Thursday, January 15, 2015

A Guide to Hunting in Alaska

The Author on the tundra along the Kavik River.
Last summer I had the awesome opportunity to hunt Caribou on the northern tundra of Alaska.  While the hunt was based out of an established camp, the hunting activities were self-guided.  Out of three hunters in the group we had six caribou tags, and somehow six beautiful Caribou bulls followed us home to Colorado.  It was a grand adventure and the hunt of a lifetime.  The hunt took months of planning, preparing, and then required follow through at the end to complete.  Just as I left some fading foot prints along the muddy bank of the Kavik river, I think it is important to leave more permanent tracks for those who wish to follow on their own Alaskan hunting experience.  I hope to explain some of the logistic and informational hurdles for those hoping to hunt the great white north.

Preparation and Planning

This is perhaps the most crucial aspect of your trip.  Planning for my trip started over six months in advance, and at times I wish I had started sooner.  Many camps or guides even require more advance notice of your intent to hunt with them, and perhaps even a deposit.  I would highly encourage you to gather all members of your hunting expedition and begin your preparation with monthly meetings, either by telephone or in person.  Plan everything down to the minutiae, including an itinerary, gear list, and monitory cost breakdown.  This job can be tedious and time consuming.  It could be best to break up the responsibility among the group of hunters. One person in charge of travel arrangements, another for the guide/camp contact, perhaps even a third to research gear and create a needed list. Take your time to make sure everything is ready and prepared long before the trip.

On the range practicing with the rifle prior to the hunt.
Preparing goes well beyond simply planning for the expedition.  Are you physically in shape for the hunt?  Know the terrain and the challenges you will be facing.  Take the time to exercise and get in the best possible condition now.  The last thing you what is to not be able to perform once you have made the long journey to the hunting grounds.

Practice with your chosen weapon.  Whether it is bow, a rifle, or a muzzle loader.  Get out to the range often and practice until you're confident in your ability to hit your chosen prey at whatever distance is necessary.  I cannot stress the importance of this.  Once you arrive at your hunting grounds, further check that your weapon is still on target.  In our group we had one rifle that was off by a matter of feet, despite being sighted-in just prior to departure.

Alaskan Game Laws 

It is incredibly important to check the Alaskan game laws and learn everything needed to complete the hunt legally.  You can find all of the information at Alaska Game and Fish.  Some laws that differ from the lower US that should be of note: You do not have to wear daylight florescent orange while hunting.  Also, you can not hunt the same day of flying on an airplane, which is referred to as the "no fly same day" law.  The most interesting part of this law is that the day is defined as starting at 3:00 AM.  Theoretically with the midnight sun you could land at 2:55 AM and be able to hunt at 3:01 AM, as it would be on a different "hunting day."  

Alaska also has some very stringent meat removal laws.  It is required that you remove all the meat from the field before you take out the antlers or trophy portion of the animals.  The law further goes beyond most laws of requiring the four quarters and back strap meat to be taken, but to include additionally the neck and rib meat.

Contacting Your Guide/Camp
It is a good chance that your Alaskan adventure may involve a booking with a guide or a hunting camp.  Perhaps you have chosen to use an air taxi to drop you and your hunting companions into the vast Alaskan wilderness.  Whichever your choice ends up being, the important aspect is to maintain clear communication lines between you and your hunting resources.  Make your reservations early, perhaps even a year in advance, or at the minimum 6 moths.  Check for the need for a deposit, and get a conformation and commitment to your dates and expected services.  You do not want to travel all the way to Alaska only to find your guide/camp/air taxi was not expecting you and can not offer you services.

Your guide or camp is also the best resource for information on what to expect and prepare for.  Contact them early, and then shortly before your trip to ascertain what hunting and weather conditions are currently.  They also should be able to provide you with what specialized gear or equipment you will need for your adventure.  They also may give you ideas on how to prepare both mentally and physically for your hunt.

The Seasons
A snapshot of what the bugs can be like.

