High-tech snowshoes

Leery of modern devices, I’m not all-in on the high-tech snowshoes.

Tradition is an anchor that secures my life in safe harbor in time of storm and keeps me from crashing onto the leeward rocks when winds of change blow strong. But at times tradition is a dead weight that holds me immobile, when no storms threaten, and I should be sailing away to new adventures.

Skimming across the late-winter’s waves of drifted snow, for example.

Long ago, in 1976 as I remember, an early November storm came roaring across our rural northeast Nebraska town and buried the countryside under more than 30 inches of snow. Temperatures plummeted, and the region was locked in winter for the duration.

In the course of a week the town streets and county roads were cleared for limited travel, some roadside snowbanks piled 10 or 15 feet high, and life struggled back to the chilly normalcy of that country’s most dreary season. It seemed prudent to buy a pair of snowshoes, although I no experience snowshoeing and only the vaguest idea of what that outdoor adventure was all about.

For starters – let’s be harshly honest here – even in the mildest of winters, northeast Nebraska would not be considered a winter wonderland. The blank white sweeps of the shortgrass prairie may have been breathtakingly magnificent long ago, but for more than 50 years the land had been reshaped into stubbly row crop fields and overgrazed pastures. The scenery compared poorly to the mountain vistas of Montana.  

But the terrain along the Missouri River Valley, the area we called the Missouri Breaks, has a rugged and disordered beauty, with slashes of wooded and brush-filled folds in the landscape. Nebraska’s winter winds are always cruel, but if you could brave them it was worth the long hike into and through those rolling breaks and coulees.

That is why I paid the outrageous price of $25 (plus shipping and handling fees of $4.75) for my first pair of ash-framed, rawhide-webbed snowshoes. The bindings were a horror; they slipped free of my boots and I fell down frequently.  But I eventually learned the skill and the art of snowshoeing, and it has been a highlight of my winter activities ever since.  

Except for the three years we lived in West Texas. No use for snowshoes there. But we moved back to the North Country in the 1980s, and were able to resume our winter hikes. We bought another pair of Michigan style snowshoe, plus a shorter and more rounded bearpaw pair for hikes in the woods where maneuverability is more important.

The original pair, now more than 45 years old, is in excellent condition. We still use them for winter hikes a dozen or more times each year.  I am convinced that the state of the art in snowshoe construction has made no significant advance in a hundred years.

But that’s just my tradition-locked bias.

Wanting to experiment with something more modern (i.e. – lighter, smaller, sleeker, handier, and much easier to toss into the pickup truck) my beautiful blonde wife rented two pair of what I will call those new-fangled, high-tech snowshoes for our latest hike. Aluminum frames instead of ash, solid composition decking instead of webbing, two-buckle bindings (although the old leather bindings of the original snowshoes were replaced with neoprene bindings long ago), permanently attached crampons instead of boot toe ice grippers, and a pair of ski poles instead of a knob-topped walking stick.

As every member of the Over the Hill Gang knows, I am leery of modern devices. My pickup, for example, has window cranks, not those fancy button-operated window controls. I do not own a GPS unit; I have a pocket compass. My boots are leather, not some composition material. Our house is mostly heated with a woodstove. I use an engine-powered garden cultivator instead of a hoe, but that’s about as far as I’m willing to go.

So, after two hikes of a couple-few miles, I’m not all-in on the high-tech snowshoes.

Some features are good, I will admit. The crampons for sure (you do not have to deal with separate boot-toe ice grips on icy hikes). And these snowshoes weigh only half as much as the traditional ash-and-rawhide pairs. They are more maneuverable on wooded and brushy hillsides.

But they do not track as well as the long-tailed Michigan-style, the new shoes flip powdery snow onto your back (and sometimes down your collar), and their solid decking (being only about 60 percent of the area of the old-style webbing) does not distribute your weight as well to keep you on top of the snow. Snow collects on the decking, which does not happen with rawhide webbing, and makes the techy snowshoes weigh as much or more than the traditional style. Also, they do not look as classy, and you cannot take them off and brace them against a stump to make a handy chair to sit on while you drink a thermos of Sherpa tea and eat a granola bar.

It may be a minor point, but when I trip over the top strand of a barbed-wire fence, I use the knob-topped walking stick to thrash the offending wire while I swear at it, which releases anger and frustration. I can’t do that with the aluminum ski poles for fear of bending them, which would add to my anger and frustration. Snowshoeing should be calming, not aggravating.

Winter is drawing to a close, so I do not yet have to make any rash decisions about modernizing my snowshoes. There may be advantages, but tradition, for me, is a heavy anchor. After I varnish the old ash-and-rawhide snowshoes and hang them on the Clubhouse wall to dry, I may reconsider.

Maybe. At $175 per pair, I may not. Did I mention my first pair of snowshoes cost $25? And they are still perfectly functional…

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Two triggers

Double triggers on a side-by-side double are far superior to a single trigger for a compelling reason.

“BECAUSE there are two barrels.”

Several years ago, I had the pleasure of shooting a course of sporting clays in Texas with the sales representative of an Italian gunmaking company. As I remember, he broke 94 targets out of 100. I had one of my better days and broke 82. He shot the course with one of his company’s Pigeon Grade over-and-under 12 bores, a stunningly beautiful gun that had been expressly made for live pigeon shooting.

Banned in some states in the U.S. but still widely practiced in Europe and many Latin American countries, live pigeon shooting is considered the most challenging and difficult of the shotgun games. The pigeons are launched (sometimes thrown) into fast-moving, erratic, and unpredictable flight, and a bird must be shot and dropped before it reaches the fenced boundary of the ring – the circular shooting ground.

