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Real Men Don’t Fear Birds
Grouse hunting in Alaska would be a more appealing sport were it not for its danger. Most of the year the grouse is passive, but during the mating season its ferocity can be notorious. They will most often ignore you, but if pushed or backed into a corner, caution is the watchword. No one who has studied pictures of men in a spruce forest exposed to the assault of a blue grouse flying directly at them out of the trees ever ventures with rifle or shotgun into the forest without a certain terror. No one who reads of the exploits of these men does so without a deep feeling of admiration for their heroism.
And so, our tale begins. In the dark primeval rainforest of Southeast Alaska, silently stalking through the windbreaks, every nerve taut, every neck hair on end, were me, Old Halvorsen, and Hosehead, Faithful Dog of the North. It was a bad business, and we proceeded with trepidation. The cold sweat on Old Halvorsen's forehead telegraphed heebie-jeebies to my own gooseflesh. Suddenly, Old Halvorsen tossed caution to the wind.
"I wish I'd listened to Battleaxia," he blurted.
"Why? What did she say?"
"I don't know. I didn't listen."
Real men don't fear birds. Such was my attitude a couple weeks earlier when this fear was but a sissy notion to be pooh-poohed and cut dead by denial. A distant blue grouse had just hooted the arrival of May's first warm day as I walked up to Old Halvorsen's porch. There I beheld a most unsettling and pitiful sight. The lounge chairs had been set out in the sun and were occupied by two great white whales, both asleep. One of the leviathans was Old Halvorsen's wife, Battleaxia. The other was her twin sister Ponderousa. Neither awoke as I arrived, each seemingly intent on sunburning the roof of her mouth. Spring is heralded in funny ways in Alaska.
I knocked on the door and a clothed primate answered. It was Old Halvorsen, coveralled like some grand poobah of the dog trainer's guild. He had been teaching Hosehead to open the refrigerator and bring him a sandwich and beer. But Hosehead has a way of dealing with pressure. He passes out.
"I have a friend who lives in Angoon," Old Halvorsen reported, "and he tells me the hooters have been a real problem out there."
The ears on Hosehead the Faithful shot straight up at the mention of "hooters." His tail dropped between his legs, and he cowered out to the porch and crawled under Battleaxia's chair with a whimper. Hosehead, a veteran of the field, has experienced the roar of the grouse lifting off. He often flushes them well out in front where you don't have to waste ammunition missing them.
"My friend tells me there is a giant bird they call Ol' Bad Blue out there, that has been tormenting the village for the fifth consecutive spring, and the local folks are gettin' real tired of watching this big brown pterodactyl carry off all their blueberry bushes," Old Halvorsen went on.
He said the bird was a problem at other times.
Apparently, every August the big bird and his flock alight on the gravel roadway leading out of town to secure grit for the coming winter months. The subsequent chuckholes fill with water and impede travel. Although the yawning abysses serve as rest havens for migratory waterfowl, and even though Jacques Cousteau reportedly plans on exploring some of the deeper ones soon, the villagers don't want any more excitement going on around there. They just wanted rid of that evil bird, and offered to pay all costs for two experienced hunters to fly out there and shoot Ol' Bad Blue.
Well, where could you find two more experienced hunters than me and Old Halvorsen, together with Hosehead the Faithful? Old Halvorsen was not that great of a wing shot since he had the reflexes of a snowman, but his famous dog made up for a lot of human inadequacy. Hosehead reputedly could find anything alive in the woods, because, despite his fear of birds, he could track like a weasel down a drainpipe.
So here we were, slinking through the dense northern forest full of fear and waiting for sight of Ol' Bad Blue, the biggest, meanest grouse ever to scratch for boreal grit. Actually, Old Halvorsen wasn't slinking. He was on point, stalking like a drum major marching through potato chips.
The old boy had apparently lost all his cookies this time. The fear, like combat fatigue, had taken grip and transformed him into a reckless chatterbox. He began telling me and Hosehead about the birds of Alaska.
