Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Most Expensive Walmart Ever

Our Selection of Bug Defense
I am nearly certain every hunting expedition has a day like yesterday.  It is the final gathering of resources and necessities needed before wandering far from civilization.  You could sum this day up in one word and chasten writers who spend nearly a paragraph wrapping said word up in a pretty 5 dollar words.  This word would be "shopping"; sometimes it is an enjoyable side adventure, but at other times it can be draining.

We had been forewarned by Hotel staff that the Wal-mart in town was "the most expensive Wal-mart ever."  Furthermore, it was rumored they were not actually affiliated with the corporate Wal-mart. This last ditty I found hard to believe.  What we did find to be true was that both Wally World and the Sportsman's Warehouse were within easy walking distance from our accommodations.   The rental car was not due to be ready until 1:00 PM, so we were left with only our shoe leather for transportation in the morning.

After the short hike, we were wandering the isles of the reported dreaded, overpriced,  made in china goods Wal-mart.  What you will notice about stores in Fairbanks is the prevalence of bug spray.  The little shelves spread around the stores in the lower 48 that proudly display tasty potato chips or other deliciously fattening snack foods are replaced by foul smelling Cutters, OFF!, Ben's, or Repel sprays. I was amazed at the variety and choice in this matter.  As bug spray was one of the items on the list we were drawn to these displays, but were confounded on what to buy. It seemed that  every type of repellent was there, including wipes, 30, 40, 100% Deet, spray bottles, Pumps, Thermacells, and even one spray for gear that will actually kill mosquitoes.  This latter bug product came with a sever warning to not let it get on your skin.  This item did not find it's way into our carts.

One of the many displays of bug repellent.
Finding some difficulty in selecting our bug protection, we asked several staff members and local people throughout the day.  Just like folklore and home remedies, it seemed that everyone had their own preferences and sworn proven system for repelling the insects.  The only consensus among those polled was that Thermacells were a godsend and worked wonders.  At the end of the shopping day each one of us possessed a Thermacell and enough refills to operate it continuously for 48 hours.

Being a Wal-mart shopper in the lower states I was able to compare prices.  What I found was that it was more costly in the Fairbanks store, but not overly.  Wal-mart was the better priced of the two stores for cost when compared to Sportsman's.  The staff in the store was incredible friendly and readily called competitors in town to find me items they did not have.  I left the store with the opposite impression I had when I walked in.

"Do not take it to the Arctic Circle!"  I smirked at first when the rental car agent made this statement, I thought she was kidding, but she wasn't.  I was already forgetting where I was, and that the Arctic Circle began only a mere 200 miles away.  In any respects we had won the proverbially car lottery. Our reservation was for a standard car, as it was about the most we could afford.  Just like everything else in Alaska, rental cars are more expensive.  With all our gear we expected to take multiple trips to and from changing of hotels and airports while using a standard car.  However, our car grew to a 15 passenger van at no extra cost as it was all that was sitting on their lot.

The 15 passenger beast.
With wheels and a little bit more freedom obtained, we spent some time driving around Fairbanks.  I found the city similar to a Colorado Mountain ski town, both in price and setting.  The atmosphere differed much from that of those towns, less touristic and definitely more rustic. The one thing I found for certain is that everything is more expensive in Alaska.  If you plan to travel here make sure you include extra in your budget.

Day three will be our first full adventure day.  We plan to see the pipeline, travel up to the beginning of the Dalton highway, and perhaps try our hand at Alaska fishing.  I look forward to seeing more of Alaska's less urban environment.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Day One

Arrival in Fairbanks at 1:00 AM
The plane departed Denver in pitch darkness and pouring rain.  It was going to be a long flight, nearly 6 hours, and I settled in for a nap in the tight quarters of my small airline seat.  When I awoke I was surprised to find growing light in the sky outside the small window.  It was 11:30 PM; we were flying north and headed to the land of the midnight sun.

