'This is Who I am'

The challenge of the tundra of southern Alaska was magnified when a storm rolled in to threaten Rick Crawford and his hunting buddies.

The weather came in low across the tundra, the last thing the hunters had expected to see. As it can do in Alaska, the sky had run through its blue during the day and fallen into the threatening grays and blacks of a storm.

It was a storm the hunters had not expected. And worse, had not planned for. Now they were out of food, and the plane that should have come into their camp to ferry them out would not be coming.

The caribou they had hunted were still out there, unconcerned about the sky.

Rick Crawford was facing a bittersweet moment, reveling in the last hours of a successful hunt with friends and at the same time feeling the first pin pricks of concern.

“It was a good hunt, and then we had to collect our thoughts,” he recalls. “It was like we were being tested, and I liked that. I know I can do more than drive a truck. And when the weather closed in, it was time to face something that could be pretty rough and realize you only had yourself, some friends and what you had in camp to get through it.

“I was thinking how this was the sort of feeling that makes you feel alive. When you are alone in nature and there is a challenge, you find out so much about yourself. I find myself thinking at times like that, ‘This is who I am.'”

In spite of the potential danger, Crawford uses his hunting excursions to release the tensions of the road and relax.

“Most of the time I’m just enjoying nature. There’s a feeling of freedom, getting away from people. It lets you gather your thoughts. It lets you realize just how lucky you are to be alive,” says Crawford. “Too often people take life for granted. Sometimes we want things that we don’t need and aren’t thankful enough for what we have. When I go out hunting, I’m very grateful for my life.”

Crawford, 43, drives a 2000 Kenworth W900 with a 550 Cat and an 18-speed transmission for Graebel Van Lines, hauling a 53-foot van loaded with household goods all over America. Born and raised in the Seattle area, he found his first outdoors adventures with his father at age 14.

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“From the first day he taught me that if you hunt, it’s for something to eat, not just as sport. When I started, we mostly went after birds – grouse, pheasant, quail. He taught me the right things to do. He’d tell me, ‘You learn to do things the right way or you carry a broomstick through the woods the rest of your life. You watch, you listen, you learn.’ And I did. When I felt comfortable that I’d learned how to use a weapon, I would move up to something bigger and more complicated. After I felt I was competent hunting deer, I moved up and started hunting elk.”

Crawford tries to find a challenge each season that will demand more of him than his last year’s hunt. Before his foray onto the Alaskan tundra he hunted remote Colorado mountains.

“I love to go to new places,” he says. “The geography is different, and that makes it harder because you can’t look around and see familiar landscapes. In Montana the mountains are different, and in the mountains of Washington the brush is different than it is in Colorado. When I hunt in Colorado, I have to hike or ride all the way; it’s too rough for vehicles, and that changes the way the hunt goes. Applying your expertise in situations makes you think; you can’t just hunt on auto pilot.”

But Crawford goes into the hunt prepared. He always researches the location and the habits of the animals there before he heads out to a new spot. For his dream trip to Alaska, he studied the native caribou.

“Caribou aren’t like deer or elk,” he says. “The caribou has good eyesight, it’s a fast moving animal, and the tundra is like nothing I’ve ever hunted before. I studied the weather where we were going to hunt and the way the caribou react to different weather conditions.”

Later this year Crawford will head back to Colorado. “I was there two years ago, and I usually don’t like to go back to places I’ve been. But the mountains, the fresh air and the elk, they were amazing, and I had to go back. Like Alaska, there is a sense of freedom, of being in places unspoiled by man. The older you get the more you enjoy being out in places like that.

“It’s very moving, and I think in the end that’s why I go hunting, to feel that. It’s extraordinary to look around and see no man. You can gather your thoughts very easily. You can complain all you want about a driving job, but it doesn’t change anything. Out in places where you are alone, you realize what’s important.”

