Saturday, February 26, 2011

Maple Syrup

As a general rule there is nothing good about the end of winter. All the snow banks turn brown and ugly, the roads all turn to slush during the day and then freeze into ruts at night. All the winter sports like skiing and ice fishing have lost their charm and it is too early to think about spring sports. There’s nothing much to do except wait it out. Cabin fever has set in and you are about to go crazy, you have to get out of the house!
Just at the right time to save your life, maple syrup time arrives. At the start of the season you still need snowshoes to get into the wood lot to tap your trees, and by the end you can stroll through in tennis shoes to gather your taps and buckets. Before you know it the season is over, the buds have started to pop on the trees and it’s time to start thinking of spring. But, while it lasts, sugaring season is the best thing that can happen to a long winter in the North Country.
The process of making maple syrup can be a lot of fun for the whole family, kids love being out of the house and helping throughout all the steps of sugaring.
To get out and take part in this ages old tradition you need very little. At the bare minimum you need a maple tree, a spile or tap of some kind, a container, a pot, and a heat source. On the other side you can spend tens of thousands of dollars equipping a modern sugar bush. For most people somewhere in the middle is the right place to be.
To start you need to identify the right trees to tap. If you aren’t sure what a maple looks like check the leaves in the summer or fall. You are looking for a leaf like the one on the Canadian flag. The bark is gray and rough, but not patterned like tire tread, that is ash. A maple has to have at least a 10” diameter to be big enough to tap. A tap can be anything used to transfer the sap from a tap hole into a container. The Native Americans used hollow sumac sticks. I have used everything from irrigation fittings to copper tubing. But, the best thing to do is buy a few spiles from a sugarbush supplier. A local feed or farm store might have them as well. The traditional metal taps work just fine, but if you are planning to tap a lot of trees it will pay to go to a plastic spile and tubing.
When you are taping the tree try to drill the tap hole on the south or southwest side of the tree. This is the side that will get the most sunlight throughout the day and run better. You can use a bit and brace to do a few trees or a cordless drill to tap the whole forest. My little operation only calls for a bit and brace. Drilling the tree and setting the taps is one of the most fun parts of the job, and my kids love to help with this. I usually drill the hole then let one of them clean out the shavings and set the tap. On a warm day it will only take a minute before the sap starts to run. One of our favorite things to do is catch a few drops of sap on our tongues right from the tap. Maple sap tastes like the coolest freshest water you will ever taste with a little hint of sweetness.

After you have set all your taps and hung your buckets comes the hard part, waiting. It seems like it will never happen but the steady plunk…plunk…plunk in the pail soon becomes a blop…blop…blop.

It may take all day and half the night, but eventually you will get a bucket full of sweet maple sap. Everyday when I bring the kids home from school we rush to check the buckets to see how much sap we got. With the few trees that I tap in our yard I can just carry two five gallon buckets around to collect the sap, larger operations use watering troughs. I keep a barrel in the garage to store the sap until we have enough to boil.
It takes around 35-40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. The hardest and most labor-intensive part of making maple syrup is boiling down the sap. This is where you can spend some money. The sap needs to be boiled to 7 degrees above the boiling point of water. It takes a long time to boil 40 gallons to that point. I have tried everything from the kitchen stove to the BBQ grill to camp stoves and turkey fryers. What I finally settled on was a wood stove with a stainless steel pan on top of it. There is any number of ways to set up an evaporator, it can be as simple as a pot over a fire or as elaborate as a 4 x10 divided pan fired by propane. The long and short of it is you need a lot of heat and a lot of surface area to boil a lot of sap.
Once you figure out how to heat your sap you can slow down a bit, there is nothing so relaxing as sitting next to a wood fire all weekend checking your pan and shooting the breeze with friends and family. The smell of boiling maple sap is like nothing you have ever smelled before; the steam that rolls off the pan seems to be filled with wholesome goodness. It opens your senses and takes you back to a simpler time like a time machine. You could be doing this in your backyard in the middle of a big city and that smell will whisk you away to Vermont in a second.
As the sap gets lower in the pan you slowly add more to it, doing this all day until all your sap is in the pan. As the last of the sap boils down you need to keep a very careful eye on the temperature. If the level gets too low for the area of the pan it can scorch in a flash. At this point I pour the sap/syrup into a large pot and move into the kitchen. On the stove you can keep a closer eye on it and control the temperature better. This is a very critical time; once the syrup reaches 7 degrees above the boiling point of water then you have syrup. Real maple syrup does not look like the stuff in the super market; it is much thinner and usually not as dark.
When you reach the syrup stage remove it from the heat and strain it to remove any sugar sand or other impurities. I then put it back on the stove and heat it up again for canning or bottling. I just use the classic glass canning jars, but you can get all kinds of fancy containers from the supply companies.
Now comes the best part, get everybody together that helped throughout the season and have a big old country breakfast, and enjoy the fruits of your labor.
This may sound like a lot of work for a little payoff, and it would surely be cheaper to just go to a store to buy it, but there is something about eating something you made or grew yourself that makes it so much better. I know that when my little girls grow up and have kids of their own, they will tell stories of the times they helped Daddy make maple syrup, and leaving a legacy like that to be passed down is the sweetest reward of all. .

