Last week marked the return of a pilgrimage that had been on hiatus for the past couple of years. It was the return to a remarkable land, full of wonderful people and an amazing bounty of wildlife. We began this annual migration in 2004 when I decided to put together the ‘hunt of a lifetime’ for my father, brother and good friend of mine.
The kind of hunt that you save for all year and only plan to do once. That was five years and three trips ago and we were back at it again this year.
Along with the original four, this year we invited two additional fellas to experience this journey to the north – my hunting partner and my good friend’s 12-year-old son. We had been absent from this Canadian adventure for a few years because of my mother’s illness, which kept dad close to home. So to say that we were anxious and excited to return to these northern roots with new friends in tow, is an understatement.
Four of us would fly from California, the other two drive from Colorado, with the predetermined rendezvous spot in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. There, like the years before, we would join together and drive the rest of the way to the small, rural town of Radisson where our friend, Jim, from Wild Goose Outfitters would await our arrival.
The flight from Sacramento was early, which meant leaving the house at 4am to ensure we arrived in plenty of time to check our baggage. The early morning didn’t bother us as we were like kids at Christmas waiting to open our presents. With no traffic we made quick time to the airport, which allowed ample time to go through the additional layers of paperwork required to bring along our shooting sticks. It’s a fairly straightforward process for US residents to take firearms into Canada, so long as you’ve done your homework in advance and allow for a little additional time at the airline check-in.
Little did we know that, with the bags safely in the hands of the airline, the first excitement of the trip would occur at the airport itself. My hunting partner and I navigated the TSA security screening gauntlet just fine and waited at the exit for my friend and his 12-year-old son. As we watched his son’s bags move along the x-ray belt, we suddenly noted that there was a bit of a stir with the TSA agents who all began pointing at the x-ray screen and whispering amongst one another. Suddenly, one of the agents grabbed the son’s bag and instructed him and his father to go to the TSA security desk. The screener handed the son’s bag to the agent behind the desk and said, “We have a live round in here”.
My friend shot a look at his son that would have pierced steel, and asked his son, “You checked your bag for shells, right?” His son sheepishly nodded in the affirmative, at about the same time as the TSA agent pulled a 20-gauge shotgun shell from the front pocket of the son’s bag.
My friend’s face turned from, ‘I could kill you kid’ to ‘oh crap, we’re going to jail’ in about two nanoseconds. My friend inquired with the TSA agent as to what was going to happen, but the stone-faced agent promptly ignored him and made six, yes SIX, calls from the ‘red telephone’ making the same somber statement each time– “We have a live round.” My friend asked again what might happen and the agent responded tersely, “I’ll tell you when the sheriff arrives.” – Gulp.
My hunting partner and I hovered anxiously just outside the screening area and shortly thereafter a sheriff’s deputy arrived. The deputy pulled out an evidence bag and asked my friend’s son a few questions about how the shell ended up in his carryon bag going through airport security on an international flight (that just doesn’t sound good, does it). Seeing that the 12-year old didn’t appear to have any terrorist tendencies, he said, “Don’t worry son, it’s Fall and this happens all the time. Besides I don’t have any handcuffs that will fit you. Go ahead and take off.” Whewwww. I’m not sure, but I think the boy pee’d a little in his pants. From that point forward my friend’s son inherited the nickname ‘Shotgun’. [In the interest of a great blog story I almost asked the sheriff for a picture with him and the kid holding the shotgun shell – but I resisted not wanting to push our good fortune!]
So, 30 minutes into our trip we hadn’t even made it to the gate and we already had quite the adventure.
The flight to Denver was uneventful and we arrived in time to grab a little breakfast before catching the second leg of the flight to Saskatoon. Little did we know that our little morning law enforcement run-in would not be our last hiccup.
We boarded our little missile-with-wings regional jet and sat growing more excited at being one step closer to the waterfowl holy land. At the scheduled departure time the captain announced that we would be pushing back shortly as soon as the ground grew finished loading the remaining bags. We peered out the window of the airplane to survey the scene just in time to see the two ground crew agents picking up and tossing, yes tossing, all of the gun cases (of which there were about 15 or so) into a neat little row onto the tarmac next to the plane. We bitched to each other about how disrespectful these ding-dongs were and wondered if they even had a clue that they were tossing cases containing $1500 dollar shotguns around like some old lady’s overnight bag. We concluded that these thugs weren’t paid enough to care. All I will say about the airline is that we were United in our contempt for these idiots.
To our shock, a mere minutes later the plane jolted backwards and we were being pushed back from the gate. Problem was that the gun cases were still sitting on the tarmac. This can’t be good.
We rolled our eyes and immediately started buzzing with the other hunters on the plane about what the Canadian customs and border agents were going to think about these camo-clad foreigners - who they were expecting to show up with registered firearms - instead showing up with papers and nothing else. Conversely, we wondered what the U.S. TSA would think about a bunch of Americans who had checked firearms on an international flight and were being sent along their merry way sans guns. What floored us most is the consideration that we couldn’t take a 3.5 ounce bottle of shaving gel through the security checkpoint, but the airline can separate 15 guys from their firearms on an international flight and leave those guns sitting on the tarmac of Denver International Airport. This was going to be interesting.