"There are only two kinds of birds in Alaska," he began. "There are big brown birds, and there are little brown birds. More than that, no one needs to know."
It was a classification system Old Halvorsen had developed because of the failure of birds to match their descriptions in the Field Guide to the Birds of Alaska. A failing, of course, on the part of the bird.
Hosehead and I just kept silent, about five paces back, waiting for that heart attack burst of grouse to erupt any second. A varied thrush signaled its presence and Old Halvorsen studied it and continued with his birding lesson.
"Now that there is a lite brown bird," he reported. "They're a third less filling than your regular brown birds."
About that time Hosehead swung out to the left and began sniffing and snorting. Suddenly, the forest floor exploded in his face hurling birds, leaves and feathers into the air. A school of grouse! I waited a split second and swung my shotgun to bear down on the lead bird. I failed to notice a spruce tree swinging into the path of my gun barrel and the resulting blow to my jaw dropped me like a sack of clams.
About thirty seconds later I came to my senses and crawled around the tree moaning and scratching the ground for my glasses.
"Quit grousing," said Old Halvorsen. He had two dead hooters in hand and pointed out the direction where the flock disappeared. They had flown into brush impervious to a skinny mink.
For the next hour we hunted down the singles. In self defense, Old Halvorsen added three more birds to his bag. I practiced conservation and habitat improvement, choosing to sluice and trim much of the thick brush instead of taking easy shots at grouse flying near it.
A little later Old Halvorsen scored another double. I quickly pretended to reload and asked him if he had fired, too. Finally, exhausted, we took a lunch break. The solitude was overwhelming and ominous. Hosehead the Faithful was nowhere in sight, but the muted flushing of distant birds told us the dog was still at work.
As we finished the last sandwich, a sudden yelp of canine horror split the spring air. It was followed by the sounds of bushes being trampled and trees tossed aside.
"It's a gorilla!" I cried.
"No, it's a big grouse!" exclaimed Old Halvorsen.
We leaped to our feet, guns loaded and pointed, hearts pounding. But it was Hosehead who materialized, like a willo’-the-wisp gliding through the impenetrable brush. He was panicked and trembling, and he crawled between Old Halvorsen's legs and just quivered. His eyes had that glazed look that a rabbit gets when it thinks the best way to deal with approaching headlights is to out stare them. It was obvious that he had encountered Ol’ Bad Blue.
Hosehead's demeanor caused me to harbor some genuine misgivings about pursuing this bird. After all, if Ol’ Bad Blue wasn't dangerous, why hadn't someone from the village dropped him by now? Why should the villagers recruit hired guns? Lacking answers to these mysteries, I was inclined to demur to Hosehead's undisguised reservations.
"Halvorsen," I said, "I forgot to water my geraniums. If you don't mind, I'll just scurry back to Angoon, catch the mail plane home, and take care of that important oversight."
"Plastic flowers don't raise a thirst," Old Halvorsen decreed. Then he got down on his hands and knees and began comforting Hosehead and whispering in his ear. After about a half-hour of this man-to-dog communication Hosehead miraculously stopped trembling and reverted to normal. He even showed assertiveness. He began prancing impatiently as if waiting to follow us. When Old Halvorsen said, "Let's go," Hosehead heeled and the two of them nosed off into the direction from which the dog had recently fled.
Old Halvorsen had taken up the chase, and there was I, Hamlet -like, between the devil and the deep blue sea. To be left alone in the woods not knowing the whereabouts of Ol’ Bad Blue, or to sally forth on a suicidal mission, to purposely seek out this crazed and evil bird. Either choice was as rash as visiting a proctologist named Rambo.
“Ah well," I figured, "when in Nome, do as the Nomans do." I minced after man and dog like Mary's little lamb.
Whatever beast Old Halvorsen and Hosehead were tracking was obviously on the move. The trail led on for miles, and the only reason I wasn't fit to be tied was because this steeplechase was slowly circling back toward the village of Angoon.