Saturday, January 1, 2011

My first duck

When I was 23 years old an event happened that changed my life forever.
It was mid October, growing colder, with those crisp blue skies you remember from your childhood. Most of the leaves had fallen, but for the stubborn oaks. Here at the western edge of the time zone it wasn’t breaking dawn until 8 o’clock. But when it did the world came alive.
I had been rudely awakened 4 hours before by an old brass alarm clock. You know the kind, wound by hand, with bells on top. I used this along with three other alarms that morning. I wanted to be sure I was up.
After a quick shower I gathered every piece of warm clothing I owned and hoped in the dodge. It was an hour drive to my new friends house. I was greeted at the door by the fattest beagle I had ever seen. Along with the beagle was the sleekest golden I’d ever seen. Following the dogs came a mountain of a man.
Denny was the father of a friend. She had been saying that her dad needed someone to go duck hunting with. Well you can imagine my excitement. I had been looking for a duck hunter my whole life. I had read everything I could find on waterfowling for years. I was obsessed but couldn’t find anyone who knew how or where to go.
After much pleading I was commanded, during the shortest phone call ever, to be at their house by 5:30 the next Friday. “ And don’t be late or I’ll leave without you.”
At 5:10 I was sitting in my truck on the side of the road ¼ of a mile down from his driveway. Being late was one thing, but too early can be just as bad.
Now here we were at a public launch on a lake I had never heard of. As we prepared to launch in the predawn darkness I looked out into the sky above the lake and saw my first flock of ducks woosh past. My heart jumped at the sight of those flitting patches of shadow, just a shade darker than the sky they sliced through.
With the golden, Abby, in the bow on point and me sitting awkwardly upon mounds of decoys, we motored to the far side of a small spit of shore that jutted into the lake. On the front side of this spit we slowed to a stop and I was introduced to my first mother line.
After setting the deeks we hide the boat behind the spit in a little cove. We made our way across the spit to find a small blind hidden among the cedars on the shore. As we sat waiting for shooting time Denny took time to explain our rig. Set in a diamond pattern with one point starting at the blind and the far point about 40 yards out in the lake. This formed a hole which I was informed was called the pocket. In this pocket we had scattered single decoys to make the pattern more natural looking. The farthest of these was maybe 25 yards out.
“ Don’t shoot at anything outside of that deek.” Denny said
“ Don’t shoot at the whole flock.” He said “ Pick one bird and make sure you hit that one, then, if there’s time look for another.”
“ But watch that last deek too, if it makes it beyond that don’t shoot.”
I tried to remember this as we waited for our first bunch to come in.
Instead of birds a wind kicked up and it started to snow, …sideways.
During this snow squall a duck had somehow floated in among our deeks without us seeing. As the snow started to clear I noticed that one of the decoys looked abnormally life like.
“ Well I’ll be damned.” Denny said.
“ It’s not much of a duck if you ask me”. He said. “Actually it’s a merganser, but if you want it you can take it.”
“ Great! How do we do it”. I said.
“ Well if you don’t ever want to hunt with me again, you can shoot it on the water.” He said.
“ That doesn’t seem very sporting “. I said
“ T’ain’t.” He said. “ But I had to see what kind of friends my daughter keeps.”
“ So what do I do?” I asked again.
“ Well,” He said. “ Just stand up and yell at him and see what he does.”
I counted to three and jumped up with the best Indian war cry I could muster. And low and behold that duck reached for the sky like I was John Wayne coming after him. It took me a moment to regroup after he jumped and I put one in his pants just as he flew over the last deek. I was crushed when he just kept going, then 300 yards out he dipped a wing and cartwheeled in.
“ That’s to far for the dog.” Denny said. “You stay here and I’ll go get it with the boat.”
“ Keep your gun handy and shoot anything that comes in while I’m gone.” He said
No sooner had he stepped through the trees than, I was horrified by the sight of a thousand Buffleheads swarming in. I tried to calm my self, and looked over my shoulder to see if Denny was anywhere to be seen, he was gone.
I took a deep breath and turned around as the flock was setting its wings. In a sea of calm, with no sounds, in slow motion, I brought my gun up. Just as I was told I picked one bird, the one with his butt closest to the water, and pulled the trigger. With a dozen years of shooting behind me I knew without looking and moved to another bird. This one had put on his air breaks and was already starting his upward climb, with the rest of the flock. I took aim and pulled the trigger one more time and the whole sky fell down.
From behind me I heard a bear coming through the cedars at full speed. Denny burst through with a crazed look and his gun half way up.
“ What the hell is going on here”! He yelled.
By now Abby was getting to the first duck and I was at the edge of the water in a daze. I looked back at Denny with a sheepish grin.
“ You told me to shoot if anything came in.” I said. “ So I did.”
“ I’ll say you did.” Denny said looking at the four birds floating in the water.
It has been years since that day that I took four birds with two shots. I’ve never been back to that blind, and I only hunted one more time with Denny. But he opened a door for me that has never been closed. Soon after I joined up with Ducks Unlimited and found many new friends to hunt with. In all the years since I’ve only seen Denny a few times, at a gun show usually. We stop and talk each time, reliving that day. At least I relive it, it may not have been that big a deal to Denny, but it changed my life forever.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Canoe Country

