Wednesday, February 22, 2017
The type of country I hunted near White Sulphur Springs.
We had some unusual weather this year that made for pretty poor elk hunting during general season. First, fall rains saturated the back-country two-tracks and generated a second growth of grass that had the high country as green as spring. Then we didn’t get any real snowfall or cold temperatures during rifle season. So, there was really no reason for the elk to come down out of the high country and a great many tags went unfilled.
Fortunately, Fish, Wildlife and Parks had an extended “shoulder season” for cow elk on private land in the hunting districts up around White Sulphur Springs that ran until February 15th. Some private land not ordinarily huntable was opened up on a limited reserve basis as well. Even so, it was no easy hunt. FWP was receiving 600 calls per day about the hunt at the start of the shoulder season! I suspect many of those interested were hoping for something like a damage control hunt where they could just park at a hay stackyard and shoot one out the window of the pickup; when they found out real hunting was involved a good percentage suddenly cooled their jets. Nevertheless, I usually encountered multiple other die-hards out hunting even when I went up there in the middle of the week.
We got a few real blizzards and considerable snowfalls, always attended by drifting, in January and early February. Many of the seasonal local gravel roads accessing much of the country were of little use to hunters. Due to our winter winds they were often interspersed with deep, impassable snow drifts in low and sheltered areas while they were blown clean down to bare gravel in exposed open areas, making it impossible to use either wheeled vehicles or snow machines.
Of course, mere walking starts to become quite a chore when the snow gets over eight or ten inches deep on the flats and the drifts in the draws and on the lee slopes leave you “post-holing” up to your crotch with every step.
Two ways to beat such conditions are snowshoes and skis. You can learn to use snowshoes quickly and easily and they are handier in thick timber and brush, but they are slow and still require considerable physical effort just to move around on them. As I once explained to my wife, “Cross-country skiing is a sport; snowshoeing is merely an ordeal.”
Take it from me, if you do decide to try cross-country skiing, do yourself a huge favor and go take a couple of lessons from a real instructor right off the bat. I spent two long, hard winters teaching myself before I got to the point where I ceased to crash and burn on every downhill. Later, my wife and I did a 5-day winter trip to Yellowstone National Park. One afternoon we took cross-country ski lessons and it was well worth the effort. Even though I am reaching curmudgeon status and our instructor was a “kid” barely over 20, he was a pretty good teacher and I learned quite a few tips and techniques that were of great benefit to me in my back-country ski adventures.
I ski as much for fitness and pleasure as anything. Once upon a time I was actually a marathon-level runner, but then a guy earning his 4th DUI hit me head-on at 70+ mph and now the vertebrae in my neck are so, to use a technical medical term, “buggered up” that I just can’t take the pounding of a run. Cross-country skiing became my low-impact substitute to running, at least for part of the year.
When I finally got decent at it, I combined x-country skiing with hunting, mostly for coyote but sometimes for deer and elk if we got some decent snow during general season. I regularly skied some old logging roads and skid trails in the Crazy Mountains that were off-limits to snow mobiles for two years and every single time I saw pine marten tracks. The next year I spent two weeks running a trapline up there and never cut a single track; just like all the old books say, marten can simply vanish from an area entirely for no discernable reason. But I still enjoyed the experience and got plenty of exercise out it.
If the snow is not very deep and/or there are two-tracks or snow machine trails to run on I take my modern lightweight “skinny skis”, waxless Karhu Widetraks that are slightly wider than straight cross-country trail skis and have steel edges. Breaking trail in deep snow with them, however, is exhausting and in the sagebrush, which always includes drifting, I often find myself having to stop and kick the ski tips back up and above the snow and brush every few strides. Lastly, even on a packed trail, I don’t get much glide at all on the moderate downhills with these waxless skinny skis.
When it comes to deep powder, unbroken routes, drifts, and sagebrush, I revert to my big clunky old school Swiss Army surplus skis. They are fiberglass with steel edges, ridiculously heavy, and built solid enough that you could probably construct an emergency bridge sufficient to carry the weight of a duce-and-a-half out of them. Despite their weight, their 3-1/8 inch width distributes my own weight much better and I can slog through a couple of feet of powder without sinking all the way down in. Negotiating sagebrush and its ever-present associated snowdrifts, the Swiss monsters keep me afloat better, often riding atop a crust rather than crashing through it, and I don’t have much issue with the tips getting bogged under either. Plus you can get a little rest while coasting down even moderate slopes.
The Swiss skis require waxing, which isn’t as big a pain in the ass as I thought it was going to be. When I prepare them ahead of time at home, I scrape the surface down bare and clean it with a little rubbing alcohol on a rag. Then I apply the wax, melt it on with an old electric iron I bought at a thrift store for just this purpose, and cork it smooth. This base layer of wax is the cold temperature stuff. If you need to you can throw softer wax on top of it. The Swiss ski poles are also old school, the metal ring of the basket attached with leather straps. If I’m expecting heavy, wet snow conditions I spray these with unscented Pam cooking oil to keep the snow from clumping up on them. The same treatment can also help on the bottom of a sled.
In the field, I carry two or three different cans of Swix wax rated for different temperatures. If I start slipping and back-sliding, I just take my skis off and smear on some of the appropriate wax and then keep going, allowing the snow and travel to smooth it out. Sometimes under difficult snow conditions or a particularly steep uphill, I’ll throw on a fast, temporary smear of hot wax just on the “kick pockets” of the skis under the bindings to get better footing.
I’m sure there are now nice lightweight modern Telemark skis on the market that would work better, but I’m too set in my ways to do the research and too cheap to buy new. Even with the Swiss slabs I can cover eight or even ten miles in a hunt now. The nicest part is that since the return trip is usually downhill and often in my own ski tracks, it generally requires less than half the time it took to go in to come back out.
Skis are still just a means of transportation to get where I want to hunt. When I actually begin a stalk, I remove my skis and go afoot. For this reason, and for safety, I don’t feel the need to carry my rifle cocked and locked and ready to rock. I don’t even chamber a round until the time comes to stalk. I simply carry it on a conventional sling, slung over one shoulder and carried diagonally across my back. Although I always put a small piece of black electrical tape over the muzzle of my rifles in the field, especially in the snow, I also carry mine in a Rapid Rifle Cover. This is a Montana-made product consisting of a neoprene sleeve with elastic lining around the open end. It stretches from the muzzle of the rifle to the rear bell of the scope, protecting both quite well even if you take a spill in the snow.
Years ago at the Bozeman gun show I "discovered" the Montana-made Rapid Rifle Cover. I highly recommend one for protecting your muzzle and optics when hunting in the snow.
Of course, as hard as it was to find elk on huntable ground and finally put one down this year, the real work starts once you fill the tag; getting it back to the truck is the real trick. For that, I use a cargo sled. On a morning hunt, unless the snow conditions make it too noisy, I just pull the empty sled along behind me. At other times, I have to return to the truck to retrieve it, but the extra trip on skis is nowhere near as exhausting as post-holing and in the process you break and pack a decent trail for the sled to ride in.
All sleds, of course, are not created equal. The thin plastic children’s toy sleds from Wally World are cheap, brittle in extreme cold, and quickly disintegrate under the load of a dead elk. There are a number of different of cargo, utility or multi-purpose sleds on the market which are made of heavy duty plastic or fiberglass and are advertised for use in ice fishing, winter camping, etc., some designed to be pulled by ATVs or snowmobiles. Look for one with a fairly large surface area to better float on soft snow, fairly high sides to keep it from taking on snow, plenty of attachment points for straps, webbing or cordage, and molded ribs or runners on the bottom to allow the sled to “track” in your ski trail. On one hunt, my wife and I even ran into one hunter who had inexpensively procured a beat-up old plastic kayak from a river guide service that he was using as a sled to haul out game.
