Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Expedition One: A Time for Fun and Adventure

Often times we go to work from day-to-day because we have to pay the bills and not so much because we can’t wait to do so. Over the many years, I have been very fortunate to be able to work in and with various aspects of the international hunting industry. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t wake up and pinch myself to affirm that it’s not a dream. While there are always deadlines and commitments, I feel very fortunate and privileged to be a part it. Unfortunately, a busy schedule with lots of irons in the fire has a way of removing time from the “let’s do this just for fun” category. It just seems these moments rarely happen much unless somehow attached to a project.

Several months ago I had an opportunity to arrange and take part in something just for fun. I was approached by a friend, not in the outdoor/hunting industry, who mentioned it would be great fun if one day we could plan to do some type of a backpacking trip for a couple of days. He was getting ready to deploy overseas and I told him absolutely we could do that and the seed was planted.

We came up with a short list of participants to keep the group small, manageable, and to afford maximum interaction. The group would consist of four additional mutual friends, primarily from military and law enforcement, who were not hunters. Before my friend deployed we made contact with all of the likely participants. They affirmed an interest and commitment to go on a short two to three day adventure in the Sierra Nevada. The destination of the adventure, prior to his departure, was cursory but I had an idea or two for consideration.

The timeline was such that I would have to create an opportunity for scouting out the area. We initially planned the main expedition for mid-October. This would be when my friend returned from deployment. As luck would have it, his return did not occur within our timeline as we had originally expected. The result was our departure date became extended and the group ultimately was much smaller due to scheduling conflicts. All the same, it was a great deal of fun and was the adventure that we hoped to experience.

During the early planning stages we came up with a name for our group. Since we were considering the possibility of doing something like this in coming years, but were unsure who would attend each trip, we named this groups participants Alpha Team. This event would be known as Expedition One (X1). The next step was to create a gear list, which did not take much time. This was distributed so everyone could gather what they would require.

As planning efforts continued, I decided that we could benefit from something special that would keep us all mentally on track and focused. The result was a morale patch. We put our heads together and came up with some design elements that we wanted to see. The patch would note the team members who attended, the date of the event, a topo map of the destination, a boot print to show it was a foot expedition, and of course the X1 designation. After a few sketches and some redesigns we had a draft that we thought looked great. I had my patch maker in New York put everything together and the results were perfect! 

Following this, I needed to devote some time to begin scouting an area where our group could backpack. I wanted to make sure that what I was planning for the group would in fact be what and where we wanted to be. It needed to be a backpacking trip that would be fun, could present components that would relate to creating a mountain hunting base camp, a travel distance that would be reasonable to hike but not too short, and a little elevation to make the effort memorable. I had the perfect place in mind. It would be a little over twelve and a half miles of hiking with an elevation maximum of just below 8,000 feet. Next, it was time to ensure that my scouting partner was prepared to backpack with me. That lucky assistant was my wife.

We began by training during the day and night in a manner that would assure she would be comfortable with a full pack for a hike of that duration. As our training continued, we slowly began to shift to training and general recon by spending time in the area we planned for X1. Since some of this would be during deer season I assured that I had a deer tag just in case. That aspect never materialized but better safe than unprepared.

Our first recon to the X1 destination was a backpacking trip at the end of September. The weather started out fine but became unsettled. Unfortunately, during the mid-way point on our hike in and during our camping days we had lots of rain, sleet, and the occasional snow flurries. The snow was not sticking but the weather was not what most would have ordered.

The photos below are from the second recon trip in mid-October. The weather was absolutely perfect. This was quite a contrast to our first trip to the area. Winds at night gusted over 50 miles per hour just to keep things interesting.

The third and final recon trip occurred on November 1st. We knew that a significant snow storm was expected and thought it would be fun to challenge ourselves a little on the trail and while camping. We had a great time snow camping and it allowed me to share some of the tricks I have learned over the years.

Finally, with the storm window likely to close, we decided to pull the trigger on November 8th for X1. Unfortunately, only a few who had originally wanted and planned to attend were able to do so. Even my friend, for whom this was originally planned, had duty call which resulted in a work scheduling conflict. The U.S. Air Force and our nation needed him and we truly missed his presence. So it would be three of us making our way to our destination; Brent, Kyle, and me.

Our trip started out at a predetermined rallying point where we collected and loaded our equipment. Our friend who was called to duty swung by to see us off. After loading up we headed out for a delicious breakfast. While eating breakfast it was decided that we needed to make a quick stop for a forgotten item. After a dash into a local Walmart we were on our way!

After a two hour drive we arrived at the trailhead. Gear was sorted out, boots were put on, and the adventure was underway. On the way in to what would be base camp, we spent our time enjoying the sights and taking pictures. We had perfect weather with remnants of snow on the ground from the week prior. 

