Spruced Up for Springtime

Springtime in Southcentral Alaska means breeding season for spruce grouse.

Male spruce grouse, identified easily by their black- and white-trimmed throats and chests topped with scarlet eye combs, get dandied up in April and May to court hens. Although they’re not formal lekers, males can often be found concentrated in relatively small areas during breeding season. One can often be seen defending a territory within easy sight of other males doing the same.

A male spruce grouse takes a break from displaying for hens to defend its territory.

Speaking of hens, here comes one now. She’s quite the strutter herself.

Hens are drawn by males that put on displays that include flying into trees and landing briefly before thundering to the ground with their bodies in a vertical position. The behavior seems to be a form of drumming.

Looks like he noticed …

Once hens appear, males strut, fan their tails, and raise their eye combs to get attention. Males become very aggressive this time of year, and defensive of their territories. They will sometimes try to chase humans and have been known to beat hikers’ faces with their wings!

Our hero is pulling out all the stops now.

This hen seems to be saying, “Catch me if you can, Tiger!”
She needn’t ask twice. He’s outta there!

RIDDLE of the WINNOWING SNIPE

Although the photo illustration is not the usual full-frame bird close-up, this blog post may be of interest to people from the northern United States, Canada, and Alaska who’ve been seeing – and hearing – a lot of common snipe lately. The picture captures a snipe diving from the cloudy sky near Anchorage, Alaska, this morning to create the “woo-woo-woo-woo-woo” sounds – or winnowing – frequently heard now around Alaska’s lakes, streams, and marshy areas.

As a kid growing up in Alaska I used to assume the birds made the sound through their mouths. But as I grew older and watched more closely, I realized the snipe actually fly up high at a steep angle before pointing downward and diving. As they dive, their wings flap rapidly, pushing air through the stiff outer tail feathers and creating the winnowing sound.

They perform this aerial dance and make that distinctive music each spring as part of their breeding rituals.

Ptarmigan on the Ptundra


A walk in the hills today turned up white grouse and scenic loveliness.

Dawn in the high country was colder than I expected. About frost-nipped my fingers shooting with my gloves off.
A willow ptarmigan soaks up morning sun.
A willow ptarmigan tears across the snow.
These two males were having a turf war. It’s that time of year … breeding season for ptarmigan.
Dawn breaks softly on the peaks.
A living snowball peers from a drift.
Ptarmigan tracks.
A willow ptarmigan sails over the alpine snowpack.
I think the bird at top right is a drill sergeant or something …
A ptarmigan looks up from its pussy willow breakfast.

CAMPFIRE TALK

with TOMMY ANDREW

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The following is a fictional story told by a young Alaska Native man, a Gwich’in Athabscan named Tommy Andrew. Tommy is a fictional character sketched by me – a real-life, white-guy writer and longtime Alaskan. As currently presented, Tommy Andrew has little formal education. He is, however, “woods smart” and highly educated about life in the subarctic wilderness. Be assured that, despite the colloquial and inconsistent English, sparse Athabascan, and phonetic presentation he’s provided with here, Tommy Andrew is nobody’s fool.

As you read, imagine Tommy’s voice as husky and soft, sort of a cross between an echo and a whisper. Also, as you begin reading, please know that “dinjik” is Athabascan for moose. 

Finally, the writer is not an expert or authority on Athabascan culture, language, or history. The following story fragment is respectfully offered for entertainment only.  

– Ken Marsh

***

When Gwich’in catch dinjik, it is our custom to roast the nose in a campfire. The young boys make a fire near the kill while the men skin dinjik and cut up his meat. We do not skin the nose. The fire does that. We lay the nose on the coals and the hair singes off. It flies in the wind and fall soft, like snow, over the river. Gwinoh’ii!

My people are Nantsaii, which means “first on the land.” There are many Nantsaii. In our village we are Ihshaa Dinjii, The River People. The river flows by our village and provides things we need. We catch salmon and jackfish; those fish feed us, and our dogs. In summer, the season of light, the river carries our boats. In the season of darkness, gweedhaa, the ice comes and the river carries our sno-gos and sleds.

