HIKING, WITH A GUN (Part 4) ~ 9/28/11

I’ve discovered in the last 4 years that there are two basic mindsets when it comes to blacktail hunting in the Trinity Alps. The first mindset says, “There’s no way I’m going to shoot some tiny little forked-horn after all the work it took to hike all the way in here!” The second mindset is slightly different: “There’s no way I’m going to pass up a forked-horn and leave empty-handed after all the work it took to hike all the way in here!” As it turns out, pain is its own sort of truth-serum. A conversion experience from the first to second mindset is a common occurrence somewhere along the mountain and mile-infested quest.

I think part of this drive to shoot a deer, whether big or small, is a product of entitlement. If, as a hunter, you have success harvesting (killing) a buck a couple years in a row, you almost begin to expect this same result each successive year. It’s really quite easy to become so accustomed to a privilege that we make it a right. And then, slowly, in the dark blindspots of time unnoticed, what began as a gift can become to us an idol.

I once heard someone define an idol, at the core, as ‘anything we don’t think we can live without.’ I really like that definition; it’s a fantastic (though uncomfortable) self-diagnostic tool. For instance, ‘what’s behind my ferocious drive to bring home a buck each year?’ I often have to ask myself. Is it to provide, to save money on meat, to enjoy a connection to the land on which I live, or is it really to satisfy some idolatrous right I’ve erected in my heart as something my year can’t be complete without? Do I hunt to challenge myself and to become a more responsible master of my environment, or do I fixate on actually ‘getting a buck’ because I’ve let that accomplishment become something I can’t live without, something I depend on to define who I am, more than I depend on the words of God?  I don’t know, maybe these are questions only unsuccessful hunters have the time or thought to ask themselves. My guess is they’re questions still worth asking.

The end of day 3 found me setting up camp in a small clearing off the main trail. I laid out my sleeping bag on lush tufts of grass that pushed their way up through a thick bed of pine needles. These had accumulated over the years under a bank of tall timber, standing patient guard next to a spring that bubbled its way through bright wildflowers before spilling into Bear Creek behind me.

When you’ve been outside, in the wilderness, alone and for some time, strange things begin to happen in your head. For instance, stumps and rocks start to look like animals. Or worse… people.
I was boiling some water early that evening when I looked up and almost fell backwards in fright. There, not 100 yards away, a person sat stock still between the trees, staring at me.
“Hey, YOU!” I shouted (You tend to do everything loudly when you’re alone). The watcher did not move. “Hello?” (a little more tentative this time)-- Then, irritated at the rudeness of the gypsy girl for not responding (because the stump looked like a hunched gypsy girl wearing a shawl), I shouted again—“AAaaaAAAHHHHH!” Nothing. Seeing now that it was only a stump, I went back to watching the water boil and talking to the fire. The gypsy stump haunted me all night.

The morning of day 4 was my last in the Alps. In the dark again, I picked my way slowly up a boulder-strewn slope and discovered at the top a small bowl with good feed, hidden from lower view.  Two hours after settling down on a watching rock, I’d seen the fleeting rump of one mystery deer and two bears, which had gradually wandered and fed their way to within about 70 yards of my stand. Bear are great fun to shoot at when you have a tag. When you don’t, they become scenery with teeth. When the smaller bear got within the general area of my comfort bubble, I stood up and stepped into the sunlight.
“HEY!” I shouted. He stopped and looked around, slightly befuddled.
“Are you kidding me?” I said, taking a step towards him. “Helloooo.” That’s when he saw me. It was hilarious. He started suddenly like a cat does, crouching for a split second before tripping backwards over his own feet. Off balance for a moment, he fell sideways into the oak brush he’d been feeding on before finally regaining his footing and scrambling his way straight uphill at full gallop. I watched him ascend the near vertical slope for the next five minutes, stopping his loping gait only long enough to look back and behind him in laughable dread. The other bear, only 90 yards away, pretended not to notice his embarrassing cousin and continued to shovel paw-fulls of acorns into his mouth as I headed back to break camp.

As you’ve read my adventures of four days spent in the woods, you may have noticed I don’t have a whole lot of stories about actual hunting. There really wasn’t a lot here about animals, about stalking, about tense shots over long distances at trophy kills. That’s because when I headed out into the wilderness with a fire in my belly and hunting on my heart, despite my best efforts and gut-wrenching wishes, the trip ended up more closely resembling hiking, with a gun. In addition to the near 15 miles of walking on trails alone, I estimate I hiked at least an additional 10 miles ‘cross country.’

