Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Playing the hawk's game

Stekoa is normally a very co-operative hunting partner, following well and paying close attention to me and anyone else in our party. On our most recent outing, however, he was bolshie from the start.

We were working a riparian area, following a creek that feeds one of the Salt Valley Lakes, and we had had a successful hunt there just the previous weekend. I expected him to remember and follow with perhaps even more than the usual enthusiasm; instead, he took a perch overlooking the grass along the creek and proceeded to ignore me with an intensity that seemed quite deliberate. I of course worked the brush below him—when he is stubborn, it's generally for good reason, but in this case my diligent efforts produced no game—and then I tried to get my hawk back on the move. Still Stekoa sat.

Worse, he seemed to be paying more attention to the opposite side of the creek. On my side: open riparian woods with abundant quail and rabbit tracks in the snow. On the opposite side: just a few trees in a wide expanse of grass, an ideal habitat for mice and voles but marginal for anything else.

Mice and voles are an unavoidable aspect of hawking here, and I truly don't mind if Stekoa dabbles in mousing while we're afield, but it's not the reason I drag myself out of a warm house when the temperature is hovering in the single digits Fahrenheit. And on this particular afternoon, I'm afraid my temper began to fray about the edges, not that Stekoa would have known. I muttered dark threats and imprecations, alternating with what I hoped were encouraging exhortations to for crying out loud follow me down the creek in search of cottontails or even bobwhites.

And then he flew across to the other side.

My ire was not lessened by the fact that, despite the frigid temperatures, the creek right here was running clear, forcing me to backtrack to the road so I could cross at the bridge. And as I approached Stekoa, my suspicions were confirmed: the only tracks to be seen on this side were of small rodents. Happily, though, once I reached him he began to follow me, and in my wake he caught first a deer mouse and then a fat vole. Okay, some success and some warm calories for him.

The direction of our travels took us to a bend in the creek, where I was relieved to find that some combination of lower flows and deeper shade had produced walkable ice at this point. I crossed, and Stekoa followed. Now we were in rabbit country. Immediately we began finding sign; no quail now, but plenty of rabbit tracks and scat. Networks of tracks, in places merging into bunny highways. Tracks everywhere.

Tracks, but no bunnies. I worked through the woods, Stekoa tuned in to my efforts, but to no avail: the authors of the tracks were either underground or elsewhere, and we saw not a single rabbit where the previous weekend we had seen several.

As we continued downstream, the creek wound back and forth, now out of sight, now looping back toward us. And when we again found ourselves at the edge of the woods, overlooking a strip of Indian grass and little bluestem  growing along the creek, I realised I had a choice to make: continue an apparently futile search for traditional quarry, or play Stekoa's game and let him have some sport on mice.

I headed back upstream, beating the grass with my stick, and immediately had rodents on the move. Stekoa, watching from the trees at the edge, had numerous opportunities, and within just a few minutes had caught another vole and three more deer mice. He wasn't gently parachuting down on them, either, but launching himself from the trees, flying directly at me, and slamming decisively into the ground. Decent flights—more than decent, in fact. They were impressive, and I was glad to be reminded how versatile redtails are, how determined they are to survive, how thoroughly they seem to enjoy their work.

I was also starting to wonder just how long I should let this continue. Stekoa now had four mice and two voles in his crop, and while he was still eagerly watching my every move, I didn't want to push my luck too far. He launched again, flew at me, then rocketed past, his wings pumping hard, and veered back toward the trees. A rabbit had flushed, unseen and unheard by me, from the grass at my feet, and Stekoa bound to it at the edge of woods and riparian meadow.

Back at the car, as I finished field-dressing the rabbit, I raised my hand toward the cold, distant sun, laid it gently on the earth's snowy surface, and said my thanks—not just for the rabbit, but for the mice and voles; for the trees and grasses; for the chickadees and nuthatches foraging overhead; for the quail we hadn't seen but might next time; for all the life in these winter woods and fields. For all my relations—mitakuye oyasin. And I remembered again Sitting Bull's declaration that "When the buffalo are gone, we will hunt mice, for we are hunters and we want our freedom."

Monday, January 6, 2020

Ginger binger 2019

For the convenience of long-time readers (I think we still have a few) and newcomers alike, I've finally created a "ginger" label for easier access to previous editions of our New Year's Eve tasting of ginger beers and ginger ales. "Ginger binger 3" is the most comprehensive, complete with GB/GGA/DGA definitions; subsequent write-up have been limited to new entries, and this post will adhere to that format, so take a few moments to look back if you will; we'll be right here.