I was in awe of this Italian shotgunner who competed in these highly competitive and big-money shoots, which I would be too intimidated to attempt. My wing-shooting skills in the live pigeon ring would surely leave me 1) totally humiliated, and 2) dead broke.

Also, I was entranced by his custom-fitted Beretta. The most curious thing about this elegant over-and-under gun was that it had two triggers. I had never before seen double triggers on an over-under. My own Browning BSS side-by-side 20-gauge gun had a single trigger, which I thought at the time to be much superior to those awkward double triggers. I had the temerity to ask him, “Why does a best-quality gun have two triggers?”

He answered me with the obvious reason, and a pitying and condescending smile: “Because there are two barrels.”

Many years passed before I learned through experience, instruction, and reading the advice of accomplished gamebird shooters that the double gun for gamebird shooting incorporates a perfect synthesis of form and function. That synthesis includes two barrels, two triggers, straight stock, high comb, light weight, and balance.

My learning curve should have been much steeper. I should have appreciated the advantages of double triggers much earlier in my shooting life. After all, two is the universal number of rightness.

Two heads are better than one. Two of a kind. Two thumbs up. Two peas in the same pod. Tea for two. Two minute warning. Two for the price of one. Two to tango. Two by two. Two tickets to paradise. Two can live as cheaply as one. Big Two-Hearted River. One-two punch. Texas two-step. A perfect pair. And make mine a double at closing time.

Part I -Why two triggers?

Two triggers because there are two barrels. Simple as that. Double triggers on a side-by-side double are far superior to a single trigger for a compelling reason.

An aficionado of double guns since my earliest days afield, I was sadly misinformed about the supposed benefit of a single trigger and blundered through a process of self-enlightenment. The firearms and hunting writer Jack O’Connor was my guru, and he was an advocate of the single trigger on a double gun. But Jack was wrong about that, dead wrong, as he was about much else in shotgunning (read Jack O’Connor was wrong).

My first gun was a Savage-Fox Model B-SE that I believed was the best of the budget-priced doubles. Twelve gauge, 28-inch barrels choked modified and full, beavertail forend, pistol grip, thick-stocked and low-combed, it probably weighed eight and a half pounds and was quick and nimble as a dump truck. Naturally it had a single trigger (non-selective). I would not have considered anything less.

As my knowledge of wing shooting advanced and the shortcomings of that clunky Savage-Fox double became apparent, the gun underwent extensive modification, but it was hopeless. One cannot make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.

I moved to West Texas where the only birds one could hunt were mourning doves, white winged doves. bobwhite quail, and a horrid avian species locally called blue quail (more properly known as scaled quail). Unexpectedly given a bonus by my employer, I bought a Browning BSS Sporter in 20 gauge. Twenty-six-inch barrels choked improved-cylinder and modified, semi-beavertail forend, straight stock, trim, light, graceful and delightfully quick. Heavenly. I still have that gun, do most of my bird hunting with it, and love it.

The BSS also had a single trigger, but it was equipped with a barrel selector button inside the rear of the trigger guard. A push of the button and, voile!, one could choose the modified choke barrel for long shots or the IC barrel when shots were closer.

But over the course of three seasons the barrel selector was seldom used. It was set to fire the IC barrel first, and I almost never pushed it over to first shoot the modified barrel.

Selecting the tight barrel was cumbersome. I would look down at the gun and turn it sideways to punch the button, and that put a hitch in my shooting technique. Wearing gloves, the barrel switch was even more clumsy, and on two occasions the button became stuck halfway between right and left, which locked the trigger and allowing neither barrel to fire. Watching a covey of quail whirl away, I spoke a descriptive phrase about barrel selectors.

But the true epiphany came in the form of a family heirloom gun: an Ithaca-made Lefever Nitro Special. This was a “working man’s” double gun, manufactured in the 1920s, and it needed extensive modification to convert it into a gun I could take afield. From a piece of seasoned walnut I made a straight, high-combed stock, opened the chokes and lengthened the forcing cones, had the barrels re-blued and the receiver case-hardened – the whole nine yards. (Read Grandfather Clause and Lefever Nitro Special.)

But there was a problem. The old gun had double triggers, and I could not change that without going to great expense. Obviously, I would not shoot well with that handicap.

Continuing a family heritage, I took the gun to the Nebraska Sandhills to hunt prairie grouse. Cresting a dune late one morning a pod of birds flushed wild, at least 35 yards ahead. The old double gun went to my shoulder, my finger slipped to the rear trigger, I fired the left (improved-modified) barrel, and down came a sharptailed grouse.

Instant, automatic and effortless barrel selection. The “Hallelujah Chorus” did not erupt from the heavens, but it could well have. In that instant the value of two triggers was obvious. A double gun has two triggers because it has two barrels.

Part II- Why a straight grip?

A greater challenge has been convincing my cohorts of The Over the Hill Gang that a straight grip (English grip) on a gamebird gun is a better choice than a pistol grip (American grip).  More than one Old Coot has said “a straight grip twists my wrist at an odd angle, and I can’t hold the stock as tight.”

Yes, that is the whole point, and the advantage, of the straight grip.

Proper shooting technique afield demands that the shotgunner point out his flying target with his lead hand. If you were to point at a flying bird without a gun, you would not press your closed fist against your cheekbone and point at it with an extended forefinger; you would fully extend your arm and point at it with a sweeping gesture that swings through the flight path of the bird.

That is what the straight grip more or less forces the shooter to do. The shooter’s trigger hand cannot tightly grasp the straight stock, especially with the little finger and ring finger. Consequently, he automatically and unconsciously shifts the control of the gun to the lead hand and therefore tracks and swings through the bird’s line of flight more smoothly and precisely. (My 16-gauge double gun has a pistol grip; when I approach my dog on point I whisper to myself, “shoot with the left hand, shoot with the left hand.” If I fail to do that, my wing shooting goes to hell in a handbasket.)

