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This Stuff Works

This Stuff Works

Every once in a while, the author finds equipment that actually performs as advertised.

Garmin's Astro 220 GPS unit is a must for anyone with a big-running dog, says the author.
Photo courtesy of Dave Carty.

Ah yes, the life of a freelance writer. Big money, prestige, and free gear from manufacturers, whose delivery men happily unload custom shotguns, hand-made boots, duck boats, and crates of dog bumpers on my doorstep daily. I shouldn't complain, I guess, but sometimes it all gets a bit tiresome. (Yeah, right.)

Now and then, though, I do get something that makes me sho-nuff sit up and take notice. I always feel a bit uneasy writing glowing reports about a product I didn't actually pay for, but so far that hasn't stopped me from doing it. With that admission out of the way, here are several items I really think you ought to look at.

Garmin Astro 220
A couple years ago at the annual Purina dog-writer's gig I shamelessly beg to attend, the Astro 220, a GPS navigational unit for dogs, was still in the production stages. The Garmin folks, who produce the thing, were keeping the specifics on the Q.T., but it was an immediate talking point after the presentation.

Believe it or not, every dog writer there was also a serious bird hunter and/or field trialer, and there wasn't a man or woman among us who hadn't lost a dog. A unit that would allow us to keep tabs on our mutts from two miles away (or farther, according to the unit's specs) seemed too good to be true.

Last summer, Ted Gartner at Garmin graciously sent me an Astro to try for myself, and I used it virtually every day I hunted, save for a six-week stretch when a knee injury kept me and my dogs out of the fields entirely. My verdict? There are some problems with these units, which realistically is par for the course for prototypes. But overall, the Astro 220 is a solid winner. That also seems to be the consensus among a half dozen guys I hunt with or know who also bought Astros.

The biggest drawback to the Astro is the design of the antennae. There are two ways you can attach the DC 20 receiving unit (where the antennae is located) to your dog: on your dog's collar or on a specially designed chest harness. I rejected the collar out of hand, which, as it turned out, was premature. Instead, I rigged all three of my dogs with the chest harness, which suspends the receiving unit and antennae from a point just behind the dog's shoulder blades.

This wasn't what most of my Astro-owning friends elected to do. Few of them even deigned to try the chest harness; some never took it out of the wrapper. But I found the harness worked quite well, far better than I'd expected. At least on my dogs, I had no problems with chafing, and as long as I made sure the harness was securely attached to the collar, I had few problems with slippage (although it did happen once or twice).

About my only complaint with the harness was that it was just too big for my smallish setters and Brittany. I jury rigged an extra Velcro strap one afternoon, sewed it in place, and solved the problem. But optional sizing on the harness, small or large, wouldn't be a bad idea.

The antennae was an unmitigated pain, however. Despite Garmin's assurances that it had been thoroughly tested and found indestructible, my dogs managed to mangle their first antennae within just two or three days. That was followed by another, and then another. I eventually ordered a short one inch antennae (the antennae supplied with the unit is five inch), which lasted all of three days before that, too, was sheared off.

Blackhawk's Desert Ops boots and Gore-Tex socks make a great combination for hunting season.

The problem was barbwire fences. Every time one of my dogs zipped under a low strand of a barbwire the antennae would get hung up, mangled or broken off completely.

The good news is that there's a solution--sort of--and a bright side as well: the Astro's reception with both the five inch and one inch antennaes, even in dense woods, was consistently excellent. I never lost contact with my dogs no matter how far out they ranged or how thick the overstory.

I regret that I wasn't able to test the unit in the deep canyons of Oregon chukar country, but that trip, unfortunately, was cancelled because of my injured knee. A friend who lives in Boise, however, chased chukars with his Astro all season and loved it.

Although I'm no engineer, it seems to me it wouldn't be hard to redesign the receiver with an antennae that came out of the back of the unit at a 45 degree angle or even laid flat against the dog's back or neck (especially when used with the collar rather than the harness). Also, a small fin preceding the antennae would go a long ways toward deflecting barbwire and brush. But there's another solution, something you can do right now.

I hadn't used the collar attachment included with my unit because the antennae invariably ended up slung below the dog's neck, where it seemed to limit reception. Upon my arrival in Arizona last January, however, I learned that several people with Astros were having the same problem--and doing nothing to correct it. According to them, their reception was just fine.

So, ever the investigative reporter, I gave my own collar another try. Again, on the first run through, my reception disappeared. I tried it once more. And then, for whatever reason, the reception returned, and I never had another problem with reception or fence crossings.

