Yukon autumns may be brief, but nothing beats sauntering across hillsides of golden poplars cloaked by the morning fog. The earthy scent of frost-nipped highbush cranberries floats on the wind. Red squirrels are scurrying about, drying mushrooms in the forks of tree limbs while beavers cache willows beside their lodge in preparation for winter. The night sky returns, filled with stars, and the Northern Lights resume their dance. There’s so much to celebrate with autumn’s arrival — including the start of hunting season.
While a moose or bison will quickly fill a freezer for winter, a successful hunt can be quite the undertaking, requiring long road trips with trucks, trailers, ATVs or boats.
My partner John and I prefer hunting easier, more plentiful prey we can pursue close to home. And since our high-strung husky mutt demands long walks every day anyhow, why not carry a .22 on our jaunts, filling our tiny cabin freezer one grouse at a time?
Early morning in autumn, when the sun has yet to chase away the night’s frost, is the best time to stumble across a grouse or two. The most common is the spruce, which is also the easiest to hunt. Relying on camouflage, they freeze and stand still when threatened, even if perched above our heads on the tip of a branch. It is not an effective survival tactic for human hunters armed with a gun.
Slow to flush, John brings home a few spruce grouse on every morning saunter. This ease, however, can inflate a hunter’s ego. When we begin searching for the wilier ruffed grouse, John’s confidence falters until he remembers to slow his approach. A hunter cannot simply stroll up to a ruffie the way one can with a spruce grouse.
Sadly the spruce grouse is also the least appetizing; it’s meat quite dark and gamy. Some would say they are better left sitting on their branch, but a little creativity with spices, herbs and long marinades can make the gamiest of spruce grouse gourmet. I substitute the beef in my mother’s mojakka recipe — a Finnish potato stew — with diced spruce grouse, the herbs, onions and butter mellowing the strong flavour. It’s the type of hearty stew the soul yearns for when the days grow chilly.
As autumn stretches on and morning temperatures drop below freezing, the cold is uncomfortable for field cleaning. This is when we become more selective, pursuing only the yummier, more elusive ruffed and dusky grouse. Tasty birds are worth freezing for. Ruffed grouse prefer thicker forest cover than spruce grouse and are quick to flush, making them harder to find and more challenging to hunt. While we may bring home fewer ruffies than spruce grouseon these late-autumn morning hunts, they make a yummy roast for two.
The most elusive of the grouse, however, the dusky, is also the most delicious. John and I like to turn our treks into the sub-alpine (where duskies reside) into full-day mountain adventures. We hit the trails before the sun, headlamps lighting the way forward. In our packs we haul enough emergency provisions and food should we need to bivouac for the night. From dawn to dusk we traverse the alpine tundra in search of dusky grouse or ptarmigan and summit nearby peaks. Not only are duskies the tastiest, they are also the largest, making the grind up a mountain with a .22 slung over the shoulder worthwhile.
Our young dog Juniper has helped us immensely in finding grouse. We would often walk right on by the birdshiding behind soapberry bushes were it not for Juniper knowing they are there. Having taught her to sit when she spots a grouse, she refuses to budge until we follow her intense stare and do our part to bring home supper. A husky/heeler cross isn’t the ideal bird-hunting dog, but her high prey drive and her need for a job keeps her focused as long we have the stamina to hunt.
Even with Juniper’s assistance, though, there are days we fail to find grouse. But that doesn’t mean we come home empty-handed. The autumn land still provides. Instead of bags stuffed with grouse, we fill them with cranberries, blueberries and rosehips, cooked later into sauces for grouse roasts. As grouse-hunting season comes to an end in November and wool sweaters become daily attire, we bid farewell to autumn, thankful for all the splendid strolls and healthy food we harvested from the land.