Anchorage, Alaska, remains covered in two or three feet of snow these days, with fresh buckets-full coming down at this very moment. But don’t be fooled. Springtime is on its way and the first Canada geese will be showing up here in about four weeks. Trust them. They’ve returned to this part of the world early each April for eons.
The new arrivals pictured here on a previous April day are standing on the ice of a local pond. Some appear rightly weary, while others are throwing their heads back in apparent celebration — they actually made it!
With spring so close, today’s snow make little difference. The rest of us will make it, too.
A spruce bark beetle infestation across Southcentral Alaska in recent years has proven beneficial for regional woodpeckers. From Petersville to Palmer, Anchorage and beyond, infested trees have provided a year-round banquet for these sharp-billed birds.
Downy and hairy woodpeckers are most common around Anchorage, but a hike yesterday was highlighted by an encounter with a female American three-toed woodpecker, Picoidesfasciatus. (Note: Until recently, these birds were call northern three-toed woodpeckers.) At a glance, the main difference between sexes is that adult males sport a bright yellow cap.
Ranging from Alaska and the Yukon south to Oregon, northern Idaho and western Montana, the American three-toed woodpecker is a smaller species with adults ranging from 8 to 9 1/2 inches in length — roughly the size of an American robin. They generally find food in and immediately under a tree’s outer bark, rarely driving deeply into the wood. Note the small holes and disturbed bark in these pictures to see woodpeckers have fed on this bark beetle-infested tree frequently.
Yesterday’s woodpecker proved a cooperative photographic model, allowing me to approach closely with a 70-200mm Canon lens in so-so light. Seeing shed life and sound to an otherwise silent winter day in Southcentral Alaska.
Every city, village and community in this wilderness state has its own birds, animals and viewing treasures.
Armed only with a camera and with nowhere to hide I knew calling in a bull moose might be risky. But afternoon glare had eased into golden evening light and the willow shadows now stretched far uphill, highlighting subtle mountainside contours. Backed by the crags of the Chugach Range, alpine flora ablaze in the reds, oranges and yellows of fall, the setting and conditions were perfect for wildlife photography.
The only thing missing was a moose.
So I cupped my hands around my mouth and, in the eons-old tradition of northern hunters everywhere, began imitating a bull-moose challenge with a series of low, bellowing grunts. Moose tracks and trails were stomped into alpine tundra around me, and bark scraped from several head-high alders marked where bulls had rubbed velvet from their antlers. They were around.
The last time I’d successfully called in a moose I’d barely escaped up a spruce tree before a red-eyed, antler-thrashing bull charged out of the brush, furious and ready to fight. I’d stayed in that tree for a good, long time while the bull circled below, grunting and slobbering.
That close call had occurred years earlier, and I’d since tried many times under safer conditions to call bulls, but with no luck at all. Now, on that mid-September evening in Chugach State Park overlooking the city of Anchorage, the likelihood that I might make a moose appear seemed remote. Still, it was worth a try.
I hadn’t finished calling when alders started snapping violently in the gully below. Snatching my tripod and camera, I was preparing to bolt when a bull burst out only 30 yards away. Head low and glowering, it looked straight at me. The nearest tree was a half-mile away, and I realized the best I could do was stand stock-still and appear as unthreatening as possible. I didn’t even breathe.
Then, from the gully’s far side, came the sounds of more brush breaking. The bull turned its head just as a second bull stepped into the open. A distraction! For a moment it seemed I might escape, but then the first bull turned and, with steely resolve, started toward me.
I don’t know what I would have done had the bull kept coming. I’d run out of options. Fortunately, the second bull refused to be ignored and charged across the gully. The first bull braced to face its attacker and heads-down the two collided with a loud, hollow clacking of antlers. I seized the moment and high-tailed it for a nearby ridge, away from the heart of the action, but close enough to calm down and safely take pictures with my telephoto lens.
Finding untamed places and wild creatures in Alaska can be as simple and inexpensive as stepping outside or taking a drive. Even in Anchorage, a city of 300,000, it’s easy to find and view moose in Chugach State Park where bulls gather in September to knock heads and win breeding rights to harems of cows. Calling them in, of course, is unnecessary—and not advised.
Anchorage isn’t alone in its supply of urban wildlife-viewing opportunities. Every city, village and community in this wilderness state has its own birds, animals and viewing treasures. The key to finding them is to step outside, use some imagination, and be alert. In other words, consider yourself on safari. And no matter where in the state you may seek wildlife to photograph or view, keep in mind that your best days will include everything—the seasons, the weather, even subtleties of light falling early in the morning or receding with night’s advance. Work to see that each outing includes the calls of songbirds, the sounds of rivers, the touch of winds, and shadows cast by mountains and clouds. Do that and wherever in Alaska you look, you’ll find what you seek.
WHERE TO START
Alaska is huge, and its viewing opportunities for birds and wildlife are diverse. Just what time of year and where in the state to plan a visit will depend upon the species you hope to find. For some excellent get-started information, visit the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Wildlife Viewing Web pages at http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=viewing.main. —K.M.
ACCESSIBLE WILDLIFE VIEWING
Beyond Alaska’s cities, yet easily and affordably accessible by road, rail, air or boat, are several national and state parks. In many cases, concessionaires provide wildlife-viewing tours and easy access and accommodations in and around parks while rangers are on hand to answer questions and point out wildlife and viewing areas of interest. Some popular national parks offering very different bird- and wildlife-viewing options include:
Denali National Park and Preserve is the crown jewel of Alaska’s parks. Denali offers some of the world’s best opportunities to see a diverse array of wildlife. Dall sheep, brown bear, moose, caribou and—if you’re especially fortunate—wolves, can all be seen in a single day amid scenery unsurpassed anywhere on the planet. Bus tours make travel and viewing in the park easy. For more information, visit http://www.nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/wildlife-viewing.htm.
Kenai Fiords National Park offers wildlife viewing with an added maritime twist. A mix of estuaries, rugged coastline, forests and ice fields, much of the park is best seen via boat or air. Visitors taking any of several boat tours out of Seward can expect to see a variety of seabirds—including puffins, oystercatchers, and murres—and sea mammals [marine mammals?] such as sea otters, seals and several species of whales. Along the shorelines and mountainsides, black bears, brown bears and mountain goats may be seen. To learn more, see http://www.nps.gov/kefj/learn/nature/animals.htm.
Katmai National Park is famous for its brown bear viewing opportunities. The park’s Brooks River is the centerpiece, drawing bears to feast on the hundreds of thousands of salmon that arrive annually. At peak season in July, anywhere from 45 to 70 bears may roam this mile-and-a-half-long stream connecting southwestern Alaska’s Naknek and Brooks lakes. Learn more at http://www.nps.gov/katm/planyourvisit/bear-watching.htm.
If your timeline or budget won’t permit wildlife-viewing treks to Alaska’s far-flung corners, don’t worry: No matter where your travels take you in the Great Land, wildlife and wild places can be found nearby.
Overlooking Anchorage, Chugach State Park’s Glen Alps trailhead is about a 15-minute drive from the city’s heart. Moose gather here during the September and early October breeding season, and Dall sheep are frequently seen, along with many species of alpine birds, including three types of ptarmigan; Arctic ground squirrels; and if you’re very lucky, bears, lynx or even wolverine.
Kincaid Park, less than a 10-minute drive from Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, is another great place to see moose year-round. And within a 20-minute drive south of the city on the Seward Highway, pods of belugas (white whales) may be spotted in summer and fall chasing salmon on the tides of scenic Turnagain Arm. Dall sheep can also be viewed along the highway, grazing on the mountainsides.
