunter who keeps shooting and missing or making a non-lethal shot, which is not uncommon).

This is the best scenario for killing big game: since they are not accustomed to being shot (some become accustomed to being shot at, which often makes them live a long life among even the best hunters), they do not understand what happened or why. I imagine it is similar to dying of cancer or getting a cold, not that these things are otherwise anything alike. There is no reason you get cancer, but still it kills you. I realize I am trying to make killing this animal seem more benign, but believe there is some truth to this description. Without presuming too much about what or how elk think, I believe that they don’t reflect on things like humans do, and that they live a much more sensually oriented life than we do. This, I believe, makes them both better than people and less obsessed with tragedy than we are. Dying is a fact not dwelled on by them. We dwell on their deaths (as I am doing here, as we all do about any death that matters to us), but they don’t.

It was very hard to sit quietly and wait thirty minutes after shooting. For one, my heart was pounding and time moved very, very slowly. The place got its silence back. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to find him, wouldn’t find a good enough blood trail to locate him. I kept checking my watch. Three more minutes passed; eleven total since shooting, nineteen more to wait before I could stand up and start looking for him. I replayed the shot and his response, over and over, hoping for the best: that I would find him dead very close by.

Then I heard another ATV come up the old logging road, illegally. I was about 200 yards into the timber from the road, but could tell they stopped right near where I went in, and could hear voices coming toward me. The really stupid thing about this group, aside from that fact that I could hear them so clearly (and thus any elk within hundreds of yards, assuming they were hunting), is that they drove less than half a mile from the “ROAD CLOSED” gate.

Spike elk

The spike's resting place

It had been only twenty minutes since I shot, and I worried these people would frighten the spike – if he was still alive and nearby – into getting up and running. I decided to look for him. I stood up slowly, wrapped some flagging tape on the tree closest to where I took the shot, and crept along the game trail toward where I thought I hit him. Before I had gone thirty steps I saw him, lying down, head up, facing away from me. He was dying but not dead yet. I heard the people coming closer, and so did the spike. He stood up, broadside to me, thirty yards away. I fired again, hitting him in the lungs, which is the most lethal shot you can take. He stood there for about thirty seconds, took about five steps, and fell over. He never got up again.

Just after my second shot, I could hear the people quickly turn around and go back to their ATV, which they fired up and drove away. I felt grateful that I was able to find and finish off the spike before these outlaws scared him into running. I was grateful things worked out, and that doing this correctly paid off for me.

The Meat

Without going into too much detail, “field dressing” an animal the size of an elk is a lot of work, especially if you have to carry it out by yourself. In addition to parceling it into movable pieces you have to know enough about its anatomy so that you don’t waste any meat or do more work than you need to. The spike weighed close to 500 pounds. I’m fairly strong and fit but almost 50 years old and can’t handle much more than 80 pounds at a time. I separated the front and rear quarters, and removed the other meat from the carcass, and was able to get it all to the closed road by 2:30 or 3:00, about five hours after he died.

I’d been able to radio my wife at the cabin (about two miles away), and she drove the pickup to the closed gate and brought me my frame pack and a plastic sled. I put one front quarter and some meat into the frame pack and carried the other front quarter to the truck, then returned for the heavier rear quarters that I’d strapped onto the sled and dragged that, with Leslie’s help, back to the truck. By 5:00 p.m. I had the meat cleaned, bagged, and hanging in a room in the cabin with the windows open to keep it cool. I can’t remember being more exhausted or better appreciating a shower.

Ground elk meat

Ground elk meat

I was fortunate the weather stayed cool enough to hang the meat for about a week. Butchering, which you can pay someone to do, is another huge job. I wanted to do it myself, partly to save money and partly so I could get exactly what I wanted from the meat. Three days of cutting, grinding, and wrapping later, and I have more meat than I can eat in a year. Leslie doesn’t care for red meat so I will be sharing this with my friends and family. If you do eat red meat, there isn’t a better or cleaner source than this. I have eaten some of it already, and there is no gamy taste to it whatsoever, and also no fat. Elk is the closest taste to good beef among the wild game you can hunt in the U.S.