This year we (Jessa, Ellie, and myself) were joined by Jessica's sister Heather, a first-time ginger binger. And away we go...

We begin with a blast from the past. Our case of ginger sodas, for various reasons, is always a mix of old and new, and while we usually don't revisit a previous review, Ellie and Jessa insisted on one. I originally reviewed Dr. Brown's Original Ginger Ale in the second season of these reviews, and described it as "not a flavour standout". Ellie's verdict was far more blunt: "This one just makes me sad." Dr. Brown's actually does begin with a mild ginger bite—it is a DGA, after all— but the finish is nothing. "After the first sip, it's just water." I doubt Dr. Brown's finds its way into our box again.

On to the new...

Americana Honey Lime Ginger Beer has been a favourite of ours for years now, but it's taken us 'til now to encounter its straight-shooting, non-honey, non-lime sibling. Americana Ginger Beer, this one sweetened with pure cane sugar, has a nice golden/amber colour (though hidden in brown glass) and a fantastic flavour curve: smooth to start, but with a nice afterburn. (Ginger extract and other natural flavours, thank you very much.) Most similar, I thought, to what we still call Goose Island, but Jessa noted a similarity to Vernor's as well. By a narrow margin, the best of the new entries, and a very worthy stablemate to the Americana Honey Lime.

Australian Style Hot Ginger Ale appears to be a Rocket Fizz house brand, and as such definitely Australian style, not Australian, despite the prominent kangaroo. And like many American ginger sodas, it is miscategorised: a GA per the label, a GB in fact, with a GB's slight murkiness. It does have a good bite, but a surprisingly mild aftertaste. The most unique component, though, is a slight aroma of Play-Doh; when I mentioned this, Heather said with full conviction that it was actually closer to a green putty the girls' dad used on home improvement projects. Not unpleasant, but a bit odd, this—and certainly no match for Bundaberg or Buderim. Clear glass, cane sugar, natural flavours.

The most unique of this year's new entries, and perhaps the most eagerly anticipated, was Fever Tree Smoky Ginger Ale. In the bottle, it appeared to have a greyish cast, but it turned out to be a very golden ginger ale in a subtly tinted bottle. The trickery was quite unnecessary, as this GGA has a distinctive smoky taste, the ginger ale equivalent of lapsang souchong tea. This is a natural effect, as applewood-smoked water is used in its production. Ellie, who starting from her time in Oxford has become a minor gin aficionado, intuited that this would pair nicely with Hendrick's (which it did), but we rather enjoyed it straight as well—a campfire in a glass.

From the same source comes Fever Tree Spiced Orange Ginger Ale. If the Smoky Ginger Beer is lapsang souchong, then the Spiced Orange must be something like Constant Comment. It does have a prominent orange colour, scent, and flavour, along with heavy notes of cinnamon, but none of us felt that it made as good a stand-alone beverage as its smoky sister. (In fairness, it should be noted that Fever Tree's ginger ales are sold in small bottles, clearly intended as mixers.) All flavours natural, and sweetened with sugar, as is the Smoky Ginger Ale.

How in the world did we get this many years down the road without reviewing Jones Ginger Beer? Perhaps the brand's ubiquity caused it to be overlooked, and that's too bad for us. Like all of Jones' sodas, their ginger beer uses pure cane sugar and all-natural flavours; the result is a pleasantly musty GB with definite notes of like and lemon, reminiscent of a Caribbean brew. I shall try to keep a sharper eye henceforth.

And then the one that almost missed the boat. A friend from work kindly gifted me a bottle of Trader Joe's Triple Ginger Brew,—thanks, Karen!—but Jessa, apparently not realising I was saving it for New Year's Eve, thieved the bottle and shared it with Ellie and Heather in my absence. In the end, she redeemed herself by purchasing a new bottle—and what a bottle it is. Oversized (750 ml), green glass, fitted not with a standard bottle cap but a latching stopper. Extra points to Trader Joe's for presentation. And the brew? A lovely GB, cloudy and musty with real ginger root, sweetened with both sugar and honey, with diverse citrus notes from lemon, lime, and pineapple. A very good, very accessible GB.

And that's all for this go 'round. There are yet more out there, so watch this space...