Outdoors/Adventure

Stepping outside the box on a hike or hunt may not always be smart, but it could prove worthwhile

Hugo

“Must feel good to be stupid again,” said Christine from her perch in a depression secreted on the steep slope 10 feet up the rain-soaked mountain behind me.

The sing-song in her voice brought a smile to my face, knowing she, too, reveled in my stupidity. For the second time in a few days, we found ourselves in places that didn’t allow taking a real break because gravity insisted on trying to pull us over.

During a previous outing we started up a shale slide, and Christine commented that it was steep. I told her it wasn’t that bad as I dislodged a good-size chunk of granite. The jagged rock accelerated rather quickly and disappeared over the edge of a rocky gorge a thousand feet below.

“That made me a little nauseous,” Christine said. “Did you notice Rigby didn’t try to fetch it?”

“Yeah,” I replied. “He doesn’t want to go all the way down there, which will take him a while, and he might miss a treat.”

“Well,” she said, “it seems like there should be a route into the valley that isn’t so steep.”

“Maybe so, but we don’t have time to find it today so let’s go.”

A few minutes later I turned to check her progress as we scrambled up the slide. She was frozen in place, clinging to a little stub of rock, while Rigby danced around her, as if he thought it was a new game.

Christine hollered over the wind, which blew a steady 40 mph, and gusted to 50 or 60, “Please call Rigby away from me before he knocks me off the mountain.”

Later, after telling friends about my behavior, one of them said, “You should have punched him in the throat.”

Christine Cunningham negotiating the slope

Evidently the friend had no appreciation for the rapid approach of the Aug. 10 upland hunting season opener, or the importance of scouting new territory when familiar haunts hadn’t shown much promise.

We had spent most of the summer visiting our usual hunting spots, which were not showing much for bird numbers. Over the past three to four seasons, the setters had been finding fewer birds, and we hadn’t taken more what you could count on one hand over that time.

It happens. While a mountain valley may look the same year after year, unless one can be there to observe all that happens, it isn’t easy to know for sure why things have changed. There have been some harsh winters and late springs, that no doubt, contribute to declines. Predator numbers also seem to be down, further evidencing the area’s game birds might be in distress.

The presence of songbirds is a barometer for the health of an ecosystem, and their numbers also seem to be considerably reduced from several years ago.

The lack of insects to grow birds doesn’t seem to be a problem, although a reduction in the bee population is evident. Rigby, with his swollen eyebrows after a climb into the high country, attests to a healthy population of biting bugs.

Rigby is thinking if he only had a longer tongue he could have these bugs for snacks

In any event, we had been looking at a few promising places, but recent circumstances had prevented the kind of exploring that involves bushwhacking from the road to the alpine.

Over the years, I’ve done it a lot, and since Christine and I partnered up, she has done some of it. The first time she did, she commented that only someone desperate or stupid would do that. And yet, every time I mention it, she’s all in. And, she still believes some of what I predict when we head up, and sometimes not.

As we continued up the shale slide, I had a full-time job keeping Hugo and Rigby from terrorizing Christine. Normally, Hugo doesn’t want anything to do with being around either of us while we explore the mountains. He is much too busy hunting and will only take a break if we make him sit and rest a moment.

For whatever reason, perhaps because Rigby told him how much fun it was, Hugo would run over and try to climb in her lap whenever Christine would be stuck in a particularly treacherous spot. Rigby wouldn’t stand for it. He acts as though his people belong to him and uses his enormous body to assert his right to be closest to his people, no matter how poor their footing.

While laughing at their antics, I thought that Christine might really whack me. She didn’t, and our journey did not reveal what we had hoped for, which was abundant sign of whitetail ptarmigan.

A few days later I reminded Christine we had time to check one more spot, another bushwhacking job. This is why she is my soulmate: No matter what, she is always up for whatever, even knowing that it will barely rate as type “B” fun.

“Looks steep,” Christine said when we pulled up to the spot.

“Maybe a little,” I replied, tongue-in-cheek, “but at least the brush won’t be above our waist.”

Forty-five minutes later, on hands and knees, pulling ourselves up by grasping the base of the head-high grass and fireweed, Christine said, “Sure happy the brush isn’t above our waist.”

“Me too,” I laughed.

“You’re lucky you are wearing cowboy boots, they are perfect for this shallow slope.” Sarcastic wit is a favorite, and Christine never disappoints.

We could hear Rigby somewhere above us, coming down. “Better hold on, we won’t see him before he is on us,” I said a moment before he burst through the brush and knocked me over.

An hour and a half later, we broke into the sub-alpine, soaked to the skin under our rain gear. “These moments are what makes it worth it,” Christine said.

Most people we know who bushwhack to the high country share the same feeling we have when we finally get there. It’s like a supercharged adrenaline dump that flows through the body, instantly relieving one of the stress and fatigue of the climb.

Climbing another 1,500 feet, to reach around 3,500 feet, we found the view was fabulous. The ridge we stood on separated two valleys of classic whitetail ptarmigan country. We found some sign of Dall sheep, mountain goat and caribou. Not much bird sign, but enough to bring us back later, when the chicks are full grown.

We decided putting our rain gear on and sliding down the steep slope we came up on would work great for the descent.

We were near the bottom when Christine commented on my intellect and then asked, “Is the butt torn out of your rain pants? Mine are shredded.”

“Yep,” I replied, about the time the giant ruffian Rigby burst through the brush and knocked Christine over where she sat.

As the saying goes, “if you’re gonna be stupid, you better be tough.” The saying misses the point of wonder and excitement that comes from stepping outside the box and enjoying the country no matter what the smart folks think.

Steve Meyer

Steve Meyer of Kenai is longtime Alaskan and an avid shooter. He writes every other week about guns and Alaska hunting.

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