Anchorage isn’t alone for its urban wildlife-viewing opportunities. In the winter, between October and February, the world’s largest congregation of bald eagles can be found along the Chilkat River just outside of Haines in Southeast. Deer, red foxes and massive Kodiak brown bears can be seen from the road system out of the city of Kodiak. And Creamer’s Field near the Interior city of Fairbanks is famous for its waterfowl viewing and opportunities to watch moose, lynx and even the region’s sole amphibian, the wood frog.
Alaska’s wild side is home to a distinctive assortment of birds.
By Ken Marsh
“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”
The surf charges in with a drumroll that crescendos, peaks, then breaks in a carbonated hiss. It’s late afternoon and, wrapped in waders and raingear, I’ve left the shelter of a rented shack and stepped onto the sand dunes of an isolated Alaska Gulf Coast beach. The idea is to hike inland across the dunes, against a steady rain, and into the wetlands beyond to explore and witness a rare natural wonder.
Overhead, the skies swarm and clamor with northbound birds. Huge flocks move across a wilderness tapestry far from roads, electricity or Internet. This passage – of shorebirds and waterfowl by the millions – is what I’ve come to see. They storm the region late each April and May in a mass migration witnessed by relatively few, the sights and sounds a sensation worthy of any wildlife viewer’s bucket list.
Indeed, a desire to see wild creatures living as they have since the last ice age draws viewers to Alaska from all corners of the world. The state’s ranges, coasts and forests are famous for unique collections of birds and animals ranging from two-pound willow ptarmigan to two-ton Pacific walrus along with caribou, brown bear and so much more. Of course, the adventure is in the searching and the finding, the becoming a part of the place, its mountain backdrops and tundra plains, to find iconic musk ox, Dall sheep, moose – and even little birds as they pass in hordes across untamed skies.
Wet, wild and lonesome, the Gulf Coast is a country of ocean squalls and glacier-hung mountains, a place where the winds sometimes howl for weeks without pause. Yet breaks in the weather occur, and when they do, this little known, largely uninhabited stretch of shoreline spanning some 200 miles between Cordova and Yakutat reveals itself as a world of contrasts. On days when sunshine floods land and sea, the hemlocks dry out and the hills glow in an enchanted light. Harebells and salmonberries bloom purple and hot pink, and creatures—some large and lanky as 1,000-pound moose; others tiny and delicate as rufous hummingbirds, lighter than a nickel—appear in the marshes, thickets and along beach edges.
The rivers and streams here (there are many) serve as avenues for salmon: awesome runs of sockeye, Chinook and coho. And one particular river—the great, glacial Copper—has over the eons cut a deep, wide valley that each spring provides passage into Alaska’s Interior for a multitude of migrating waterfowl, shorebirds, songbirds and raptors.
At the moment, I’m east of the Copper on a late-April day, dropped off by a bush plane chartered from Cordova, near a delta where two smaller rivers merge. The birds are here, as expected, resting in the marshes and flooding the skies en route to that ancient gateway to Arctic nesting grounds. Not far from my shack, a shelter for commercial fishermen who appear for a few weeks each August to net late-summer coho, the dunes bordering the open coast end abruptly at a shallow, brackish, mile-long lake backed by an expansive bog. The lake seems crossable, so I wade in and start sloshing my way across.
Shorebirds sail by in unimaginable numbers; some 5 to 7 million of them will pass through before all is said and done, many just in from faraway places such as Mexico, Central America and South America. Western sandpipers, plovers, dowitchers and dunlins whistle around me in whirling flocks, twisting and turning in single-minded masses. Sandhill cranes meander overhead, circling and gliding, their croaking, cracking calls distinctive as the spring season itself. Tundra swans honk, and geese of all kinds cry out as they pass overhead in broad, northbound wedges.
At the bog, an organic brew of tannic water and decomposing plants, the air smells like rotten eggs. My pace slows to a tentative, mud-bottomed slog, and I’m startled as waves of pintails, wigeons, shovelers and teal in flocks of hundreds burst suddenly from the sedges.
A confession: I am a casual birder. While serious colleagues enjoy keeping life lists or collecting and recording sightings—endeavors that are interesting and potentially helpful to the overall study of birds—my approach is less structured, though no less passionate. Instead of recording lists or tallies, I like to view birds as living art forms, natural elements that fill critical niches in a broad, breathing canvas. I watch them, savoring their distinctive colors, movements and songs, then move on to the next piece of the canvas.
In that sense I’m less a birder, perhaps, than a student of nature in its entirety. And that’s fine. There are as many ways and reasons to view birds and wildlife as there are people interested in doing so. Even better, there are no hard, fast rules that apply to how nature is interpreted or enjoyed.
An hour later I’m beyond the bog, walking in a driven drizzle among tussocks and grass to my armpits. Steller’s jays with cobalt tails melding like winter nights into black, crested heads, scream in the brush at the bog’s edge. Nearby, on the far side of a thicket, a river whispers.
The wide-open bog vanishes in a tangled, twisted forest of alders 10 feet tall and for a moment I sense a twinge of hopelessness. Engulfed in alders, I follow the sound of the current, tripping over trunks, cursing, then pushing on. And suddenly, the river appears. At its edge, bear tracks stamped into the mud meander upstream toward a forested valley. The gentle current simmers in the rain and it occurs to me the dripping jungle around me is alive with peeping songbirds: juncos, sparrows, kinglets, and so many nondescript little brown warblers and whistlers that I can’t keep track of them all. I’m tempted to just sit there, watching, thinking and resting. But it’s getting late, and I must turn back.
Four days after my arrival, I’m standing at the shack’s window, sipping hot cocoa, examining my reflection. The sun has broken out, and the clouds have lifted, revealing beyond the marsh a massive glacier framed by the jagged Coastal Range. Flocks of birds continue to whirl outside, as well as in my head, where images of this trip will remain, I suppose, forever.
Suddenly, a dash of iridescent emerald appears on glittering wings, hovering at collar level beyond the reflected image of my red chamois shirt. I hear my plane coming. The hummingbird vanishes.
To experience the spring shorebird and waterfowl migration in and around the Copper River delta—to hit it just right—is to witness an aerial stampede. Seeing so many birds, and so many varieties, can be remarkable, even life changing. Better, it’s only one example of Alaska’s many unique wildlife-viewing opportunities.
In the way that a locale and its inhabitants can set a place apart, Alaska is distinctive for its animals and birds—from giant brown bears of Pleistocene dimensions to diminutive boreal chickadees—and for its backdrops of mountains, rivers, forests and tundra so deep and broad that the land seems to roll on forever. In fact, with 586,412 square miles of land mass (that’s more than a million acres or 1,600 square miles for every day of the year) the state is unfathomably huge, spanning an assortment of climate zones, geographies and ecosystems, each featuring its own distinctive collection of birds and animals.
Such variety in a seemingly endless wilderness can be intimidating to prospective wildlife viewers. But it needn’t be prohibitive. Simply focus on the bird or animal species you wish to see, and then determine through a bit of research just when and where in the state you’ll need to go find them. From there it’s a matter of sorting through logistics, including travel, food, and accommodations; aligning costs to suit your budget; and considering how much time you have to spend.
