Front Sight

I recently attended my first course at the Front Sight Firearms Training Institute about an hour west of Las Vegas. There was a short reference at the welcome talk to the sad situation in Connecticut the week before, but since every one needs to pass a background check before they can attend any course, the feeling was that those events had little bearing on our training.

Beyond the physical skills, there were lectures on mental awareness, morals and ethics of using firearms, criminal and civil liability, basic tactics. Dedicated professionals guiding us through lots of difficult topics to think about.

On the first day, everyone needs to get there by 6:30 am for check-in, though in December, the sun doesn’t come up until 7, so it’s still dark. The week I was there it got down to freezing and only briefly up to the mid 50’s with wind, overcast, sun and even some rain. Last classes ended at 6pm, an hour after dark. That’s dawn to dusk outside for 4 days with a few hours for lunch and lectures. Not on my feet the whole time, but the days were fairly exhausting.

Most of the handgun students have unloaded weapons holstered on their belts while walking around and in classes and at lunch. And while people with an irrational fear of guns may be panicked with a mental picture of over 400 men and women, aged 16 to 80, in an undisciplined mob of gun nuts randomly firing in every direction, nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve rarely felt safer.

No one but uniformed range staff is actually walking around with loaded weapons in their holsters. All of the student firing is done as part of well controlled drills. Every action is done on an instructor’s command. Safety first and last.

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Our 4 day rifle class had about 50 people and a third of them were prior or current military. An Army Special Forces and a Navy Seal, a group heading into the Nevada National Guard, a few police and fire fighters, all used the course as a refresher. The rest were hunters and target shooters, etc. One 16 year old, several pairs of brothers and one couple. Most were shooting AR-15s, two had ARs in 308, there was an AK-47 and a bolt action 30-06.

There were 4-6 instructors on the range at all times. The lead instructor did 2 tours in Iraq with the US Army and 2 more in Afghanistan with the NV Guard. Three of the others were either Iraq or Afghanistan vets. All were very good at teaching gun safety and the handling and shooting techniques of the course. We practiced shots at 3, 15, 25, 50, 100, 200 and 400 yards.

The 50 students were divided into 2 relays. The lead instructor is behind the line of students shouting commands, so it does seem sort of like boot camp to a civilian, but you have the option of sitting out any exercise, and no one tells you to do pushups as a punishment. Certainly no one is barking insults in your face. Everyone is trying to help everyone do their best. Any safety lapse however will get quick personal attention. Students are encouraged to watch out for safety and help each other.

The targets are all silhouettes with thoracic cavity (upper chest area) and head boxes. I found this a bit morbid, since I mostly shoot at pumpkins and paper targets with circles, but these instructors are combat veterans. When they teach you how to clear a malfunction, the emphasis in on proper technique and speed so you can get back into the gun fight and kill the enemies shooting at you.

The first important thing to learn are the 4 basic rules of gun safety:
1) always treat every gun as if it is loaded.
2) never point a gun at anything you are not willing to destroy.
3) keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to fire.
4) know your target and what is behind it.

The first half of the first day, no one shoots anything, just lots of practice with carrying positions, ready positions, and transitions between them with constant emphasis on muzzle discipline, which is #2 above – your rifle is always pointed in a safe direction.

There are two ways to sling the rifle for carrying – muzzle up or muzzle down. And 3 kinds of “ready” – standard ready, high ready, field ready. In all of these positions the rifle’s safety switch is on, the students finger is straight out, not contacting the trigger, and the muzzle is pointing mostly forward toward the target at a slight angle.

On the 1st and 2nd day, firing exercises are not timed. On the 3rd day, they start timing them and on the 4th day there is a skills test where everything is timed and scored. Time includes movement from the ready position, aiming and firing.

Every time the rifle is fired is part of a firing drill with an instructor giving
detailed commands. There is no random free form fire at will.

For example:

“EVERYONE EYES AND EARS” – Eyes means impact resistant glasses for eye protection. Ears means electronic hearing protection that allows the wearer to hear normal speech but cuts out high volume sounds like gun shots.

