Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Hunting Hazards

My Dad was not a hunter.  But around the age of 15, a friend introduced me to this outdoor activity.  And, while any rational person can easily identify the hazards of the business-end of a shot-gun, I found that to be the least of my worries.

Shotgun Swimming

One year a new lake was opened to hunting.  The first thing you need to know about lakes in Texas is that none of them are natural.  Here, the Corps of Engineers, or another agency, builds a dam in a river to create a 'reservoir'.  Old creek-beds, dead trees, etc are left largely untouched as the water level rises to flood pastureland, farmland, etc.

An old hunting-buddy of mine suggested that we checkout a new lake.  He had done some scouting, and had an idea of where to setup.  As the sun arose, we could generally discern where the old creek-bed lay...due to the way the trees were arranged...still standing where they were drowned.  During the morning, we were visited by several pairs of Wood Ducks...but not many other species.  The Wood Duck is a beautiful creature, but due to the way in which waterfowl were managed that year, we were allowed to only harvest one per hunter.  Mine fell on the 'other side' of the flooded creek.  And, no matter what I did, it was not going to float to our side of the creek.

After a couple of hours had passed, and we were certain the ducks were finished flying for the day, I started hiking upstream of the creek to find a place to cross.  Then, worked my way back down the other side of the creek to the fallen duck.  By this time, I was pretty confident that I could judge the channel by the trees.  Then, suddenly, there was no ground beneath my foot.  When walking in waders, through water above the waist, it is REALLY hard to stop, change direction, or otherwise do anything but continue forward.  Realizing the water was too deep, I quickly kicked-out with the one foot remaining on ground.  My objective was to reach a nearby tree...which would allow me time to think of a new plan that did not involve drowning.  Rubber waders are very interesting.  As a result of my kick, I was going toward the desired destination, and had the impression that I was actually floating.  For a brief moment, I thought I might not get wet.  Then floop, the water reached the top of the waders and I began sinking...quickly.  Thankfully, I was able to reach a limb of the dead tree, and grabbed-hold for all I was worth.

So, here I am; one hand clutching my shotgun, the other clinging to my life-saving tree, no ground within reach of my feet.  Time for a plan!  I firmly planted both feet against the life-saving tree, and kicked-off in the last-known direction of firm ground.  I was on the swim-team in high-school, and was a very strong swimmer at the time of this event.  So, using my most determined swim-kick, and paddling with one hand, while holding the shotgun out of the water, I made it to solid ground.  And yes, I actually did recover the duck.

Fire Ants

Another Texas peculiarity is Fire Ants.  They are not unique, or native, to Texas, but they have become so pervasive that we accept their existence as an unchangeable fact.  Their bite/sting combination is painful and potentially dangerous to many with allergies.  And, they have proven impossible to eradicate.  Every year or so, a new poison or bait comes-to-market to control the critters...but they are survivors.

One year, we experienced far heavier-than-usual autumn rains.  The lakes went from being well below 'normal' to overflowing.  During the summer months the fire ants had built many nests in the new real estate exposed by the low water.  And, when those nests flooded, we learned something new about fire ants...they float.  They grasp each other and form a floating raft of their own bodies.  Some of the rafts were over a foot across, and over six inches tall, generally conical, and just floating on the waves.

When walking in waders across a shallow inlet long before sunrise, one does not necessarily have the ability to see the floating cones of pain.  And, so it was that I apparently walked into a large floating nest.  It was in November, and I was dressed for cooler weather: thermal-pants, jeans, a light shirt, a sweatshirt, chest waders, and waterproof coat.  My first hint that something was wrong was when I was bit on the neck.  I pinched the critter off my neck, and quickly realized what must have happened.  Then came the onslaught.  It was as if war had been declared, and I was fighting an invisible enemy in the dark.  One I could not see, or find, until after they had given their best shot.  It got so bad that I seriously considered stripping naked to try to wash them off.  Then, God intervened.  I really brief, very cold, storm came without warning.  There I stood, in waist-deep water, with my back to the wind, shivering in the cold, with no place to go and nothing to do, but wait for all of the misery to end, as I continued to pinch-off the ants  But something curious happened, as the temperature dropped, the ants stopped biting.  And somehow, a silent truce was called.  I had no idea how many ants were left alive, but they weren't biting me.  And, I had no interest in angering them further.  So, the truce continued as the storm abated, and the sun arose.

Later, as I carefully removed my gear...outdoors, one-piece-at-a-time, I was informed that the back of my sweatshirt was COVERED in ants.  Gingerly, I pulled the shirt over my head, being extra-careful to not disturb them any more than absolutely necessary.  I didn't even attempt to shake the ants off the shirt.  I just left it, and them, in weeds there at the lake.  My waders and coat rode home in the bed of the pickup-truck.  And I was so pumped with adrenaline that I didn't even need the heater for the ride home.  My wife told me there were HUNDREDS of bites across my neck and back.  And given the total lack of treatment (it was over two hours before I even took a Benadryl), I credit that brief, cold, storm with saving my life.

Freezing Blind

Other than lakes and rivers, most property in Texas is privately-owned.  And, ranchers/farmers learned long-ago that hunters are willing to pay cash money for exclusive hunting access to their property.  My wife's grandfather called white-tailed deer "glorified billy goats", due to their tendency to destroy his vegetable garden.  But most landowners now see them as "cash cows".  Of course, the landowners also suffer some impact to their property as a result of this arrangement: hunter camp-sites, deer-feeder 'pens', and semi-permanent hunting-blinds.

When our oldest son was 14 or 15, I had to opportunity to join a deer lease near the town of San Saba.  The Texas Hill Country is known for large populations of relatively small deer, lots of natural beauty, and sometimes extreme temperature changes. 

On Friday, Shaun and I arrived after dark and setup camp for a weekend of hunting.  The temperature was in the 60's, and we expected a pleasant weekend of good company, watching wildlife, and hopefully seeing deer.  We arose before sunrise, to a typical November morning temperature in the 40's.  We dressed appropriately, and hiked to the blind...about a quarter-mile walk from camp.  The blind was was larger-than-usual, made primarily of plywood, and easily accommodating two persons.  Shortly after getting settled, it began to rain.  The blind had a good roof, and rain was not an issue.  As the sun rose, the temperature began to plummet.  Within an hour or so, we began seeing the rain freezing to fence-wire.  It was about this time that I noticed that the entire blind was shaking.  The wind was not too bad, and it took some time to discern the cause of the shake...two shivering hunters inside the structure. 

Utilizing my best calm and controlled, 'fatherly', voice, I asked Shaun if he would like to go into town for a warm breakfast.  I don't think he responded verbally.  Instead, he launched from his chair, and was well out the door by the time I finished my offer.  Neither of us realized how much warmth the blind had been providing, just by being dry and out of the wind.  We were completely soaked before we had covered half the distance to the camp.  Ice was forming around the already-wet trees, and I became genuinely concerned about our ability to survive the walk.  But, there was no cover, and no alternative but to continue.  I urged Shaun to walk faster in an attempt to generate heat.

At camp, we changed into dry clothes, and packed the car as quickly as possible.  Within a half-hour we were in the car, and headed off the lease.  But, in that little time, ice had completely encased most of the trees.  There had been no snow or sleet, but the trees encased in ice were quite beautiful.  Breakfast was good, the car warmed quickly, and Shaun slept most of the hours back home.  I made a mental note to check weather reports repeatedly, and not trust a long-term forecast.

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