Going wild—striking out on your own or in a small group to search for wildlife in far-flung places—is one option. Dream venues await in every corner of the state: Consider Round Island in Southwest Alaska, where Pacific walrus may be seen hauling out on the beach by the thousands (for an instant preview, see them live via Web cam at explore.org/walrus); or Southeast’s Anan Creek in July and August when black bears and brown bears mingle to fish for pink salmon; the Arctic out of Nome, where you might rent a car to tour the road system and search for musk oxen or maybe connect with a local birding tour to find rare and colorful bluethroats and Arctic warblers.
Access to the more exotic places usually means taking a commercial jet from Juneau, Anchorage or Fairbanks to a hub city such as Petersburg, Wrangell, Cordova, Dillingham, or Kotzebue, among others. From there, passage into the wilderness might require a Bush plane or a boat charter off the coast or up a remote river. Do-it-yourself trips are possible and can ease expenses, but treks far from civilization require meticulous planning, and wilderness camping is not for the inexperienced. The cost of a guided tour is usually money well spent—these may include extended hikes or river floats through storied places such as the Brooks Range or the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where seasoned professionals handle logistics and safety.
Birding is a year-round pastime for many in Alaska, with viewing in many regions generally best from April through September. A listing of local festivals celebrating the arrival and gatherings of birds can be found at http://ak.audubon.org/2015-bird-festivals-alaska.
Mallards are a hardy breed. Cold weather really doesn’t seem to bother them as long as open water and/or food is available. These ducks winter in Anchorage, Alaska, despite subzero temperatures and deep snow. They seem no worse for the wear.
We caught and released at least 50 trout that late summer day, all big, powerful, vibrantly colored fish that leaped and ran like the wild things they were. The sandbars were stamped with grizzly bear tracks and not another angler in sight. Such days are rare anymore from the road system in Alaska’s Susitna Valley. Fishing pressure there has grown, frankly, relentless. But with proper timing, hard work, and a bit of luck, great days may still occur.
North America’s “other” upland bird flies like a bat out of Hell, promising gunning challenges and rewards no hunter should miss.
By Ken Marsh
“Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of 10 and be considered a good performer.”
– Ted Williams
Nobody ever whacked a baseball harder or more consistently than Ted Williams. The late ballpark legend was a respected wingshooter in his day, too, with an off-days passion for pigeon shooting at Fenway Park (a pastime that on at least one occasion outraged the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). Then there was his famous “three times out of 10” quote which, in the wake of my fourth straight miss one morning last September, made me wonder if “the Thumper” had ever taken a swing at snipe.
Comparable in size to mourning doves and at least as hard to hit on the wing, snipe are enigmatic little swamp squatters that, unlike doves, rarely offer consistent pass-shooting opportunities. Rather, they hunker and wait to be kicked up along lakeshores and coastal marsh edges by hunters with or without dogs. And when these birds bust from the sedges, be advised: They come unhinged. Like bats out of Hell they spring up with a screech only to haul ass low and crazy-fast, twisting and jinking. They’ll fluster the sharpest shooters, presenting the kind of shotgunning challenge that is at the heart of upland hunting.
And that’s not all. The pièce de resistance of snipe hunting: These little birds are damned good eating. Roasted hot and fast, a platter of snipe can make an hour or two of decent shooting worth more than every penny paid for a box of 20-gauge No. 7 steel.
Specifically, we’re talking Wilson’s snipe, Gallinago delicata. Not to be confused with dowitchers, yellowlegs, or any of more than 50 species of little brown North American shorebirds, Wilson’s snipe are stocky, long-billed creatures vaguely resembling and distantly related to woodcock (the lineages between snipe and woodcock are thought to have diverged during the Eocene some 34- to 56-million years ago). Snipe are migratory birds, ranging seasonally from my home state of Alaska south through Canada, California, the Midwest, Florida, Texas and into South America. Snipe are also found in Britain and Europe where they have long provided popular rough-shooting sport.
Beyond the hiss of an incoming or outgoing tide, the coastal flats I hunt in Southcentral Alaska are normally quiet when I arrive around noon. Uh, wait a minute. Noon? That’s right, it’s not necessary to hit the swamps at daybreak for snipe. The birds fly mostly at night and spend days resting and feeding in wet fields, bogs, and along shorelines.
If you’re hunting in areas popular among duck and goose hunters, waiting until midday allows the boys in the blinds (and you, too, if so inclined) time to enjoy the early-morning hours that are generally more productive for those species. Rather than marching around early in the morning flaring web-footed fowl away from waiting gunners, I usually put off snipe hunting until after their decoys have been packed up and operations ceased for the day.
Look for snipe in damp – but not flooded – grassy areas. Some of the most productive covers I’ve found have included broken patches of ankle- to knee-high grasses and sedges bordering shallow, brackish, mud-bottomed ponds. Then again, I’ve also flushed them from wet areas next to trails in the middle of large forests, along muskeg edges, and even from alpine tundra. I suspect birds in these marginal areas simply settle there for the day because that’s where sunrise happens to find them.
Dogs are helpful, but not absolutely necessary for hunting snipe. I’ve hunted over springer spaniels with great success, and good pointers would no doubt be wonderful for these tight-sitting birds. Well-trained dogs can be good not only for locating sitting birds, but for finding fallen snipe whose camouflaged plumage tends to blend perfectly with natural cover. Hunters who don’t have dogs can also do well when birds are plentiful. Hunting dogless and alone on three particular afternoons last fall, I kicked up countless snipe, shot 19 birds, and was unable to retrieve only one.
Hip-boots and even rubber knee boots, depending upon terrain, can be adequate for hunting snipe. Light, breathable chest waders, however, cover nearly all bases by allowing hunters to cross ditches, reach birds that have fallen in ponds, and keep you dry while sitting on the mud when a break is needed. And breaks will be needed, as snipe hunters can typically count on putting in a good bit of hiking in their quests for birds.
Beyond waders, the gear for hunting snipe is pretty simple. Hunters need little more than weather-appropriate clothing, a shooting vest, light shotgun, and a box or so of ammunition. Oh, and a regional hunting license – federal waterfowl stamps aren’t required for hunting snipe in the United States. Hunters should, however, always check local hunting regulations to confirm whether state stamps or registrations are needed in the areas they plan to hunt.
I spent last fall shooting a 20-gauge CZ Drake over-and-under, a relatively inexpensive and lightweight double gun weighing 6 ½ pounds. The gun features interchangeable choke tubes and I found No. 7 steel shot through an improved cylinder- and modified choke combination to work nicely on snipe that generally flushed at close ranges. Certainly, lighter shotguns – 28-gauge and .410 – would be fantastic, sporting choices in the right hands.
Bag limits for snipe are generally liberal. In my region the limit is eight per day. And tough as these crazy fliers can be to hit, a little practice can go a long way. My best run last season was five birds for five shots, which was almost too good as I ended up limiting out in less than an hour. Spending time walking the wetlands and putting up birds is a pastime I prefer to stretch out and savor when possible.
A hunter’s appreciation for snipe hunting needn’t end in the field, though. Moist and mild-flavored, the birds are excellent eating. They can be plucked or skinned and, traditionally, English shooters don’t even bother to draw them (a preference I will leave to my British brothers). For my purposes, I’ll hang snipe outdoors overnight if temperatures are cool – say not much warmer than 40 degrees F. Otherwise, I simply place them in the refrigerator in a paper bag.