Developed in the Scandinavian countries, the boat-shaped cargo sled known as an ahkio or pulk was designed to carry heavy loads in deep snow. The fiberglass US Army surplus ahkios are fairly inexpensive these days; I’ve seen them advertised between $150 and $200. Such ahkios are rated for a 200-pound load and are built like a tank; they’re almost indestructible and will last a lifetime. This durability, however, comes at the price of weight. An empty one still weighs 36 pounds by itself, which was more weight than I wanted to drag behind me all day.
Ahkio cargo sleds are built like tanks just in case, like these Finnish Winter War troops, you need to tote your 100-pound Lathi 20-mm anti-tank rifle around.
When loading your sled, be sure to keep the heaviest weight on the very bottom, to keep the sled from becoming top-heavy and prone to tipping, and slightly to the rear of center to keep the nose from digging in when it is pulled forward. An antelope or deer can be easily enough pulled out whole, but even a cow elk is a damn big animal, so I quarter mine up.
Most sleds come equipped with a tow rope of some kind. When used with skis, you also need tow boars. My “tow bars” are in fact a pair of broom handles with holes drilled in each end. I use parachute cord (plastic zip ties get brittle in extreme cold) to attach one end to the tow fittings on the front of the sled. The other end has a loop of p-cord with a carabineer which in turn snaps into another loop of cord attached to my pistol belt.
My cargo sled bears no markings of any kind. It was an Army surplus bargain I picked up many years ago. Unlike an ahkio, it weighs only 7 pounds so I don't mind dragging it around empty.
Since my neck injury also prevents me for carrying a conventional backpack, I’ve taken to wearing an old Army-surplus ALICE-type LBE (Load Bearing Equipment). In addition to a fanny pack with some survival gear I carry two canteens, one of which is a double-walled Thermos-like Arctic canteen. In the morning I pre-heat it with hot water, then fill it with boiling tea, and it stays warm for most of the day. Hydration is every bit as important in the winter as it is in the summer, but sometimes when you’re chilly you just don’t want a big gulp of ice-cold water so hot tea encourages one to drink.
The real trick to pulling a sled is that once you get it in motion you never give up any of that momentum, even when moving at a literal snail’s pace. Keeping the sled going, even slowly, is much easier than getting a stationary sled started again. And again and again.
With proper technique and/or good waxing, on moderate terrain I have little trouble pulling a loaded sled while on skis. It is still a real work-out in the long run, but remains a great deal more pleasant than post-holing slowly forward one step and tug at a time afoot. Frequently I find post-holing even takes an extra step, i.e. wallow and stagger a little to get your foot up enough to take a step, take that step forward, put weight on foot, punch through the surface crust and sink in to your thigh, yank the sled forward a few inches, then repeat with the other foot.
Instead equipped with skis, I gave the late season shoulder hunt no less than six tries. Four times I hunted standard Block Management Areas. Once I was lucky enough to get in on a private ranch that allowed two parties per day in to hunt the late season. Each and every time I went, I saw elk, on that particular occasion nearly five hundred of them. But, although some of them were within ten yards of one, every last elk I saw was on the wrong side of a section fence for me to be able to hunt them. There was plenty of fresh sign indicating they had indeed traveled through and fed in the areas I did hunt, but I always managed to be a day late and a dollar short on the deal.
Still, when we had another nice dump of snow in early February, I decided to go out and give it one last hurrah. I was pleasantly surprised to actually glass elk from the road and, although three parties of guys were hunting the limited-access private ground across the highway, no one else was hunting the regular BMA on my side.
The elk were in low, rolling hill country with no handy terrain features to hide behind and no cover taller than a sagebrush. To get within range, I had to ski a zig-zagging three mile course along the very bottoms of the dry draws and water courses. Near the end, less than a half a mile from the elk, I ran out of cover entirely. I put the hood up on my snow cammo parka, bent over as much as I could, and skied the lowest point across the open area. I was able to get behind a flat-topped hill without them spooking.
Ascending through snow drifted two or more feet deep amidst the sagebrush, I cached my skis and sled near the top of the reverse slope. With just my rifle and ski poles, which still come in handy when walking in deep snow, I headed to the top of the hill where the wind had blown away most of the snow and only an inch or two remained. I wound up crawling on hands and knees using individual sagebrush for cover to close the range.
By then, of course, the weather had turned quickly and decisively to shit. The skiing and post-holing had left me sweating so hard that I could not keep my glasses from fogging up. A wet snow had also begun to fall and it was growing in severity with each passing minute, making it difficult to keep my optics clear, even though I have a lens cloth attached to the binos. The falling snow also kept me from getting a reading with the range-finder. The bulls had not lost their antlers yet and there were raghorns and spikes in the bunch I was sneaking up on so I had to make sure I zeroed in on a bald-headed one.
I kept closing the range. Finally, two cow elk emerged atop the small ridgeline I was following to feed where the snow had been blown clear of the grass and I was able to get a direct reading on them of 325 yards. On a hillside in a comfortable sitting position, with at least one elbow braced by a knee, I drove the tips of my ski pole bipod into the snow firmly and rested the synthetic forearm of my sporterized large-ring 98 Mauser across the leather straps.
By looping the wrist straps across the handle of the opposite pole you can make a pretty steady bipod out of your ski poles.
I’m a firm believer in the late, great Colonel Jeff Cooper’s two KISS simple rules for making a hunting shot. “If you can get closer, get closer. If you can get steadier, get steadier.” Although the ballistic reticle on my scope has hold-overs out to 500 yards and I actually do practice out to that range from field firing positions every year, in a lifetime of big game hunting I can count the times I’ve actually taken a shot over 300 yards on the fingers of one hand. Excluding a few occasional what-the-hell Hail Mary shots at coyotes now and then, of course.
I dialed the variable power Leupold Rifleman scope up to 9x. The two cows looked to be identical in size, so I singled out the nearest one which also presented the best shot. I took a breath and examined the steadiness of the crosshairs on the target. I was satisfied I was steady enough and there was no wind to contend with. So I settled in, let out half a breath, and squeezed one off. The shot certainly “felt” good and I was immediately rewarded with the sound of the kugelschlag; leave it to the Germans to actually have a word for the wet, meaty slap of a bullet striking solidly home. Working the bolt, I got back on target and thought I saw the cow’s ears and head go down rather unnaturally just over the top of the ridge.
Although I had glassed the place intensively from every possible vantage point on my way in, I had not seen more than fifty elk total. At the sound of my shot, however, they started to swarm out of every draw and coulee until there were well over two hundred of them. Within five minutes, every last one of them had jumped the section fence into “out of bounds” private land where they herded up and watched me.
Other than checking the nearest departing group of elk with the binos looking for a wounded one, just in case, I didn’t pay the rest of them much attention. I was pretty convinced my hit had been a solid one. Sure enough, just below the crest of the hill where I couldn’t see her until I was right on her, there was my elk. As usual, my trusty 180-grain Sierra GameKing had done its job well; she lay sprawled on her side perhaps 12 yards from where she had stood when I shot her.
I'm a firm believer in heavier bullets for elk, and the .308-dia 180-grain Sierra GameKing has never failed me.
I tagged her and took a couple of quick photos; with the growing storm darkness was descending fast and the snowfall was rapidly intensifying. As I started field dressing the cow, I was surprised to still find several fat, swollen wood ticks in the thin belly hair around her udder. Although the cow hadn’t looked that big through the scope, she was considerably larger in the body than the nice fat 4-point mulie buck my wife had shot during general season. Even with the small Gerber survival hatchet I carry to cut quickly through the ribs and pelvis, field dressing still look a bit longer than a deer would have.
By the time I was done, it was full dark and snowing hard. Before leaving home, I had zoomed in on a point forecast for the exact area I was going to hunt on the National Weather Service site. It had called for a 40% chance of snow with accumulation of less than a half an inch.
