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To the Edge with Friends and Dogs

Public Land Ptarmigan

We all have limits.

But that edge is never static. It’s a river that rages perilously close or meanders docile and aimless in the distance. Most people are perfectly comfortable keeping a healthy distance—there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But there is something about that torrent that is captivating and revealing.

What we see when we reach those limits, what we do, and how we react can’t be predicted until there.

Very few of us actually know where those are. They are much harder to get to than one might think. Our brains tend to go into safe mode in order to stay a step ahead of catastrophe. That voice in your head does a great job of can’t, don’t, shouldn’t.

I’ve been watching our pack of bird dogs run. They have no voices in their head. They run the edge without hesitation, occasionally splashing through the shallows of limitation. They are free of any thoughts of how far or how much.

There was a point in this last trip where everyone found the shore.

Whether that was a puppy on her first hunt half frozen at high elevation on a march to find open water; or hunters creeping across talus slopes appearing impassable in pursuit of ghost birds; or legs and lungs extended to exhaustion where adrenaline is the only fuel remaining for the next step.

I convinced friends that we should kickoff the upland season hunting White-tailed Ptarmigan in the backcountry of Colorado. These winged demons have a nasty habit of residing at the highest points available. In the Centennial State that generally puts them at elevations above 12,000’ where oxygen levels are 30% lower.

After our fill on the mountain, we moved camp into Wyoming and Montana in pursuit of prairie grouse and partridge. We averaged close to seven miles per day over the duration of 10 days, often carrying packs in excess of 30 pounds. The bird dogs would have doubled or tripled that distance depending on age and experience meaning 200 miles for the longest-legged.

On a particularly warm day the second week after hiking a few hours, I noticed that Wyatt, my black lab, was laboring for deep breaths. I reined him in to cool off but his breathing continued shallow and wheezy. We were three-quarters of a mile from the truck. I handed off my shotgun and carried him out.

He had no inclination to stop hunting and didn’t like being carried. He actually struggled to get free at the sound of one of my hunting partners shooting in the distance.

A trip to an observant vet in a remote Montana town revealed a grape-size mass far back on Wyatt’s tongue. It had likely been covering a portion of his trachea when hunting. Think about that for a second: Past middle-aged, running a marathon with a grape lodged in your throat blocking a portion of your airway—then think about wanting to continue.

I don’t know how to be free of the barriers, where the edges are, or how to silence the voice in my head. I only know I want be more like Wyatt. The satisfaction he gets from fulfilling his calling has him run that edge with reckless abandon. He’ll give it all up to hunt just another step, another field. How it has come to mean so much to him escapes me.

But maybe he knows.

The stretch for the edge keeps that river of doubt bending away from us. And if we can do that while chasing birds then so many possibilities open elsewhere.

I want others to see that. I want them to take a step past their comfort zone. Then take one more past that.

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

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

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.