I left work early yesterday after hearing the hooter on the hill behind the house again. I had an appointment with Laura to pick nettles at 530, and left at 230 thinking 3 hours was plenty of time. I picked devils club buds on the way up the hill, then got up to and around the cliff this time. Spent an hour or two circling the trees the bird was in. Could not see him. Came back empty handed again. I am not 0 for 4 for getting a hooter from this tree over the past 3 years. The devils club buds I found taste like carrots and at least I got a bag of those. Samuel, the 7 year old Sierra Leoneon, joined us to pick greens. We went up to our ski area. It was about a 20 minute walk to the picking area where I had luck just a few days before picking nettles in the small creek beds that came down the mountainside snow chutes. For the first half hour, we could not find nettle 1. Up one creek bed and then another. I couldn’t figure it out. Finally, in an open area near a patch of alders, we found all we would pick for the day in the one spot. I picked a bag of nettles and big bag of fiddle heads. We then went back to Laura’s, where she and Bob cooked us salmon burritos and to top it off- banana splits. Samuel enjoyed himself, and I’m sure was not reluctant to go to bed on a school night when I dropped him off at 930.
I hunted for 2 hours at lunch near the boat ramp. I heard a hooter directly above the ramp when I came back from the cabin after a quick trip with the Conteh’s to check the crab pot. I heard hooters from the road, but the one I heard no Sunday was not there. I climbed up to the knob above the ramp and the only hooters were too far away, so this hunt was just for exercise. When I got home a little after 6 pm, I grabbed a bag to pick some fiddleheads. As I was looking in the woods behind my house, something caught my ear. And there he was. A hoot from the spot above the house where birds had evaded me the past 2 years. And there were not many fiddleheads yet. I learned from the bird at the boat ramp I better go now and not wait till tomorrow. I grabbed my pack and headed up the hill. After perhaps 20 minutes, I reached the group of trees. I recognized the spot, too. The bird was hooting from a group of trees that sat on top of a cliff face. If the bird was in the lower trees of the cliff face, I could probably see him from below. If he was in the upper trees, I’d have to go back down the hill and skirt the cliff to get above it. The bird was in the upper trees. Daylight was fading. I thought I could get up there and probably find and shoot the bird and get back before dark. But if the bird fell to where I was standing now, at the base of the cliff, then that would add time to get back down here and get him. I decided to pass and hope he was hooting again before the season closed on May 15 on a day when I had more daylight. When I got home, Sara had sauteed the fiddleheads with some kale, and we had Prince William Sound pink salmon and Kenai River sockeye salmon patties for dinner.
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.
Tried to get a quick hunt in over lunch. I went up the mountain and parked, and heard hooters across the valley. I could not tell how high up the mountain side they were, so set off in the direction of the hooting. I crossed the creek in the valley bottom and started up the ridge. A tributary creek coming down the mountain made it hard to hear the hooting well. When I got up the hillside a ways and away from the creek, I heard the birds. Way too far up the hillside to go get one and get back in my 2 hour time slot. So back down and to the truck and back to work on time. Was a beautiful day and from the look of the forecast, we are in for a stretch of dry weather and our usual mid-April to May spring.
The boys from out west stopped by to pick up the bird taken on Monday and drop off beer they couldn’t consume before their plane home. They had coffee, and before it was over, I had moose hunts to Palmer and Bethel scheduled for next year. After talking, I headed out hooter hunting- it had stopped pouring rain for a spell and the talk of their 530 am hunts during the week inspired me. I went back to the parking spot Pat and I got the easy hooter on Monday. And there it was again. A hooter on the “easy” side of the road. A hundred or two yards up the hill and I got to the tree. I did one circle around the tree and could not see the bird. It was up high in the tree. I circled a second time, this time wider. And there he was. Out on the end of a branch of thick evergreen. I doubt I’d ever seen him from below or in a flat area. One shot from the 20 gauge number 6 and he was down. I field dressed the bird, put snow in the body cavity, then headed up the side valley for another. The wind picked up and I could not hear well. Only birds booming across the main valley across the road from where I’d taken 2 on Friday in the big climb. Glad to get the one bird and get more exercise. First time my knees weren’t sore coming in. Could be I’m getting in shape.
I attended Walter Baldwin’s memorial service on Saturday. Walt died around Thanksgiving. Last time I saw him he was heading in to Donna’s Restaurant here for breakfast. I first met Walter when I was managing the troll fishery and he came in to chat. He said he’d just bought Eric McDowell’s boat, the Christopher K. I didn’t know Eric at the time, and so it didn’t mean much. Walter seemed like a simple guy from a village. Turns out he was simple like Forrest Gump. Walter grew up in a village that no longer exists in western Alaska. He attended mission schools out there, then went on to graduate from Mount Edgecumbe boarding school in Sitka – or as one of his classmates quipped – “Alcatraz” – because it’s on a smaller island next to town. Walter was a good track runner. Somewhere along the way, he was with two other friends in Barrow, maybe. He and the two others saw Nick Begich off at the airport and were the last to ever see him. Then he went on to college at Western Washington, earning a degree in Business Administration. He came back to Fairbanks, and helped two others found Alaska Airlines- yes, THE Alaska Airlines. When Wally Hickle was governor – the first time- Walter was hired to be one of his administrators. The way Walter told me when we were out on the fishing grounds – Doc Reiderer, also a troller, had Walter in his office as Walter wasn’t feeling well. Doc said he had ulcers – “you need to go fishing for a few weeks”. Walter told me he thought – well, I can stay and work for the governor and have money, or I can go fishing and have my health. He chose fishing. He was a mentor for me out trolling. Always happy to share information and always happy. Eric McDowell, another mentor, told me Walter used to fish out of a small whaler with a cover and would fish in any weather out in Cross Sound. I heard during the memorial that Walter was an amateur artist. Again, I underestimated how good he was. I saw his pencil portraits and some scenery paintings at the reception after the memorial. Incredible work, especially the portrait drawings. In between all this, he married a woman 10 years his elder and raised her 5 kids as his own, was a seal hunter in Kodiak. Always happy. Always thinking about stuff. I’m glad I went. http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/juneauempire/obituary.aspx?n=walter-francis-baldwin-qaniitaq&pid=173915197 –