Getting Around - Part I
In my line of work I check the weather outside early in the morning, before coffee. Not that I don't trust the weatherman, but I like to see for myself the wind direction, sky color, and if it has rained or snowed. I learned years ago that in this big country the generalized network weather report is usually only partially right. Current weather conditions are an important consideration when deciding what to do for the day if you work outside for a living, and it might make you reconsider your mode of transportation.

Very little Western predator trapping is done from blacktop roads, and even some of them aren't that great. I spend so much time traveling off-road that my accountant files a form to get credit for a portion of my gas paid. It's extra record keeping, but worth it. When trapping is your business, every deductible dollar counts when operating a good 4WD vehicle, considering their high operating cost.

Two-track and bladed ranch trails make up the bulk of the 'roads' I navigate daily, and it's not uncommon to have the pickup in "4" much of the day. County roads vary a lot too, and you can usually tell the county's overall wealth by how well the roads are maintained. The amount of gravel, if any, will also dictate if you'll be able to travel them after a heavy rain. More than once I've had to wait for sunshine and a little wind to dry out a gumbo road enough to get back out to a better road. I've also waited until the middle of the night for it to get cold enough to stiffen up a muddy, slippery road that was too dangerous or impossible to travel during the day. Tire chains will help you get going, but they don't always help you stop, and I've seen some pickups wearing chains in crazy wrecks.

Creek crossings are another obstacle. I've lived and trapped in fairly arid regions most of my life, and what we call a creek in the West might qualify as a ditch elsewhere. That is until spring, and then the winter snows melt and that 3-foot creek might become 100 yards wide. That can mean backtracking 50 miles to get to a place you can easily see on the other side of this new, temporary obstacle.

The really interesting thing is what happens after the water returns to its original level. Culverts, dam crossings, and roads can be washed out. Fields and creek crossing points can have a foot of mud and silt on them. If the water flow was fast, some crossings that had a gentle slope might be left with a sharp, 3-foot drop off. Mother Nature can be tough on manmade roads.

Snow is a major factor too, and it seems like winters are becoming more like I remember them as a kid, coming early and staying late. Wind makes drifts, and I've encountered some that shut off literally hundreds of sections of ground, either until the roads get plowed open, or until spring. In many areas, if people aren't living on county roads they don't get plowed. You need to consider that when pre-season scouting. Hunting seasons that run late in the fall can tear up roads and farm lanes too, especially during an unusually wet period. Deep, long ruts can be real buggers when they're covered with snow and ice. Crossing them can be a challenge, and icy ruts on hillsides have helped wreck and strand many a pickup. The wrong side of a hill can be very different from the opposite side. With the short days of winter allowing enough sunshine to partially melt tire tracks in snow, and then re-freezing them at night, it adds a whole new dimension to navigating semi-shady hillsides.
I encountered that very thing this last fur season. I have to make a mistake or two every year to remind myself that shoveling and hauling rocks and posts to get out is frustrating and time consuming. To get the pickup unstuck I spent 5 hours shoveling icy ruts down to glare ice and a few patches of bare ground, so I could line it with dry dirt from a bank a mile away. Luckily, I had my snowmobile on a trailer (which had jackknifed), so I unloaded it and the Otter sled and found the dry dirt. My wife later asked why I just hadn't ridden the Ski-Doo out the 12 miles and gotten help. I replied, "Who would I ask to help? I got stuck, and so would anyone else who tried to do something that stupid." The situation wasn't life threatening, but I needed to get the pickup out immediately because I needed it the next day.

Cell phones have changed things a lot. I remember back when the County I worked for issued me a 'bag phone'. It saved my bacon more than once, but even with that type of phone's extra power, it had its limitations. Cell towers can be few and far between in much of the West, and if you aren't getting service and the phone is in search mode for long, it really drains your battery. Phone companies seem to be putting up more and more towers, so coverage is improving all the time. I hardly ever venture far without mine.

I remember when cell phones were first getting popular in our rural areas. A good friend in Wyoming and I were talking about a fairly remote, desolate area we had both trapped from time to time over the years. It's the kind of country that when you go into it, you make sure to tell somebody where you'll be and when you expect to return, and you go prepared to get out of tight spots. I had ventured into the area when I first trapped Wyoming, and the first morning woke up with about 18 inches of wet snow on me and my bedroll. I trapped it for several years, and with the exception of another trapper, or maybe a ranch hand looking for missing cattle, I had the area to myself. So when my buddy told me he had virtually quit trapping that area, I had to ask why.

"Cell phones," he said. "That country used to intimidate most people. Now, with cell phones, they take their SUVs up there and run their dogs, or just drive around and hunt rabbits or whatever. Most will follow your tracks where you drive or walk. It's just trouble waiting to happen." Later I experienced the same thing myself in other areas.

In the next issue I'll talk about other modes of transportation besides the pickup.