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A Montana Monster

Posted by Ford Van Fossan on

First Lite received this report recently from our buddy, Josh Kuntz. For context, Josh is a native Montanan, an Idaho BHA Co-Chair and a highly accomplished backcountry hunter.

Gents,

The opening weekend of the Montana rifle season this year proved eventful indeed. The week before I hunted near McCall, Idaho and I passed on a few easy shot opportunities on a small muley buck and three trophy class Texas Longhorns. No shit, those crazy-horned bastards were up on top of a mountain hanging out in 3 inches of snow. I'm not going to lie, I thought long and hard about how sweet it would be to have a Euro-mounted longhorn in the living room. But the legal ramifications of killing a rancher's prize cow and picturing my wife filing divorce papers were enough to keep my trigger finger at bay.

Thursday afternoon I boogied towards Montana and turned up a hot date with a redhead on Adult Friend Finder. The smokin' ginger fed me a few beers at Lolo Peak Brewing, clearly trying to get me drunk and take advantage of me. Thanks again for the beers Ty , your beard has never looked better.

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Friday morning I bought my Montana deer and elk tags, stuffed down a burrito and met up with my good buddy Tim, who also happens to be the new Hunting Sales Manager of Mystery Ranch Packs. We hauled ass to our favorite trailhead and were pleased to find the trail had no recent footprints or horse tracks. Friday evening we setup a camp a few miles in, then glassed and only managed to spot whitetails, one of which was a promising buck.

Saturday morning was the opener and our plan of sitting on a central ridge looked genius as we had 50-70 elk and a bull moose running our way about 9 minutes into legal shooting light. The lead cow was apparently a masochist of some sort, as she turned the herd and lead them all straight up into some nasty burned timber well beyond our shooting range. Thankfully I didn't have to admit to Tim that chasing elk uphill through burned deadfall was not at the top of my Christmas list. Instead, it made sense to focus on the 3 whitetail bucks that were on a leisurely stroll directly towards us. One was clearly a shooter and I was in a prime position. The one snafu was that he bedded down about 75 yards into private property, clearly mocking me as I repeatedly ranged him at 200 yards. We decided to bail off the ridge and still hunt through a prime bedding area just below us. Even though we had perfect wind and our ninja skills were primed we blew out a dozen or so whitetails during the first hour of tippy-toeing around. That's when we ran into the first area of the old burn and commenced the laughable task of navigating thousands of downed, burned trees that were hiding in tightly packed, nipple high, new growth pines. Brutal.

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We decided to make a big move, hiking around some private property and heading into the adjacent Wilderness area, home to the largest mule deer I have ever killed (2012). Much to our dismay, we spied 8 horses tied to trees in the spot we were headed. I began softly speaking to the horses from a short distance and two rotund pumpkin bodies rolled out from behind a log to "greet" us. As suspected, these 2 guys were hunters with an outfitter. Their combined weight was nearly that of my Chevy truck and they informed us they were from West Virginia and there were 4 other hunters and 2 guides "WAY UP OVER THAT HORRIBLE RIDGE". These 2 good ol boys had attempted the Everest-like ascent of said ridge but turned back about 50 yards in because it was too difficult. I peppered these guys with questions and learned that most stereotypes of West Virginia were based on these 2 guys. The fatter and younger fella looked like the lovechild of Chris Farley and Larry the Cable guy and he was completely dumbfounded to learn that we had walked all the way in there and were camping out of our backpacks. Clearly befuddled, he asked, "what in the world do you use to heat your tent?" Every ounce of me wanted to say something about Brokeback Mountain, but he was armed and from West Virginia, so I kept my pretty mouth shut and we moved along.

Seventeen minutes later we heroically crested the "ridge of death" and found the 6 other guys sitting in a circle in the dead center of a giant treeless meadow. We chatted them up and then dropped off the other side to a basin containing a few lakes and a nice meadow. We set camp again and spread out to cover the meadows for the evening. Tim elected to pass on three small whitetail bucks. I glassed up a very nice bull about 1 mile away and up a distant ridge, about 300 yards from where we had camped in previous years. That night, some sort of polar vortex moved in and the tent had nearly formed ice by the time we finished dinner and crawled in to the quilts.  I have night terrors occasionally and Tim was treated to some high decibel moaning in the middle of the night. The performance reached its zenith when I sat bolt upright in the middle of the night,  bumped my head on the icy tent wall and created a snow shower inside the tent.  This kind of unplanned entertainment in the middle of the night (in grizzly country) is perhaps the reason there is not a huge line of friends asking to go hunting with me.

