Common Ground: High times for highcountry bird hunting

Photo courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Winchester the magnificent shows his prowess at upland bird hunting.

Photo courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Winchester the magnificent shows his prowess at upland bird hunting.

Buy Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter

There are times, like in the Kenai Mountains, when the ptarmigan are all around you. Their fresh tracks are visible in the snow at the base of shrub willow and along the trail.

All the days they weren’t there before disappear, and you know that any second you will hear a cluck and a bird will materialize or the dog will flush 20 birds into the sky. “This is the place,” I think. “We’ll just spend the day here and find our birds at an easy elevation.”

But my hunting partner is walking fast to keep up with his English setter. Both of them have their eyes on a mountain peak. It doesn’t matter if we might just be walking past 300 birds, they are not hunting those easy birds. They are hunting the birds at the very top.

I finally catch up enough so that I can tug an article of clothing. “Hey,” I say. “I think there’s birds right around here.”
“Well,” he says, “If they’re still here when we get back… .”

Before I could argue, he was already out of earshot ahead of me on the trail. His dog was a mile ahead and running the snow-brushed rocks a hundred yards above us. I wondered if I had missed an important meeting about exactly what it was we were doing.

When my English setter was the bird dog on task, she would do appropriate-looking things, like sniff the air for birds. His dog, on the other hand, was considered the Olympic athlete of the bird dog family because he could find the lone bird perched on the summit or hold a point for the half hour it took to catch up to him on an avalanche chute two valleys away.

The vein on my forehead started to protrude as I realized that this was not the first time I’d followed these two sheep hunters all the way to the top of a mountain just to eat a sandwich and hear my hunting partner say, “It doesn’t matter if I get a bird, I just enjoy watching the dog.”

They were not hunting for the same ptarmigan that I was hunting. My ptarmigan was just “Joe Ptarmigan,” while their ptarmigan was some prize chicken that captured the elusive spirit of the mountain.

If I could smack another person in the head with a ptarmigan, I thought, I would smack these two.
The wind was picking up and snow blew into my face. My hunting partner pulled out his camera to take a few pictures of his glorious bird dog. Winchester, his black and white English setter, stood stock still on a rock while the wind blew his feathered legs and tail. “It doesn’t get any better than this does it?” my hunting partner said.

I was still trudging up the trail behind him. My face was raw and wind-beaten.

“I sure hope those ptarmigan are still there when we get back,” I said.

For the next hour, Winchester ran the highest peaks while we kept pace with him along the creek bed.

“Why does he think the birds are up there when they’re probably along the creek bed?” I asked. “Can’t you get him to, you know, come down here for a minute?”

My partner looked at me with a momentary look of disgust. I might as well have said, “Can’t we just forget about ptarmigan and order some chicken McNuggets for dinner?”

The dog had stopped. We both watched as he angled himself around some willows and came to a point. We headed up the steep mountainside and I said something like, “There better be some birds in those willows or I’m going to whack Winchester in the head with a chicken.”

“What?” my partner said.

“Oh nothing,” I said.

We decided I would go in and flush the birds. I was out of breath and Winchester glanced at me without moving. His look seemed to say, “Don’t screw this up.”

Two willow ptarmigan burst out of the willows on the ground and then set their wings to coast all the way down to the creek. I didn’t have a good shot, and my two companions both looked at me like, “We did all the work, and you couldn’t even get a shot.”

Down the mountain we went, all the way back to the creek bed. The birds were invisible again, but Winchester wasn’t interested in creek birds. There were more birds at the highest peaks. I watched as he bounded up the mountain without showing any sign of effort.

He wound his way through brushed snow and his was the only image I could make out between the clouds and the white of the mountainside. He never got tired and he never gave up. Something about this dog made me feel like anything was possible and all my aches and pains were only signs that I just hadn’t reached his level of enthusiasm yet.

It was getting late in the day so we decided to head back down, following the creek. The sun was setting behind the mountain and the valley was getting cold. As we passed the place I’d seen sign of birds earlier in the day, I never slowed. “You don’t want to see if those birds are still around?” my hunting partner asked.

“No,” I said. “It doesn’t matter if I get a bird, I just enjoy watching the dog.”

Christine Cunningham was born in Alaska and has lived on the Kenai Peninsula for the last 20 years, where she enjoys fishing, hunting and outdoors recreation. Her book, “Women Hunting Alaska,” was released by Northern Publishing in January 2013. She can be reached at christineemal@hotmail.com.

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