“RELAY ONE FACE DOWN RANGE”

time between each command so everyone can follow

“RANGE IS CLEAR”
“DRY PRACTICE DRILL” – do not load magazines
“THIS IS A DRY PRESS TO THORACIC CAVITY FROM THE FIELD READY” – directions on what to aim at and the starting ready position
“LINE IS SET”

move into position for standing, kneeling, sitting, squatting, lying prone, etc.
All foot motion should be stopped before the ready command.

“FROM THE FIELD READY”
“PRESS” – Push the safety switch to FIRE, mount (pull the rifle into your cheek), aim and smoothly pull the trigger. Hold for a second, rifle comes back down, look both ways, and set the safety to SAFE.

Or for live fire:

“RANGE IS CLEAR”
“FIRING DRILL” – time to insert a magazine, safety is set to SAFE.

“THIS IS A SINGLE SHOT TO THORACIC CAVITY FROM THE HIGH READY” – directions on what to aim at and the starting ready position

“LINE IS SET”
“FROM THE HIGH THE READY”
“FIRE” – Push the safety switch to FIRE, mount (pull the rifle into your cheek), aim and smoothly pull the trigger. Hold for a second, rifle comes back down, look both ways, swap magazines and set the safety to SAFE.

“AGAIN”

directions for the shot, set, ready, fire.

This repeats for 3 or 6 shots with variations of the 3 ready positions and then stops.

“END OF DRILL”
“SAFETY ON AND UNLOAD” – take out the magazine and empty the chamber
“UNLOAD”
“CLEAR AND SLING” – chamber check, magazine check
“WHEN SLUNG, TURN AND FACE” – at this point no rifle is loaded

After a few hours of this routine, it becomes second nature. You wouldn’t dream of moving your muzzle away from down range until it was unloaded, with a clear chamber, and no magazine. Then it moves up or down to the vertical safe direction, then properly slung. Then you can turn around to face your relay partner.

When the whole line is facing back away from the targets with rifles slung,
the instructor will tell everyone in that relay:

“RANGE IS CLEAR”
“CHECK AND TAPE”

The half of the students who just shot will walk down the range to check their accuracy and cover those holes with tape, while the next half get ready for their turns.

Everyone who went down the range to check comes back, with an instructor doing a sweep being the last to get back, to make sure no one is left in font of the firing line, and the process starts again. It takes a while for each pass of the shooting drills to be done, but the rigid discipline of loading and unloading, clearing the rifles and the range, ensures that everything is done safely.

There’s obviously much more to a 4 day class, but this should give a general idea of what to expect. I had a lot of fun, learned a lot and will definitely come back for more courses in the future.

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Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon deserves a post of its own. I reserved a full day, and that was barely enough to scratch the surface of this amazing landscape.

The main geological feature is the “Hoodoo”, the name they give the sandstone spires. Bryce has about 100 days per year where the water in the rock freezes over night and thaws during the day. Each of these cycles breaks away some of the rock because the ice takes up more room. Some rock erodes away and the spires are left.

This panorama is of Inspiration Point (pardon the different shades of blue sky, forgot to exposure lock).

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This arch is called Natural Bridge:

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Agua Canyon:

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The Queen’s Garden and Navajo Loop Trail

These are two trails that intersect so that you can do both as a single 3 mile loop. I started down the Navajo Loop Trail, a switchback down a steep slope:


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and into Wall Street, which reminded me a bit of Antelope Canyon:

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The Queen’s Garden is the real gem, the trail meanders through a canyon full of hoodoos like giant chess pieces standing above you in rows. You can take a shorter hike just down to the garden and back up without the Navajo Loop.


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Cool Geology in Utah

Too much traveling and not enough writing…

In early December, I did a whirl-wind tour of four national parks in Utah. Of course, one could  spend a lot more time exploring each of these, and I may come back to do so in a warmer season. In early December there is snow on the ground and the peaks, and the night-time temperatures are getting well below freezing.

I started with Capitol Reef (see below) then went east to Moab for Arches and Canyonlands, then came back west for Bryce Canyon. I might have gone to Zion as well, but I had already been there once, and by then it was time to be heading home.