Walking

Anyhow, Sunday morning was colder than a witches titty and we spent the first few hours overlooking an empty meadow. Visions of the big bull from the previous night and my big 5x6 muley from 2012 danced in my head as we made our plan. Around 9:30am we headed into another burned area but luckily it was devoid of new-growth pine and we only had to step over deadfall about 30% of the time. There was very little wind and being quiet was damn tough in the jumble of burned trees but fortunately Tim and I each honed our sneaky skills back in our 20's making silent retreats from the bedrooms of Bozeman's cougar population. Moments after re-shouldering our packs from a quick break I noticed a body materialize about 35 yards to my left. Tim was only a few steps away but was looking the other way, probably recalling a fond Bozeman cougar memory. Without a conscience thought about doing so, I was looking through the scope and with a small turn of the head I saw the antlers I was looking for. The body was obscured by trees but at 35 yards my crosshairs were dead solid on the neck when I pulled the trigger. It was all over in an instant.

The pack out was 3 miles, the first of which took over an hour to negotiate; some of the worst blowdown and new-growth I have ever had the misfortune of finding. But it was worth it for this great animal.

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Best and happy hunting,

Josh

Josh Kuntz lives in Boise and hunts across Idaho and Montana. He currently serves as a Co-Chair for the Idaho Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

The Backcountry

Posted by Ford Van Fossan on
2016-04-23 005 Getting away from it all is not always easy. Photo:  Author.

Born and raised in northern Michigan, my opportunities to hunt the West growing up amounted to a few rifle hunts near my uncle's cabin in Montana.  Although the trips were eye-opening, the regimented course of daily events largely followed the same pattern I experienced hunting whitetail in my native state.  Up early, hit the woods, search for game, then back under a roof at night for a good meal and hot shower.  Rinse, repeat.  The same process engrained in many a young hunter.

Fast forward a decade, or two, I found myself a permanent resident of the left coast.  About the time I settled in to my new life as an Oregonian, thoughts of chasing elk, blacktail, and bear had crept in.  One afternoon I found myself staring at large green rectangles on a map and flipping through the pages of a bowhunting magazine. Prominently, displayed on the cover was a successful hunter, pack bulging with antler and flesh from a trophy bull. In that moment, I struggled to connect the dots.

A path from my couch to the top of the mountain was unclear.  Unsure of myself, or where to begin, I saw a few more seasons slip past before I started the climb.  I now know I was not alone, as more recent conversations with both hunter and non-hunter alike regarding my passion for the backcountry are met with questioning looks and lost stares.  I believe all possess a desire to connect with the wilderness, yet the false need for convenience and familiarity often overpowers.

As I eventually discovered, there is no secret.  Make a conscious decision to get out and experience whatever the mountain has to offer, tackling your fears and questions head on.  Be warned, the path will present adventure and challenge guaranteed to invoke a full spectrum of human emotion.  Joy. Pain. Solitude.  Enlightenment.  Each extremely rewarding in its own right, and lending to an addiction for the experiences that can only be discovered where few care to tread.  Unfortunately, I cannot help tackle the individual mental barriers associated with making this choice, but I can share some resources I found helpful in my journey.

2016-07-09 026 Backcountry food supplement. Photo: Author.

Ask, and you shall receive.

Regrettably, interactions with hunters outside my circle of family and friends were largely adversarial growing up.  A relationship bred from too many people, too little land.  It was not uncommon to spend half the day hunting, and the other patrolling a property line.  As a result, I was hesitant to seek help from others when an interest in western hunting piqued.  I am pleased, and proud, to report my concerns eroded with each conversation, tip, and question answered from the hunters who were well-versed in the practice of mountain hunting.  As they well knew, and I have come to understand, educating others is the best way to protect our hunting heritage, and ultimately is the foundation of conservation.  There is strength in numbers, and through welcoming others into the family we will preserve the opportunities backcountry hunters are passionate about and live for.  Whether novice or expert, do not be afraid to ask for advice from veterans who live and breathe the lifestyle.

