Sweet Success

jar of honeyI just can’t get into the beekeeping thing. I tried — I really did. I know it’s good for the environment and should be fascinating to me – bee behavior really is quite interesting – but it’s just not a hobby I care to pursue. My boyfriend is another story.

If you haven’t had any experience raising honeybees, you might (logically) think it’s an easy pasttime – the bees fly around and gather pollen, take it back to the hive and make a bunch of honey which you then get to collect. Right? I mean, they’re honeybees. Isn’t that what honeybees do?

In reality, beekeeping involves a lot of hard work and frustration. My boyfriend has been keeping bees for three years now and refers to his bees as “those bitches” for a reason. As with any relationship, patience is required. Due to the nature of beekeeping, you also must be willing to get hot and sweaty on a regular basis. It’s occurred to me more than once that some parallels can be drawn between beekeeping and romantic relationships.

Bending over a hive and looking for the elusive queen bee while wearing a hot beekeeping suit (think Michelin Man) in hot, humid weather dramatically raises both the boredom and frustration levels for me. Which is why I’ve opted to be a dedicated onlooker, note-taker and photographer rather than an active participant.

Quite the fetching look.

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Speaking of queen bees — here’s one (she’s the big bee marked with a spot of orange paint — a different color paint is used each year to mark the queens in order to keep track of when they hatched).

queen bee #1

But then it came time to harvest the honey. That sounded like a lot more fun! There was also less chance of getting stung.

There were three beehives.

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We went through the honey supers of the three hives frame by frame to see which ones contained enough honey to extract.

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This one is full of honey. The white stuff you see are the cappings — the honey is underneath. The wax cappings can be used to make beeswax products like lip balm and candles.

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Only one of the honey supers contained enough honey to extract. Of the nine frames in that super, we were able to use eight of the frames.

Before taking the frames away, the bees have to be smoked to make them a little woozy and less likely to sting, and then gently brushed off the frame so that no bees are lost in the process.

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bees brush

After unpacking and washing the shiny new honey extractor (last year’s Christmas gift to my boyfriend, purchased from http://www.brushymountainbeefarm.com ), we got ready to roll.

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It was a beautiful summer day, so we were able to work in the garage with the doors wide open. Hello, Sunshine! (Note to self: Check camera settings before handing off photographer duties to boyfriend.)

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First a knife is used to cut the caps off of the honey.

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Then the frames are placed into the extractor two at a time.

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As the handle of the extractor is cranked, honey is spun out of one side of the frames. Then the frames are turned around so the honey can be spun out of the other side.

As the honey is spun out of the frame, it runs out of the extractor through a spigot, into a double sieve, then into a five-gallon bucket.

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Apparently someone wasn’t quite ready to give up their honey!

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bee in honey

Once we had extracted the honey from all eight frames, we washed the cappings with water and let them air dry. I planned to try making lip balm with these at a later date. Cleaning up the extractor was by far the most time-consuming part of the whole process.

After letting the honey sit for 24 hours, we bottled it in cute mason jars found at a local thrift store.

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Although we only harvested two gallons on our first go-around, we were quite happy with the end result!

honey crop 2014

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Red, White & Bluegrass

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This Fourth of July, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself smack-dab in the middle of Small Town USA. Although I frequently head to Montross, Virginia, on the weekends, rarely do I find myself in the center of town. For one thing, my boyfriend and I are usually occupied with chores or other manners of outside fun at his farm. For another thing, there’s just not a whole lot going on in Montross. At least that’s what I thought.

With a population of 315 and covering a grand total of one square mile, the town of Montross is quite literally Small Town USA. The county seat of Westmoreland County, Montross is located in the historic Northern Neck of Virginia, near George Washington’s birthplace and Stratford Hall Plantation – birthplace of Robert E. Lee, Richard Henry Lee, and Francis Lightfoot Lee.

The town has a long history going back to colonial times, including one particular bit of history that jumped out at me. It concerned one William Pitt, an instrumental member of Parliament who was responsible for the repeal of the Stamp Act of 1765. If your American history is as rusty as mine, the Stamp Act was Parliament’s way of taxing nearly every paper document that passed through the colonists’ hands – newspapers, licenses, and even playing cards. Pitt believed that Parliament should pursue increased trade with the colonists, not taxation, to generate revenue. Major objection to this tax was voiced in Westmoreland County by way of the Leedstown Resolves, a document signed by 116 of Westmoreland County’s most well-known residents, including the Lee and Washington families. The colonists admired Pitt for being an active proponent of colonial rights and for his opposition to the Stamp Act. A portrait of William Pitt painted by Charles Willson Peale in 1768 is displayed in the Westmoreland County Museum. I found this interesting because the name of my boyfriend’s father was William Pitts.

Okay, enough history.

The day before the Fourth, I was having my hair done by my new hairdresser, Julianna (of Royal Cutts in Montross), who asked if I was going to the Art Walk the following night. My initial reaction was…Art Walk? In Montross? My next was to check out the details on the Montross Facebook page as Julianna blew my hair dry. I discovered that the town of Montross had recently started sponsoring these First Friday events, and this month’s event just happened to fall on the Fourth of July. After four years of what has, for the most part, been a welcome state of solitude in the country, I was excited at the prospect of a community event!

The following night, after stuffing ourselves with what has become our traditional Fourth of July fare – bbq ribs and garden-fresh vegetables – we headed out to The Village which, unbeknownst to us, is what the center of town is referred to.

The First Friday Art Walk started at 5:30, with the band starting an hour later, and was billed to include music, art, food and wine.