There are eroded sandstone arches in many places throughout the southwest, but there are a bunch of them in a relatively small area in Arches National Park. Many are accessible from the road, but it still takes the better part of a day to see all of those. There are others that require hiking.

This is the Double Arch:
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Canyonlands is enormous and only the small Island in the Sky section is easily accessible. This is a plateau above a vast plain with deep canyons carved by rivers:


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Here is one of the canyons:


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Geek Gets Gardening

It took a long time before I had any interest in growing any food on my land. I live on the Monterey side of the mountain, so agriculture is all around, but I was focused north to Silicon Valley. I loved the forest, but felt no need to add to nature.

Then around 2009, during the lowest part of the recession, in the context of victory gardens and subsistence farming, someone asked “how much of your own food do you grow?” and I thought “Well none, but I have the room and lots of sun, so I suppose I could”.

The year before that a friend had started keeping honey bees and had more honey than he knew what to do with. I bought a few gallons of it tried my hand at brewing some mead, so I guess I was already beginning to think along some homesteading sorts of lines.

That’s when I heard about “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. The book talks about the travesty of mega monoculture American chemical fertilizer pesticide farming and the prevalence of low nutrient corn in our food supply. And corn-fed beef? Cattle evolved to eat grass, not corn. Later he describes a farmer in Virginia named Joel Salatin who does things in a completely different way, with “salad bar beef” and “chicken tractors”. And it turns out that Salatin has written many books about his methods.

Instead of turning out a herd of cattle onto a fixed piece of land and letting them nibble it to dust, Joel uses moveable fences to let them into very small sections every day. The grass is lush because it hasn’t been grazed for months. The cows go crazy for this salad bar of fresh grass. The next day, the cows get a new area of fresh grass, and a few days later he brings in the chickens in large moveable flat pens. Chickens love to scratch the ground and they prefer to eat bugs over more typical grain based feeds. They particularly love the plump 4 day old fly larvae in the cow pies right before they hatch, and will happily spread out the large clumps searching for those delicacies. The scratching and spreading helps to accelerate the process of bringing nutrients into the soil.

This synergy struck my systems engineering mind as truly wonderful. I wasn’t ready for chickens and cows, but I definitely wanted to know more. I bought Joel’s “You Can Farm” to get an overview of family farming, and then his book on pastured poultry, plus “Happy Cows and Hog Heaven”, and “Everything I Want to Do is Illegal”. I got “Grass Fed Cattle” by Julius Ruechel, who raises cattle in Canada, to see things from a different author’s point of view, though I think these two are pretty much on the same page, even if working on different scales.

My ambitions were pretty much limited to vegetable gardens, so it was time to see about soils and compost and the like. “Life in the Soil” by James Nardi starts tiny with microbes and fungus and works all the way up to ground squirrels. There’s a lot more going on down there than we imagine. “Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind” by Gene Logsdon explains how farmers in America today are paying good money to throw away gold and spending more to buy junk food for their soils. Never insult the soil by calling it dirt.

The first season I grew enough to get hooked – snow peas, carrots, broccoli, onions, pumpkins, watermelons and some corn. Fences keep the deer out, but the birds seem to love the early sprouts and can wipe out new plantings of just about everything, so some kind of netting is in order. This year I added potatoes, zucchini, romaine, and string beans. Peppers (bell and jalapeno) are still elusive. And this winter I’m building a PVC hoop style green house to see what I can grow in a place that rarely freezes.

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Capitol Reef National Park I

I only had time to cover the Scenic Drive and Capitol Gorge Wash in the upper part of the park on Monday. It was getting dark on my way out. I plan to go back to see the famous “Waterpocket Fold” section further south later in the week.

At the end of the road, the Capitol Gorge Wash looks like any other dirt road. But the signs warn of flash flood danger when it rains. Then like most washes in the southwest, it’s essentially a short lived desert river, not a good place to be in a storm.

The wash is accessible by any ordinary car, and it winds downhill through shear-walled canyons with some very strange rock formations. Some with  familiar red sandstone and others with giant holes, all formed by erosion.
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Road Maintainence

One of the joys of living in an out of the way place is unpaved gravel roads and driveways. It’s good to have a pickup truck to haul the rock needed for repairs. Note that potholes look a lot bigger when you stand next to them with a shovel.

