Thursday, February 23, 2017

Wood and water and moving earth.

© 2017 Joshua Stark

I didn't grow up with a fireplace, nor a fire pit.  When I was a kid, we burned some of our trash in the back yard like good people did then, but that was it.

When camping, of course we built a fire.  But at home, we didn't have a woodpile, or anything of the sort.

Now, I've decided that I want a fire pit in our back yard (for days when we are allowed to burn, of course -- like good people do today).  We've collected some river rocks from Craigslist, and have a decent little camp-like pit.  We also have a small rock garden next to it, and I moved one of our raised beds to make some room (pics when it looks better).

We are also getting plenty of wood from downed branches off of our walnut, redwood and cedar trees, and I do not plan to buy wood to burn.

However, since everything is wet, we are having quite a time getting something to burn...

In my search for how people put up wood, I did stumble upon this little stand idea on Pinterest, and put it to use:

It's very simple:  a cinder block, two 2x4's, and  firewood.  No glue, no nails.  It ain't pretty, but form follows function, right?

Around the neighborhood, fruit trees are in bloom.  It feels early, because it is (climate change is real, folks).  The rains have been, until today, relentless -- for the first time, I had to cut a channel around one side of the house, to drain away some water.

Today, there's some wind, and a little chill (say, forty degrees), but there's also sun!  I think we get a couple days of respite before the next storm rolls in this weekend.

And speaking of wind and storms (because, let's face it, I live in California):

Queue ominous music...
Somewhere, in that tangle, thirty to fifty feet up, sits a widowmaker.  On the other side, about ten feel lower, is another one.

A widowmaker, for those who don't know, is a large, broken branch.  My redwood here is over 100 feet tall, and so the perspective is lost in a photo -- but for scale, consider that each of those larger branches is, effectively, a small tree, hanging horizontally and sixty feet up.

There is a general understanding that redwoods are light weight woods, and this is true up to a point.  However, none of those branches up there are dried out -- they are all filled with water, which makes them still pretty danged heavy, and some of them have got to be thirty feet long.  And since F=MA, we've had our troubles over the years with this tree, including roof, car, and fence damage.

Widowmakers are one of those wild, foreboding natural phenomena... especially if you are a logger. But, not exclusively.  Back when I was a State Park Interpreter, my docents told me a story of a fifth grade class visiting the Forest of Nisene Marks in the Santa Cruz mountains. 

This forest is a patch of second-growth redwood, and also the infamous epicenter of the Loma Prieta quake way back in the 20th Century.  My visitor center, tasked with interpreting the Forest, would lead groups of fifth graders on a nature and history walk on one of its amazing, dark trails, talking about fairy rings and cathedral stands, banana slugs and eucalyptus.  And Loma Prieta and widowmakers.

During one such walk, after the earthquake/widowmaker talk, the class was gifted with a particularly pointed lesson: a 5 or so scale earthquake and a gigantic branch that fell among them.  Thankfully, nobody was hurt.  But, it's outdoor education like these that shape and mold young minds...

I'll be getting out the ladder later today or tomorrow, getting a rope onto these branches, and yanking them down if I can.  Of the four seasons in California, we are on the back-side of Flood, which means we've gone through three of them.  Only one left.

(Bonus points for knowing the four seasons of California.)

Monday, February 13, 2017

Sapping, spaetzle, and an infestation

© 2017 Joshua Stark

The fun with the stand mixer continues!  I've whipped up egg whites for home-made Belgian waffles, and made a gingerbread (from James Beard's recipe) with the paddle.  I've also tried the dough hook twice -- for a soda bread, and yesterday, for spaetzle dough.  I'm still getting the hang of it, but it is coming along.

If you've never made spaetzle, the recipe is super easy: 3 cups flour, four eggs, a teaspoon salt and another of nutmeg, and about 1/2 cup of water.  After mixing the dry ingredients together, mix the eggs in the middle with half the water, and then beat in the rest of the water until it's a smooth, elastic and fairly sticky consistency.  The dough hook worked for this part really well, and let me do other things while it worked.

Now, the hard part (for spaetzle):  I don't own a spaetzle press.  I do it the old fashioned way, by cutting it on a board... something like what this absolutely amazing woman does.

Please, take a moment to watch that video, because that woman flat-out rocks!  

Anyway... I'm actually nothing like that woman.  First, I don't have a board with a handle.  Second, the board I do have is too wide to fit into my pot. I also don't have a knife that flat -- my knife is too sharp and kept getting caught on the board. What I got was a quick whipping up of the dough, followed by an hour or so of wrestling with a very sticky, gooey mess.  