Afterthoughts

I can’t say how typical my experience is to other hunters who harvest elk. I have not taken this killing lightly. For me it is not a simple, easily digestible thing. In the couple of weeks that have passed I have felt substantial remorse and sadness about taking the spike’s life. I have made mental lists of the pros and cons of killing big game. I have been exuberant and felt great luck. And I appreciate having clean meat in my freezer.

I want to make one thing clear, though: the elk’s death was not deserved. I didn’t “deserve” to get an elk. Nobody deserves to get an elk. I say this because there are a lot of hunters out there who seem to think that hunting – which appears to be defined primarily by killing – is their God given right. It is not. In a civilization such as the one some of us want to sustain, hunting and the killing that goes along with it is a privilege accompanied by lots of responsibility. To make it fair for others to hunt and harvest animals, regulations must be heeded. No law abiding hunter is more deserving of filling his tag than another. And despite all of this, no creature deserves to die. I killed it. Law allowed it. If it weren’t for the legal regulation of this hunt I wouldn’t have done it. It feels strange to have law dictate acceptability, but, again, that’s civilization for you.

Posted by: Bob McMichael | September 10, 2010

Goodbye, Glenna

Glenna Skye McMichael

Glenna Skye McMichael 2000-2010

I put Glenna to sleep yesterday, then drove to McCall and buried her in Dave and Lori’s pet cemetery. Angus kept me company the whole day, and seemed finally – on returning home – to realize she was gone. When Leslie got home from work she cried hard because she hadn’t been able to at work. I felt bad for her and tried to cheer her up. We’ve been taking turns grieving. I seem to do it better alone for some reason.

I’m almost, but not quite, embarrassed by how much this whole dog thing has affected me. She was my first dog and was my unflagging companion for the most intense decade of my life. I got her just a couple weeks after quitting academia and moving to Boise, where I had no job and knew nobody. If I’ve learned anything in the 24 hours since she passed it’s that I vastly underestimated how sad I would be.

What I want to say most is that she helped me with a lot of things. I realized this early on in our relationship. Here’s an excerpt from a log I kept for the first month or two, when I was trying to develop a freelance writing career and struggling with writer’s block:

“This morning Glenna wouldn’t eat. She’s developed this weird habit of running to her bowl, grabbing a mouthful of kibble, and dashing a few feet away, dropping the bits to the floor, and eating them one by one. As I stood on the carpeted and dog-free side of the little fence between the kitchen and the living room, I looked down and watched her drop her mouthful of food directly below me, the chickpea-sized dark brown chunks scattering randomly over a foot-wide circle on the white linoleum floor. For an instant I noticed her trying to decide which bit to go for first but she seemed stymied by too many choices, and in the same instant I recognized myself in her rapidly moving, gorgeous hazel eyes.

“Writing is such an odd medium of communication. We take reading for granted, those of us lucky enough to be able to read, and we kind of need to take it for granted or we would not be able to finish reading the back of a milk carton. But writing can’t be taken for granted because the writer faces infinite choice on every level – word use, sentence structure, paragraph strategy and organization, rhetoric. And much more. Choice expands exponentially, of course, for those writers who choose their own topics. And this explosion of choice I watched Glenna experience with her chow this morning helped me realize something about the “writer’s block” I’ve experienced lately. I have too many things I want to write about, so many that I don’t really get to any of them. It seems obvious now, but was nothing but frustrating in the midst of it.

“And the great thing is that Glenna not only revealed the problem to me, she also provided its solution by coming as close to writing as a dog can. She began her day’s food intake by picking up one piece at a time, finishing it, and moving on to the next one. And I went to my computer and wrote this.”

Glenna and me in Pettit Lake

Click to see a photo album of Glenna

Posted by: Bob McMichael | September 1, 2010

Baker City Breakdown

City of Trees Pipes and Drums

Dennis McLaughlin, our new drum major

Our band, the City of Trees Pipes and Drums, traveled to Baker City, Oregon last weekend to participate in the Easter Oregon Highland Games. Oh my.

The weather could definitely have been worse. But it could have been way, way better. For a late August weekend, it was downright frigid: 50-something degrees, rainy, and windier than Rush Limbaugh the day after Halle Berry won an Oscar.

I felt badly for the organizers because the turnout was not what they expected. Most of the people who would have attended were huddled against the wood stove back at the cabin. But for those who did brave the elements – which include the vendors, the athletes, and the performers (especially the belly dancers) – it was a good show.