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Upon arriving, we saw the bluegrass band setting up on the village green, but decided to start our walking tour at the Wakefield building while the band warmed up. This building is a small museum of sorts — they call it the Mercantile — and it has all sorts of donated artifacts from the past on display. There was an old fashioned post office mailbox, coffee grinders, various scales — including the one that would tell you your fortune along with your weight — and more. It was like walking into an old-timey store.

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Two artists – painter Carol Wollstein and photographer Katheryn Sullivan, were displaying their artwork here. The artwork was impressive, and Carol even had wine and culinary treats on hand – what a nice way to start the evening!

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The Mercantile is faced with a large glass window, and there was a supply of colored markers on hand so that kids and adults alike could decorate the window. It was an appropriate setting for encouraging budding artists!

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We picked up a flyer at the door that showed a suggested route through town so we could hit all the businesses that were participating in the art walk. We didn’t even come close to hitting them all. But following the guide, we headed to our next destination – the Diane Jackson Gallery, featuring Diane’s original paintings of boats, ships and water scenes from the Montross area. The painting were very intricate and beautiful, but also very far out of my price range. The mood in her gallery was a bit more serious, so after a short time we moved on.

Continuing on our walk, we passed four large murals painted on some of the buildings. The murals were completed in early June by renowned artists Melanie Stimmell from Los Angeles and Anat Ronen from Houston. They are just one reflection of the recent grant-funded revitalization project that is currently taking place in Montross.

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The mural on the Coca-Cola bottling plant is the original mural that’s been there for years, although they touched up the paint a bit. To be honest, this mural has always struck me as being a little creepy yet nostalgic:

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Other revitalization projects on tap include new signage, the institution of a downtown marketing theme — “Return to the Village” — and façade improvement for many of the town businesses.

On to The Art of Coffee, a neat little coffee house that is actually a converted auto shop. If you look closely, you can see the old service bays at the front of the shop. The Art of Coffee has an extensive menu — just that morning they had been serving red, white and blue pancakes in observance of the Fourth of July. Too bad I missed those.

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I love this coffee shop — it’s cozy and welcoming and has great coffee and Wi-Fi, too! They offer a fine assortment of jewelry, gifts and photos — many of which are the same scenes that I’ve shot around the Montross area, only these photos look remarkably better. What gives?

There are lots of cozy places to curl up with a cup of coffee or tea:
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As we exited the Art of Coffee, we noticed that the village green was rapidly filling up with concert-goers, so we headed over to claim one of the last bales of hay. The bluegrass band, Josh Grigsby and County Line, were phenomenal! I’m generally not a big bluegrass fan, but this band converted me.

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Had more people been dancing besides these two cute little girls, I would have been out there, too — they were definitely center stage!

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Teach them early to tip the band!
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The concert was well-attended!
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I couldn’t help but wonder where all these people came from. I had no idea there were so many people in Montross.

There was a wine garden sponsored by The Hague Winery as well as various food offerings. Still stuffed from dinner, I didn’t partake in either (although I may have headed to the truck for a cold beer when the band took a much-deserved break).

One of my ulterior motives for attending the art walk was to meet people. Working all week in the city and then spending all weekend at the farm leaves little time for social interaction, so even though I’ve spent almost four years in Montross, I don’t have many friends there. I was surprised when a woman approached me and asked if I would be willing to send her any good photos I took that night. Considering my lack of photographic skills, I probably should have been asking her that question. As we talked, I discovered that she was a recent transplant to Montross by way of the sunny state of California. And as we shared our respective observations of life peculiar to the natives of Montross, I found someone I could relate to. Joan Winter, I look forward to visiting you on your farm and meeting your lucky dog! It was a pleasure to meet you!

After enjoying the music and sense of community for quite a while, I was reminded that if we didn’t leave soon, we’d miss the fireworks display at Colonial Beach. It was so nice and relaxing, sitting on that bale of hay with everyone talking and drinking and enjoying the beautiful evening – I really wanted to stay there all night. But the Fourth of July just wouldn’t be right without fireworks. Blame it on my childhood – I can still hear my dad theatrically exclaiming “Oooh!!!” and “Ahhhh!” every time a firework went off! As we reluctantly headed off to the truck, I did a quick check of my calendar to see if we’d be in town for next month’s First Friday. Let’s see…that would be Friday, August 2nd? Yep, I’m in!

Shedless in Suburbia

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This past weekend, my friend Ed and I went shed hunting. After being stuck in the house all winter and hunting season long over, I was really looking forward to searching for antlers the bucks had shed within the last few months. Ed has a friend who owns 400 acres of land in Warrenton, Virginia, and he was kind enough to let Ed wander all over his property in search of those elusive antlers. Ed was kind enough to invite me along.

We started out around 10:00 in the morning on a beautiful April day – one of this year’s first really good days of spring. The sun was shining and the temps were in the 60s. Perfect weather for tromping around looking for sheds. I didn’t even care if we found any – I was just happy to be back in the woods!

I should mention that Ed brought along his kids – two very adorable Wirehaired Vizslas, the most unique, intelligent and probably goofiest dogs I’ve ever met. Winnie and Finn are the size of small ponies with orange hair and beautiful green eyes. They’re great … I don’t even want to refer to them as dogs, because they seem more like people to me.

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Although Ed has been trying to teach Winnie and Finn to find antlers, I don’t think they’ve caught on quite yet.