Once we arrived at our intended destination it was time for the usual tasks. Tent sight selection was nailed down, tents were erected, ground pads and sleeping bags set-up, water was purified, and firewood was gathered. While gathering firewood we heard something rustling in Kyle’s tent. It was a rogue chipmunk making himself at home. While checking out the tent Kyle was charged by the chipmunk and in the face of obvious danger managed to only scream moderately. Some off it was captured on film. The video is ridiculous. We finally managed to chase the chipmunk out of the tent without injuries to us, him, or the tent. Once the camp work and chipmunk control was out of the way it was time to watch Kyle catch dinner. Beautiful Golden Trout were on the dinner menu!

As night fell we hauled the fruits of Kyle’s labor back to camp, started a fire to warm up, and began to prepare the grill for some delicious food. Brent, who is forever the planner and cook, brought a couple extra treats along for the group just in case. Two Ribeye steaks (I brought a third as well), baked beans, cubed potatoes with vegetables wrapped in foil, and a mini-keg of Heineken. For my friends reading this from Australia and New Zealand, Ribeye is the same as a Scotch fillet. I am the first to admit that I am a Bitburger or Warsteiner beer guy but I forced myself to raise a couple of titanium mugs of the Holland brewed concoction known as Heineken. I have to admit it was tasty. 

Oh, I forgot to mention that Kyle did not catch any fish for our meal. It was not for a lack of trying but the fish would not cooperate. Because Brent hauled all of the extra weight along for our culinary enjoyment we decided to give him a nickname that would reflect his notable characteristic. We now call him “The Sherpa Porter.” The name was not meant to detract in any way from the actual ethnic group, Sherpa mountaineers, or Sherpa porters. We just felt it was fitting because of the enormous load and his endurance.

As the fire crackled and warmed us we began sharing stories and enjoying our friendship as usually happens when a fire is involved in camp. Once the fire was hot enough we pulled some coals to the side and started cooking the steaks and other items. Let me say that I have eaten more steaks over my lifetime than I probably should admit. I have eaten them in the finest restaurants, during backyard gatherings, and at home. I think this just might have been the very best one of them all.

After dinner we relaxed for hours by the fire and I began preparing mentally for the plan I had concocted. I often use bear canisters with a bear bell attached for storing food around camp. On this trip I decided to use bear bags with bear bells attached. I mentioned to our group how we had seen bear sign on the first two scouting trips and should probably secure everything in the trees. I had Brent and Kyle help me with the task so they were aware of the bells but not my plan. 

My plan was to run fishing leader through my tent door, under the vestibule, up to a branch below the bear bags, and attach an extra bear bell that I had brought along. I was also planning on placing a stuffed black bear next to the tree. The stuffed bear was currently hidden in my pack. When the time was right, I would begin lightly ringing the bell a few times. Whoever decided to crawl out of their tent to confront the beast would be awarded the stuffed animal, the bell, and a Diizche Safari Adventures company patch.

When everyone was almost asleep I set my plan into motion. At first I could not get the bell to ring when I pulled on the fishing leader but patience and persistence finally paid off and the bell jingled. After a short wait I rang it again lightly. After a few more minutes passed I gave it a louder and final ring. Every time I rang the bell I had to hold back the laughter that was trying to explode from within.

Following the third ring Brent said softly, “Shawn did you hear that?” I could hardly contain myself at this point. Brent continued, “It was the bear bell, I heard it three times!” I was ready to scream at this point. Trying to sound serious and somewhat sleepy I said, “Does anyone want to take point on that and check it out?” Kyle responded, “I will check it out.”

I could hear the very slow and quiet noise of his sleeping bag opening and then the slow methodical opening of his tent door zipper. Then all was quiet! After a moment I shouted, “Kyle, can you see a bear out there?” Kyle began laughing loudly, “Yes I can see a black bear out here.” I jumped out of my tent with a camera to present Kyle with his well-earned prize for displaying bravery and calm in the face of an apparent camp intruder. After the pictures were taken Kyle mentioned that he was not sure what he would see outside of his tent. When he unzipped the bottom of the door out came a flashlight with a handgun slowly scanning and as we say, "slicing the pie" until the intruder was safely located and identified. Even in humor we often find a pearl of wisdom. This is a good reminder that how we train is how we will react.

After joking around for a little while we headed back to our sleeping bags and got a good night’s sleep. The next morning Kyle gave the fish another try but they would not cooperate. The trout breakfast menu was modified to dehydrated backpacking fare but the coffee was still French press brewed. After enjoying the mountain morning we put out our campfire and began the hike to the trailhead.

We had a great time together during our short backpacking trip. We made some great memories and made our friendships just a little bit tighter if that is possible. After we got to our vehicle and drove back to “civilization” we decided to fill our bellies with In-N-Out Burgers and fries. We are looking forward to the possibility of our next outdoor trip together. I am making it a point to allow more time for those “let’s do this just for fun” moments. After all, life is too short not to!