If you are fortunate enough to live "out west," the local watering hole may be a great place to strike up a conversation, but there are other resources full of useful information readily accessible to all.  Backcountry Hunters and Anglers is a great place to start.  BHA is an organization of sportsmen committed to protecting public lands, public access, and the wildlife within through education and promoting ethical use.  BHA is also a great way to connect with hunters of a shared interest.  With chapters across the country, from New York to Oregon, there are regular opportunities to meet & greet in your neck of the woods.  I encourage anyone interested in learning more about backcountry hunting to seek them out, and start making those worthy connections

2016-04-23 015 Dogs can sometimes (but not always) make great companions in the backcountry. Photo: Author.

Do your homework.

An invaluable resource I was fortunate to discover early in my quest for knowledge was the Rokslide community (www.rokslide.com). Particularly the forums were, and continue to be, the best location on the web to review and share all aspects of western DIY style hunting.  There is virtually no limit to the amount information at your fingertips, increasing daily, available via the dedicated contributors who frequent this digital “camp fire” style venue.  As a source supported and frequented by many of the top companies and hunters in the industry, it is simply the premier backcountry resource for up-to-date gear information, hunting tactics, or debates regarding the existence of Bigfoot.

I would also be remiss if I did not mention the top result returned when I first searched the term "backcountry bowhunting" several years ago, and in fact remains true to this day.  Backcountry Bowhunting: A Guide to the Wild Side by Cameron Hanes.  One of the first publications of its kind, tailored to a specific audience of hunters interested in learning how to hunt, scout, and mentally prepare for the challenge of backcountry bowhunting.  In large part this book is responsible for my first solo hunting trips, and continues to be a great read for anyone starting the journey.

While on the topic of literature, the works of Steve Rinella come highly recommended.  Although I fumbled through many of my first attempts at hunting unfamiliar game, boning meat, and preparing wild meat, you will have better luck after reading The Complete Guide to Hunting, Butchering, and Cooking Wild Game: Volume 1: Big Game.  It is a valuable tool I have referred to many times since release.  If only it had been available when I began, a few of my early blunders could have been avoided.  The remainder of Rinella's collection caters to the soul, offering insight into the history and circumstances that make-up the modern hunter.   Take one along on your next trip to pass the time in camp, and you will not be disappointed.

It makes no difference where you reside; resources are at your disposal waiting to bridge the gap between uncertainty and confidence.  It is up to you to seek them out.

2016-07-10 038 Getting deeper than the competition can yield impressive critters. Photo: Author.

Gear Up.

I hold great admiration for the pioneers who pushed the boundaries of this country toward the Pacific.  In fact, my growing interest in backcountry hunting led to a thirst for knowledge surrounding the legendary hunters and trappers that opened up the west.  Colter, Bridger, and Beckwourth to name a few.   The feats performed by the men of this era, despite resources of the time, are nothing short of amazing.  I would be lying if I did not admit romanticizing about being born a century earlier; where not only was it possible make a living off hunting and trapping, but those skills were a necessary part every American’s life.  Of course, reality sinks in upon recalling the average life expectancy during this tumultuous time was a mere 37 years, and much lower for those enduring the mountain.  Yet, I still believe there is great value in remembering the lessons of a more primitive world as we reap the rewards that culminated as a product of its success and failure.  Technology.

In truth, we are living in an amazing time for the aspiring backcountry hunter.  Just in my lifetime, the explosion of hunt specific equipment is unprecedented, as improvements in everything from navigation to clothing have opened up new opportunities for anyone seeking

to explore those hard to reach locales and return home safely.   In a relatively short period of time, the progression of my personal gear rivals the antler growth of a trophy bull.  Each season adding, or upgrading, key pieces that mark lessons learned along the way.  Some may shun the idea of these new tools available to our trade, and while I would agree that no amount of gear can guarantee a fruitful harvest, the right equipment is essential for those who measure success based on miles traveled and time spent in wonderful places.

