At the End of the World.
(goose hunting in the Subarctic)
by Konstantin Samokhin.
Photo by Rinat Mustafin, Victor Kuzerin
Few things excite a hunter more than the sounds of a goose flock in the sky. In spring you feel the sweet anticipation of hunts to come; in autumn you usually ponder the frailty of existence. Somehow, goose hunting always makes one uncommonly philosophical. “Whither are you going?” – wonders a hunter watching a flock of geese on their way North.
In fact, they won’t stop until they reach the end of the world, the Arctic Ocean coast and islands. You can go hunt them there: every year we send a lot of hunters to the Subarctic. Our main destination is the Nenets Autonomous Okrug, where bean, barnacle and white-fronted geese come to breed in unbelievable numbers. The main advantage of the region is that there are no other hunters but very many geese. Some hunters even complain it’s not sportive enough. And it is much easier to reach than Taymyr or Yakutia – only a couple of hours on the plane from Moscow to Archangelsk or Naryan-Mar, and then another couple of hours by helicopter.
There are two seasons, in May and in September. I prefer autumn better – easier walking and there’s also a chance to fish. But in spring the migration is more intensive, and if you get in the thick of it, you’ll never forget it. Bean goose is the first to come in early May, with barnacle and white-fronted geese to follow.
Geese fly along the coastline, not going deeper than one or two kilometers into the tundra, and rest at the estuaries of small rivers. This is where the hunters are positioned. I’ve never met dug-in blinds, the water is too close to surface here. Some people hunt from blinds made of cloth or dark plywood, snow bricks (sort of unfinished igloos), and even converted from empty fuel drums. You can set up decoys, but they attract only the local birds. The geese that haven’t finished their migration usually take no notice of them.
But the best thing is that neither blinds nor decoys are really necessary. There are so many birds that you don’t have to stay in a blind, but can move about the tundra in search of the birds. Geese have their favorite passages, and if you can read the terrain, you’re bound to have a good time. In the tundra, where geese are flying low, this can be very exciting. When you hear an incoming flock, all you have to do is kneel down, hide your head behind some bump, and wait till they’re in range.
There are no luxury lodges in Subarctic. We usually camp in abandoned weather stations or fishers’ cabins. Everything, from drinking water to firewood, has to be flown in from the mainland. The buildings are solid, there’s catering, clean sheets and everything, but you can’t really expect much from infrastructure that is only in use one month a year. The best places have a separate dining room, a bathhouse, and an Argo type ATV.
The main challenge here is the weather. Even in this waterfowlers’ promised land it can ruin a trip. It often happens like this way: hunters fly in for a standard 5-day hunt, and on Day 1 there’s a blizzard with north-east wind. Three days after you don’t see a single bird – the geese are grounded somewhere to the south. Everyone is angry. Day 4 – the “scouting” geese come, the team bags a couple of birds but still got the blues. Day 5, last chance in the morning – skies are dark with geese, everyone limits out in an hour or two, ecstasy’s overflowing. There’s also the risk that sometimes migration doesn’t coincide with the season prescribed by the bureaucrats – geese have their own calendar.
Another complication is that it’s an expensive trip, with helicopter transfer, and the season lasts only a month in the year. Besides, it works only for established groups; it’s seldom a good idea to house eight perfect strangers in one room. Of course, you can pay for eight and go by yourself, but there aren’t many takers for this option.
You have to be very careful with the choice of your outfitter. It’s strange, but it is in the Subarctic goose hunting where I met the highest percentage of incompetence, poachers, crooks and drunks. I remember a dialogue with one such character in our early years. “Where’s the bathhouse?“ – “Over here” (trying to stand upright and pointing to a deserted building on the other side of the river) – “What the …?“ – “You asked me if there was a bathhouse, here’s the bathhouse. You never asked if we can use it.” That was long ago, and I’ve become warier since, like a goose. Now we can make our partners provide restaurant quality catering in the tundra, if necessary.
Goose hunting is as ammo-consuming as a British driven shoot, you’ll need at least 300 shells per gun. This can be a problem, because airlines limit the weight of ammo to 5 kg, and you can’t always get ammo locally, especially in Naryan-Mar, where there’s not even a gun shop (don’t ask). That’s why we prefer to go through Arkhangelsk.
Last but not the least, the area is the border zone where you can’t travel without a pass from the border guards. It is not as hard to get as it used to be, but still it’s not easy – but that’s what outfitters are for!
I wish you have a chance to go goose hunting in the Subarctic, in any season. You will never forget this amazing end of the world, the tundra, the cold sea, the sound of the wind and thousands of gees in the low Siberian skies.