As much as I hated to, I knew I would have to finish the job first thing in the morning. I stuffed snow in the body cavity, then put the sled over the elk and shoveled more snow over top of everything with my skis, hoping that would be enough to keep the coyotes from finding her during the next few hours. Although I felt I had the position marked well in my mind, I hung a piece of flagging from the tallest sagebrush available.
Even though the skiing was good and I picked up my trail less than halfway back, it still took me over an hour to make it back to the truck. For almost half an hour I was within sight of Highway 89 and only a single vehicle passed that whole time. At the parking area, there was already a good two inches of fresh snow and it was coming down harder than ever. I kept the truck in 4x4 and limped towards home at only 45 mph; the snow was coming down so heavily that I could not use my high beams.
The next morning at 0900, not wanting to chase off the elk and ruin somebody else’s hunt by going in at first light, I clipped on my skis and headed for my elk. An old ranch two-track free of sagebrush gave me quick, easy and direct access to a dry reservoir bed. From there I simply skied up the draws in my own partially covered tracks from the previous evening.
I had no trouble finding the elk. Overnight we had gone from blizzard to Chinook and the snow was melting fast everywhere with surprising speed. A couple of ravens and some magpies had found the gut pile, but fortunately the local coyote population hadn’t. As I was quartering up the cow, however, two different packs showed up and started giving me hell from the far sides of the draws, safely out of range as usual, the little bastards. The backstraps, tenderloins, rib and neck meat went into a garbage bag, then it and the four quarters were strapped down securely into the sled.
Pulling the elk out wasn’t bad at all at first. The snow was still pretty firm in the draws, I had a packed ski trail that the sled tracked well in, and the course was generally down gentle slopes.
Then the sun came out and temps rose even more. The snow got very wet and sticky and tacky, clinging to the sled and even to the baskets on the ski poles, and not even a treatment of red klister wax gained me much traction on the skis. The last half mile was clear running on the two-track down a moderate slope and I still had to pull for each foot.
Still, I was back to the truck by about 1300. I got ‘er done. Now I just have to kill six and a half months until next bow season.
Sunday, February 19, 2017
(Rifles and Riflemen in the Revolution Part 5)
Major General Charles Lee, for instance, wrote, “The frontier riflemen will make fine soldiers…their amazing hardihood, their methods of living so long in the woods without carrying provisions with them, the exceeding quickness with which they can march to distant parts, and, above all, the dexterity to which they have arrived in the use of the rifle gun. There is not one of these men who wish a distance less than 200 yards or greater object than an orange. Every shot is fatal.”
Such testimonies as well as the talk of his fellow Congressional delegates from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia led Massachusetts’ John Hancock, who’d never fired a rifle in his life, to exclaim to Joseph Warren, “These are the finest Marksmen in the world. They do Execution with their Rifle Guns at an Amazing Distance…they kill with great Exactness at 200 yards Distance.”
Consequently, on 14 June 1775, the Second Continental Congress: “Resolved, That six Companies of expert Riflemen be immediately raised in Pennsylvania, two in Maryland, and two in Virginia; that each Company consists of a Captain, three Lieutenants, four Sergeants, four Corporals, a Drummer or Trumpeter, and sixty-eight Privates.”
The following day, congress appointed George Washington as the chief officer of what would become the Continental Army. This is significantly considered the “birthday” of the United States Army.
If the embattled farmers turned militiamen from Massachusetts and Connecticut were familiar and proficient with their muskets, the back-country riflemen of the frontier were intimate and expert with their long rifles.
A Captain at the beginning of the American Revolution and often described as eccentric, George Hanger, 4th Baron Coleraine, was one of the British Army's few true experts on the rifle during this period. He wrote many detailed descriptions of what he encountered on the receiving end of the Pennsylvania long rifle.
British Major George Hanger, of course, weighed in on the subject: “The American back-woodsman has a much greater field to exercise his talents by practice, from living in a country cultivated only around his own log-wood hut, for a very short extent; has woods extensive and swamps impenetrable to every soul but to those, who, by daily practice, are well acquainted with its dreary and swampy obstacles, which contain various animals, such as the wild pig, the wolf, the bear, the panther (which the Americans call painter), the deer, the fox, both grey and brown, the beaver, the raccoon [sp] and the opossum.
“Not only their own cattle are shot with the rifle, but, when they go to the hunting grounds to kill the wild cattle for their tallow and skins, they use no other gun. The wild turkey is shot with a rifle; nay, even birds and squirrels, from the very top of the loftiest trees in the woods. No smallshot gun, during my residence of seven years of the war in America, was ever kept in the house of a back-woodsman. You will often see a boy, not above ten years of age, driving the cattle home, but not without a rifle on his shoulder: they never stir, out, on any business, nor on a journey, without their rifle; practice, from their infancy, teaches them all distances.”
An American minister of the Church of England wrote to the Earl of Dartmouth, “In this country, my lord, the boys, as soon as they can discharge a gun, frequently exercise themselves therewith, some a fowling and others a hunting. The great quantities of game, the many kinds and the great privileges of killing, making the Americans the best marksmen in the world, and thousands support their families principally by the same, particularly riflemen on the frontiers, whose objects are deer and turkeys. In marching through woods, one thousand of these riflemen would cut to pieces ten thousand of your best troops.”
Horace Kephart, who could perhaps be called our first “survivalist”, gave an eloquent if romanticized description of the backwoods riflemen, noting they were not just accustomed to hunting but also to frequent skirmishes with Native American tribes who quite naturally resented these white men encroaching into their homeland.
“But the men of the wilderness were always ready. Over every cabin door hung a well-made rifle, correctly sighted, and bright within from frequent wiping and oiling. Beside it were tomahawk and knife, a horn of good powder, and a pouch containing bullets, patches, spare flints, steel, tinder, whetstone, oil and tow for cleaning the rifle. A hunting-shirt, moccasins, and a blanket were near at hand. In case of alarm, the backwoodsman seized these things, put a few pounds of rockahominy and jerked venison into his wallet, and in five minutes was ready. It mattered not whether two men or two thousand were needed for war, they could assemble in a night, armed, accoutred, and provisioned for a campaign.”
“Incessant war with the Indians taught him to be his own general, to be ever on the alert, to keep his head and shoot straight under fire. Pitted against an enemy who gave no quarter, but tortured the living and scalped the dead, he became himself a stanch fighter who never surrendered. The wilderness bred men of iron, and probably contained a greater number of expert riflemen than could now be mustered in all America. It was the pick of these for which Congress asked.”
On the frontier, shooting matches were also popular forms of recreation and competition among the riflemen, and remained so until near the close of the 19th century. Daniel Boone, of course, was widely known from a fairly young age for his prowess in winning such shooting matches. Sometimes taverns would sponsor competitions and offer small prizes to attract customers while in a “beef shoot” marksmen paid a small fee to enter the match and the top scorer won a side of beef. Sometimes a few men met informally and shot for the fun of it and the “prize” of digging his opponents’ lead out of a tree stump to re-cast into new bullets.
The famous naturalist John James Audubon is most well known for his exquisitely detailed paintings of North American birds and wildlife. He was also a hunter who usually first shot and killed the subjects of his portraits so that he could examine them minutely and up close. In addition, he kept detailed journals of his travels, in which he included his observations on an afternoon spent squirrel hunting with Daniel Boone as well as the kind of marksmanship contests he observed in Kentucky in 1820.
Frontier Long Hunters like Daniel Boone were famous for their marksmanship skills and often enjoyed competing against each other in shooting matches.
“Having resided some years in Kentucky and having more than once been witness of rifle sport, I shall present you with the results of my observation, leaving you to judge how far rifle-shooting is understood in that State.
