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Saturday, September 17, 2005

The Wrong Hands For Guns

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., September 17, 2005.)
As you enjoy this hunting season, ask yourself, "What kind of hands are mine?"
I've never been shot, but I've been lucky.

A close call came many years ago when I was walking up the trail alongside Brown Run with a teenage buddy. He tripped, and as he lurched forward to catch his balance he jammed the barrel of his .22 rifle into the soft spot just under my earlobe. Like I said, I was lucky -- if there's such a thing as luck. I was lucky his finger wasn't on the trigger. If his finger was on the trigger, I was lucky he didn't pull it when he instinctively tightened his grip as he stumbled. If he did pull it, I was lucky the safety was on.

Years later I met a local surgeon in the woods. He looked at my shotgun and said, "Guns scare me. I've seen what they can do." I've also seen what guns can do, and they scare me, too.

Guns by themselves don't scare me, but guns in the wrong hands do. Careless hands are the wrong hands for guns. Careless hands are hands attached to an unthinking mind. On the day my friend jammed the barrel of his gun into my ear, he was carrying the gun in a cross-body position. Had he (or I) been thinking, he would have been pointing the gun the opposite way. The thinking gunner considers whether he should carry cross-body, or on the shoulder, or pointed down and forward, or up and away in front.

The hands of a person influenced by alcohol are the wrong hands for guns. Excess alcohol impairs judgment, and handicaps one's ability to assess his impairment. When I see beer in a camp it bothers me, but not because I oppose alcohol. It bothers me in the same way beer cans on the floor of a car bother me. Alcohol can weaponize a person.

The hands of bullies and show-offs are the wrong hands for guns. Some people are victims of their own machismo, thinking they are as invulnerable as Muhammad Ali. He is said to have told a flight attendant when refusing to buckle his seatbelt, "Superman don't need no seat belt." She calmly replied, "Superman don't need no airplane either." All men sometimes need reminded, especially when around firearms, that we're not Superman.

The hands of an angry person are the wrong hands for guns. A chip on your shoulder is best left home when hunting or target shooting. A fight with the wife or the boss isn't a good prelude to hunting. Anger can cloud judgment.

The hands of a poacher are the wrong hands for guns. There is a good reason for poachers and felons to lose their gun rights. Lawbreakers can be motivated to attack those who might reveal their lawlessness.

The hands of a person who doesn't respect others are the wrong hands for guns. The inability to consider the rights of others, the lack of common courtesy, and the notion that anyone who is in the woods is in my way reveals attitudes that invite trouble.

The hands of a person who doesn't respect guns are the wrong hands for guns. People must be taught respect for guns. In a day when young people see hundreds of murders on television and in the movies we are desensitized to the seriousness of firearms. That's a good reason for gun safety to be mandated in our schools. But now I'm dreaming.

Come to think of it, guns don't scare me as much as hands scare me. It is the hands that are unpredictable. In the proper hands, a firearm is a tool that can bring challenge and enjoyment to you. In the wrong hands, it can bring suffering and tragedy to many. As you enjoy this hunting season, ask yourself, "What kind of hands are mine?" That's no dream. It should be a reality for all of us.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Trophy of An "Unsuccessful" Hunt

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., September 3, 2005.)
The stalk had taken too long. I had nothing to show for my effort -- nothing except the things a hunter brings home that are more important than the kill.
We climbed a quarter mile up an Alaskan avalanche and perched on a bare spot that wasn't even close to level. There we planned to spend the next 24 hours. Our meat and potatoes were summer sausage and Pringles. Dessert was a package of Snickers bars. We snacked on raisins, and washed it all down with a sport drink.

We were traveling lightly, unburdened by tent, sleeping bags, or cook stove, hoping to end our hunt by carrying a black bear out of the Alaskan rainforest.

The daytime temperature was in the mid 50's -- warm enough to work up a sweat on our 3-mile hike to this black bear paradise. A misty drizzle, typical of Alaska, made the humidity as high on the outside of my Gore-Tex suit as it was on the inside, so perspiration condensed on the inside, soaking me to my Joe Boxers. What a mistake! The chill taught me why Alaskan hunters say, "Cotton kills."

Our plan was to glass the opposite side of the valley for black bears, then settle on a big one and conduct a stalk that would put it within reach of my seven magnum. Every hour or two, a black bear made his way out of the thick alder brush to feed on tender new grass in open meadows, and we studied each one closely through binoculars.

Spotting a big one, we began the stalk. We slipped and slid our way down the avalanche and headed for the roaring glacial stream that separated the steep mountainsides.

When we found an almost-safe place to cross, round baseball-sized gravel would shift as I placed my feet on them. With the pressure of the water against my thighs and rocks rolling under my feet, I felt like I was riding a skateboard in a hurricane.

After the difficult crossing, we continued the stalk. On the way, we passed a small beaver pond and noticed a young bear on the opposite side. Thinking he was well hidden, he peered at us from inside the brush along the bank, his image perfectly reflected in the still water.

When we arrived at the meadow the bear I wanted was gone. The stalk had taken too long. I had nothing to show for my effort -- nothing except the things a hunter brings home that are more important than the kill.

Besides the 14 black bears we spotted on that hunt, we saw a cow moose, hiding in the alders. How does an animal as big as a plow horse melt into the brush? Tracks from brown bears were common -- with front paws 8 inches wide. At one place we saw brown bear scat that contained parts of a baby moose, and at another place we found brown fur stuck to dribbles of pitch on the trunk of a spruce tree a big brownie had used for a back scratcher.

I also found two complete cow moose skulls. And, while we had been walking upstream in shallow water, searching for a safe crossing, I laid eyes on one of the nicest finds I've ever discovered. A full set of moose antlers -- a fraction under 50 inches wide and complete with skull plate -- was lying in the water.

What led to this moose's demise? Perhaps he was the victim of an avalanche, and his carcass was washed into the water. He may have been killed by a big, hungry brown bear -- at least two or three reside in that valley -- and was finished off in the stream while trying to escape his fate. Or, maybe he was a casualty of winter starvation and succumbed where high water washed his remains into the stream. All that was left was a pair of antlers held together by a section of skull.

With no load to carry out but what I had carried in, I tied those antlers to my pack, and today they are a conversation piece nestled in my shrubbery -- one tangible trophy of an unsuccessful Alaskan hunt.