On the side of a mountain, rail tracks disappeared into a square mine shaft. Just inside, a memorial told about Roger Burdette Moore, a man who “had a passion for this mine and others like it.” His mine passed into ruin along with him. As I read about his passion for mining, it was easy to make the comparison to hunting. The attraction of gold, beyond its monetary value, is an attraction to something that is ours to go out and get. It’s a public resource, like game. And it so happens that many of Alaska’s trails, made by gold-seeking prospectors in the early 1900s, are now gateways used by hunters to find sheep, caribou and ptarmigan.
Most hunters travel to Alaska to hunt big game, but the few who come in pursuit of upland birds are surprised how different it is from upland bird hunting elsewhere. Here are the five things you might not know about upland hunting in Alaska:
The season starts early and closes late. With a few exceptions, upland bird hunting in Alaska opens on August 10 and closes March 31. The regulations have not changed substantially since their inception. The early opener coincides with the season for caribou, Dall sheep and mountain goats, and was determined based on the need for hunters to obtain camp meat.
The bag limits are liberal. Although harvest limits vary across Alaska’s 26 game management units, hunters can take between 10 to 50 ptarmigan and 5 to 15 grouse per day, depending on the unit in which they’re hunting. There are places where it is possible to bag all three species of ptarmigan (willow, rock and white-tail) in the same day, although the chances of this are slim.
Access is limited. Alaska has more public land available to hunt than any other state in the country. The lack of accessibility keeps vast stretches of land undeveloped. Many nonresidents are surprised to find that access to good upland bird hunting is not readily available on the road system, or requires extensive driving to remote areas.
Game is sparse. Whether they’ve come for big game or small game, many outsiders are surprised to find that game species are not concentrated, but instead sparsely located in large areas that are impossible to cover in a day. For instance, an average white-tail ptarmigan hunt often requires 6 to 10 miles of hiking, with an elevation gain of 1,000 to 4,000 feet.
Weather can be extreme. Depending on when and where an upland hunter is hunting, items such as rainclothes, snow shoes, crampons and survival gear may be necessary. There have been times I have alternated between wearing water-resistant boots, snowshoes and crampons for different legs of the hunt. The risk of danger increases with cold, remote hunts in difficult terrain.
Ptarmigan have been said to pick up gold. The first time I heard about gold being found in the crop of a ptarmigan, I knew it would be difficult to verify. The claim seems plausible, because birds are often found near streams and would be attracted to the brightness of gold when gathering gravel for digestion. I have never found gold in a ptarmigan, however, nor have I met anyone who has—although the prospect has caused a few hunters I know to “mine” a hundred birds or more in the course of preparing dinner. Most of the places I hunt are in mountainous gold country, though, so I figure that one day I’ll hit the jackpot.
I thought about the chance of finding gold as we hiked past the mine shaft at the trail’s end and climbed through a mountain pass. Just as we passed through the gap between two mountains, the rocky terrain changed to a blanket of new snow. We hadn’t talked much on our way up the mining trail, and we were far enough away from roads and parking lots to experience the quiet of wild places. But nothing was as quiet as the muffled silence of a snow-covered mountain valley. In the new snow, we could see that there were no ptarmigan there that day. But we crossed through it just to get the view on the other side of the mountains.
Hugo, a 1-year-old English setter we’d brought with us, had never hunted in the snow. His white and orange colors stood out against the blue-white of the snow and sky. When he ran the ridgeline ahead of us, he looked about as exotic as I imagined Hemingway’s leopard in Kilimanjaro. I stood at the edge and looked at the mountain range, stacked in shades of blue as far as I could see. We had very little chance of finding ptarmigan and were about to turn back. The gold miner’s family—the ones who erected the memorial—did not share their father’s love of mining. How could anyone but a miner understand such a difficult and life-encompassing pursuit that isn’t likely to end in a fortune? Like hunters, the prospector isn’t driven by need or greed, but by a fever summed up as “the glory of the game.” Standing there in that moment, I realized that I was also there for the chance, not just the gold.
Christine Cunningham is a lifelong Alaskan, author and outdoor columnist known for her contributions to outdoor magazines and her commitment to creating opportunities for women to connect and share their stories. Her first book, “Women Hunting Alaska,” profiles some of Alaska’s most outstanding female hunters. View all posts by Christine Cunningham