Holiday Greetings, Alaska Style

Photo by Steve Meyer
Photo by Steve Meyer

I’ve been mostly living away from my family ever since college,  and while I come home a few times a year, I usually enjoy my time most visiting the homestead around Thanksgiving. It’s simply a superior holiday to the chaos of Christmas. The traditional feast, the football and no Christmas gift drama to fret about (I don’t plan a Black Friday shopping excursion either; I’ll give up a few bargains to take care of my presents on another day).

So it’s not surprising that one of my favorite stories that ran in this month’s Alaska Sporting Journal was correspondent Steve Meyer’s homage to how Alaskans might spend their Thanksgiving (spoiler alert: it involves getting outside).

Here’s Steve’s story and Happy Thanksgiving!

By Steve Meyer 

Where are you going for Thanksgiving,” someone asked. “The mountains,” I replied.

“Who lives there?” They genuinely wanted to know why. In reality it was ptarmigan that lived there. Since childhood the Thanksgiving holiday has only meant one thing to me, hunting. Before reaching the age when carrying a gun was allowed, hunting was a mainstay of the Thanksgiving holiday in my family.

The game we went for was always of the small variety as big game hunting seasons were closed by then. Pheasants, ducks, geese, and sometimes rabbits would fill the game bags

A tradition of hunting, gathering

The first Thanksgiving, in 1621, was one of game taken and provided by the hunters in the group, plus fruits and vegetables provided by the gatherers. There was no turkey, at least according to the history of that first feast. Now, if those folks could have gone to the grocery store and bought a couple of frozen birds for the event, even odds say they may have done just that.

Nevertheless, the symbolism of Thanksgiving was a celebration of all that the New World provided. It was a place where individuals could go forth and provide for themselves and share in the takings to provide a feast. It’s now a rare and precious commodity in today’s world – one that has become unique or even antiquated or simply unknown to many.

Times change and the common denominators for the Thanksgiving Day celebration are football, turkey and a whole lot of guilty pleasures to gorge on for one glorious November Thursday.

And there are a lot of families across the country that honor the day of giving thanks with a hunt before the festivities begin. For many that also include wild game taken before Thanksgiving – wild turkey, venison, duck, goose and pheasant roasting in the oven while the family takes in a morning hunt.

The hunting tradition, with some exceptions, has been primarily fathers, uncles and granddads taking sons, nephews and grandsons out into the field and enjoying the outdoors.

Times are changing and not only for the better; personally, I believe that the changes will be critical factors in the future of our hunting heritage.

Not just the guys 

Female hunters are embracing the hunting lifestyle as the largest growing segment of the hunting population. They are doing it in ways that the nonhunting public embraces. This isn’t always the case with their male counterparts.

The primary reason females are taking to the hunting fields is harvesting healthy, sustainable food for their family. They also view it as an opportunity to share the clean air, the exercise and the relationship with nature that only hunting allows with their families.

What better time to engage the entire family than the Thanksgiving holiday? Kids are out of school and most folks at least have the day off and in many cases a long and leisurely weekend. The shorter daylight hours don’t demand the intensity of 4 a.m. wakeup calls and 16 hours of light to hunt.

Small game is going to be the primary quarry on the menu and does not require much in the way of travel to get to a choice hunting spot. Practically anywhere in rural Alaska houses rabbits, grouse or ptarmigan.

On the other hand, a long holiday weekend can allow for a Sitka blacktail hunt or a serious waterfowl trip to some of the really productive areas throughout Alaska.

Don’t discount angling. By late November, many of the lakes are frozen enough to allow ice fishing. Fish is certainly a mainstay of an Alaskan’s diet and offers the same opportunities to share the outdoors and the honest utilization of renewable food sources with the family.

For the youngsters  

Much is written about introducing kids to hunting, with one of the primary issues being the outing must be successful (something successfully shot) to keep the youngster’s interest.

Even when hunting was a necessity for survival, and in the days when game was much more plentiful, there was still only a bit over 10 percent of the population that hunted. That number had been in fairly steady decline in recent years, though women are hunting more than they once did.

That said, kids may or may not gravitate to hunting, but the absolute best shot a hunting family has at keeping the children interested into the future is getting them out there immediately. The salient point of early involvement is they still want to be with the family. It doesn’t really matter what the activity, they just want to go and be a part of it.

This is one area where female hunting involvement will make a difference in the future. Alaskans like Becky Swanke of Tuff Kids Outdoors took her son, Caden, on his first moose hunt at age eight months! Heather Wilson, a biologist for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Alaska, shot a moose with her 1½-year-old son, Coal, in the backpack she carried (see Alaska Sporting Journal, Issue 1, 2013).

Most moms will go the extra mile to keep the children close and have a much better record of patience in everything that child-rearing involves, than fathers do. No slam on dads, it’s just the nature of things.

Photo by Steve Meyer
Photo by Steve Meyer

A day of fun 

What’s in store for Thanksgiving in our part of the world? Since the setters get more time in the field, the Labs will be hunting mallards and goldeneyes on the upper Kenai River. This area is tough to hunt during most of the season since so many anglers are working the rainbows there. By Thanksgiving weekend the crowd has thinned some, and finding a cove to tuck into and throw out a few decoys is feasible.

We typically don’t hunt spruce grouse in November – by then we have enough for the freezer and they are settling in with a diet of pine needles for the winter  (When peeling the breast skin back on a late-November spruce grouse prepare to be assaulted with a scent reminiscent of a freshly cut Christmas tree. It’s edible with some doctoring, but not the best table fare).

If there has been a decent snowfall the willow ptarmigan will be down lower in the willow and alder patches. Just be careful of avalanche danger; moderate temperatures and periods of rain in Southcentral Alaska can make the steep, upper reaches treacherous for the hunter. Rabbits are always a mainstay; just look for tracks, as where there are tracks there are rabbits.

Preserving a legacy

Perhaps at no point in history have there been more threats to our hunting heritage. The importance of involving families and continually involving future generations of hunters cannot be overstressed in preserving our hunting traditions.

Happy Thanksgiving.