A pistol grip, conversely, tends to make the shooter point out his flying target with a “closed fist to the cheekbone” style. He over-steers the gun with his grip hand, which is almost always his dominant and stronger hand, which makes the barrels swing less smoothly and precisely, more herky-jerky, and liable to interruptions. An interrupted swing usually means a missed bird.

When shooting the clay target games the pistol grip has a lot going for it.

When shooting the clay target games the pistol grip has a lot going for it. Dedicated shotguns for trap, skeet, sporting clays, and 5-stand are heavier, often longer barreled and therefore barrel heavy, with a mount and swing that is less quick and nimble but more steady. But the clay target games are unlike gamebird shooting. The shooter calls for the launch of the target when he is ready, he knows about where the target will appear and how it will fly: its speed, angle, direction, line of flight, rate of deceleration, etc. And all the clay target games (with the exception of FITASC – Federation Internationale de Tir Aux Sportives de Chasse) permit the shooter to shoulder his shotgun before he calls for the clay target’s launch.

The clay target sports are great games, but they are games. Even an indifferent clay target shooter (me, for example) will be able to break 20-plus targets at trap, skeet, 5-stand, and about three of every four targets on a typical sporting clays course. These games have some features in common with field shooting, but not many.

Clay target shooting requires measured control of the gun, and the shooter disciplines himself to track the target with a balance between his lead hand and his grip hand. Shooting gamebirds afield, the gunner cannot pre-mount the gun and has no idea of the escaping bird’s moment of flight or its speed, angle, direction, line of flight, and rate of acceleration. He needs the quickness and precision of shooting with his lead hand.

And that is why the straight stock is an advantage.

Part III – Why do we go afield with double guns?

The ultimate question is this: Why do we go afield with double guns? Especially side-by-side double guns.

For that I have no logical or reasoned answer.

Appraise the shotgun choices of a million bird hunters and you will find at least a hundred semi-automatics and pumps for every double gun, and by far the largest share of the doubles will be over-unders, not side-by-sides. Many (I won’t say most) of the bird hunters who choose semi-autos or pumps are skilled wing shooters. Many more of the hunters who choose over-unders (especially those who shoot thousands of rounds at sporting clays targets each year) are awesome bird shooters afield.

Well, yer pays yer money and yer takes yer choyce.  

For me the choice has always been a side-by-side. I think this is partly because a tradition of more than 200 years graces the side-by-side double gun, all the way back to its creation by English gunmaker Joseph Manton. And in part it is because the double gun demands more discipline and dedication to master, to learn to shoot it well. There is something almost mystical about double guns that weaves the man who shoots one into the fabric of the long history of bird hunting like no other type of gun.

Pick up a semi-automatic, a pump gun, or even an over-under, and you will immediately perceive the gun’s similarity to a rifle – the heft and feel and balance of it. No mystery there; American hunters are a nation of riflemen, and we are more comfortable with a shotgun that emulates a rifle. The side-by-side is different, especially the English style doubles that have not been Americanized with pistol grips, single triggers, beavertail forends, raised sighting ribs, and other adulterations. This is a birdgun. This double gun has no other purpose than to delight the man who takes it afield in pursuit of wild gamebirds.

Whenever I meet someone afield who carries a classic double gun, we strike up an immediate camaraderie. We always have excellent bird dogs, too, but that goes without saying.

With good fortune, there will be a few more years of bird hunts in my future. With good fortune, all those hunts will be with a double gun.

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Groundhog Day

Groundhog day has long passed, more than a week ago, but canny old Punxsutawney Phil was spot on with his prediction of six more weeks of winter. A Polar Vortex escaped its whirl around the Arctic and dropped down across the upper Midwest, chilling us with sub-zero temperatures and conjuring up a February storm that dropped another five to six inches of snow on our farm atop the accumulated snow from earlier storms.

I love winter in the North Country, but these bone-breaking cold days days of February seem to have become an endless series of colorless re-runs. The days are slowly lengthening, it’s true, but it would be nice to see some sunshine and blue skies.

Fifteen minutes. That is about how long it takes to rekindle the fire in the woodstove each morning. Beneath a layer of ashes, a bed of glowing coals smolders patiently while I twist open the flue damper, swing back the stove’s glass-fronted door, grab the ash shovel and heap the coals into a pile on the left side of the firebox, and lay three or four splits of firewood atop the pile. With the door ajar, the fire will soon be roaring.

The digital display clock of the microwave oven reads 5:37 a.m. Time to brew a pot of coffee.

No use whining. Living in the North Country you soon learn that Old Man Winter will make one or two serious attempts to kill you each year, and it is best to be prepared for his unexpected attacks. We complain about unreliable weather forecasts from the National Weather Service, but in truth those forecasts are incomparably better than they were 20 years ago, so there is little chance the Old Man will sneak up and hit you over the head with a two-day blizzard or a week of sub-zero temperatures.

Two deer, a fat doe and her yearling fawn, are in the south yard eating sunflower seed from the bird feeder. I watch them through the kitchen window. They raise their heads, ears erect, then relax and go back to feeding. The doe is practiced at robbing the feeder and nibbles seed from its rim. Hanging by a metal cable attached to a tree, the feeder sways back and forth each time she bumps it. The yearling doe, not yet as skilled as her mother, eats the seeds that fall upon the hard-pack snow that they and other deer have trampled during their nightly feedings. The old doe is round-bellied pregnant. The yearly may also be, but her coat is shaggy, not sleek like her mother’s, and it’s difficult to tell. When I turn on the light over the sink to look for the coffee bag in the cupboard, both deer whirl and leap and are gone in one second. Wish I could still do that in the morning. Or any other time of day.