My favorite way to prepare and eat snipe is quick and simple. First, draw and skin them, then brush with olive oil. From there, sprinkle with salt, pepper, and garlic granules, then wrap each bird in a slice of prosciutto – a snug wrap not only flavors the meat, but seals in moisture. Place on a cookie sheet and pop into an oven preheated to 475 F for 10 minutes. Do not overcook these tasty morsels!
In a hot oven, the prosciutto will form a layer over the birds that is tasty and crunchy as crisp bacon. I’ll say it again, though: Keep those breasts pink and moist in the center.
Oh, and forget the knife and fork. Snipe are finger food. Four birds with a side of rice or potatoes and some steamed or sauteed vegetables make a perfect meal for me; and three birds would probably work for the average diner. If you happen to have any leftovers (a rarity for me), pop them in the refrigerator – roasted snipe wrapped in prosciutto are awesome cold!
Ted Williams boasted a career batting average of .344 in the ballpark. It doesn’t get better than that in baseball. And if you can consistently beat that average shooting snipe in the field, you may consider yourself a legend, too.
Few places in the civilized world retain a stronger connection to hunting, gathering and eating well from the land than our home state.
By Ken Marsh
One late-September evening years ago, as I hiked with my trapping partner along a birch ridge down the lake from our cabin, a bull moose charged out of the alders to face what it apparently mistook for a rival. Startled, I unslung my rifle, took aim just as the animal realized its error, and spent the lion’s share of the night in a sporadic drizzle, butchering by the light of a gas lantern.
The subsequent feast was a spontaneous event, our appetites honed the following morning by backpacking 125-pound moose haunches through the woods. At the cabin that afternoon, I kindled the cook-stove with dry spruce slivers and stoked it to a roar with split birch. We propped open the cabin door with the spring of an old No. 4 trap, allowing fresh autumn air to circulate as I prepared our first round of back-strap steaks.
The procedure was simple: Slice a couple of steaks off one of those beefy back straps (long, choice cuts that run down each side of the backbone), dust them in flour seasoned with salt and pepper, and drop them into the melted butter that bubbled and browned in the bottom of a cast iron skillet.
The steaks were cooked perhaps three minutes per side – overcooking may be the sin most frequently committed in preparing wild game meals – before I placed them onto our plates. Accompanied by slices of bread baked the day before, the result was delightful. Golden brown and slightly crisp on the outside, pink and tender on the inside, the flavor was succulent, reminiscent of free-range beef; a sum of summer sunlight, spring water, willow and sweet grass.
One skillet of steaks led to another, then another. In fact, it is impossible now, more than 30 years later, to remember just how long that feeding orgy lasted. I do recall that the amount of meat that disappeared off the cutting board was more than a little shocking.
In hindsight, a rich merlot – something peppery and bright to stand up to the meat and match the ripe berry fragrances of fall – might have added dimension to the meal. But we were young men then (in our late teens, actually) and our appreciation of wines remained undeveloped. Nonetheless, that dinner remains in my mind a milestone in rustic cooking, and a tribute to a kind of innocent gluttony known best to hardworking adolescent males.
Few places in the civilized world retain a stronger connection to hunting, gathering and eating well from the country than Alaska. Our 365 million acres of land mass, three million lakes, 3,000 rivers and 6,640 miles of coastline brim with natural bounty. Five species of salmon flood our streams each summer, and the sea bottom from Ketchikan to Kotzebue and beyond yields a bouillabaisse of halibut, cod, mollusk and crab. Caribou here still outnumber people, prancing across the tundra by the hundreds of thousands; Dall sheep and mountain goat (a misnomer that belies the species’ kinship to antelope) are found in the high crags, with moose, deer, bison and bear roaming the forests and river bars in between. All the while, wildfowl in both upland and migratory forms cackle, cluck and quack, growing fat on berries and the various plants that make the far North so extraordinarily verdant from May to September.
Our season of fishing, hunting and gathering span the calendar year, beginning in April when the sun climbs high and the snows recede, accelerating through the warmth of summer with the salmon runs. The heart of the harvest occurs in the fall when the berries ripen and the fish and game grow most active in anticipation of the coming winter.
Some years ago, I caught the turning celestial tide in April when I took a trip with two friends to temperate Prince of Wales Island in Alaska’s own “Deep South.” The goal was to embrace the season in its infancy while spending a few days catching and releasing steelhead.
As it turned out, unseasonably warm weather and low stream levels conspired to make fishing slow for the big, sea-run trout. We did, however, pluck from the tannic waters some ocean-bright Dolly Varden so, with fiddlehead ferns popping up on the shady stream banks, our menu seemed obvious. The dismal cans of chili con carne we had packed for the trip were set aside and, in another triumph of simplicity and commonsense cooking, my friend Tony Route steamed the tender greens in a camp pot while sautéing the char in butter. I can’t recall what I had for dinner two nights ago, but I can still smell in those steaming fiddleheads the sprucy essence of springtime in Southeast, and in the pink, hot flesh of those Dollys taste a distinctive flavor that spoke of pristine estuaries and remote coastal streams.
It’s no accident that some of the best meals are the simplest. Wild fish, meats and greens, properly handled, have mild characteristics that provide direct links to the lands or waters of their origin. Masking these flavors with excess spices or by overcooking can render the entire process pointless.
On the other hand, a chef can go only so far with a skillet and a hunk of butter. The most important ingredient in cooking wild fare is discretion. And in the end, how a particular cut of fish or game is prepared depends upon your taste and the nature of tcookingghe food with which you’re working.
Along these lines, it is rumored that connoisseurs of wild Alaska salmon can sample a forkful of fresh-broiled fillet, chase it with a shot of wine and announce with astonishing accuracy the origin of the fish. These claims seem largely unsubstantiated but might be explained, at least in theory, by differences in the texture, flavor and fat content of salmon adapted to particular drainages. Many believe that the finest-tasting salmon come from the Copper or Yukon river drainages where fish adapted for long, difficult runs carry more fat and oil to see them through their freshwater travels. Salmon whose spawning grounds wait closer to the sea tend to be proportionately leaner, drier and coarse.
Fillets from sockeye dipnetted in the Copper near Chitina are rich and moist with fat, making them perfect for grilling because they don’t easily dry out. Marinate them for a few hours in a homemade teriyaki prepared with minced garlic, soy, fresh-ground ginger and orange juice, then place them on the grill skin-side down until the scales begin to blacken. Flip the fillets briefly, until just cooked through, and serve immediately.
King salmon caught from waters such as the Kenai Peninsula’s short Kasilof River aren’t as fat as Copper River fish and often taste better poached or covered and baked. They also can be cut into small pieces and deep-fried. A good example of this is the coconut salmon prepared by the Double Musky Inn in Girdwood. Battered and cooked quickly in hot oil, the flavors are sealed within and the fish remains moist. The shredded coconut provides a pleasing outer texture and the restaurant’s tangy, sweet-and-sour sauce is an exquisite accompaniment. The sauce recipe calls for brown mustard, horseradish and grape jelly, but currant jelly made from berries picked in Southcentral forests works equally well.
Of course, Alaskans eat fish year-round, but fresh salmon grilled outside on warm July evenings is a hallmark of summer. For those of us who live to fish, cook and eat, summertime is salmon time, and the livin’ is easy.
Our wild berries ripen by late August – blueberries, raspberries, currants, and highbush and lowbush cranberries, among others. By September, their sweet and sour fragrances mingle and lend the air a tartness as distinctive and bright as a fine cabernet. Meanwhile, bull moose grunt and thrash their antlers in the spruce thickets, ptarmigan cackle from alpine willows before dawn, and trout and grayling dimple quiet lakes as they feed with a sudden urgency.
