by Mark Leary
Cabelas.com – we use it more and more to enhance our subsistence practices. These days just about everybody uses camouflage hunting clothes and plastic goose decoys.
When I was a kid there was no special hunting clothes except maybe white home-made pullover qaspeqs. Decoys were made out of mud, grass and sticks until birds were caught and set up as decoys with willow sticks holding their heads up. A few hunters even had hand carved wooden decoys.
But there’s one part of our traditional spring hunting that remains the same:
The hideout or blind.
All you need is what’s around you: willows, snow, grass, driftwood – whatever is there.
The natural environment – stuff you can’t order on the Internet!
From these natural materials hundreds if not thousands of these little hideouts spring up across rural Alaska each April and May.
Most are in places, even exact spots that have been used for generations. And most are filled with successive generations of spring waterfowl hunters. It’s not uncommon to see 3 generations of hunters in one hideout.
Many hours are spent in these little hideouts – patiently nayuryaq-ing – waiting and watching for the geese, swans, ducks, and cranes that are coming back into the country they were born from.
Hunters spend as much as 12 hours a day in these hideouts.
When birds are seen the calling begins. Many hunters still use the traditional calls – only voice or fingers and lips. Others use the Native Ingenuity shotgun shell callers. A few have Cabelas.com callers – but not many.
No matter how many years a hunter has been doing this each flock that turns towards the calling is exciting. The hunters sink lower in their hideouts and intensify their calling to the welcoming call that geese make when they want others to land and join them.
Heads are covered, faces kept down, everyone is still – except for the lead hunter who carefully peeks and whispers what the flock is doing. It’s hard for the others to keep from looking up or moving. Sometimes the calling goes on and on as the flock cautiously circles deciding whether or not it is safe to land. Once they turn into the wind and set their wings the hunter’s anticipation really goes up. Hands reach for shotguns. Fingers reach for triggers and safeties – waiting for the OK from the older, more experienced hunters.
Then the shooting begins – sometimes with good results – birds that fall right away. Sometimes with wounded birds that fall far and have to be chased or searched for. Sometimes nothing falls and the hunters tease each other and discuss all their excuses in depth.
Depending on how many hunters are in a blind and which direction the birds are coming from sometimes some of the hunters have to hold off and let those closest do the shooting.
Often the older hunters just do the calling and let the younger hunters do the shooting so they can build their experience.
It really doesn’t matter who shoots down the birds because at the end of the day they are all divided equally – that’s the subsistence way. We hunt together not for individual gain but for the benefit of all.
And carrying that further – the birds are distributed equally among the hunters who in turn share them even more among their communities.
And so gradually throughout April and May everyone who wants and needs the fresh meat provided by the spring migratory waterfowl gets some. People treasure and eat almost every part of these precious birds from the head to the feet – back in the day this was the first fresh meat with all the fat and nutrients needed to make a body strong again after a winter of mostly dried meat and fish.
This is why it seems criminal to see birds thrown in dumpsters with only strips of breast meat cut out.
During the many hours that hunters across Alaska spend in these little hideouts – nayuryaq-ing they observe many things that strengthen their connection to the natural environment.
Some have full-time jobs and relish the time away from computers and cell phones to get back to who they really are – Nukalpiaqs – not of money – but of food provided directly by themselves to their family and community.
Others are expert professional subsistence hunters who follow each season like the many generations before them providing everything from fish, birds, and land & marine mammals to People throughout the region – always hunting for the greater good – not for themselves. Chasing money isn’t even a part of their mentality. They just need enough funds for gas and shells.
The hundreds of hunters across rural Alaska sitting for hours in little hideouts see many things no one else has time to see. Some might think it’s boring to sit there with no Facebook, Snap Chat, etc.
It’s NOT! They observe the wind, the clouds, the snow and ice melting right before their eyes as their own skin gets darker around their sun glasses. All day they see the ice popping up from the bottom of lakes and sloughs. Sometimes gently – sometimes like a great dirty whale surfacing!
They see mink, beaver, otter, and muskrats going about their spring activities. They watch all types of birds building nests, hunting, and preparing to raise their young. They see eagles catching geese. They see foxes barking. They see mating ptarmigan laughing across the tundra and ravens looking for wounded birds or eggs. They see hawks chasing ducks. They see mosquitos and other insects coming out in the warm sun. Some have even seen moose being born!
The many hunters out nayuryaq-ing this time of the year can tell you endless stories about what they observe each day across the land and waters of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
They aren’t only hunters but also the traditional observers of spring. What they see helps others including Elders predict what the upcoming summer season will hold for our subsistence fishing and gathering activities.
Good Luck & Safety to all our Spring Hunters!