Does it ever get truly dark?  This was the question I asked the shuttle driver who picked us up at the airport in Fairbanks.   It was now nearly 1:00 AM,  and the driver replied, "you mean it isn't dark right now?" The sky was the beautiful glow of sunrise and nearly hunting light if one was so inclined to do so.  I had expected this and felt fully prepared to deal with it as I normally work nights and sleep during the day, but until you see it you can not truly fathom what it is like. 

Everything went according to the plan on the first day of the trip, if not better than we had hoped for.  Frontier Airline's customer service was exceptional.  They did not charged us oversize fees for our rifle/bow cases, and I even saw a bag that was 54 pounds somehow pass for 50 pound limit check. Security screening was rapid and we had no difficulty with the process for checking our firearms. 

We expected mosquitoes, and had been forewarned by several Alaskan residents whom were on the flight about them.  As we walked out of the Fairbanks Airport we were assaulted by droves of the annoy bloodsucking pests.  Just posing for the tilted picture of this post was a delicate dance of timing as I swatted the pestering insects.  Of course all of the bug spray, head nets, and Thermacells were neatly packed away in our luggage and nearly inaccessible at that point.
Swatting at Mosquitoes 
Day two will be spent in Fairbanks gathering final supplies before our flight to camp on Friday. Perhaps I may get to do some fishing in some local rivers this evening.  Lord knows it won't be dark anytime soon...

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Seeing the Elephant

I believe that many people often hum or at least have the tune, "Leaving on a Jet Plane" by Peter, Paul and Mary,  stuck in their heads when they leave for a trip. This is not the case for me, but I have never been accused of being normal or ordinary.  The song that continuously loops through my psyche is not really a modern song at all, but a portion of script from J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit."  If you have ever read this great adventure you will recognize this as the lyric the dwarves sing to Bilbo as they put away his precious dishes on the eve of their journey.

Chip the glasses, crack the plates!
That's what Bilbo Baggins hates!
That's what Bilbo Baggins hates!
So carefully, carefully with the plates!

Blunt the knives and bend the forks!
Smash the bottles, burn the corks!
That's what Bilbo Baggins hates!
So carefully, carefully with the plates!
J.R.R. Tolkien

Why, you ask, would this phrase be the mantra from which I draw my packing inspiration?  Because it marked the beginning of both a life changing experience and great adventure for little Bilbo.  My journeys are just the same.  Each is a prized opportunity to learn new things, see fresh places, and to find my own treasure.  

Today I leave on my long anticipated Alaskan Caribou hunt.  Months of planning and hard work have gone into this expedition.  From phone calls, reading guides, creating lists, and building arrows, to copious practice with both bow and rifle.  I feel ready.   It is time to make my own Alaskan reflections. 

Although I feel prepared, I am still left with many questions.  Will Alaska be as beautiful as it is in my dreams?  Will I find the Caribou I seek? Will my hunting skill set so keenly developed for Colorado be able to carry me through this hunt? Will I be able to handle the bugs?  Just how big are the bears, and will I get a glimpse at a wolf? Is this the "first" time I go to Alaska, or the "only?"  I will not know the answers to these questions until I set my foot out the door and make the nearly 4,000 mile trek north. 

You, dear reader, are fortunate.  You have the chance to come with me, but forgo the long plane rides, wet weather, and Alaska's state bird: the mosquito. I hope to write several posts as the trip progresses, and I encourage you to check Facebook and Twitter for daily updates as well.

This is the hunt of a lifetime.  A hunt I have been training my entire life for.  With that, it is about time to stop writing about it and get going.   The first leg is to the airport via several stops for family and gear. There is no better vehicle to get me there than my beloved mountain truck: the suburban.  She sits, fully loaded with my gear and ready to take me on my way.  A few goodbyes and lingering embraces with my girls are all that remain. 

There is a saying that developed in early American history called "Seeing the Elephant".  The elephant was a creature of fame and had legendary status due to it's size, grandeur, and scarcity.  Town folk and farmer alike would line the streets when the circus came to town to catch a glance at this massive animal.  Alaska is my mythological creature of wonder, and I'm going to see the elephant.

As I go, I believe it is only just that I leave the last thought to Mr. Tolkien.  

