Anza Knives

Made one at a time in the USA

These days it’s hard to find something that isn’t stamped “Made in China” and harder still to find something handmade that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.  Anza Knives are an exception and Charlie Davis stands behind his product.

About four years ago, I bought an Anza bird and rabbit knife at a speciality knife retailer in Sierra Vista, Arizona.  It caught my eye because the cool thing about Charlie’s knives is that they are made from old files.  Charlie fashions them into knives in a manner that leaves the serrations of the file intact on several areas of the blade.  He believes  that old high-carbon files are an ideal material for knives because file steel is made, well, for cutting.

I’ll admit, I hadn’t used the knife much. Fixed blade knives don’t usually wind up on my belt when I leave the house, so the knife mostly stayed in my kitchen. One day I noticed one of the exotic wood scales fell off. It took me about another year to get around to reaching out to Charlie to see about getting it fixed. After I found his email address on the web I sent him a description of the problem. Charlie emailed me back himself and told me to mail it to him to his shop in Lakeside, California, no questions asked.

From there I corresponded with his helpful, friendly assistant Linda. She told me Charlie would fix and ship it back to me free of charge. I’m not much a fan of exotic woods and at some point I asked her if Charlie could replace the handle, or scales, with Micarta. Linda told me that request might cost a bit, as working with Micarta is difficult and it is hard on the knife making equipment. Nevertheless a few days later she wrote back to me, “Charlie said we’ll give you the handle the way you want it. No charge. We’re like Burger King… have it your way. He just wants happy customers.”

The only thing she asked of me was that if I shot a deer in the fall would I send her the tail,  for use in her craft projects.  About a month later, Charlie sent me back a polished, sharpened knife with a good-looking, practical micarta handle. Free of charge.

Anza Bird and Trout

Unfortunately, I didn’t shoot a deer last year, so I couldn’t send a token of my thanks.    But I did shoot a mess of squirrels and a few ducks. Happy to report the knife did the job; it fit my hand well and held an edge. I didn’t go out and try and chop down a tree with it, but the little blade sliced through tough squirrel hide and delicately breasted out a few ducks with ease.

If you are in the market for a knife that you will be proud to own, made one at a time by an American who stands behind his work, look into Anza Knives.

Button Buck Down

After eight years of trying, a Virginia hunter harvests his first buck

The second week of Virginia’s 2013 muzzleloader season was windy and clear.  The mid-Atlantic was finally in winter’s cold grasp and the crisp November morning was struggling to reach 30 degrees.  Not exactly perfect deer hunting weather and I wasn’t very hopeful about ending my eight-year streak of not shooting a deer.  Too bad I hadn’t been hunting skunks, that’s what I was always getting.

Was it worth eight years of trying ? Yes!

Was it worth eight years of trying ? Yes!

I’ve killed and cooked pheasant, squirrel, grouse – even a Rocky Mountain bull elk, but I had never shot a whitetail.  My hunting partner, Jason, and I have tramped all over every piece of public land in Virginia.  Up and down icy mountain trails in pre-morning darkness until after many half-hours past sunset.  We’re on great terms with vast tracks of the Washington-Jefferson National Forest.  We even joined a hunt club on prime timber land five years ago but neither one of us had killed a deer.  My wife unfailingly supportive of my quests, lately had begun to demand, Kay Robertson-style, that I bring home a deer, or else.

Like most years,  Army Reserve duty prevented me from making opening day of muzzleloader season, but I took that first Friday after off from work and sat all day in my favorite stand.  All windy, low 20’s-freezing day.  I didn’t see one single specimen of America’s favorite big game animal.

Disappointed by the previous day’s failure, I climbed the ladder stand again on Saturday.  It was just as cold, and even windier. Things were looking glum.  I couldn’t appreciate the morning woods coming to life or even muster the false motivation of believing that a bad day hunting was better than good day at work.   A “bad day hunting” might be falling out of my tree stand.  I prayed for a successful hunt.

Midday approached and I began to fear I would not be able to teach my toddler son how to hunt deer when the time came.  What would I say when he sits next to me in the deer stand and whispers that he sees a deer and asks what to do, “Heck if I know son, I’ve never done this before?  You’re guess is as good as mine.”  The shame.  I fell deeper into despair.  The wind whipped constantly in a blue bird day frenzy.  A coyote had recently been killed on our hunting lease;  unable to hear or smell predators, there was no way a deer was just going to saunter past my deer stand at high noon.

I mulled over all the deer hunting strategies I read about in Field and Stream and Outdoor Life over the years, and thought of the pines directly behind  my stand.  The deer had to be bedded down there, hidden from predators and the cold wind in the thickets between the straight rows of farmed trees.  I would have to go kill one the hard way, if I was going to feed my family venison this year.  Of course, I could go warm up in the Subaru and take a nap… I drew down deeply into the substance that sustains all hunters and fishermen: the wellspring of optimism that a trophy lies at the end of just one last cast or over just one more ridge.

Quietly, I climbed down the ladder and after replacing the primer in my CVA Optima started down the trail that borders the pines.  After about 50 yards, I locked eyes with a big-bodied doe staring at me from just inside the trees.  Before I could shoulder my rifle, she and a few of her friends bolted.   But I took the herd as a good omen and entered the pines from the nearest firebreak.  Within 100 yards of that herd, I jumped a second group, then a third,  and behind that, another herd.  Jackpot!  These hedgerows were thick with deer!  When the next herd rose from behind a blowdown about thirty yards away, I hastily took a knee to buy time for a shot, quickly settled the crosshairs of the Leopold UltimateSlam and squeezed the trigger.  I sent the 295-grain Powerbelt on its way and saw my target flinch before smoke obscured the sight picture.

As the smoke cleared, I switched gears and mentally prepared to track the animal.  I visualized the last place I saw it and tried to capture every detail of the surrounding area.  I slowly approached the spot, not wanting to push a wounded animal.  Happily, ten feet from where I shot him, a deer lay stone dead.

From the field to freezer. Steaks, straps, brats, and breakfast sausage.

From  field to freezer.  Steaks, sausage, brats, and straps.

A beautiful button buck sporting the tan coat of a yearling lay on its side in a soft bed of pine needles.  My shot had double-lunged him right behind the shoulder and he died within seconds of my pulling the trigger.  I ran my hands over the stiff fur and was startled when his last breath hissed out of the bullet holes in the deer’s chest.  A wave of sadness rose up to match the pride I felt in taking the deer.   Nothing prepares you for the overwhelming sense of personal responsibility that comes along with taking an animal’s life.