Crawford’s wife Sherri went hunting with him when they were first married, “but she decided that being out in nature is best when you are sitting on a beach watching for the next wave,” says Crawford. The trucker says a one-day trip where Sherri stayed in the truck helped shape her position. “It was raining all the day and cold and windy, and I was gone for about 10 hours while she stayed in the pickup. When I got back, she asked me why I’d been gone so long. I think she thought something must have gone wrong. She was astounded when I told her I was enjoying myself and never saw any reason to come back to the pickup.” Now when he heads out hunting with his friends, Sherri simply refers to it as “male bonding day.”

Crawford hunts with friends, one he’s known for 15 years and the others he’s known for six, and says the group is so close “you can’t go home without having enjoyed the hunt, whatever happened.”

That was true of the Alaska hunt, he says, despite a tense ending to the adventure.

The hunters flew into Anchorage, then flew 240 miles southwest to tiny Iliamna. From there the hunters were flown by a small Cessna out to a hunting camp. After that they took another plane ride, taking turns to ride as passengers in a two-seater Piper Cub aircraft, squeezed in behind the pilot. They set up camp and prepared for caribou.

“The first night back at the camp we could see some pretty good-sized bear tracks. The animals had wandered through the camp while we were gone,” recalls Crawford. “We had food in the camp, so some of us were a little wary. About two in the morning my buddy Dave wakes me up, real quietly, ‘Did you hear that? We’ve got a bear in camp.’ I listened, and I could hear something. It got quite tense. Then I figured it out. It was Steve snoring.”

By the eighth day they had been successful, taking two caribou, which they skinned and quartered, taking as much of the meat as possible. “They fly in and pick up the meat,” Crawford says. “You lay it out on a blue tarpaulin they can see from a long way off, and they’ll collect it when they fly over to check on you.”

But by the eighth day they were also out of food, including the caribou the pilots had taken back. And that’s when the storm hit.

“We’d hunted hard and eaten well; I suppose we needed more fuel than we realized,” Crawford says. “We knew if the storm didn’t blow over we could be there for a few days. The winds can take over, and storms can last for 10 days.”

The men sat down and thought out what they needed to do. Before, they had caught some Arctic grayling with a fishing pole and shot some ptarmigan, and they knew they could do it again unless the weather got bad.

“Part of what I like about hunting is that you have to learn to take care of yourself when there are no phones or electricity or people nearby,” Crawford says. “It’s a good feeling knowing you can make it without depending on material things.”

So the small band of hunters simply waited out the storm, confident in their own abilities to handle the situation if it became worse and the storm didn’t pass through.

Crawford claims some inspiration from his father-in-law. “He doesn’t believe in ‘new’ weapons,” says Crawford. “He uses an old breechloader Civil War-style rifle and an old shotgun without a choke. I bought a new 7 millimeter Magnum and he told me, ‘The Indians never needed one of those, why should you?’ I’ve heard him say at the start of duck season that he needed nine ducks. He has a small aluminum boat, and he’ll go out until he gets nine ducks; that’s enough for his freezer, enough for duck for Thanksgiving and Christmas and some other occasions. When he gets nine, his season is over. It’s the same thing I learned growing up, a reverence for nature and what she gives us. You only take what you will use.”

Off-duty Destinations: Everywhere a Festival
Remember the classic song “I’ve Been Everywhere” (I prefer Johnny Cash’s version)? Truckers have pretty much been everywhere, but I get a feeling they ride by more attractions they’d really like to visit than they know. I’m going to beat an old drum here: truckers underuse the Internet. Here are two examples: music and birds.

Love music, all kinds or a special kind? The website www.Festivalfinder.com has pages and pages of music festivals just for May. Some random examples – the famous and fabulous Newport Beach Jazz Festival in Irvine, Calif., May 1-2, the Main Street JazzFest in Murfreesboro, Tenn., May 1, and the Ninth Annual Oklahoma Blues Festival in Tulsa Okla., May 3-4.

I know lists can be boring, but look at the choice. There’s the Wildflower!
Arts and Music Festival in Dallas and the Cajun Zydeco Crawfish Festival in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., both May 6-9. Maybe you’d like to visit the Arbuckle Mountain Bluegrass Park Spring Jam in Wynnewood, Okla., May 12-15, Hornucopia in Rock Island, Ill., May 21-22, or the North Iowa Band Festival in Mason City, Iowa, May 28-31.