“Several individuals who conceive themselves in the management of the gun are often seen to meet for the purpose of displaying their skill, and betting a trifling sum, put up a target, in the centre of which a common-sized nail is hammered for about two-thirds of its length. The marksmen make choice of what they consider a proper distance, which may be forty paces. Each man cleans the interior of his tube, which is called wiping it, places a ball in the palm of his hand, pouring as much powder from his horn upon it as will cover it. This quantity is supposed to be sufficient for any distance within a hundred yards. A shot which comes very close to the nail is
considered as that of an indifferent marksman; the bending of the nail is, of course, somewhat better; but nothing less than hitting it right on the head is satisfactory. Well, kind reader, one out of three shots generally hits the nail, and should the shooters amount to half a dozen, two nails are frequently needed before each can have a shot. Those who drive the nail have a further trial amongst themselves, and the two best shots out of these generally settle the affair, when all the sportsmen adjourn to some house, and spend an hour or two in friendly intercourse, appointing, before they part, a day for another trial. This is technically termed driving the nail.”
considered as that of an indifferent marksman; the bending of the nail is, of course, somewhat better; but nothing less than hitting it right on the head is satisfactory. Well, kind reader, one out of three shots generally hits the nail, and should the shooters amount to half a dozen, two nails are frequently needed before each can have a shot. Those who drive the nail have a further trial amongst themselves, and the two best shots out of these generally settle the affair, when all the sportsmen adjourn to some house, and spend an hour or two in friendly intercourse, appointing, before they part, a day for another trial. This is technically termed driving the nail.”
“The snuffing of a candle with a ball, I first had an opportunity of seeing near the banks of Green River, not far from a large Pigeon-roost to which I had previously made a visit. I heard many reports of guns during the early part of a dark night, and knowing them to be those of rifles, I went towards the spot to ascertain the cause. On reaching the place, I was welcomed by a dozen of tall stout men, who told me they were exercising, for the purpose of enabling them to shoot under night at the reflected light from the eyes of a Deer or Wolf, by torch light, of which I shall give you an account somewhere else. A fire was blazing near, the smoke of which rose curling among the thick foliage of the trees. At a distance which rendered it scarcely distinguishable, stood a burning candle, as if intended for an offering to the goddess of night, but which in reality was only fifty yards from the spot on which we all stood. One man was within a few yards of it, to watch the effects of the shots, as well as to light the candle should it chance to go out, or to replace it should the shot cut it across. Each marksman shot in his turn. Some never hit either the snuff or the candle, and were congratulated with a loud laugh; while others actually snuffed the candle without putting it out, and were recompensed for their dexterity by numerous hurrahs. One of them, who was particularly expert, was very fortunate, and snuffed the candle three times out of seven, whilst all the other shots either put out the candle or cut it immediately under by the light.
“Of the feats performed by the Kentuckians with the rifle, I could say more than might be expedient on the present occasion. In every thinly peopled portion of the State, it is rare to meet one without a gun of that description, as well as a tomahawk. By way of recreation, they often cut off a piece of the bark of a tree, make a target of it, using a little powder wetted with water or saliva, for the bull’s-eye, and shoot into the mark all the balls they have about them, picking them out of the wood again.
“After what I have said, imagine with what ease a Kentuckian procures game, or despatches an enemy, more especially when I tell you that every one in the State is accustomed to handle the rifle from the time when he is first able to shoulder it until near the close of his career. That murderous weapon is the means of procuring them subsistence during all their wild and extensive rambles, and is the source of their principal sports and pleasures.”
As word of the congressional resolution to raise rifle companies spread through the countryside in June of 1775, many frontier riflemen flocked to the colors. Some of the company captains were so flooded with volunteers that they had to hold impromptu shooting matches to determine which riflemen were the most proficient and “qualified” marksmen. A teacher at a plantation school on the banks of the Rappahannock River in Virginia observed how one captain tried to determine which men were qualified to join his company.
“He took a board of a foot square and with chalk drew the shape of a moderate nose in the center and nailed it up to a tree at one hundred and fifty yards distance, and those who came nighest the mark with a single ball was to go. But by the first forty or fifty that fired, the nose was all blown out of the board, and by the time his company was up, the board shared the same fate.” In reporting this incident, a correspondent for the Virginia Gazette concluded the article with the admonition, “General Gage, take care of your nose!”
Pennsylvania, in particular, was swamped by the sheer number of volunteer riflemen pouring into the counties along the Susquehanna River, so much so that on June 22nd, Congress raised that colony’s quota from six companies of riflemen to eight. By July 11th, they were informed that Lancaster County had raised two full companies of riflemen rather than one, so yet another company was added. These were to be formed into the independent Pennsylvania Rifle Regiment, under the command of Colonel William Thompson.
The frontier riflemen could indeed travel hard, light and fast. At the time, of course, there were few roads, and many of them were only rough wagon tracks through the forest. There were even fewer bridges beyond the borders of New England, and streams and rivers had to be forded as the riflemen marched, some of them for hundreds of miles, through the muggy mid-summer heat.
Even so, only four days after Congress issued its resolution the first company of frontier riflemen, Nagel’s Birks County “Dutchmen”, arrived in Cambridge. The Pennsylvanian Rifle Company from Cumberland County traveled 441 miles in twenty six days. From Frederick County in Maryland, Captain Michael Cresap’s company of riflemen arrived in Boston by 9 August 1775, their march covering 550 miles in 22 days. Winchester, Virginia lay some 600 miles away from Boston, and it was there that big, burly Captain Daniel Morgan quickly raised his company. “In a few days,” he later wrote, “I raised ninety-six men, and set out for Boston, reached that place in twenty one days from the time I marched, bad weather included, nor did I leave a man behind.” Within sixty days of the Congressional resolution asking for 810 riflemen, some 1,430 frontiersmen had answered the call and arrived in Boston.
Captain Daniel Morgan raised a company of Virginia riflemen; you will see his name again.
The accuracy and range the frontiersmen were capable of with their vaunted rifle-guns amazed the local New Englanders who knew only the smoothbore musket and fowling piece. Captain Cresap’s Marylanders, in particular, stopped to give public demonstrations of their shooting prowess in Fredericktown, Maryland and Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Numerous accounts and letters exist of their marksmanship feats; many such narratives were run in local newspapers, and later reprinted in others. Typical of the accounts of the frontier riflemen and their skill is this description from an unknown author to a friend in Philadelphia.
"A clapboard, with a mark the size of a dollar, was put up; they began to fire off-hand, and the bystanders were surprised, few shots being made that were not close to or in the paper. When they had shot for a time in this way, some lay on their backs, some on their breast or side, others ran twenty or thirty steps, and firing, appeared to be equally certain of the mark. With this performance the company were more than satisfied, when a young man took up the board in his hand, not by the end, but by the side, and holding it up, his brother walked to the distance, and very coolly shot into the white; laying down his rifle, he took the board, and holding it as it was held before, the second brother shot as the former had done. By this exercise I was more astonished than pleased. But will you believe me, when I tell you that one of the men took the board, and placing it between his legs, stood with his back to the tree while another drove the center. What would a regular army of considerable strength in the forest of America do with one thousand of these men, who want nothing to preserve their health and courage but water from the spring, with a little parched corn, with what they can easily procure in hunting; and who, wrapped in their blankets, in the damp of night, would choose the shade of a tree for their covering, and the earth for their bed."
Others commented upon the hardihood of the riflemen, Washington’s chief medical officer Dr. James Thacher noting, “They are remarkably stout and hardy men; many of them exceeding six feet in height.” A correspondent for the Pennsylvania Packet who met Captain Cresap’s “active, brave young fellows” in Lancaster wrote, “They bear in their bodies visible marks of their prowess, and show scars and wounds which would do honor to Homer’s Iliad, etc…These men have been bred in the woods to hardships and danger from their infancy. They appear as if they were entirely unacquainted with, and had never felt, the passion of fear. With their rifles in their hands they assume a kind of omnipotence.”