In the end – every grazing animal, from the Commonwealth to the Caprivi Strip,  is doomed to be killed and eaten.  Within a few years, my buck would surely have been taken down by a pack of coyotes, or turned into hamburger by a speeding car.  But now,  in giving his life to feed my family,  he would live forever in my mind’s eye backlit by the afternoon sun.

Local Trees, Local Knowledge

Agricultural extension service helps identify plants in Alexandria

Kousa Dogwood fruit?

When I was young, my mother had a vegetable garden and we subscribed to our local extension service’s printed newsletter  that educated folks on soil conditions, pests and appropriate local varieties. The printed newsletter is long gone, but the agencies are just as helpful.

Case in point: My wife and I live adjacent to the George Washington Parkway, just south of Dyke Marsh,  which gives us the opportunity to observe the changing seasons through its diverse flora. Whether we are running, biking, or putting in our kayaks, there are hundreds of plant species greeting the eye. We are especially interested in the occasional shrub or tree that yields edible fruit.

During an evening walk about three weeks ago,  we noticed two fruit trees — one that appeared to bear crab apples and one that bore an interesting pinkish/yellowish fruit that  looked like something one might find in a Hispanic grocery store.

I picked a few fruits, along with their respective leaves and continued our evening walk along the river in perfect weather. When we got home, I uploaded photos of our finds and sent an inquiry to the local agricultural extension office in Fairfax, Virginia through their webpage  The good folks there got back to me in a day or two and helped me narrow down the possibilities. The photos I emailed to their specialist were low resolution, so we could not get a definite ID.  Turns out, we most likely did find crab apples and possibly the fruit of the Kousa Dogwood tree.

The crab apples

Crab apple?

are edible (especially to deer, turkeys and grouse!) and while bitter, they can be boiled down and sweetened to make jams, jellies or ciders.  The Kousa Dogwood fruit— no guarantee this is a Kousa — are edible and have a melony/sweet taste.

One word of caution though, I was advised by the extension agent to get a confirmed identification of both plants before tucking in to a confection of their fruits. The agent suggested I submit the fruits to the Extention’s diagnostic laboratory or visit a local plant clinic hosted by  the Fairfax County Master Gardeners.

We probably won’t be going to out to harvest crab apples by the bushel anytime soon, but it was great fun getting to know area plants by tapping into the expert knowledge of our local extension office.

North Carolina Public Hunting Areas – An Interactive Resource

More virtual scouting for nearby hunting

NC State Game Lands — an interactive map

My neighbor and shooting buddy Isaiah sent me another handy Google app for us hunters. This time he details public hunting areas in North Carolina.  This is a another great resource if don’t have access to private land, or if you just want to check out a new place to hunt.

North Carolina Game Lands – Interactive Map

Dennis Does Arizona

Tackling the Arizona Trail, firefighter to hike 800 miles in 30 days

All 800 glorious miles in 30 days!

In honor and remembrance of the firefighters that fell on September 11th  2001, my friend Dennis set out to hike the entire length of the Arizona Trail on the tenth anniversary  of the attack.  Dennis is a firefighter from Sierra Vista, Arizona who relocated from NJ with his girlfriend Jessica, who is a police officer.  Guess that makes him the Badge Bunny!  Jessica and I were teammates on my first deployment to Iraq and Dennis is an all-around good guy.

According to the Arizona Trail Association, the route is a “continuous, 800+ mile diverse and scenic trail across Arizona from Mexico to Utah. It links deserts, mountains, canyons, communities and people.” Just sounds plain awesome to me. I’ve driven from Utah to Mexico through Arizona,  and the description is too modest — to say that it’s diverse and scenic is like saying Paris is a pretty city.  I am jealous, because I know the changes in terrain and elevation that he is about to experience.

In support of him, and all his brother firefighters that run towards danger, Northern Virginia Outside is making a donation to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.  Please join me in support of  fallen American firefighters , in recognition of Dennis’s undertaking.  Also, you can live vicariously through Dennis, from  your cubicle  like me,  at Spot Adventures.  When you visit the site, play “spot the Glock” in the photo of his gear!  Good luck Dennis!

The Hatfields and McCoys

Fascinating and entertaining — learn the truth behind the legend of the feud

I found this five-minute documentary while poking around the June 201o online issue of Blue Ridge Outdoors.

The Hatfields and McCoys — a Documentary

"Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?

Avoid Twists and Snarls on a Spinning Reel

Ways to spend more time fishing and less time untangling your line

Flipping the bail manually prevents line twists

A few weeks ago, I was out in my kayak fishing in the Potomac off Belle Haven and my monofilament  kept  twisting  around the rod tip and coiling on the spool in frequent, maddening snarls.  The bass and yellow perch were biting that day, but I swear I had to untangle my line three times for every fish I hooked.

Tony, who fishes pretty successfully out of his bass boat down there, saw my predicaments and suggested I do this the next time I spool up some fresh line:

After filling your spool with good quality monofilament, take the rod and reel outside. Tie off on a stationary object such as a small tree or truck bumper and walk out about two-hundred feet of line. That’s about three to four times as a long as good cast. Depending on the test strength of the line, grab it with your hand, and stretch the line with a steady pressure below its breaking point.

This makes the line supple and limp and helps avoid unwanted coiling altogether. It also pre-stretches the line for better hook sets when fish take the bait.

The second trick is to flip the bail manually after every cast. Instead of  turning the handle, just push the bail over with your free hand. This keeps the bail from contacting loose line before it gathers it on the spool. This method prevents twisted line that eventually forms snarls.

So there you have it — now I haven’t caught much fish lately, but at least I haven’t had to undo any tangled line !

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Virginia Public Hunting Areas – Google Maps

Public hunting land in VA

My neighbor and shooting buddy Isaiah put together this handy Google app that details all the public hunting areas in Virginia.  This is a great resource if don’t have access to private land, or if you just want to check out a new place to hunt.

Virginia Public Hunting Areas – Google maps

Public Land + 5 Hours = Two Elk

Two hunters from Virginia tag out on elk in one morning

Thanks again to my hunting partner Jason, this time for telling the tale of  our first elk hunt together.

