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After the Fire

After the Fire

Postby Phil Andresen » Fri May 29, 2015 11:21 am

I joined Kim’s family hunting party in 1977; her father’s relatives homesteaded in the Methow Valley of eastern Washington during the late 1800’s, most have left the valley but those remaining are successful cattle ranchers. Kim and her family have hiked, camped and chased mulies around the valley since she was a child. When I joined the clan restaurants in Carlton, Twisp and Winthrop offered ‘Hunter Specials’ to accommodate the annual invasion and during the early ‘80’s Three Fingered Jack’s Saloon in Winthrop held a ‘Poker Night’ in the street despite sub-freezing weather.
The Methow is famous for her sunny skies and brilliant autumn colors which are closely followed by spawning steelhead and hunting seasons; usually by Thanksgiving the locals are gearing up for cross-country and downhill skiing, high school sporting events and tending their livestock.

On July 14th 2014 – 2,443 lightning strikes were recorded in northeastern Washington. The Carlton Complex wildfire, as it came to be known was the largest forest fire in Washington State history.
In about a week 450 square miles of timber and rangelands burned; more than 300 homes, untold vehicles and equipment, 440 miles of fencing, hundreds of cattle and infrastructure were lost in the Methow Valley. A couple of weeks after the fire torrential rains flushed the steep terrain washing ash, soil and rocks down the hills; mudslides closed two State highways, blew out culverts and damaged even more structures, hayfields and roads.

Kim was in the Methow on Saturday for the opening day of the deer hunting season and to see the valley first-hand; I arrived the following Monday.
Driving up the valley I was shocked to see the destruction. My sudden realization: ‘the valley will never recover in what’s left of my life’ was damn depressing. Certainly some overgrown areas needed burning but the destruction and loss was widespread, intense and sad to see.

Roaming the hills we’ve hunted for so many years, I was amazed to see how thoroughly the fire had consumed so much. Except for small clumps of new bunch grass there was no vegetation to be found; for as far as you could see the ground was bare, scorched almost white as if by some nuclear event. On the ‘highpoint’ the fire must have been super-intense; clustered pines were completely consumed, their trunks and roots also burned leaving thigh-sized tunnels snaking underground in all directions. On the northern slopes where browse grew its thickest, all that remained were dark shadow-like marks on the ground where clumps of bitterbrush and sage had once been.
But it was a shed hunter’s paradise. Sun bleached bones and shed antlers were visible from hundreds of yards. At times I was like a kid in a candy store gathering sheds two and three at a time; some were pristine, others were scorched or partially consumed by the intense heat.

As I stood wondering what the future would bring, a young but legal muley buck came trotting uphill about eighty yards ahead of me. I lost him in the rocks a couple of times but as I started toward him he stopped and stared at me long enough to size him up; decided to let him walk. As he went out of sight I glassed across the basin, spotted four deer sky-lined about five hundred yards away, their heads were down, noses to the ground as they fed their way along the ridge; one appeared to be a buck.
The howling wind was bitterly cold; it seemed likely those deer might hunker-down in a snug little swale on top of the ridge. A half hour later I slowly approached the edge. As I peeked over the rim, a doe stood low on the far side looking me eye-to-eye over her back. Approaching, I spotted two does bedded below me but no buck. As I stepped to the edge the first doe turned and as she did the two bedded deer rose to join her. Taking a couple of quick steps to sweep the area, I spotted the buck far to my right. Got the crosshairs on him but he was just a big two-point with little cheater points that made him a legal 3X3. As I lowered the rifle he must’ve caught my scent; exploded out of there like wolves were nipping at his privates.

Later that morning on the way back to my truck, I spotted a monster whitetail buck on top of a bald south-facing ridge from 600 yards. Even at that distance I could see his tall, wide rack as he paced back and forth; someone must have bumped him and with no cover he seemed to be debating where to go. This was my first-ever whitetail sighting in this high prairie terrain, I watched him pace for several minutes, then he started down the hill. I was opposite him – across the canyon; keeping burnt pines between us and an eye on the buck I scurried down the steep hillside.
Finally I was as low as I could go; from behind a charred pine I ranged him at 165 yards. He was straight across the canyon facing me. As I glanced down to put the range-finder in my vest pocket, he dropped his head. When I raised the rifle he had already turned and was on a dead-run up a cow trail across the hill. I saw my first bullet hit below his belly; the second hit below his chest; he was sky lined and I didn’t see the third shot hit but he didn’t react and then he was gone. As he went over the top I heard a road hunter idling by on the Forest Service road below.
Hiking up the hill I got on the cow trail; found where the second shot hit and triangulated from the crest back to the tree, started searching for blood and hair but found nothing. Searched all around the top and finger-ridges for two hours, but found no sign of Mr. Whitetail; decided the third shot must’ve missed too.
The next afternoon I spotted a good buck hanging in a small camping area along the creek; stopped to chat with the hunters who were camped on the north side of the same ridge but about a mile below where I last saw the big whitetail. Their buck was an old 24-inch wide 4X4 muley; they’d killed it on a friend’s ranch. As we chatted they shared that a pair of hunters killed a huge 6X7 whitetail that morning; he was across the creek and ‘about a mile above their camp’.

The rest of the hunt was uneventful. Though late one afternoon I walked to within sixty yards of a young 3X3 whitetail; he was following a whitetail doe and her two fawns across the rolling moonscape. When he realized I was there he threw up his white flag and took off on a cross-country run like I’d never seen. He paused a couple times to look back but continued to run pretty much straight away toward a rocky canyon. When he reached the furthest ridge 1400 yards away he stopped for one last look back before dropping from sight.

And late one afternoon after seeing deer migrating the same routes they’ve used for the past thirty-odd years; I decided to set up an evening ambush from a huge rectangular rock. Until the fire this massive stone was hidden by heavy bitterbrush and tall grass; approaching it I noticed a smaller square rock right behind it. How ironic I thought sitting on the smaller stone; it was a perfect fit to use the big rock as a shooting bench, it provided good cover and the sun was at my back. I’m not much for sitting and was quickly bored; eventually I noticed a small circular depression in the dirt that turned out to be an old ‘FC 30-06 SPRG’ casing; it was packed with dirt and had laid there long enough to grow a heavy coat of black corrosion… made me wonder how long it’d been buried there and what story it might have to tell.

Mother Nature threw us one helluva a curve-ball and the range-fire definitely changed our hunting areas. Homes and roads will be rebuilt, the land will eventually recover and so will the game. Chasing muley and whitetail bucks in the same terrain seems like a win–win; the Methow is full of new adventures, can’t wait to see what she conjures up next.
Phil Andresen
 
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Joined: Fri Nov 08, 2013 5:28 pm

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