The Alaskan wilderness became much more accessible when this hunter added skis to his repertoire
The upland hunting season in Alaska is famously long. Where I live in south-central Alaska, it begins on August 10th and is open until the snow starts melting on March 31st, with other areas of the state remaining open even longer. On paper, you are allowed to hunt all of Alaska’s grouse and ptarmigan species during this time, but the snow-packed reality is that winter and spring up here means one thing: ptarmigan season.
Unique challenges of hunting in Alaska
Many things in Alaska have a uniqueness all their own, and ptarmigan hunting in the winter and spring is no exception. The ever-present challenge with hunting in Alaska is not only finding your quarry, but also getting to it. A ptarmigan hunt in the fall often presents the challenge of finding birds in a vast and endless landscape. When the mountains are covered in snow, however, the challenge is inverted. Almost every mountain valley will hold some amount of ptarmigan, and wherever you see exposed willow tops you’ll either find birds or you’ll find evidence that they had been there. The bigger challenge this time of year lies in getting to them.
You might be wondering, what’s so hard about that? The winter snow pack in ptarmigan country is nearly indescribable. In most areas, it’s as deep as a person is tall and simply walking across it is not an option (you’ll sink). Snowshoes are a wonderfully simple option, and they are basically de rigueur for an upland hunter here. They are also painfully slow, cumbersome, and will quickly reveal any weaknesses in your cardiovascular system.
In an attempt to up our ptarmigan game a little this season, and to better keep up with the dogs, I was inspired by some friends to add a new piece of gear to our upland kit: skis.
Upland hunting by skis
If you’ve never pursued upland birds on a pair of back country skis, then you’re probably a pretty normal person. Two of my friends are avid back country downhill skiers; they were insistent that skis would be a good idea for traveling through the Alaskan back country in pursuit of ptarmigan. After some discussion I ordered a pair of Black Diamond’s Glidelite 127, a short and fat ski with a universal binding that allows you to strap in with a regular pair of boots, complete with integrated skins on the bottom to keep you from sliding backwards. It took some time for them to make the journey to us, but once I got them, I was immediately smitten. They were faster than snowshoes, easy to manage, and—for a skiing rookie like myself—I was able to navigate a local park on them with ease.
The following weekend, I went out to one of my favorite spots with my Labrador Retriever, Watson. I got all my gear ready, strapped on my awesome new skis, and was immediately confronted by a snow bank that might as well have been Mt. Everest. I should mention that these are the first pair of skis I’ve ever owned. The rest of that day was an exercise in trying to hunt while learning how my slippery new feet worked. I spent as much time field stripping my snow-packed gun that day as I did anything else, and I have no doubt that the ptarmigan on the mountainside above us had a good laugh at our expense. After that day, we started to get the hang of things, and the virtues of skis over snowshoes really started to show. I could travel over impossibly deep snow packs with ease, covering far more distance than I once did.
The following months brought us a very good ptarmigan season. Alaska’s vast public land and abundant resources were now far more accessible to us than they had been before. We continued to diversify our hunting areas as well, finding new valleys and hidden locations that we would not have made it to by way of snowshoe. I still found my face in the snow plenty of times, but it was all part of the fun in learning how to get around the mountains in a brand new way.
Hunting on skis changed how I look at every other piece of gear, too, as systems and pieces that were once sufficient showed to be weaknesses in the upland armor. My bird vest doesn’t haul enough gear, I needed different boots, and my selection of blaze orange upland clothing was severely lacking in high-alpine functionality. To be honest, though, I like my gear as much as the next uplander, so I’m looking forward to upgrading and changing out every weak piece for a better option.
Much of the success we’ve had this year came as a result of these skis. We certainly could have done just fine on snowshoes, but my fat skis really opened up a new world to us. I can see a wide array of hunting-related uses for them in the future, too. The snow- and ice-filled winter grouse woods are now far more accessible. If you’re a pheasant hunter in the lower 48, late season roosters in cattails might not ever hear you coming on a pair of these. There are still occasions when the snow conditions and location favor snowshoes over skis, but as I become more proficient, those will be fewer and further between.
One of the great things about upland hunting is that, at its core, it’s not a very gear-dependent activity; if you’ve got a shotgun and an orange hat, you’re pretty much set to go. There is some gear that can truly make a difference, though, and these skis really opened up our experience in the Alaskan wilderness. . . even if I still fall on my face from time to time.
Scott Johnson is a first generation hunter with a lifelong passion for the outdoors. Originally a fisherman and grouse hunter from Norther Minnesota, he spends his seasons traveling across the country in search of upland birds and waterfowl with his beloved labrador Watson. He hunts and lives out of a converted van that he purpose built for his pursuits, and can be found anywhere from the Midwest to the deserts of Arizona, and as far north as Alaska.