Catch elk fever and this is the only cure!

There is nothing in the world, and I mean nothing, that stirs hunters like me as do elk, and the elk country of the Rocky Mountain West.  In the East, we brag of spotting whitetails in our trail cams with antlers the size of rocking chairs, but they’re picnic baskets compared to the headgear sported by elk.   A bull elk’s rack can stretch six feet back to the tail end of its 800 pound body.  I’ve got an “Elk Crossing” and  an “Elk-a-holic” bumper sticker on my Jeep.   See or hear one and your infected.  The first time I heard the trumpety, screaming bellow of an elk bugling from a distant ridge, I darn near cried out of joy and awe.  I love the smell of elk in the rut and I’ve covered the walls of my home and office with nothing but pictures of them.  Once, I even dreamed I was an elk.

I had my first bout with elkaholism in 2007.  I started off the guided public land  hunt with high hopes. We packed into the Idaho backcountry with horses. The camp was good and the food was excellent, but the outfitter had a terrible hunting style.  He was unwilling to move through his own concession near the Lo Lo National Forest.  Up high in the Clearwater, near Hoodoo Pass, he set clients down and told us not to move.  I heard elk bugling from a basin a thousand yards away, I could even see them.  I got the outfitter on the radio and asked if I should move 600-yards closer for a shot. His reply: “no, we don’t want you to scent up our area”.  Fine way to hunt if you’re lazy or out of shape, but I wasn’t neither.

In 2009, I had a much better hunt in southern Colorado.  Just before the hunt though I had premonitions about to getting sick or injured and not being able to make the hunt.   It seemed like something was bound to happen just before departure.  Ominously, the day before we left, I had an accident at work which could have killed me, but only tweaked my knee a bit.  Finally, on October 13th, my hunting partner Jeff and I took a cab to Reagan National and flew from Alexandria, Virginia to Denver, Colorado.

But flight delays from Denver to Durango left me with only an hour’s sleep, when the outfitter’s wakeup call at 4:00 a.m interrupted my elk-laced dreams.  Stumbling to the bathroom in my motel, I stepped on a huge piece of glass.  Though blood was everywhere, I could still walk on the injured foot.  It wasn’t on the same leg as the bad knee, so the pain equaled out and most importantly, I wasn’t limpin’ none.  Premonitions be damned.

Our outfitter, Andrew DiCesare of D bar G Outfitters, arrived at the motel looking every bit the part, wearing a duster and cowboy hat. He rustled us and our gear into his pickup with the efficiency of a successful businessman who survived off  his wits and razor-thin margins.  He also exuded the happiness of  a man who made a living hunting in the Rocky Mountains and loving every minute of it. During the 20 mile drive to the  D bar G ranch, we discussed best local hunting tactics, elk movements in the area, our shooting abilities, and how the elk camp was run.  Jeff and I quickly came to believe that D bar G Outfitters was the right choice.

At the ranch we met about eight other hunters and Andrew’s wife, Victoria.  We organized our equipment and packed horses and

Packing in to the San Juan National Forest

mules in thin, cold air.   Heck, I got a little winded just unburdening my Pelican case and staging a few bags, worrying if I had trained enough.  The sun finally moved over the foothills and warmed our bones around 7:00 a.m.  Just as my fingers were beginning to thaw, we got in the stirrups and clip-clopped up the trail leading into the wild heart of the San Juan National Forest.   A string of hunters and half as many guides, extra horses, and pack mules went single file, higher up into the mountains. We rode for about 12 miles until we arrived at camp.

Camp was a first-class siwash affair consisting of three or four canvas wall tents with stoves, and a chow tent, sitting at 9500 feet elevation.  Tucked in a grove of firs at the edge of an alpine meadow, situated between a pure spring and a babbling mountain brook, it was the elk camp of every hunter’s imagination.  After a quick lunch of bologna sandwiches, we unpacked our rifles and gear and settled in.  After dark, everyone gathered round the fire pit and talked about elk and elk guns.  Elk medicine at this camp varied from a classic blued steel and walnut Ruger 30-06, to a father and son pair of  carbon fiber, muzzle-braked Christensen Arms .300 RUMs.  Our guides were partial to any round that began with “ three hundred ” which they stated could kill elk reliably to 500 yards, thought the 30-06 should be used only within 200 meters, and in the hands of most clients, a .270 just didn’t get the job done.

Didn’t sleep too well again cause of elk fever, though I’d hardly slept in nearly 48 hours.  My tent’s wood burning stove died out just after midnight and I shivered miserably, but was as thrilled as a kid the night before Christmas.  Around 4:00 a.m. the camp stirred and hungry hunters made their way to the mess tent for cups of steaming black coffee, egg and bacon sandwiches and lunch, – you guessed it-  bologna sandwiches, issued with breakfast.

Minutes before dawn, Andrew assembled the hunters in a schoolhouse circle and paired them off with their respective guides. His voice barely above a whisper, he reminded us to remain silent, watch where we stepped, and gave the command to move out. Andrew never left camp during darkness because the chance of encountering elk in the meadow over the first rise was high; and he didn’t want to just spook elk, he wanted to give his clients every chance to shoot one.  We followed Andrew in single file a few hundred meters up to the edge of the first rise and paused while he scanned for elk.  Using hand signals he called up his guide/client teams one at a time, dispatching some to distant ridges,  and others to far away hot spots known only to the guides and Andrew.

This is elk country!

Jeff and I drew the lucky straws, we’d been paired up with the outfitter himself.  We headed up the north side of the closest ridge and I silently fell out of the formation at the lip of a wide bowl.  Jeff and Andrew continued on to a series of tables parallel to my field of fire.   As the sun bathed me in its warmth it wasn’t long before the lack of sleep caught up to me and I dozed off into what I call the Basic Hunter’s Nap.  That contented twilight sleep that fools you into believing that you will rouse at the the slightest rustling of leaves to find your prey at 25 yards patiently pawing the ground, waiting for you to aim your rifle.

Around 7:30 a.m, three gunshots brought me to full alert.  They echoed off the ridges around me so it was hard to tell who might be doing the shooting – though I was hoping it was Jeff.  Fell back asleep against a downed tree, but woke up when I heard Jeff and Andrew walking on a nearby trail.  They had spied me napping and joked that I’d get nothing with my eyes closed.