In the season of darkness, the elders tell us younger people stories. These are passed down through the generations. My uncle, Ephrem Peter, sometime tells a story about curiosity. Uncle is dinjii nazhan – a shaman – and the wisest man I know. He says curiosity is good, but you must treat it as you would a young bear – with caution. Here is the story:

Many years ago one of the River People, a man named Frankie Dementoff, say he never feel no curiosity. He was an elder and a good hunter. He said he know everything he need and questions only waste his time. One gweedhaa Frankie travel way beyond the big mountain range to the north. He go long, long way. He want to trade with Yupiks up there who were rich with oil of seal and whale. Back then, most Athabascan distrust Eskimos almost as much as they distrust white men. But Frankie, he say the oil would be good for lamps and curing hides in the dark season.

In those days, the people travel over snow by dogsled, and one night Frankie Dementoff camp on open tundra in his sled, covered with a moose hide. He was sleeping when his dogs start barking, but Frankie ignored them. He was not curious and want to sleep. The barking got loud and then, one dog at a time, got quieter until no dogs barked. Frankie, he was pleased because it was quiet and he start to go to sleep. But that changed when something tear through that moose hide over his face. Gwinah’ii! It was a white bear!

I bet Frankie Dementoff scream when he see that.

The bear bit Frankie’s head in its jaws and pull him out of the sled and shake him, hard. Frankie passed out and when he woke up later he could see the white bear standing in the moonlight eating one of the dogs. Frankie Dementoff’s rifle was nearby in the sled, so he crawl over there and pick ’er up. The white bear heard him and it attacked, but Frankie was a good hunter and shot that bear dead. 

Frankie Dementoff did not come home to the River People until early the next summer. His face was scarred and he was missing one eye that had become a raw pit that wept all the time. He wore a white bear skin vest, but after that he never went hunting again.

That was a long time ago. Uncle said the story was passed down by generations of River People and now he tell it to the young boys so that they will be wiser than Frankie Dementoff. It is good to be curious, Uncle says. Sometimes it can save your life.

Look, Gwinoh’ii! That dinjik nose is peeling in the coals. The young boys are poking it with green willow sticks. Soon it will be time to eat.

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Who We Are

By Ken Marsh

“In order to subsist this early man had to dedicate himself wholly to hunting. Hunting was, then, the first occupation, man’s first work and craft.” 

– Jose Ortega yGasset, Meditations on Hunting

The photograph was, at first glance, startling. It featured bright, sticky blood smeared on the brown cheeks and forehead of an 8- or 9-year-old boy. A rack of reindeer antlers, fuzzy with summer velvet, rested on the tundra nearby while in the background a treeless horizon that could have been the Oshetna country, Anaktuvuk Pass, or the hills surrounding the Kobuk River met a cold, white sky.

But it wasn’t Alaska. Looking on was a group of leather-faced men with wrinkles flowing in wakes from the corners of their eyes. All Natives of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula according to the accompanying magazine story, the men were smiling. A caption indicated the dabbing of blood was a cultural rite, a baptism that honored a young Kamchatka Native boy’s bond to the tundra, the reindeer, and the circular path that brings everything together.

In the distinctive way photographs have of stopping time and distilling emotion, I’m envisioning the image of another young boy, standing waif-like in torn pants on a Nelchina River gravel bar, gripping a small rack of velvet-covered caribou antlers. Once tacked to a wall above my office desk, but long since lost, the photograph was a monochrome, relic of an era. Still, it provided the necessary detail – willows in the background, a ribbon of river running through the upper quarter. Your heart filled in the dimensional gaps: color, temperature, the gurgling stream, etc.

Taken on different continents more than a quarter century apart, the two photographs overlapped in an impressionistic sort of way. Rather than two boys of different cultures, they revealed children bound by tradition. You could look into the faces of both boys and sense similar auras of security, innocence, warmth. The presence of blood, the racks, the deaths of beasts, were outshone by a radiance that declared: This is who we are.

A grizzly track appears in frozen mud along Alaska’s Koyukuk River in September.

I’m marching back in time, my feet crunching into the pregnant gravel of a Nelchina River bar. Beside my small, pigeon-toed boot prints are the tracks of caribou (each cloven impression a neatly broken heart), accompanied by the larger, longer, more linear tread of moose; the padded, canine signature of wolves; and in the mud at the water’s edge, the clawed, helter-skelter meandering of a grizzly.

From the time I was 5 years old I followed the men of family and a group of close friends into the Nelchina wilderness each August to hunt caribou. Not unlike the Kamchatka people, we hunted for meat to feed our families. Much of what is important to me today is rooted in that place and to those times, where willows glowed in yellow bursts, and autumn air hung humid and cold, fragrant with the river’s scent (a sweet, earthy blend of wild grasses and damp soil). The country was a place where passions bloomed.