Arriving back at the trailhead late Monday morning, I collapsed into the car and relished the joy of sitting comfortably for the first time in days. There simply isn’t much about nature that’s comfortable. Putting the car in ‘drive,’ the miles now melted away effortless behind me. Contemplative as I drove, I almost didn’t notice the two does standing dead still in the middle of the road until I was about 30 yards away. Then, instead of trotting back off the way they’d come, they spooked at my approach and began running down the center line away from me. On their right was a cliff face and on their left a drop-off, and if I’d stopped, I'm pretty sure they would’ve simply slowed down and watched me pass. But… I could tell that as long as I kept idling along behind them they’d just keep following the road in a panic, the way deer do when you catch them out in the open for a change. I made ‘em run a ways.

HIKING, WITH A GUN (Part 3) ~ 9/26/11

‘Bob ‘n weave,’ I thought to myself in the dark—‘As long as I’m a moving target, maybe the mountain lions won’t eat me.’

We’re taught from a young age to conquer our fears of the dark, especially in the presence of other men, where these and other childhood hauntings are downright dismissed. Unfortunately, this stoic indifference is greatly diluted in the absence of company. The pre-dawn morning was inky black, a teeth-filled netherworld writhing with menace just beyond the reach of my tiny headlamp. Ahead, a dark tunnel of mystery yawned open through the choked, acorn-studded brush, and behind me, the same. This is your world in the dark of the woods: one beam of blessed light, one direction at a time. And in the back of your mind, always, always, the quiet, nagging question—‘What’s going on in the direction I can’t see?’ Some days it takes longer for the sun to rise.

After leaving my friends the day before, I’d turned East and set out towards the back end of Granite basin. The trail climbed steadily, leading me through unexpected meadows of flowers so tall I was dwarfed by their polin-heavy stalks. I told someone later I half expected to see the entire cast of the Sound of Music, frolicking their way across the trail out before me. Much to my relief, this did not happen. Instead, the meadow gave way to a steep switchback trail carved into the valley’s backstop of decomposing granite and snaking its way towards the summit. I spent the last hours of daylight gasping for breath as I chased the sun over the saddle, its rim slung just under the shadow of Seven-up Peak. That night I camped with a fire.

Now it was morning and I was trying to make my way to a good hunting spot in the unfamiliar new basin, alone and in the dark. It was proving difficult. Finally I settled on a large rock favoring a north-facing crag with sparse pines and shale scales to my left, and, to my right, a more gentle slope that led down to a high mountain meadow. The morning was uneventful until, suddenly— I caught the unmistakable sound of pounding hoof beats carried to me on the rising valley thermals. Like a scene out of The Man From Snowy River, four horses, led by a black mustang, charged up the switchbacks from the valley below and closed the distance to my spot. I had my camera out and snapping as they swept past, majestic, free and—no, not wild. As I discovered later, one of the horses had chewed through its lead rope and incited the defection with a certain amount of mischievous gusto. I watched as he led his groupies all the way to the saddle above, where they stopped, finally, to look back in a dramatic pose as the sun rose behind them and illuminated their manes with fire. Trudging up after them, I enjoyed the first conversation I’d had out loud in a day (with something other than myself), and they joined me at my campsite until their owner appeared, several hours later, exhausted and extremely grouchy. I was sad to see them go.

One final note about the rest of day 3, which eventually led me down 3,000ft. into neighboring Bear Basin, a valley to the northwest and over the ridgeline from Granite: To the makers of Hi-Tec shoes… please stop engineering your hiking boot treads to look exactly like large deer tracks at first glance. It's depressing... and a little bit cruel. 

HIKING, WITH A GUN (Part 2) ~ 9/24/11

There's no realm in which I more fully understand the frustration of works against the unfairness of grace than in the realm of blacktail hunting. This is because in blacktail hunting, as with the Christian faith, ‘victory’ is not based on output of effort. There simply is no promise of getting what you want, based on the best you can do.

Certainly, effort helps. There’s a great degree of truth in the ancient Seneca quote that “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Every year, about 4 months before bow season starts, I begin running, lifting weights and watching my diet with extra care. I do inventory on my hunting gear and repair what needs repairing and when possible, purchase what needs purchasing. I set up a target range and try to familiarize myself with my hunting equipment by practicing everyday. I pour over topographical maps and satellite imagery for potential hunting spots. Constantly, I’m guessing at ranges and distances, forcing myself into ‘heat of the moment’ hunting scenarios, where quick thinking gets the job done. Yes, there’s a great degree of truth in saying that “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” I know each year as the season approaches that when opportunity comes, I’m as ready for it as I can be. The thing with hunting is… we don’t control opportunity.