"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.  You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to." J.R.R Tolkien 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Bullet Game

If you have never called Hornady Manufacturing, I highly suggest you do sometime.  In an era of out-sourced call centers and a general devaluing of customer service, Horandy can still be found to have class and true dedication to their customers. Upon calling Hornady you are greeted by the ambiguous corporate answering machine that implores you to listen to the following options as they may have changed.   Just about the time you are certain you have landed squarely is a depressing game of telephone maze button mashing to talk to a real person, the cadence of the recorded voice changes.  You are assured the following options have not changed, and further, pressing zero at any time will take you to one of Hornady's friendly staff.

Zero did indeed direct me to a very polite staff member who answered promptly and never used the dreaded "hold" button.  I was amazed and shocked at how I was treated.  It was as if I was a celebrity, and they had waited all day just for me to call.  It was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise dingy, choking cloud of poor customer service that our consumer market place has become today.

SST 150 grain bullet recovered from a bear
Why was I calling a leading bullet manufacture?  We all have felt the pinch of ammunition shortages of late, and no one more so than those shooting the venerable 308 Winchester cartridge.  This previous season I had sighted in my rifle using a 150 grain SST bullet in Hornady's Superformance line, SST 150gr Superformance. This is a jacketed, lead core bullet that boosts higher speeds and decent weight retention.   I had achieved great accuracy with this round and used it to harvest both an antelope and a bear. The bullet had performed well on the animals and I was able to recover both of them.  After examining the bullets, I was happy with their expansion.   Unfortunately I had depleted my supply and no scouring of the internet or local gun shops could produce more of this rare resource.

SST 150 grain bullet recovered from an Antelope
My hope was that Hornady would be able to direct me to where I could obtain my beloved SST round.  My dreams were dashed when they informed me the round had not been in production for sometime, and they were not due to start again for another 45 days.  With an Alaska caribou hunt looming in the near future, it became apparent that I would have to switch to a different bullet.  A long conversation with one of Hornady's techs convinced me that the best substitution for the bullet was the GMX, or gilding metal bullet.  GMX 150gr Superformance.  This bullet is made out of a solid copper metal amalgamation and is Hornady's answer to a lead free bullet.  Hornady boasts excellent weight retention upon impact, as well as good expansion as the ballistic tip opens the front of the bullet.  An item to note is that this bullet must be driven at a minimum speed of 2000 FPS in order to expand optimally.  This is opposed to the SST which has a lower minimum expansion speed of 1800 FPS.  Looking at a ballistic table, this gives the 150gr GMX in Superformance an effective range of about 450 yards in the 308 cartridge.  At 400 yards, the bullet is at 2101 FPS, and at 500 it is down to 1916 FPS.  The SST is still effective past 500 yards as it is traveling at 1963 FPS at this mark in the same weight and cartridge.   The drop rates also differ but only slightly.

With my new bullet selected, I set out to find some of the beautiful red and gold boxes of said GMX ammo.  With a little bit of luck I found some at my local Cabela's, but was shocked by the sticker price.  $42 per box of 20 made each shot just a smidgen over $2 a round, a pricey sum for 308 ammunition.  This was a steep price compared to the $27 per box for the same ammunition in the SST bullet.

With my bullets purchase, rifle cleaned, and several new target stands built, I set off for the Colorado prairie to test and compare the two bullets out of my trusty custom AR10.  My AR10 was built specifically for me by Colorado Mountain Sales, CMS Arms, out of Aurora, Colorado.  It has an 18 inch stainless steel, free floated barrel made by Black Hole Weaponry.  This specific barrel has 3 grove polygonal rifling, which is different than traditional enfield rifling.  The upper and lower are built by DPMS, is their LAR10 series, and has a two-staged CMML match trigger group installed.

Video about testing these bullets.

Enough about the tech, its time to talk about how the bullets performed.  On the first day of shooting it was 85 degrees with nearly no wind to speak of.  I shot both bullets at the 200 and 300 yard mark.  What I found was that the SST grouped much better than the GMX.  When the sun set and I shut down my shooting for the day, there was a clear winner.  Without a doubt the SST was the better bullet for my rifle.  However, I ran out of time to compare the bullets at the 100 yard mark and still did not have my rifle absolutely zeroed in for the SST round.  There was also the problem that I only had three of my beloved SSTs left, sitting lonely and abandoned by their brothers in a nearly empty 20 round magazine.