Alaska has some very interesting variations and terms on the four seasons.  In the lower 48 we have our spring, summer, winter, and fall with differing lengths of time based on your location.  In Alaska they have bug season, the midnight sun, and eternal night. Temperatures can also vary depending on where you will be in the state. I was a stone's throw away form the northern Beaufort sea, it was the first week in August, and the temperature never rose above 45 degrees.  The average for most days was near 40, and I heard that it snowed a few days before my arrival.  Know what weather conditions you will be facing and plan ahead of time.

One of the unique things I experienced was the midnight sun.  For about a week I never actually saw the sun fully set. I found it was very easy to lose track of the time of day, at one point in the trip we were butchering our caribou at 11:00 PM without even recognizing how late it had become.  With my current work schedule, I'm accustomed to sleeping during the day, but if you are not you may want to invest in a sleeping blindfold.

Flying in Alaska

View out the window of our Cessna Caravan,
taking us to Kavik River Camp.
Whichever method you choose to travel to Alaska, be prepared that most of the transportation to hunting grounds is by light aircraft, otherwise known as a bush plane.  This might be any variant of a Cessna, Piper Cub, Beaver, or even helicopter.  What is important to know is that weather is King in Alaska, and controls when and where you will be able to fly.  You should plan to arrive in your Alaska main city hub, (Fairbanks, Anchorage), at least one or two days in advance, as well as leave one or two days after your hunt. This will give you a time cushion in case of unfavorable flying conditions to your hunting grounds.

All aircraft are limited by how much weight they can safely fly with.  This will affect the gear you choose to bring with you.  Taking the proverbial kitchen sink it just not possible.  Also, there is a great chance that you will be flying to Alaska on a major airline.  Unless you want to spend a small fortune on baggage fees, you will need to be selective in your gear choices.  Take only what you will need and look for lighter alternatives of standard gear.  One suggestion is to wear your hunting clothes and boots on the plane.  You might look goofy with a large camouflage jacket, but it saves space and weight.

The Critical Gear List 

This is not an encompassing list of items that you will need to take with you.  This is a list of gear that I wish I had, or I did have that was invaluable to me on the trip.  Do not skimp or go cheap on these items.  Get the best you can.

Boots - I am not talking about your standard leather Gortex hikers. You will need the king of all water proof, calf high boots.  Consider tall muck boots that have ankle support in them. Alaska, and especially the tundra, is a giant sponge. I took two sets of waterproof boots and I was continually swapping them out trying to dry each pair.  Consider hip boots and waders if applicable, and possibly small boot dryers if AC power is available.  Contact your guide to find out what footwear may be best.

Waterproof and Warm Clothing - Rain, snow, and temperatures may vary widely on your journey in the state.  I did find that water was a common theme on whatever physical state it was in.  Buy quality clothing that you trust and is durable.  Sitka Gear seemed to be the official uniform of nearly every hunter I encountered while I was there.   I do not have any experience with this brand personally, but from every review I've read, it is highly rated.

Bug Gear - There is specific time of year where the bugs, specifically the mosquito and some flies, can be of near plague conditions.  I caught the tail end of mosquito season on the tundra, or so I was told.  There were times when I had hundreds of mosquitoes trailing me and landing on my person. Killing 10 to 15 of the little buggers with one swat was not uncommon.   If you are hunting during this time frame, make sure to take gear to counter the pests.   We tried all manner of sprays and repellents, but the best defense was a set of light rain gear, a head net, and gloves.  We all purchased Thermacells and they worked extremely well. We especially used them with great success when butchering the caribou, as it helped to have a small work area that was relatively bug free.  You should also take along a stern continuance and cool head, as the bugs can be maddening to some, I found after a few days I barely noticed them after choosing to not let them mentally bother me.