I finally was able to cook up a bunch (it kept growing and growing!), served alongside garden chard and elk meatballs. The kids liked it alright.  The wife absolutely LOVED it!

That latter fact bodes ill for my future.  

Now, for the infestation:

Not the best pictures, but they clearly show what was a short-lived infestation of maybe twenty or so Meleagris gallopavo.  They were first heard jumping from our roof to our neighbor's roof -- I wasn't quite sure what they were, then hey!  There's a jenny staring at me through the window!

I called a couple of times, since a jake was keen on struttin' his stuff, and then I hooted like an owl a couple of times and three or four of 'em immediately gobbled back.  It was great.

I don't know if they were roosting in one of our gigantic trees, but we'll be looking for them tonight (update: no return of the flock).

These are city-folk, and we won't be hunting this particular flock come Spring.  However, I have been very pleased with the efforts of our first bird last year

Speaking of trees, I just this morning discovered that people tap walnut trees for sap.  I have a monster English walnut in my back yard (it could easily accommodate three taps), but I have a sneaking feeling that our temperatures rarely get cold enough for a good flow.

Has anybody out there tapped trees in California?  Have you tapped trees where you maybe get three weeks, total, of below freezing temps?

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Quick update -- and a new addition to the kitchen

© 2017 Joshua Stark

Back here for a quick update:

Still raining.

No joke, the rain is not letting up here in California.  As a result, many critters are accessing habitat they'd been locked out of for a decade, including our amazing King salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha).  Here's a great Capitol Public Radio report on the floodplain known as the Yolo Bypass.

I was blessed to get to hunt this stretch of water on the final weekend of duck season with a good friend.  It made for a great adventure -- canoeing in with dog and decoys, the sky full of birds (most of them juuuust out of reach), and the weather perfect California -- 50 degrees and sunny, with 40 degree water.

My friend managed three ducks, and I, one, but we had more opportunities than just these -- including a great chance at a pair of mallards (I whiffed), a pair of canvasbacks (I whiffed, and still kick myself for it), and Canada geese (they must have been wearing kevlar).  He was kind enough to give me his birds (I think he was done cleaning birds for the year).

It wasn't fast shooting, but it kept on and on, and it varied.  A flight of pintail drakes came ripping overhead.  My pal reeled in a pair of geese with a call like he had 'em on a line. A few times, we'd be watching flocks of wigeons, pintails, or flights of diver ducks three or four hundred yards out, when suddenly six or eight teal would come screaming in about two feet off the water to land right in our decoys.  

It was a great, great day, especially for this river rat who loves the marsh, and who got to be a part of it. We even saw a mink. Thanks, Ryan!

Back home and a week later, I'm still reflecting on that wonderful day.

Oh, I also picked up a new item for the kitchen:

An extraordinary deal!  It's a whole new world for me...

 I've never, ever owned a stand mixer before.  It's a dream long-deferred, because these suckers ain't cheap.  But it was a great deal, on the 575 watt model, which is what I'd been holding out for.

Tonight I'm breaking it in, probably with either a soda bread, gingerbread, or maybe an acorn cake. 

Let me know your ideas for using a stand mixer -- what should I do? What accessories? Any interesting tip and tricks, send 'em my way.  

Friday, February 3, 2017

On waiting...

© Joshua Stark 2017

I've never been very good at waiting.

Oh sure, I can sit stock-still for a good time in the company of a buck, or scan the skies from a duck blind, or even watch the end of a stick with a line coming out of it into the water.  I could do these things, and things like them, for hours on end.  But that's not really waiting.

Watching and listening are active pursuits. Yes, a person can drift off during these times, but that's all a part of it.

For many hunters, this past Monday marked the first day of Waiting.  Duck hunters (good friends of mine, and family) are especially moved at this time -- memes flew around the social media last weekend talking about the dreaded Wait.  The End of Duck Season.  Questions of, "where were you when it happened?", soft-light photos of the final sunset over the marsh (surely, a tear was wiped away during the shot), and wistful, thoughtful, sometimes poetic eulogies made their rounds.

This is good.  Hunting is filled to the brim with ethical-minded people who absolutely, wildly and passionately love a place and an activity.  Make no mistake, any one of us could get up this morning and go poach a bunch of animals, but the thought never enters our minds.  The end of season is as final and truthful as the sunrise for hunters. And it is wonderful to see (often) grown men wax philosophical and wistful -- men who otherwise think that their joking love for a particular brand of beer is as emotional as they are allowed to get.