This is autumn in Alaska, and it is, in many ways, the wild harvester’s finest hour. The season is on the move, like the caribou that cross the tundra in waves. The weather can be schizophrenic: One day may be clear and brittle with frost, the birch and aspen leaves glowing yellow and vibrant against powder-blue skies; the next may be misty and drizzling, leaving the cottonwood duff smelling sweet, like banana peels, the aura cool and moody.
It all comes and goes within a month, allowing only four weeks of frenzied picking, hunting and fishing. No matter how hard you try, there’s no way to accomplish everything you wish. The best advice is to choose those things dearest to your heart and attack them passionately.
The elements of taste, smell and color are particularly abundant in the fall and never more apparent than on upland bird hunts along the cranberry ridges of Susitna Valley or among the high-country willows of the Kenai Peninsula.
Alaskans are fortunate to have grouse in several flavors. Berry-fed spruce grouse appear on frosty mornings along remote gravel paths and are frequently swatted by boys (young and old) toting .22-caliber rifles. Ptarmigan of three varieties are found above timberline and sharp-tailed grouse lurk around the barley fields of the Interior’s Delta Junction region. Ruffed grouse provide supreme wing-shooting sport over pointing dogs, while the blue grouse that hoot from tall Sitka spruces in Southeast each spring can be hunted near tree line in the fall.
One of the more delightful game bird recipes I’ve discovered is Szechwan grouse in peanut sauce. Young spruce grouse or ptarmigan taken early in the season have light, nearly translucent breast fillets that cook up white as chicken. Simmered in Szechwan peanut sauce and served over steamed rice, they are fitting tributes to the best days afield.
Mature spruce grouse, ptarmigan and sharptails have dark meat. For these birds – and waterfowl, too – my old friend Ben O. Williams (a wing-shooter, author and chef known to some as “The General”) once offered the following:
“First, pour some of your favorite wine in a glass and take a sip.
“Next, take your grouse (breasts filleted from the to bone and soaked for several hours in milk) and dust it in flour.
“Have another sip of wine.
“Melt some butter in a skillet and cook the meat over moderate heat until just cooked through. You may need a refill on the wine to complete this process.
“Transfer the meat to a warm plate and deglaze the skillet with a half-cup of bourbon (scotch also works), whisking up the bits from the bottom of the skillet. Cook the liquor down to a quarter cup, then turn the heat to low and whisk in a cup of sour cream. Have a sip of wine and return the grouse to the pan and cover in the sauce. Serve hot.”
I first enjoyed the General’s recipe on a blustery October day near Cold Bay when the jovial old cuss prepared a mixed bag of Canada goose, black brant and ptarmigan for a hunting party of five. The meal was outstanding, the combination of sour cream and whiskey essence pleasingly powerful, nicely complimenting the mild wild flavor of those red-fleshed birds.
Ruffed grouse, whose splendid white breast meat and wily ways make them Alaska’s finest fowl for table and sport, should be handled differently. For starters, the birds are best taken on the wing with light shotguns. From there they should be drawn and hung for a day or two in a cool place, then the meat prepared gently and with care. Any recipe designed for chicken breasts works well. I’m partial to ruffed grouse tarragon, adapted from The New York Times Cookbook recipe for chicken tarragon.
By November, when the darkness descends and the auroras dance over the hills, the cycle of gathering begins to slow. We still pick up the occasional late-season moose or caribou, and burbot (a sort of freshwater lingcod) caught through holes in the ice promise savory chowders on lazy winter Sundays. But for the most part, the season is reserved for memories of the days when food ran rampant in the streams and over the tundra.
It is now that the products of the snow-free months, all nicely wrapped and stacked in the chest freezer, come into play as edible media. Stored on one side, lucky hunters may have packages of moose or caribou steaks, roasts, hamburger and sausage; on the other, perhaps salmon and halibut, maybe some late-season ducks and geese. A few quarts of lowbush cranberries or lingonberries, collected after the first hard frosts left them purple and sweet, wait in the center to be made into cranberry sauce, or used to add a colorful and vibrant tang to banana nut breads and muffins.
The kitchen this time of year is a warm, cozy retreat, a place where the imagination reigns and those wild fillets, chops, roasts and steaks promise to fill a void as primal as the seasons. During these short days, the cutting board is best placed near the window where the winter sky’s pale hues may be absorbed as you work. From there, the creation of feasts from the year’s wild harvests may begin.
How about some moose goulash, or Dall sheep shoulder roast stuffed with tomatoes, peppers, onions and rice? Or maybe seafood strikes a chord – perhaps some halibut marinated in lime and chili sauce seared on the grill?
Do something French with that brace of mallards you took one cold morning in October. Try a stir-fry with a package of thinly sliced Kodiak deer. And always remember: Cooking wild is an art as broad and colorful as Alaska itself. The rules are up to you.
When you have shot one bird flying you have shot all birds flying. They are all different and they fly in different ways but the sensation is the same and the last one is as good as the first.
– Ernest Hemingway
You’re marching under a late-September sun, shotgun over your shoulder glinting, the day bright and cold and marked by the sounds of your footsteps crunching over puddles brittle with new ice. You may be working a bench of willows for ptarmigan or following your setter through a second-growth thicket for ruffed grouse. Or perhaps you’re crossing a wide-open coastal marsh for mallards or geese. Really, the venue and its particular birds are beside the point since, in the end, the rush you’re seeking is always the same. When the ptarmigan burst from the willows cackling, or the ducks tear by with jet speed, something in your heart takes wing, too. To know this feeling is to love it, and hunters near and far have discovered that few better places exist to find it than in the forests, tundras and wetlands of Alaska.
Home to ruffed grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, spruce grouse, blue grouse and three ptarmigan species – willow, rock and whitetail – Alaska’s upland wing-shooting opportunities span every region of the state. Waterfowl hunting, too, is excellent and widespread as expansive river deltas, coastal and Interior marshes, potholes and muskegs provide habitat for huge numbers of ducks, geese and cranes.
That’s the good news. Hunters should know, however, that as superb as the shooting here can be, finding the hotspots requires a knowledge of the state and of the species you intend to hunt. Wing-shooters new to Alaska are frequently struck by the state’s enormous size; every region – Southcentral, Southeast, Southwest, Interior and Arctic – offers its own unique climates, habitats and hunting opportunities. To get started hunting here, you must first define the object (or objects) of your wing-shooting passion and choose the region and locale best suited for your hunt.
Often, timing is key, especially when hunting migratory waterfowl that may swarm through an area one week and be gone the next. Upland hunters, too, must remember that ptarmigan, sharp-tailed grouse, and ruffed grouse are subject to population swings, the result of natural cycles that can make one year’s highly productive hunting spot all but empty of birds the next.
Guides and Gun Dogs
To maximize your chances of finding birds – and minimize the possibilities of getting lost or running into bears in this big, wilderness state – new Alaskans and visiting hunters should consider hiring a guide. An Internet search will turn up the names, contact information and locations of many local guides who specialize in ptarmigan, grouse and waterfowl hunting. Talk with some of these operators and ask about their services and prices. Request references – and follow up to learn what past clients have to say. Some guides provide trained bird dogs while others encourage hunters to bring their own. Reputable guides and hunting lodges offer an intimate knowledge of their areas, the birds you’ll hunt and, in the end, will ensure optimal hunting and a safe, comfortable trip.
