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.

Quick Hunt

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.

Easy hooter

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.

Walter Baldwin

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  –

More hooters

Another killer day hooter hunting. I walked up the ridge where I got 4 earlier this spring, as hooters were booming across the muskeg down to me. I went up one finger of trees, and after a few trips up through these fingers of evergreens separated by snow shoots of grass, alder, devils club and salmon berries, I’m learning a good way up is to take a small creek bed if available. They tend to come straight down the slope, have a rocky bottom with good footing, and are kind of like walking up stairs. I got to the first hooter in less than an hour. I’d taken a .22 over 20 gauge single shot with me for a change. I wanted the .22 in case I had a long high shot again. Like the 12 gauge side

Spring is here

Got home from work about 2 pm and headed right up the hill behind the house. I could not hear any birds hooting, and figured I’d hike up to the Treadwell Ditch trail and if I didn’t hear any by then I’d come back. As I neared the trail, I heard hooting. I crossed the trail and up into what I think is the Eagle Creek bowl. There was a hooter on the left hillside, and of course it was way up in the bowl, near the top. Up and up I climbed. I think it was a 3 hour hike. I finally got to the bird, and after I got the bird, I sort of started to the next bird until I realized it was all the way across the bowl. So I started down. There was still an ice layer in the little ponds of these upper muskegs. When I got to the Treadwell Ditch trail, I remembered an easier way down if I could find, so I headed towards Dan Moller, and sure enough, found the trail. Took me about 1 and a quarter hours to get down from the spot I got the grouse. What a great day. Went hooter hunting up the side hill of Thane on Friday afternoon. Of course, the birds were in the trees at the very top at tree line. Took about 2 hours to get up there in a steep climb. When I got to the bird, there was also another about 1/4 mile away across a grass/alder/devils club snow slide. I got the first bird, and when it cartwheeled out of the tree, there was a sickening sound of it flapping down the steep incline. It was down about 50 yards, in a creek bed. I climbed down to retrieve it, then back up the hill side, and side hilled it to the other group of trees where I heard the other hooter. I saw some wolf or coyote skat with hari and small mammal or bird bones in it. I also saw lots of scat in the woods today that was almost a green color, and about 3 times as long as a deer skat. They were not in piles of more than one, but they were all over. Kurt thought maybe they were marmot skat. When I got to the tree stand, there was a problem: the bird quit hooting. There were eagles soaring in the area, and it may have spooked him. I waited and waited and it did not hoot again. I looked down across a wide, wide valley – Sheep Creek – to where the next trees were, and that was way too far to go, so I headed down the hill. I came to a limited roadway. I’d seen a gate not far from where I parked Sara’s van, and figured this road would take me down. I wound and wound my way down until I came to a tourist area for the AJ Mine. I had no idea it was even here. A few trucks were parked, but I didn’t see anyone and made my way down to the highway and a short walk to the van. Lots of work for a bird, but a great day. The Sierra Leoneons came over on Saturday, and Rorie made a guest appearance. Andrew asked if I could take hang with son Samuel on Sunday, and I said I was going to our cabin Sat and I could take him with me. When I got to their house, Gloria said 7 year old Samuel did not want to go, to which Samuel quickly changed his mind to spite his 16 year old sister. Smart girl. We gathered a coat and his boots and a change of socks and off we went. We planned to fish today and hunt hooters on Admiralty tomorrow. When I backed down the boat at the ramp, I told Samuel to go up on the dock and then he would get in the boat once I launched it. There is no direction without a litany of “whys”. This was all new to him. He no sooner walked down the dock when he thought he’d jump down into the shallow water on the ramp. First time for that, I guess, as he jumped into knee deep water with shin high boots. He slogged up above the water line, took of his boots and drained them out. It did not phase him. We launched the boat, and off we went to the cabin. We dropped a dungy pott, then fished for about half an hour and then pulled into our cove to use the easy out to keep our boat at