I advise you invest wisely, as often times the items carried on your back are the only resources available once your hunt extends beyond a day’s reach of the closest road or trailhead.  A pack comfortable handling a heavy load, supportive boots, warm sleep systems, and clothing that lends versatility to any foreseen environment.  I believe that gear should never hold you back, and you get what you pay for.  Although there is some value in learning the hard way, the right equipment is worth its weight in venison backstrap.  If I had better words, I would use them here, however, First Lite’s vision “Go Farther, Stay Longer” sums it up perfectly.  Utilize the tools at your disposal to push personal limits, and unfold the mysteries of your wilderness.

2016-07-09 041 (1) Though it requires planning and experience, time in the backcountry is irreplaceable. Photo: Author.

In closing, I hope this inspires and helps.  As difficult as it once was, I am now comfortable admitting the obstacles that prevented me from engaging in a pursuit I can no longer live without.  Do not fall prey to those same mistakes.  I do not know it all and, in fact, take comfort that I never will.  For the same challenge and anxiety once holding me back, is now the motivation to discover what is upon the next ridge, at the bottom of an adjacent draw, or simply beyond the next two pines in my path.

Pro Staffer Chad Harvey lives in Oregon and hunts across the Northwest. 

Packs Heavy: Highlights from Expedition NZ by Doug Stuart

Posted by Ford Van Fossan on
DSC01537_600_451 "USA." The author and First Lite's Ford Van Fossan showing off their patriotism in New Zealand's backcountry.

Go hunting in New Zealand and you’ll have the trip of a lifetime. You’ll also have far less cash when it’s over. Between the flights, the rental car, the food, the helicopter rides, and the hostels, the costs add up quickly.

Which begs the question: as a hunter, how do you justify such a trip?

 For the first few days, Ford and I each felt the pressure of this question. One answer was  obvious: shoot something. Yet obviously, there is more to hunting than killing.  Ford mentioned at one point that hunting was really just a way to experience New Zealand’s rugged high country. But I still caught myself mentally rehearsing how I would explain to friends without hunting backgrounds that I didn’t bag anything. I planned to go with the classic it’s-called-hunting-not-shooting line.

In the end, we wouldn’t need to do any explaining. We were lucky enough to each bag a chamois. And those successes freed us up to realize a simple truth about this country. Whether you’re shooting a chammy or just taking the guns for a walk, New Zealand does not disappoint.

 

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 “Are you the hunters?”

A friendly-looking man with a mustache, short shorts, and crocs asks us this question as he approaches our car. We’ve just driven two and a half hours to the tiny town of Makarora deep in the Southern Alps of the South Island to meet up with someone named Harvey, a helicopter pilot who will fly us into the backcountry. After driving with nothing more than a handwritten map from a friend and instructions to “ask for Harvey,” we can’t believe our luck -- our how small New Zealand can sometimes feel amidst these millions of acres of wilderness. This guy is our pilot.

DSC01648_600_451 "The chammy are thick in this valley." Ford and "Helicopter" Harvey Hutton, of Backcountry Helicopters, in the Airbus Squirrel.

We load the gear into a small, blue helicopter -- the same one First Lite’s founders Scott Robinson and Kenton Carruth used on their trip to NZ -- and we take off toward the nearest mountain top.

If there had been a soundtrack playing at that moment, it would have been the theme song to Jurassic Park. As we crest the top of the mountain, we come into a gorgeous valley bound by jagged peaks and with a glacial river snaking below. New Zealand has not disappointed.

P1040850_600_451 "Be here Monday at 10 am." The author stays low as the helicopter lifts off.

We fly around a few more bends until we land at a public hut where we’ll be staying for the next few days. “Be here Monday at 10 am,” Harvey says in a way that is at once supremely casual and deadly serious. Then he lifts off and flies away. Good thing Ford has a watch.

Over the next few days, we hunt hard. On the first morning, Ford spots a beautiful 4x4  stag bedded down on a the mountainside. But after a long stalk, we spook him and the stag melts away into the bush. It’s disappointing, especially since we did not connect with a stag on our hunt the previous week despite spotting several hinds and a dandy 5X5. I again think about what I’ll tell my friends back home if I return with nothing.

P1040858_600_451 "Backcountry Lux." Public huts are scattered throughout New Zealand's remote high county.

The next day we decide to make for a hanging valley we flew over on the flight in -- the one where the next sequel to Jurassic Park will be filmed. However, to get there will require us to climb up a steep gorge through thick jungle.

