Friday, July 4, 2014

Dawns Early Light

Dawns Early Light


   July 4, 2014 - 4 AM. being awake at the hour was not what I had in mind of doing to celebrate Independence day. To be honest I don't really have any plans to celebrate beyond grilling a couple of steaks and sitting around on the deck but I had definitely planed on doing it much later in the day after a long nights sleep.

   Now that I am up I might as well enjoy it so I'm out here on the deck, coffee in hand watching the new dawn. I can hear the birds starting to call in the trees around the yard and there's a shadow that's been moving along the branches from tree to tree that turns into the silhouette of a squirrel when it passes through a clear spot. I just caught movement from the corner of my eye. I was staring at the spot, trying to figure out what it was. More movement and I see now that's it's a rabbit hopping along the fence row.

   This has always been so odd to me ever since I moved to Washington State. Seeing and hearing what I am from my own deck this morning would also be very common in Oklahoma. I have spent enough dawns in the wood down home to know that for a fact. Up here though. The mountains and the forests are beautiful, there no argument about that. When you're camped out up in the forest, being up to see the sunrise over the mountains is truly breath taking! If you're one the west side of Mt Rainer where I like to camp it's really something special to see the sun lighting up that huge snow-covered mountain. You have to not only see it but you would need to be a lot better wordsmith than I am to do justice in describing it. The other thing you notice, at least I do, having grown up in the woods of Oklahoma and even in the deserts of Arizona, it is so peaceful up there. By peaceful I mean quite!

   There is more noise from the bird calls and more movement from the squirrel and rabbit in my own yard than I have seen in 99% of the sunrises I've seen while camping in the mountains. If I'm real lucky while I'm up there I might hear one or two birds and mostly those are flickers. Once in a great while I might hear a pine squirrel chattering. I've heard owls maybe three times in thirty years and those only in the dark just before dawn. One time and only one in over thirty years I've heard the bellow of a bull elk.

   I know there's lots of wildlife up there because I've seen them hundreds of times. Maybe it's the difference in the type of trees that grow here. Down home we have mostly big leaf trees which means the ground it covered with dry leaves most of the year. If you sit by one of those trees and just listen, beyond the bird calls you soon start to hear rustling through the leaves. Once you've done it long enough and pay attention you can even get pretty good at telling what's moving around just by the sound the make in the leaves. It's pretty easy to tell know the sound so a squirrel hopping around and digging through the leaves looking for nuts. You can tell the difference between the fast paced, high stepping sound of a coon versus the slow pace of a possom. You can make a pretty good guess if you're hearing a rabbit doing hop, pause, hop, pause or a mink doing his hop, hop, hop through the leaves. If you spend any time hunting down home one of the first things you learn to listen for at first light is the sharp, stabbing sound of a deer's hoof spearing through the leaves.

   Up here is different. Everything seems to move in silence. I have watched huge 5 point bull elk move threw the forest and the only reason I knew he was there was because I could see him. I have no idea how an animal that weighs over a thousand pounds and has a set of antlers that are five feet across can move that quietly through the woods, but I have seen them many times. I was up close to the timber line one year watching for mountain goats on the slopes above me. I had heard nothing other than the wind blowing but all of a sudden I got the weird feeling that I wasn't alone. I didn't want to make any sudden moves because the feeling was freaking me out just a little so I slowly turned my head to check to each side, nothing. I very slowly turned to look behind me and found myself staring into the eyes of a black bear. When i came up through the same section of trees I was making so much noise I figured I'd have to sit still for at least two hours just to let everything get back to normal before I had any chance of seeing anything. That 500 pound bear had come had come through the same trees and i hadn't heard a thing! This was years ago when my ears still worked and I was concentrating on looking and listening! We stared at each other for a few minutes. He let out one woof and clacked his teeth once, turned and was gone. i heard him make the first jump as he took off then, even though i could see him heading down the mountain as far as I could tell he never made a sound.

