BETHEL -- One night after work last week, Pat Samson of Bethel rode his four-wheeler over a bumpy, muddy and in some spots nearly impassable tundra trail a few miles out of town. He was on a goose hunt, one of his favorite things.
He brought along the bare essentials: a 20-gauge shotgun, high-end binoculars, a hatchet, a piece of plywood so he wouldn't get soaked lying in wait on the spongy wet tundra.
He considered a smoother route down the Kuskokwim River and across frozen lakes and sloughs. But everything is melting, the ice turning jagged and rotten.
When the thaw makes travel challenging, when pussy willows are in bloom, and especially when migratory birds begin to dot the big sky, it's spring on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
The return of millions of birds -- white-fronted geese and snow geese, mallards and loons, sandhill cranes and tundra swans -- signals the arrival of spring and the start of a remarkable rural Alaska bird hunt.
It's the only authorized spring and summer migratory bird hunt in the country for a multitude of species. Unlike the fall hunt, it operates with liberal rules -- no daily bag limit, no seasonal limit. It's only allowed in Alaska's rural areas including the Bering Strait region around Nome, the Bristol Bay region and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
Federal authorities call it a subsistence bird harvest, though hunters don't have to be Alaska Native. They must be permanent rural residents or, for immediate family members who have moved away, be invited to hunt by a village tribal council.
'Duck in' protest
Rules legalizing the hunt were only put in place in 2003 after decades of hearings, lawsuits and changes to treaties with Canada, Mexico and other nations.
In May 1961, a group of 138 men, women and children held a "duck-in" in Barrow, bringing their harvest of 138 ducks to the federal game warden and asking to be arrested for subsistence hunting. They were protesting the arrest of a local duck hunter.
The 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act and later amendments protected birds from hunting during nesting season, from March 10 through Sept. 1. But by September, birds are leaving Alaska.
"In essence, based on the treaty, our people were considered not to be recognized to hunt during the springtime, which was their right," said Myron Naneng, who is from Hooper Bay and the longtime Bethel-based president of the Association of Village Council Presidents.
So they hunted without government approval, he said. He's worked decades to help build bird populations and to enshrine the hunt. He now sits on the Alaska Migratory Bird Co-Management Council, a quasi-governmental entity that guides federal rule-making and includes state, federal and Alaska Native representatives.
Changes to treaties with Canada and Mexico to allow the Alaska spring hunt were approved by the U.S. Senate in 1997, though the federal rules weren't in place until 2003.
Now the spring hunt and egg gathering is allowed in 202 communities that are home to about 88,000 Alaskans, according to the state Department of Fish and Game. The hunt opened April 2 in most communities. This year, for the first time, hunters don't need a federal duck stamp, though they still need a state hunting license and state duck stamp. The hunt closes for a month during the prime nesting period.
There's no spring hunt in Anchorage, the Mat-Su Borough, the area around Fairbanks, or the roaded Kenai Peninsula. In Southeast communities, there's no spring hunt but residents can gather gull eggs.
For rural Alaska, though, the peak time is approaching. The music of the cranes is overhead. Flocks of geese, swans and ducks are coming in.
"We've got a two-week window and it's over," Samson said. "I look forward to it all winter long."
Craving fresh bird
The spring hunt is an ancient and deep-rooted part of life for many Native residents, a chance for fresh meat after a winter of dried fish and freezer food.
"Bird hunting has been part of the culture for thousands of years," said Crystal Leonetti, who is Yup'ik and works as Alaska Native Affairs specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage.
"Especially on the YK Delta, the Northwest coast, the North Slope of Alaska, when the birds were returning to those places, that was at the same time of year when people were running out of their food for the winter," she said. "People were really hungry at that time."
Before shotguns were introduced in the 1800s and early 1900s, Native people hunted birds using creative methods. Hunters could sneak up on molting birds and catch them in nets, Naneng said. They also used weapons, Leonetti said. One looked similar to the Eskimo yo-yo sold to tourists, but with three or four weighted balls at the end of the cord.
"Hunters knew how to twirl those in a way that they could throw them at ... a low-flying flock and catch sometimes numerous birds at a time," she said.
Spring re-ignites a longing for birds. Samson said he was craving roasted goose and goose soup.
"I'm running out of moose," Samson said. "I'm running out of salmon." His family from Kipnuk near the Bering Sea coast is sending him seal, walrus and ocean-caught birds.
Of all the spring birds, his favorite is swan, he said, prepared as jerky.
Alaska Natives who once depended on birds for survival don't view swans, cranes and loons the same as urban people, as iconic and ornamental birds, Leonetti said. They are food, but also more than food, she said. There's a spiritual connection to the animal.
Birds and eggs, though just a small portion of the total subsistence diet that includes salmon and seal, moose and caribou, whale and walrus, still provide important nutrition, according to Fish and Game's Division of Subsistence.
Based on harvest surveys, an average of 301,000 birds a year are taken in the spring hunt, compared to 56,000 in the fall sport hunt with its bag limits, according to the state subsistence division. People also gather tens of thousands of eggs.
Hunters in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta take by far the greatest number of birds, 41 percent of the total, the division says. The Bering Strait-Norton Sound region is next with 18 percent.
Only a small percentage of the birds harvested are swans, cranes or loons, harvest surveys show.
