Remembering Alaska - Part Two - Hunting

Alaskana - A weathered caribou skull
It's a long way to Cold Bay, Alaska, from anywhere, for anyone.  Maybe even longer for a kenneled Brittany.  I can still remember Zach peering through the kennel door as he was loaded onto the conveyor at the airport.  He likely was somewhat astonished as his kennel moved towards the bowels of the plane.  If a dog was capable of pondering it's fate, here was his chance.  We thought that we heard howling upon takeoff. 

Leg one of the trip took us from Montana to Seattle and then on to Anchorage.  Canine and humans arrived none the worse for wear.  Next day we boarded a smaller commuter plane bound for the Aleutian Island community of Cold Bay.  Zach, now a world traveller, was loaded by hand, into a considerably smaller cargo area.  A mountain of gear and supplies were stacked around his kennel.

Cold Bay was militarily significant during World War Two.  It served as an outpost and staging area for upwards of 20,000 soldiers.  A few quonset huts and the military road system are all that remain of the occupation by US troops.  Today, fewer than one hundred residents remain.

Considering the fact that Cold Bay is simultaneously in the middle of nowhere and at the end of the earth, it is blessed with something of a curiosity in bush Alaska, a paved ten thousand foot runway.  Looking out of the plane window I marveled at it's length and thought that were I a pilot, that even I might even be able to hit it with a small aircraft.  Quite the change from some of the small gravel strips that I've had the pleasure of landing on.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the runway serves as an alternative landing site for the Space Shuttle.

For the next week Izembek Lodge would serve as our base for hunting, fishing and exploring the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.  Al Spalinger, recently retired from a career with the Alaska Fish and Game Department, owned and operated the lodge.  He and his cousin Dennis greeted us at the airport and kept us well fed and entertained.  We settled into our accommodations in short order and were soon out getting a tour of the road system.  Minutes from town we encountered our first brown bear bumping its way over the tundra.

Ptarmigan hunting was a prime motivation for our selecting this area.  Now, ptarmigan populations, like ruffed grouse, are cyclic.  We were aware that the local birds were at the low end of the cycle.  We soon found out that low meant a scarcity of birds.   Most days we found a few birds, some days none.

Hunting the high country for rock ptarmigan

Ptarmigan hunter and Brittany Cold Bay Alaska
Terrible scenery for hunting, don't you think?

Taking a break

On point - Please God, don't let it be a brown bear

ptarmigan on the wing
They're quick and low flying

ptarmigan - exit, stage left

Brittany retrieving a ptarmigan
Zach retrieves a ptarmigan

A bird at hand from out in the bush

When the hunting was slow, Zach harassed the local arctic ground squirrel population.  When we were near water, he chased fish.  One day, he finally got one, a big male chum salmon.  Zach, belly deep in the stream, grabbed the fish by the midsection.  The fish was none too happy and proceeded to slap Zach upside of his head repeatedly with its tail.  Wincing with each tail slap, Zach held his grip on the fish, and waded out of the creek.  The head beating continued, but he proudly carried the chum all the way back to the truck.  Come to think of it, it might have been the best fish of the trip, for any of us.  The fish was probably a third his weight.   

Over the course of a week, we did a hell of a lot of walking over extremely uneven terrain.  Zach got a few points and retrieves.  We managed to get our hands on a few pretty rock and willow ptarmigan.  Their white winter wings contrast dramatically with their drab mottled summer plumage.  It was great fun and great exercise.   Boy did we look forward to fishing.

Epilogue:  Many of these photos appeared in Grays Sporting Journal (see Tundra Birds - August 2006 issue)