November 03, 2010
Access is tougher, but the hunting is incredible.
You stow your cased gun safely in the cargo hold, along with a daypack, extra clothes and hunting gear. The high-pitched whine of helicopter turbines and blades drum in your head as the chopper lifts off, tips its nose slightly and whisks you toward the distant horizon.
The hunt feels exotic, and when you tell your hunting buddies back home about the experience, they expect to see photos of mature, full-curl Dall sheep or mountain caribou. However, this arctic hunt is actually designed for avid waterfowlers targeting hordes of geese as they start their southward migration from the top of the world.
Hudson Bay: Goose Central
Several waterfowl outfitters operate on Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba. Seasons are early. Most outfitters offer waterfowl hunts during the first three weeks of September, before the geese disappear.
Kaska Goose Lodge is located at the tip of a pie-shaped island at the mouth of the Kaskattama River. An amphibious all-terrain vehicle is used to run hunters to blinds strategically established along the shores of the island and along inland beach ridges. A turbine helicopter is based at Kaska during the hunting season to provide hunters with increased mobility so they can move to where the geese are staging on calm days when the birds are reluctant or too lazy to fly.
The primary species of geese along Hudson Bay at this time of year are greater and lesser snow geese, Ross's geese, greater and lesser Canada geese and Richardson's geese. Good numbers of blue-phase geese are found among the flocks of snows. The mixed bag is appealing for hunters wanting to sample the north's diversity.
Kaska offers one of the most extravagant hunting options in the north, but plenty of other outfitters operate remote, wilderness camps along Hudson Bay, such as Webber's and Nanuk. Boats, ATVs, quads and special tundra buggies are used to move hunters, because there are no roads or infrastructure. It is hard for most hunters to fathom the expansive territory of the north. To help place things geographically, you must check for polar bears before heading outside of camp.
Hunting Native Style
The arctic is vast, with virtually no people when you compare it the populations to the rest of North America. The population of waterfowl, on the other hand, is something to behold. The sheer number of ducks and geese that raise broods on the northern islands and along the coast of the Arctic Ocean is mind-boggling.
The arctic spans the width of North America, which gets wider farther north. A smattering of Inuit communities now provide permanent homes for families, some people who were still living a nomadic lifestyle just 60 to 70 years ago. The Inuit lived and moved to the food, setting their calendars by species availability and abundance.
I flew into a remote community one winter for a muskox hunt, and was invited to tour the community freezer to gather some food to take on our trip. I was amazed at the number of waterfowl they had collected. Swans, geese and ducks lined shelves -- frozen whole with feathers and all. A fat bird was considered a treat at any time of the year, but historically, waterfowl hunts were conducted in the spring and fall during peak migrations.
Many of the hunts offered in the arctic are still done in traditional ways, like the people who live off the land. Driftwood, willow or rock blinds are constructed along shorelines to intercept birds. Much of the hunting is simply pass shooting, but some unique hunts are based on specific food sources the birds key on. Few decoys are used, but as birds are harvested, they are set out with heads propped up with rocks or stubby limbs from arctic willow.
Blueberries are a favorite food of arctic geese coming out of the north. I've seen large berry patches on the tundra littered with snow goose droppings. The birds flock to berry-rich areas and gorge themselves on the calorie-rich feed before heading south. The blue droppings are so prevalent in key hunting areas that your clothing will be stained with blue patches from sitting or kneeling on the ground. There are no grain or agricultural fields, so the natural sedges and berries on the tundra are the normal food sources for birds.
When the migration is in full swing, the geese line the horizon. Early September is exceptional, and most hunting is done in historic areas where birds stage coming from the far north. Hudson Bay is a key staging area that has established hunting lodges, but there are other options.
Hunts in the Yukon and Northwest Territories can be set up along the Arctic coastline, where geese can be targeted along migration routes. It's a unique and very different way to target waterfowl. Most of the birds have not seen a hunter. Wing shooters can quickly become spoiled by the experience. These types of hunts are most often freelanced and set up through charter aircraft companies with drop off and pick up at do-it-yourself camps.
It is the most adventuresome of waterfowl hunts, but the hunters I know who have done the trip usually plan a return visit.
|Experiencing Different Cultures
An Inuit friend I met on a hunt came to visit me in the big city on his first trip out of the arctic. He had a small panic attack as we drove from the airport and passed over a river on a highway bridge. He grabbed the dash and feared we'd plunge off the road. He'd never seen or been over a bridge before. As we neared my house, he looked around with big eyes, wanting to know if all of my neighbors hunted. He couldn't understand how so many people could live so close together and how anyone would want to feed their families without hunting. A highlight for me was serving some mallards I'd taken during the previous season. He marveled at the taste, and told me nobody at home ever shot mallards, because they didn't have enough fat. Learned behavior and traditions can be hard to understand and explain, but we all mis
s out on things in life because of what we are taught or what we overlook. The extreme differences in the culture help make a trip to the arctic rewarding. If you go, you will realize how quickly our modern lifestyle has developed.
Most of the Inuit communities in the Northwest Territories and portions of Nunavut have hunter and trapper associations that control and offer hunts for big game and waterfowl.
The associations are good sources of information for setting up hunts and camps, but most trips require personal planning.
Farther south of the Arctic Ocean, outfitted hunts are available on the shores of Great Slave Lake, near Yellowknife. Enodah Wilderness Travel provides hunts on big water, with a rich variety of diving and dabbling ducks that stage in huge numbers. Timing can be critical to target specific species.
Most waterfowl hunters target the prairie region of Canada for mallards and big honkers.
Some people like the east coast for sea ducks or even black ducks, but few think about a trip to the arctic. The variety of ducks is incredible, and the arctic goose hunting is simply unbelievable.
Relatively few outfitted hunts are available for such a vast area, but the camps and lodges that do operate for waterfowl in the far north are worth checking out.
Brad Fenson is a wildlife habitat specialist from Edmonton, Alberta.