Hits and Misses

Hits and Misses

Sunday, January 25, 2015

First-Rate Writing: Thomas McGuane

Thomas McGuane has written novels (Ninety-two in the Shade being one of his best known), screenplays, and essays on fishing and on hunting.  The quality of his prose often makes me sin in envy.  The following passage about field dressing an antelope comes from "The Heart of the Game," An Outside Chance:  Classic & New Essays on Sport (Houghton Mifflin/ Seymour Lawrence, 1990).  Its apparent simplicity is deceptive: 

The sun was up and the big buteo hawks were lifting on the thermals.  There was enough breeze that the grass began to have directional grain like the prairie, and the rim of the coulee wound up away from me toward the Absaroka.  I felt peculiarly solitary, sitting on my heels next to the carcass in the sagebrush and greasewood, my rifle racked open on the ground.  I made an incision around the metatarsal glands inside the back legs and carefully removed them and set them well aside; then I cleaned the blade of my hunting knife with handfuls of grass to keep from tainting the meat with those powerful glands.  Next I detached the anus and testes from the outer walls and made a shallow puncture below the sternum, spread it with the thumb and forefinger of my left hand, and ran the knife upside down to the bone bridge between the hind legs.  Inside, the diaphragm was like the taut lid of a drum and cut away cleanly, so that I could reach clear up to the back of the mouth and detach the windpipe.  Once that was done I could draw the whole visceral package out onto the grass and separate out the heart, liver, and tongue before propping the carcass open with two whittled-up sage scantlings.

You could tell how cold the morning was, despite the exertion, just by watching the steam roar from the abdominal cavity.  I stuck the knife in the ground and sat back against the slope, looking clear across to Convict Grade and the Crazy Mountains.  I was blood from the elbows down and the antelope's eyes had skinned over.  I thought, this is goddamned serious and you had better always remember that.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Making Alkanet Oil

Virtually any English treatment of how to refinish gun stocks will refer to alkanet oil, also known as alkanet root oil, derived from the roots of Alkanna tinctoria (sometimes cited as Anchusa tinctoria or Lithospermum tinctorium).  If you're into making flintlocks, you can astound your friends by casually referring to alkanet root as Spanish Bugloss.

You can buy alkanet oil as part of a refinishing kit like Purdey's Warthog Finish (why warthogs were ever associated with gun stock finishes escapes me, but never mind:  the kit does perform as advertised).  This is probably the best route if you only plan to refinish one gun.  Or, you can make your own in whatever amount you want, as it keeps indefinitely in a sealed container.

Needed ingredients: 
     Alkanet root powder
     Boiled linseed oil (artist's quality, if you can find it)

When I bought my bag of alkanet root flakes from a herbal supply company ten or so years ago, it was only offered in flakes or roots, not in powder.  If that's all you can find, grind the flakes to powder in a small mill like a mill for coffee beans (you can get rid of most of the reddish stain by then grinding sugar or coarse salt in the mill).

Then add alkanet powder to the boiled linseed oil in the ratio of 1 Tablespoon of alkanet root powder to 1/4 Cup of linseed oil.  Shake or stir daily for a few days.  Heat will speed up the process, but stay away from direct heat, or you may torch your kitchen ceiling.  If it's hot enough to make sun tea, it's hot enough to make alkanet oil.  Finally, strain if needed.  Store in a tightly covered container.

Alkanet oil gives a reddish tone to walnut.  I use a coat or two, well rubbed in by hand, after coloring the stock with aniline dyes but before any sealer or finish coats.  It is additive, so more coats will slightly darken the wood.  (You could, of course, simply do an oil finish with the alkanet oil.)  After the finish is complete, I typically add a well rubbed in coat of alkanet oil and repeat periodically.



First-rate Writing: Nick Jans

First-rate Writing will be a series of posts quoting a passage by a given writer.  Some writers will be well-known; others in my opinion deserve to be better known.  Nick Jans published The Grizzly Maze (Plume, 2006), an excellent book on Timothy Treadwell, the guy who made the fatal mistake that he could relate to grizzlies.  His work also appears in Alaska magazine.

This passage is from Jans's earlier The Last Light Breaking (Alaska Northwest Books, 1993).  It describes what he thinks about when he looks at the remains of a moose killed by wolves in winter:

I spent more than an hour near the kill, circling as the wolves had done, reading their story in the snow, studying spots of blood, bits of hair.  The intertwined trails seemed graceful, as if the wolves and moose had danced together.  At the end of their dance lay the kill, beautiful in its simplicity.  Here on this silent white hillside, there was no horror.  This was their life--an endless hunt, an endless celebration of death.

As I stood within the circle of the kill, looking down at wolf prints frozen in blood, I brushed against their secret:  wolves understand death perfectly.  That's the bright, cold wisdom we see in their eyes, the thing that makes us afraid.  Death is their art, their beauty, while it's our darkness and terror.  If we ever understood what they know, we've forgotten.  Maybe we're drawn to them because they remember.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Barsness, Modern Hunting Optics

In Modern Hunting Optics (Deep Creek Press, 2014; www.RiflesAndRecipes.com), John Barsness has done much more than simply update his previous Optics for the Hunter (1999).  His new book is at once comprehensive, treating scopes, binoculars, rangefinders, red dot sights, and, even more important, systematic. Instead of buying a scope right off the bat, Barsness recommends getting a good hunting binocular, next a rangefinder, and only then a scope.  His reasoning is clear and  convincing (and no, I'm not going to tell you what it is).

Following his procedure results in an optics system that works together and becomes more than the sum of its parts, or synergistic.  Nearly as important, this system need not break your budget:  Barsness writes persuasively about optics other than those carrying European names, ones which work well and cost much less, and he describes a method of testing them that anyone can replicate--and should, for each of us sees a bit differently. 

Quibbles or caveats?  None . . . well, perhaps a footnote on a minor point.  Although Barsness mentions using a tripod for really high-powered binoculars, he doesn't mention the advantages of using a tripod for binoculars of lesser power, say 8X or 10X.  But, as I found on a black bear hunt one spring in Idaho, using a tripod with an adaptor for my Pentax DCF SP 8x43, not only did the stability of the tripod enable me to determine that each distant bear was in fact a stump, but it enabled me to glass longer without getting fatigued.  So, when debating between two binoculars, I'd suggest buying the one that takes a tripod adaptor.

Anyone even thinking about a new pair of binoculars or a scope or a spotting scope would be well advised to spend $25 on Modern Hunting Optics.  You will learn a lot, and if you follow his recommendations you'll almost certainly save a lot.   If you are fortunate enough to be in the top 1%, by definition money is no object.  For the other 99% of us, we want to buy the best we can afford.  John Barsness tells how to do precisely that.  If you shop carefully, you can put together a complete optical hunting system for about $1500.  Modern Hunting Optics is thus an investment well worth making.  That it's a pleasure to read is the icing on the cake.