Jeff took a knee and excitedly recounted how Andrew had bugled to challenge a bull they’d heard thrashing in the distance.  The elk charged in with his harem and a posse of lesser bulls, ready to kick the snot out the interloper.  At fifty yards the bull screeched to a halt and paused behind a tree, trying to pinpoint the intruder.  Jeff’s first shot missed its mark – his particular rifle always needs a fouling shot to be true.  It only enraged the bull further and he actually stepped around the tree to bellow at the offending 30-06.   A 180 grain Federal Vital Shock behind the shoulder and a second one to the chest, dropped the magnificent 750 pound 4×5 literally in its tracks.  As they headed back to camp to get the horses for a pack out, Andrew told me I should still hunt the north facing slope of the bowl, as the elk tended to bed on that side of the mountain.

Moving laterally across the bowl to the north, I passed a bunch of sign and my confidence rose.  In less than ten minutes I heard a bull bugle, as elk parallel to me worked their way up the slope.  The terrain was thick with evergreens, so I moved 20 yards to my left where it was more open, with some browse on the ground where elk might stop to feed.

A small legal shooter materialized just below me, but he was walking away fast, offering no shot. Within minutes a second bull walked out of the trees 100 yards distant, giving me a broadside shot.  I brought up my Model 70 Featherweight, but the trigger wouldn’t budge.  I had foolishly left the three-position safety on the middle position, thinking from there it would be a faster switch to “fire”.  Instead, the bolt had moved out of battery at some point, and as I struggled to re-chamber the round, bull number two walked out of my crosshairs.

Just five minutes after the two bulls passed I heard footsteps coming from my left.  With the rifle resting on my knee, a cow stepped into the clearing from about 20 yards away, testing the wind and scanning the terrain.  I observed her, willing myself not to move.  Don’t even think about the gun.  Don’t think about killing elk or have any predator thoughts.  Hide your eyes and become part of the woods.  That’s it.  Now, will the cow to move on and lead a bull out of cover.

Determining it was safe (surely because of my telepathy) she moved sharply downhill and out of my field of view.  Then another cow showed up in same spot, quartering slightly away, pausing briefly, then moved downhill out of sight.  I was in a shooting gallery.  As about fifteen cows continued their procession, I ensured my scope was on its lowest magnification and waited, alert,  knowing a bull had to be following closely behind.  Moments later I saw massive antlers that paused at the edge of the cover, then brown hide…come on…one more step…stay broadside.  I squeezed the trigger as my crosshairs settled in behind his rippling shoulder and watched the bull react just before recoil caused me to lose the sight picture.  Every elk in the herd overtook him as he struggled to run over a nearby rise.  I called the shot in on the radio, feeling great as I whooped, “send in the horses, I got a nice 5×5 down.”

A wonderful public land trophy

I waited a few minutes to start tracking, not wanting to possibly push a wounded bull all over the state. I went to the spot where I last saw him and got more than a little nervous when I didn’t see any blood. I followed elk tracks and still didn’t see any spoor.  But one hundred yards further against the base of a burned evergreen, I found my big, old, muddy, rut-stinking Rocky Mountain bull elk!  A 180 grain Federal Accubond .300 WSM had done the job, blowing through one shoulder and coming to a halt,  perfectly expanded just under the skin on the far side.

The Rifleman's Rifle

I re-counted the points on his rack and was astonished to see that he was even bigger-bodied than I originally thought. Turned out he was the biggest elk shot by our party. He was my first elk and I’d earned him. I planned and prepared hard, read every book, article and blog post I could find and jogged countless miles and climbed my building’s stairs wearing a rucksack nearly every day for a year to get here.   Jeff shot his at 7:30 and I shot mine at around 11:00 a.m.  Almost unbelievable.   One of the guides, as surprised as we were said, “Do you realize what you all did?  Two bulls, on public land, in just under five hours.  It’s almost impossible and damn fine luck.”

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Reflections from the Great Bison Roadtrip

My cousin Jessica kindly sent me this post reflecting on her recent road trip to South Dakota and Wyoming.  Thanks Jessica!

You will find something more in woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you that which you can never learn from the masters  – Saint Bernard de Clairvaux.

Bison in Wyoming

Recently I read Douglas Brinkley’s book “The Wilderness Warrior – Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America”.  This read motivated me to take a trip I have been longing to do my whole life –  visit the great plains of the US – the “American Serengeti.”  I wanted to see first-hand the wildlife that inspired Teddy Roosevelt and other conservationists such as Stephen Mather, and Joseph Grinnell to establish the system of modern land and wildlife conservation in our country.

The one animal I really yearned to see in person was the bison, often incorrectly referred to as buffalo. Bison are the largest terrestrial animal in North America and Europe, can run up to 35mph, and weigh up to 2000 pounds.  In 1800 this majestic creature numbered around 30 to 60 million, but by the late 19th century had dwindled to just a few hundred animals.

The US Army sought to deplete the main food source of the American Indians, starving them or forcing them to submit to life on

19th Century carnage

reservations, and so slaughtered the bison.  Also unfortunately for the bison,  they reportedly enjoyed scratching their massive backs on telegraph poles, knocking them over with their great strength. Delays caused by buffalo herds numbering in the of tens of thousands that lumbered across the tracks annoyed railway passengers.  These natural behaviors of the bison didn’t exactly endear them to telegraph and railroad executives. Tragically, their systematic execution at the hands of the U.S. Army and the hired guns of the telegraph and railway companies nearly eradicated the bison from the face of the earth forever.

Paradoxically, if not for the efforts of Roosevelt and other avid hunters in the late 19th century, the bison would have faced certain extinction. These men helped set aside large tracts of land for the protection of these and other mega fauna. They also fostered the development of modern wildlife management – of which regulated sport hunting is an essential element.  I am encouraged that although we were once only a few years away from losing plains animals such as the bison, and later the black-tailed prairie dog, pronghorn antelope, and the black-footed ferret, thanks to the foresight of hunters like Roosevelt, their populations are rebounding. I wish that I could have seen a herd of a 100,000 bison, instead of the paltry 500 or so I did see, but I feel fortunate to have seen any at all. I was moved to see small caramel-colored bison calves with their herd crossing the roadway in Grand Teton National Park – not inconvenienced like the railway passengers of old.