Whether or not you choose hunt with a guide, well-trained gun dogs are unquestionable assets for finding and retrieving grouse, ptarmigan and waterfowl. Flushing and retrieving breeds such as springer spaniels and Labradors are popular with many hunters, especially waterfowlers. Pointers, like Brittany spaniels, English setters and German shorthairs are particularly effective for hunting Alaska’s upland birds.
Clothing, Footwear and Equipment
The gear bird hunters require is both simple and critical. Hiking is a part of the sport, so quality boots are a must. Some upland hunters prefer quality rubber knee boots, such as XtraTufs by B.F. Goodrich, because they are light, durable and waterproof. Others prefer more traditional leather hiking boots with Vibram soles for solid ankle support and firm traction, particularly when hunting mountainsides for ptarmigan.
Waterfowl hunters in most situations will need hip boots or chest waders. Rubber or light Gore-tex hip boots can be preferable for longer hikes across shallow marshes and mud flats. Chest waders, made of Gore-tex or neoprene, are a bit heavier, but keep hunters dry around bogs, lakes and wetter situations. Neoprene waders, especially, provide added insulation on cold days.
For navigating thick willow, wild rose and devil’s club cover, many grouse and ptarmigan hunters wear chaps specially designed for bird hunting and available through sporting goods retailers. Shooting vests are handy, providing pockets for shotgun shells and game pouches for carrying birds. Flare-orange colors aren’t required for Alaska upland hunters but are a good idea for gunners working thick brush with others nearby. Waterfowl hunters will prefer camouflage and muted color tones.
Rain gear, warm jackets and vests, and long underwear are essential clothing for autumn in all parts of Alaska. Depending upon when and where you’re hunting, be prepared for damp weather and temperatures that may range from 60 degrees F to 15 degrees F.
Guns and Loads
Grouse and ptarmigan are light-boned and well suited for hunting with lighter shotguns – 20 gauges, 28 gauges, and even the diminutive .410 work well. Light lead shot, with some variation, is the rule. Early in the season, grouse and ptarmigan hunters shooting over younger birds will choose Nos. 7 ½, 8 or even 9 lead shot. The thinking is that these smaller birds are less heavily feathered and easier to knock down. They also tend to flush at closer ranges.
Later in the fall and winter, as birds mature and feather out, hunters frequently switch to heavier No. 6 shot. Sparser cover this time of year often spurs birds to flush at greater distances, so hotter field loads are often preferred. Some hunters also believe larger shot better penetrates heavier winter plumage.
Modified or improved-cylinder chokes are popular among gunners hunting forest grouse species in thick cover, where close, quick snap-shooting is required. Full chokes can be more appropriate for ptarmigan or sharp-tailed grouse in open country.
Waterfowl hunters normally choose heavier guns, since the birds they pursue are larger and often taken at longer ranges. Most prefer 12-gauge shotguns, though a few go with trusty old 16 gauges, or big-bored 10 gauges. Lead shot is prohibited for waterfowl hunting in Alaska, making steel or bismuth shot and modified chokes the rule. Duck hunters generally choose Nos. 1-3 steel shot, while goose hunters often find heavier BB shot or BBB most effective.
Alaska’s Upland Birds
Knowing the bird species you intend to hunt — their feeding habits, cover requirements and general geographic distribution — is key to finding good wing-shooting. Use the following highlights to get started:
Ruffed grouse – Ruffed grouse prefer thick cover featuring second-growth aspen and high-bush cranberries, rosehips or soap berries. Aspens provide food and cover year-round. A few spruce trees mixed in provide additional cover and roosting opportunities that protect ruffed grouse from raptors and other predators.
Ruffed grouse are notorious runners but hold well for pointing dogs. Hunters who shoot over pointers or close-working flushing breeds will find many more ruffed grouse than dogless hunters.
Spruce grouse – Mixed spruce and birch forests are prime habitat for spruce grouse; however, you may find these ubiquitous birds anywhere from sea-level muskegs to sub-alpine spruce thickets. In the fall, spruce grouse are especially drawn to high-bush cranberries and blueberries. Most other types of berries and wild rosehips are also eaten in the fall, as are all types of insects. Spruce grouse eat spruce needles in the winter, which gives their flesh a pungent, sprucey flavor late in the season; birds taken before October are the best eating. Spruce grouse hold well for pointing dogs and are easily worked with flushers.
Blue grouse – Southeast’s blue grouse can be hunted in subalpine, timber-line areas around Petersburg and the mainland south of Gustavus. Oddly, these big upland game birds — the state’s largest grouse, weighing up to 3 1/2 pounds — are not found on Prince of Wales Island. Regionally called “hooters,” blue grouse are often stalked in the spring by hunters who follow the hooting sounds made by male blue grouse to attract mates.
Sharp-tailed grouse – Sharp-tailed grouse are found in Interior Alaska in the Yukon, upper Koyukuk, upper Kuskokwim, Tanana and Copper River valleys. They’re generally found in more open country – burns, barley fields, and open taiga. Burns and fields created by farming, such as those in the Delta area, are good places to find them. Sharptails feed on insects until frosts make them unavailable later in the season, and berries throughout the fall. They also feed on the buds of willow and aspen in the winter. Hunters can cover a lot of ground searching for sharp-tailed grouse; a good dog can save hunters a significant amount of time and effort.
Ptarmigan – Look for ptarmigan in alpine and tundra regions throughout the state. Like most other species, these grouse are prone to boom-and-bust years, but with a little legwork, a few birds can almost always be found. Some air-taxi services in Seward, Anchorage and Kenai offer ptarmigan hunting packages in local mountain ranges. Most drop hunters on remote alpine lakes and pick them up at the end of the day.
Willow ptarmigan are the largest of Alaska’s three species, weighing up to 2 pounds. In a typical alpine valley, these birds will be found in the lower, willow-choked reaches. Like all of Alaska’s grouse, they feed heavily on berries in the fall. They also eat willow leaves, and willow patches provide preferred cover.
Rock ptarmigan are roughly one-third smaller than willow ptarmigan and are usually found farther up the mountainside. Look for them in places where the willows give way to shale slides, rock outcroppings and upended carpets of alpine heather.
White-tailed ptarmigan are North America’s smallest grouse, weighing 10 to 12 ounces. Named for their solid-white tail fans (willow and rock ptarmigan tails are bordered by black feathers), white-tailed ptarmigan frequent the highest, most rugged ridges and saddles.
Regional Roundup: Hunting opportunities at a glance
Southcentral. The boreal forests of this highly accessible, widely settled region offer good hunting for ruffed and spruce grouse, while the more far-flung alpine tundras of the surrounding Chugach, Kenai, Talkeetna and Alaska ranges harbor all three ptarmigan species. From the regional hub of Anchorage, bird hunters can drive or fly to excellent hunting areas in all directions.
Ptarmigan – Ptarmigan hunters can get into good hunting south of Anchorage in the Kenai Mountains by driving south on the Seward Highway. Ptarmigan are generally found above tree line, and reaching good hunting from the road usually requires challenging uphill climbs. Area trail systems can provide easier access into ptarmigan country.
For easy, and often fast, entry to good ptarmigan hunting, book a floatplane charter into one of the high-country lakes of the Kenai, Alaska, or Talkeetna ranges. Charters can be found in Anchorage, Kenai, Willow, Talkeetna and Seward.
