Posts Tagged ‘Alexandria’

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.

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.”

— — —

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.


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