It was the second week of September 2008, and we were two days from getting slammed by Hurricane Ike on the upper Texas coast. I knew the devastation and misfortune for some would be horrendous; but I also knew the long hours I would be working and the paycheck that would follow would be my ticket to my dream trip –Alaska.
As soon as things normalized somewhat, I made the call to Captain Tim Bouchard of Alaska Wildfowl Adventures for my trip of a lifetime. Follow me as I recount my adventure that took me 4,200 miles away from my home.
If you’re an outdoorsman/woman, Alaska just has to appeal to you. Ever since I was old enough to realize what the world had to offer, Alaska has been on the radar. Anything about Alaska on television, the internet, or hidden in the pages of a magazine or book has caught my attention. I’m attracted to the diverse terrain and the fish and wildlife that inhabit it.
Anybody who says everything is bigger in Texas has never been to Alaska! It has more than 34,000 miles of coastline, and the tundra alone covers more than 180,000 square miles. One statistic that really hits close to the heart for me is the number of wetlands in Alaska; there are more than 175 million acres. From what I’ve learned over the years about this country’s wetlands, those acres are more than 2/3 of all the remaining wetlands in the U.S. To put it all in perspective, if you cut Alaska in half, Texas would still only be the third largest state. I wanted to see, touch and smell every bit of it!
When the day arrived for me to board my flight, I was at peace. We had made it through another Atlantic hurricane season without even a “blip” showing up on the radar. The tension of trying to pack my waterfowl gear within the weight guidelines of Alaska Airlines had finally subsided. Like most duck and goose hunters, I have a love for gear, and the more, the merrier. But I eventually managed to get it narrowed down, and that magical day for me to leave for the “Great Land” had arrived.
The flight to Alaska was absolutely one of the roughest flights I’ve ever been on. But, finally, around 10:30 pm that night, we landed in Anchorage. From the terminal to the baggage pick up, the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport is loaded with mounts of wild game and birds known commonly to Alaska. I had to walk up and see every last one. With my backpack on and gear bag strapped to my rolling gun case, I headed out to find my hotel shuttle. As I opened the door and felt the 50-60 mile cold gusts of wind, I knew I was finally in Alaska.
The next day, I hopped on a prop plane for a quick 30-minute flight from Anchorage to Valdez. It was an absolutely awesome day—cool, crisp and very sunny. I didn’t realize how beautiful Alaska was until I had a bird’s eye view. I also came to learn how fortunate I was to have had nice weather for my daytime flight. Apparently, it’s a rare occurrence on the rugged Alaskan coastline to have non-cloudy weather. I noticed a gentleman behind me had a very expensive camera and, by the sound of the clicking, he was snapping hundreds of pictures. He stopped briefly and said, “I make this flight weekly and maybe 1 out of 25 will have weather clear enough to take pictures.” The chips were falling into place for me on my maiden voyage.
We passed a series of glaciers called the “College” glaciers in which all are named after universities. I could clearly see the outline of each one, and I knew there was something magical about this place. I assumed the man taking pictures worked in some oil related business flying in and out of Valdez, so I asked him. He explained that he was a Catholic priest, and the area was a part of his diocese. He traveled up and down the coastline and down through the Aleutians doing his duties within the church. He really caught my attention when he said he was returning from being a part of the “blessing of the crab fleet” in Unalaska at Dutch Harbor.
He had no clue about my fascination with Alaskan crab boats and fishing. I’m probably one of the most rabid “Deadliest Catch” fans the show has ever had. Before the end of the flight, I turned to the priest and asked if he would bless my handmade cross constructed of horse shoe nails and wrapped in red, white and blue wire. It’s something I wear in support of our troops. To tie in that cross, the famous king crab fleet and our troops, while being blessed in flight over Alaska was an absolute honor for me.
If there’s a more scenic place to gun waterfowl than Prince William Sound, someone has to prove it to me. Valdez is the center of all activity for Prince William Sound. It’s a small town roughly an hour from Anchorage if you fly directly over Prince William Sound. And if you want to drive it, it’s an astounding 6 hours because you have to go north and then back down south.
Famous for its history with the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1800s, fur trading and salmon canneries, and the end of the famous Alaskan Pipeline, I found Valdez to be a neat place to hang out for a few days. The area is abundant with wildlife and marine life. I saw sea otters, river otters, porpoise, harbor seals, sea lions and Humpback and Orca whales. The one stunning creature I was most often was the bald eagle. There were hundreds or even thousands of them, and they’re the most impressive birds I had ever seen. Whoever chose the bald eagle as a symbol of the United States knew exactly what he or she was doing.
We saw a lot of wildlife, but if Alaska has a staple creature, it has to be salmon. Everything wild benefits from salmon. When they spawn, not only do they leave thousands of eggs for other wildlife to eat, they themselves die, and their carcasses are fair game for eagles, bears and other species. I was there to hunt sea ducks, but hunting isn’t allowed in town, so mallards pile into this tidal affected marsh and gorge on salmon eggs. Captain Tim said they smell and taste so bad it makes a merganser equal in taste to a well fed wood duck loaded with acorns!