Aside from our fabulous group of nut-cases in kilts, there was a really good band from Emmett, Idaho featuring a couple of hot pipers, a fiddler, a drummer, and a crack bassist. The belly dancers boggled the mind (not least because nobody I asked could explain why you always see belly dancers at highland games) and some might have gone hypothermic. The athletes were fabulous, knee braces, pitchforks and all.

Irish wolfhounds

When was the last time you saw six Irish wolfhounds?

For me, the coolest thing there were the six enormous Irish wolfhounds (again – there seems to be a healthy lack of any shyness about the mixing of Irish, Scottish, gypsy, and whatever else you want to bring to the table at a “Scottish” Highland games). The couple who brought them have been breeding them for a dozen years or so, and they led the dogs (three each) around on leashes during the closing ceremony. Beautiful animals those.

It was a good time. However, unless I can get a guarantee from God next year that it will be warmer I can’t say if I’ll have another obligation that weekend.

Posted by: Bob McMichael | August 27, 2010

Old dog

Glenna as a puppy

Glenna in her first spring

When I got my first dog, Glenna, a little over ten years ago I loved her so much that I soon began dreading the time she’d die. It was only when she was seven, when we got our puppy Angus to keep Glenna company after a raccoon killed our cat (Glenna’s only animal companion) that I stopped dreading her death. I transferred that dread to the puppy, where it currently resides. That’s another story.

Glenna is now not long for this world. The dread I once felt for her demise has now turned into what I imagine a parent with a terminally ill child might feel: a kind of tender, loving acceptance of the mortality combined with an anger which cannot be accepted or controlled and pervades every moment of the day and every thought during the sleepless night. Complicating this emotional cocktail is the fact that Glenna is the most sensitive reader of my emotional state that I’ve ever known, and she gets visibly upset when I am angry or sad. Sometimes I don’t realize what I’m feeling until she shows me. So I try to protect her from upset by hiding my emotions, which is basically pointless. She knows.

The illness

Weeks ago Glenna began vomiting white foam. She couldn’t keep any food down. We watched her lose pound after pound while we tried to learn – on our own – what was wrong and how we could treat it. I had developed a strong aversion to veterinarians after what I noticed was a growing trend among them to sell their customers anything and everything they could by more or less frightening them into a purchase or a decision. This is in keeping with the American approach to marketing and American culture in general. I shouldn’t have been surprised that vets became businesses like any other, but the fear factor upset me and made me not trust them.

So we tried Prilosec and Pepcid to control what appeared to us as an excessive amount of stomach acid. Neither worked. She still upchucked her food. Then she ate it, upchucked it again, and ate it again, including the white foam. It was heart-wrenching to watch her gulp down her food with gusto and then stagger around the yard for an hour trying to find the the perfect spot to barf. She was clearly in lots of pain and discomfort.

The vet, part 1

When she lost enough weight that she looked like a furry skeleton I decided to take her to the Humane Society veterinarian, whom I’d heard was a no-bullshit vet, largely because he was so busy neutering and spaying the canine and feline adoptees that he didn’t have time to do “elective” procedures on pets. I described her condition on the phone and they gave me an appointment that morning, telling me I needed to get her in there as soon as possible. After sitting in the waiting room for 45 minutes without a word, watching other pet owners come in, get treated, and leave, I asked when Glenna would be seen. It took the receptionist ten minutes to tell me it would be about another 30 minutes or so. I couldn’t handle this in my state of mind so I left.

The next day I took her to a vet close to our house, a young guy who was very nice and ran a small animal hospital. I described in detail what Glenna had been doing as he examined her on the stainless steel table. When I asked him how she should be treated for this worsening condition, he said that he would need to do blood work, x-rays, a barium study, an ultrasound, and endoscopy before diagnosing her, totaling over $1,000. I told him I’d been unemployed for almost a year and was afraid I’d have to chose between paying my mortgage and doing these tests. He said he understood my situation and was happy to work with me, and prescribed a mild antibiotic which only made her seem worse. After a horrible couple of days I was ready to put her down.

