The “Glorious Twelfth” is what they call it across the pond in Great Britain. Monday marked the opening of hunting season for red grouse (a close relative of our willow ptarmigan) throughout the moors of England, Scotland and Ireland. It’s a rather celebrated affair, in part due to the wealth of the participants.
It seems that to get in on the glory, one must either be rich or at least have papers that testify to one’s noble ancestry. Sort of like what you might look for in a bloodline of an English setter. Those who take to the field and post up in assigned positions to await the grouse driven by local common folks are dressed in handsome field clothing and conduct themselves properly, lest they be asked to leave. Bespoke shotguns, costing more than a lavishly accoutered SUV, are the norm.
Some despise the event, citing a variety of reasons that, if you were to peel away the surface, are probably more about envy than anything else, although there are some ecological concerns that have arisen over the years that may hold some weight.
I think of it as a time-honored tradition that evolved in a place that does things much differently than we do. I don’t have papers or money so I’ll never participate, but I find it interesting the way hunting is pursued across the globe. I wouldn’t turn down an invite to experience it in person.
Of course, my thoughts drifted this way with last week’s opening opening of upland bird hunting season (check regulations for Game Management Unit 14C) .
We don’t call it the “Glorious Tenth,” but maybe we should. In stark contrast to Great Britain, our season opens the possibility of taking upland birds to the table for a common person. For the cost of a hunting license, a minimal amount of equipment and a willingness to burn up some boot leather, anyone can participate.
On the menu are willow, rock and white-tailed ptarmigan, spruce, ruffed and sharptail grouse and, if one resides in Southeast Alaska, the Sooty grouse (also known as Blue grouse or hooters). From the Arctic coastal plains, boreal forests and mountain reaches throughout the state, to the Sitka spruce forests of Southeast, wherever you live in Alaska, there are upland birds available.
The way Christine and I approach upland bird hunting may appear daunting and unattainable to some folks. That’s understandable. Hunting deep in the mountains behind purebred English setters, with superposed shotguns, does imply that it requires these things, and that might scare folks away.
But it is just one way, and it was how I was brought up. Wingshooting was just the way one did it, and I embraced it, perhaps to a fault. It is a comfort for me, a soothing of the soul steeped in tradition and personal experience.
But hunting is more about the prelude to the shot than the shot itself. Taking the time to practice, to know the gun, the ammunition, the country, the game and your own limitations, and when you take the shot, strive for the kill to be instantaneous. Stalking into range and taking a sitting bird with a .22 rimfire, an arrow or even a slingshot, instantaneously, is putting meat on the table.
It is funny how little regard some big hunters place on small game in Alaska, I imagine it has to do with having something to measure. The truth is, small-game hunting, be it rabbits, upland birds or waterfowl, is an efficient way to procure healthy protein. One doesn’t need to take a vacation or spend a fortune to do it. It is a great way to get to know the country, stay active, enjoy the outdoors and eat like a king.
The pursuit of small game affords the opportunity to disconnect from the compartmentalized, stratified and micro-managed big-game regulations, where the odds of success are rarely in your favor. Small-game hunting is available everywhere. The seasons and bag limits are listed on one page of the regulation book and they don’t require a law degree to interpret.
The vast amount of land available as small-game habitat (much of it public) allows long seasons, generous bag limits and the opportunity to find your own country. An abundance of land will enable you to determine the health of the game pursued, conduct yourself in the best interest of “your” slice of country and have a regular source of healthy protein. What we have in Alaska cannot be bought, but it seems we are richer than those who celebrate the “Glorious Twelfth.”
Meanwhile, this year’s season will be a new experience for Winchester and me.
His physicality in the mountains, so much a part of our lives, is on the wane. The days when he would course 35 miles of mountain slopes and thousands of feet in elevation are gone. He brought us the best hunting days of our lives, watching him do the things he could do mesmerized us as he painted a picture on the slopes that are fading into memories etched in our minds.
Almost as if our destinies were entwined, I also find myself in some trouble in that regard. A lifetime of back trouble and my refusal to let common sense get in the way of living life has come to collect.
I started having trouble with a pinched nerve causing issues with my right leg. I was still able to do everything, but not without a fair amount of discomfort. Then a fall, backward onto a large chunk of granite, cracked a rib and exacerbated the nerve issues. Climbs into the high country are now excruciating.
In an odd way, I am grateful. Winchester and I are soulmates, and with his physical challenges, his aches and pains, it hasn’t felt right. Knowing he is still living his dream and hunting while hurt churned my stomach. The question — should I hold him back and deny his destiny? — has haunted me.
Now we are back on equal footing, and I have my answer. There is no holding back, we will do the best we can, and we’ll be grateful for each moment.
Winchester, Christine and I will be back on the mountain slopes to celebrate Winchester’s 10th season. We may not be able to go over every distant ridge, but the mountain flowers, the ripe berries, the gin-clear streams and the snow pack in hidden valleys will still be there. Winchester will find his beloved white-tails, and we may take some, or we may not. However it goes, we’ll be richer for it, and by any definition, it’ll be glorious. I hope yours is too.
Steve Meyer is a longtime Alaskan and an avid shooter. He lives in Kenai.