This time of year all of my spare time is spent in a canoe, but, with two kids and two jobs there isn't much spare time. When I can get out it is usually near sunset and I always have a camera with me. I have way too many shots of the front of my old Grumman silhouetted by the summer sunset. Last year, while trying to get my little girls into canoeing I built them both small paddles.

I had so much fun doing their paddles that I had to make one for myself. That one has turned into four with another in the works. I will do a build along for the next one.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Colt Scout .22

Colt Frontier Scout

In all of us, there lives the heart of a cowboy. Weather you grew up watching Dale Evens and Roy Rogers, or read a steady diet of Louis L’Amour, we all wanted to ride the range when we grew up.
It was these feelings that Bill Ruger was banking on when he introduced the Bearcat .22 and his line of Blackhawks. It was also these feelings that lead Colt to bring out the Frontier Scout.
The Frontier Scout was introduced in 1957, and produced until 1971, when it was replaced by the New Frontier Scout. The Frontier Scout is a 7/8 scale replica of Colts famed Model “P” peacemaker, chambered for the .22 Long rifle. In 1964 the .22 magnum was added to the line. Often the Scout came boxed as a convertible with both the .22 LR and the .22 Magnum cylinders. The Frontier Scout has an alloy frame and was at times available in two tone versions.
The Scout is a joy to shoot, and is the perfect size to teach new or young shooters how to handle a hand gun. It also rides light on the hip which makes it a great kit gun, for those hikes that might turn up the occasional cottontail or other small game.

Remington 141

Remington Model 141 “Gamemaster”