The vet, part 2

I called a friend who told me I should at least find out what’s wrong with her before putting her down, and that I wouldn’t ever rest if I didn’t. Regardless of the expense, it made sense. I called the vet that had seen Glenna most of her life and made an appointment with the oldest doctor there, Dr. Craig Stoenner of All Pet Complex. Although it was his practice that had irritated me with what I saw as an increasingly hyperactive marketing approach to pet care, I knew he’d seen lots of dogs in his career and would be as able as anyone to figure out what was going on.

Glenna hates vets probably more than I do, but for better reasons. All Pet Complex strikes a particularly acute horror in her as she has endured numerous very painful treatments there. The first was when she impaled herself on an exposed screw while trying to scale the fence in our backyard (that was on my wife’s birthday; I’m writing this on my birthday, strangely enough), requiring a bunch of stitches. Next was when she was attacked by an unleashed pit bull on a “leash-only” trail at a nearby park, requiring more stitches, a couple of wound drains, and a big cone around her head. Then she somehow managed to tear every tendon, ligament, and muscle in her left rear leg while our brother-in-law was taking care of her when we were out of the country, requiring a painful exam, a couple surgeries, and a bulky cast up to her hip for six weeks. Then there was the spider bite (probably a hobo) that necrosed most of her left side, requiring more stitches. And finally, while play-fighting with Angus she broke a molar, requiring its extraction and several other teeth that had also been broken. Even the $8,000 in vet bills for these treatments doesn’t compare to the pain she’s been through beyond those doors. But she still goes in the door.

Within a few minutes Dr. Stoenner guessed it was mega-esophagus, in which the esophagus loses its ability to push food into the stomach. The critical distinction, which the other vet and all of the research I had done on the Internet failed to make, was between vomiting and regurgitation. The former is what we described in college as “blowing chunks” from deep in the stomach, and the latter is a less forceful exit of food from the esophagus. The slimy white foam surrounding kibble that we watched Glenna barf up was not excess stomach acid but just saliva. She was regurgitating her food, which never made it beyond her esophagus.

Dr. Stoenner took some x-rays, which confirmed his diagnosis. He also noticed a bunch of fluid in her chest cavity, which made it hard to tell if there was a tumor anywhere. So he suggested doing a blood test to rule out hypothyroidism, Addison’s Disease, and myasthenia gravis, three related diseases for which megaesophagus is a secondary symptom. The blood work came back negative, so we scheduled an ultrasound to see if we could identify the fluid and rule out any mass. The ultrasound showed no mass, but they couldn’t determine the source or type of the fluid in her chest cavity, so they took a sample with a big needle.

The fluid was identified as chyle. Glenna has a pleural chylous effusion, diagnosed as idiopathic chylothorax, meaning they don’t know the cause of the leak in her thoracic valve that is responsible for the fluid. Chyle is the fluid vehicle that transports fatty nutrition from the stomach throughout the lymphatic system. Possible causes are lymphoma, AIDS (which I doubt she has) and many other things. Since she’s old and weak, there’s not much that can be done except make her comfortable and do what we can to get her the little nutrition her body is still capable of metabolizing. Dr. Stoenner recommended an herb called rutin that might help reduce the leak.

As far as feeding, now she has to eat in a vertical position so gravity can do the work her esophagus no longer can. The food has to be almost liquefied to make it into her stomach; any chunks just stick to the esophagus wall and create a dam. Yesterday morning I gave her a little canned dog food and missed one chunk that she regurgitated up about 8 hours later. That caused her to have a very bad, uncomfortable day.

What’s left

Dr. Stoenner guessed Glenna might live another six months. When she’s lying on her side at night, breathing hard and looking at me I can hardly take it. Leslie says I have to be strong for her, but I feel so weakened by her pain and even moreso by her normal personality squeaking through her pain. She quickly wags her tail stub like she always has when she sees me after a brief absence. Lying on the grass while trying to hold down her gruel she snaps at a fly that pesters her. A squirrel runs along the fence and her head snaps with the reactions of a younger hunter. Her eyes are still bright and deep. She still issues a big sigh when I rub the warm waxy inside of her ears. I used to massage her hips, but there’s almost no muscle there now and the increasingly apparent bones there make me uneasy. I don’t want to irritate her.

I asked Dr. Stoenner when it will be time to put her down. He told me I would know. How many times can a sane person ask himself that question each day? I don’t want to short-change her, but I already miss her.