   There is no doubt the trees have a lot to do with it. I've watched a one pound fox squirrel running through the oak trees down home and not only do you see the limbs moving but you have no problem hearing the leaves rattle. Here I've watched a ten pound marten running through the fir and cedar trees and the only way you know he's up there is to see the limbs moving. One of the quietest and most impressive is the one I most accept and expect to be that way. I was sitting, snuggled down between the roots of a huge old growth cedar watching a trail about 75 yards below me. I knew there was a heard of elk living in the area and I was pretty sure them were using that trail. I had been sitting there since before dawn and as the sky began to lighten I started paying more attention because I figure if the elk moved along that trail it should be within the first hour or two of sunrise. It was light enough to be able to see something the size of an elk or even a deer moving down the trail but there were still deep shadows close to the ground and around the bottom of the trees. I was wide awake having already gone through one pot of coffee and working on my second but I thought my eyes must still be tired because I could swear I could see the shadows move. The more I tried to look, the harder it was to see but I was positive something was moving along the trail. I lost sight of whatever it was among the shadows and had pretty well convinced myself that I had just been seeing things. When I turned and looked back at the trail directly below me there was a mountain lion standing on the trail looking up in my direction. Talk about your heart skipping a beat! it was like he had just appeared on that trail. I understood immediately what people meant when they say something was ghosting along! I had a lion that year. Their kind of an add-on when you get big game tags up here. You get deer, elk, bear and lion and there it was, a perfect shot, broad side, less than 75 yards away without even a small branch between us and me sitting there with a loaded rifle in my lap. The thought of raising that rifle never even entered my mind. The thought of breathing didn't enter my mind until my lungs reminded of it. God what i would have given for a camera right then, I could have sit there an just admired it for hours but after less than two minutes it was gone. it stepped behind the next tree down the trail and was gone like it had never truly been there, but I knew it had. The hunting gods decided to give me a life long memory that dawn and for that I am forever grateful.


   The Arizona desert is a surprisingly noisy place at dawn. The first memories I have of camping in the desert was going with my Mom, stepdad and their friends. I was always up before dawn just because I was a kid and didn't want to miss anything. The second person to get up would almost always be Mom. Since she was a coffee drinker also our first order of business was to get the fire going and the coffee on. if we timed it right it would be ready just as the sun was coming up and since it gets pretty cold in the desert at night she would let me have a cup. We'd sit there, by the fire, and enjoy watching the sun come up. Looking back we seldom talked but I always sat as close to her as I could while we watched the sunrise. The first thing you hear in that desert morning are the quail and the doves. I guess they decided they were the desert alarm because I heard them so many times, the soft cooing of the doves and the two toned call of the quail that to this day when I hear them I can close my eyes and feel my Mom next to me. I can almost taste the coffee and smell the wood smoke.


   Not all of my dawns have been so peaceful. Waking up above the timber line in the Rockies in the middle of a full blown thunder storm is anything but peaceful! When you're stretched out in a hole you dug looking for minerals in your sleeping bag with nothing but a little plastic tarp between you and the weather can get a tense! When you stick your head out and realize your close to being the tallest thing around and the is lighting striking the ground close enough for you to feel it, it goes just a tiny bit farther than tense! Not much you can do but try to dig yourself in a little farther, burrow back under your tarp and try to keep the rain out, pray and really mean it!

   Waking up in the Alaska bush on a morning when the thermometer is hitting the 40 below mark and realizing you're having trouble breathing because your snow cave has been covered over can get a little exciting also. You have trouble getting out of your sleeping bag and figuring out which way is up because your not getting enough air. you start digging at the wrong end of the cave because your brain just isn't working right and all you can think about is getting air. Once you kind of get it together and manage to dig yourself out and take that first huge breath of fresh air that feels like it's going to freeze your lungs and tastes so good at the same time you say a little thank you to god for letting you dodge the bullet one more time.

   Sitting huddled by a fire at dawn after an ice storm isn't a lot of fun either. You get to sit there in the middle of the woods and listen to trees and branches falling all around you. you realized that you might have made a mistake the night before when you decided to sleep under one of the biggest oak trees around which you now see is coated wit a few inches of ice. You sit there listening to the limbs above you creaking and groaning. you know you need to move but your fire is here and trying to get another one going out in the open is going to be a real pain so you throw some more wood on and gamble that your not going to end up dead of squashed under a limb and wait for the sun.


   Two of my favorite places to watch the sunrise (believe me, trying to pick favorites is hard!)  would have to be looking west over the painted Desert, you need to be looking west in order to see the different colors start to show up, looking east the sun blinds you to the color. The second place is along the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Again, you want to facing west in an area where you see the canyon walls all the way to the bottom. There's a spot about 6 miles to the west of the visitors center I used to love. it's a rock ledge that sticks out over the canyon. It's like one giant slab of rock that's about 20 feet thick. You can sit on the edge and look down between your feet and the only thing between you and the canyon floor 3000 feet down is air. Talk about a great place to have your morning coffee! The best part is sitting there as the sun comes up. The cliff face continues for a couple of miles and curves around to the south. From that ledge you can see all the way to the bottom and just catch a glint of the river way down to the south. That cliff face is made of different bands of rock most of which are a different color starting with a sandstone colored one at the top and going through light orange, dark orange, pinkish, redish, kind of a pale yellow and one that solid black. As the sun rises it spot lights each band in turn. You can still see all the colors when the sun is all the way up but they are a little washed out to me by then they are the most vibrant as the sun lights each band. 


    One of my least favorite place to be at dawn if heading east, down the highway, in a truck in Kansas! they don't make sunglasses dark enough to stop you from being blinded. Wait, come to think of it I hate being there at any time...........