I woke to a waning moon bright on my face and rose as a falling star fell. My alarm was shrieking obscenities at a peaceful world as I struggled with clumsy fingers to undo the zipper of my sleeping bag. ‘Shut up, shut up, shut up!’ I muttered frantically. I always wake up panicked when I’m hunting, convinced the ‘monster buck’ will be scared away by my freakishly loud digital travel clock. Who knows… maybe he was.  

Even in California, mountain mornings are cold. I know, not as cold as wherever it is you hunt, but, whatever, it was cold. We stumbled around the camp to get warm and wake up, making final preparations to our packs and for the hike to our stands for first light. When things were ready, we split up and began our hour-long hike to the ridge-rock bowls where we hoped to see buck herds like bison.

In the dying light of dusk, the granite thresholds of Gibson Peak seem to weep rivulets of liquid silver, but it’s only an illusion. Really it’s nothing but the last bit of sun, reflecting off hundreds of tiny feeder springs that trickle down to the lake below and hardly make a ripple. But this wasn’t dusk; it was dawn, and with every breath I battled gravity and time to beat dawns early light to my spot on the ridgeline. When finally I made it to my outcropping perch, Venus was swinging low from the moon like the old wooden seat strung up from the mango tree by my childhood home. But for all the beauty of my killer view, the deer did not come.

The sun rose quickly, changing the landscape from blue to gold, and what deer there were, though invisible to us, bedded down for the day along with hope and opportunity. Our group returned to camp near noon before going separate ways. They went back out the trailhead, one of their young men nauseous and cold. I ventured further up the valley, alone but intrigued at the thought of new vistas filled with deer. I had two days left to hunt.

I know, each year, when opportunity comes, I’m as ready for it as I can be. The thing with hunting is… we don’t control opportunity. We can’t earn it. It comes like the wind, refreshing but unmastered, unpredictable but real, and is no respecter of persons. Which is why there’s no realm in which I more fully understand the frustration of works against the unfairness of grace than in the realm of blacktail hunting. Because in blacktail hunting, as in the Christian faith, ‘victory’ isn’t based on output of effort. There simply is no promise of getting what you want, based on the best you can do. In hunting, as in the Christian faith, success depends on unmerited favor. You prepare, you sweat, you work —but not before you risk a prayer for help in submission to the God of opportunity.

HIKING, WITH A GUN (Part 1) ~ 9/21/11

The morning was cool, with a rising fog that flanked the foothills of The Trinity Alps with an aura of mystery and the hint of Fall. It was a spectacular dawn.  I took up the rear in a procession of four, accompanied in my hunt by a friend and his sons on a trail not one of us had previously hiked. It was the morning before opening day and adventure was in the air.

The trail was wide and well groomed, and followed the raucous flow of a creek called ‘Swift,’ which, over the years, had cut a deep gash through flecked walls of cold stone. Our destination was a meadow just short of what turned out to be one of the most popular tourist destination in the Alps—Granite Lake. The lake sat in a cleft of stone, a dew drop in a rock navel, perched calm at an elevation of about 6,500 feet where it birthed its own creek from a 300ft. waterfall. This bleeding flow then shattered to bits on the boulders of a jagged basin and slowed its pace to a crawl before making its way through the hard pack and grass tufts of Gibson Meadow, far below. It was there, in the shadow of Granite and God, that we made our first camp.

The sun set slowly over Gibson Peak, so slowly it gave me time for a dip in the creek after scouting my morning stand. The waters were still and clear, four deep by ten feet wide, and, plunging suddenly, I immersed myself in the shocking cold wet. I sputtered a bit as I came out, surprised at the sting, and as I did, glanced to my left in time to see a small tree frog leap from the thick willow brush and into the water with a splash. Apparently I’d inspired him. I wondered idly if he was sputtering somewhere too.

Changing into a fresh set of clothes, I wandered through the lush meadow grass to a flat rock bathed in sunset and took a nap, hat pulled down over my eyes. I woke to a rising moon and the onset of a mountain chill that sent me jogging back to camp. There wasn’t much talk that night around our awkward meals and eccentric rituals; tomorrow was on our minds, and the luck it might hold. We dreamed each one of triumph and glory, meat and horns and the legends we hoped to embody by our deeds. As usual, the best dreams were the most elusive ones, and sleep conceded defeat to an unsettled delirium. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not adrenaline or testosterone that fuels the die-hard hunter. No; whether awake or asleep, the drug of the hunter is hope, and in these parts, we’re all heavy users.