It is the end of a season, of a cycle, and we, like millions before us, now wait for that cycle to come round again.  We know that next time, it will be different, yet completely familiar.  Especially this year, we know that the deluge we've received will have altered the hunting grounds in unknown ways.  That is a beautiful thing about hunting: it is ever the same, yet each time, absolutely unique.

And in truth, many of us will take up a rod and reel in short order and hit these swollen waters after fish.  I'm already waiting like a dog in a kennel at the edge of the corn field for the warden to swing open that door and send me shooting out after shad.

In May.

Of course, it's February 3rd.  Which brings me back to my original thought here.

Since I'm no good at waiting, I'm sure to put too many irons in the fire.  In the leatherworking realm, I've gotten completely stuck trying to finish my first, custom-made chef's knife roll for a friend/customer, and I'm therefore backed up on an order fixing another friend/customer's custom-made guitar strap.  I'm not getting any new orders from the internets so I've less of a fire lit under me, and that, coupled with the wide-open nature of a new product sometimes makes it hard to actually just start stitching pieces together.  There's a fear that comes from hovering over a $100 piece of leather with a knife or punch, wondering if you'd measured right.

I picked up an old classic, the oldest, in fact -- I started re-reading the Epic of Gilgamesh, written probably two thousand years before the "Iliad".   I'm also reading "A Sand County Almanac" with my son as part of his reading log homework every night.  I get a chuckle out of writing it down on the check-in report to the Kindergarten teacher, but it has turned into an actual event now.  We are able to talk botany, biology, and even some math as I defined and drew out an example of "diameter."

I've also collected some absolutely beautiful feathers from some of the most gorgeous birds to ever grace the skies: greenwing teal, with breast feathers that resemble shad eyes and sienna-colored mottled neck feathers; northern shovelers who, at first glance, look like 70's game-show host throwbacks with their powder-blue feathers, but up close, show incredible subtleties; and a pintail -- perhaps the most beautiful duck on Earth.  The flank feathers, alone, can set me up for years tying wet flies and salmon flies, something I haven't done in years.

The garden continues its slow decomposition, with the exception of two swiss chard that sprouted up on their own (that stuff is nigh invulnerable).  We received half our annual rainfall in five weeks here, and another week-long rain has just rolled in, with two inches expected over the first two days, which means that there simply is nothing I can do out back, but wait.  The leaky old shed continues to rust my tools, and the 50+mph gusts mean that even my tiny overhang at the back of the house does little to keep things dry.  When we finally start to dry out, there'll be many trips to the dump in my future.  At least the trees haven't blessed us with too many large branches (a redwood tree branch is the equivalent of a regular tree falling sixty feet, horizontally, from the sky).

And my archery side-business is on hold, as well -- no rains + no indoor facility = no teaching.  I am lined up for March, however, which is right around the corner, so I should probably get to organizing and fletching up my arrows, and even looking for a better way to hang my targets.  Ah, the targets!  The rain is also beating down on them...

So, much of what I do now is wait.  Waiting for the rain, waiting for confidence, waiting for the seasons to turn.  Many projects sit half-finished, and I'm not very good at waiting.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

A new, versatile addition to the workshop, and another project

© Joshua Stark 2016

After finishing the duck straps, I used some recent archery class earnings (I teach archery, if you are interested in learning) to purchase a 10 in. bench-top drill press.  It isn't a super-expensive model (it's from Harbor Freight), which means I will be using it for other purposes, as well.

Yes, it can drill holes in wood and metal with it -- but I also stumbled upon a great other purpose, one that serves my leather work:  You can use it as a leather press for rivets and punching holes.

For years now, I've been working at a workbench in the living room.  It's a cheap Ikea dining room table, and it doesn't have the sturdiness needed to pound in rivets, snaps, eyelets, grommets, etc.  When I need to set those, or punch holes, I've had to take out a sturdy footstool (confession: it's also from Ikea) and a marble slab, bend way down and hammer away.

I'd been looking at a nice press tool at Tandy Leather, but I'd been turned off by the price ($155!) for something I can do with a rubber mallet, even if I have to take a few more steps.

Then I thought, why not look for another kind of press?  After all, the Tandy press is just a handle and a place to hold dies.  Well, lo and behold, a small arbor press can be quickly modified to hold the dies and tools used for making impressions and holes in leather... which led me to thinking, why not just use a drill press while it isn't moving?