One thing I will grouse about: winter winds. Those frigid gusts never used to deter me from my winter walks. Twenty below zero temperatures and 20 mile-per-hour wind seldom scotched my enthusiasm for snowshoeing on a sunny February day, but come lately I won’t venture across open ground unless the wind has dropped below 10 miles-per-hour.

Maybe my beard has become thin and scraggly in my old age, but heading into a north wind makes my face ache, eyes water, ears throb, and nose runs. Total capitulation to Old Man Winter. I’m defeated.

At this stage of life my recreation time should be enjoyable, not miserable. Although I still like to snowshoe the trails on our farm and nearby wildlife areas to view the woodlands the day after a snowstorm, a wind-burned face and frost-bitten ears take all the enjoyment out of my winter hikes.

Standard morning routine: make coffee for my beautiful blonde wife who likes to sleep later than I. Carefully balancing two full cups (mine with a dash of milk, hers strong and black), I climb the stairs with laptop computer tucked under my arm. A few times the laptop has slipped out and tumbled down the stairs; probably an un-accident that is an expression of my repressed hatred of digital communications technology. Back in bed, propped up with pillows, I open the laptop and scan the morning news, including the weather report. Sixteen degrees below zero and 15 mile-per-hour winds. Damn. Just… DAMN!   

The sub-zero temperatures predicted by the NWS forecast may not spoil my plans, but if wind speed is double digits, forget it. I’m content to sprawl in my easy chair in the den above the garage that I call The Clubhouse, read, write, surf the web, drink Sherpa tea, and take an afternoon nap.

“Do you want me to warm your coffee in the microwave?” “Ummm – sure.”

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Project Gun Syndrome

HELLO. My name is Jerry, and I have PGS.

Project Gun Syndrome.

Not just any Ithaca Model 37 pump gun. A Model 37 in 16 gauge, plain barrel, modified choke, and rattail slide handle.

Each winter, for as many winters as I can remember, I have devoted my shut-in time to tinkering with a project gun. Some of these projects have been as extensive as the Ruger Model 10/22 semi-automatic .22 rimfire rifle that I converted to an accurized target rifle: Green Mountain heavy barrel, Volquartsen trigger group, custom-machined bolt, Hogue overmolded stock — in fact, every single part of that rifle except the receiver cover. (It shot marvelous 1-inch groups at 100 yards with subsonic ammunition; and, of course, I stupidly sold it.)

Others have been as simple as renovating an 90-year-old old Eastern Arms single-shot 12-gauge shotgun: reshaping and lengthening the buttstock, cutting the barrel length to 28 inches, re-choking the bore, rebluing the barrel and case hardening the receiver.

However, I have not worked on a project gun for the past three winters, and I am experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Anxiety, depression, nervous tension, memory loss, apathy, ennui, inability to concentrate, and worst of all – actual interest in the NFL football playoffs. I have also ceased smoking cigars and drinking beer, and I fear these bizarre behaviors may spiral completely out of control.

At least I recognize the cause of this affliction: the PGS problem. It is often said that the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. That is incorrect. The true first step toward recovery is wanting to change. I admit I have a PGS problem. But I have no compelling desire to change.

In fact, since winter began I have been lusting for a project gun, a pump shotgun. Not just any pump gun, but an Ithaca Model 37 in 16 gauge, plain barrel, rattail slide handle, modified choke. I could accept a 20 gauge, but that’s as far as I will go.

This is a curious desire because I do not shoot a pump gun well. Since I wrecked the rotator cuff in my shoulder and dislocated my elbow in an accident several years ago, a pump gun is no better than a single-shot for me because I can only spasmodically operate the slide handle.

But shooting the gun well is not the point. My father had an Ithaca Model 37, so it’s sort of a family tradition. More importantly, I like playing with a pump gun. I used to take one out of my gun safe, shoulder it, work the slide, and say “pow! pow! pow!” as I shot an imaginary triple on pheasants. Currently, I do not own a pump gun, and each time I open the gun safe I feel bereft.

Did you know, by the way, that the slide action (pump action) and the lever action are the only exclusively American action designs? All other action types are copies or variations of designs that originated in Europe, even John Browning’s famed long-recoil semi-automatic Model A5 shotgun.

I do own three lever-action rifles, Marlin models in .22 caliber, .35 Remington caliber, and .44 Remington Magnum caliber. I could, of course, take one of these all-American rifles from the gun safe, shoulder it, work the lever action, and say “pow! pow! pow!” as I shoot an imaginary triple on deer or squirrels, But somehow that is not as satiating as play time with a pump shotgun, and it leaves a man unsatisfied, as when he imagines having sex some fifty-plus years ago with his high school girlfriend Joanna, who was quite plain and a bit chubby and small breasted, as compared to imagining sex with Raquel Welch, who was not.

Surfing the web for the perfect Ithaca Model 37, I have fortunately found very few and those few are overpriced, probably because there are many other PGS addicts out there.  I have toyed with the idea of using our anticipated stimulus check from the federal government to purchase one of these pump guns, but I am conflicted. We donated the previous stimulus money to agencies that need it much more than we do (the local Food Pantry, for example), and there will be much self-induced pressure to do the same with the next potential stimulus check, rather than spend it on another shotgun that I do not need.

That I clearly do not need.

I do not need this shotgun. This pump-action shotgun. This Ithaca Model 37 pump-action shotgun in 16 gauge with plain barrel and rattail slide handle.

There, I’m feeling better already.

No. No, I’m not.

Get thee behind me, Satan. I can overcome this PGS addiction.

All of you pray for me.

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Lessons learned (from building a PVC frame ground blind)

Building a low-budget ground blind for deer hunting provided an escape from the monotony of winter’s pandemic isolation, occupied my mind and hands with productive and interesting work, kept me out of the house and in the workshop for four days (an interlude in my grousing that was appreciated by my beautiful blonde wife), and taught me many things about construction projects using PVC pipes and fittings.