Prairie critters

Teddy Roosevelt said that there can be no greater issue than that of conservation in this country.  Many people believe that Roosevelt was a hypocrite, citing his love of hunting while he championed the issue of wildlife conservancy.  Not so, hunters are no mere conservationists, as the editor of Petersen’s Hunting recently wrote, “we hunt for food, we hunt for the experience, and we hunt for the tradition”.

By virtue of the way I was raised, and seeing my father and brother hunt, I believe that modern hunters, like the early outdoorsmen-conservationists, express their values by respecting nature and her creatures – and by actively participating in the cycle of life and death.  The billions of dollars that American hunters have contributed to habitat restoration and wildlife research through fees and excise taxes such as those levied by the Pittman Robertson Act of 1937 are a testimony and monument to their ethos.

Hopefully in coming years more Americans will opt out of  resort vacations in expensive artificial playgrounds, and instead decide

The symbol of the American West saved by hunters for all

to bring their children to our nation’s parks and forests. There children can learn the valuable lessons of respect for nature, conservation, and stewardship.

Bats in Belle View

Big Brown bat pups are common sights this time of year

What is that?!, shrieked my wife pointing out something brown and hairy that clung to the wall of our condo in the Belle View neighborhood of Alexandria two nights ago.

At first we thought it was a giant moth. I got closer and saw that it was a little bat. He was just hanging out – as bats do- and didn’t seem to be bothering anyone. In fact, he was kind of cute.

To find out what kind of bat the little guy was, I turned to my sister.  She is an avid caver and works part-time for the State of Pennsylvania checking on vulnerable bat populations. Some local species are being decimated by the dreaded white nose syndrome.

Turns out,  she thinks our neighborhood friend is a juvenile big brown bat. The young are called pups. My sister’s friend had one turn up in her kitchen sink the other morning. This time of year the pups are starting to fly and wander from their mothers and like any kid, they get lost, take chances they shouldn’t and get stuck in bad situations.

In about three weeks they’ll have learned and we’ll no longer see them in odd locations.

Bwana’s First Gobbler

There are hunters, and then there are turkey hunters
-Archibald Rutledge, Dean of Turkey Literature

Thanks to my hunting partner Jason for submitting this post on bagging his very first turkey !

Persistence pays!

It took all of five seasons, several shotguns, two ghillie suits, and dozens of calls, but I finally managed to bag my first turkey this past season.  Years of reveilles at 1:00 a.m. to make the hike in and get set up before dawn sometimes had me leaving for work on Monday mornings in my suit, minus my dress pants.  I averaged an hour’s sleep a night before a hunt, usually from opening day until the season closed.

I turned into a general plotting The Great Assault.  Topographic maps soon noted individual roosting trees, feeding areas, strut zones, calling locations, and turkey sightings.  The day before a hunt, I obsessively considered new areas to hunt, and different set ups. One more thing to correct and do differently.  A new call to start with at first light.  I started sweating and couldn’t sleep with the alarm set for just after midnight. What’s the point in sleeping anyway when the smartest game in the woods is going to be strutting just out of shotgun range in a few hours ?

There’s nothing like that first heart-stopping opening-day gobble. The sound of scraping leaves and breaking twigs as a tom in full-strut cautiously works its way into your decoys is more than enough to raise rainstorm-dampened spirits at O’dark Thirty and bring you back for more, year after year.

I had come close before.  A sudden movement would always give me away though.  Please note that I do not mean either sudden or movement, en grandiose.  Turkey hunters quickly learn you can’t sneeze, cough, scratch the deer tick on your leg, swat the mosquito in your ear, or adjust your shotgun too abruptly.  Scientists have determined that a turkey’s eyesight is so keen that it can detect the perception of a flicker of an eyelash, just as a hunter even thinks of blinking.  The bloody birds read your mind.

Taking no chances, early in my turkey hunting career I started wearing ghillie suits and even camouflaged the bottom of my boots with spray paint to break up the tread pattern.  Somehow though, turkeys always found a way to come in at an angle I wasn’t expecting.  There’s a wing in madhouses for those who feel like a turkey hunter when a 25 pound gobbler, spits, drums and gobbles two-feet behind the tree he’s set up against, knowing the slightest turn of his head will send that tom fleeing into the next draw.  Close calls like that have had me threatening to wrap my 12-gauge around a mossy oak every year, ‘round the first week in April in these parts.

Last season, I dealt with Mr. Won’t Budge.  This jive-talking turkey answered every call in my vest for about two weeks, but wouldn’t

Hurry up! This bird's heavy!

come within fifty yards.  He liked to hang out in an elevated area of open pine trees where he could see anything approaching.  I eventually had the idea that if I set up 25 decoys, purchased every call at Gander Mountain, and set up as close as I could, maybe he’d think all the turkeys in northern Virginia were celebrating at a party he wasn’t invited too.  I implemented most of the plan and eventually it worked. Half a dozen decoys and a cacophony of slates, boxes, and mouth calls (single, double and split reed) had him coming in fast. But when I shifted my gun from across my knees to the ‘high blast him’ position, he noticed the movement and was gone in a flash deciding to find a new roost for the rest of the season.

Finally, this year every thing worked out.  One Friday in the second week of the season, I decided to set up in in a pine thicket just a few hundred yards away from where I had heard turkeys on opening morning.  I got into my set-up early.  Had my decoys tastefully arranged in order to fool the most discriminating randy old tom .  Called softly, but wasn’t too aggressive on my slate.  This time, when a fat gobbler answered back I immediately brought the Mossberg to my shoulder and kept it there.  I only moved when he ducked behind a tree and eventually lined up the red dot, introducing him to my little friend, Hevi Shot.

This tom was more of a jake, with short spurs and a stubby beard, but he had a huge body, weighing in at least 25 pounds. My hunting partner, Jeff, who had heard my hooting and hollerin’ after the shot, showed me how to breast him out and take off the giant drumstcks. We laid the stripped carcass to rest under a pine tree, with an old wood and slate call for a pillow and thanked the Great Spirit for sharing His bounty with us.  I marinated the meat with lime and mesquite and had Jeff and his wife Natasha over one night for dinner. The tom’s fan and spurs are a very welcome addition to my ever-expanding trophy room. Let’s hope Jeff can get his first turkey next season.