In my earlier years I served a kind of apprenticeship, providing camp meat by catching graying with a bamboo fly rod featuring a wildly flared tip. Later I graduated on to a .410 shotgun and white-winged ptarmigan – tundra chickens. Ultimately, I became a big-game hunter.

Your mind is a sponge when you’re 6, 8, 12 years old. You remember things that adults might think trivial. But symbolically, the livery flavor of ptarmigan fried in flour and butter or the image of a ridgeline bristling with a forest of silhouetted antlers become a part of you.

Along the way you learn things only hunters know that can’t be explained, but must be felt. Ancient, primal emotions intrinsic to men and wolves develop and grow tangible. You discover the peerless freedom of the hunt surging in the grip of wood and cold steel or howling in the wind of a high pass. You’re introduced to basic realities of success and failure, life and death.

With time the fundamental lessons of hunting grow more complex. You discover hunting is as convoluted as humanity itself: There is subsistence, there is recreation and, rarely, the good of it is destroyed by dark elements like greed or bloodlust. Somewhere within this tangle of character and natural instinct, where innocence and knowledge mingle, we define ourselves – as a species and as individuals.

Most of my time these days is spent far from the Nelchina River country and its caribou. Even so, it’s encouraging to know that the land and its animals live on and that hunting there remains a priceless, ageless option. That’s because hunting is a birthright, something that can never really be taken away. The Kamchatka people would agree, as would their Alaska Native cousins, my Anglo ancestors and, if they could speak, so would wolves.

Back on the Nelchina River, my uncle showed me how to fashion a whistle by cutting a willow with a jackknife and carefully slipping the bark. Another man taught me how to skin a caribou without slashing my knuckles by gripping the hide like so. And when, at age 11, I killed my first caribou, the men smiled and patted my shoulders and generally treated me as an equal. I’ve since known no greater honor.

That, truly, is why the photograph of that scene on the Kamchatka Peninsula made me pause. It made me realize that some things about us change little with time. Or geography. And if, in the 1960s, baptisms along the Nelchina River were subtler than those on the Kamchatka Peninsula, they were no less important.

Today I drive an automobile that burns gasoline and live in a house that has permanently displaced wildlife habitat. Indeed, if you traced everything I do, you would find my existence somehow comes at the expense of other creatures. So whether or not I hunt this fall (as I plan to do), I still have blood on my hands, and coursing through my heart. We all do.

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Author Ken Marsh with hares he harvested with a .410 shotgun near Chickaloon, Alaska, in, October 1971.

ODD DUCK

A bird of another feather dropped in at the mallard pond the other evening. The common merganser hen landed on the small bit of open water, got mouthy with the locals, then winged off again, into the sunset.

A common merganser drops out of the sky late last week to land in an Anchorage pond.
A common merganser hen shows she won’t intimidated by the resident mallards.
The merganser takes on a diving stance.
Reflecting among the squiggly lines of evening.

The merganser is off again, into the sunset.

HUNTING FOR HEAVYWEIGHTS

Halibut in Alaska waters grow huge — the state sportfishing record stands at 459 pounds — and are rightly considered big game. 

By Ken Marsh

Forty fathoms beneath the charter boat T. Rex, in the murky depths of Montague Strait, the cargo pilot’s short, stubby saltwater rod seemed suddenly possessed. It bucked and wrenched and bent perilously over the gunwale. The veins in his forearms swelled, sweat beaded on his brow. 

Framed by the cabin door, the skipper smiled broadly, his lower lip fat with a double dip of snuff. “Don’t rest your rod on the rail,” the skipper coached. “Lift up, keep pressure on the fish.”

The cargo pilot, taking a day off from his job in Anchorage, strained to lift his rod. The rod writhed. He grunted. And then his line fell curiously slack. 

“I think it’s gone,” he said. 

 By the tone of his voice, it was hard to tell whether he was disappointed or relieved.

The skipper spat over the side. 

“He’s still there. Reel, reel!”

The cargo pilot lifted the rod and gave the reel a couple of cranks. Then the rod tip shot abruptly down, forcing him to stop reeling and hang on.

“Take advantage of it when (the fish) lets up,” the skipper said. 

After that, the cargo pilot got into the rhythm of the battle: Pull up, up on the rod, then lower the tip and reel fast. Repeat. That is how a saltwater angler gains on a strong fish. Pump and grind, pump and grind. Three feet … of line … at a time. 

