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In search of snowbirds

Some 1,200 miles north of Manhattan, in the subarctic land of Eskimos, Indians and endless winter, this group of hunters found ptarmigan shooting rugged adventure

Against the wild, snow-covered tundra of the subarctic, the delicate white plumed bird I held in my hands seemed unreal. Certainly, it was one of the strangest creatures I had ever seen and as challenging as any I had hunted. Its feathers were the color of fresh snow and as thick and soft as deep-piled velvet. Its feet were enormous in proportion to its tiny body, and were covered with what looked like heavily tufted fur. The bird was a ptarmigan, smallest member of the grouse family; and I had traveled 1,200 miles from New York, nine hours by airliner and bush plane, to hunt it in the bleak, frozen wilderness of the northern Quebec peninsula on the eastern shore of Hudson Bay.

Our camp was at Great Whale River, a tiny Eskimo and Cree Indian village which also houses a Royal Canadian Air Force base on the Mid-Canada defense line. This is a land of almost unending winter, of winds that roar across the bay with hurricane force, of short, overcast days and long, lonely nights. In the brief periods between storms, Eskimo women chop wood in stands of stunted spruce, while their men stalk seals on the bay and ptarmigan in the frosted willows.

They kill the birds singly with sticks and with .22 rifles, but if they are lucky enough to find a whole flock huddled together in the protection of a drift they will use a shotgun to harvest it all with a single charge. Shells are expensive and not to be wasted. The Eskimos hunt ptarmigan for food, not for sport, which is a luxury their meager existence does not permit.

We had come, on the other hand, to try our luck at wing shooting. There were seven of us: our host Tom Wheeler, president of Wheeler Airlines in Montreal (Canada's oldest, which now supplies the Mid-Canada and DEW lines); his daughter, Barbara Patch; Gerry Fitzgerald, manager of Wheeler's Lac Ouimet Club in the Laurentians; Bob Cowen and Guthrie Bicknell of Cleveland; my husband Bob Grimm and myself. None of us had shot ptarmigan before, but Tom Wheeler, in earlier visits, had heard enough about the birds to make him think that hunting them might be exciting sport.


It was Tom who recruited guides for us among the natives, and the morning after our arrival we met the first of our two, Sidney Bullfrog, running alongside a dog sled through the heavy snows. Sidney was a Cree who nodded yes to everything and, it turned out, did not understand a word of English. His sled was a modern replica of the old Eskimo komatik, but in place of caribou thongs its parts were held together with rusting nails. Seven wild and snarling dogs were lashed before it in a tangled maze of rope, while an eighth husky, a bitch, ran ahead of the pack, apparently to inspire the males.

Because of the strong antagonism between the Crees and the Eskimos, Sidney refused to hunt with Charlie Tuckaluck, our other guide, and so we split our party. Wedged on Sidney's sled, four of us started north toward a series of low, ice-incrusted hills. A ground-drifter, blowing out of the arctic, lashed sleet into our faces. About four miles from camp we abandoned the sled to continue on foot. Bent against the heavy winds and slowed by the drifts, we suddenly discovered that Sidney Bullfrog was no longer in sight, nor were his tracks visible in the snow. We had a moment of panic, but a few minutes later we spotted Sidney in the distance signaling to us.

He waved his arms toward the top of a small hill, nodding his head up and down. Not until we were within yards of the crest did we see the three motionless white heads projecting above the snow. Bob and Guthrie walked toward the birds, but they refused to flush. Finally the men kicked a bootful of snow in their direction, and with a flutter of wings the ptarmigan took off in an erratic, twisting flight. The men fired, and hit all three.

We were pleased, but Sidney obviously and vocally was not. It was some time before we figured out why. To Sidney, a bird on the ground was worth ten in the air and, even more serious, the waste of three precious shells on only three birds was typical white man's foolishness.

Still complaining, Sidney carefully pulled the tailfeathers from the birds and placed them, quill down, in a half circle in the snow. This, the natives believe, assures the return of other ptarmigan within a week. Sidney was then ready to go home, but we, of course, had only started to hunt. We tried to tell him this, without success. Finally, in pantomime, I flapped my arms like wings and said "peep-peep." He laughed, then nodded his head. For the rest of the trip this proved the best way to tell the guides we wanted more birds. They were perceptive, if not bilingual, because they wisely decided the wing flapping meant hunting and the peeps meant nothing. This, we decided later, was fortunate when we learned that "peep-peep" in the native slang does not mean birds. It means sex.

The guides had reason enough to be confused by the mere presence of women in our party. In northern society only men hunt. The women gather wood, make clothing and chew the sealskin mukluks to softness when they grow brittle. Sidney and the other guide were afraid that women hunters would bring bad luck. The native women, on the other hand, seemed more afraid that we might shoot them.

On the third night a storm buried the village in snow and left shoulder-deep drifts for miles. For a full day the Eskimos refused to leave their huts. We decided to chance going out alone. Once we learned to recognize the ptarmigan's distinctive tracks, the smooth new snow made finding the birds much easier. On the first few hunts, failing to associate such oversized tracks with a bird so small, we ignored them and literally walked over dozens of ptarmigan without seeing them. Against the snow their white winter plumage makes the birds virtually invisible. When danger approaches they usually remain motionless, further camouflaging themselves by closing their black eyes.

Once we found the birds, the sport was to flush them and then swing on our clumsy snowshoes for a shot as the ptarmigan darted into the air. This was less easy than it may sound. One of us almost always landed headfirst in the snow, shoes hopelessly twisted and barrels clogged. This hazard helped give us a sense of conquest when we did bring down a bird.

In six days our party shot just over 50 ptarmigan, and each of us tramped through about that many miles of snow to take them. Had we hunted Eskimo-style, our bag would have been several times this number, but we would have missed the rigorous yet rewarding excitement of the search for these beautiful birds and some of the most unpredictable wing shooting I have ever attempted.



SNOW-WHITE PTARMIGAN are exotic trophies of subarctic hunt for Mrs. Peter Patch of Montreal (right) and the author.