This last illustrates a failing that is undoubtedly mine: I'm not particularly mechanical, and computers give me fits. Even after I read the instructions that came with my Astro I ended up spending a lot of time on the phone with tech support. The tech support people at Garmin, as it turns out, are quite good, although you sometimes have to wait awhile to talk to them. To be fair, though, once I figured out how to use the thing, driving the Astro really wasn't difficult. Like most GPS units, you're offered far more options than you'll ever really need. My advice is to stick with one or two functions and learn them well.

Incidentally, the Astro unit itself is Garmin's top-of-the-line GPS and accounts for about two-thirds of the Astro 220's roughly $600 price tag. I've had an E-Trex for years--another Garmin GPS product--and found it invaluable. I wondered if the new, improved Astro 220 GPS would be something I'd re

ally need. The answer is an emphatic yes.

But first, here's how the canine half of the Astro worked for me: I'd turn on the collar, attach it to my dog, and then set and double check the waypoint on my GPS. Whenever I wanted to see where my dog was, I'd pull out my GPS and note the direction she was running and her distance from me. There are several ways you can do that, but basically, it's that simple.

After years of relying on bells or a visual line of sight to my big-running setters, it's a huge relief to be able to track the whereabouts of my dogs--even if they're 700 yards out, as mine are wont to be. When the dog goes on point, my unit rings like a phone, then tells me how far away the dog is and what it's doing--pointing, treeing, sitting, etc. (It didn't when I got it, however. I had to get one of my computer savvy friends to go online and fix it for me, after which it worked just fine.) And as for personal navigation--figuring out where I was--that proved even simpler. Overall, the Astro 220 is a truly revolutionary product and may be the best insurance against a lost dog you can get. In my opinion, for that alone it's worth the cost.

Blackhawk Boots
For a geezer, I'm holding up okay. I work out five days a week, lift weights, do interminable squats, speed walk, stretch, eat healthy food when it's convenient and try to have intelligent conversations with my dogs. But my feet are killing me.

I didn't plan it that way; it just happened. Consequently, I've been on a search for good footwear for years. I certainly haven't tried everything out there, but I've tried a lot of it: expensive custom boots, serious backpacking boots, more insoles than you can shake a box of Band-Aids at, pads of every conceivable type, ankle braces, you name it. Some were terrible, some were pretty good. But none was excellent.

That might have changed. Last summer I received a pair of Blackhawk Desert Ops hunting boots, an all-synthetic boot that you've undoubtedly seen before--these boots, or boots very similar to these--are being worn by our soldiers in Iraq.

I was suspicious at first. I was Mr. Organic for years--canvas hunting vests, cotton pants, wool socks, flannel and wool shirts, until one by one, all were replaced with synthetics. The boots were the last to go. I couldn't believe that a synthetic boot could provide the same kind of comfort and support that my leather boots did, and I was right. They were better.

I wore my Blackhawks in every conceivable type of terrain save for the chukar country of Oregon, and I'll be wearing them there next year. In hot weather they allowed my feet to breathe--the Desert Ops model doesn't have a Gore-Tex liner, exactly what I wanted--and in cold weather they kept my feet plenty warm enough. In wet weather I paired them with Gore-Tex socks and found them just as waterproof and more breathable than my expensive Danners, which are among the better boots I've owned.

Although the soles are of a relatively soft material, over 60 days of hard hunting they showed little wear. About the only significant damage I did to the uppers was a small tear near one instep, which I easily fixed with Shoe Goo. The deep lugs gave me plenty of traction on my mountain forays for blue grouse and Mearns quail. Best of all, the removable insoles are thick and durable. That may not sound like much, but believe me, I've been around the block with insoles, and that's a lot. My Blackhawks are as comfortable as any boots I've ever owned, and that includes the pricey custom jobs I had made a few years back.

About the only problem with the Blackhawks that I can see is that they're not resoleable. But at $129, you wouldn't be saving all that much, anyway.

Gore-Tex Socks
I resisted buying Gore-Tex socks for years because (1) they're expensive, and (2) I'm cheap. This despite the fact that I spend half the hunting season mucking around in snow and water.

But practicality finally got the best of me. After buying the Blackhawk boots profiled above, which I bought in large part because they didn't have Gore-Tex liners, I needed something to keep my feet dry in wet weather. Other pairs of Gore-Tex-lined boots I owned would do the job, but only at the cost of very sweaty feet.

The socks were a revelation. My feet still sweat, but not nearly as much as they do with boots with an integral Gore-Tex liner, and they keep me perfectly dry, even when my boots are submerged in water. At the end of the day, I turn the socks inside out and they dry in 45 minutes. Without a liner, my Blackhawk boots also dry quickly, even when they're soaked through. I wore my socks in all kinds of wet weather and they never sprang a leak. In fact, I liked them so much I bought another pair. Gore-Tex socks aren't new, but if you're looking for a way to double the usefulness of an old pair of non-waterproof boots, you might find they work for you as well as they do for me.

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