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After parking our vehicles and walking a short way onto the property, Ed stooped down and picked up the tiniest skull I’ve ever seen. Judging from the size of it, the large eye sockets and tiny front teeth, we surmised it was a squirrel. Well, it used to be a squirrel. Ed was excited at the prospect of adding it to the shrine of animal skulls he is amassing at his home.

Shed hunting 2014

After tucking the squirrel skull safely into Ed’s backpack, I took off to the right of the property in search of antlers and Ed took off to the left. There was an area of trees and brush with deer trails running through it that seemed like a good place to start. Eyes to the ground, I started looking. Rather than coming across any antlers, my first find was a recently demised skunk. Very recently and very smelly. So, I thought, this is how the day is going to go.

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Next, I found one very dead cow. It was so large and the hide so tanned by the sun that at first I thought it was some sort of machinery. It took me a minute to realize it was, in fact, a cow.

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Where were all the antlers? Four hundred acres of land with deer trails, deer tracks and deer poop all over it and yet we couldn’t even find one antler. Either there are a lot of very hungry mice on this land or we just suck at finding antlers. I never did see any mice.

After a while, I came across a virtual wildlife crime scene. All that was missing was the yellow tape. First I came upon a deer leg, slightly gnawed on.

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A little further along, a big swath of deer hair covered the ground.

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Next, a set of ribs and upper body with the tiniest of spike heads attached.

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Hey – antlers! Not exactly what I had in mind, but at least it was something! So I twisted the head around and around until it came off and went to find Ed.

Along the way, I came across the remains of another dead cow. What was the deal with all these dead cows? So I picked up the skull and took that with me, too.

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Dead stinky deer head in one hand and a big cow skull in the other – not what I was looking for but fun nonetheless.

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Ed was sitting on a hill and eating a snack with his kids when I caught up to him. He was very complimentary of my finds. Some people are just so polite. After taking a few pictures, we decided it was best to leave the cow head behind since it was so heavy and cumbersome. It was bad enough that I spent the next few hours with a reeking deer head in hand. I didn’t need to be toting a big cow head, too.

As we crested a ridge, we saw a flock of about ten turkeys directly in front of us. They were so close, I couldn’t believe we hadn’t scared them away. We both froze in place. Winnie and Finn were incredibly obedient and didn’t move a muscle. As we watched, one of the toms fanned out his tail and started strutting around in a circle. Come on baby, you know you want me! It was awesome to watch!

After a few more shows of the gobbler’s sexy stuff, I snuck into the nearby woods in an effort to get close enough to take a picture. I hadn’t thought to bring my telephoto lens and I couldn’t get a decent shot from where we stood.

If you’ve ever tried to sneak up on a turkey, you know it’s pretty much impossible. They see EVERYTHING. After about ten minutes of creeping low to the ground through the trees and brambles, I got to the edge of the tree line. I could clearly see the turkeys and was finally close enough to take a picture…but I ended up spooking them and they flew away. Oh well, at least I’d been able to see the show.

That really got me thinking about the opening day of turkey season next weekend…

We hiked the property in search of antlers for a total of five hours. Winnie and Finn kept trying to gnaw on the spinal cord of my smelly deer head. I decided then that as cute as they were, they wouldn’t be licking me in the face anytime soon. After walking downwind of me, Ed commented that it was a good thing we’d taken separate cars.

Smelly deer head and lack of antlers aside, I was reminded that there is nothing like spending a day in the woods with a good friend. Besides being able to appreciate the beauty of nature, you’re also able to totally focus on each other without the common distractions of everyday life. Well, other than something dead here and there.

We wrapped up our day with a trip to Foster’s Grill in Warrenton, Virginia. I had never been there before, but Foster’s had the best damn burger I’ve ever eaten. It could be that we had hiked for five hours and I was really hungry. Or it could be that the draft beer was nice and cold and I was sharing the meal with a good friend on a perfect day. Either way, it was a delicious meal in a relaxed atmosphere and you should stop in if you get a chance. (http://www.fostersgrille.com/)

At the end of the day, our tally included:

– One dead skunk
– One tiny spike head
– Two dead cows
– Two turtle shells
– One squirrel skull
– Two pretty rocks
– Four ticks for me
– One tick for Ed
– One memorable day spent with a very good friend

So, no antlers. And I really could have done without the ticks, but that last one on the list — yep, that made it priceless.

Ed & M & dogs

Fishing for Noodles

Having recently made the acquaintance of a very nice man who also enjoys fly fishing (I would say “fellow fly fisherman,” but this guy actually knows what he’s doing), I found myself going through some old photos so I could send him a picture of my first catch.

It was about seven years ago when I first tried a fly rod on Spread Creek in a fairly remote area of the Grand Tetons. I had no idea what I was doing, but I loved it right away. Fly fishing along a sparkling Wyoming creek surrounded by some of our country’s most beautiful scenery AND the possibility of catching some fish? What’s not to like? When I finally landed my first trout — after an extended fight that had me convinced it was going to flip its way right back into the creek — my only question was, “Is it big enough to keep?”

Gil 2007

Assured that my 21-inch brook trout was a keeper, I named him Gil, slipped him in the back of my nifty new fly fishing vest, then ate him for dinner that night. Poor Gil. He was tasty and I was hooked.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend three consecutive summers fly fishing on Spread Creek and the other nearby creeks, rivers and lakes. But Spread Creek was my favorite. Each August I had the luxury of fly fishing every day, all day, for two to three solid weeks. You hardcore fishermen out there probably think that really is a luxury, but it was a bit much for someone who hadn’t fly fished before. Don’t get me wrong — I still count myself lucky! The Tetons are beautiful, the fish were plentiful, and I never saw another person while fishing — not even once. Plus, there’s nothing like cooking up the day’s catch for dinner each evening. By the end of every vacation, however, I’d had my fill of fly fishing and eating trout. And longed to have been able to have spent more time hiking. On land.