In general, the ground blind project was a success. The end product was a blind that should serve for a few years of bow and firearm deer hunting and wildlife observation on our North Country farm. But I could have built it better.

Now, there is no denying that I have a few obsessive-compulsive behavior characteristics and that I can, at times, be an annoying perfectionist. Ask any member of the Over the Hill Gang about my dog training regimen, equipment maintenance schedule, hunting trip preparations, footwear upkeep (I varnish my ash-and-rawhide snowshoes every spring), hunting and outdoor gear cleaning and repair (and those snowshoes are 40 years old and still in perfect condition!), and my attention to detail when hand-loading shotshells or rifle cartridges. They are likely to roll their eyes and silently think what only one of them (I won’t say who) has dared to state aloud: “Jeez, don’t get caught up in that tangled trap!”

It most certainly is not a tangled trap. It is a meticulously and painstakingly organized trap.

Be that as it may, there are some improvements that could be made to the prototype ground blind constructed last week. Not major flaws that need corrected, you understand, but some tweaks that would improve the end result. I intend to incorporate those modifications in the next ground blind project. Which will probably be next month, because what the heck else do I have on my agenda while we wait for our covid-19 vaccinations?

First on the list is size. The prototype ground blind is six feet in height and sets on a five-foot-by-five-foot base. The revised plan will be for a somewhat smaller blind.

The side panels will be four feet in length and about 24 inches in height. (The prototype side panels are five feet in length and about 30 inches in height.)

The arching PVC tubes that form the dome of the top cap will be eight feet in length. (Prototype: 10 feet.) I am contemplating a set of four arching frame pieces of PVC to support the dome rather than two. (I may regret this piece of over-engineering.)

My conjecture is that this reduction in size will create a more sturdy structure that is easier to set up and relocate. It will be somewhat less prone to wind damage and hopefully will better withstand snow accumulations. The smaller blind should fit in my pickup truck, too.

Next on the list of improvements is heating (hot to the touch) the 8-foot PVC arch frame pieces so that they become more pliable and will bend in a smooth and uniform arch. I did not properly heat them for the prototype, and they are less an “arch” than a “peak.” Not sure how I will do this without getting the local fire department involved.

The holes for the wire brace struts of the dome will be drilled at 10-inch intervals rather than 12-inch. That should help with attaching the fabric covering of the dome.

As I construct the second generation of ground blind, there will probably be a few “Aha!” moments when I discovered other design improvements. I will keep you posted.

A tip on wiring together the ground blind:

I failed to include these instructions in Step 17of my previous blog. The instructions are now edited to include this wire-lacing tip.

Step 17 – Set up the ground blind on-site

You are now ready to erect the ground blind on-site. Set the side panels upright on the long edge and wire the four of them firmly together to create a open-top box. Cross measure to make sure the box is square. Drive a tent peg into the ground at each corner and wire the frame to the pegs.

Set the cap on top of the box and securely wire it to the top bars of the side panel frames. To wire the cap and side panels together, secure the cap atop the side panels with C-clamps, then drill small vertical holes through the base frame pipe of the cap all the way through the top bar of the side panel. Drill these holes at 6 or 8-inch intervals through the superimposed pipes of the cap and side panels all the way around the blind. Insert a continuous wire down through the first set of holes, then up through the second set of holes, continuing until the cap is tightly wire-laced to the side panels. Pull the wire lacing very tight as you go. Use the same procedure to wire-lace the side panels together.  

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How to build a ground blind

The owner’s manual warned that prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light would cause fading and deterioration of the Ameristep ground blind’s fabric covering, so I expected to get only two or three years of service from this blind. Way too optimistic.

The Ameristep ground blind would probably have weathered better if I had set it up inside the old hog house in the south woods of our farm.

I set it up in August. In December I pressed my hand against the fabric to adjust it. My fingers ripped through. By the end of this winter, no doubt, the fabric will be hanging in shredded strips from the framework.

Maybe if I had set it up inside the dilapidated old hog house, out of direct sunlight, it would have lasted longer, not exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, but deer very seldom come into the hog house. In the partial shade of our red cedar shelterbelt this flimsy material rotted in less than five months. Exacerbating my dissatisfaction with this Ameristep blind, a support rib shattered when I set it up, and I had to splint it with a dowel rod, wire, and duct tape.   

Clearly not worth the $129.99 I paid for it, even with free shipping. Lesson learned: build my own blind with a PVC framework and tarp coverings. That is what I set out to do.  And I realized this was an opportunity to try something new.

For all the blogs I have written about outdoor sports projects (dog training, shotgun and rifle maintenance and repair, quail call-back pens, camo clothing dyes, livestock fencing, wooden box construction, dog door installation, shotshell and rifle cartridge reloading, firearm cleaning, shotgun patterning, rifle sighting…) I have never attempted a step-by-step “how-to” blog post with photos to illustrate the steps. This will be a first for me, and maybe a total disaster. But here goes.

How to Build a Ground Blind for Deer Hunting

Step 1 – Draw plans for the ground blind

To convince readers of this blog that I know what I’m doing, I put pen to paper and drew a more-or-less detailed plan of the ground blind frame that I intended to build. The drawings were not to scale and lacked specifics, but it has been my experience that unexpected glitches will beset every plan as the work goes forward, so it is best not to be overly concerned with details.

This is the self-evident starting point, but I seldom draw a project plan on paper, reasoning that my mental image of the finished product will serve as a blue print and schematic. This is often a mistake which can double the cost of the project and the time it takes to complete it.