After an hour of hiking up the right side of the river, New Zealand defeats us. The brush is too thick, and we’re forced to turn back. Painfully, we retrace our steps and eventually find a spot on the river that can be crossed. We drop our packs, and I hop over the stream onto a high rock and hoist myself up. Ford hands me the packs and the guns, and then follows.

We then do some scouting and finally find a path outside the stream -- that leads into large bushes that are almost, but not quite, too thick to pass through. We throw ourselves at the small openings between the bushes and slowly gain ground against the mountain. It feels like we’re football players tackling practice dummies.

Finally, after another couple hours and a few hotspots, we can see the steep glacial fans Harvey said would hold chammy. We sit down to rest, eat a quick lunch, and start glassing.

Within minutes, we spot the first alpine chamois either of us has ever laid eyes on. On the very top of the high chute in front of us, we spot three of them. After closer inspection with the spotting scope, we revise that number to five. Then one of us notices that two chutes over, there are 3 chammy grazing quietly. And there’s a buck in the chute in between them.

P1040947_600_451 "Chammy valley." Harvey was not wrong about the numbers of chamois in this hanging valley.

Did we mention that New Zealand doesn’t disappoint?

 We plan our attack. At this point, the two groups have more or less merged into the chute on the left. We decide to move up the spine of the hill below the chammy as this will offer us plenty of cover until we get close enough for a shot. After crossing to the base of the hillside, we drop everything we don’t need. The light packs feel good, and more than anything, we’re ready to do this. It’s maybe 3 pm, we have plenty of daylight left, and we’re downwind from the chammy. Perfect.

We climb quickly in our excitement, doing our best to stay out of sight but also continually checking that the chammy haven’t moved away. Finally, we get within range and chamber a round. We creep closer. Ford is in front of me, and we’re about to get up and move again when suddenly a buck appears on the horizon, looking in our direction.

We freeze. Ford slowly sets down his gun on its tripod and takes aim. Behind Ford, I don’t move as I don’t want to scare away the bull. Ford pulls the trigger, and -- despite boxes of rounds at the range over the past months -- misses completely.

 All hell breaks loose. It’s like Big Buck Hunter. Chamois in the distance run up and over the top of the mountain. The buck bolts away but a doe comes into view.  She runs down the hill along the ridge line and stops. Ford fires again and finds redemption. She’s down.

P1040963_600_451 "We did it." The alpine chamois.

We’ve done it. Though we had already philosophically justified a no-kill hunt to ourselves, I don’t think either of us had truly gotten rid of our fear of failure.  A 168 grain bullet banishes the we’ve-come-all-this-way sentiment in an instant. Though it shouldn’t have mattered, the joy of our accomplishment was undeniable.

After some less than brief celebrations, some self-congratulatory comments (“and they said we needed a guide”), and more than a few photos for First Lite, we get to work quartering the critter. Then, with heavy packs and both trekking poles finally in hand, we descend the slope to make camp.

That night, we put aside our packets of dehydrated food and reach instead for fresh meat. We start with the tenderloin and take a minute to spice the meat before cooking it. Being the proud Marylander that he is, Ford has brought Old Bay Seasoning all the way to New Zealand. And it pays off tonight. We rub the meat with salt and pepper, pour some oil in our pan, and sear it over the WhisperLite.

DSC01577_600_455 "Salt, pepper and Old Bay Season." After days of dehydrating meals, seared chamois was a welcome change.

The tenderloin is a little gamey but the backstrap is out of this world. We hang the quarters under a rocky overhang next to our tent (No predators in New Zealand) and retire for a hard sleep.

The next morning, we wake up feeling victorious. And why wouldn’t we? We came to New Zealand on a hunting trip, and we’ve just harvested an animal  successfully. Our trip is validated. But I realize that while our trip is justified, my personal trip is not.

I live in Washington, D.C. -- no one’s picture of mountain country.  Most of my friends have never fired a gun before, let alone hunted. To many, this trip sounded pretty lavish, and so I felt even more pressure to make good on my reasons for flying all the way to New Zealand. To top it off, I don’t have nearly as much experience hunting as Ford does. Coming back empty-handed would make the whole trip look foolish. Why did I think I could step up into the big leagues so soon?