low tide mark. Samuel jumped onto the beach off the bow, then walked down into the water, again to knee high. Another slog to the beach and dumped the water from his boots. We got to the cabin, and Samuel checked out every cranny of the cabin. It was a sad day for the boy when he found out we had no television, no ‘ipad’ for video games, and not even an indoor toilet. Not what he had in mind. He said he wanted to go home. I said it was too late for that, and he then said he didn’t want to hunt in the morning but go right home and I said that would be fine. He took my tools out and I told him to fix a loose arm on the rocking chair and he was all over that. He’s good with his hands. We went to bed about 8 pm after listening to Wisconsin beat unbeaten Kentucky in the final four. Samuel climbed into the top bunk and was sawing logs in about 5 minutes, still with his life vest on. I woke up wide awake at 2 am, so went down and got the woodstove going again as the fire was out and the cabin cold. Samuel woke about 3 am and said he wanted to go home now. I told him it was still dark out so he’d have to wait. He whined a bit until about 6 am and then was out like a light for another 2 hour sleep. I split some wood, did the dishes, and off we went. I asked if he wanted to go to the front beach or directly to the boat at the back beach, and he said the front beach. When I got to the treeline, it was low tide and he had already made a bee line to the water’s edge. He checked out all the life in the tide pools, and I showed him all the bivalves – mussels, butter clams, cockle clams, steamer clams – and barnacles. He soon knew them all. We worked our way around the beach line to the boat in about an hour, and the hooters were calling on Admiralty. Samuel was not deterred. He wanted to go home. We checked the crab pot, which held 2 small king crab and a small tanner crab. He was not happy to learn we could not keep any of these by law. He could not believe it. When the pot was down, I sat down in the co pilot seat next to Samuel in the captain’s chair. I talked him through the shifter/throttle, and he did a good job running the boat all the way to the dock. I tied up the boat to the dock rail. I walked up and backed down the trailer. I told Samuel to untie the line and hand it to me as I stood on the trailer tongue. He handed me the line, and I asked him to push the boat away from the dock so I could pull it onto the trailer. He did not shove the boat out, but hung onto the side of the boat as he pushed it out. Before I knew it, he was at 45 degrees, then 60 degrees, then 75 degrees and it was too late. He fell in the water up to his arm pits, still with his life vest on. He pulled his cold self up onto the trailer and walked up past me, slowly emerging from the water, walked up the tongue and into the back of the truck. I could not stop smiling. Experiential learning is what Uncle Mark is all about. We pulled up the boat, then I turned right instead of left towards town as I wanted to go out the road to see if any hooters were hooting. And they were. I told Samuel I’d drop him off and come back. And now he wanted to hunt – soaking wet and all! I talked him out of it. He said his dad would leave soon for work, so I told him I could drop him below his apartment and he’d have to walk up the hill because I could not turn around with the boat trailer. He reluctantly agreed. I called Andrew and said he was on his way up and Andrew soon called me back, laughing, as he’d gathered up his waterlogged son. Samuel will chew his ear with all his stories. I went back after the hooter I heard. Less than an hour walk to it. I’d brought back the single shot 12 ga from the cabin, and was carring that instead of the side by side. It was a long shot, and I only flushed the bird. The single shot puts out a pretty wide pattern and the bird was in a tree on a bench so I could not get elevated for a shorter shot. The bird looked like it flushed to a tree a short ways down but I looked for an hour and never could find where it landed. On the way back to the van, a bird silently landed on a branch not 10 yards away. I thought it was a female hooter, and was about to get the gun out of the pack when I realized it might be a raptor because the tail feathers were too long. It looked back at me for awhile, not really all that nervous. It took off a short time later, silently again and I knew then it was not a hooter. They do not fly silently. I looked it up and believe it was a northern goshawk. Not something you want to shoot, by mistake or otherwise. Kurt came by for a drink on the deck on a beautiful spring day of about 50 degree and we watched a hang glider flying above the mountain goats on the mountain side behind town.