Many people were also impressed by the clothes of the backwoodsmen: “Their whole dress is very singular, and not very materially different from that of the Indians; being a hunting shirt, somewhat resembling a waggoner’s frock, ornamented with a great many fringes, tied round the middle with a broad belt, much decorated also, in which is fastened a tomahawk, an instrument that serves every purpose of defence and convenience; being a hammer at one side and a sharp hatchet at the other; the shot-bag and powder horn, carved with a variety of whimsical figures and devices, hang from their necks over one shoulder; and on their heads a flapped hat, of a reddish hue, proceeding from the intensely hot beams of the sun.”
Artist Don Troiani's painting of a Revolutionary rifleman shows his hunting shirt and accoutrements in great detail.
“Thus habited and accoutred, with his rifle on his shoulder, or in his hand, a back-wood’s man is completely equipped for visiting, courtship, travel, hunting or war. According to the number and variety of the fringes on his hunting shirt, and the decorations on his powder horn, belt, and rifle, he estimates his finery. Their hunting or rifle shirts, they have also died in a variety of colours, some yellow, others red, some brown, and many wear them quite white.”
Teddy Roosevelt would later call, “…the fringed hunting-shirt, of homespun or buckskin, the most picturesque and distinctively national dress ever worn in America. It was a loose smock or tunic, reaching nearly to the knees, and held in at the waist by a broad belt, from which hung the tomahawk and scalping-knife.”
The new commanding officer of the Continental Army, General George Washington, very much liked the hunting shirt as well and wished to make it part of the American soldier’s uniform. At his headquarters in Cambridge, he wrote that he sought a, “Species of uniform both cheap & convenient” that would also, “have a happier Tendency to unite the Men, & abolish those Provincial Distinctions which lead to Jealousy &; Dissatisfaction.”
To the Continental Congress he wrote, “No Dress can be had cheaper, nor more convenient, as the Wearer may be cool in warm weather, and warm in cool weather by putting on under-Cloaths which will not change the outward dress, Winter or Summer—Besides which it is a dress justly supposed to carry no small terror to the enemy, who think every such person a complete marksman.” Like just about everything else he requested from the Continental Congress, from gunpowder to rations, Washington would find the supply of hunting shirts to be long on promise and short on towcloth.
Regardless, the riflemen had arrived and it was time to unleash them upon the British occupiers of Boston.
Tuesday, January 31, 2017
(Rifles and Riflemen in the Revolution Part 4)
Lexington Green, April 19, 1775. To this day no one really knows for sure who fired the very first "shot heard 'round the world."
When the American Revolution burst into open warfare on April 19, 1775, there had previously been some uneasy confrontations between armed soldiers and patriots that had ended without bloodshed. Both the British Army and the American Militia commanders were understandably hesitant to fire the first shot that would spark an actual shooting war.
The skirmish at Lexington Green began as another face-off, with both sides hoping a mere show of force and determination would prove sufficient. American Captain John Parker placed the 77 militiamen of his company in parade ground formation on Lexington Green, in the open but blocking the road to Concord. History credits him with the orders, “Stand your ground; don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” The British advance guard, consisting of companies of light infantry and marines totaling around 240 men, arrived in town. The commanding officer, Major John Pitcairn, rode forward on his horse with sword drawn and ordered the militia to disperse.
Captain Parker actually did order his men to disperse and go home, but he had tuberculosis and his command voice did not carry well in the confusion. Exactly who fired the first shot is still debated today. Both sides blamed the other; the shot may have even come from the crowd of as many as a hundred on-lookers who had gathered. No matter who fired the shot, under such tense conditions it triggered an apparently unordered volley from the front rank of British soldiers, soon followed by a bayonet charge. With eight men killed and ten wounded, the surviving militia fled the field.
After getting the soldiers and marines back into ranks and under control, the British then proceeded to the main objective, Concord, where they intended to seize and destroy military stores reportedly gathered there by the rebels. Around 250 local militia had gathered in Concord but, seeing the British main column out-numbered them by 3-to-1, their commander Colonel James Barrett prudently withdrew across the North Bridge to a ridge where he could observe the area. The British searched Concord and found some old dismounted cannon barrels, but the bulk of the American supplies had already been removed. Seven companies crossed the North Bridge and searched James Barrett’s farm; one company was left to secure the bridge and two others were positioned nearby. The whole time Minutemen and militia from Concord, Lincoln, Acton and Bedford continued to arrive, quickly swelling Barrett’s ranks to over 400 men.
Aware of the gunfire at Lexington and seeing smoke rising from Concord, Colonel Barrett formed up his men with orders not to fire unless fired upon and marched in them in column back down towards the North Bridge. The three British light infantry companies, in total just under a hundred men under the command of an inexperienced young captain named Walter Laurie, gathered together and fell back across the bridge. As the Yankee militia approached the bridge, a British soldier fired without orders, which in turn triggered a ragged volley from the first rank which killed two and wounded four American militia.
Near the head of the militia column, Major John Buttrick of Concord yelled, “Fire, for God's sake, fellow soldiers, fire!” The opposing sides were only fifty yards apart as the first few ranks of militia opened fire on the tightly packed British formation. The American musketry knocked down half of the eight British officers and NCOs present, and killed three and wounded nine enlisted men. Momentarily leaderless, the remaining British infantry broke and ran back towards Concord. The militiamen, stunned by their own success, milled indecisively for a bit, then backed off and took up defensive positions behind a stone wall and on a hilltop.
Now neither side fired a shot as the four British light infantry companies returned from Barrett’s Farm and were met by two companies of grenadiers coming from Concord. The British returned to that town where the entire column re-consolidated and began its return march towards Boston at noon. All the while, more militia poured in from the surrounding communities and countryside.
Militia tactics included "skulking" and swarming all along the road back to Boston.
The actual “battle” was essentially one long, running ambush…a British officer later noted they were surrounded by a “dispersed though adhering” ring of irregulars that moved with them…and the Yankees’ actions were remarkably similar to the “swarming” technique used by some modern-day insurgents. Using the so-called “skulking” tactics of the Indians in hiding behind stone walls, trees, and buildings, they were able to pour musket fire at the column of British regulars on the road while exposing little of themselves as targets for return fire.
As British Lieutenant John Barker saw the action: “We were fired on from all sides, but mostly from the rear, where people had hid themselves in houses till we passed and then fired. The country was an amazing strong one, full of hills, woods, stone walls, etc., which the rebels did not fail to take advantage of, for they were all lined with people who kept an incessant fire upon us, as we did too upon them, but not with the same advantage, for they were so concealed there was hardly any seeing them. In this way, we marched…miles, their numbers increasing from all parts, while our was reducing by deaths, wounds, and fatigue; and we were totally surrounded with such an incessant fire as it’s impossible to conceive; our ammunition was likely near expended.”
The dispersed British light infantry flankers constantly strove to drive the rebels back from the main column with ball and bayonet, and inflicted the lion’s share of American casualties, but the traditional European volley fire from the main column itself proved ineffective. An American militiaman recalled, “…they faced about suddenly and fired a volley of musketry upon us. They overshot; and no one to my knowledge was injured by the fire. The fire was immediately returned by the Americans, and two British soldiers fell dead at a little distance from each other in the road near the brook.” One British officer assessed that the ineffectiveness of the regulars’ volley fire only served to encourage the rebels. “This [fire] gave the rebels more confidence as they soon found that notwithstanding there was so much, they suffered but little from it.”
By the end of the battle, a thousand-man British relief column with two pieces of artillery rushed out from Boston to bring in the battered remnants of the original Lexington column, which had suffered the most casualties and was almost out of ammunition. Without these reinforcements, they might have been decimated entirely. As it was, the British reported losses of 73 men killed, 174 wounded, and 53 missing (with a high percentage of the casualties being officers) while the Americans lost 49 men killed, 39 wounded, and 5 missing.
