A Festival of Riches
How to become a child again, with examples
by Reid Bryant
As a New England bird shooter, and not a very good one, I’ve grown accustomed to disappointment. In fact, I regard my year’s hunting as an economy of scale, wherein a handful of flushes represents a full bag, and flapping wings on fallen leaves remain a rare gift.
Not to say there aren’t birds near my Massachusetts home. We have ruffed grouse in the fringes, where the mailbox names are mainly French Canadian, and pockets of cover that in good years swallow a flight of woodcock. But mostly, the local rewards of autumn are few and far between, to the point that my wife has a season’s-end saying: “Well, at least the dog got some exercise.”
So on winter nights, with the season spent and the Brittany chasing a dreamscape of partridge, I pore over the atlas, literally and without remorse, musing out loud at the far-flung places where I’d love to carry a gun. It’s an exercise in the futility of fantasy, of course, but the Peter Pan in me continues to plan and plot and fancy away the evenings, believing that someday, somehow, those dreams might come true. Which is why, when a generous friend offered a trip to Alaska for ptarmigan, the bags in the closet were nearly packed.
When a wild-bird man who counts the season’s tally on one hand daydreams, he daydreams of Alaska. And for a simple reason: Alaska and Wild are virtually synonymous. It is a rare and lovely thing in today’s world to enter a place where, looking toward the horizon, you might see what few have seen before. Where the gravel beds give way to tundra, the tracks of caribou dead a century show clear and clean and sharp. Where the tundra gives way to willow breaks, and clucking swarms of birds congregate with no conception of men or dogs or double guns. Where the human presence in a pristine landscape is like a fleck of spinach in God’s own smile, and an epic sky and a lifetime of wild birds on the hummocks ahead clarify a bird hunter’s thoughts. Where the dog starts to creep and your buddy closes his gun, and you fall lockstep into what may be the finest wild bird hunting left in the world.
I flew from my home in early September, with summer still clinging to the 42nd parallel and autumn well established on the Bering Sea.
In Anchorage, I met my friend Brian Grossenbacher. “You ready for this?” he said, over airport beers and burgers. I breathed deep, took too big a bite, and considered the accelerating wheels of a dream come true.
“I think I’ll manage.”
A few hours later, we landed in King Salmon under a low and dropping ceiling. The plan was simple: re-group at Crystal Creek Lodge on the Naknek River, and—I say this in the purest of senses—let guide and lodge owner Dan Michels have his way with us.
That was the plan, anyway. I learned quickly that wild Alaska is more than just bears and bald eagles and a lush arc of country littered with birds. It is, most of all, weather, of the kind that reminds us just how small we are.
Over dinner, Dan, Grossenbacher, and I watched the wind push the ceiling to ground level, and I learned that when it blows in Alaska it blows, in the academic as well as the locker-room sense. The Naknek, flowing by the window, disappeared from view. The rain came in horizontally, the August dusk turned to gunmetal. It was too windy for a boat, too windy for a plane, too windy even for a road-walk behind a dog.
The Taoist in me, having traveled so far, looked for an inner calm beneath the storm. The bird hunter just heard the locker room lyrical, and imagined ptarmigan clucking in the faraway willows. I went to sleep that night saying out-loud prayers for better weather.
On my first full afternoon at Crystal Creek Lodge, Dan, sensing my restlessness, nudged me out the door after dinner. “Got to run the dogs anyway,” made for a weak excuse. “Might as well grab your gun. Just in case.”
We both knew there’d be no shooting, but a walk behind a dog feels infinitely better when there’s a gun along. We leaned into the wind en route to the kennels, and loosed a wriggling mass of pointing dog. Dan is a wirehair man, with some English pointers thrown in for flash. You’ve got to respect a guy who can love something as ugly as a wirehair, and who snuzzles and talks nonsense to each dog as they’re released.
We walked out across the broken tundra towards the tar road, and as the wiry-haired blurs fanned out and tore up the terrain, Dan told me to keep an eye out. “Lots of spruce grouse by the road, lately,” he said with a smile, and we struck off.
Dan admits, with a twinkling eye, to being the first member of his Minnesota family to exit an automobile before shooting an upland bird. He says this less from a smug sense of arriveste superiority than from being the backwoods offspring of a long line of road-hunters who has now walked countless miles in the uplands. His enthusiasm for birds is infectious; he radiates unapologetic joy when offering the countryside and its magnificent shooting to his guests. Even to a wannabe bird man from Massachusetts whose gun is far finer than his shooting.
I was pulling on my brush pants when Grossenbacher arrived with a cup of coffee. “Looking good for flying,” was all I needed to hear. We bolted a quick breakfast and loaded our bags into the van, shoved the dog in on top, and headed for the King Salmon airport, where Dan was warming up the tundra-tire-equipped Beaver. Two fishermen were hitching a ride toward a day of small-stream Dolly Vardens with a few hundred miles to the next nearest angler.