Those interested in turkey lit may wish to check out Colonel Tom Kelly’s 1973 Classic, The Tenth Legion, comparing the obsessive compulsive, ritualistic, dogged attention-to-detail habits of turkey hunters to the Roman Army’s elite Special Forces unit.

If it was this easy, it wouldn't be huntin'!

Southern Arizona Outside

Remembering the Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Huachuca

My wife and I are both in training for our respective Army and Air Force Reserve commitments at Fort Huachuca in Arizona for two weeks and we decided to spend our Sunday break on a short road trip to the restored mining town of Bisbee. In the late 1800’s, Bisbee was once the largest town between St. Louis and San Francisco.

Our plans changed temporarily when about five miles out of Sierra Vista we saw foothills a few miles to the north of Highway 92 that looked they would be fun to poke around in. We decided Bisbee could wait and hooked the first left towards the short, rounded peaks. How lucky we turned off the highway when we did!

Murray Springs Clovis Paleo Indian Site

After a few minutes of driving we saw a sign for the Murray Springs – Clovis Paleo Indian site, administered by the Bureau of Land Management area. Four canteens of water and an iPhone stuffed in my satchel and off we went!

The trail head led down a sandy path that cut through mesquite, yucca, cacti and thistle. It seemed like all the plants were blooming in either red, yellow, white or pink. And none of them wanted

Even the plants are tough out here!

to be touched – they all wore some sort of thorn, spine or briar. Life in the desert is tough – and so are the plants.

The trail was strewn with coyote scat and a Gambel’s quail scampered ahead.  Every few

Gambel's Quail and Chicks

yards a den of some sort was dug into the overhanging banks of bone-dry arroyos which paralleled the trail. What looked like wasteland from the road was in fact teeming with life.

After only 30 minutes or so, we had each drank a liter of water and a dry wind coated us in dust. The foothills we had seen from road were now clearly several miles away – too far for a spontaneous day hike with a pregnant lady. A quick glance behind us, to the southwest, and we saw

Monument Fire Grows

smoke billowing out of the canyons of the Coronado Memorial forest.  A forest fire threatening Sierra Vista for the past few days was gaining momentum and our hotel was hosting several families that already been evacuated.

A very tall and wide solitary tree rose above the brush about 700 yards ahead of us. My wife and I had a “what would Bear Grylls do?” moment and reckoned that if Bearwas trying to cross the high desert on foot, he would head straight for that tree. That became the new goal of our short trek. A thin line of greener and brighter brush leading to the old giant hinted of Murray Springs.

The Old Giant by the spring

Cold, Clear and Clean!

Sure enough, as we approached our oasis the dirt got a little darker and I poked my finger  into mud.  Ten feet further down a steepening incline and the dark soil transformed into green reeds and trickle of cold water! Further “downstream” the trickle widened and deepened running close enough to the massive old tree to water its roots year ‘round. The tree so big that five people wouldn’t be able to wrap their arms around it and it grew at least 100 feet into the sky.

Dozens of game trails led to the spring and I spooked my wife by telling her that many a deer had probably met its fate while it drank from the cool stream from a stealthy mountain lion lying in wait. Down in this little canyon, the air was at least ten degrees cooler than it was in the plains above.

On the way back up to the main trail we saw two hummingbirds hovering over the pink flowering nettles and tried to catch a fleet-footed lizard that evaded us by darting in and out of cracks in the rocky walls of the arroyo.

We did make it to Bisbee eventually, but the two hour “detour” we took gave me, my wife and our little biscuit in the oven an appreciation of the land, its beauty and its wildlife that just can’t be bought in a store.

On a less happy note, as I write this I am looking out my hotel window at tongues of fire in

The Monument Fire from Route 92

the night, licking up the sides of the mountains south of Sierra Vista. On our trip back from Bisbee going West on 90, we met dozens of folks who lost their homes to the fire we’d seen gaining strength behind us earlier in the day. To a person each one of them was grateful to be alive and didn’t blame anyone for their misfortune,  but accepted nature’s indiscriminately heavy hand with grace and concern for their neighbors.

It’s Spring When the Spring Peeper Says It Is

Spring Peeper

It’s official, Springtime is officially here! Despite what the calendar may say – it’s not for another two days – the spring peepers in the woods along the Potomac River say otherwise.

After my wife and I went grocery shopping at the commissary at Fort Belvoir last Friday after work, we drove past a cul-de-sac that looped into a small wood that bordered the river and we heard them – thousands of spring peepers – chorus frogs  – chirping away.

This time of year in the mid-Atlantic states just after nightfall, the little (less than an inch) male Pseudacris crucifer hangs out in leafy bush or tree, near water and peeps his heart out trying to find a mate.

To me, their cheerful mating call means the end winter and its short, cold, gray days. Spring peepers mean being enveloped by the earth’s surge to life in the Blue Ridge, as I sit against a tree turkey hunting at dawn in a few short weeks. Or feeling the warmth of the sun and being amazed by the sudden greening of the shoreline,  as I fish for delicious, hard-fighting crappie in the Potomac.

The spring peepers are making their beautiful music, telling us all within earshot that it’s time to chalk up the turkey calls, put some fresh line on our fishing reels, dust off our bicycles or clean the spider webs out of our kayaks and get outside!

A Night at the Opera with Thiago Arancam & Co.

Placido Domingo and Thiago Arancam

Thanks to the thoughtfulness of the classiest friend anyone could ever ask for,  this outdoorsman, my wife  and my two Army buddies, Stacy and Steve recently had a wonderful night at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. We took in a beautiful performance of Madama Butterfly on March 8th, where our new friend Thiago Arancam was the  tenor.  Thiago and his wife Michela are staying with Stacy in D.C., while he performs this month – this run  at the Kennedy Center goes through March 19th.

Neither I nor my wife had ever been to the opera, but Stacy gave us, and Steve, tickets as a gift to celebrate my and Steve’s recent return from Baghdad. We also found out the night before that my wife is pregnant, so it was a real celebration. It was so wonderful to go to the Kennedy Center again. My wife and I saw the Nutcracker ballet there in 2008, so we knew we were in for a treat.

I am not a critic, so I can’t describe how wonderful the opera was in the proper terms or render honors to the performers sufficiently. So let me just tell you that I was moved to the depths of my soul by the majesty of God’s handiwork expressed through the maestro Plácido Domingo, tenor Thiago Arancam (Pinkerton), soprano Ana Maria Martínez (Cio-Cio-San) and baritone  Hyung Yun (Sharpless).