This is how the drawings of the ground blind’s cap panel appear:

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And this is how the drawing of the ground blind’s side panels appears:

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But this is how my preliminary drawing of the entire project appears, and to be honest this is the only drawing I used for reference.

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Time to get to work.

Step 2 – Compile a list of the materials required for the project

Make a comprehensive list of all the supplies required for this project:

12  10-foot lengths of ½-inch PVC pipe
12  ½-inch PVC ½-inch T coupling pieces
20  ½-inch PVC 90-degree coupling pieces
1  can PVC cement
1  roll of 14-gauge galvanized steel electric fencing wire
2  6×8 foot polyester tarps
2  10×12 foot polyester tarp
1  roll of duct tape
1  2 ½-inch bolt with nut

Step 3 – Prepare the pieces to assemble the cap section of the ground blind

Cut from the 10-foot sections of PVC pipe: 2 59-inch lengths of pipe, and 2 57-inch lengths of pipe. You will need the shorter sections of pipe for the “east” and “west” sides of the frame’s base because the T-couplings that are needed to attach the over-arching sections of PVC pipe will add two inches of overall length to the “east” and “west” sides of the base. Save these cut off scrap pieces; of PVC; you will need them in Step 4.

Step 4 – Make the arch juncture assemblies from PVC couplings

The four corners of the top cap’s base require a junction assembly to attach the over-arching lengths of PVC pipe. Use the cut off scrap pieces of PVC from Step 3 to cut four 1 ½- inch lengths of pipe. Insert one end of the 1 ½- inch length of pipe into a 90-degree PVC corner coupling, and insert the other end into a T-coupling.

The T-coupling must tilt upward at a 60-degree angle compared to the corner coupling; place the juncture assembly flat on the work bench to measure this angle. Tip: do no cement the three pieces of the juncture assembly until you are sure the T-coupling is at a 60-degree angle with the corner coupling and that it slopes in the correct direction (see photo).

Step 5 – Connect the arch junction assemblies to the 57-inch lengths of PVC pipe

Insert and cement the 57-inch lengths of PVC pipe into the T-coupling of the arch junction assemblies, one assembly at each end of the pipe. Be sure to maintain the T-couplings’ 60-degree inward slope. These 57-inch pipes with the assemblies attached will be the “east” and “west” sections of the ground blind cap’s base. Tip: use a rubber mallet to tap all PVC connections securely together.

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Step 6 – Attach the 59-inch lengths of PVC pipe to the corner couplings

Insert and cement the two 59-inch lengths of PVC pipe into the corner couplings of the “east” and “west” base pieces. These lengths of pipe are now the “north” and “south” sides of the cap frame’s base, which should be a square of about 60 inches on each side.

Step 7 – Attach the over-arching 10-foot lengths of PVC pipe to the corner junctions

Insert and cement one end of one 10-foot length of PVC pipe into the “northeast” corner junction; bend the pipe and insert and cement the opposite end into the “southwest” corner junction. Insert and cement one end of another 10-foot PVC pipe into the “northwest” corner junction, and the opposite end into the “southeast” corner junction. The two 10-foot lengths of pipe should now cross to form a dome. Tip: heat the full length of the PVC pipe with a hair dryer or infrared lamp or other means so that the pipe can be more easily bent into a uniform curved arch.  

Step 8 – Join the over-arching PVC pipes at the midpoint of the arch

Mark the midpoint (at 60 inches) of each of the over-arching PVC pipes. Drill a vertical hole through the midpoint mark of each pipe and insert a 2 ½- inch bolt through the holes to align and connect the over-arching pipes.

Step 9 – Brace the arches with wire

From the midpoint bolt at the top-center of the arch, measure and mark each of the PVC arch pipes at 12-inch intervals: 12, 24, and 36 inches. Drill a small horizontal hole through the pipe at each of the marked intervals. Pass a continuous strand of wire through the top set of holes, putting just enough tension on the wire to keep it taunt and looping it around each PVC pipe to hold it secure. Do the same for the set of holes drilled at the 24-inch marks. Do the same for the set of holes drilled at the 36-inch marks. Tip: do not stretch the wire too tightly or you will pull the dome out of alignment or cause the PVC pipe to bow.

Step 10 – Cut lengths of PVC pipe to construct the side panels

To construct the side panels, cut the 10-foot lengths of ½-inch PVC pipe into 28 pieces that are each 29 inches in length.

Step 11 – Attach PVC couplings to pipe sections

Attach and cement a 90-degree corner coupling to one end of 16 of the 29-inch lengths of PVC pipe. Attach and cement a T-coupling to the other end of eight of these pieces. Be sure that all of the corner couplings and T couplings point in the same direction. Twelve of the 29-inch lengths of PVC pipe should have NO couplings attached.

Step 12 – Attach two pieces to form the top frame bar of a side panel

Inset and cement one of the pieces with a corner coupling ONLY into the T-coupling of a piece that has both a T-coupling and a corner coupling. The T-coupling is now the mid-point of the side panel top bar. Repeat for all four top bars for side panels.

completed set of four side panel frames

Step 13 – Attach two pieces to form the bottom frame bar of a side panel

Inset and cement one of the pieces with a corner coupling ONLY into the T-coupling of a piece that has both a T-coupling and a corner coupling. The T-coupling is now the mid-point of the side panel bottom bar. Repeat for all four bottom bars for side panels.

Step 14 – Attach PVC pipes as uprights to the top and bottom bars of the side panels

Connect a side panel top bar to a side panel bottom bar by inserting and cementing three of the 29-inch lengths of PVC pipe into the corner couplings at each end and the T-coupling at mid-point. Tip: Lay the side panel pieces flat on the workshop floor so there is no buckling or twisting. Repeat for the other three side panels.