I was privileged to share the gospel with a 92yr-old woman today. We sat together on a porch painted black and shadowed by wind-teased oaks. Geese played nearby in a man-made pond stocked with bluegill, bass and fat brown catfish, and all the bucks I’d been looking for all season lay sleeping in the lawn under low trees heavy with apples and shade. We sat together on a porch painted black and the woman said, “The days just seem to fly by faster and faster,” and it made me think of the words of Moses in Psalm 90, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”  What does it mean to ‘number our days?’

Author Sandra Felton tells the story of a man who, based on his best guess at how many days he could expect to live, filled a jar with marbles, one for each week he had left. The man would remove a marble from his jar and carry it around in his pocket all week long. Then, each Sunday, he would remove the marble from his pocket and give it to a child at church. In this way, he metered out the days and weeks of his life, one marble at a time.

Maybe you find this just a little bit grim. But for this man, each marble served as a concrete, visual reminder of something the rest of us work very hard to forget—that we are not long for this world. That like milk or a green leaf in Autumn, we have an expiration date in the land of the living. There’s a principle in money management that says money, for many of us, is like water in our hands, and if we don’t keep track of where we spend it, we’ll be forever asking where it went. So, too, with life. “The days just seem to fly by faster and faster,” she said, moving to a chair more fully in shade, which had shifted since we’d first sat down.

The words of Moses here are a prayer, a prayer “that God would teach us to number our days, as if the present one was the last; for we cannot boast of tomorrow,” says John Gill in his exposition of Psalm 90.We know not but this day, or night, our souls may be required of us.” To ‘number our days’ is to live in the awareness that our sunrises and sunsets will not go on forever; it is to live each day as our last, because the tricky thing about death is… we don’t know God’s schedule. “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” Why does numbering our days get us ‘a heart of wisdom?’ Do you know, when a person pauses to number his days, there’s a door opens up a bit wider in the heart towards the things of God…

The preceding verse in Psalm 90 says this—
“Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you? So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. There’re several different Hebrew words translated “fear” in our English Bible, but they don’t all convey identical meaning. In the case of the word ‘fear’ in this passage from Psalm 90, the word is yir'âh. Where other Hebrew words for ‘fear,’ and ‘the fear of God’ have to do with dread or abject terror, the word yir’ah conveys the meaning of admitting your vulnerable smallness in the presence of God’s overpowering vastness,  similar to what you would feel if you stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon and looked out. The word here means a recognition of and submission to the all-encompassing authority of God.

This verse, then, is very clear: God’s wrath towards people at the end of days is ‘according to’ their recognition of and submission to His authority. And do you know that when a person pauses to number their days, facing his or her mortality, there’s a door opens up a bit wider in the heart towards submission to the things of God— and the choice to submit to Him is ‘getting a heart of wisdom.’ “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10, Psalms 111:10, Proverbs 1:7, Job 28:28, etc.).

So what does “the fear of the LORD” look like for us, today? What is a true “God-fearing” man or woman? It is a man or woman who submits their life to Jesus. Jesus, through whom all things were created (Colossians 1:16), Jesus, God in the flesh (John 1:1-5,14), Jesus, the perfect man who took our sin (2 Corinthians 5:21), Jesus, the innocent man who took our punishment (1 Peter 3:18), Jesus, who rose again to life (Acts 2:29-32), Jesus, who personified salvation (John 3:16), Jesus, who claimed all the authority of God in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18), JESUS—and this is His gospel. Have you submitted your life to Jesus? When you do, it’s a healthy fear that purges the abject terror of God’s wrath, because “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

Whether or not you’ve ‘numbered your days,’ your days are numbered, and most of us won’t be blessed with as many todays to ‘get a heart of wisdom’ as the woman I spoke with on the porch painted black. Take it from someone who knows— ‘the days will just fly by faster and faster.’ So to you, I repeat the appeal of St. Paul in the New Testament book of 2 Corinthians, chapters 5,6—“We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he (God) made him (Jesus) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him (Jesus) we might become the righteousness of God. Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says, ‘In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.’ Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.

I was privileged to share the gospel with a 92yr-old woman today. We sat together on a porch painted black and shadowed by wind-teased oaks. When I’d finished explaining what Jesus did for her, and that salvation required submitting to Christ through belief, I looked at her and asked, “What do you think about what I’ve just told you?”
‘I believe this!” she said with feeling, and eternity unfolded before her, even as the shadows forever fled.

Surrounded By Grace,


Sometimes, there are just days when you sit up and say, "Well, why not?" Last Friday was such a day. Why not make a music video? About hunting? A rap music video about hunting? I mean, come on... why not? And so we did. 'Cause that is how we roll.
*Grace induces faith & Grace is obligated to faith ~