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Banding Together for Waterfowl

Northern Lights

Hunting snow geese in the company of a polar bear audience generates a hair-raising experience
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Those former occupants have since moved on to another pantry, but the neighborhood remains a walk on the wild side. Polar bears routinely migrate along the coast—which is in Nanuk's backyard–-in summer and fall, wandering north to wait for the Bay to freeze. They will spend the winter out on the ice, hunting seals.

“The bears really don't bother us,” Webber says. “And our guides know how to handle them if a hunting party is confronted. Most people enjoy seeing the bears. They're part of the experience. But you do have to be careful.”

Care must also be taken when selecting shots during this ultra-early hunt. Snow geese are the only birds in season during our brief stay, but Ross's geese, Canada geese, and a variety of ducks are everywhere. Pintails are conspicuous. We are a week early if mixed bags are a consideration, but the snows, whose primary breeding grounds are located relatively nearby, are more than a little entertaining. New birds arrive daily, with the biggest push, of course, occurring the day before we break camp. For those with a passion for hunting white geese, the odds of success are multiplied several-fold in these parts. This is where snow geese come from. Bare spots on the tundra, where the snows have pulled the grasses up by the roots, are stark testimony. The Cape Tatnam region is situated within a prime staging area.

“The geese will eat anything that's green,” Neepin says. “Anything that's green. You can tell where they've been feeding. Sometimes they don't leave much.”

One such place favored by the snows is a gorgeous meadow ringed by a willow thicket. The sky is heavy, a stiff north wind is shaking the trees, and this location provides a modicum of shelter for the geese. Neepin has done his scouting homework. A scattering of white feathers tells us that the birds have indeed been here. Tracks in the damp sand reveal another visitor.

“Black bear,” Neepin says. “But not too big.”

Neepin, a licensed guide beginning his second season at Nanuk Lodge, turns away and continues to deploy windsock snow goose decoys. I immediately scan the willow fringes, looking for . . . something. Edgy? A little. Knowing that the black bear walked right by where we are setting up triggers an internal alarm. Not knowing where that black bear is at this instant keeps that alarm ticking. Two hours go by, and, without firing a single shot, or seeing a single bear, we exhale, depart, and begin looking for an alternative setup.

Twenty minutes later, marking our third move of the day, we settle into a tiny driftwood and willow blind at the end of a gravel bank that protrudes from the tidal flats. At high tide, our bunker is about 200 yards off the water's edge. A flock of at least a thousand snow geese is feeding less than a quarter mile to the east. Other birds trade back and forth between the grass smorgasbord and the bay. Sixty decoys are randomly scattered. But pass- shooting seems our most likely hope.

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