Chapter Teaser: Blueberry
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Enjoy the first part of “Blueberry!”
Three weeks later, Scott and I were back on the road to the same basin to see if we could turn up a bear. We had found an old manuscript which described a sheep herders trail that extended into a high route to neighboring basins. The plan was to continue basin hopping from the first until we found a bear or ran out of time. It was a very ambitious trip itinerary.
The anticipation was high, and the mood fantastic. We were stuck in traffic and day dreaming of cooking rib eyes over the fire in the abandoned camp ground, while sipping tall cans in preparation for the morning death march. While considering all of that, it dawned on me that it was a good time to broach a subject with Scott that had caused confusion and consternation in the past from people who witnessed an odd habit I had.
I took a deep breath and turned to Scott.
“Scott, I’ve got something I need to tell you before we hit the trail tonight,” I said.
Scott turned with a quizzical eye and a mood that was quickly shifting to worry.
I met his gaze and just said it, “There is this thing I do…Some people find it weird. I’ve been called a heathen on occasion. I just didn’t want it to be awkward tonight or for you to be surprised when I took it out…but…I put ketchup on my steak. Just so you know.”
Scott exhaled a relieved breath and rolled his eyes while chuckling, “Hey man. As long as you’re buying the meat, you can slather whatever heathen sauce floats your boat.”
Darkness was descending quickly as we cruised down the gravel forest service road. The washboard rumbled beneath us as we drifted back and forth trying to find a smooth path, and reaching the parking area an hour later than intended. Hustling to get our bikes and gear, it was nearly dark as we lifted them over the gate and began pedaling.
I was fighting a head cold, but the cool air, adrenaline, and DayQuil were helping immensely as we traveled the same path as before. The road runs uphill ever so slightly -- almost imperceptibly, but there are a few large, sweeping, downhill sections where you can get going pretty fast. Most definitely too fast with a trailer. My dumbass was doing what I normally do: ignoring good sense and going for broke down the largest of these hills.
In the dark.
I was still green, and some of the nuances of gear were not yet instilled on my mental checklist. One of those nuances included knowing when to change the batteries on my headlamp. It had been running at various power levels for hours between the last trip and this bike ride.
It chose that moment, while racing downhill, to wink out.
I was trailing Scott (who was also going way too fast), and shouted ahead for him to stop. If Scott had been trailing me, there is a decent chance he would have barreled into me as I had locked my brakes up in surprise when the lamp had given up the ghost. What a start to a trip that would have been.
I was able to slow the bike and trailer without catastrophe and pulled my spare battery out of my emergency kit. Once changed, it was readily apparent by the strength of the beam that the last battery had been close to its end.
The ride continued without any additional drama, and we rolled into camp ready for a beer. I might have cracked one as we walked our bikes through the overgrown brush towards the same camp spot as before. Besides being sans one person, we were replicating the same routine. However, instead of running multiple shelters, we decided to run Scott’s floorless SL-5, which remains one of my favorite tents to this day, although Scott will whole heartedly disagree. Running one shelter is a great way to trim weight. Some people like to have their own space, but it has never made sense to us as the amount of weight savings can be fairly substantial depending on your tent.
A roaring fire was soon easing us into the evening. Rib eye fat was crackling on the old cooking grate that perched above the fire pit. Soon enough I had a steak on my plate and each bite was covered in sweet, delicious ketchup.
We told stories, and reviewed the maps against the high route description. It seemed fairly straight forward, and the destination sounded beautiful. It started with a climb across large talus fields, followed by an ascent towards a small pass that led to an open basin of rock and timber. From there, it described a circuitous route that led to a scramble into a multi-mile drainage of rarely seen wilderness headed by two alpine lakes. As the fire burned low, we cut the evening to a close and slipped into our bags.
The following morning, we rose with the sun and began our hike.
We hiked with purpose, embracing the difficulty of our task as we scrambled up the ridge. This was the hike we would always compare to others. Not because it was harder than other hunts we have done (it wasn’t) or because it created the most memories (it didn’t), but because this hike was our first. Like the memory of losing your virginity, it will forever remain ingrained in your memory. A stepping stone along your journey.
The hill was just as miserable as we remembered, and in the three weeks since we had last stumbled up it, our conditioning had not improved by any measurable amount. I had done some gear trimming from the previous trip, primarily as it relates to food. I substantially over packed on our previous journey and did not like the idea of packing anything needlessly. Besides food reduction, Scott and I worked to find where we were redundant on gear and eliminated it. I certainly was not packing extra Mountain Houses this time.