So I Googled it.

Yep.  Here's a great little video with a couple of good tricks for quickly modifying your drill press to set rivets, grommets, etc.  It's not mine, and I don't know the guy, but it's a good video (except for the part where he says, "Who's your daddy?"... that's kinda weird.)

I tried it, and was able to punch a hole in no time, with no modifications, and set a rapid-style rivet.  It works great!

Okay, so back to another project -- this one a sheath for my cousin.  I've only made one other sheath, and this one has an odd handle.  Here are a couple of pics:

Here's the leather, cased, before staining and stitching.
Stitched and stained (with a saddle-tan antique).  All that remains is putting on a keeper, and a copper rivet into the top left corner (maybe).
It's been a fun project, another boost to what had been my flagging confidence.  Even my mistakes (hammering it dry, and cracking the leather a tiny bit) have helped build my confidence.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Back on the (stitching) horse...

© Joshua Stark 2016. 

Well, I had to work through another few months' worth of fits and despair, a general lack of confidence, and an honest-to-goodness artist's block (though I strain credulity with the use of the word, "artist").  However, I have finally finished an extremely overdue leather order -- three California duck straps.

Confidence is a real problem for me, and it is compounded by the fact that when you finally make your measurements and trace out your templates, there comes a time when you actually have to cut very expensive material.  A good side of leather can cost $200, and though it isn't as bad as I make it sound (I mean, I can cut, make a mistake, and cut another part, due to its size), it is still a pretty steep climb.

These duck straps were ordered by a good friend of the family, going back decades.  He's one of those guys you admire from afar: an amazing outdoorsman, great dad, and a man who hunts out-of-state with a group (these folks go to Colorado each year).

Here are some pictures of the process...

I've picked out the spot on the leather, traced the template, and began cutting with the head knife.

Here is the process for cutting out a strap end with a strap-end punch.  I've got here a rubber mallet, a strap-end punch, a block of marble, and a cutting board of some kind.  Notice that the strap has been cut at the end to the dimensions of the punch.
I'm setting up the punch.  I'll hold the punch, and hammer on it a few times while rotating it a bit on its edge.

And here's the final result. 

Three straps in slightly different stages, after stamping.  The top one is stained, the middle one is "cased" (fancy leather term for "wetted with water"), and the bottom one is natural (before being stained).
Cutting three straps from about 6 oz. leather.  Since I made three California duck straps, I cut 21 individual 1/2 in. straps, 14 in. in length (to leave room for folding over and riveting the strap ends).
To make the folding and riveting flush, I skived the ends of each of the straps.  I use a safety skiver, and hope that one day they'll make a left-handed version.
Here they are.  The top one was stained with "saddle tan", the bottom two with medium brown.

I was overwhelmed, in part, by the repetition.  I had 21 straps to build, dye, seal, then 42 skive cuts, and 42 rivets to place.  The great part is that, once I started, I realized that this repetition was just what I needed!  I got into a rhythm, and worked to improve my technique.  I also, I believe, have become more confident.

Now, it's onto a knife sheath, followed by a very nice Ranger-style belt for an Angolan friend.  I'm worried about the last one, because I want it to be just about perfect, and hand-cutting billets to look symmetrical is quite a challenge.  But working on these duck straps have put a measure of confidence in me I haven't had in a long time.

Sorry for the gory details.  Here's a pic. of my cousin after a successful day afield, using a strap I made for him last year.  He's my pro staff, I suppose.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A Grouse in the Hand? Opening day in the California Uplands, 2016

©2016 Joshua Stark

One of California's many uplands habitats -- sub-alpine and alpine country
("upland" in California goes from below sea level for gambels quail, doves and snipe, to 7,000+feet after grouse, chukars and mountain quail)

For three years, I've actively hunted grouse in my old deer hunting grounds on public lands in California, and have been skunked -- and often humiliated -- by these wily birds.  My reputation as a nimrod isn't helped by the fact that these birds are often seen trying to figure out what the chicken's motives were, obviously lost in thought and oblivious to their surroundings.

Not my experience, mind you, but I'd been told on a number of occasions that "a big, grey chicken had just crossed the road about a half-mile back"...