Samson had a report from a friend that flocks were coming in around Oscarville, near Bethel. He is originally from Kipnuk but left in 1982 to go to community college in Bethel and see what a bigger place might offer. The village was different then -- no drinking, no drugs. He has lived in Bethel his adult life and now works as transportation director for Bethel's tribe, Orutsararmiut Native Council.
He parked his four-wheeler, scrambled down a bluff and walked across a frozen lake to gently rolling open tundra. He cut some alder and picked grass to make a blind, then hunkered down on that piece of plywood to wait.
There was little snow in Bethel this winter, like in most of Alaska, but almost 10 inches fell last month. A quick melt left inviting ponds all around.
That gives the birds ample landing choices instead of funneling them to what's normally a limited number of places free of snow early, said Brian McCaffery, Bethel-based supervisory wildlife biologist for the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.
"I was hoping this would be a landing spot," Samson said. "As far as the eye can see is a landing spot."
He could see planes taking off from and landing at the Bethel airport. A helicopter ferried supplies across the Kuskokwim River to the village of Napaskiak, where a school is under construction. A hunter on a snowmachine with decoys tied to it crossed some open water.
Snowmachines can be rough on the bare tundra, McCaffery said. Samson, who went out on a snowmachine later in the week, said he removes the carbide runners on his machine under these conditions and that the smooth skis glide along the top of the tundra.
As Samson waited, a few small flocks of white-fronted geese flew overhead. So did sandhill cranes.
"High fliers," Samson said. He pulled out a goose-call he made out of a shotgun shell and started calling.
"Don't move a muscle," he said. Three geese came within range. He got off one shot and dinged one of them. All three landed but the shot must have just ruffled the one's tail feathers. All three flew away.
"We're not going to catch it," he said. "Oh man!"
Freedom to hunt
Birds come back to Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta from the Lower 48, Mexico, and beyond each spring in extraordinary numbers: tens of thousands of loons, tundra swans and sandhill cranes, 1 million geese, 1-2 million ducks, millions of shorebirds, McCaffery said. The Yukon Delta refuge is a productive bulb of land as big as the state of Maine, he said.
"Overall we have probably the largest concentration of large water birds nesting here on the entire continent," he said.
The spring hunt isn't hurting water bird populations, most of which have increased in the last 25 years, McCaffery said.
A few species are not thriving -- and aren't hunted. Spectacled eiders and Steller's eiders -- types of sea ducks -- are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and can't be hunted. Emperor geese have been off limits since 1987. Their numbers are building and some communities are eager to again target the big birds. The Alaska Migratory Bird Co-Management Council is working with other agencies to allow a small harvest of emperors, said Patty Schwalenberg, the executive director of the 15-year-old council.
Other than a ban on those species and a prohibition against lead shot, there are few rules for the spring hunt, unlike the bag limits and restrictions that govern the fall sport hunt, McCaffery said.
"A lot of people out here don't realize that when it comes to waterfowl hunting, they are the least regulated people in the country," McCaffery said. "They have no bag limit. They have no seasonal limits. Now they don't have to have a duck stamp. You can't go anywhere else in the country and have that freedom."
In parts of Western Alaska, especially in a narrow stretch of the central Bering Sea coast, the sky is thick with birds in the spring.
But around Bethel so far this year, hunters say conditions are challenging and the spring hunt is going slow. Bethel, a community of about 6,300, stretches across 44 square miles. Hunting is allowed within the city limits, away from populated areas. Some hunters just walk onto the tundra from the edge of town.
A group of three men went out of Bethel Thursday by snowmachine toward the tundra village of Atmautluak. They came back after a full day with about 10 birds each, they said. They had to clean chunks of tundra out of their snowmachine treads.
Two of their fathers used to hunt together, and now their children are hunting together, said one of the men, Arvin Dull, who was born and raised in Bethel.
"So there's three generations of hunters," Dull said.
Buzz Chaney and his 16-year-old daughter, Leighana, came back from a day of hunting with bags full of swan, geese and ducks. They will give most of the birds to friends, family and elders, said Buzz's wife, Glenda. Their daughter has been bird hunting since she was 3, Glenda Chaney said.
"In the spring it's the birds. When the ice goes out, it's black ducks. In the summer it's the fish. Fall time is for moose. Winter is caribou," she said.
Samson said for a serious day of hunting, he'd leave early in the morning. Yet over hours of slow going, his focus never wavered.
"I hear birds," he said every now and again. A few other hunters were in the distance. One of them shot a round but didn't get his bird either.
"If it was easy, everybody would be doing it," Samson said.
The sun was dropping. Samson packed up for the ride back to Bethel. He picked up empty bottles and trash along the way. Almost to town, he saw a hunter who had walked onto the tundra get a goose.
On Saturday, Samson and a friend made a 13-hour day of it. They rode eight miles out from Bethel on snowmachines. After he fell into cold water, he fired up his homemade camp stove -- a paint can with isopropyl alcohol and a roll of toilet paper for a wick -- to dry out.
Just before 8 p.m., the pair rode back into town. Samson lives in Tundra Ridge across a dirt road from the open tundra. He had a successful hunt, bringing back a swan, two white-fronted geese and one Canada goose. His family -- four children are still at home -- can eat for two days off a goose. They'll probably make soup, and will also dry the swan meat. They use all of the meat, the gizzards and livers too. Back when, they would stuff pillows and blankets with the feathers.
"When you come home all in one piece, it's a good day," Samson said. "When you come home with birds and sustenance, it's a plus."