Incoming specks in Saskatchewan
By Ralph Stuart
Believe it or not, there was a time when the US and Russia didn’t get along. True, our presidents seem pretty chummy at the moment, but in the 1950s America didn’t trust the then Soviet Union in the slightest. We were so suspicious, in fact, that together with Canada we built several series of radar stations to detect Soviet bombers and missiles that might approach from over the polar ice cap. The first of these early warning systems was called the Pinetree Line, and it ran from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island just north of the Canadian border.
Little surprise that advancements in technology quickly made the Pinetree Line obsolete, and eventually the stations were mothballed, given over to civilian ownership and dismantled. Today only one radar dome remains in Alsask, Saskatchewan. A symbolic sentinel of Cold War paranoia.
“What’s that?” our group asked in unison as the van crested a rise and spied a giant-telescope-looking structure on the horizon. Drake Guse, who had picked us up three hours earlier at the airport in Saskatoon, explained about the Pinetree Line and that this was the last of three radar domes that had stood on the property. Because of its shape and dimpled surface, it had come to be known as “The Golf Ball.”
Ten minutes later we entered the hamlet of Alsask, population 110. Located 300 meters east of the Alberta border, the town’s name is a portmanteau of “Alberta” and “Saskatchewan,” and it had been a bustling community when the radar station had been operational. These days it is a quiet outpost, with some of the main attractions being an indoor swimming pool and bowling alley—both located on the former military base that had housed personnel operating the radar system. In fact, we would be staying on the base—in the administrative building and hospital that had been converted into living quarters by the owners of Flight 51, our outfitting host (Flight 51 named for the 51st parallel, on which the lodge is located).
Drake pulled into the complex’s main entrance and around to a nondescript building, where we were met by the rest of the Guse (pronounced “Goo-zee”) family: Stan, Drake’s father and an owner and operator of Flight 51; Amy, Drake’s mother; and Hanna, Drake’s sister. We were ushered into the newly renovated lodge, and after stowing our gear and being given a tour and lunch, we changed into our upland clothing for an afternoon hunt.
I was teamed with Stan and fellow hunters Mark Ingram and Joe Bullard, and as we drove north, I marveled at the endless sea of grainfields—many of which contained the quarry we’d come for: geese. Stan explained that he starts running waterfowl hunts around September 20 and that our late-September hunt was only his second of the season. His first group had hunted ducks and geese and filled a couple of antelope tags with trophy bucks. Come November he switches from waterfowl hunting to guiding for the area’s trophy whitetails and mule deer.
We were lucky in that the local Hutterite farmers had harvested their lentils and peas and now were working on barley and wheat. In other words: There was plenty of feed to hold birds. Because geese migrate mostly based on daylight hours, good numbers already had started filtering in from the north. The duck migration, however, was more weather dependent, and there had yet to be a hard frost. Fooling the local birds would be tough.
Clockwise from above: incoming specklebellies; Stan Guse working his magic; an antelope feeling his oats; and a tempting spread in an endless sea of grainfields; and returning with one of the fallen. Photograph by: Gary Kramer/garykramer.net (top, left); all others: author’s photographs
But that afternoon we were upland hunting, which meant Hungarian partridge and sharp-tailed grouse. Our first few efforts proved fruitless, as we worked a couple of abandoned homesteads and pastures, but then we began walking a shelterbelt—Mark on one side and Joe and me on the other. About halfway along we jumped a covey of a dozen Huns from which Joe took two and I bagged one.
We tried a couple of other spots, stopped to watch a good antelope buck chase a rival, and arrived back at the lodge around 7:30. Following a steak dinner chased by Saskatoon berry pie, it was early to bed in anticipation of the next morning’s hunt.
The 4 AM wake-up call was jarring, but everyone managed to scoff down breakfast and gather guns and gear in time for “wheels up” at 4:45. This day Mark, Joe and I were joined by the rest of the party: hunters Mike Shea, Rodney Pilot and Len Strickland along with Stan and fellow guide Mike Moody. The drive was only 20 minutes to a picked peafield where we had seen a wad of geese the previous afternoon. There the entire crew set about planting dozens of Canada goose, specklebelly (white-front) and mallard silhouettes and helping assemble two A-frame blinds and brush them in. With temperatures in the 40s, showers predicted and a 7-mph wind at our backs, conditions seemed about ideal.
Once all eight of us were situated in the blinds—the six hunters bookended by the guides and their Labs, Babe and Rigsby—it was nice to relax and listen to the waking of the Canadian prairie.