You see nature from coast to coast from the cab. Ever considered getting a little closer? The American Birding Association on the Web has five pages of festivals listed for May (www.americanbirding.org/cgi-bin/festivalsearch/search.cgi).

There’s one called Breakfast with the Birds in Shaker Heights, Ohio, on May 1 to celebrate International Migratory Bird Day. The Herricks Cove Wildlife Festival in Rockingham,Vt., on May 2 offers a “day-long celebration of spring and nature” featuring live bird and wildlife programs, bird banding demonstrations, a bird walk, activities for all ages, field trips and an educational exhibit. The Birds & Blossoms festival in Norfolk, Va., May 6-9, will let you see more than “260 bird species and the Summer Tanager; this year’s featured bird.”

The Bird Walk at Callaway in Pine Mountain, Ga., May 7, also celebrates International Migratory Bird Day. There’s a Hummingbird Festival in Colorado Springs on May 8 to welcome these amazing little creatures back to Cheyenne Canon. At Birding By the Bay in Munising , Mich., on May 21-23 you’ll see Piping plover, Kirtland’s warbler, peregrine falcon, sharptail grouse and boreal chickadee. Or visit the Bitterroot Birding Festival in Stevensville, Mont., May 21-23.

I’ve just skimmed long lists of pages of May music and bird festival listings. You get the idea. If you have something that really hooks your interest, odds are it will be celebrated around the country. And today’s Internet, especially with the aid of the mega search engine Google (www.google.com), can find them for you and get details and directions.

So plan to stop and get festive. There may be a lot of long stopovers that you don’t have to spend at the truckstop.

Rods & Barrels: Well-Managed Hunting
This fine 10-point buck is an example of what some homegrown wildlife management talents can do. Owner-operator Tim Compton, 29, who pilots a 1999 Kenworth W900, hunts mostly on 600 acres of wooded land on a farm he owns south of his hometown of Hannibal, Mo. Compton, who says he “pretty much winters in the woods,” likes this picture, which is about 18 months old, because it shows how far his hunting grounds have developed.

“I’d found his shed antlers the year before and actually almost got him with a bow not long before this,” says Compton, who used the 7mm Ruger Magnum in the photo. “My neighbors and I got together, and over the past few years we’ve developed a management plan for our farms,” he says, referring to things like food plot development and selective doe thinning. “It’s working, too. It’s been a lot of years since I took a buck from those woods that field dressed out at under 200 pounds. Last year we didn’t shoot a single buck; we let them develop more. We’re seeing a lot more 140 and up-class animals. It’s a very healthy herd, and this year I think we’ll see a lot of 170-class animals.

That little guy in the picture is son Dakota, then just 10 months, a visitor back then to some of his dad’s hunting sites and sometimes a backpacked scout on other pre-hunting forays into the woods. Now almost 2 and a half, Dakota, who has been fishing since he was in a stroller, is heading out duck and turkey hunting with his dad this year. “My wife Heather seems to think he’s a little young, so she’ll be coming along, but Dakota is into turkey, bucks, ducks and geese. His favorite television shows are hunting shows. I think he’s ready,” says Compton, laughing, who still believes in an old adage he heard from his grandfather: “You never have to hunt for a boy who hunts.”

When Compton signed on to American Central Transport, he told them, “I’ll run my butt off all week long for you, but I’ve got be home weekends.” And he is. “It’s an extremely good place to be working,” he says. ACT recruiter Chad Still calls Compton a great guy, “even though he drives a pink truck.” Which brings a response from Compton destined to become a trucker classic: “It’s not pink – it’s fuchsia.”

Got a picture of you with your trophy game or fish? Send a copy to John Latta at Truckers News, 3200 Rice Mine Road, Tuscaloosa, AL 35406, and it might be featured in a future Great Outdoors section.