If Hosehead's quarry was Ol’ Bad Blue I had some rethinking to do, because somewhere I had inherited the notion that birds were supposed to fly. After about two hours of slogging through wet brush I learned that an out-of-shape grouse hunter can do a fair imitation of an Eskimo down on all fours calling a walrus.
It's traditional at the end of a season to look back and take stock of what happened. As everyone knows, grouse hunters are a cut above the average mortal. They donate to local theatre companies and they support the work of struggling young artists. They have the capacity to reflect and to ponder. Comparing the grouse hunter to a callous duck shooter or a lowlife ptarmigan sluicer is like comparing the finest aged-in-oak whiskey with green homebrew. The ending to the typical grouse hunt set forth in this story can be appreciated only by another outdoorsman of high character. The unseasoned and the ill-informed would not identify with the code of ethics exhibited by your typical hardbitten blue grouse man. The sense of fair play and sportsmanship Old Halvorsen and I demonstrated that day on Admiralty Island is akin only to that of an experienced and skillful fly fisherman who melds his talents with the conservation principle of catch and release, taking home only the memories and the triumph of the pursuit.
It happened like this. Hosehead's tracking led us to the base of a hill. Your typical duck hunter or ptarmigan sluicer would have called it a cliff. In fact, they would have likened it to the south face of the Matterhorn, but it was only a hill. Hosehead was pointing up the slope. I could see that it was time for me to take charge of the hunt.
The hill was a giant solid patch of brush for a quarter mile, alders and devils club parallel to the ground and intertangled like cold spaghetti. If we kept tracking Ol’ Bad Blue through the brush, when he came to its end he would just fly off the hill and leave us there emptyhanded.
The conditions were perfect for what I had in mind since we were downwind from the thick alders.
"Halvorsen," I said, "this is the perfect opportunity to use that grouse whistle you gave me last Christmas."
"I don't think I'd do that if I were you," he retorted.
I ignored him and uncased the little untried beauty. It was a finely tuned instrument, hand crafted from the finest Vermont maple by a craftsman from Louisiana. I couldn't recall hearing a female grouse before, but I figured that no grouse ever got stoop-necked from packing around brains, and after all, this was the mating season. I began an acoustical exhibition I felt offered to Ol’ Bad Blue the promise of a torrid love affair.
My weather-tanned face scanned the cold and shallow light of the thick brush and I heard the distant sound of brush crackling.
"Here he comes," I said. ''About 400 yards and headed this way."
Old Halvorsen was babbling and carrying on about something but I continued to call. There was no question it was working. I heard Old Halvorsen's safety snap off as I issued a series of notes so haunting, so wild, so pure, so spellbinding, Hosehead began to tremble again.
I smiled and called again, as would a grouse reading the menu at Blueberry King. The noise in the brush was definitely closer, and we waited silently.
Simultaneously, it seemed, Hosehead and Old Halvorsen raised noses to the air, and it was Old Halvorsen who spoke for them both.
"What does a bear smell like?" he asked.
Six minutes later we were puffing our arrival at the float plane dock in Angoon. Thoroughly bushed, we dropped our guns and vests, and sat back to wait for the Grumman, relaxing with the carefree ease of the experienced professional hunters that we were. The villagers gathered around, inspecting our guns and looking for signs of a great kill. One of them boldly beseeched us to tell our story, but true to grouse hunting tradition, we remained somewhat recalcitrant about that. We explained that we were grateful for the opportunity to have been of service to them, especially on such a glorious day. And if another dangerous animal ever presented them with problems, it would be selfish of us not to allow the pleasure of coming here to be experienced by someone else. To prove my sincerity, I gave them my grouse whistle.
Larry Edfelt retired as Assistant Executive Director of Boards, ADF&G, order to spend more time tracking dangerous animals in the wilderness. This story first ran in the 1986 July/August issue of “Alaska Fish and Game” magazine, before blue grouse were renamed sooty grouse, and is reprinted with permission.
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