Packed for King Eiders

It's a commonly accepted truism: duck hunters are crazy.   Cold and wet is a combination best poured from a frosty mug on a hot summer day.  But leaving Mississippi on a cold January morning bound not for the sun-baked sands of Mexico, but for a 40-square-mile piece of  bare, wind-swept rock situated smack in the middle of the Bering Sea nearly 800 miles northwest of Anchorage - to duck hunt - evokes a whole new realm of insanity.

Unless you're going to hunt the most coveted duck species that is practically unavailable elsewhere in the world: the King Eider.  Then it becomes a matter of dedication.  King eiders make their living diving deep beneath the ocean's surface to feed primarily on molluscs.  They rarely stray far from the fringes of floating ice that comprises the polar ice cap.  I'm reminded of the reality televison series Deadliest Catch, when during the winter opilio crab season there's always the mad rush to pull their traps and avert catastrophe as the ice sweeps southward.  It's that south-bound ice mass that drives king eiders full-force to the shores of St. Paul Island, the northernmost piece of rock for which there exists any practical amenities whatsoever to accommodate duck hunters, or anything else for that matter.

King eider hunting is not for the faint of heart.  Yesterday's forecast was low- to mid-teens with a 25-30 mph wind that whipped windchills deep into negative territory.  Average wind speed is about 15 knots.  That's average.  On the best of days, hunters find protected water in a small boat, and other times hunt from ice-encrusted rocks along the shore's edge.  During the worse of times, hunters hunker inside waiting on horrific winds to abate.  There are about 6 total hours of daylight to hunt.  King eiders seem most active during the first couple.  The limit is 4 king eiders.  Per year.

Besides king eiders, there are a few cold-hardy long-tailed ducks (used to be called oldsquaws), harlequins, and maybe even white-winged scoter.  Spectacled eiders are strictly off-limits to hunting but will sure be a joy to see if the opportunity avails.  The island is rife with feral foxes in many colors that were initially stocked by Russian-immigrant furriers.  That's why the .17 HMR is nestled right next to the recently cleaned, degreased and graphited 12-gauge Citori.

As if actually hunting king eiders in Alaska weren't extreme enough, getting there is equally challenging and not without its own unique risks.  Between unpredictable Alaska weather and PenAir flight schedules, trip interruptions and delays are a when not if situation.  Trip Insurance, check.  Weight is an issue for small commercial airline companies servicing remote Alaska, and just because you make it on board is no guarantee that your checked baggage - with all that state-of-the-art gear designed to keep you warm and dry - will arrive too.  Which makes packing everything you might possibly need an especially daunting task because it is best packed in a carry-on.

I managed to pack all essential items into a 39-pound carry-on: heavy 5mm neoprene waders, a box of 3-inch steel shot, several warm layers, extra wool socks, tobacco, toothbrush, and pocket knife.  Who needs clean boxers for a week at duck camp, or more if weathered in?  I'll let you know how it goes.  Think warm thoughts.

Ramsey Russell, GetDucks.com

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