COLD DAY ALASKA

gun­ning for geese and ducks in a re­mote a leu­tian out­post

Outdoor Life - - HUNTING -

cold bay, alaska, isn’t much of a des­ti­na­tion for tourists, or any­one else for that mat­ter. The year­round pop­u­la­tion is said to be some­where around 100 peo­ple, give or take, but af­ter spend­ing a week there I think that num­ber is in­flated. You end up see­ing the same faces whether you’re at the bar, the gro­cery store, or the post of­fice, or walk­ing around the town’s packed-gravel roads. What is cer­tain, how­ever, is that there are more houses than peo­ple, many of which look aban­doned, hav­ing been beaten down by the salt and wind and cold.

With­out doubt, Cold Bay also has more com­mu­ni­ca­tions gear per capita than any other place on the planet. The tree­less tun­dra­cov­ered hills in and around town bris­tle with an­ten­nas, radar domes, over­size con­vex dishes, and strange struc­tures that defy easy cat­e­go­riza­tion but are clearly de­signed to emit, or de­tect, elec­tronic sig­nals of some sort for some pur­pose. They are modern-day re­minders of the town’s mil­i­tary his­tory.

Cold Bay is part of the Aleu­tian chain, which juts off the south­west cor­ner of the Alaskan main­land. To the south, the bay opens to the North Pa­cific Ocean and the Aleu­tian Trench, a 2,100-mile-long gash in the earth’s crust that plunges to depths of more than 25,000 feet and fol­lows the cres­cent of the Aleu­tian Is­lands. To the north is the Ber­ing Sea.

Cold Bay’s air­field was con­structed dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, and fight­ers and bombers from the 11th Air Force were sta­tioned there. It was used as a jump­ing-off point to de­fend Dutch Har­bor and other parts of the Aleu­tians from the Ja­panese fleet.

Just be­tween Cold Bay and the Ber­ing is a small la­goon—small at least by Alaskan stan­dards at 150 square miles—and it, too, is a crit­i­cal jump­ing-off point. Called Izem­bek La­goon, it is no­table for one thing in par­tic­u­lar, and that’s the rea­son I’ve trav­eled to this re­mote, windswept lo­ca­tion. The bot­tom of the la­goon grows the world’s largest bed of eel­grass. bot­tle­neck Eel­grass is pretty plain-look­ing stuff. The long, dull-green blades grow in mead­ows on the salt­wa­ter la­goon’s shal­low bot­tom. But for Pa­cific brant—also called black brant—it is the linch­pin of their ex­is­tence. They rely on it to fat­ten up for their re­mark­ably long mi­gra­tions, and it even pro­vides them with fresh wa­ter as they munch away.

Like eel­grass, Pa­cific brant aren’t par­tic­u­larly vis­ually strik­ing. They are stocky lit­tle geese, with black and buff col­oration on their chest, wings, neck, head, and bill, and they have a white belly. Ma­ture brant get a dis­tinc­tive ring of white around their neck, which is a help­ful thing to look for when they fly within shot­gun range.

Nor are Pa­cific brant pro­lific. Their pop­u­la­tion hov­ers at around 150,000—a mere drop in the fowl bucket when com­pared to the mil­lions of Canadas or mal­lards that course along North Amer­ica’s fly­ways. But, re­mark­ably, every one of those 150,000 brant stops at Izem­bek La­goon in order to rest and feed dur­ing their trav­els. Their breed­ing grounds are scat­tered for thou­sands of miles across the High Arc­tic. And they win­ter mostly down in Mex­ico, and in some small pock­ets along the Pa­cific Coast of the U.S. Yet they all con­gre­gate around the same time dur­ing the fall in Izem­bek, mak­ing

this spot a sin­gu­lar bot­tle­neck for these birds.

Once the brant have con­sumed enough eel­grass to con­tinue south, they take off and won’t land for sev­eral days, cov­er­ing the thou­sands of miles to the Baja Penin­sula and the Sea of Cortez in a sin­gle flight. When I learned about the ex­tent of their trav­els, I felt a bit un­char­i­ta­ble for grum­bling about the two days it took me to get from my home to Cold Bay. sleep­ing bear Dur­ing my first night in Cold Bay, the weather gods brewed up a storm that lashed the town with an el­e­men­tal fury. Seventy-mile-per-hour winds drove the rain side­ways against the small house where I was stay­ing along with the group of hunters who had joined me to hunt brant and sea ducks. The build­ing shook and groaned as the rain ham­mered the win­dow above my cot. It felt more like be­ing at sea than on solid ground.

The rain was still com­ing in hor­i­zon­tal in the morn­ing. We had a quick break­fast of bis­cuits slathered with sausage gravy, pulled on our waders, piled into a two-truck con­voy, and went to a small lake to try our luck. The open wa­ter on the bay and in the la­goon was too rough to launch boats.

Cross­ing the soggy ground around the lake, I leaned into the wind to keep my bal­ance. We helped Jeff Wasley, the owner and head guide of Four Fly­ways Out­fit­ters, set four dozen de­coys—a mix of buf­fle­heads, divers, and pud­dle ducks—in the wa­ter. They strained on their an­chor lines in the wind, danc­ing, rolling, and tug­ging like dis­obe­di­ent dogs. With our spread set to Wasley’s sat­is­fac­tion, we tucked into a muddy bank for some pro­tec­tion from the wind and watched the sky. Or, in my case, mostly watched the sky. Look­ing around, I saw torn-up chunks of dead sil­ver sal­mon in the grass— and lots of bear scat.

Some ducks flew high over­head, but the wind kept them out of our de­coys. Ben Teale, a young guide from Wis­con­sin with a bright-red lum­ber­jack’s beard, de­cided to walk the shore of the lake to see if he could jump some birds, and maybe push them our way. His plan didn’t work. The only thing he kicked up was a snooz­ing brown bear. The bruin popped up out of the grass and Teale raised his shot­gun and shouted at it. For­tu­nately, the bear turned tail and ran off rather than look for a fight. lady luck

That night we went to a Ducks Un­lim­ited ban­quet. All of Cold Bay showed up for the party, be­cause It turns out nearly ev­ery­one in town is a DU mem­ber. We had a clas­sic ban­quet smor­gas­bord with Swedish meat­balls, baked pasta casse­role, sal­mon dip, and Hal­loween­themed cup­cakes. While drink­ing punch out of a pa­per cup, I browsed the raf­fle and silent auc­tion items propped on ta­bles around the edges of the room. There were bar sets em­bla­zoned with the DU logo, framed pic­tures of waterfowl, Du-branded shot­guns, and a Tau­rus Judge re­volver with “Ducks Un­lim­ited” etched on its cylin­der. And, of course, there was the oblig­a­tory print show­ing the three fla­vors of Labs: black, yel­low, and choco­late. This one fea­tured a trio of pup­pies in a tableau of hand­carved de­coys and duck calls. They looked slightly con­sti­pated. Per­haps, they couldn’t be­lieve they were be­ing im­mor­tal­ized in such a clichéd rep­re­sen­ta­tion of dog­giedom.

The night was great suc­cess. Peo­ple en­gaged in bid­ding wars for some of the choicer items, while oth­ers popped out of their chairs laugh­ing and clap­ping when they won

from left: a trio of duck and goose calls ready for ac­tion; a hunter wades out to re­trieve a har­lequin drake he shot mo­ments be­fore; the au­thor swing­ing on a duck that is com­ing in low and fast Just off a rocky beach.

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