Reflections on bird dogs, wild places and heavenly moments
By Christine Cunningham
Last week, Hugo and I find ourselves sitting on the porch for the first time all winter. We watch the blanket of snow below us as it sinks under the warmth of the sun. As we bask in the faint heat, we shut our eyes to the florescent light reflecting off a yard’s worth of snow. Cool air drafts up to us through the deck boards.
Our long upland bird season ended the last day of March. These first few days of rest—in 30- and 40-degree temperatures—are some of my favorite to pause and reflect on the season. It is a brief and familiar moment of calm before the start of spring ptarmigan surveys followed by the everlasting days of summer.
In most years — before coronavirus punched us in the collective lungs and hearts — many hunters begin to plan fall hunts in the spring. And I respond to friends who write to say they dream of bird hunting in Alaska, and what is it like, where should they go, and what should they bring?
In Alaska, the alpine and subalpine bird country is wide open — perfect for a big-running bird dog. There's no place else on earth where you'll find a white-tailed ptarmigan and a Dall sheep in the same frame. It just doesn't exist anywhere else.
When you stop for a moment to catch your breath, the scale of the landscape forces you to stop —submerged in a mountain valley like the bottom of an empty sea where lichen and bearberries scatter the ground in red, yellow and green.
Hugo is a flagging tail of happiness in the distance as he searches for birds.
I've lived here all my life, so I can attest it is not the Serengeti of the north when it comes to an abundance of game. The photos of massive caribou migrations moving across the tundra are nowhere near where most people hunt birds.
The places you can get to by car, and then by foot, are stretched out along a highway system that brings you to just a few of the state's 14 mountain ranges. Extensive trail systems push birds further into the hills, and the best hunting exists far away from the common path.
In the places where you aren't likely to see another person over your shoulder, the birds may be just as scarce. They have so much country to themselves, they could be in another valley, and you've only got the legs for one.
Most of the birds I hunt, I've watched grow from chicks in the alpine. Just like anyone who posts to social media, the photo is worth a thousand words that don't appear. Even those words might not include the years that lead up to a peak experience in a particular place and time—the bird cycle, a dog in his prime, a hunter who has spent many years in the high country.
Years ago, I would agree to take people hunting with mixed reviews. Some people did not realize the logistics of a day trip can entail long hours on the road and hikes that involve elevation gain and traversing tussocks or shale slides.
One year, a friend brought his Griffin along for a white-tailed ptarmigan hunt in the back of a mountain valley. We were all horrified to watch the dog jump from the top of a 30-foot rock face, and the sound he made when he hit a jagged rock below brought his owner to his knees. We were a few hours away from our vehicle, and every step back was an agony that belies words like "rugged" and "extreme."
The dog recovered completely with stitches, but it wouldn't be fair to tell a friend, "Be sure to bring your dog!" without being honest about the realities of mountain hunting anywhere and especially in Alaska, where the remote aspect of hunts and changing weather can make a minor injury an emergency.
There are many places where the access to bird country is more comfortable — in the interior part of the state or along the road system. You can find spruce, ruffed, and sharp-tailed grouse in the woodlands.
Willow ptarmigan prevail in sparsely timbered or treeless brush and subalpine areas. Rock ptarmigan exist at an elevation just below the white-tailed ptarmigan, which lives in sheep country.
My favorite game bird, white-tailed ptarmigan, are as polite as quail and all white, barely studied, and more vulnerable to a warmer world and travelers widening the path than a pheasant to losing its shelterbelt.
People ask me what it's like to hunt birds here. I can only say what it's like to experience anything heavenly anywhere. My Alaska version has crisp mountain air and an alpine valley stretching before you to the headwall where a snowmelt stream rushes off the rocks and fills a hundred small streams that all converge and rush past your feet to join the falls below.
It's a song that plays in my head while I contemplate the season from the porch. It's still there while I answer a friend, who has canceled her trip to Alaska this year due to the coronavirus.
"Hey," I tell her. “Alaska is fantastic, but heaven is the same everywhere. A perfect moment can happen in Alaska the same as it does at the edge of a North Dakota field. More important than where you are is that your dog is with you.”
My friend tells me about the spring migration, about the prairie filling with geese, emptying of snow. I can almost hear the wild sound of so many wings in the melting snow at my feet.
One thing is safe to say right now, probably more than ever: "Where you are is the best place to be."
Christine Cunningham is a regular Pheasants Forever contributor from Alaska’s Kenai peninsula. She travels with her bird dogs south to North Dakota for roosters, but they live for ptarmigan in the great white north.