After the show we were invited to have dinner with Thiago, his wife and Stacy. We were joined at Clyde’s in Georgetown by Hyung Yun,  and John Marcus Bindel – a really great guy and a renowned baritone, who has performed with Thiago before.  John had us all laughing non-stop and I am sorry my wife and I had to leave as early as we did. Who would have known that opera singers were so cool? I guess if you do what you love for a living, and that happens to be singing beautiful music…

What does this have to do with the Great Outdoors in Northern Virginia, you ask? Well, access to the arts, great museums and our nation’s history – all while being near some of the best paddling, fishing,  hiking, camping and hunting in the country is what makes living in NOVA so exciting.

As it turns out, Michela was an amateur practical pistol shooting competitor in Italy a while back. Thiago has never been shooting and has heard it is great fun, so we made plans to bring the gang down to my hunting lease in Spotsylvania county for a day of target shooting and plinking soda cans at the end of the month.

I’ll let you all know how it goes at the range in a few weeks. In the meantime, visit Thiago’s website and hear for yourself what an awesome voice he has, and if you can’t make this run of Madama Butterfly, catch him in Tosca at the Opera Company of Philadelphia, next month.

Speedgoat Hunting

Thanks to my hunting partner Jason for submitting this post on his Wyoming pronghorn hunt

The end of a hard hunt

Adventure is My Business

Thanks for the title Mr. Annabel. Borrowed the title but I’ll give it back later.
For a great & logical beginning, middle and end. For descriptions of scenery for places I’d like to be. For Highs, Lows, Hope and Despair & Triumph, I’ll take the ‘classic’ hunting story over the conventional ‘classic’ any day of the week. Faulker got nothing on Capstick and I’d rather read the worst Ruark piece over the the best of Dostoevesky. Nothing like great tales of glory told over a roaring campfire. Hunters are naturally great liars anyway, Hemingway, and great lies make for great fiction. Fifty yard shots become 500 hundred…a two-point buck becomes a 12-point and a gun become a bow and arrow. Pretty soon a hunter has tackled a charging mastodon across a vast expanse of tundra by blowing the paper off of a soda straw or an improvised catapult. This is not one of those. Every word is true and just a good ole hunting tale.

I had racked up a helluva lot of debt on an expensive 2009 elk hunt, so when it came time to ‘go west’ this year as I do every time the leaves start to die, I decided to go with a slightly less expensive antelope hunt. And talk about a high-octane, exciting, fun hunt. Mine as well have been following the great wildebeest migration across the Okavango Delta. Imagine sitting in a tree-stand on a farm along a travel route as deer after deer after buck after buck after doe, files past your location. Easily saw 200 antelope, all on public land, and got to turn into a trophy hunter for however briefly. Got to look for the magic 14-inch inch speedgoat. Normally, I’m a believer in if it’s brown it’s down – but on this one got to make several stalks, examine them closely and mumble “he’s a little small.” “I think we can do better.” “We’ll let him live another year.” Just like they do on the canned hunts on the hunting shows.

I can hunt deer all year in the GW National Forest, with a few times at Phelphs or Thompson thrown in for good measure – hunt maybe a dozen times in a season and not see a single deer. In fact, I’ve gone two consecutive years in archery, muzzle loader and rifle and not seen a deer. I do appreciate a nice (trophy) rack however, and believe Jack O’Connor’s adage “Big is big and you’ll know it when you see it.” Lucked out in that regard on my 2009 elk, as well as my 2010 antelope.

And speaking of the great outdoor/gun writer. Jack O’Connor was right in another regard. The good ole gunwriter/hunter’s conundrum of velocity versus energy. When it came time to select a bullet for a September 2010 antelope hunt, I went with the smaller 130-grain Barnes Triple Shock. Flies at a great velocity and dealing with an animal the size of a small doe. For elk or moose I’ll still opt for a 180-grain bullet at a minimum, preferably of at least a .30 caliber. Imagine the difference between a sewing needle flying at 3,500 feet per second compared to a brick flying at 2,000 feet per second. The greater the bullet the greater the energy and I’ll take the knockdown power for the 1,000-pound barrel chested, big shouldered ungulates. But the smaller, flatter shooting bullet was perfectly adequate for the wide open spaces of Wyoming and my Model 70 Featheweight .300 WSM served me well once again.

The hunt only last six hours but got to make several stalks. I flew into Jackson Hole where the guide who picked me up said, “The billionaires are pushing the millionaires out.”

Spent the first evening in a hotel that the outfitter owned in Afton and headed out in a 35 degree rainstorm the next morning for my hunt. Thankfully, it quit on the way down two hours south. It was still kind of chilly but warmed up later in the day and got still warmer throughout the week. As soon as we started to hit Kemmerer, Wyoming, where I drew, I started to see tons of antelope out in the fields. The Teton Mountains give way to impressive and open sage brush bottoms. An antelope hunt would be a great hunt for a first time hunter – lots of action and lots of animals.

I saw my first huntable goat and it was a half-mile off through a sagebrush flat. I used a little rise to make a stalk and got within a hundred fifty yards but decided to pass, 1. cause it was the first of the day and 2. because we thought we could do better. That was the plan for the rest of the day. You basically see a lone buck in the distance and plan your stalk. We did that a couple more times but the antelopes spooked.

We ate lunch and popped some prairie dogs with my gun and the outfitter’s .223. Then we saw a terrific antelope from the road a mile up on a ridge. He was bedded with some does and he looked like a great buck. We drove around to its right and tried the tactic of just walking right at them in a small profile – hunched over and single file. They were a mile off and we were walking behind a fence when they moved off the ridge. Something had spooked them and wasn’t us. Might have been some hunter up on the ridge. We then drove off a mile to their left and tried the same low walk. We figured about where they might be and there was a mountain in front with the antelope two draws over. We made it up to the first ridge and had walked quickly across the deep draw in case they were still moving. Out of breath I crawled up over the ridge and peeked over the top, and they were right there about 200 yards off. Set up standing on the shooting sticks and picked out the buck, who had his head down feeding. None of the antelope were looking so the outfitter told me to move up a little bit. Kept the gun on my shoulder and moved the stick with my left hand and took a few quick steps forward. They still weren’t looking so he said move up again and moved another five yards. The does were starting to look up but not spook so moved up one more time. Found the buck and squeezed of a shot and he dropped so quick, I didn’t even see him hit the ground of leave the scope. The Featherweight and I had made a great 200-yard shot to the vitals. Not as much meat as an elk but got some great jerky and tenderloin steaks.