As great as the fishing was, however, the biggest catch I landed was the one I purposely kept separated from my fly.

It was towards the end of another long day of fishing, and I was getting tired. And I don’t mean that just in the physical sense. I was getting really tired of being left behind on my own with no one in sight. Not because I’m needy, mind you, but because I’M VERY AFRAID OF BEARS. As you probably know, grizzly bears are quite common in the Tetons. Throw in the bunch of dead fish on my back, and I felt like bear bait. Looking back, maybe that was the whole idea. I’m pretty sure my male companion could have outrun me.

Hmm.

So anyway, here I was fishing. I was trying to land my fly right at the edge of a bunch of sticks and logs and whatnot in the middle of the creek without getting my fly caught. As I was concentrating on avoiding this pile of natural debris, I noticed that the end of one of the sticks resembled the tip of an antler. Which was really weird because I was fishing in August and not even thinking about deer season. It was still two months away. But there it was — something that looked an awful lot like an antler tip.

Since I was alone, ONCE AGAIN, and apparently had all the time in the world — unless a bear decided to come along and devour me — I waded out to the middle of the creek and started pulling stuff off. Sticks and twigs and branches and all sorts of woody things that had made their way to the middle of the creek. As I got further and further down, I struck gold!

Okay, not gold in the literal sense, but one very large, rotting, putrid, stinky, smelly, nasty, utterly perfectly beautiful elk head with six antlers on each side. Hey, Gorgeous!

Here I was, standing alone in the middle of a remote creek in the Wyoming wilderness with no one to witness my spectacular find. It’s like I had won the lottery and there was no one to show my ticket to.

So I hoisted this nasty, smelly, disgusting thing up on my shoulders and start running (well, sort of, because it was really heavy and cumbersome) through the creek, whooping and hollering — “Look what I found, look what I found!!!” I was so excited!!!

I wasn’t met with quite the degree of enthusiasm that I thought the situation warranted, but…whatever.

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After taking some pictures, we had to carry this stinky trophy back down the creek and then out the mile-long hike to the car. As the sun was going down. Talk about bear bait. My companion at the time was a gentleman and took over the heavy lifting without complaint. Looking back, perhaps this is why he was less than excited.

Once we got the elk head back to our cabin, I found a hose and a scrub brush and tried to clean out the brains and all the other rotting things that were in there. I didn’t really want to know what everything was. I just knew it was gross. Then I got a very large bucket of water and some bleach to soak the head in. That thing was nasty!

By the end of a week of soaking, it wasn’t smelling much better. We finally resorted to taking the head through a self-serve car wash. In hindsight, this was a brilliant idea. I didn’t really like the brains blowing out and all over my face with everyone watching — no, that was incredibly gross — but the water pressure sure did the trick! The whole process took so long that the lady in the car behind us finally leaned out and shouted, “Are you going to do your car, too?” Nope, it’s a rental!

Once my new friend was reasonably cleaned up and presentable, I went into the nearby K-Mart to wash up in the ladies room. Nothing like a smattering of rotting brains to make you feel dirty and a little self-conscious. Once I felt as presentable as my friend, I started looking around the store for what I might use to pack him up for his trip home. I didn’t want his delicate bone structure to be compromised.

In the swimming aisle, not only did I discover my friend’s coat of armor but also his name — NOODLES! You know those swim noodles that little kids play with in the pool? Those long foam things that keep them afloat while also making a great weapon? Well, I bought a few of those, along with some bubble wrap, packing tape and a plastic wastebasket.

Once I had everything I thought I’d need to get him home safely, I hit the National Park Service to make sure I would be able to get him tagged and bring him home. Based on what everyone had already told me, I was fairly certain it wouldn’t be a problem, but I kept thinking that something would go wrong. I couldn’t imagine getting on the plane without him — it made me heartsick just thinking about it.

The National Park Service staff were very interested in Noodles. They wanted to know exactly when, where and how I had found him. Since they keep incredibly detailed records about the travel patterns of wolves in the area as well as documenting their kills, they knew that Noodles was the unfortunate victim of a wolf kill. They told me that they had never been able to find the remains of this kill, and here I was laying it on the table for them! It was pretty cool to know that they actually had some background on this guy and had been looking for him.

After getting Noodles properly documented and tagged, I was told that I was free to take him home. He was all mine!

Next I needed to get him ready for the trip home. He was still pretty stinky, even after soaking in a bucket of diluted bleach all week, so I tried to contain his stench as best I could. First came the noodles. I cut 12 ten-inch segments of noodles and stuck them on the end of each antler.

Noodles

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Nice. Then his delicate nose. I wrapped bubble wrap every which way around his snout and skull until I was confident that he was well-protected. A good bit of packing tape went over that. Then came the plastic trash can — his protective nose-covering. Again, more tape. Lots and lots of tape. Finally, he was ready. And colorful!

Noodles was all set to embark on his first (and probably only) plane ride!

While waiting for our connecting flight in Salt Lake City, I took some photos of Noodles switching planes. (He was easy to pick out.) Noodles got a fair amount of attention from the airport baggage handlers.