Suggestions

I regret how my emotionally driven antagonism toward veterinarians delayed the diagnosis and treatment and – worst of all – prolonged Glenna’s discomfort. There are a few things resembling advice that I want to end with:

  1. To pet owners: find a vet you can trust, be honest with them about what’s going on, and learn as much as you can about the situation so that you can make educated decisions about treatment without unduly extending your pet’s pain or worsening their condition.
  2. To pet owners: consider a vet who is older and seen a lot of animals; this made the difference in Glenna’s diagnosis. All vets start out young, and have received excellent training in school, but I’ve noticed that a lot of younger vets are reluctant to even suggest a diagnosis before doing a battery of expensive and sometimes unnecessary tests. Whether this is by design – to increase the practice’s profit – or a hesitance from inexperience, pet owners frequently get into financial trouble treating their beloved animals. Even worse, many pets are either put down prematurely or not treated for simple problems and suffer unnecessarily because of this dynamic.
  3. To pet owners and vets: if you have a cell phone that takes videos (most do nowadays) or a video camera, take a video of your pet’s problematic behavior; vets should recommend this to their customers. If I had taken a video of Glenna staggering around and barfing and showed it to the first vet he most likely would have known it was mega-esophagus.
  4. To vets: although you are in business to make money, do not alienate your customers by capitalizing on their often irrational emotional attachments to their pets. Do not use fear to encourage treatment, regardless of whether the treatment is critical or preventative.
Glenna's first sibling, Moby

Glenna's first sibling, Moby

Glenna used to finish Moby's food for him

Glenna used to finish Moby's food for him

She used to jump for scraps

She used to jump for scraps

Glenna and Moby liked each other

Glenna and Moby liked each other

After Moby died, we got Glenna a dog-brother

After Moby died, we got Glenna a dog-brother

Glenna taught Angus lots of things

Glenna taught Angus lots of things

Like how to chew on sticks

Like how to chew on sticks

And how to hunt quail

And how to hunt quail

Glenna loves going to the cabin

Glenna loves going to the cabin

She loves going fishing

She loves going fishing

She loves to canoe

She loves to canoe

She loves to hike along the Snake River

She loves to hike along the Snake River

She likes sleeping in and looking out

She likes sleeping in and looking out

She likes cooling off in the garden

She likes cooling off in the garden

She likes the Sawtooths a lot

She likes the Sawtooths a lot

She likes hiking in the winter

She likes hiking in the winter

She likes running on snow

She likes running on snow

She collects snowballs

She collects snowballs

She loves her Natuzzi sofa

She loves her Natuzzi sofa

She's done plenty of time at the vet - left leg cast

She's done plenty of time at the vet - left leg cast

See the drain in her neck after nearly getting killed by a pit bull

See the drain in her neck after nearly getting killed by a pit bull

Glenna's failing esophagus

Glenna's failing esophagus

Some food makes it down

Some food makes it down, but it must be almost liquid

Now she must eat in a vertical position

Now she must eat in a vertical position

Angus is a little confused by this

Angus is a little confused by this

Posted by: Bob McMichael | August 25, 2010

Social Climbing

I’ve been meaning to post this recent experience… My second time climbing with ropes. The first, ten years ago in exactly the same place, terrified me. This time, thanks to my friend John’s confidence-inspiring guidance and experience, was a blast!

My climbing mentor John

My climbing mentor John

DIscussing strategy with John before the climb

Discussing strategy with John before the climb, during his sprint workout on the Boise High School track

This is the look up the Black Cliffs

This is the look up the Black Cliffs

John giving me a lesson on belaying

John giving me a lesson on belaying, the most important point being that since he weighs over 100 lbs. more than I he should not fall

John going up to set the rope

John going up to set the rope

John almost to the top

John almost to the top

My turn

My turn

Resting

Resting, and enjoying the harness's snugness

Nearly there

Nearly there

Ringing the bell

Ringing the bell

Heading down - wee!

Heading down - wee!

Getting belayed down is a blast

Getting belayed down is a blast

Leslie getting into it

Leslie getting into it

Leslie's form - a natural

Leslie's form - a natural

The fun over, heading down the trail

The fun over, heading down the trail

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