In the early years of the last century sportsmen looking for a lightweight, powerful, and fast handling rifle had few choices. They could either go with the Winchester lever actions or the Marlin lever action.
All this changed in 1913 when Remington introduced the Model 14 slide action rifle. The model 14 was manufactured from 1913 until 1934 when it was slightly modified and reintroduced as the model 141.
Dubbed the “Gamemaster” by Remington, the model 141 was available in three calibers. The .30 Remington which was developed to compete with the 30-30 Winchester, the .32 Remington which mirrored the .32 Winchester special and the .35 Remington which was developed in 1906 for use in the Model 8 auto loading rifle designed by John M. Browning.
The 141 Gamemaster has a 24 inch barrel and an overall length of 42.8 inches, it holds five shots in its spiral grooved tubular magazine. The rifle was stocked with plain walnut and had a corncob grooved forearm. It sports a shotgun type steel butt plate. The magazine is loaded via a loading port on the underside of the magazine tube. To chamber a round, you first push the slide release button which is located on the bolt assembly, rather than on the trigger guard, and slide the forearm backwards. As the forearm slides back it brings the whole magazine with it, pushing the round into the receiver where it is picked up by the carrier and guided into the chamber as the forearm is slid forward again.
The model 141 was a popular rifle with a production run of around 77,000 guns manufactured from 1934 until it was discontinued in 1950. The Gamemaster was reintroduced in 1952, after a major redesign, as the Model 760. The 760 is also a fast handling slide action, but it has a box magazine capable of taking the more powerful rounds of the day.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The One Gun Year

The One Gun Year.

It seems every year or so, some famous gun writer or, another pens an article called “The Perfect Gun” or “The Perfect North American Battery”, or something along those lines. They go on to tout the virtues of their ideal gun, or group of guns. They say that with just this one gun you can hunt everything you could ever want, anything else would be overkill. Then the next month or the next page they are talking about the “next” best gun.
Well, last year I decided to put up or shut up. I made my one gun choice and I stuck to it all year long. That’s right! I committed to one gun and one gun only, for one year. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no rich gun collector. I’m just your average Joe, with a small K-Mart safe full of guns. I usually have around 12 or so. My safe is a little odd though; it seems to have a revolving door on it. That is because my wife and I made a deal when we were first married. I get to buy all the new guns I want, as long as they all fit in the safe. If I want a new gun, an old gun has to go, to make room for the new one. That deal, and a chronic case of Shooting A.D.D., has lead to more than 100 guns coming and going throughout the years.
The last few years have been a little different though. With the economy, and two kids, and a house I can’t really afford, I have had to sell some guns I would have rather kept. To make it worse I haven’t replaced those guns with new ones, instead I paid bills. These events and my simple “I wonder if I can” attitude led me to my quest.
The two rules I laid down for myself were simple. I would hunt with one gun only, all year, and I would hunt every season and species I would have hunted any other year.

Now for the gun. To choose which gun to use I looked at the animals I normally hunt. In any given year I will hunt: turkey, deer, waterfowl, squirrels, rabbits, and grouse and if I ever win the point’s lottery, bear and elk. Looking at this list it is easy to see that I would have to have a shotgun. Of course, it would have to be a 12ga.
The particular 12ga. that I chose is as plain as it is special to me. It is the first gun I bought on my own. I was 19 and on the way out of town with two great friends. We were headed for our first attempt at duck hunting, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We stopped at the gun shop and I plunked down $219.00 dollars for a Mossberg Model 500 12ga. pump gun.
Now, I’d love to tell you that we filled our limit of ducks that weekend, but I‘d be lying. What we did, was fill the air full of steel in a 3 gun broadside fusillade as a single drake passed by right to left. This happened about three times, then this dare devil duck sailed off unharmed and laughing into the sunset. That was the first of many adventures this gun and I have been on. Not all of them were successful in bagging any game, but they all were wonderful days spent with friends in the great out doors.

This year of the gun started with spring turkey season. The opening weekend I found myself in a stare down with five toms at about 10 feet. I was already posing for pictures in my mind, when they decided that pine tree holding a gun didn’t look quite right and they evaporated faster than I dreamed possible. It took another month of hard hunting before I put a successful stalk on a lone tom. I’m not one for trophies so I didn’t measure his beard, but I am one for pictures, so I took the time to get a few shots with him. I also got a few shots of my 500 with him.

