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Climbing Mountains for Elusive Birds

Bird Dogs, End of Day

The wind is gusting at my back collapsing my empty game bag. It’s a chilly reminder, as if I needed one. In the distance I can still pickup Steve and the deft setter Winchester, navigating their way uphill beside the creek that tumbles the opposite direction in this cut.

We’ve got them on elevation. The dogs and I have side-hilled and climbed the length of the valley for the last hour. Rio, still young and over-enthused, points songbirds. But the lab Wyatt is close at hand and no longer trifles with such things, confirming the same story as the tailwind, the gamebirds have eluded us.

It’s beautiful country. As the breeze taunts, it nudges us from behind assisting the climb, coaxing us to continue.

It’s overcast. Apparently that doesn’t even count as a category of weather on the Kenai Peninsula, just the norm. Anytime the sun makes an appearance it seems a gift.

I figure if we keep climbing at this pace we’ll reunite with the rest of our hunting party at the head of this valley at relatively the same elevation unless the dogs are convincing enough to deviate.  We’ve got some talus slopes to negotiate and another half-mile from the way it looks, though distances get distorted because everything is so massive traditional senses of scale are askew.

The birds have made themselves scarce this trip. Rio confirms they’ve been here at some point; Lord knows with that nose it could be last week, last month, last hunting season. They are on this mountain somewhere. And Wyatt counters with confidence that they aren’t within gunning range now. We’ve done this dance so many other places, it takes on the comfortable rhythm learned over years and countless miles together.

Steve and Winchester have their own rhythm, it’s our first chance to see it play out as they climb. It’s why we’ve struck a separate path up the mountain. These guys are proficient, economical predators in this mountainous amphitheater. They know these birds. They know this country. The movements are crisp and in sync. We’re up in the cheap seats, stumbling uphill, taking in the show and I imagine Steve looking up wondering what the hell we’re doing.

But the dogs will all be running together soon enough, fouling any cadence. We just have to make it to the finish of this climb.

I pick my way through fractured granite to the stream and scoop a few handfuls of water. I’m not thirsty but I’ve convinced myself that maybe if I drink the Kool-aid the mountain will give up its secrets. Rio joins me for her own dose and I notice the rocks have carved her front toe and are receiving scarlet prints for their effort. She’s unfazed, oblivious to anything beyond the pursuit of bird. I admire her.

In the distance there are shots. Winchester has led Steve to a bowl above the area I thought we’d connect. Rio and Wyatt take off in the direction and I see two birds land on a ridge above us, maybe 200 vertical feet. It’s all the verification I need. I want these birds for the dogs. I want them to know that their blood and effort have purpose, that their calling is true.

I don’t remember the climb or when I snapped the action shut. I’m watching the rocks as the dogs scour. There’s a wild flush, one “gentlemen” wouldn’t shoot for fear the dogs would acquire bad habits. I have no such fears, my dogs are the teachers and I am the student. There’s no place on this mountain for gentlemen or their mule-drawn carriages. But birds jumping off ledges into the abyss make for odd shooting perspective, one I’m not accustomed to and it shows.

There are other birds here, and we continue uphill. Rio locks on and I see the Ptarmigan above me. This bird will not have the luxury of the abyss. I send Wyatt to propel it skyward as I dig my toes into the loose gravel of the slope. Everything makes sense in this moment. And the grin on my face has no effect on the mount of the gun.

Alaska Ptarmigan Hunting
Bird Dogs on the Mountain
Wyatt Retrieves a Ptarmigan
White-Tail Ptarmigan Detail

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