200 yard GMX group.
200 yard SST group.
300 yard SST group
300 yard GMX group.
Upon arriving home I once again searched for my SSTs.  With a little direction from Hornady, this time I was able to locate some from an internet supplier.  Several days later I had four boxes of the brass colored beauties on my doorstep.

Day two at the range saw temperatures in the lower 90s and the winds were intermittent at 5 to 15 MPH.  This made shooting difficult to say the least.  After several groups at 200 yards I had to resign myself to the fact that I could make no determinations off any distance greater than 100 yards for the day.  I shot several consecutive three shot groups of both ammunition and found the absolute opposite effect I had seen on day one.  The GMX performed better than the SST. It appears the SST is more susceptible to wind than the GMX.  One GMX group at 100 yards even saw two bullets go through the same hole.   I ended the day shooting the GMX and SST at distance targets up to 400 yards.  I found both bullets performed decently well despite the windy conditions.

100 yard GMX group, yes that is two bullets in one hole.
100 yard SST group.
My conclusion is that both bullets are good performers in the Superformance line.  The ammunition itself functioned well in my AR10 and I never had a misfire or malfunction out of the approximate 100 rounds I fired.  I will be sticking with the SST for now, based on past history, performance, and price.   However, a few GMX'S will probably find their way into the ammunition box for windy days.

Closing thoughts this time are my own: Practice and test your gear regularly, do not be the hunter that relies on luck or pure chance at the moment of truth.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Be at Peace

I have made some difficult shots in my hunting career, and I have missed some animals from mere yards.  I will never claim to be an expert marksman, or another Fred Bear or Howard Hill.  If I ever learn even half of what those great men forgot about archery, I would consider myself lucky.  What knowledge I have acquired over my hunting career has been taught to me by the school of hard knocks.   When the chips are down and your trophy animal  is range, it takes all you have to execute the perfect shot.  It is the culmination of years of practice with your chosen weapon. When your weapon is a bow it is all the more challenging to maintain your discipline and work through a good shot.  Heart rate, breathing and worst of all our minds are the largest stumbling blocks to this challenge. Even on an ambiguous yellow target bag some archers struggle with the dreaded target panic.  Shooting well requires your mind, body, and equipment to be in proper tune.

Several years ago I started down a rocky road of traditional archery.  My vision was to eventually bow hunt exclusively with a longbow.  As I find myself  now on the precipice of the realization of that dream.  I felt I would share a lesson the wooden stick I call a bow has taught me.  This realization has become my mantra and one that I can frequently be heard muttering to myself during nightly practice.  Be at peace.  Drawing a bow is a physical activity that requires strength and energy.  It puts tension on the body, induces fatigue, and at the beginning may not be an enjoyable feeling.  There also is the added mental anxiety of wanting to shoot well, this can be compounded if shooting with others, or your quarry is near.  Add in the mental focus needed to maintain proper form and aim, and the whole event of the shot may not be a placid one.

Whether you shoot a rifle, a stick bow, or are a catapult engineer (compound), it is important to find peace before your shot.  For me it is reaching full draw, feeling my tooth and shoulder anchor lock into place, focusing all of my mental energy on a tiny spec I have deemed my target, and then relaxing.  I know it sounds odd to relax while holding 53 pounds of draw weight; but it is a mental relaxing.  Forgetting about what the end result of the shot will be, as long as the shot itself is perfect. The greatest melding of man and bow, culminating in the flight of an arrow.   I find when I can do this and remove all anxiety and mental tension form the shot process, my groups are tighter and most of the time my arrow is within a respectable distant from the center ring.

We all know about the seven fundamentals of marksmanship; stance, grip, sight alignment, sight picture, breathing, trigger control, and follow through.  I propose there is perhaps an eight which is a relaxed mental perspective that I call, peace.

May your arrows fly straight and your aim be true - Unknown