You will notice in the photos that it is fitted with a Weaver Converta-Mount. When I wasn’t turkey hunting I had been testing the mount, the scope, and an assortment of slugs for the upcoming deer season. I came too really like the mount, it allows you to pop the scope on and off without loss of zero.
My next season was the fall small game season. Now, my favorite thing to do in the early fall is to hunt squirrel with a single shot .22, with iron sights. But, in accordance to my rules, I hunted this year with #8’s in the 500. My first day out, I only made it a few steps into the woods before I saw my first Black squirrel 30 yards away. I eased the gun up and connected with my first bushy tail of the year less than 1 minute into my season. I hung him in the crook of a tree and continued on my walk through the beech trees, towards a small lake. Near the edge of the lake on a slight ridge, I saw some branches moving and spotted my next target, a big Fox squirrel. As the echo from the shot subsided I noticed another to my right doing his best to become one with a branch. Without moving from my spot I was able to take this Fox as well. Taking a few steps forward to make sure he was down, I saw another Black about 40 yards away. Wondering if my amazing run of luck could hold out I eased the 500 up and made it four for four. Now, as much as I love to hunt squirrels, I hate to clean them. So, with four out of my limit of five I called it a day.
The next season found the 500 and I back in the U.P. with the same guys that I hunted with all those years before. Technically, we were duck hunting, but it was really just a guy’s weekend. It was my 8th annual bachelor party or 8th annual “Pig Weekend” as our wives call it. On the trip into the cabin off the main road, we flushed a covey of Ruffed Grouse. Unwilling to look a gift bird in the beak, we bailed out of the truck, grabbing guns, shells and hunters orange as fast as we could. A 10 second planning session and a 5 minute hunt ended in a picture perfect going away shot at 20 yards. It was one of the prettiest upland shots I have ever made.

The following days of duck hunting turned into beautiful blue bird and duck less days. I had to wait another month before I could get out for ducks again. This time it was a “Ducky” day. The day dawned with a rain snow mix, as we set the last of the diver line. We huddled in the boat pushed up against the cattails watching high flyers pass just out of range for most of the morning. When, all of a sudden, a flock of Golden Eyes appeared just above the deck, zeroing in on our layout. They set their wings and dropped their landing gear in a textbook approach. At five feet before splash down we opened up, and the flock reversed flight in mid air. The flight disappeared into the west leaving two of their squadron behind. It wasn’t the double or mythical triple I was hoping to write about, but we each got one and at least I didn’t get skunked again. I was able to make it out just one more time for ducks last year, during the two day late season of December. We braved 18 inches of snow to launch into ice thickened water in the aftermath of a blizzard. This dangerous effort gained me one more duck, which I gave to my hunting partner.

Speaking of getting skunked, I had been writing these stories down over days spent in blinds and tree stands. With only a few days left in the whitetail deer season, I was beginning to loose hope for the perfect year. I had blown my best chance for a buck that morning while walking back to the truck with the 500 slung over my shoulder. My area of Michigan didn’t have any doe permits available, and unless you have a big block of private land to hunt, finding a buck is almost a matter of luck. Northern Michigan may not be known for big bucks anymore, but there are still a few bucks out there, and that thin thread of hope had me in the woods until the very last light on the last day. Skunked again.
On this year long quest, I ended up using a cornucopia of ammunition. I shot the turkey with Remington Heavy Shot. I shot skeet and squirrels with Winchester Lead #8’s. The grouse fell to Winchester #4’s and the ducks to Remington Steel BB’s. The deer were unsuccessfully hunted with out of production Activ slugs, because they were cheap and cut one hole groups at 50 yards.
The only season that I like to hunt and didn’t get to was the muzzleloader season. With the aftermarket inline barrel I could have, but I couldn’t justify buying it for the few days of hunting I “might” get to do. If I ever happen to run into one at a gun show someday, I will defiantly pick it up.
My Mossberg 500 isn’t the only shotgun that can do it all. Any brand of pump gun, auto loader, or even single shots could do it; some would even do it better. For the true one gun battery, the current flock of switch barrel single shots offers the ultimate in every season versatility.
Looking back on my one gun quest, the only thing I would change is the number of days spent in the field. The pressure of fulfilling the perfect one gun year, pushed me into hunting more than usual, but still much less than I would like to. I may try it again someday, but for now I am satisfied that it is possible. I just don’t want my wife to discover how much fun I had trying to use just one gun, she may not see the need for a full safe if she does.

What it is all about.

As my first post I think I should explain what my hope for this blog is.

I like to think of myself as an outdoorsman, a Handy Outdoorsman to be more accurate, and as such I feel that I have a lot to share about what I have learned being in the outdoors. I will be sharing my little tricks for doing things easier and also posting build-alongs about all the things I make to enjoy the outdoors.

So, stay tuned to learn new ways to enjoy your outdoor world.