Despite my attempts to pack lighter, I regretted not having a few extra snacks as we moved higher up the trail. I ran out of snack food for the day two hours before we moved into the upper basin, and was shaking with hunger.
As we hiked out of the trees and into the alpine, fog rushed in all around us. Frustration momentarily set in as this would hamper the effectiveness of our ability to glass for bears. As quickly as it had reduced visibility to mere yards, it vanished over the ridge and dissipated. This phenomenon continued to repeat over and over as we moved higher.
My stomach continued to rumble as the ridgeline emerged from the specter of the fog. As we looked around the hillside, I found exactly what I needed. Sweet. Abundant. Sugar.
With a burst of energy, I pushed forward up the trail, dumping my pack and throwing myself onto the ground at the first flat spot I could find. I sat for nearly twenty minutes gorging on blueberries so thick I did not move further than a foot in either direction. In my humble opinion, there is nothing in the backpacking world that tastes as good as high mountain blueberries. If you happen to cross paths with these delicious little treats, take the time to stop and enjoy nature’s dessert. Huckleberries are very good as well, though I always reach for blueberries first.
It was while I sat in that field gobbling blueberries that Scott gave me my trail name.
Trail names are a “backpacking” thing rather than a “hunting” thing. They are usually associated with events or bloopers on the trail, and always given to you by someone else. Scott gleefully gave me my name as I sat there stuffing my mouth trying to sate my hunger.
When my shaking had subsided, it was time to move on. We were a mere hundred feet from the ridge, and we yearned to slip over the top and begin glassing. We planned to watch the basin that afternoon and make camp on the ridge. If nothing turned up in the morning, we would attempt to follow the old trail description and move into the next basin.
During the previous trip, I had left a trail camera just off the main path, and we stopped to grab it. We were disappointed that the camera only showed a few pictures on the counter. But that disappointment quickly turned to excitement when a great buck made an appearance, a nice four point with eye guards. He was the only critter on the set, but if we found him during the high hunt in a few weeks, he would be a phenomenal trophy.
The ascent ended with two tired men as the ground leveled off, and we looked around in wonder trying to catch our breath. In a moment that is often repeated when we crest a ridge in these remote places, we were rewarded with relief, pride, and a sense of awe as we stared out on the towering peak that oversaw the basin. The snow that had covered the drainage three weeks earlier was nowhere to be found. The small spring and creek that bisected the basin were completely visible now. Knee high green grass had emerged from winter’s grasp and was interspersed throughout the timber-spotted floor.
We dropped our packs at the trail junction where it intersected the ridge trail and spread out to the south along the basin’s rim to look for bears. I set up to glass not far from the trail junction, while Scott moved further up to get an alternate angle. The sun was quickly drying the sweat from my skin, and I was just preparing to start scanning when I glanced up towards Scott. Only instead of seeing Scott glassing, he was running down the ridge toward me with the universal “get your gun” hand signals flashing every couple of steps.
I grabbed my rifle (Tikka .300 WSM), range finder, and binoculars and rushed up the ridge as Scott rushed down. We met below a large rock outcropping to discuss the situation.
“What’s up!?” I asked in an adrenaline-fueled whisper.
“Did you see that bear? He’s color-phased!” Scott replied.
I shook my head as I turned back towards the ridge trying to contain my excitement. I was in complete disbelief that we had been in position for a grand total of ten minutes and were in the middle of a shot opportunity.
Let’s discuss opportunities.
At the end of the day, that is what is at the heart of successful wilderness hunting. The ability to create opportunities and to eventually become efficient at capitalizing on those you create. Without a doubt, this hunt spoiled us. It was a classic bait and switch. We had done it all backwards; it was easy before it was hard. The mountain is a funny, fickle lady who lives on chance. When the dice come up in your favor, be ready to make your move.
We positioned ourselves on a slight rise which allowed us a commanding vantage point. The bear had moved into a small patch of timber located on an isolated bench below the ridge. There was no way the bear could exit without us seeing, and so, the waiting game had commenced. The wind was perfect, blowing right towards us. As the seconds creeped by, a musky smell began to fill the air. It was a full ten minutes of smelling the bear before he showed himself.
“There! But he’s black. Are there two of them?” I asked Scott.
“Could be. I’m color blind,” he replied nonchalantly.
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