Beginning with Christopher Ward’s 1952 War of the Revolution, in which he stated that, “only one bullet out of 300 found it mark,” it became popular for historians to belittle the “myth” of American marksmanship at Concord and pronounce the militia to be terrible shots. Even assuming Ward’s numbers are correct, as we saw in Part 1, in traditional European battles of the period it was a rule of thumb that a man’s body weight in lead had to be fired for every casualty inflicted, with French and Prussian generals estimating that anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 musket balls needing to be fired for every man hit. Viewed in such light, the militia’s shooting on April 19th doesn’t look bad at all.
Even French concluded: “Nor need it be supposed that there was criticism of the provincial fire at the time. Measured by the European standard of those days, it was above the average, and there was not a veteran in that flight who complained that the American fire was not sufficiently hot. Lieutenant Carter called it a ‘heavy and well-directed fire.’ Mackenzie, Barker, De Berniere, held it in respect. Percy wrote of the ‘incessant fire, which like a moving circle surrounded & fold us wherever we went.’ By every standard of those days, the American fire was formidable. Certainly no one who experienced it asked to have it bettered. It was the preparation for the fire of Bunker Hill, which for deadliness exceeded anything previously known in warfare.”
After Concord, a stalemate ensued as the British forces dug in around Boston while the American forces surrounded the town and did likewise. Almost two months passed before the Americans made the next move, occupying and digging in on Breed’s Hill (rather than the intended objective of Bunker Hill) under cover of darkness on the night of June 16, 1775.
The British reacted aggressively to push the Americans from the hill before they could become solidly entrenched, but it was late afternoon on June 17th before the first assault actually went in. There were in total some three thousand regulars, including the more elite light infantry and grenadier companies as assault troops, led by General William Howe himself. These professional soldiers exuded confidence and were certain that the Colonial “untrained rabble” could never stand against British regulars.
A force of 1,200 American militiamen from Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island awaited entrenched atop Breed’s Hill. They were nominaly under the overall command of Massachusetts Colonel William Prescott, but in practice the entire American chain of command was rather muddled. Fortunately unknown to the British, the Americans were also suffering from a severe army-wide shortage of gunpowder; some Colonial troops were issued only fifteen rounds worth of powder and shot before the battle. Conversely, British soldiers were issued 36 paper-wrapped cartridges for the day, and even that total would grow quickly as the war progressed. Despite their shortcomings, the militiamen dug in and waited.
Popular legend attributed Colonel William Prescott with the instructions, "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes."
To the surprise of many, the “untrained rabble” of the Colonial militia stood their ground against the well-trained professional soldiers. Legend has it that either Israel Putnam or William Prescott gave the famous order, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” Individual veterans recalled, probably more realistically, orders that included: “Fire low.” “Aim at their waistbands.” “Pick off the commanders.” “Aim at the handsome coats.” On the left flank, colorful Colonel John Stark, whose later toast of “Live Free or Die” would one day become New Hampshire’s state motto, was said to have driven in a stake roughly 120 feet (40 yards) in front of his line, then turned to his militiamen and said, “There! Don’t a man fire till the Redcoats come up to that stake. If he does, I’ll knock him down.”
A few premature shots were discharged by nervous individuals, but for the most part the American militia hunkered down and waited until the lines of British infantry were at such close range that even musket fire would be accurate. From behind cover and resting their muskets, they took deliberate aim and delivered devastating close-range blasts of small arms fire that inflicted heavy casualties and broke up the first two British assaults.
The action was described by one of the British officers who took part:
“Our men advanced with great confidence, expecting an easy victory…
“As we approached, an incessant stream of fire poured from the rebel lines. It seemed a continual sheet of fire for near thirty minutes. Our Light Infantry were served up in companies against the grass fence without being able to penetrate. Indeed, how could we penetrate? Most of our Grenadiers and Light Infantry, the moment of presenting themselves lost three-fourths and many nine-tenths, of their men. Some had only eight and nine men a company left, some only three, four and five.
“On the left, Pigot was staggered and actually retreated.”
Howard Pyle's iconic 1879 Battle of Bunker Hill has some inaccuracies (British infantry had adopted a two-rank open-order formation in North America prior to the end of the French & Indian Wars) but portrays well the discipline and bravery of the regulars...and the cost.
New Hampshire Captain Henry Dearborn, who would one day retire as a major general after the War of 1812, commanded a small militia company on Breed’s Hill. He later wrote:
“Every platoon officer was engaged in discharging his own musket, and left his men to fire as they pleased, but never without a sure aim at some particular object, which was more destructive than any mode which could have been adopted with troops who were not inured to discipline, and never had been in battle, but were still familiar with the use of arms, from boyhood, and each having his peculiar manner of loading and firing, which had been practised upon for years, with the same gun ; any attempt to control them by uniformity and system, would have rendered their fires infinitely less fatal to the enemy.”
“Our men were intent on cutting down every officer they could distinguish in the British line. When any of them discovered one he would instantly exclaim, ‘there,’ ‘see that officer,’ ‘let us have a shot at him,’ when two or three would fire at the same moment ; and as our soldiers were excellent marksmen and rested their muskets over the fence, they were sure of their object.”
Dearborn also noted the ineffectiveness of the British volley fire. “The fire of the enemy was so badly directed, I should presume that forty-nine balls out of fifty passed from one to six feet over our heads, for I noticed an apple-tree, some paces in the rear, which had scarcely a ball in it from the ground as high as a man's head, while the trunk and branches above were literally cut to pieces.”
The third assault by the British finally carried the day as the Americans atop Breed’s Hill fired their last few shots and ran out of ammunition. As the British infantry broke into the trenches with fixed bayonets, the defenders, very few of whom had bayonets of their own, finally broke and fled from the breastworks. On the American left, the two hundred New Hampshire militiamen under Colonel Stark, who had been the last American reinforcements to arrive just prior to the battle, conducted an orderly, fighting retreat that allowed the remainder of the colonials to escape intact. Even British General John Burgoyne grudgingly admitted the retreat was, “…no flight; it was even conducted with bravery and military skill.”
The British took the hill and won the battle, but it was an extremely costly and Pyrrhic victory, the single most costly battle of the war in terms of British casualties. General Sir Henry Clinton, who had gathered up scattered British survivors and the walking wounded to personally lead the third, final assault, confided in his journal the battle was, “A dear brought victory, another such would have ruined us.”
Even though armed almost entirely with the same smoothbore muskets as their opponents, the militia’s close-range fire had been accurate and devastating. Once more a very high proportion of officers, 81 in all, had been singled out and shot down, with 19 of them killed and 62 wounded. Total British casualties exceeded a thousand, more than a third of the attacking force; 226 killed and 828 wounded. The Americans lost a total of around 450 casualties including 140 killed, 280 wounded, and 30 captured, with most of these casualties inflicted during the retreat.
Even with muskets, marksmanship had made the difference and one has to wonder what the fate of the third assault might have been if the patriots had not been so woefully short on ammunition.
Sunday, January 29, 2017
Note: And now for something completely different. I've been digging through the "archives" (shoe boxes) recently and finding all sorts of forgotten stuff. Before moving to the mountains of Montana, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota was my thing. Yes, I do enjoy nature, almost as much as the guns I use to kill it. Anyway, here's an old story, my first published magazine article, about the time in hiked the Border Route Trail back in 1992; I went to Montana the following summer. My writing style back then was rather sappy and verbose, and I thought about posting this with some current smart-ass commentary, but decided to leave the whole thing as it was with the exception of tossing in some old photos of the expedition that I unearthed. Gun Nut Bawb will return soon.