This trip to Alaska and the Pacific Flyway would complete my goal of hunting all four of North America’s migration flyways. After starting my 38th season with the opening of early teal season in Texas, I had now set foot in every flyway across this great land to gun fowl. Of my recent travels, my trips to the famous eastern shore of Maryland probably topped the list for all things duck and goose because of the very rich tradition of waterfowl, decoys and the Chesapeake Bay. But this trip to Alaska was different. It was about seeing a place I had only dreamed about and getting a shot at Harlequins and Barrow’s Goldeneyes. Those who regularly hunt with me know that my days of piling up birds just because I can are long gone.
When I travel, I’m species hunting and looking for trophies. All I needed was a couple of each, if the stars aligned just right, for a lasting memory and a specimen for the wall to forever cherish. My choice in outfitters was just the ticket for my first Alaskan adventure. There are never any guarantees in hunting. Weather and human choices can change the game in a heartbeat. Plus, you have to make the shot to seal the deal.
While hunting in the coves, everything echoes, especially shotguns. When the wind died down, we could hear the Barrows’ before we could see them. With the first flock, we saw a mammoth drake that peeled off onto my side. I stood to shoot and, just that quick, I got one of the sought after birds I came to Alaska for. We had a strong tidal movement, and the bird fell dead into it. We decided to wait to go get it as multiple flocks were in the air around us. We ended up getting a couple more while my first one slowly drifted off towards the glacier.
I’ll be damned if a huge bald eagle didn’t swoop down, pick it up, and fly off with it for an apparent lunch! My heart was just broken. The big eagle could clearly see the snow white belly of the mature drake, and the one I wanted for the wall, just ended up in the gullet of an eagle. I was disappointed, but after I thought about it for a while, I calmly settled for the fact that at least I fed another creature in Alaska. Since my days of waterfowling began with my dad at age six, I’ve been fascinated with the mighty Canvasback. But I have to be honest in saying that the Barrow’s has taken the king’s place. On an uplifting note, I did get that Boone & Crocket Barrow’s drake I so desperately wanted for the wall after all.
Captain Tim Bouchard is the owner, operator and outfitter of Alaska Wildfowl Adventures. I can count the number of outfitters I’ve hunted with on one hand, but when you travel close to 4,000 miles, you better choose the right one. Captain Tim and his wife, Diana, run a first class operation.
Breakfast and lunch were included in our hunt package. I didn’t need an alarm clock with coffee brewing, eggs, bacon or sausage, and the aroma of pancakes filling the air of the quaint Bed & Breakfast that would be my Alaskan home for a week. We stayed on the water all day and for lunch and enjoyed world class hoagies with plenty of snacks and drinks.
For dinner, we dined out in town. The first night, we chose the Totem Inn across from the harbor. As fate would have it, we ate there every night. It was a given once we saw the menu and the Alaskan décor that included mounted big game ranging from brown bear, Dall sheep, mountain goat, moose and caribou and hordes of native Alaskan handmade artifacts. As is customary when I travel abroad to hunt fowl, I try the local fare, and the Totem Inn didn’t disappoint. I sampled halibut, red crab and reindeer sausage to name a few. With the backdrop of the huge stone fireplace, the quality of the food and the friendly staff, we had to look no further.
Additionally, I give many thanks to Captain Bouchard and his guide Captain Brian Rhodes of Rhode Island for the sea duck gunning experience. We saw massive numbers of Barrow’s Goldeneye and the “Blue Ducks” (Harlequin) everyday. If they didn’t work just right after a fair time at trying, we picked up and moved again. There is no such word as quit with Captains Bouchard and Rhodes. They were hell bent and determined to get us our quarry, and as you will see, they were successful in doing so. With the approaching winter weather and what the seas can do in a moments’ notice, safety trumped everything with my guides. And not only were these guys skilled captains, they were also excellent tour guide.
My hat is off as only a Texas can tip it for all involved with Alaska Wildfowl Adventures. Not only was the gunning tremendous, but the bed and breakfast and the personalized service makes it a 5-star in my opinion.
And lastly, I couldn’t have picked a better person to hunt ducks with than my gunning partner, Tom. As fate would have it, we both signed up as individuals, so Captain Bouchard put us together. Tom is a Union railroad worker from New York who takes his gear, traveling and bird hunting seriously. Like me, he also comes from a blue collar background. With both of us being Union members and sharing common backgrounds and interests, I thoroughly enjoyed spending the week hunting with him. It was also great to hunt with someone who was just as thankful as I was to be in Alaska. There is no doubt in my mind that our paths will cross again to gun waterfowl.
Looking in the mirror this morning, I saw my crow’s feet and the grey in my beard and felt tired. But for one unforgettable week in my life, none of that mattered. I was living a dream. It truly is the “Last Frontier.”