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As I watched them rolling Noodles off the plane with the other luggage and then huddling around him (I’m sure I looked like some neurotic mother watching her son being taken off the school bus), one of the baggage handlers happened to look up and see me watching through the large window of the airport terminal. As his co-workers looked on, so began my first ever game of charades.

He: Points to Noodles, points to me, then raises eyebrows.

Me: Nodding vigorously and grinning like an idiot.

He: Mimics pulling back a bow, then points to me, then raises hands in question.

Me: Shaking head no from side to side. Trying not to laugh.

He: Raises hands again in question — if not a bow, then how? (Too early for gun season)

Me: Mimics fly fishing. Not easy.

He: Appears in airport terminal about two minutes later, wanting the whole story.

How funny is that?

So I tell him the story, which I’m still thinking is really incredible, and he tells me that I need to come up with a better story. Like a bear was attacking the elk and I beat it off with my fly rod but the poor thing died anyway. Something like that.

I’m not very good at making stuff up, so I’ll be sticking with my original story.

When I arrived back home in D.C., I anxiously awaited the pick-up of my precious cargo. I’d spent the whole trip worrying that despite my best efforts, Noodles wouldn’t make it in one piece. He’d already been through so much. Well, the airport personnel must have taken very good care of Noodles because he came out looking very happy.

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Noodles spent the next six months on the floor of my laundry room before I concluded that bleach and water would never be enough. I finally took him to a taxidermist so that he could be given the proper European mount he deserved. Kip Hughes’ Taxidermy in Madison Heights, Virginia, did an excellent job, as usual.

[Kip Hughes Taxidermy: 434-929-5340]

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Not the best photo, but that’s what you get when you live in an old house and your prize mount is relegated to the basement because there’s no other wall tall enough to hang him on. Maybe one day he’ll have a better place to rest.

Fringe Benefits

To all my girlfriends who just don’t get the hunting thing (and that would be all of them), let me ask…how many times have you been able to go to the mall and hang out with baby raccoons? The fringe benefits of hunting — observing wildlife, enjoying the beauty and peace of the outdoors — are what make it so enjoyable.

During one of my last opportunities to hunt this past November, I was headed towards my tree stand around 3:00 in the afternoon after having spent a few hours squirrel hunting (with no squirrels to show for it). I was looking forward to settling into my tree stand with a snack and a book. Being tired and having juggled my hunting and camera gear for the last couple of weeks, I decided to leave my camera behind. This proved to be a bad decision.

As I made my way across the recently-cut cornfield, I noticed a couple of fuzzy little creatures in the distance. They were small and round and fluffy, and I couldn’t tell exactly what they were. Due to recent events, this made me a little nervous. Let me explain.

A few days earlier as I left the house for an early-morning hunt, I learned the value of checking my surroundings before heading out. I don’t usually do this, but for some reason I clicked on my flashlight as I stepped out into the pitch blackness of that morning. As my gaze followed the beam of light, I froze. Not ten feet in front of me was a skunk. A full-grown, black and white, stripey, stinky skunk. Still awfully cute, I must admit, but way too close for comfort! As I stomped my foot on the gravel to shoo it away (turns out that doesn’t have the desired effect), it turned its back to me, fluffed up its tail and peered back at me through its beady little eyes as if to say, “Sure. Go ahead — stomp your foot one more time.“

I decided then that I really didn’t need to walk past Pepe Le Pew to get to my stand. Besides the fact that he was ready to cover my scent in the worst possible way, I had seen a group of three skunks in the area the weekend before and couldn’t account for the other two. Instead, I made a bee-line for my car and drove the 300 yards to the end of the driveway. I left the car and walked across the fields — the long way around the visciously barking dog who still wanted to kill me. In the dark. It was REALLY DARK. I had turned my flashlight off because I didn’t want to scare the deer away. About halfway to my stand, a loud freaky bird flew up out of the winter wheat RIGHT UNDER MY FEET! This scared the crap out of me. Between the skunk and the dog and the bird, I turned my flashlight back on and didn’t turn it off until I reached my stand. Which is probably why I saw absolutely nothing that morning.

That’s me — brave hunter.

Thank you, Pepe.

That experience explains why I was very cautious as I closed in on the mysterious little furballs that afternoon in the cornfield. They didn't appear to be black and white, which was a good sign. Once I was close enough, I realized they were two baby raccoons. Awwww…how cute! I had never seen baby raccoons before, and they were adorable. Even though I was only about ten feet away, they weren’t afraid of me at all. After checking me out for half a second, they returned to stuffing themselves with corn. Baby raccoons can put away some corn!

At this point, I was really kicking myself for not having my camera. I thought about walking all the way back to the truck to get it, but I figured that by the time I got back, the raccoons would be gone and I would have blown my evening hunt. Probably the only time in my life that I'll ever come across baby raccoons and I couldn't take any pictures!

As I got within a few feet of them, the more aggressive of the two hunched up its back like a cat, fur raised on end, and pounced its two little front feet up and down and up and down and up and down at me — it was putting on a mean show and trying to be quite the bad-ass! Unfortunately, it was just too damn cute to be intimidating, but it was a good effort. Meanwhile, the other baby raccoon seemed oblivious of the drama going on and continued foraging for corn.

The disinterested raccoon seemed to be a few cards shy of a full deck. Or whatever that saying is. He was special.

I didn’t want to stress them out, so I headed on to my stand and spent the rest of the evening watching them through my binoculars. If any deer were out that night, I never saw them because I was so focused on these two tiny creatures. They stayed out until it was dark, eating their way all over the cornfield. It was a beautiful evening, I had a snack and baby raccoons to entertain me — who needed to shoot a deer? Apparently not me.