Step 15 – Cover the side panels with tarps

Lay a side panel flat on the workshop floor atop a 6×8 polyester tarp. Fold the hem of the tarp over the top bar of the panel and tape it to the full length of the bar with duct tape. Pull the tarp fabric taunt underneath the side panel frame and cut it along the length of the panel’s bottom bar with a scissors, leaving a 2-inch hem. Fold the tarp’s newly cut hem over the bottom bar and tape it the full length of the bar. Do the same with the end bars of the panel. Repeat with two other panels.

The last panel should be covered with tarp material only to the center upright bar so that there is an entry portal into the ground blind.  

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Step 16 – Cover the ground blind’s top cap with a 6×10 tarp

Tip: set the ground blind cap up on saw horses or the edge of a work table so that you can work from both inside and outside the cap.

From the “north” side of the ground blind’s cap frame, drape a tarp that measures 6×10 feet across the top of the dome and then center it (you may have to cut this 6×10 piece to size from a larger tarp). The tarp will not fit snuggly over the curved dome of the frame. Fold and tape tucks in the tarp material (as described below) on all four faces of the ground blind cap to make the fabric conform as closely as possible to the shape of the PVC frame.

Take two small tucks in the excess material to stretch it taunt on the “north” face, then tape the “north” hem of the tarp to the “north” bottom bar of the frame. Take two small tucks in the excess material to stretch it taunt on it “south” face, then tape the “south” hem of the tarp to the “south” bottom bar of the frame.

Take two larger tucks in the material on the “west” face of the cap to stretch it taunt; fold the tucks tightly and tape the full length of the tuck folds on the outside. Go inside the cap and tape the full length of the tuck folds on the inside. Repeat this tuck-and-tape procedure for the “east” face.

Return to the tuck folds on the “north” and “south” faces. Draw the fabric tight with these tucks and then tape the tuck folds full length on the outside. Go inside the cap and tape these “north” and “south” tuck folds full length.

From inside the cap, tape the tarp to the lowest brace wire strut of the frame. Tape the lowest strut wire against all four faces: north, west south, and east.

Two faces of the ground blind cap will now have arched window apertures above the base of the cap.

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Step 17 – Set up the ground blind on-site

You are now ready to erect the ground blind on-site. Set the side panels upright on the long edge and wire the four of them firmly together to create a open-top box. Cross measure to make sure the box is square. Drive a tent peg into the ground at each corner and wire the frame to the pegs.

Set the cap on top of the box and securely wire it to the top bars of the side panel frames. To wire the cap and side panels together, secure the cap atop the side panels with C-clamps, then drill small vertical holes through the base frame pipe of the cap all the way through the top bar of the side panel. Drill these holes at 6 or 8-inch intervals through the superimposed pipes of the cap and side panels all the way around the blind. Insert a continuous wire down through the first set of holes, then up through the second set of holes, continuing until the cap is tightly wire-laced to the side panels. Pull the wire lacing very tight as you go. Use the same procedure to wire-lace the side panels together.  

Step 18 – Acclimate and personalize the blind  

Taking a folding camp stool, crawl into the ground blind through the entry portal. Set up the stool. Sit on it. Look out through the window apertures. Light a cigar. Smoke it. Drink a can of warm beer. You’ve earned it.

Note: The materials and supplies for this ground blind cost about $100, but I already had a roll of electric fence wire, a roll of duct tape, the top bolt, a can of PVC cement, one 6×8 tarp, and all the required tools. Plus the workshop.

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The Orange insurrection

Stunned and unsettled by the insurrection against the United States government January 6 by right-wing extremists, I have been wordless, unable to write and post a blog essay while I try to comprehend this horrendous, treasonous act of mob violence that has threatened the nation’s democratic foundations. I can only conclude that this mob was (and is) a cult of the country’s disaffected that were recruited, manipulated, rallied, and incited by a depraved charismatic leader, President Orange, who stoked its hatred and violence with an avalanche of misinformation, lies, self-serving deceit, and a con man’s fraudulence, dishonesty, and treachery.

The moral compass of the nation has gone haywire.

Perhaps the most appalling thing about the duplicitous pandering to and incitement of this cult is the collusion of many elected and appointed federal and state officials who are willing to undermine the government of the United States to gain status, power, and wealth from the very people they have deceived. An astounding number of federal and state senators and representatives are more than willing to violate their oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, and have madly rushed to kowtow at the feet of President Orange and chant his populist, nihilistic mantras.  

The greatest and most inflammatory of the thousands of lies to spew out of the mouth of President Orange was that the 2020 election was “rigged.” Of the 23 “election fraud” cases that were filed in state and federal courts by Orange and his cronies, every single one of them was dismissed as “without merit,” but this pathologically narcissistic president continued to rage, threatening election officials and elected representatives with retribution if they refused to violate the Constitution and illegally award him enough votes to win re-election. All praise to those officials, many of whom received death threats from the orange cult’s most mentally unbalanced followers, for standing up for the rule of law in this country, refusing to submit to the rants and threats of an unhinged autocrat.

The protesters, the peaceful ones, have some reason to cry “unfair”: no, the 2020 election was not “rigged,” but the economic system has become “rigged.” The orange cult, however, has no clue how to ur-rig it. Among the solutions are a national health care program, a $15 minimum wage, child care tax breaks or credits for working parents, maternity and paternity leave, free post-high school education, drug and alcohol abuse programs, and a dozen other benefits for those who have been marginalized in America’s economic system. Instead of foam-at-the-mouth rants about the “elite” stacking the deck, the American people should organize and demand that the “elites” fund these initiatives.