Got to spend the rest of the week on horseback at Double Y Outfitters elk camp & will be traveling back for wapiti in the near future.

Back From Iraq and Back in the Woods

A quick lunch in the field

Since getting back from Iraq a few weeks ago, I haven’t done as much hunting as I would like to – does anyone really – so after dropping my wife off at work, I headed down to my hunting lease in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. It’s about an hour and a half south of Alexandria and is near the Battle of the Wilderness. I was looking forward to hopefully bagging a few cottontails or quail with my new shotgun. Due to heavy commuter traffic on Route 95, I got a late start and decided to have a trailside lunch of the homemade beef stew I had packed.

After a quick meal, I loaded my new 20 gauge Mossberg Silver Reserve over/under and headed off towards a power line trail under clear skies and a cold, light breeze. I was using my favorite small game load, one ounce of number four shot – the mild combination of relatively large pellets at high velocity had delivered clean kills at longer ranges on everything from big-bodied wild Nebraska pheasants to rabbits and squirrel – but was still light enough for Virginia quail. The first barrel was topped off by a skeet choke, while the second tube sported a tighter, improved cylinder choke.

Following the power lines for about a thousand yards, I stuck to the edges and tried to flush game out of every blackberry thicket and from under every pine bough along the way. Occasionally swinging my shotgun through imaginary birds to develop muscle memory, I found the nicely made Turkish import mounted smoothly and pointed naturally. I was surprised to find that I would most likely not have to have the stock shortened and was glad I had bought it. While certainly not a fine Browning or Beretta, it was a step up from my other 20 gauge, a Stoeger Condor, and I was glad I had bought the svelte Mossberg. I picked it up at Gander Mountain a year earlier, before I deployed, for around $450 and I consider it a steal.

Finally acknowledging that no quail or rabbit would leave cover at 1:00PM on a bluebird day, I decided to pick up the pace and devote the remaining hour of my time afield to scouting for the upcoming spring turkey season. Although, I drove home with an empty game pocket, I was grateful to be back in America, spending a few restorative hours in the woods, after nine months in Baghdad.

SGT Jason Gets His Spurs

SGT Jason catches a seven-minute nap during hour seventeen

Just wanted to share with NVO readers a few words on my buddy SGT Jason, from Charlottesville, Virginia (you just knew there was going to be a Northern Virginia connection!).  SGT Jason is a great guy -he’s a father, a husband, and an accomplished hunter. He’s a mobilized Reservist in Iraq with me, and every time we chat, our conversations revolve around our families or what we are going to hunt when we get back to the States – and  what guns we are going to use.

He first joined the Army in 1986.  He had a long break in service, but he couldn’t stand seeing his brothers-in-arms having all the fun to themselves any longer,  and jumped back in a few years ago.

Since we are attached to Third Armored Corps (Black Knights!), he was eligible to put his body through a 19-hour torture test to earn his “combat spurs”.   Cavalry Soldiers who complete a “spur ride” in a combat zone earn the right to wear gold spurs, on certain occasions, in uniform.  It is a great honor, and connects the modern-day Cav Soldier to those troopers who rode west in faded blue uniforms back in the 1800’s. The test is a mental and physical endurance event that relies on teamwork and intestinal fortitude to complete.

Earning the spurs entailed almost twenty-four hours of timed events that had to be completed in full body armor, helmet and carrying a rifle – in 100 degree heat.  SGT Jason’s day started off with an hour of calisthenics followed by a six-mile road march with a 42 pound rucksack, plus body armor – while wearing a gas mask, three-second rushes up and down Camp Slayer’s Signal Hill, a marksmanship event interspersed with even more calisthenics, and a simulated hostage-rescue staged in the ill-named “Victory Over America” palace. And they were just the warm-up.

SGT Jason called it a grueling “non-stop smoke session”, but in the end he now has the right to wear his spurs, along with his combat patch and jump wings. Congrats to Jason and all the Third Corps Soldiers who “earned their spurs” this tour in the sandbox!

Catching My First Fish in Baghdad

I have been deployed to Iraq since March 2010, this is my third trip over here courtesy of Uncle Sam. I work out of Al Faw Palace, Baghdad, which sits on a huge lake fed by a series of waterworks.

Back home in Alexandria, I spend as much time as possible fishing for the good-sized largemouth bass, crappie and perch that we have in the Potomac. So it was only a matter of time before I tried to catch a few of the monster carp and the mysterious so-called mangars that slapped the water loudly at least once on every one of my walks to work.

When I came back from leave, I brought a few spinners, twister-tail jigs and some Rapalas.

My thoughtful wife kindly sent my Berkeley Lightning Rod out to me and I have been waiting for the weather to cool down before I wet a line.

I went the other evening, but they weren’t hitting in the dark. I decided my best bet would be to try in the early morning. The fish seem to be more active during that time and at least I wouldn’t risk catching malaria, as I would in the evening.

There is a viaduct where a canal feeds into the main lake and goes under a bridge. I have been eyeing it as a honey hole since I got here. It is a good transition zone that offers shade, structure, current, and probably some concentrated forage.

I started  tossing a chartreuse twister jig under the bridge,  and on the first cast something big slashed at it. I slung that for about ten minutes, but I couldn’t drum up any interest.

I switched to a 2″ Rapala and popped it on the surface as far under the bridge as I could toss it, mixing it up with a steady retrieve that took it down about 8″. On about the tenth cast, a sporty little fish nailed it. The fight was kinda like a catfish, with a steady pull and some lateral lurches for deeper water. Nothing flashy like a largemouth and no sizzling runs like a smallmouth.

When I brought him to the bank, I saw what handsome catch he was. The fish was about 16″ long and weighed about two pounds. He had a deeply forked tail and smooth, silver scales. He was long and thin and reminded me of a very large herring. The fish looked he would be good eating. I put him back in the drink and called it a day.

The Ugandan security guards nearby really dug the show and took a few minutes to tell me about catching tilapia and “silver fish” in their homeland

That was a good start. I have a feeling I am going to tie into some monsters over the next few months.

From Baghdad,


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