It started in February, 2017 when my wife asked me, what I wanted to do for a vacation this year. Now I have been married long enough to realize that some questions are best answered with another question. “I don’t know, what do you want to do”? Her short answer literally sent a chill through my body, “I want to go to Alaska” she replied. Talk about a curveball that completely caught me off stride!
OK, the discussion was over and it was now up to me to pull something together. With one of my guiding principles in mind, it is just plain RUDE to go to Alaska and not hunt something, the keyboard and phone got a workout. Her number one priority was to see the Northern Lights and I soon discovered that the best month for that activity is February. Since neither of us have the clothing necessary to handle Alaskan weather in February, a compromise was going to be in order. To avoid the cloud cover and city lights it was imperative that we get away from Anchorage. We gambled and settled on the last week of September with a journey to the arid interior between Anchorage and Fairbanks which was also prime habitat for Ptarmigan. We had a plan.
I have shot Ptarmigan on previous big game hunts to Alaska and in fact an August Ptarmigan was # 4 in my quest for the eight major species of North American grouse. One of those birds now rests in my office for friends to view and to rekindle memories of a cold, damp, windy week spent in a tent north of the Arctic Circle. Since it was taken in August, it has the reddish-brown plumage with only a little white showing on the legs and wings. A totally white one would be a nice contrast but my suspicion was that late September might be a little early to meet that objective.
A week in Anchorage doing “tourist stuff” was well spent. The 26 Glacier Cruise in Prince William Sound was fantastic in terms of scenery and wildlife. Don’t’ miss it. The visit to a sled-dog kennel and training facility is a must for any dog owner. It included a training run with a group of new recruits. The harness was connected to a multi- passenger ATV that was put in neutral and away we went. Of the 9 dogs on the training run, the back 7 were sometimes pulling straight ahead, occasionally pulling at right angles to one another, and always running at varied speeds. However, the two lead dogs just seemed to glide along effortlessly. When I asked the Musher about it, a veteran of 5 Iditarod Races herself, she said that those two lead dogs were Iditarod veterans too. Most of you can spot the difference between a 6 year old bird dog and a new recruit on his 1st pheasant hunt. Sled dogs are just as easy to spot!
A seven hour drive north of Anchorage took us to Alpine Creek Lodge which was about 70 miles east of Denali Park. Yes, the trip could have been made faster but this was a vacation and we were enjoying the scenery. I might also mention that in Anchorage Fall was just arriving and the vegetation was beginning to turn. In the tundra it was closer to winter and all the leaves were gone from the dwarf willows and alders and the fresh snow on the mountains made for some spectacular vistas.
Susie and I were both hunting on the breezy, dreary, often rainy first day. She was successful in taking 3 Spruce Grouse and 3 Ptarmigan so she felt like she had a successful hunting leg. The remaining 2 days she and the outfitters wife would head up into the mountains west of the lodge while I chased more Ptarmigan off to the east. The weather on day #2 was similar to day #1 but the hunting was just as good. Good Day!
Day # 3, was the kind of day we upland bird hunters cherish. There was fresh snow on the mountains but only a dusting at 4,600 feet where the ATV train began. We had a clear sky, calm wind with a temperature in the lower 20s and 12 miles of trail ahead of us. My optimism was about as high as it could get. We had probably traveled 3 to 4 miles without seeing any birds when suddenly there were 40 to perhaps 50 mostly white birds flying off to our left. They were about half mile, perhaps further away, when they settled onto the third low ridge from us. The cold weather and snow overnight caused the birds to begin flocking together in preparation for winter. Previously, most of the Ptarmigan had been singles or doubles, this was a bonanza.
The next three plus hours were better than a dream. Once we got onto the ridge where the flock had landed we found them busy feeding on the blueberries that covered it. Then it was a matter of flush a group, make the shot and watch the others go down. A Springer would have helped with the retrieving but as it was a white bird on the tundra was an easy find. This game continued for a little over three hours and when we stopped for lunch I was a single bird short of another 10 bird limit. Had I been in Ruffed Grouse woods, I would still be lost, but the open tundra allowed me to find the ATV.
Lessons learned; (1) Ptarmigan rarely land in dwarf willows but will find clearings or grassy areas among the willows, (2) They like to land on the green banks of the dry potholes between the water and the brush line where they are easy to spot, (3) they don’t run as in “run like a pheasant” but they will simply walk away from you if you get too close, as in 30 yards or so. Most of us can’t keep up with them on the tundra and willows. To get them into the air you will have to push them, again a Springer would help, (4) a big white target against the azure blue of the sky makes for a relatively easy shot. I did not find them to be overly fast and during the course of 3 days of hunting I managed to pull off 4 doubles and I’ve never been accused of being a “quick draw” artist. My 12 gauge O/U bird gun choked Improved Cylinder & Modified, shooting 1 ounce of # 7 ½ target loads at 1,300 feet per second (my standard FITASC load) worked great.
Before our discussion last February, I never thought I would ever return to Alaska but since our trip was a success by every measure, including the Northern Lights………I’m wondering what a Spring-time hunt on snowmobiles would be like?
Phil R. Heckler
NSCA Level II Instructor