Sure enough, as we land in Saskatoon and filter our way down to customs and immigration, the first few guys relay our collective story to the Canadian border protection agents. The agents rolled their eyes in familiarity. Clearly this was not the first time they had encountered this problem.
Over to the airline counter for two rounds of ‘lost baggage’ forms (which I don’t understand, we knew exactly where our gun cases were – sitting on the tarmac at DIA!), and then over to pay for the Canadian firearms entry fee, for which we of course had no firearms to produce. Next to customs where another form is completed and gun serial numbers documented with instructions that the airline will deliver the guns to the hotel where we were staying as soon as they arrived on the next flight… if they arrive on the next flight.
WHAT! You mean there was no guarantee the guns would be here on the next (and last ) flight of the night? That’s right, no promises. I thought to myself, ‘Well even if they do show up what are the chances they will actually deliver them to the hotel. Not.’
Needless to say, we go to the hotel, eat dinner, have a cocktail then head back to the airport to survey the scene at the time the second flight is scheduled to arrive. Standing outside the baggage claim area, we wait and wait, peering our noses through the frosted glass doors to see if we can get one of the border agents to tell us what is happening. Twenty minutes later someone finally comes out, escorts us into the customs baggage claim area and tells us to go get our cases off the baggage carousel. Luckily, all our cases arrived and after another form and quick ID check, they let us leave with shotguns in hand.
Finally, everything was coming together.
Jim Bartrop and Kevin Wright, owners of Wild Goose Outfitters, are the kind of guys you just want to have a beer with the first time you meet them. They are completely focused on making sure you are comfortable, well fed, having a good time, and ultimately get you on the birds. The guide assigned to us, Dave, is the same one we’ve requested each year and is one of the best waterfowl hunters I know. He treats you more like a friend than a client while in the field.
I’ve been on some crappy guided hunts with local guys who treat you like an idiot and are clearly doing the minimum to get through your hunt. The fellas at Wild Goose Outfitters are just the opposite, they are never satisfied and work hard for you every day. We also enjoy the way they run their outfit, only inviting repeat groups that they know and trust aren’t going to bring drunken idiots into camp. They run a professional, low-key operation, just like we like it. (Disclaimer: I received nothing for this reference, Jim doesn’t even know I’m writing this yet).
We planned to hunt our standard three-day package targeting waterfowl exclusively. You can only hunt geese until noon in Saskatchewan this time of year, so the hunting setup entails geese at sunrise and ducks at sunset.
Arriving in camp, we found Jim to be anxious and aggravated. After a brief discussion we learned that he was concerned about the very warm weather they had been experiencing, which was keeping all the geese far north and no ducks to speak of yet. We assured Jim that we were going to have a great trip anyway, but it is his nature to be uptight – even with Mother Nature – to satisfy his guests.
Indeed the weather was in the upper 70’s when we arrived on Sunday, a good 15 degrees above normal for this time of year. Unfortunately, the forecast was not promising with a steady rise in temperature predicted during our hunting days of Monday-Wednesday. As it turns out, by mid-week the temperature would soar to 94 degrees, a record broken dating back to 1917.
Hunting in the hot weather definitely provided its challenges. Having watched the extended forecast, we were prepared for warm weather, but not 94 degrees so we were baking in our long sleeve T-shirts and waterfowl jackets! Without a frost, the mosquitoes, better known as giant pterodactyls, were thick and hungry warranting repeated bathing in DEET repellant.
Thanks to Jim and his relentless scouting to find the birds, we were put on successful land near water that held some local fowl. It was up to us to make the most of each flight that set its mark for the decoys knowing that we may not have many chances. The birds were skittish and didn’t work into the decoys as usual (probably because the sweat was in their eyes). But those flocks that did work felt the steel wrath from our six barrels pointed in their direction. We took our shooting task a bit more serious this year, which paid off with some great marksmanship. We had many doubles and triples to celebrate after each volley. Of course we had a few ‘how did I miss that one!’ moments as well, which were quickly and painfully recounted back at camp during dinner.
The bag of geese was predictably mixed, with lesser and greater Canadas, cackling, Aleutian, snows, ross, specks, and a few blue-phase snows thrown in for color. The ducks were exclusively mallard with only a dozen pintails to show for the entire trip. We were fortunate to have harvested a good number of drakes in the duck flocks, although it is impossible to target them this early in the season. Everything has a brown head, brown body and orange or grey feet. Once in a while you’ll see a little color but mostly it is picking the bird you can make a good, clean kill shot on and taking that shot. Unlike the US, the Canadian system does not restrict the take of hens or species except for pintail.
In the end we harvested 143 waterfowl over three days, which averages out to eight birds per person per day. That may sound like a pile of birds (which it is), but surprisingly it is below average for what we’ve experienced in Canada in previous years. Typically there are more birds than you can effectively focus on. The kind of swarms that allow guys to make the kinds of videos that Holly hates. But its not about the numbers, it was about a fun, relaxing, safe trip with family and friends. We are thankful for the bounty; had a heck-of-a-lot of fun doing it, and managed to bring back meat for our freezers. That is why we live to hunt!