You may think this would be disappointing, but at this point in the game I had already shot two deer and was pretty tired of cutting up meat. So, I was more than happy to spend my evening watching cute baby animals.

When I described the baby raccoons to my boyfriend’s mother later that night, she asked me if I’d shot them. Wow. That wasn’t quite the response I expected. Then again, we’re talking about a 73-year-old woman who sets out live traps for opossums and raccoons because they mess with her vegetable garden. Once she catches one, she shoots it in the head, dumps it in the woods, then proudly announces it to everyone. That’s hard core.

I hunt because I like to eat. I’ve never killed anything I didn’t eat. Raccoons and opossums are cute and you can’t — or at least shouldn’t — eat them. So. Uck. I apologize to anyone reading this who eats raccoons or opossums. I guess I can understand her frustration, but I could never see myself doing that. I was sorry I’d mentioned them to her because now I feel like they’ll be easy targets. Especially the special one.

The next day, I headed out to the same field to see if the raccoons were out eating corn again. With my camera this time! Although the day before had been a gloriously sunny day, now it was extremely foggy and damp.

That’s the cornfield just beyond the trees.

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As I walked across the field with my boyfriend — who reminded me that the likelihood of seeing the raccoons again were slim to none — I spotted them! There they were, rummaging around for corn, right where I had seen them the night before. Once again, they didn’t seem to be bothered by me, but they sure didn’t like my boyfriend. Because they kept running away from him (and because I’m not the best photographer), it was difficult to get a good shot. I managed to get a few cute pictures, although I admit the quality is less than desirable.

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As the special one got more nervous, he started climbing on top of his sibling. I’m going to suggest that he was trying to protect her.

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It’s not what it looks like.

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The more aggressive of the two tried to intimidate us.

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Since the raccoons kept running away, Russell tried to run them back towards me so I could take some pictures.

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After he literally tripped over the special one, it ran away and scampered up a nearby tree.

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I felt bad that the baby raccoon was up in a tree and separated from his sibling because of us, so I kept walking away in the hope that he’d feel safe enough to climb down. I’d walk far away and then wander back every now and then to see if he’d made his way down, but no, he had settled in for the long haul. It was cold and rainy, so after a while we left. My boyfriend assured me that the raccoon would be able to get out of the tree and that his sibling would be waiting nearby.

I wasn’t sure I believed him. The tree was very tall and the raccoon was very small. Poor baby. You must hate humans. Especially ones that chase you.

First thing the next morning, I went out to check the tree. Yep, he was gone. What a cutie. Please don’t suggest that a coyote ate him or that my boyfriend’s mother went out and killed him. Just don’t.

So, I learned a few lessons:

1. Always bring a camera along when heading into the woods, because you never know what you might see.
2. Check out your surroundings before venturing into the dark.
3. Stomping your foot at a skunk will not make it go away and is probably a very bad idea.
4. Don’t mention baby animals to anyone who might want to off them before they have a chance to grow up and eat vegetables from her garden.

The Harvest Season

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Is it just me or does some sort of time warp occur during deer season? As I sit here delicately gnawing on a venison steak and recalling the many events of the past month, I’m trying to decide just where to start. I last posted about a month ago during bow season. At the time, I was seriously bummed about the doe I had shot but was unable to find until the next morning. It was warm that night so the meat had spoiled. I felt really bad about the doe. I felt even worse because it was a really nice doe and my freezer was getting empty.

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I had one more day to bow hunt after that, and I ended up spending the day looking at … turkeys.

Turkeys

It’s nice to know there are turkeys around, but come turkey season you know I‘ll see nothing but deer. Ha. That’s just the way it goes.

Here’s the empty field – as you can see, no deer.

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Perfect shooting lane – if a deer was in it.

Bow shooting lane

In the end, this year’s bow season left me empty-handed and down an arrow. Which leaves me with two. Oh, Santa? Care to bring me some Parker crossbow arrows? I’m used to bringing home at least one deer during bow season, but it seems like ever since I traded hunting in the Blue Ridge Mountains for the flatlands of the Northern Neck, I haven’t had much luck. At least it’s warmer!

And no matter where you are, it’s always pretty when the sun goes down.

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So, muzzleloader came in the first Saturday of November, and ever since then the month has been a flurry of activity — driving back and forth to the country, into the office, and then back to the country. And then back to the office. Throw in raking leaves, mowing the grass, and all that other home maintenance stuff that needs to fit in between, and yeah — you got it. I’m tired!

The Friday before opening day of muzzleloader season, I left work a little early and drove down to the country. Even though I left early, traffic sucked, so I got there a lot later than I had anticipated. After loading my muzzleloader, getting my hunting gear together for the morning, and finally laying my head on the pillow, 5:00 am seemed to come very early.

The next morning, I headed out to hunt while my other half stayed in bed. I know this picture seems a little backwards, but that’s okay with me — I wanted to hunt, he wanted to sleep. I figured if I was lucky, breakfast might be ready when I got back.

I was fortunate to be able to get dressed in a relatively warm garage, then walk a short 15 minutes across a field of winter wheat to my tree stand. The only thing between me and the stand (that morning, anyway) was a very large, very loud and very angry dog that threatened to rip me apart on my way. I had permission to hunt on this land, and the angry beast was in a pen, but it sure looked to me like he could easily fly over the top of the fence if he wanted to. Why do dogs wag their tail while they’re threatening to kill you, anyway? And why is it so much scarier in the dark, even when you have a gun in your hand?