On a bright, crisp October morning I found myself at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness near Little John Lake and the eastern terminus of the Border Route Hiking Trail. Hiking the trail was an adventure I had awaited for months. Almost everyone who knows of the Boundary Waters thinks of canoeing, and I’ve taken numerous canoe trips there myself, but every now and then I like to get off all by myself on a solo trip. For me, a backpack is much more easily managed by one person than a canoe.
From the secluded trailhead I watched the friend who had driven me there disappear in his truck. My own car waited at the far end of the Border Route Trail, some thirty two miles distant, and the only way to get to it was with my own two feet.
The beautiful silence of wilderness settled in around me as the dust cleared. I shouldered my rucksack and set out, gloriously alone. The day was perfect for a good hike, with the golden disk of the sun shining high overhead and the air cool and crisp with the unmistakable aura of autumn.
The trail itself started out rather inauspiciously, as great things often do, marked only by a faded wooden signpost along a rutted gravel road. The first section of trail was well-maintained through open woods and I had hardly worked up a good sweat by the time I reached the first scenic overlook above John Lake.
Pausing above the high, rocky bluff, I stood with my feet planted wide to savor the view and the clean, chill air. It was a glorious view of rich, sparkling blue water with golden aspen in the foreground stretching away to the greener hump-backed ridges in the distance. I was fresh and eager, wondering what the next bend in the trail held in store for me, and soon set off again.
Winding along the contours of the hills towards East Pike Lake, I walked in shadowed stillness on a crisp, colorful carpet of fallen leaves. More leaves followed the gusts of wind in the treetops, raining down around me in a glittering, rustling shower of color. I caught one from the air in front of me for luck.
Small gray juncos flitted through the undergrowth and downy woodpeckers bounced in flight from one tree trunk to the next. A pair of ravens cruised past the treetops, calling hoarsely. Tiny red squirrels chattered angrily at me as I passed, scolding from the safety of their high perches, and chipmunks scooted across the pine duff of the trail ahead of me. I saw my first ruffed grouse of the trip, the dun bird nestled on the soft pine needles in a warm halo of sunlight that filtered down from the branches above.
I strode along briskly, taking deep breaths of that wonderful autumn air and stretching my leg muscles. The clear, shining mornings of early autumn always bring to me a feeling of restlessness.
Where the trail intersected the East Pike to Pine Lake Portage, it turned sharply to turn up a steep grade. I forged up the hill to where the trail once more branched off on its own, pausing for a few swigs of water from my canteen and a pinch of Copenhagen.
I continued onward. Ruffed grouse were plentiful here, found basking on the sun-warmed, south-facing rock slopes overlooking Pine Lake. It is no wonder that one of old Native American names for the grouse is “Thunder Wing.” When one decided to take flight, it would come blasting out of cover and take off like a feathered F-4 Phantom on afterburner. More than once these birds gave me a start, and more than once I wished I had brought my shotgun.
Grouse for supper. Back in the day I used to decapitate them with my .44 Magnum. Now I use a Ruger .22 and am grateful if I can make a body shot.
Further down the trail, I stopped for a breather where it intersected the West Pike portage. I leaned my rucksack and walking stick against the trail marking sign as I paused to munch on chunks of cheddar cheese and slices of summer sausage washed down with lukewarm lake water from my canteen.
Leaning back against my ruck, I soaked in the sun, listening to the soft music of the wind in the boughs, letting it dry the sweat on my back. Reluctantly, I decided I had better press on to make it to the first campsite on Gogebic Lake by nightfall, as I had made a very late start that morning.
A sunny rock ridge gave me a bright vista of West Pike Lake stretched away to the west. Back in the timber, a deadfall balsam obscured the trail beyond the cliffs and I mistakenly took a game trail that soon petered out. I wasted some valuable daylight casting about in the woods until I picked up the trail again.
Back on the trail above West Pike, I kept an anxious eye on the setting sun beyond the treetops. I pressed on, imagining a cozy campfire with cowboy coffee at the campsite on Gogebic. Finally, I caught sight of the small lake below me and picked up the pace.
Crossing a small stream and marsh atop the jumbled gray sticks of an old beaver dam, I forged along the banks of Gogebic Lake and headed for the comfort of that nice campsite. It was growing dark fast, with the sun already down beyond the trees to the west, but I figured I would have just enough time to set up camp and gather some firewood. The weight of my pack was no longer so comfortable.
Across the narrow inlet on the edge of Gogebic, I stopped short. Had I heard voices? I slipped down to the lakeshore rocks. Voices and decidedly unnatural splashes of color came to me through the trees. The campsite, the only campsite, was most definitely occupied, tents pitched and a fire burning. I reversed my course and plodded back up the darkening trail.
As the dusk turned inky, I veered off the trail along the lake and found a relatively flat spot near a small spruce. It was almost big enough for my tent and provided me a comfy bed consisting of rocks and tree roots. It wasn’t the best campsite I’d ever found, but I had neither the time nor daylight to find anything better.
Camping off the designated campsites is allowed along the Border Route Trail, with some restrictions, for cases like mine. One must use a stove, not a fire, stay for only one night, and camp more than a hundred feet from the trail.
I slept late the next day, judging by the sun. I never take a timepiece with me into the wilderness. I much prefer to go by Boonie Standard Time.
My neighbors were already gone by the time I packed up and hiked through the campsite down the trail. I was pleased to be all alone again, but it was not for long. I soon saw two people in a canoe fishing Gogebic. I slunk away into the woods like a wild animal. On down the trail, I soon regained my sense of solitude with each passing step.
A wooden foot bridge spanned the brook that flowed out of Clearwater Lake, then the trail climbed back into the hills. I walked through stands of stately pines and thick-boled aspens, feeling fresh and enjoying myself.
Climbing up from Clearwater, I surprised a bedded-down moose. Perhaps I was the one who was surprised. At any rate, I was swinging briskly along when a huge, dark body emerged to my left, less than ten yards away, only to quickly disappear with a crashing of sticks and a few heavy footfalls.
Above Mountain Lake, I was treated to yet another spectacular panorama of water, sky, clouds, cliffs and timber.
Beyond that, the trail curved back above itself to afford me a fine view of the Clearwater Palisades to the south. The ridge above Clearwater was sheltered from the wind and faced south to soak up the warmth of the fall sunshine. The weather and the flora were a shining example of the perfect Indian Summer day.
Approaching the Watap Cliffs, the trail became brushy and indistinct. Blue blaze ribbons in the trees and cairns of stones helped mark its path, but I was bee-bopping along looking at birds, flowers, trees, and rocks and found myself far from any hint of the trail. I pulled out my compass and busted brush straight north to pick up the trail again at the edge of the cliffs.
The Watap Cliffs are one of my favorite places in the Boundary Waters. I decided to have lunch there, to rest and to scribble my thoughts and observations in a notepad.
What is it that draws mankind to the high places? To the mountains, cliffs and bluffs? To those tall, windswept places where the world stretches away far below?
As I sat perched comfortably on the dizzying edge of the cliffs, basking in the beauty and glory around me, I still could not answer my own inquiry. Some claim to climb the mountains of the world simply because they are there. Certainly I could understand this type of motive. Hadn’t I set out to tackle this 32-mile trail simply because it was there? Yet I knew this could not be all there was to it.
There is always the view, of course, and what a view I was being afforded. Far below me the lakes stretched away, Watap and Rose. The water, so distant yet somehow almost close enough to touch, gleamed with a pristine blue, darker and richer than the sky they were reflecting. I could see down into the watery depths near shore, the boulders like pebbles from my lofty vantage point.
Across the lake, the pines wore their dark green coats as the marched up the slopes. The blue-green corpses of the balsams, bare limbs coated with shaggy beard lichen, hugged the shorelines. Intermingles with and dominating the conifers were the aspen and birch, clad in their brilliant fall costumes. Bright golden yellow leaves were predominant, with hints of orange and rust cropping up here and there. Some of the aspen had not yet fully turned and they faded to a pleasing lime green. The forest painted the ridges far into the distance, stretching for many miles into Canada. Over my left shoulder, the Clearwater Palisades were visible, their stony faces shadowed purple, dark giants brooding over the waters of the lake.
