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When I was younger, my family would spend summer vacations in a quiet cabin in the high elevation mountains of Colorado. The impetus of these trips was the typical family bonding through books, board games, and a few hours of fishing, all while escaping Texas’ suffocating mid-summer heat (writing this as a young adult, the motivations seem more apt than they did back then). On the ascent from the Texas Panhandle to our summertime hideaway, staring up at the densely forested mountains, the formidable craggy snowcapped peaks always left me awestruck and wondering, “how on Earth could anyone get up there?” I was an explorative child – especially in wild settings – always curious about what lie just over the next hill or around the next bend; well elucidating to an eventual vocation as a wildlife research scientist. As such, the untapped potential for adventure would leave me stir crazy, begging incessantly for an opportunity to wander the forested trails and beyond.
Fifteen years since the family’s last trip to the cabin, I returned to those mountains still the same starry-eyed kid, but this time accompanied by bird dogs, Ruby, Ranger, Pearl, and Brewster; a shotgun; a good hunting buddy, Matt; a week’s worth of camping gear; and a precarious balance of confidence, experience, and intelligence. This voyage was to contain less conventional rest-and-relaxation, type-1 fun and a good deal of the retrospective type-2 fun.
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Matt and I were old college roommates – sharing similar passions for the outdoors, wildlife biology, and research analytics – who had embarked on many journeys together over the years. Chasing chachalaca in south Texas, scaled quail in west Texas, black bear in Arizona, chukar in Idaho, and mountain quail in Oregon had all posed unique obstacles, or learning opportunities, and afforded us with an extensive catalog of memories. In mid-October, Matt and I met at a trailhead situated 11,000 ft above sea level, ready to carve out our next story, as we trekked across the subalpine and alpine habitats in search of white-tailed ptarmigan.
White-tailed ptarmigan, the smallest North American grouse, are one of 3 ptarmigan species and the only species found in the lower 48 United States. The species is not commonly hunted because the pursuit and terrain are both physically demanding, the high alpine mountains become inaccessible by late October, and the populations operate at low densities, meaning you should feel fortunate to come across even one covey of these special little birds.
To reach the alpine tundra ptarmigan call home, we hiked about 1.5 miles and gained 1,000 ft of elevation, a modest effort when it comes to ptarmigan hunting. Once “on top”, we stripped off our outer layers, re-tied boots, scarfed down a few calories in the form of trail mix, then released my English Setter, Ruby, to begin searching for birds. She was our lifeline; without her keen nose our efforts would be futile. And so she began, casting back and forth across the tundra, checking willow thickets, depressions containing green vegetation, and the edges of talus fields for the faintest scent of feathers.
In the first 5 hours of hunting, we covered 10 miles of truly wild country – steep talus slopes, alpine lakes, willow stringers, and snow fields – only to find a pair of ptarmigan tracks in the snow and a week-old roost pile on a rock shelf. Not to be discouraged, some sign was better than none. After all, this was a game of miles, of which there were plenty between us and camp. That in mind, we found a flat spot on the bank of a crystal-blue lake to eat some lunch and take a short mountain snooze.
Reinvigorated, we set out on the last leg of the day’s hunt. This area was different, gently rolling rocky hills dotted with lakes, ponds, and the occasional stunted growth pine. Knowing we only had a few hours of daylight and about 7 miles between us and camp, we hunted around a few points-of-interest, and then turned in the direction of camp. About that time, at the furthest point from our trailhead, or any trailhead for that matter, I noticed a stark white feather wavering in the wind. I kneeled, picked it up, let out a chuckle, and looking up at Matt, sighed, “ptarmigan.” I stuffed the feather under the band of my hat as a souvenir, potentially the only one I’d take off the mountain. As we made the long journey back to camp, Matt admitted he hadn’t had high expectations of turning up a ptarmigan and just wanted “an excuse to come hike around the mountains.” He understood the game well. I responded that “I wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t find birds, but I wouldn’t surprised if we did.”
Locked into the rhythmic crunching of boots against gravel and wheezy breathes, I almost didn’t notice the ping from my Garmin handheld alerting that Ruby was on point. I looked up and around, and there she stood just 50 yards off the trail, as still as the rocky cliffs overhead, staring directly at us with the intensity that meant only one thing. She was certain there were birds nearby. We clambered up the hill, closing in on the little setter and waiting for the inevitable eruption of feathers. The moment that I arrived at Ruby’s nose, a swarm of stark white ptarmigan took flight from the rocky hillside to her right, presenting both Matt and I with easy safe crossing shots. In typical Matt fashion, he sent all 3 rounds through his 12-gauge pump and managed to drop his first AND second ever ptarmigan! I was also able to pick off a single with my youth model single-shot .410, the first ptarmigan taken with that gun!
I’m sure the hollering that ensued startled every elk hunter in the valley. It was pure ecstasy. We sat on the rocks from which the birds had risen, grasping the snowy ptarmigan with feelings of reverence; a creature capable of withstanding the harshest of elements in the most remote environments deserves at least that. The pleasure of taking a ptarmigan, like any other game, is not the act of killing itself, but the steps that led up to that moment. In this case, roughly 25,000 steps, just over 12 miles.