Ten minutes and 235 feet of line later, as the cargo pilot strained against the bouncing rod, the white bottom-side of a halibut flashed below the boat. The skipper snatched his heavy gaff from its holder and, leaning dangerously over the side, hooked the fish by the jaw.

 At that instant, a new fight was on. The halibut thrashed, splashing saltwater onto the deck and pounding its tail against the side of the boat. The skipper hung on, like a bull rider on a crazed Brahma. Then, with the grace of a seasoned professional, he hauled the fish smartly over the side and onto the deck. 

A couple of thumps between the eyes with an aluminum baseball bat and the fish fell still.

“Forty pounds,” the skipper announced matter-of-factly. 

The cargo pilot beamed. He’d only been fishing 20 minutes. The day had just begun.

Halibut are heavyweights. Where trout are creatures of poetry and color, halibut are big, broad, mud-colored lugs with close-set eyes situated frog-like on the tops of their flat, fat heads. They fight with impressive strength on the far end of a line and their delicately flavored white fillets are the fare of high-end restaurants. Halibut in Alaska waters grow huge — the state sportfishing record stands at 459 pounds — and are rightly considered big game. 

We stalk them by boat, often traveling miles out to sea, armed with rods thick and flexible as flagpoles, and harpoons with detachable heads tied to buoys (a la Jaws). Big halibut brought to the surface may be struck with the harpoons or shot with .44 Magnums or .410 shotguns. The fish spend their lives lying flat on the sea bottom; to reach them, you may need five pounds of solid lead. A steel hook large and stout enough to hang a 130-pound moose haunch is required to hold them. For bait you might use a herring the size of trout caught and released in Prince William Sound streams. Or you might use a three-pound pink salmon. 

 A few minutes after catching the first halibut of the day, the cargo pilot caught his second fish — a 45-pounder.  

“That’s the best I’ve ever done,” he announced. His limit secured, he sat down to relax and enjoy the late-morning sunshine.

One by one, fish came to the baits of the other four T. Rex anglers. One man from Minneapolis was experiencing his first Alaska fishing trip. When he hooked and brought to the boat a 35-pound halibut — considered small in local waters — the skipper asked if he wanted to keep it. Still holding his rod, the angler turned to his mates:

“I catch my first halibut and this guy asks if I want to keep it!” He laughed, then turned back to the skipper and said, “Hell yes I want to keep it.”

The angler, whose biggest fish prior to that were walleyes pulled from his Minnesota lakes, later rounded out his halibut limit with a fish that weighed close to 50 pounds. Joining the cargo pilot, he sat down and looked over the flat-calm seas. To the north, the jagged peaks of a nearby island were silhouetted against warm blue skies. Here and there a salmon leaped. Puffins paddled by.

“You know what surprises me,” the angler said, “is that we’re not surrounded by other boats. I thought there would be other boats, but I haven’t seen another one all day.”

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PRECIOUS SPECKLED TROUT

When I look at a cutthroat trout, I am reminded of a shy child, freckled, cast out of the mainstream because it is small, less aggressive. The name “cutthroat” is derived not from the creature’s disposition, but from its appearance. Cutthroats lack along their lateral lines the decisive red stripes of rainbow trout, wearing them instead in distilled vividness beneath their lower jaws. In fact, Alaska’s coastal cutts are particularly susceptible to bullying. When spawning they often seek tiny streams — muskeg trickles, remote headwaters, springs barely a foot wide — to avoid competition with belligerent coho and steelhead.

In some waters they are found in both sea-run and resident forms. No one seems to know exactly why one fish spends time in the ocean while another in the same stream does not. In the end cutthroats are where you find them, one day among the barnacles chasing minnows, the next sipping mayflies from a freshet.

In their own subtle way, cutthroat trout are metaphors for Alaska as I’ve long known it: beautiful, wild, innocent. Vulnerable. They are worth finding and catching and letting go, to remain in the heart like poems of sunlight, shadow, hemlock and spruce, and days spent on the water in the world’s last, great wilderness. 

— km

Hunting with Harry

A story of a southern gentleman, duck hunting, and the heartbreak of September in Alaska.

By Ken Marsh

September was nearly over and, even though Harry was a fine man – a South Carolinian and southern gentleman in the truest sense – I didn’t feel much like talking. We sat side by side on a drift log, a great weather-bleached cottonwood, next to a pond on the Susitna Flats. A cold wind blustered, pinched our cheeks and turned them pink while we waited for ducks that came in fits and starts, cup-winged over the decoys.