Okay, so I made my way through the wheat field — going the loooooong way around the nice doggie — and arrived at my stand. I was surprised that I was able to find it so easily in the dark, given my notorious lack of directional skills. But still, I found it, made my way through the mess of brambles surrounding it (OWW), climbed up the ladder, then quietly settled in about 30 minutes before sunrise. I was PSYCHED — opening day of muzzleloader, my favorite season — WOO-HOO!

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Given my recent lack of hunting success, I wasn’t really counting on seeing much other than the house I had just left across the field. But I kept watch on the field laid out in front of me, thinking that if any deer were to appear, they would come out of the woods on the other side of the field and across the road to bed down in the woods behind me. Since I knew that’s where they liked to bed down, that was the most likely direction I expected them to come from. If they came at all.

It was a beautiful morning and the sun was just beginning to rise. A rooster crowed. A dog barked (not the scary one). A flock of geese flew overhead in a V-formation, honk-honk-honking. Periodically, I’d scan the fields through my binoculars. Nope, nothing. At least it’s not cold, I remember thinking. I really hate hunting in the cold.

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And then, just a little after 7:00 a.m., a doe suddenly appeared a mere 20 yards to my left. As so often happens, she appeared out of nowhere. She hadn’t made a sound and I hadn’t seen her approach. She had to have come out of the woods behind me, not in front of me, which just goes to show you never know where they’re going to show up. It was still so early — the sun was barely up — and I wasn’t ready!

As I tried to sloooooowly raise my gun into position, she must have heard it, because she stopped in her tracks and looked around. I swear she looked right at me. Thank God for camouflage clothing and a brief stint in mannequin modeling (really). But the doe had been spooked and she headed back into the woods. Damn. Once she was back behind the trees, she stopped and turned, considering that field of tasty, tender winter wheat, and once again walked out and into the field.

It was like watching one of my teenage sons making a really bad decision. Not that they ever made a bad decision. Ever.

Having frozen in place when the doe first bolted, I tried to quietly get into shooting position again. I thought I was being pretty stealthy, but again she heard me, turned around and started to slowly step back towards the woods. We played this song and dance one more time before I finally had my gun where I wanted it and she was finally set on heading away from the edge of the woods and into the field.

Okay, so she was about 30 yards in front of me, a perfectly easy shot, but I struggled to sight her in between the branches in front of me — they made for great cover but a lousy shooting lane. Up a little, down a little, to the right, to the left — what the hell? Where’s the damn doe? ARGGGHHH. Stupid tree! (I know, its not the tree that’s stupid.)

FINALLY, I had her in the crosshairs, got a firm grip on my muzzleloader, pulled the hammer back, TRIED to slow my breathing down (thump, thump, thump), and took my shot. BOOM! I prayed she wouldn’t take off for the woods like the last doe. As the smoke cleared, I saw that my aim had been good and I’d hit her just behind the front shoulder. I couldn’t believe it, but after she was hit she ran straight towards me and then landed right in front of my stand. Talk about convenient.

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Well now, that was easy. And it wasn’t even 7:15!

After saying a prayer of thanks to God for providing this food, I quietly apologized to the doe. Sorry, girl. I don’t know if there will ever come a time that I don’t feel bad after harvesting a deer. Harvesting. Killing. I know it’s all the same, but “harvesting” sounds so much kinder, so much more removed.

I guess I could be like my girlfriends and just say that I caught a deer. Every time I come back from hunting, they ask, “Did you catch anything?” Really? I’m pretty sure they understand that I use a gun, but maybe they think I run after the deer with a giant butterfly net or something. As you might guess, my friends don’t hunt. They think I’m strange.

A few minutes after shooting the doe, I got the text message I was hoping for. “Hey, coffee’s on and breakfast is ready — bacon, eggs and toast. Was that you that shot?” Um, maybe. Like I said, this picture may be a bit backwards, but it works for me!

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COMING UP: More deer hunting, processing deer meat, an unwelcome guest on my way to the stand, baby raccoons, squirrel hunting and gutting my first buck. In the dark. Alone.

That’s Why They Call It Hunting

Well, it appears I jinxed myself. My earlier flippant remark about losing an arrow or two being the worst that could happen became my reality last weekend. Only it got even worse than that. This is what happened.

I went hunting last Friday night with my compound bow. After leaving work early, my boyfriend and I proceeded to sit in traffic for, oh, about four hours – twice as long as it should have taken. Because of this, I didn’t get to my stand until after 5:00 pm – kind of late. But I was totally psyched to finally be using my compound bow! As I relished the peace of once again being in the woods and mentally visualized a deer walking by, a few things occurred to me:

1. Wow, there’s not much standing room up here! I’m used to spreading my legs into a pretty wide stance when I pull my bow back. How’s this going to work?

2. Speaking of which, how am I going to shoot this bow without falling out of the tree? The ladder stand I was in only had side rails for the seat to hang onto – no shooting rail in front to hold me in. Since I don’t generally use a safety harness unless I’m in a climber, I’d neglected to bring one along. I realized a little late in the game that standing up and shooting a compound bow is a whole lot different than sitting down and shooting a crossbow. Hmm.

3. Since I’m wearing a camo headcover to cover up my scent and hide my shiny white face, is the bill going to interfere with the bow string and throw me off?

4. Also because of my headcover, my kisser button won’t be hitting the side of my mouth like it does when I target practice. That means I’m either going to have to pull the front of my headcover down before I shoot, or I’m going to have to guesstimate – being the novice that I am, this would probably be a bad idea.

