Saturday, September 27, 2008
When it came time to for Elk Camp I was pretty concerned about the camping, the weather, the children and just the total length of stay, but it went very well. That's not to say it wasn't a lot of work; it was pretty much one extended baby care fest from sunup to sundown, with some extra on the sundown side.
We had decided that we just had to fly, even though it would have simplified the hunting and aspects to drive. The nineteen hour drive with a nursing baby was too daunting. We were able to cash in all our credit card points from a card we used exclusively for several years for three round trip tickets to Flagstaff. It seemed like a great use of them, as no previous plane ticket was expensive enough to make it worth using the points, and these certainly were plenty expensive. The Flagstaff airport was rather amusing. It was about the size of a small strip-mall. There was one ticket counter, one food counter, one restroom and one baggage carousel. When flying out of there you have to arrive well ahead because both the employees are ticket agents, gate agents and baggage crew. The only different face was the TSA agent, and let me tell you that no one is getting lax with security with her on the job. My sewing scissors,which passed security at many international airports, were clearly a threat in Flagstaff. I'm still trying to assuage my irritation at loosing them with thoughts of the miniscule scale of the operation.
But back to the trip. The problem with flying was that all checked baggage now incurrs a fee, $15 each direction. With four people camping and hunting that was a little worrisome. My mom and sister managed to pull together almost everything we needed camping-wise. We sent a box full of camo clothing and cold weather wear back to Arizona with my mom after her last visit when baggage was still free. My sister, Julie, put in Sammy's whole wardrobe out of hand-me-downs from her son, Nolan (that's him, below). We fit everything else for the four of us (three plane tickets) into three carryons. James had to check his bow anyway, but I found a particular triumph in sucessfully packing everything else in just carry on baggage. Those airlines can't stick it to me! Except that at midnight, with everything packed, James decided he just didn't like it and unpacked a carry on bag and packed it into a larger suitcase to be checked. *Sigh*
We flew into Flag accompanied by a plane full of archery hunters. Camo and airplane regulation bow cases abounded. The friend of my brother-in-law, Rob, was on the same plane. We looked everyone over and decided the fellow in the Michigan colors must be him, and it was. Zack immediately began asking him to read him books and draw him a maze on his Magnadoodle.
And that was pretty much how the two weeks went. Hunt related, then kid related, then more hunt related, then more kid related, with a sprinkling of food preparation and hurry-up-and-wait.
Our camp consisted of six campers (trailers, not RVs), four tents, eighteen people and two dogs. There were FIVE kids, three of them babies. We had eight hunters, each with an archery elk tag. My sister and her husband were there from Yuma. My parents were up from Tucson, and we were in from Austin.
Each morning the hunters left about 4am to be in their places by pre-dawn. They rode quads to nearby tanks, which are muddy ponds where the elk come to water. There were several tanks in the hunting area, each with one or more tree stands or blinds set up nearby. Hunters had a choice of sitting a stand or stalking, moving on foot to find elk that were not at a tank. Our camp was chosen with respect to the hunting sites - far enough to not interfere but close enough to manage the daily quad rides. The farthest tanks were almost an hour's ride away, over intensely rough, rocky trail that requires muscling the quad steering around rocks and boulders. They stayed in their stands until full daylight, when the elk tend to bed down for the day, then headed back to camp for a late breakfast. At 3pm, it was back out again for the evening hunt, staying out until it was too dark to shoot, then back in for the night.
For moms and kids, mornings were spent in the campers in our jammies until the sun was fully up and the air warmed up, then play time outside or in the playtent until the hunters came back in. Then it was food prep for our main meal of the day at lunchtime. The food was pretty impressive. Those three hundred plates I mentioned? We used all of them, and then some. But despite the bulk, it was really well done. Julie organized her butt off getting everything planned (not joking: her Excel spreadsheet got too cumbersome so she put the food plans into an Acess database instead). In preparation, Mom cooked and cooked and just felt like she probably hadn't made much yet so she cooked some more. All the main dishes were cooked ahead of time and frozen so that all we had to do was bake them and add veggies and bread. Then for dinners we mostly had soups and some sandwiches. By the time everyone was in, half an hour to an hour after full dark, soup really hit the spot. The food preparation was work, but it was so smooth and so delicious. If ever I doubted, I have a family of amazing women.