Ruffed Grouse – Ruffed grouse, indigenous to the Interior, were introduced in the 1980s to the Matanuska and Susitna valleys north of Anchorage, and later to the south on the Kenai Peninsula. The Mat-Su birds have flourished and provide good wing-shooting for hunters who know where to look. In Southcentral, some of the better habitat is found along the Glenn Highway from Palmer north to Sheep Mountain. North and west of Wasilla and along the Parks Highway south of the Alaska Range, look for pockets of birds in second growth areas of old homesteads and burns and among willow flats on river bars.
Spruce Grouse – These birds are indigenous to Southcentral and plentiful in both the Kenai Peninsula and Mat-Su areas. Many hunters look for them pecking gravel along rural dirt roads and trails on frosty late-September mornings and evenings. Others use dogs to work the forests and berry patches.
Waterfowl – Hunting for ducks, geese and sandhill cranes is excellent in Southcentral, but timing is key. The shooting is especially fast on opening day, September 1, for local birds. After that, hunting tends to be spotty until southbound “northerners” begin migrating through in mid-September through around the first week of October. Popular road accessible hunting area include the marshes of the Palmer Hay Flats State Game Refuge north of Anchorage and the Portage Flats to the south. Hunters can also arrange short plane charters from Anchorage to the Susitna Flats across Cook Inlet. Chickaloon Flats is popular among Kenai Peninsula waterfowl hunters. Good hunting is also found outside of Cordova, accessible by commercial jet or state ferry, on the Copper River Flats east of town.
Southwest. Isolated from Alaska’s central road system, this far-flung region promises fantastic wing-shooting and sees relatively few hunters. Regional hubs with regular commercial jet service include Dillingham, King Salmon, Kodiak and, far out on the Alaska Peninsula, Cold Bay. Hunting lodges and air and riverboat charters are available in all three communities. Do-it-yourself hunts are possible in this big, largely roadless wilderness region, but your chances of enjoying a comfortable, safe trip and finding hot wing-shooting for local ptarmigan and waterfowl are best with a guide.
Ptarmigan and Grouse – Spruce grouse can be found along the short road systems outside of Dillingham and King Salmon, though the region is far better known for excellent ptarmigan hunting in surrounding areas accessible by plane or boat. Do-it-yourself hunters can do well hunting ptarmigan via rental car out of Cold Bay.
Waterfowl – Southwest Alaska offers some of the best hunting in the world for ducks, geese and brant. Pilot Point and the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge out of Cold Bay are popular for Canada geese and ducks. Sea duck hunters flock to Kodiak for guided late-season hunts on saltwater decoy spreads. Area guides and lodges are hunters’ best bets for service, lodging and learning when and where to expect the best hunting for the species you wish to hunt.
Interior. The Interior, Alaska’s heartland, is known for its variety of habitats and upland bird species. Fairbanks is the regional hub and road-accessible hunting can be found along the Parks, Alaska, Richardson and Steese highways.
Sharp-tailed grouse – The best hunting occurs in the vicinity of Delta and west to Fairbanks. Some Delta area lodges, such as the Silver Fox Inn, cater to bird hunters in the fall, though rooms and cabins must be booked early. Some of the best hunting is found on private land, and hunters can occasionally gain permission by contacting landowners.
Ruffed and Spruce Grouse – Miles of potential hunting opportunities for ruffed an spruce grouse are available in the Interior. Look for birds in second-growth aspen and berry cover near logging roads and trails in the Tanana Valley State Forest off the Parks Highway outside of Fairbanks, forested areas west of Delta, and the lands around Anderson.
Ptarmigan – Some of this region’s best, most accessible ptarmigan huntng can be found along the Denali Highway, a rugged largely gravel road connecting the Richardson Highway fuel stop of Paxson to the Parks Highway community of Cantwell. Murphy Dome outside Fairbanks is also popular.
Waterfowl – Hunting for Canada geese and sandhill cranes is outstanding in the barley fields near Delta, and local guides offer hunts complete with decoys and blinds. Duck hunting is good in the Minto Flats about 35 miles west of Fairbanks.
With more accessible areas to choose from, few hunters visit this largely remote region for small game. Hunters driving north from Fairbanks can take the scenic Dalton Highway into the Brooks Range and beyond for ptarmigan and waterfowl, however, hunting with shotguns and rifles is not permitted within five miles of the highway right of way. Air charters out of Fairbanks or Barrow are another possibility for hunters interested in first researching hunting areas and regulations in this faraway region.
In Southeast, blue grouse are added to the mix of spruce grouse and a few isolated pockets of ruffed grouse. Ptarmigan, widespread throughout the state, can be hunted up in the region’s high country. Regional hubs include Juneau, Petersburg, Wrangell, Ketchikan and Sitka.
Grouse and Ptarmigan – Local road systems, although abbreviated outside most communities, can place hunters within range of blue grouse and spruce grouse. Hiking trails leading into high country areas where ptarmigan can be hunted are available outside many communities.
Waterfowl: Hunting for ducks, geese and cranes can be especially good on major river deltas along the mainland. The river deltas and flats outside of Haines and Gustavus provide good hunting for geese and cranes from late September through early October. The Stikine delta, reachable by boat or plane from Petersburg or Wrangell, is also good for geese, cranes and ducks. The Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge located near Juneau is popular for ducks and geese.
No matter where in Alaska an angler travels, chances are that a hard-fighting fish with pink-spotted flanks and bellies the color of Arctic sunsets lurk nearby.
By Ken Marsh
The wind swept around me cold and fast and galloped across the tundra like a ghost herd of caribou. Over the ridge it came, in howling blasts from the Beaufort Sea and across the Arctic coastal plain. Yet there on the continental divide of Alaska’s Brooks Range, somewhere between Anaktuvuk Pass and the end of the world, it was the sense of isolation, not the wind, that chilled my bones, left my soul feeling small.
A few hundred feet below, on the lee side of the divide, three of my friends puttered around the shore of a small lake where a floatplane had dropped us off a half hour earlier. Our plan was to hike 17 miles down a gorge to the headwaters of the North Fork of the Koyukuk River. From there, our pilot would have a raft waiting in some willows near the river, allowing us to float the remaining 80 miles to our final destination, the Bush mining outpost of Bettles. Our wilderness trek would take a week.
I joined my friends by the lake, below the ridge line and out of the wind, and was adjusting my backpack when I saw a swirl in the shallows. Fish? Seemed unlikely way up there among the crags. The elevation was roughly 6,000 feet and we were more than a hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle.
I hadn’t brought a fly rod; when you must carry all food, clothing and camping gear on your back, there’s little room for extras. But one of the guys had thrown in a four-piece ultralight spinning rod and a small box of lures.
I had the rod rigged within minutes and tossed a glittering Mepps into the shallows. The spinner needed a moment to settle, then I flipped the bail and started reeling. I hadn’t gone more than three or four cranks when a half dozen V-shaped wakes bolted like sharks for my lure.
The strike came in a heartbeat. Pow! The fish hit like a hammer and I held on as the little reel’s drag squealed. My friends gathered around, all of us wondering what sort of creature could live in such a desolate high-country cirque.
Within five minutes, the deep runs became weaker. The fish bulldogged, shaking its head and twisting its four-pound body in a way that was both stubborn and, I realized, vaguely familiar. Pumping and reeling, I started gaining line until, with one firm, final pull I dragged the flopping fish onto the tundra mosses and lichens of the lake shore. And there it was: blunt, dark-colored head; fire-red belly; olive flanks dappled with pink, orange and scarlet spots. Arctic char. Easily, along with the very closely related Dolly Varden char, the most ubiquitous game fish in Alaska.