We crammed our gear behind the seats, loaded AK the pointer, and plugged in our headsets. With the prop wound up to a scream, Dan cut her loose. As we climbed into a welcoming sky, I left behind all the circuitous travel, and all the wondering, and all of everything. I was one happy fellow.
Flying over the Alaskan tundra, you see a land of subtle texture. The whole of it looks soft and sodden, like a saturated sponge. Water gathers in hollows, rivers twist in serpentine paths across a setting that seems to have no gradient. And then the mountains rise ahead, as snow-capped and majestic as anything ever reproduced in oils or watercolors, and a solemnity settles heavy over the cabin. It’s a big wild place out there, and a fellow can’t help but feel trivial against its beauty. A bird hunter can’t help but wonder how anyone could ever pick out a likely piece of cover from that endless soggy green below.
We dumped our anglers on a sandbar, the prop barely slowing while they assembled their gear, and then we were on our way, low and slow, 50 miles north past bears, bull moose, and the lava-black scar of a recent volcano toward a broad gravel track on the tundra.
We banked, touched down, cut the engine, and let the silence fall. The biggest silence I’ve ever heard, even with the wind whipping and the willows rustling and the dog squirming around our legs. It made me feel fresh and new, as though scrubbed with raw soap and left out to dry in the wind. What an incredible place to start a day, I thought, as we uncased our 20-gauge doubles and filled our pockets with 3-inch #6’s. I hoped out loud that a couple of boxes between us would be enough, an idle gesture of nervous good humor. But for Dan it was straight logistics, because already, just past the edge of the gravel, a hollow clucking chimed in echo.
As soon as we untied him, English AK went on point, moving concertedly, in small fits and starts, up through the first willow break. Dan closed his gun and held it heavenward, and looked at me with a smile. His “Ready to run?” proved more statement than question. He scampered off into the brush and I followed, barely keeping up with AK in his stop-and-go creep, the clucking growing closer, seemingly just ahead of our boots.
The tundra is a sponge that steals back for itself a foot from every two feet of forward momentum, sucking the life from your legs along with it. But damned if I was going to let Dan get up on that first covey without me, so I flanked him wide left and beat through the waist-high willows, hoping, perhaps praying, that those birds would flush before I ran out of breath.
When you’ve dreamed so long and abstractly of something great, the immediacy of the real thing can lay you low. As I breached the end of the break and came in sight of my first covey of willow ptarmigan, it was almost too much to bear, a carnival of emotion and sound and color that threatened to split me wide open. But I’m glad to say that when that surge of movement changed from a mirage to by-god white-winged birds, all the pent-up yearning of an empty-handed New England bird shooter burst forth in a flurry of #6 shot.
Of that covey, maybe 60 birds, one sympathetic soul fell dead. I knelt next it in the morning light and lifted it, smoothed and sniffed its feathers.
“Beautiful”, said Dan softly, from just behind me. It was the purest embodiment of that wild place I could imagine, and I might have stayed frozen there in reverie if Grossenbacher hadn’t thumped me on the head and said, “Any interest in making a day out of this?” He pointed toward AK, who was creeping again.
“Load up, my boy,” said Dan, beginning his tundra-trampoline run again, and chasing another hundred birds off into the dreamscape. “I don’t know how long this dog can wait on you.”
And so it went. Throughout my life, some days, even moments, have stood as barometers of perfection, an exquisite synthesis of friendship and joy and place. Sadly, many remain lost in childhood memories, in a place unsullied by the cynicism (which some call realism) of adulthood.
I became a boy again, that day on the Alaska tundra. I ran across a landscape wholly wild with two friends, shooting guns and laughing out loud and witnessing the world as it looked when young, when everything was clean and unblemished by disbelief.
I shot birds till I had shot enough, till the vest straps pinched my shoulders. I ate my lunch in a place where no one but two friends and a dog named AK could see what I was seeing: the clouds breaking and spreading and casting shadows over Blue Mountain and the wolf tracks crisscrossing the gravel ribbon below. I took a little post-lunch nap there on the ground as the sun warmed us and the wind dropped and the bugs came out, and I slept only grudgingly, knowing that to sleep was to miss something. Maybe it was all a daydream after all; it sure felt like one.
We rallied when Grossenbacher rolled in his sleep and snorted, and Dan, the consummate Alaska bushman, sat bolt upright and yelled Bear!
Once we’d sorted that our demise wasn’t imminent, and that Grossenbacher’s rumblings were no cause for alarm, we tidied our gear and leashed AK and headed back over the final hump to the plane. As we walked, ptarmigan clucked all about us, hollow and ringing, and we were happy to know they remained—for us, for other bird shooters, or just for themselves. It was a festival of riches, out there by Blue Mountain, the rewards of autumn banked in a lifetime of bag limits, realized or not, in a wildness asserted, and recognized, and left to go white in the coming winter.
Coming home with me were a few fine meals and some feathers for my daughters, friendships forged over burnt powder and blood, and another tome on that special shelf where I keep my perfect days.
And, my wife will be pleased to know, the dog got some exercise, too.