We crept along the road scanning the willows for movement of any kind. Brody and I were out hunting once more, this time in search of ptarmigan. Their white feathers provide perfect camouflage in the winter season against the backdrop of snow. It would be easy to miss them if we sped along, but even so there had been reports of hundreds in the area. “There. There they are.” I said to Brody as I spotted a few dozen on and around the willows just off the road. We pulled off to the side of the road, loaded our clips, tightened our shoes and prepared to set off. Even though there was plenty of space between us and the birds, they became nervous as I stepped outside the door. A few steps in their direction sent them fleeing on foot, over a small rise and towards the mountains on the opposite side of the valley. This wouldn’t be as easy as I thought.
Rifles in hand, Brody and I stumbled after them. We had neglected to bring snowshoes or skis and were now paying for it as we post-holed for much of the way. The main flock had completely fled across to the other side, taking no chances. A few birds remained, but anytime we found ourselves in range they soon ran further or flew to join the others. One ptarmigan sat still about 25-30 yards from us. Brody dropped to one knee and took aim. Pow. Pow. “I’m out of bullets.” My turn. Pow. Pow. Too high. Pow. Pow. Pow. Still off target. And off the ptarmigan goes. 7 shots fired from a reasonable distance, with none hitting the bird. Embarassing.
After reloading, Brody chased others while I found luck with a ptarmigan landing within range on my rear. This time I didn’t miss and the bird was downed with one shot. Bird in hand, I set off after the main flock. Moving towards the mountains, I came to the edge of the distant willow patch but no ptarmigan were to be found. I continued down valley, but found the same result throughout the area. They had flown somewhere else.
I followed my tracks back to the car. Brody had returned before me to warm up, and had seen the ptarmigan return to the initial patch close to the road. He chased them around for a little while with as much luck as I had. After establishing that our chances seemed low for further hunting in the area, we drove over the divide to the Arctic side. Ptarmigan were reported to be much thicker here, but all we encountered was ptarmigan-shaped snow hanging from the willows. Bad shooting, quick birds and cold fingers were the theme of the day. We were embarrassed by our performance and would have to be content with just the one.
After seeing a thousand plus ptarmigan during the ski race, I figured I’d head back north again with hopes of improved results. Besides old tracks, there wasn’t any sign of ptarmigan where Brody and I had hunted before. I continued up and over Atigun Pass to the north side, figuring my luck would improve. Scanning the willows, I looked for the slightest indication of movement against the snow. The first few patches I glassed turned up bare. Where were they? I continued on, stopping at the beginning of a thick, extended stretch. With rifle in hand, I walked among the willows. After advancing for a while, I heard the distinct squawk of a ptarmigan. Without any other indication of their presence, I began to move towards the call, coming closer with each squawk. I determined that the culprit lay in a isolated patch of willows across the river and began to make my way across. But as soon as I hit the river ice, a flock of about 25 rose up and flew down river a few hundred yards. After searching further, that seemed to be the only flock in the region and I returned to the road. I would head home empty handed. It appeared that during the short stretch between the ski race and when I recovered, the mass of ptarmigan had fled far to the north. Out of reach until next year.
The arrival of spring brought thousands of waterfowl migrating north towards the coast. One of my neighbors treated me to Niglik soup upon returning home from my road trip. Niglik is the Inupiat word for the White Fronted Goose, or Speckled Belly. He had gone past the mountains and caught ten of them as they were feeding on the tundra. The fat and meat were delicious and I decided I needed to get some of my own. Beyond the mountains, I encountered a flock of Speckled Bellies and a few Canada Geese feeding opposite Toolik Field Station. I ambled off the road, dropped to one knee and took aim. I missed my first target, but most of the birds remained. The second shot sent them flying, but I made contact this time, killing one of the Speckled Bellies. Since the bird is so fat, I partially dressed it in the field, removing most of the guts and filling the interior cavity with snow to prevent spoiling.
Continuing on, I encountered even larger flocks. At the Kuparuk River, there were hundreds of geese spread out across the tundra. Snow, White Fronted and Canada Geese were dispersed among the remains of snow. There were more geese than what I first encountered, but despite that my luck seemed to decrease. The birds were skittish and wary of my presence. Most times as I moved off the road, I’d pull the rifle up to my shoulder only to watch them take off and fly out of range. As this happened again and again, they seemed to catch on to my van and it got to the point where I couldn’t leave the road without flushing them. Disheartened, I returned home with my sole bird. Successful, but not as much as I had hoped.
A couple days later, I returned north with company. I was joined by my steady hunting partner, Brody, and another friend. Our hopes were high as we set off. I had gleaned more information from a neighbor, learning that the main flock lay beyond where I had travelled earlier in the week. We found geese opposite Toolik once again and Brody stepped out to try his chances. The result was a couple of missed shots and the ensuing departure of the flock. We moved on, finding more geese but similar results. Often times we couldn’t get off the road before flushing the geese. Or if we did find ourselves off the road, the attempt culminated in a barrage of missed shots. Eventually, Brody connected with one of the White Fronted Geese. Later on another, and one more a little after that. I partially dressed them as before, removing the guts and filling the empty cavity with snow. One of the geese that he had killed had a few still-forming eggs inside. Unsure whether they were formed enough for consumption, we slit one, releasing a thick yellow yolk. The taste proved to be the best egg any of us had ever eaten and we stashed the remainder back in the cavity for feasting later on.
The day ended with us returning with only the three geese. We determined rifles weren’t the tool for the job and that shotguns would prove to be much more successful. Due to a misunderstanding on my part, I made the error of skinning the geese, instead of plucking the feathers. The fat was attached to the skin and by removing it, I tossed away much of what made the bird so tasty. The learning curve is steep, but I think I am advancing in the right direction. Waterfowl still proves to be a challenge, yet Brody and I improved over our results from the previous year. Here’s to next year, with the hope that we finally find our groove and become somewhat competent.