Etched among my earliest angling memories is the image of a small boy lying belly-down on a wooden bridge at the outlet of a Kenai Mountains lake. Below the bridge, a stream slips out of the lake, clear and cold as gin on ice. Hovering over the pebbled bottom, undulating against the gentle current, are dozens of red-finned Dolly Varden. The boy holds a fiberglass rod and is dabbling a hook baited with a single salmon egg. None of the Dollys is much longer than 12 inches; they are little fish for a little boy. But this is where a lifetime of fishing begins. There among the mountains, on that bridge, a long, long time ago.
The place was Lower Summit Lake off the Seward Highway south of Anchorage; the time, mid-1960s. I’ve since caught char in their various forms throughout Alaska — in temperate Southeast, where the streams flow among hemlock-timbered hills and screaming Steller’s jays; in the tundra-flanked salmon rivers of Southwest; in that high-country tarn far north of the Arctic Circle. And just about every other place in between. Some have been small like those first Summit Lake Dollys, but many more have been much bigger.
Truth is, Alaska is char country. In one form or another, these distinctive, scrappy sportfish are found in thousands of lakes, streams and estuaries between Ketchikan and Barrow. Char resemble trout in general shape, size and behavior. However, the colorful spots on their sides set them apart from Alaska’s trout and salmon, whose flanks, backs and tails are dappled with black spots or speckles.
Perhaps the greatest difference between Dolly Varden and arctic char are the names. Beyond that, the distinctions are negligible to most anglers and many biologists. Only in the last 20 years have taxonomists separated the two, and even that division remains in question by some.
Both char generally have pink-spotted, olive flanks that match the pattern of a dress worn by Dolly Varden, a flirtatious woman characterized in Charles Dickens’ novel, Barnaby Rudge. One species or the other can be found in streams and lakes from the Arctic coastal plain to the windswept Aleutian Chain to the temperate rain forests of Southeast. Both come in freshwater resident and sea-run forms and no matter where you encounter them, each has a tendency to aggressively strike spinners, spoons, baits and flies.
For an angler’s purposes, the similarities between the two far outweigh the subtle differences.
Kodiak Island’s Karluk River is a lovely stream in early July. The river flows out of the mountains surrounding 12-mile-long Karluk Lake before continuing on through a broad, verdant valley to the sea. Several summers ago, some friends and I took a few days to float and fish the Karluk. Our main quarry were salmon — sockeyes and kings — and when we found them concentrated in great numbers in certain pools and bends, the fly-fishing was outstanding.
Around noon on our first day, we pulled the raft ashore to work a likely bend. The water was deep and a glaring sun made spotting fish impossible. Still, it seemed like excellent water, so the four of us took our rods and began fishing the eddies. For a fruitless half hour I used the best streamers in my box, tried nearly every fish-enticing trick I knew. Nothing. And then something strange happened.
I was sitting on the raft, watching the other men cast, when a hatch of mayflies that had started earlier began to intensify. At the same time, someone hollered that he’d seen a fish roll. Soon, storms of mayflies fluttered over the river like living snowflakes; others rode the current wings-up like tiny sail boats. The water began to boil with rolling fish.
Pacific salmon fresh from the sea don’t feed on mayflies or anything else. So what could it be? I had a hunch.
I picked up my light, 4-weight fly rod and tied on a Humpy — a dry fly roughly the same size and color as the mayflies on the river. My friends followed suit and, within minutes, we were all catching three- and four-pound Dolly Varden.
Alaska’s char are studies in diversity; their ability to adapt to various waters in a multitude of climates is what makes them the common denominator for anglers seeking sport throughout the state. Along these lines, char are opportunistic feeders and, while they’ll take insects on occasion, they’re particularly fond of salmon eggs and small fish — including the fry of trout and salmon.
In Alaska’s territorial days, the latter inclination earned Dolly Varden a bounty on their tails. In a misguided effort to preserve commercial salmon fisheries, the territorial government paid bounty hunters two-and-a-half cents per caudal fin. Tails were sun-dried or smoked, strung forty at a time on bailing-wire hoops, and used in lieu of cash in some parts of Alaska. Fortunately for the Dollys, the program backfired.
Frank Dufresne, writer and former territorial game commissioner, reported in a 1963 issue of Field & Stream, “A sample hoop of forty tails contained fourteen rainbows, five whitefish, six lake trout, two pike, two grayling, one sucker, seven fingerling salmon, and three Dollys. Another hoop was almost all immature sockeye salmon, the very species the bounty was being paid to save!”
The bounty was eventually repealed and, in most waters, the char — and the salmon — seem to be as abundant today as ever.
Today, a new breed of anglers has come to see Alaska’s char for what they are, aggressive, hard-fighting sportfish as lovely to look at as they are to catch. They’ve also discovered that char can grow big. The current state angling record contender: A Dolly Varden of 27-pounds, 4-ounces hauled in October from the Wulik River near the village of Kivalina in Northwest. Prior to that, the state record was a 20-pound, 12 1/4-ounce bruiser, also from the Wulik. Big char have also been caught from the nearby Noatak River, making this remote region attractive to anglers seeking trophy fish.
Generally, weights of 2 to 10 pounds are the norm for Dolly Varden and arctic char throughout Alaska. Some of the more accessible places to catch them include the Kenai River, roughly a two-hour drive south of Anchorage; the Anchor River outside of Homer; off the beaches of Resurrection Bay near Seward; and nearly any river or rill crossing road systems in Southeast or on Kodiak Island.
Although they can sometimes be caught on dry flies, as I discovered that summer on the Karluk River, Dolly Varden are more frequently taken with lures, baits and streamers worked along stream bottoms. Early in the summer, before returning salmon begin to spawn, small spinners, spoons and flies resembling outgoing salmon fry and small bait fish work well. Later, salmon eggs or fly patterns that imitate salmon eggs and roe can be very effective.
Fun as they are to take on light gear, some friends and I were reminded one April that there is more to char than a good tussle in the riffles. The place was Prince of Wales Island in Alaska’s own “Deep South” and we were hoping to catch steelhead. As it turned out, unseasonably warm weather and low stream levels conspired to make fishing slow for the big, sea-run rainbow trout. We did, however, manage to pluck from an island stream several ocean-bright Dolly Varden.
Tired of eating canned food, we kept a couple of Dollys we’d caught one morning and, on the way back to camp, picked some fiddlehead ferns we found popping up in the shady stream bottom. One of the guys steamed the tender greens in a camp pot and sautéed the bright, spotted char in butter. Alongside the steaming fiddleheads, those pink, firm Dolly fillets made a tasty meal that I’ll never forget.
That wasn’t the first time Dolly Varden have saved a trip that might otherwise have gone fishless. They tend to be as obliging as they are widespread and bend a rod as well as any fish their size.
Back at that high-country lake, north of the Arctic Circle in the Brooks Range, I caught several fat char before putting away the rod and shouldering my pack for the long journey to Bettles. Along the way, a question nagged: How did those fish ever come to be in such an isolated, unlikely corner of the world? Years later, a friend who encountered a population of dwarf Dolly Varden, often called goldenfins, in an alpine lake in the Kenai Mountains offered a suggestion: “Maybe God just put them there a long, long time ago.” Maybe so. Or maybe, in these char with bellies the color of arctic sunsets, he simply created a fish meant to reflect the diverse, far-flung beauty of Alaska itself.