Where the Flyways Begin

High adventure awaits goose hunters in the land where the polar bears roam


Photo © Chris Jennings

By Matt Young

Nothing could be heard above the whining turbines of the Bell Jet Ranger helicopter carrying us high over the sprawling Kaskattama River Delta. In the distance, we could see the expansive waters of Hudson Bay shining in the amber light of a clear subarctic dawn. Clad in my bulky waterfowl parka and muddy neoprene waders, I felt out of place going goose hunting in such a high-tech aircraft, especially so far from civilization.

However, as in much of the largely roadless Far North, helicopters are the most practical way to transport waterfowlers to and from the vast tidal flats fringing the great bay, where tens of thousands of staging Canada, lesser snow, and Ross' geese gather to feed and rest at low tide.

Joining me on this early morning flight were my host and co-owner of Kaskattama Lodge, Tom Smith, and his good friend and business associate Ted Northam. Following a smooth trip from the lodge, pilot Tony Ursini set the helicopter down with military precision on a narrow, sandy peninsula on the edge of the flats.

We bailed out of the side doors of the helicopter and grabbed our shotguns, bags of decoys, and other equipment from the storage compartment in the back of the aircraft. With our gear safely unloaded, Tony gave us a parting salute and roared off toward the lodge, leaving us to hunt on our own in solitude.

My hunting partners and I quickly went to work placing our mixed spread of Canada and snow goose silhouettes and windsock decoys in small groups surrounding shallow pools of seawater left by the falling tide. Then we took cover in a narrow strip of waste-high willows located on the tip of the point.

Our makeshift blind was strategically located near the mouth of a river channel, which serves as a perennial flight path for geese trading from their inland roosts to the flats. The area also is a favorite haunt for polar bears, which gather along the Hudson Bay coastline during the summer months while waiting for the pack ice to reform later in the fall. Although polar bears are largely inactive in September during the goose season, these top predators will never pass up an easy meal and should always be treated with the utmost respect.

We didn't have time to worry about bears, however, as flocks of geese began arriving from upriver. My hunting partners broke into a medley of double clucks, grunts, and moans on their goose calls, as a long, wavering line of interior Canadas winged rapidly in our direction.

Since we were likely the first hunters the geese had encountered all year, they didn't need much encouragement to join our inviting spread. Peering through the interwoven willow branches, we watched wide-eyed as the big geese closed within easy shotgun range and began hovering above the decoys in a tight group.

Instinct took over as we rose from the brush in unison, sighting down the barrels of our autoloaders at the closest birds. Three geese crumpled to the ground during our opening volley, and two more folded as the rest flared downwind to safety.

"Not a bad start," Tom said with a broad grin, as we collected the hefty birds. "If we keep this up, Tony will have to come back early."

As the rising sun flooded the tundra with light, wave upon wave of geese converged on the flats from every direction. Skeins of interior and giant Canadas were intermittently followed by clouds of snows and blues, Richardson's Canadas, and Ross' geese. The larger Canadas proved to be more susceptible to our calling, and we enjoyed steady shooting as several flocks of giants and interiors came lumbering into our decoys.

Thousands of snows, blues, and Ross' geese covered the flats on either side of us, drawing passing flocks from miles around. As in the Lower 48, the light geese showed little interest in our decoys. However, due to their sheer numbers, we downed several of the birds from trading flights that errantly drifted over our blind.

We rounded out our bag with four dainty Richardson's Canadas, which we took from a large flock that whiffled down over our decoys like drifting leaves. When the morning flight had ended, Tom called Tony on his two-way radio to ask him for a lift back to the lodge. We were thankful to be picked up a half-hour later by the helicopter, knowing how difficult it would have been to carry our prodigious bag of geese very far by ourselves.

Our hunt was a good example of the excellent waterfowling opportunities available to visitors at Kaskattama Lodge, which has hosted waterfowlers from across the U.S. and Canada for more than three decades. The lodge was a favorite destination of the legendary outdoor writer Jimmy Robinson, who made annual goose hunting trips there throughout the 1970s.

Owned jointly by Smith and the husband-and-wife team of Charlie Taylor and Christine Quinlan, the lodge is built on the banks of the Kaskattama River at the far northeastern tip of Manitoba. The surrounding Kaskattama River Delta is a major staging area for geese from throughout the Hudson Bay region, offering waterfowlers the rare opportunity to bag several different species and subspecies of geese during a single hunt.

During my visit in mid-September, we began each day well before dawn by gathering in the comfortable main lodge, built on the foundation of a former Hudson Bay Company fur depot. After discussing our hunting plans over a huge breakfast, we departed with our guides for the morning goose hunt on the surrounding tundra.

On most mornings, we were shuttled in six-wheeled ATVs to permanent blinds located in a variety of productive hunting areas, from sandy beaches frequented by loafing geese to grassy meadows favored by feeding birds. When weather and tide conditions were favorable, we took the helicopter to hunt on the more distant tidal flats.

After a hearty lunch back at the lodge, we had the option of returning to the flats for more goose hunting or walking the surrounding tundra for willow ptarmigan. The lodge also offers afternoon fly-out trips for duck hunting on freshwater tundra ponds or trout fishing on miles of remote streams in the region. One sunny afternoon, I joined Mark Leese and John Pearsall on a combination fishing trip and sightseeing tour of the vast wilderness north of the lodge.

Tony kept the helicopter low as we followed the coastline, offering us a chance to observe wildlife below us. We had been in the air less than 10 minutes when we spotted the first polar bear, sprawled out like a huge white dog on the sandy beach. We saw at least a dozen more scattered along the next several miles of coastline, including a large female with two young cubs.

Weighing from 900 to 1,200 pounds as adults, polar bears rank among the world's largest land predators, along with the grizzly bear, African lion, and Bengal tiger. Given their great size and ferocious reputation, I was happy to view these formidable beasts from the safety of a helicopter. In addition to the bears, we also observed several moose, caribou, bald eagles, and spectacular concentrations of ducks, geese, swans, and shorebirds.

Following an unforgettable flight, we arrived at our fishing destination-a small tributary of Hudson Bay known as French Creek. Tony turned the helicopter sharply into the wind and brought us down gently at the end of a series of deep pools that are prime holding areas for large, sea-run brook trout. We quickly learned that flying is not Tony's only skill, as he hooked a large trout on his first cast, just downstream from the helicopter.

Over the next two hours, we each caught and released several large brookies-weighing from 2 to 4 pounds-on light spinning tackle. During our return trip to the lodge, we passed by York Factory, the historic headquarters of the legendary Hudson Bay Company. Standing forlornly on a promontory overlooking the stormy waters of the bay, the white clapboard building is a monument to the thousands of hardy souls who helped explore the vast Canadian frontier.

Although I enjoyed the goose hunting and fishing to the fullest, the most memorable part of the trip for me was the camaraderie shared with the other guests and staff. At dusk, everyone stood outside watching flights of geese returning to roost along the river before we retired inside to sip toddies and recount the day's adventures by the warmth of a crackling wood stove.

Charlie Taylor was an ever present figure around camp and made certain that every guest received the highest level of personal service. A passionate advocate for the conservation of the fragile tundra environment, he was recently presented with an award for sustainable development by the provincial government for organizing a cleanup of an abandoned camp near the lodge. His lovely wife, Christine, is a master chef, and always seemed to have something delicious baking in the kitchen.

Of course, the highlight of every evening was dinner, which consisted of several courses prepared with fresh ingredients flown in from Winnipeg. With such great food, fellowship, and sport, it is no surprise that the overwhelming majority of the lodge's clientele keeps coming back again and again.