5. Why didn’t I think of any of this before? LOL.

In the end, none of it mattered, because the only deer I saw that night was a doe that came out at the edge of the woods – too far away to shoot and with too many trees in between us. That was it.

There were, however, plenty of squirrels and woodpeckers, so I wasn’t completely bored. And there was a beautiful hunter’s moon – WOW, I couldn’t believe how big it was when I exited the woods! It was so bright and hung so low that at first I thought someone was shining a floodlight. It was beautiful.

Okay, so that was Day 1.

Day 2 – Saturday. It’s raining. Not pouring, but a constant drizzle. I don’t own any rain gear, so I had to make do with my boyfriend’s which is a thousand sizes too big. Which means I couldn’t use my compound bow because the baggy sleeves and whatnot on the rain jacket would impede my ability to draw back my bow. Having reassembled my crossbow with the new limb that morning, I decided to use it instead.

Since I could shoot farther with my crossbow, I decided to sit in a tree stand on the edge of a cornfield rather than back in the woods as I had the previous evening. This was a ladder stand that we’d just recently put up, and since it’s located in a section of my boyfriend’s farm that I’ve never hunted before, I was curious as to what I’d see. The corn had just been harvested, so there were lots of kernels around for the deer to munch on. It was cool and drizzly and it seemed like a good night to hunt.

I’d brought along a Sudoku to keep me occupied (and because I’m such a nerd), but decided to leave it in my fanny pack instead. It’s too early in the hunting season for me to be juggling a pen and paper and a crossbow. Instead, I took out my rangefinder and picked out landmarks marking 20, 30 and 40 yards. On the left: branch on the ground, small tree, big tree, respectively. On the right: small patch of corn stalks, tall piece of grass sticking up, and big patch of corn stalks. I kept checking and rechecking to be sure I had it down.

Meanwhile, I watched two groups of deer in the distant fields, but still nothing came by me. About half an hour before sundown, four does and the tiniest of fawns appeared at the edge of the woods. As they stopped to look out into the field, I marveled at how young the fawn was – so small and spotted! It must have been born really late in the season to still be so new.

After determining there was no danger (ha!), they proceeded to walk across the field about 30 yards out (between small tree and tall piece of grass). They were really moving along – not stopping to feed on the corn like I’d anticipated. I couldn’t see me leading them, so I waited for them to stop. I had my eye on the last doe in line since she was by far the largest of the group. As they kept moving at a pretty good clip, I slowly got into position, keeping my scope trained on that last doe.

I’m still not sure what I managed to hit against the shooting rail, but suddenly there was a loud clang. Oh, great – way to go! But then I realized it was a good thing, because it made them all stop and look. And that’s when I took my shot.

The arrow let loose and it looked like a good shot. The deer scattered, made a U-turn, and headed back into the woods. It seemed like the doe I’d aimed at was losing steam as she made it to the edge of the woods, behind all the others. I made a mental note of where I’d shot her and kept my eye on the crooked tree that marked where they’d entered the woods.

Normally, after taking a shot, I would reload my crossbow, but it was going to be dark soon and I wanted to find that doe. So I climbed down, leaving my gear at the base of the stand, and walked around the field to check for my arrow and signs of blood.

Nope, nothing.

Clicking on my flashlight, I entered the woods where I’d seen them enter. How did they enter here, I wondered? It was so thick with brush. I went in at the easiest opening I could find and started my search. I looked and looked. And looked some more. No doe.

It was still drizzling, I was sweating in my raingear, and my little flashlight was growing dimmer by the minute (why hadn’t I thought to bring a bigger, spare flashlight?!). As I got farther and farther into the woods, I got really turned around. (Mind you, this isn’t hard for me to do – I’m the girl who can’t find her way out of a paper bag.) I started to panic when I realized I was deep in the woods without a trail in sight and a dying flashlight. I gave up on the doe and got my butt out of there.

My boyfriend showed up about this time with a big spotlight. I showed him where I saw the doe enter the woods and we went back in to search. I stayed close. We covered a lot of ground, going all the way back to the swamp at the far end of the woods, but turned up nothing. He suggested that maybe I’d missed. Shooting at 30 yards with a crossbow didn’t give me much of a reason to miss, so this was depressing. We searched the field for my arrow for a while and finally went home.

I was really down. But really glad I’d brought that bottle of wine.

The next morning, we headed back to the farm and searched the field for my arrow. Again, nothing. As I continued to search, my boyfriend headed back into the woods for a “quick look.” He came back after about ten minutes and announced, “That was a big doe.” What?

It turned out that even though it looked like the deer had entered the woods at the crooked tree, they had actually entered a bit farther down where the woods cut in. I couldn’t see that from where my stand was situated (believe me, I climbed back up to check), so we had just missed the area where she lay by about 100 yards.

As I looked at my now spoiled doe (something had been gnawing on just her mouth, of all things), I wondered where my arrow was. I could see the opening where the arrow had gone in, so we rolled her over. No exit wound. Taking the machete my boyfriend had used to clear the way, I opened her up a little until I found the end of my broken arrow. Using a leaf as my “glove,” I pulled it out and found that the broadhead was broken. Great. No doe, no arrow and no broadhead. What a waste.

I’ve been reminded (enough, already!) that that’s why they call it “hunting.”

Well, there’s always this weekend to try again. Saturday is the last day of bow season for me and it can’t get here soon enough. Of course, now I’m down to my last two arrows. Better make them count.