President Orange never even considered a single one of these programs; he is the most elite of the elites, and he intends to keep it that way. He gave a trillion-dollar tax break to the wealthiest people in the nation, himself included, that exacerbated economic inequality in this country. The rich got much richer, and the poor got poorer. It is a bizarre paradox that a so-called populist leader has no hint of a populist agenda. As autocratic rulers often do, he chose instead to use people’s legitimate frustrations to inflame hatreds: race, religion, nationality, immigration. And he has no actual belief in any of these twisted malevolencies; they were only his incitements of his base, his siren’s song that lured his sycophantic supporters to shipwreck so that he could plunder their misfortune.

That does not excuse the insurrectionists. They were fools to fall for his lies. They now live in an alternate reality that Orange created with misinformation and falsehoods. Social media companies bear much of the blame for perpetrating this fraud, but of course their motive was money, not the welfare of the nation, and they made a lot of money spreading the unvetted lies and hatred of the mob.

I am not sure America will recover from the political and social devastation of the Orange presidency. In truth, this worst-ever president was not the malignancy, the maladies of racial and religious and misogynistic animus that poison American society. He was only the orange pus suppurating from the diseased psyche of a subset of America’s most gullible, poorly informed, and misled people, infected by those cancers of racism, misogyny, white supremacy, white privilege, evangelistic dogma, and fear and hatred of any other vaguely defined “other” that seems to be a threat.

The moral compass of the nation has gone haywire. There is no true north. For many, there is no truth at all. Truth is whatever President Orange proclaims it to be, and he is a pathological liar.

Perhaps there is a glimmer of hope. Every elected and appointed government official now hastens to condemn (for many of them,  years too late) the insurrectionist attack on Congress. That will not sway the orange cult’s most avid believers, but we can hope that Orange’s own betrayal of them may possibly open their eyes.

Because after his insurrection failed, Orange, that disreputable and amoral Judas, denounced his disciples and tossed them onto the garbage pile like the broken toys that they were. Of all that crazed mob of extremists, of all of those insurrectionists arrested and charged and now facing prison sentences, of all those who were part of that violent mob that stormed the Capitol and murdered a police officer, of all of those traitorous insurgents whose lives will be ruined by the criminal acts that President Orange incited them to commit, of all those who believed his thousands of lies and were seduced to become part of the mad populist cult, of all of them whom he rallied to his call to overthrow the government and whom he told “we love you” – President Orange did not pardon or commute the sentence of a single one of you. Although Orange pardoned and commuted the sentences of some 200 other people, mostly his lackies and cohorts in various frauds and other crimes.

But you insurrectionists? When you had done his bidding and his insurgency failed, he denied you and dropped you into the trash bin, as he has done with every other Orange loyalist who became inconvenient for him. How could you not see it coming?

But maybe you will now see him for what he is.

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Hoarfrost – One of the hundred reasons I love the North Country in winter

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Auld Lang Syne

By Robert Burns (1759-1796)

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And surely ye’ll be your pint-stoup!
and surely I’ll be mine!
And we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

We twa hae run about the braes,
and pou’d the gowans fine
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
sin’ auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

We twa hae paidl’d in the burn,
frae morning sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
sin’ auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!
and gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak’ a right gude-willie waught,
for auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

Robert Burns was born in Alloway, Scotland, on January 25, 1759. He was the author of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786) and Tam O’ Shanter (1795). In addition to Auld Lang Syne, his best known poems include  Scots Wha Hae which has long been the unofficial national anthem of Scotland, A Man’s a Man for A’ That, and Ae Fond Kiss.

Auld Lang Syne

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Winter’s first (serious) snowstorm

The first snowstorm of the winter of 2020-21 will arrive in the North Country sometime in the course of this day, ending the mild weather that has graced our fall and early winter.

The first serious snowstorm, I should say, since we have had a few previous snow flurries, but with almost no snow accumulations.

Now we must get ready for real winter.

Yes, we have had a few sub-zero temperature nights and some weird early winter wind storms with 35-40 mile-per-hour gusts that toppled dead trees and brought down branches. But snow is the true harbinger of the season in the North Country, so we do not really consider it to be wintertime until a good, thick blanket covers the ground.

About 2-3 inches of snow fell during the past week, snow that has comfortably settled in with the cold to stay until spring, but that is just a precursor, and today a serious storm is on its way with forecasts of 5-7 inches of snowfall.

With more than 40 years of experience living with winters in the North Country of the upper Midwest, we have come to doubt storm weather forecasts. We expect at least 10 inches of snowfall, maybe 12.

This first serious snowstorm will not mean a lockdown and isolation on the farm for us; this year of deadly and horrific pandemic has already done that. In truth we have needed only a few last-minute preparations for winter’s onset:
Taking the snow shovels down from the hooks in the garage,
Filling the bird feeder and setting out new suet blocks,
Stacking firewood on the deck,
Mounting the snowblower head and tire chains on the DR mower’s power unit,

Setting the mukluks beside the door,
Unpacking mittens and other layers of winter clothing,
Placing the “Icy Driveway!” sign at the bottom of the lane.

We are brewing an extra pot of coffee, “high octane” Norwegian coffee, because a raging winter snowstorm is an awesome and beautiful thing to watch from behind a picture window, sitting inside a warm kitchen, with a hot cup of coffee, the last of the Christmas cookies, plus a couple rounds of lefse.

We have also laid in a stock of good beers because the aftermath of a winter storm is a miserable thing to deal with when outside in sub-zero temperatures, wind blasting, slipping on the ice, snow packing your beard as you run the snowblower – without a beer to look forward to. Maybe a couple of beers to look forward to.

But that is all two days away, after the storm moves through. Today I am a bear in hibernation, snuggled deep in the cave of my easy chair, warm and well-fed and dozing off to dream of spring. Right after I put one more big chunk of walnut into the woodstove.

Do your worst, winter snowstorms! Throw a foot of snow on us. Two feet, if you want.

We’re ready.   

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