My first encounter with grouse occurred while hunting with that Hog Blog fellow, Phillip Loughlin, who had invited me on an archery pig hunt in the Coast Range of Northern California.  It was a traditional introduction to an upland game bird:  about a half-hour before sunrise, quietly walking through the deep dark, contemplating having to sneak within 30 yards of a herd of animals about my size and with razor-sharp tusks, a pair of grouse exploded from a branch at hip-level about three feet from me, leaving me a trembling mess.  
Not one to hunt out of vengeance (it's funny to consider, but seriously messed-up if you think about it for more than ten seconds), I didn't consider heading out after them at that point.

My second encounter was just a sound, while out fishing the East Fork of the Carson River.  A deep, low, slow drumming sound from the top of a hill. That was all.  
I had never heard it before, but I knew immediately what it was.  It was powerful.  It was a bird.  And it awakened something inside of me, as wild encounters do when you happen to, sometimes accidentally, even, be open in your heart to hearing them.

But my third encounter with these grand birds of the uplands sent me on a familiar spiral, hunting after them with gun and dog.
Ever since I bought my 20 gauge side-by-side, I had taken to putting a slug in one barrel and a load of steel No. 6's in the other during deer season.  I had fallen hard for hunting mountain quail and every time I hit our public lands above 5,500 feet or so, I'd run across coveys... while never finding a deer with antlers sticking out of its head.
On one such occasion, I had traveled up to a spot I'd known held mountain quail, and started in.  About a quarter mile down-hill, on the edge of a clearing, I saw what I first  thought was a GIGANTIC quail... it took a few seconds for me to realize that it wasn't a quail, it wasn't a turkey, and it surely wasn't a chicken.  It was a sooty grouse.

Having never hunted grouse, I hadn't checked the regulations to know if they were in season.  I chuckled to myself at the notion that I'd missed out on a big, tasty bird, but I also felt really blessed.  After all, I'd never seen one like this, in the wild, just poking around.  It slowly walked past a dead log, and into a stand of small pines.

I arrived back at the car just in time to catch a game warden drive up.  I cracked open my gun, smiled as I walked up to him, and talked a bit.  I mentioned the grouse.

"Did you get him?"

Sheepishly, "Uhmm, no... I didn't know they were in season, and I wasn't going to take a chance."

"Yeah, you still have two more weeks on 'em.  Head back down there, they'll stick around the same spot.  They're kinda dumb."

Apparently, not as dumb as some others.  I traipsed back down the hill, a bit wary of the advice, but who am I to disobey armed law enforcement in the middle of nowhere?

Sure enough -- and just like that famous scene from The Matrix, that bird was in the same, danged spot!  I raised my gun with just a bit too much enthusiasm -- frankly, flabbergasted at the exactness of the advice (it was eerie).  The bird bolted into the stand of pines, and hit the jets in full cover.  He was gone.

I left feeling as if I were being filmed for Candid Camera by the Department of Fish & Game. 
Come to find out, grouse are masters at popping out right when they have the best chance of getting away... to such an extent that I have come to believe they have some form of instinctive telepathy.
Over and over, it was a similar story: me, walked to exhaustion, climbing madly after mountain quail, taking a breather and suddenly thinking, "hey, this kinda looks like grouse cover", and BAM! A bird launches out with force to scare the crap out of me, staying just behind cover.  I even started bringing my dog with me, an exceptionally birdy rescue field spaniel named Rocio, who would get birdy and bust birds. 

But I learned little lessons from each failure.  For three seasons, I'd get up only once or twice into spots I'd found the birds, and each time, I wouldn't be disappointed. With seeing them, that is; I still hadn't actually taken a bird.

Until last week.

Last week, it all seemed to come together: a good bird dog, a mountain quail already in the bag, and a familiar spot where I'd seen birds earlier in the year.  For once, I had confidence.

The first grouse blew out of cover, and gave me about a half-second... no shot.  I immediately yelled inside my head: there goes the only bird you'll see today!  But I shut me up... and thought... what if there were more than one bird?  I kept a brisk pace.  I reminded myself, "hunt the dog", and she was birdy, breaking right and left in front of me like a good spaniel (can you believe it?). She broke left, uphill, into brush.

From behind the tree at the back end of the brush, about fifteen yards from me, an explosion of grey feathers. Again, just a second between the trees, but I was ready.  At the end of the day, I'd taken two quail, and my first grouse.

Here is one happy bird dog, along with two Oreortyx picta (mountain quail) and one Dendragapus fuliginosus (sooty grouse).  Also, tools of the trade: one 20 gauge side-by-side shotgun, with a 20 gauge shell and a 28 gauge insert for one of the barrels.  Please note that those are not burrs on my dog, they are a really sticky seed that gets brushed out pretty easily.