Zack turned four while we were there. He got a real bow and arrows from Grandad, my dad. He knew about it because we'd debated whether he was old enough and talked to him about it. He was so excited. I just wasn't sure my little boy was ready for weaponry, but it was the connection with the hobby that the men had and the thrill of being able to do something so adult himself. Larry worked with him one afternoon for quite a while and he ate it up. The rest of the kids were a bit of a challenge. We were feeding them on our laps since there were no high chairs and they are so little that we just had to carry them around. Brilliantly, Julie set up a big tent with just blankets and toys for them to play in. We alternated between campers, holding them in laps sitting in lawn chairs, play tent, and carrying them around. My mom brought Zack nine library books, all of which were read at least nine hundred times. The littler one were more apt to listen to a book with Zack so intent on them, so the only ones who lost out were those conned into reading the same book twelve times in a row. My mom did so much care and feeding of the kids that you would think the rest of us would feel like we were footloose and fancy free, but not so! Still, they kids revelled in the hours of outside time, loving quad rides and walks equally. Zack kicked rocks, climbed trees, and invented the first Elk Camp Barcalounger (photo right).
My Uncle Steve (my mom's brother) and Aunt Charlene live near the hunting area and had done untold hours of work in setting up tree stands and getting ready. Their hunting buddy, Larry, was there as well. It was a real delight getting to know Larry better. We've camped with him before and he mostly kept to himself with a few cantankerous comments thrown in. He didn't like dogs and we always had one or two along. He didn't appear to be much interested in kids, or so I thought, but that was all wrong. Once Zack got his claws into Larry, he didn't let go. Talk about the favored guy. From the minute Larry said if he got into the play tent he'd have to smash Zack down and bloody his nose, Zack was hooked. Apparently we exist in a sheltered bubble since no one had ever threatened to bloody my four year olds nose, but Larry couldn't get much peace from then on (not that he seemed to mind). Larry's only break came for the four days Uncle Bill, James' brother, came out to join us. I think he had in mind some relaxation and a break from city life. He may have gotten a break from work and television and city, but relaxation he did not get. Zack went into turbobooster mode the moment Bill arrived and didn't come down until he left.
My cousin Andrea, Steve and Charlene's daughter, and her family were all there as well from San Diego. She and her husband Jim have recently adopted two adorable brothers. If the hunters thought they'd hit the jackpot getting drawn for their tags, I felt like we'd won many times over to get to meet and spend time with these precious boys. I hadn't gotten to spend time with my cousin in years; what a joy it was!
The weather really cooperated and made things easy. Warm days, cold but not freezing nights, and only a half an afternoon of rain the whole time. The country was gorgeous and in bloom. The moon was full, rising later each night but brighter than streetlights at its peak. The downside of the beautiful weather and full moon was a disrupted feeding and watering habit for the elk. They were much scarcer this year than in years past and the tanks were empty most hunts. Larry got his elk well into the second week, but Steve and Charlene, who arrived late due to helping my Granny after she took a bad fall, didn't get to fill their tags. Brian, Julie's husband, was ready to "crash and cry" after his morning hunt on his last day but had fabulous luck that night and got his elk. James got to take a shot, but his elk eluded him despite his many hours of careful stalking. My dad stayed longer than we did and on the very last morning of the season got the third elk out of our eight tags. Plenty of meat to go around, but I had hoped James would have the fun of success. Still, after that much time outdoors in beautiful country, that many disaster-free meals, five injury- and illness-free kids, and so much time with dear family, we couldn't call the trip anything but a full success.