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Whitetailed Demons

Something is wrong with me.

Any other sane bird hunter would have packed up and moved to the interior where the bird numbers and density are greater. But I’m entrenched in the Kenai and I can’t get away from it.

I’ve shot a Whitetailed Ptarmigan already. I’ve seen where they live. I know their confounding habits. I know that if I want to bring another one to hand on the peninsula it will require I burn legs and dogs on hikes as high as I can go without rope to assist.

I came to Alaska with grand ideas of multi-species game bags. Designs of days afield where I could just break open the shotgun and stroll back to the truck while letting birds fly free because enough powder had been burnt.

Those plans are long gone. Replaced with obsession and insecurity.

Though I want this to be about the upland birds and what it takes to hunt them, it’s become apparent it’s as much about me.

Whitetail Ptarmigan play dirty. It’s definitely part of what makes them so maddening. It feels like the hike to get to them, to fractured rock in the cavernous back rooms of a mountain should be enough of a challenge. But if you find these pale ghosts, that’s when the fun really starts.

The dogs and I had hiked to an amazing lake, one of so many with the clearest of water that takes on a turquoise glow when it congregates after falling from the snowpack above. It seems all these bowls hide similar jewels from those unwilling to make the ascent. The scene opens before us at the final few steps after climbing through the saddle. The lake appears and the peaks surrender a token of their scale. But arriving here as a bird hunter, it’s tough to be fully taken with the view. There’s always somewhere higher, a distraction.

Alaska Mountain Lake

And these Whitetail live at the farthest reaches, not one step below, at least not this time of year, not here.

Why can’t I just go inland where the birds abound? I guess I don’t want to be lucky. Anyone can be lucky. My first ptarmigan could have been a fluke, and I need to know it wasn’t. I’d rather hike my legs off than be left feeling I can’t make it happen. Insane.

The rest by this lake and the view grows stale because I can see the next ridge line. I know that if there are birds on this mountain, they are up there. Or they are on the precipice above that one. Or the next. It doesn’t really matter at this point. I’m going and the dogs stretch their legs in agreement. They feed the madness, but at least they are just bird crazy.

We hike onward. Upward. Agonizing exertion. And it feels good.

The route to the next ridge narrows to a goat path snaking between a sharp wall and a 100′ drop. I reign in the dogs. It’s just one of the many places on these peaks where the possibility for mishap creeps from back of mind into reality. It conjures the rarest of thoughts… please, don’t let there be birds here.

As if on command, Rio the setter freezes at the bend above Wyatt the lab and I. Her head is craned into the breeze, tail high.

They are here.

A plan. I need a plan to get out of this with everyone in one piece.

But the birds read my thoughts and flush wild. This covey of 10 have no interest in a plan. Rio bales off the cliff in pursuit, and Wyatt runs to join. He shoots me a wild-eyed glance to make sure I’m game then dives over the edge. He’s misread the terror on my face. And there’s nothing left but action.

The dogs have made the leap successfully, a controlled fall down one face, and now a climb of the opposite to rejoin birds above. I scramble to close on them wishing I had the benefit of their four legs in this terrain.

We weave in and out of boulders. Points. Running birds. Flushes perilously close to dogs. Long, ill-advised shots. Repeat. It’s hunting through a labyrinth of rock on a 40 degree slope.  The ptarmigan fly just far enough to draw us deeper into their lost world by dangling shreds of hope. Never over the horizon, just over the next set of granite daggers.

I boulder to some higher ground to escape the grind. With the altitude comes an angle. A single bird holds a fraction too long, flies just a few inches too high, doesn’t keep the flusher between us. At the snap of the trigger it falls. Wyatt runs to retrieve and it’s the contrast of angelic wing against dark jowls that I will see in my sleep for days to come.

We start the hike back to the mundane, flat ground. And the demons recede into the crevices of the mountain and are quiet. For now.

Whitetail Ptarmigan and Llewellin Setter

Granite Daggers

Point on the Point

Black Lab and White Bird

The Alaska Standoff

Alaska and I are at odds. I’m here to take her birds. She’s not giving them up easily. I’m to earn them one vertical foot at a time until she has determined that sufficient  toll has been collected.

She’s happy to show amazing places, jaw-dropping beauty, an abundance of nature viewing unrivaled anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere. But she knows I’m here for her upland game. Though I can be transfixed by her figure, by the expanse, the birds are always in the back of my mind. And she knows this.

She keeps them just out of reach. Always around the next bend or over the next ridge. They are there. I’ve seen them, even had a fleeting shot. She keeps them 1,000 feet above me, taunts me with risk. Bring your tired legs, bring your tired dogs, push yourself too far and she’ll keep you here on her peaks. You can become a permanent fixture, another notch, a story of epic failure to ward off other suitors.

I’ve heard other places we’ve hunted, but never this clearly. I talk to her. I curse her. Then I apologize. Her beauty should be enough. For so many others it is. But the damn birds are here.

I’ve seen the tales of grouse so plentiful and stupefied that a rock and a moderate throwing arm will fill a skillet. I’ve talked to locals who have snow machined by chance into flocks hundreds thick in areas where 50 bird limits are possible. But they are Alaskan and she knows this.

So it is a standoff. I will keep talking to her. She will continue flashing eye candy. I will keep hiking uphill with shotgun and hounds, and she will decide if I’m worthy. It’s out of my hands. I can’t stop wanting her birds.