So now that Ford’s bagged a chammy, I’m itching to do the same. The next morning we eat neck meat for breakfast and get to glassing   And eventually, we spot chammy in the same chute they were in the day before. However, we don’t have a ton of time left since we’ll need to head back to the hut today -- a 4-5 hour hike out with at least one chammy on our backs. And it’s already about 11:00 am.

DSC01500_600_451 "The view." New Zealand's scenery never failed to impress.

Our plan of attack is essentially the same as yesterday’s. We climb the mountain quickly, and I’m already planning just how I’ll hold the chammy in my grip-and-grin photo. We should get the valley in the background, I think.

 Finally, we’re in range of a chammy. Ford sights her in at 177 yards. She’s standing on the spine of a hill, broadside. I couldn’t ask for a better chance. I can practically already taste the meat. I lay my gun on my pack, and prep the shot. I pull the trigger. It’s a clean shot -- into the air above her.

If you’re ever looking to have a soul-searching moment, spend months training for a costly trip to a country halfway around the world and fail at your main goal. Everything I had been working toward was summarized in that one shot. A search for blood confirms that I’ve missed her completely.

It’s noon now. We’re running out of time. Even if I had gotten the doe, we’d be rushing to quarter her, get back to camp, pack up our tent and gear, and then make the 4-5 hour back to our hut before nightfall. We hike back down to the valley floor and talk about what to do. The sensible thing would be to pack out now and have a leisurely walk back. But Ford, I think, senses how bummed I am, and we agree to see if we can find another chammy and give ourselves -- or rather me -- one more chance.

Once again, New Zealand delivers. We find three chammy up high in a chute on the other side of the valley. They’re feeding almost up against where the grass ends and the rock of the mountain face begins.

So we get going. We move up quickly until we’re about 300 yards below them. Then we start to creep up. But we failed to realize from the valley floor that there are folds in the hillside. So we keep peeking above a fold expecting to see the chammy, and see nothing.

Finally, we’re about to hit the end of the chute. We’re starting to think that maybe the chammy moved on while we were hiking up. We crawl up over this last bend when Ford becomes motionless. He’s spotted the bedded chammy about 60 yards away, and it’s looking right at us. We hold our positions for several minutes. Then I  hand Ford my pack, and he rests it on the ground in front him. Slowly, I pull up beside him and rest the gun on the pack. I take a moment to zoom out my scope and get the doe in my crosshairs.

I pull the trigger. As I move the scope away from my face, my heart sinks. I see a chammy moving on the left. She’s running quickly over to another doe, and then they both effortlessly hop over the mountainside. There’s no way we can follow them.

I’m crushed. In the same day,  I’ve somehow missed two good chances to bag a chammy, the last one at 60 yards. We get up without talking and go look for blood. All the while, I begin to think about how I should probably just give up hunting -- or at least stick to the white tail deer of the east coast for the foreseeable future.

But as we walk up, we realize that we glassed three chammy from the valley floor but only saw two get up and leave. Sure enough, we then see the chammy. She’s down! It’s a clean shot through the boiler room. Celebrations ensue.

DSC01609_600_451 "The winning team." The author, his chammy and Ford pose for the self timer.

So we pack out happy and heavy, each with a chammy on his back. Our excitement is momentarily diminished over the next few hours by one of the most gruelling hikes that either of us has ever experienced. In an attempt to find a better route back to the hut, we take a chance and keep to the left of the river going down to the valley floor. It’s a big mistake, and we pay for it. The terrain is thick with trees, brush, and steep drop offs. For the last 200 yards, we slide down the forest floor with our packs above us, letting gravity pull us down.

Finally, we stumble out onto the valley floor. It’s about 7 pm, and although it’s starting to get cool, we are sweating too much to care. We hoist our packs back on, resume our internal celebrations, and head back to the hut. We collapse into bed, and in the morning, Harvey comes to get us in his helicopter. It’s been a good hunt.

DSC01638_600_451 "Ticket home." Doug and the chammy quarters wait for the Squirrel.

Now, we’re back home, each with a whole chammy in the freezer, waiting to be eaten. We already know we’ll be back to New Zealand sometime soon. But for now, we’re savoring the meat and the experience, and the truth that New Zealand does not disappoint.

Doug Stuart is an old high school buddy of First Lite's Ford Van Fossan. He lives in Washington D.C. but is currently plotting his return to the Mountain West.