Hooter Heaven

Yesterday, I went the one of the nicest piece of Alaska I’ve ever been to, and the funny thing is it was a 15 minute drive and half hour hike from my house. And even funnier- out of towners here for a meeting who went hunting there turned me on to it. I was done with work at noon, grabbed my pack and headed up the mountain. Spring weather is here. No real rain in the forecast out a week – unless you count an occasional sprinkle as a monsoon like my cousin Amy does. From the directions I got from the out of towners, it took them 25 minutes to walk to the valley. Forty minutes in, I thought something was wrong. I don’t have 30 year old legs like they did, but I was now in slippery snow and saw very few tracks on the trail that the 3 or 4 of them would have traveled a few days earlier. Being as it’s 2015, I had 3 bars and so called Pat in Bethel. He said I’d gone too far, and soon I was walking back down hill and into paradise valley. The first thing I noticed was the creeks were flowing towards the other side of Douglas Island into Stephens Passage – a “continental” divide of sorts. When I got down into the valley proper, there were hooters hooting on both sides. One side was an extension of the ridge I’ve hunted earlier this year, so some of the hooters might be up pretty high, steep terrain. The other side of the valley was not so steep everywhere, but had what would be slippery snow covering most of it. I walked along the steep side when I heard the nearest hoot and walked towards it, hoping it wasn’t up high. I was not disappointed. The bird was not far at all. I’ve talked and read that hooters will use the same tree year after year. I already got a bird in about the same spot as the one I took Pat to 4 days earlier. The snow on the ground told the story. Looked like a hunter with a dog had circled and maybe got a bird out of the same group of trees – maybe someone in Pat’s group. I zeroed in on the tree the bird was in, in a patch of trees in a field of grass/alder/devils club. I circled the tree all the way around tree. The bird kept hooting and was not in a particularly tall tree or tree with lots of needle cover. I just could not see him. I heard some rustling in the grass about 30 minutes in. Then a sort of clucking sound. The missus had come to see her man. I shot the female, and continued the circling. Pat told me he’d looked for a bird for an hour and gave up. I thought maybe this was the same tree. After at least another 30 minutes, I was ready to give up. Just to be sure, I thought I’d better check the tree next to the one I’d been looking. And there he was. In plain view on a bare branch. I shot and was surprised at the “pop” instead of crack of a shot gun. I’d somehow moved the hammer selector to the .22 shell from the 20 gauge shell. The bird sort of flew to the ground and was dead before he hit. Right through his wheel house. I thought I’d heard another bird in a small group of trees about 200 yards away and up the hill a few hundred yards, but when I walked below the trees, I heard no hooting. I was not surprised, since there were so many hooters hooting and the echos could deceive. I did hear another hooter further along the side hill and up a steep section but if the bird was in the lower part of the trees and not up where the group of trees extended to the top of a rock out crop, it would not be too difficult a hike. I worked my way up the slippery slope that was free of snow by holding on to alder and salmon berry bushes. I had to cross a little gully and again, there was a set of tracks heading to the same trees, perhaps, that I was. The bird was in the lower trees, and after I got the third bird, I tried listening for the next option. As I came back out of the trees, I realized I was in perhaps the most beautiful place I’d ever been. The valley continued down in a gentle slope about another 3/4 miles into a bowl with a side-hill patch of grass that would be a good place to see deer. The valley bottom had evergreen trees along most of the bottom. There was a little hill at the end of it, and then you’d be headed down the back side of the island. I could see the snow covered peaks of Admiralty Island in the distance. Above me was a snow covered mountain. The sun was shining. I thought I might have heard a bird above the one I just got, but after listening for awhile, again heard no bird. I heard birds further up the valley but could not tell if they were high up the ridge. I heard birds across the valley that looked lower on the hill, so headed for them. As I moved in that direction, I heard hooting close by. It was from the group of trees I’d passed that I thought held a bird but thought had not. I collected the fourth bird, and it was now getting late in the day. I wanted to get a fifth bird – the daily bag limit – but I was tired and it was getting late, although it would be an easy walk out, even if by headlamp. I thought I’d walk back along the other side of the valley just in case I could hear one near the bottom, which I did. I put the fifth bird in my pack, broke the gun down again and put it in the pack, and started the long downhill trek to the truck. Back home a little before sunset, I put my pack on our back deck. I grabbed 2 beers from those that Pat had left, a bucket for feathers and innards, and plucked the birds on the deck. Several goats were well down the mountain across the channel and easy to see with the naked eye. The beer tasted good.