The rainy season has begun and there’s a big storm coming soon, so I got an important task done today, cleaning out the culverts on the driveway. This is a neat design that a friend figured out. All the pieces are pressure treated lumber, 2×6 on the bottom and 2×4 on the sides, with a few spacers to hold the sides apart. Set them diagonally across the road so that there is some slope to let the water flow to the side of the road.

There are engineered plastic modules with removable grates that do the same thing, but those are quite expensive. When the lumber version starts to degrade after a decade or two, they will be easy to replace.
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Antelope Canyon

I don’t remember how I first heard about this place, but it has been on my photo safari list ever since. Made from sandstone and carved by millions of years of desert flash floods, the upper and lower Antelope Canyons are on Navajo land south of Lake Powell in Page, Arizona.

After a few miles of bumps, the road dead ends at a 50 foot wall with a large vertical crack. It’s noticeably cooler inside, the floor is flat beach white sand. The light seems to promise more secrets within.

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They say the light beams are better earlier in the year. This one at the end of October is still pretty fantastic.


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The “photo tour” is longer (about 2 hours) and our guide was knowledgeable about where the great shots were and how to photograph various scenes, as well as the canyon itself. Faces of humans and animals and unknown creatures abound.


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The rocks are cold sandstone, but the light from above seems to make them glow. The colors evoke memories of flames, molten metals or ceramics in the oven.


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Lake Powell

More photos from my recent Arizona trip. Most of Lake Powell is actually in Utah, but I was staying in Page, where I planned to take a photo tour of Antelope Canyon.

At first I was really annoyed that the boat was going to ruin a perfect deep blue flat water reflection shot. The ripples actually add a nice touch.


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Horseshoe Bend

There are some truly amazing photos of this place on the web. The one on the Colorado River in Arizona, not the battle site in Alabama.

The spot you need to stand to get the whole bend is quite spooky, like a little diving board to a thousand foot dropoff. I need to visit there again to get better light – call it an on going quest.


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Quick change water pump

When I first moved here, there was a large steel water tank on a concrete slab. A nice start for a good water system, but with only gravity feed, it has to be 3/4 full to get usable water pressure. I added the pump, pressure tank, filter, batteries and solar panels. The ends of the 2x6s sticking out from under the tank make a nice mounting place, even if the layout is strange.

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Everything worked fine the first summer, but in the winter there wasn’t enough power for the 3 GPM pump. Rain in the winter means less sun and less need for water. Summer brings more need of water and more sun to power it. Switching pumps each season involved a lot of cutting pipes and gluing them back together. Eventually I came up with the design shown below, which lets me quickly swap pumps in a matter of minutes.

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First we need some power. The two blue panels on the left are poly-crystaline Solarex MSX-64, fast approaching 20 years old. Unfortunately the tree line moved, so these get a little too much shade now. The six 75 Watt single crystal panels on a nearby shed help out. They were made by BP (yes, that BP) about ten years ago.

A place to store power for rainy days. Four Trojan T-105 6 Volt batteries, just a few years old now. 2 in series for 12 Volts, and 2 sets of those in parallel doubles the amp*hours capacity. Overkill? Certainly! Nice for the winter when sunny days can be far between. And with 5,000 gallons of water at hand, having the power to move it seems prudent during fire season.

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The thin gray box at the bottom center of the photo is the charge controller. Xantrex used to be called Trace Engineering and their old stuff still works great after many years. I wouldn’t buy any such devices without a low-voltage cut-off feature, which saves much heartache by protecting batteries. These batteries are fairly heavy, so they have a small poured slab of their own. The box around them got a little bent when a tree fell on it in a storm. Unless outdoor spaces like this are really tight, don’t be surprised to find evidence of little furry ones living in them.

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This is the quick change setup. Two pipe fittings, I think they are a kind of “union”, and two 90 degree turns to get the pump’s in and out pipes parallel. The black bands
around the gray pipes are like a gasket. There’s a close up of these below.

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Teflon tape for the threads, to prevent leaks. Push the gaskets and the the gray pipe into the union until snug, then screw on the cap.

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