Beyond the wondrous view, though, the world somehow took on a different perspective from that high vantage point. The wind whispered in the boughs behind me, yet it rushed and roared against the cliff beneath me. Way up there, the wind seemed even crisper and cleaner than ever, so that one could almost taste it. The colors of the lakes and woods seemed to have taken on much richer and more vibrant hues. I was afforded the unique sensation of gazing down upon the back of a broad-winged hawk as it sailed effortlessly beneath me. I felt a soaring, weightless sensation. I wanted to reach out and touch the vast landscape, to somehow embrace all the intangible of the place that so enchanted me.
Yet I could not grasp that lure, the unidentified notion that had brought me there. I could not put a name to what I was experiencing. Perhaps it is best that the emotion remain nameless.
Reluctantly, I packed up my lunch scraps and prepared to move on. I was at peace with myself, yet somehow restless at the same rime. I still could not identify my feelings, the siren’s song that had brought me there, but I knew it was as real as stone and wood. Once again, sooner or later, those intangibles would bring me back to the wild and lonely places. They would call, and I would obey. In the end, I knew it did matter why I do these things, simply that I do them.
Beyond the cliffs the trail, which had once been a nightmare of deadfalls and obstructions, was a simple pleasure to walk again. Hard-working volunteers from local hiking clubs had done an absolutely wonderful job clearing the trail the summer of 1992. I silently thanked them as I hiked along.
The trail merged with the Long Portage from Daniels to Rose Lake. I made my way through the tall pines past an empty beaver pond. The trail and portage followed an old lumber grade here, and the going was swift and easy. The rotting remnants of old railroad ties were visible underfoot in places.
I flushed a young bull moose with a rich black coat from the stream that followed the portage. The ungainly-looking beast slogged to shore where he took on an amazing grace and agility for such a large creature and ghosted into the woods like a cat.
Light was again failing me as I branched away from the Long Portage and back onto the Border Route proper. A last, lone loon called hauntingly across the dark, wind-swept waters of the lake. Nearly all the loons had departed south by then and I took the bird’s beautiful, eerie, melancholy music as a sign. I made camp at the first site.
I savored my supper and rolled hot coffee on my tongue as I squatted by the cheery yellow flickering of my campfire later on. The light had quickly departed from the increasingly overcast skies. The wind pushed the waters against the rocky shore with soft gurgling and slapping sounds. The cliffs across the lake were dark and brooding silhouettes against the gray night clouds. I listened to the wind in the pines, tasted its cleanness and caught the husky scent of woodsmoke from my fire until my eyelids grew heavy. I drowned the dying fire and turned in for the night.
I awoke to a drab, heavily overcast morning and had my same old oatmeal breakfast before packing up and moving on. The trail followed the windy shores of Rose Lake for a short distance before climbing the ridge amidst the thick boles of ancient red and white pines and the smaller but still massive cedars. The ground was buried deep in a soft, silent carpet of pine duff. The still air beneath the towering pines was milky and cool, an almost holy atmosphere reminding me of the dim silence of the great stone cathedrals of Europe. The scaly trunks of the forest giants were far too wide for me to get my arms halfway around. I was enthralled by the reverent atmosphere and became quiet myself as I made my way through the huge pines. Here, rather than in the family pew, I suddenly felt very close to God.
As I finally emerged to the ridge above, small songbirds flitted in the underbrush along the path. Nuthatches bobbed headfirst down tree trunks. A flight of ducks sailed past in a ragged, airborne V high above. I climbed steadily, the silence now broken by bird calls, the chatter of squirrels, and the muted mutter of far-off thunder.
I paused at Stairway Portage to watch the tumbling white plume of the waterfall dashing itself into misty spray on the rocks below. A lone herring gull raced along beneath scudding gray clouds above. I crossed the narrow wooden footbridge and continued on.
Past the portage, I clawed my way through and even under tangles of windfall balsams. I paused atop a cliff for lunch and basked in the glorious view off toward the Arrow River Bluffs.
With droplets of rain misting down through the bare canopy of some very young aspen woods, I made my way to Rat Bluff. I stood atop the stone monolith in the cold wind, the rain fogging my glasses. The rain began to soak through my shirt and I moved on again.
The trail became a nightmare. A windstorm had felled numerous trees across the trail, the trunks skewed atop one another forming nearly impenetrable masses. I was reduced to crawling in places. The sharp, brittle sticks of the balsams reached out to snag my clothes, my pack, my flesh.
I took a breather on the shores of Partridge Lake, a worthwhile detour. The campsite there nestled in the bosom of more towering pines and was peaceful and still. I watched a red squirrel scampering about, caching pine cones in holes under the roots. A blue-belted kingfisher twittered above the turquoise waters of the lake. Another grouse flushed.
Returning to the main trail, I heard a soft noise ahead and froze. I watched breathlessly as the sinuous form of a pine marten moved through the rainy woods towards me. The sleek little mammal flowed rather than walked, moving like smoke, twisting and gliding as it twined around tree trunks to sniff at squirrel holes and hollows. I watched in fascination until the marten finally disappeared down a fallen tree trunk in a few graceful hops.
The rain grew heavier as the day progressed. The so-called trail grew even more impenetrable. At times I felt I was doing more crawling than walking. I took a wrong turn to what I thought was Sock Lake, and for the next half hour I slogged through knee-deep mud, clawed through tangled windfalls and followed beaver runs looking for a campsite that did not exist. I banged my shins, scraped my arms and broke my trusty walking stick. My language became colorful enough to send every forest creature with a hundred meters fleeing for its life.
Finally admitting defeat, I clawed my way back up the hill and found a branch trail to a campsite on South Lake. I set up camp by flashlight beneath a sky black with dark, angry storm clouds. I shoulder have know better than to believe that Duluth weatherman’s extended forecast of sunshine and temps in the upper forties all week.
I slept late again, trying to give that darn weather-guesser the benefit of the doubt, but the weather got no better in the morning. Eventually, I saddled up and headed out in the now familiar drizzle, passing some nice little vistas between Sock and Topper Lakes. I crossed the beaver dam below Topper. A few struggling hawkweeds were still bravely in bloom. The trail cleared up nicely along Crab Lake, now able to qualify as an unmaintained dirt road if it wished to, and I enjoyed the easy pace.
Clumps of white common yarrow and some bulbous blue flowers still gave color along the trail. Boardwalks made of treated 2x8s spanned some sections of swamp. After all the tangled deadfalls of the past few days, I felt as if I were hiking I-35. The rain slackened a little as I saw the last grouse of the trip sail into the woods to my left.
After Crab Lake, I knew my journey was almost at an end. Finally I saw a powerline cut in the woods and trotted down the final hill to the Loon Lake parking area, western terminus of the Border Route Trail.
Triumphantly, I dropped my heavy pack beside my Mustang and had to grab the door handle to keep from suddenly floating away. I piled myself and my gear into the car and fired up the motor. He muted rumble of an internal combustion engine never sounded so good. The Ford Motor Company could do all the work for awhile.
Traffic congestion on the Gunflint Trail.
By the time I reached the Lake Superior town of Grand Marais an hour later, the sore muscles, scratches, blisters and cold rain were already a cloying memory. As I sat down to a steaming deep dish pizza and a cold beer in a frosty mug, I was already pondering new adventures and trails yet to hike.
The wilderness was already calling in the back of my mind. The long and rugged Kekekabic Trail had still not seen my passage, all forty odd miles of it from Snowbank Lake to the Gunflint Trail. Perhaps that will be the next lone trail I tackle, I thought to myself.
But first, waitress, another beer please.