It was still gray-dark when the lonely cry of a specklebelly reached out across the open. Like the dawn bugle of an elk or a turkey gobble from the roost, it was a sound of promise—pulling all eyes skyward. Soon the cry was joined by others, and in the gathering light we began to see birds moving in the distance.
Shooting time was minutes away when Stan put a call to his mouth and joined the chorus. Having never hunted specklebellies before, I at first found the high-pitched hooting odd. But as the distant calls grew louder and Stan’s calling grew more intense, I knew the ruse must be working. When Stan told us to, “Wear ’em out!” I jumped up half expecting to see a flock of flying monkeys. Instead there were five wing-cupped specks at the edge of the decoys—and none flew away.
This opening salvo was just the appetizer, as during the next couple of hours we enjoyed steady action on specks, Canadas and a surprising number of mallards. At almost any moment we could see skeins of geese moving from roosting water to feeding fields and knots of ducks trading to and fro. Stan, who had been a waterfowl guide for almost 25 years, put on a calling clinic, switching between speck, Canada and duck calls—sometimes so quickly and without looking that he blew the right notes into the wrong calls and burst out laughing.
The dogs put on a performance as well: marking, taking hand signals and making open-field tackles on cripples like safeties running down receivers.
Eventually the wind shifted and the birds began circling and coming in from behind, making shooting difficult. By 10 most of the action had stopped—the geese having eaten and gone to loafing water—and it was time to pick up hulls and decoys. The bird tally for the morning was 31 geese and nine ducks.
Following a “real” breakfast at the lodge and a siesta, we headed back to the uplands. This time I was hunting with Joe, Mark and Rodney, and we were joined by guide Jeff Paulus, who owns Thunderhill Kennels, in Wisconsin. Jeff had come out to test the waters with his German wirehaired pointers, to see if he was interested in a permanent gig at the lodge.
This day we drove south and hunted a couple of shelterbelts and pastureland. High winds were not helpful, and when it started raining heavily, we called it quits. We ended up with two Huns from two coveys.
The next morning it was up again at 4 for breakfast and a short trip to a cut wheatfield that had been covered up in geese the day before. Rain had made the dirt roads slick, and the mud in the field was like gumbo, sticking to truck tires and boot soles.
This day there was a steadier breeze, so the decoy spread favored the upwind side—Stan figuring the geese would want to “air it out” and circle around in their approach. The blind was set so that our backs were to a dug water pit.
Like clockwork, the birds began flying at dawn—the first shots fired only minutes after legal time. The flight was even heavier this morning, with wave after wave of specks along with Canadas and even Ross’ geese. Everyone was shooting well, and birds were raining down: four from a group of five, a pair, five from a flock of 40. In the melee some birds were plummeting dangerously close to the blind; several splashed into the water pit. The only flock of snow geese to pass within range surprised us from behind and escaped unscathed.
A quick bird count showed that we were nine specks shy of our limit. At that point I got out of the blind and sat on the far bank of the pit to shoot photos and video. It was quite a visual and auditory spectacle as wave after wave of geese overflew the hide. A flock of five cranes passed at the edge of range and was met with a fusillade of gunfire. The one bird hit crumpled like the sails of a shelled galleon.
Soon Stan was counting down to the speck limit. “Four more to go,” he yelled.
“Two more . . . .
“One more . . . .
“That’s it!” By this time the flights had slowed to a trickle, so we decided to pick up and take photos. The final count was 30 specks, nine Ross’ geese (including one bird that Stan guessed to be 10 years old based on the “warts” on its beak), one Canada and one crane. It was an impressive bag for just a few hours.
That afternoon I had some down time so took a stroll around the old military base. We would be leaving the next morning, and I wanted a better feel for the grounds on which we’d been staying. As I explored, I peered through the windows of the dilapidated church, checked out some of the abandoned barracks and studied a billboard map of the long-overgrown golf course. I tried to imagine what it had been like when the base had been filled with personnel and their families.
In the distance The Golf Ball stood solemnly on the height of land—a sobering reminder of another time and a not-so-distant threat. These days it no longer serves to warn of aggressions but simply oversees the comings and goings of the seasons and the birds that move with them.
In my brief time on the prairie I had borne witness to these same movements—and cut short some of them as well. The ebb and flow of geese over the landscape had been a testament to the power and durability of nature. I had gained an appreciation for the birds and what it takes to hunt them, and I already was planning my return to intercept future flights.
For more information on Flight 51, contact High Adventure Company.