This was Harry’s first trip to Alaska. He’d waited for more than 60 years to get here, working 40 of those years as a heart surgeon. Saving lives for a living or, at the very least buying time for the doomed, he was a miracle worker by any measure. Yet there I sat, three feet away, silently nursing something broken inside that he could not fix.

The two of us had shot poorly all afternoon. The ducks came fast on the autumn wind and we suspected we were not allowing proper leads. Perhaps on that day there was not enough lead in the world; maybe the ducks and the wind were simply faster than reflex, powder, and shot.

Duck hunters sometimes have to wonder where the birds come from; one moment the sky is a lifeless place of wind and clouds, the next you hear overhead the jet-engine rip of wings cutting air. And there they are. This time it was a group of wigeon, a dozen or more in a tight wedge. I just had time to stand, point, and shoot. There was the report of my gun, the solid splattering contact that you feel deep in your chest, and then a bird from the flock’s tail end dropping like a stone out of the sky.

There had been no time for Harry to shoot. The ducks had vanished almost as quickly as they had appeared. Still, Harry was happy. For me. And for himself.

Earlier in the week I’d taken Harry hunting for ruffed grouse over my orange-and-white Brittany. When the dog locked up in some yellow grass at the base of a hill, Harry had stepped up and bagged the first ruffed grouse of his life. The bird had flushed with wings beating like a frenzied, racing heart, and the surgeon had coolly pointed his shotgun and squeezed. For a flash there was silence, a cloud of feathers hanging in the air like someone had torn open an old-fashioned pillow. Then the kindly, silvered-haired southern gentleman stood and yelled like rebel at Fort Sumter. Later, Harry told me that he liked Alaska. “It’s a man’s country,” he’d said.

More ducks came and we dropped a few, including a headshot bluebill that flew perfectly for 300 yards before folding up in an odd, delayed reaction. And Harry made a fine shot on his first canvasback, a huge drake that splashed down among our decoys with a definitive finality. Then the sky grew dusky and we gathered our spread and motored off in a beat-up johnboat across the pond’s dark, troubled waters.

We were staying with two others at a duck shack (a plywood outbuilding set upon stilts to avoid flooding by the highest Cook Inlet tides) far away from the forest, yet I imagined that I could hear leaves falling even as winter’s darkness fell and the night’s frost came on. Oddly, Alaska appears more crisp and vibrant in September, even as it seems to die. Within a week the trees would scratch the raw sky with aching, naked limbs. The duck flats would lie bare and silent, ponds sealed in ice, the air dead, the last wigeon and greenhead gone. Like always, a hollowness would expand like a balloon in my chest and for no tangible reason I would feel the need to hold back tears. A courtship would have died and I would find myself left alone because time and its season do not wait. That is the heartbreak of September. And no heart surgeon in the world can fix it.

You may love all seasons, but you may not live them all at once. You must take each one singly, as it comes, and no matter how much you yearn for another, you are committed by time to remain where you are.

That night the clouds parted and gave way to stars, a full moon, and complete stillness. By the glow of a propane lamp, we played cards and sipped scotch. Outside the moon glared, illuminating the flats and creating a black-and-silver world that was surreal. We could hear geese yelping all night long, leaving with the frost under the light of the moon. The card game grew subdued and it is possible that we all knew just where we sat: on a cornice, the threshold of winter.

Next morning the sun rose over the Chugach Range, a bright circle of fire that burned cold like frozen steel. The ponds had frozen and ice crystals glittered in the hard blue mud. No geese called or peppered the pale sky, and the ducks of the day before were gone.

Harry remained upbeat, as always, which made me think of the stories he’d shared over our decoys the day before. In one story he’d diagnosed a woman with terminal cancer. The woman had been told that her life could be extended with chemotherapy, but she refused to accept the diagnosis and, against Harry’s advice, left the hospital. A year passed. Then one day Harry had glanced up and there was the woman – still very much alive. She’d never felt better. An examination showed that her cancer was gone. She’d had no treatment, and Harry remained to that day happily puzzled. He was a spiritual man and had often felt a greater presence while performing grave operations. His stories made me think. They offered hope.

We flew in a small plane back to Anchorage late that morning, over the lifeless duck flats, through a mass of gathering clouds spitting snow. And somewhere between the Susitna River delta and Lake Hood in Anchorage, I felt a sudden warmth and knew my heart was healing. Maybe it was something the surgeon had said. Or perhaps it came from somewhere else.

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