By Joseph Robertia
“They’ll never do it,” “That’s asking a lot,” and “I think your plan is a little over-ambitious,” were the responses I got when discussing my plans to take my niece and nephew, 9 and 11, respectively, on a three-day grouse-hunting and backpacking trip earlier this month.
To be fair, our tentative schedule was a little rigorous. It entailed gaining more than 2,000 feet of elevation while hiking 7.5 miles a day for the first two days, and then a full 15-mile hike on the third day. And this wasn’t hiking, it was backpacking, so we were carrying all our camping supplies, hunting equipment, ammo and food for three days in the woods.
This could be challenging for anyone, but for two little kids, people were starting to make me wonder if, indeed, we had bitten off more than we could chew. But I had faith in our plan because of how my niece and nephew were raised.
Since the time they were in diapers they have been coming out to visit on weekends every few weeks, and a big part of spending time around my wife and I meant doing chores. But to keep them engaged and as a reward for their share of the hard work, we’ve always tried to do something fun afterward, such as taking them hiking.
These kids have been beating feet up mountains in the area for practically as long as
they’ve been walking. They were going up Skyline Mountain when they were 4 and 6 years old, and climbed the near-vertical Cecil Rhodes hike when they were 6 and 8, so tackling a portion of Resurrection Pass now didn’t seem like more than they could handle.
In addition to taking them hiking, the kids have also learned firearm safety from a young age, although they saw this, too, as a reward. For some people, the concept of guns and kids don’t mix, but I’ve always believed that even those who don’t hunt or keep guns for home-defense reasons can benefit from teaching children about firearms safety. Alaska, per capita, has an incredibly high rate of gun owners, so while someone might not choose to expose their child to guns, it doesn’t mean they won’t encounter them elsewhere. As such, I believe it is important kids know the dangers, and dos and don’ts, of picking up a handgun or rifle.
For my niece and nephew, they started with a BB gun. This is a great way to teach the essentials, such as always keeping the muzzle pointed in a safe direction, being sure of the target and what’s beyond, and knowing how to tell a loaded from an unloaded firearm.
From there, as they got older, I progressed them through helping me clean my own rifles and pistols. Over the years as their shooting fundamentals set in, I moved them up through shooting increasing larger calibers — from .22 rifles up to 12-gauge shotguns — to build their skills and confidence with each firearm.
After years of developing their hiking and shooting skills, they seemed ready for a new challenge, and a hunting trip seemed like a great way to converge their two skill sets for an amazing adventure.
As it turned out, the trip went great. After months of rain, we were fortunate to have three clear days with bright blue skies and warm sunny rays shining down on us. This weather also got the birds moving and we saw between 20 to 30 grouse over the three days.
My nephew got his first, a clean shot from about 20 yards away, and followed it up with another bird about an hour later. The second bird was way up in a tree and the only clean shot was a vertical one from nearly right under it. My niece, while comfortable on the shotgun, also knows her limitations. She struggles with the weight of holding out the shotgun, the firearm being nearly as long as she is tall, so instead opts to use a kneeling position to balance the weight and allow herself the time to steady the barrel and align the sights properly on her target. A vertical shot wasn’t possible for her, and she acknowledged it.
The next day she got her turn. We saw our first grouse within 10 minutes of breaking camp, but she missed a rushed shot from about 10 feet away. I think it was a combination of being a little off target from the shaking excitement some refer to as “buck fever,” combined with taking a shot so close that the pellet from the shotgun hadn’t had time to fan out enough to hit a target and make up for her slightly off aim.
I used the miss as a teachable moment to focus on what went wrong and how to do it correctly when we encountered our next bird, which we did within about 30 minutes. The canine companion we’d brought along — a golden retriever who can smell a grouse long before we’re ever close enough to see it — began to signal he was onto something.
My niece and I dropped our packs and began stealthily moving down the trail looking for our quarry. She spotted it first, excitedly shouting, “I just saw it run behind a tree,” while pointing about 30 yards away. In my experience, when grouse know they’re spotted, they typically either flush or stand still to try and camouflage themselves, so I have to admit I didn’t believe her at first.
But, sure enough, as we crept closer I saw the bird dart from behind one tree to another. We angled around until we had a clear line of fire on the bird. It was still a long shot, but she felt comfortable she could do it. She took a knee, sighted in for about 15 to 20 seconds and then pulled the trigger.
Less than a second later we saw the bird fluttering, dead, just the last few beats of adrenaline and nerve impulses reacting. As my niece lowered the barrel, I saw a look of surprise overtake the wrinkled brow of intense concentration.
“I got it?” she said, first as a query then as a declaration. “I got it. I got it!”
It was a feeling to which I could relate. Not joy in taking an animal’s life, but in seeing the completion of a task long sought, one never really realized would come to self-actualization. This may be a tough concept for some, but those who have ever worked long and hard for something may know what I mean.
My niece beamed with pride and an increased self-esteem, and later that day she and her brother learned how to clean the birds and prepare them for eating. Part of hunting, in my belief, also means teaching kids about ecology and conservation, so while we could have filled our daily bag limit of 10 birds easily, we never took more than a couple of birds to cook up for dinner.
Hunting is also about more than just killing, which is why I favor — and always have — actually getting out into nature and hiking into the woods, rather than just driving roads looking for grouse. I believe hunting is an experience, not just an activity, and we experienced a lot on our three-day trip.
In addition to a celestial canopy that seemed infinite, we saw one of the best aurora displays I’ve ever witnessed, and one the kids particularly enjoyed since, not only do the lights typically come out long after they’re in bed, but also they live in Kenai where city lights can interfere with the shows.
It also snowed on our second night. In the morning we found the only tracks in the fresh inch of power on the ground were from a pack of wolves that had moved down the trail during the wee hours.
And, of course, there was all the familial talking and bonding in the cabins at night, far away from television, computers, cellphones and all the other things that can distract us in our daily lives and splinter families in subtle ways.
We made the trip, all of us, with no complaining or whining. We had done it together, and while not all kids their age could have completed such a task, these kids had worked up to it and had a great time. Because of that, so did my wife and I. Despite their young ages, I think lifelong memories were made for my niece and nephew that weekend, and I know that, for myself, it will also be a weekend I won’t forget.