Optics - My trusty Pentax binoculars were always within arms reach of me on this trip.   Well, except for the time they were briefly lost on the tundra, but that is another story.  None less good optics were vital to the hunt.  I spent many hours peering through the field glasses looking for a good caribou bull. I would highly encourage you to invest in quality optics and take them along on your expedition.  Unfortunately I recently dropped and broke my Pentax's.  I pair of Bushnell Elites are on the list for purchase for the next Alaskan adventure. These binoculars are fog proof, water proof and dust proof.  Further they are decently priced and strike a great balance of excellence while still nice on the budget.

What I Did Not Use - There were items that I took that never even left my pack.  Items that I would think would be critical in the lower 48.  My flashlights were one of these items, but it simply never got dark.  I would still take one along with me again, but perhaps only one and not so many spare batteries.  I also took too many clothes.  I would do better planning on my wardrobe if I traveled to the great white north again.

Getting the Meat and Trophy Home

The meat and antlers ready to fly home.
You make it to Alaska, you have a great hunt, and you just downed your hard won quarry.  How do you now get the tasty meat and trophy thousands of miles back to the place you call home? This is a great exercise in logistics, one that is easily solved, but can be expensive.  Many people quarter and fly their game out on the bush plane.  Once in a major city it finds it way to a butcher to be processed into little white packages of goodness.  Plan on field dressing and at a minimum quartering and boning out your game in the field.  Take game bags and sharp knives for this chore.  I had access to a freezer in camp and actually completely processed our six caribou there.  As a side note, game bags were very difficult to find in Fairbanks, so this might be an item you choose to take with you from home.

I spent many hours researching the best way to transport 200 pounds of caribou meat and antlers home with me.  I looked into shipping it, and found that it had to travel overnight.  The cost for a 100 pound cooler to travel Fed Ex or UPS over night was over $1000, so this was not an option.   Antlers ranged from $300 to $400 to ship, depending on the size. With the cost to ship it all home so high, it was almost worth driving the 3,000 miles up to Fairbanks and back to Colorado just to get it all home.  I have heard tales of people doing this and utilizing a small freezer on the back of a trailer, which they stopped to plug in every night.  This also seemed a little exorbitant.

 Butchering the Caribou on the Tundra.
The solution was actually simpler than you would expect.  Fly it all home in the belly of the plane that was taking us back.  The cost?  A total of $400 for two caribou racks and 200 pounds of meat.  In the end we brought 600 pounds of meat and 6 sets of caribou antlers home for a combined cost of $1200.  It required a little pre-planing, but was fairly simple.  Frontier Airlines charged $150 for an overweight, over sized bag.  A trip to the Fairbank's Walmart produced 6 coolers that fit within the size requirement.  The antlers were $100 a set to fly.  We bundled the racks in sets of two and they only charged us for three racks instead of six.

To prepare the antlers for flight you will need to split the skull plate.  It is important to note that this will void any scoring for Pope and Young, or Boon and Crockett.  If you think your trophy is that big, you will need to make other arrangements.  Wrap the antlers in bubble wrap, and cover the points with either cut up rubber hose, or cardboard.  Then use packing cellophane rollers to bind the racks together.  Our Caribou were in velvet and we wanted to preserve it.  We had taken steps in camp to bleed the racks and dry the skin.  I further coated the velvet in Borax before flight.  It worked well and I was able to preserve all the velvet on our antlers.

Check with the airline you're traveling with ahead of time.  Know the fees and size requirements before you travel, have a plan, and it will work out.

If for some reason you can not find a way to get your meat home, I am sure you would be able to find a welcome home for it in Alaska.  From our bush pilot, fellow campers, and even hotel staff, everyone wanted Caribou meat.  I am sure this would be a different case with a less desirable species of game, such as bear.

Alaskan Resources Endorsed by ACHL

Should you find yourself traveling to Alaska, please consider the resources below.  I either used these folks, or had close contact with them and trust that will provide excellent customer service.

Kavik River Camp - Our hunting destination and base.  It is run by the now famous Sue Aikens of the TV show, "Life Below Zero".  It is a great base to operate and hunt from.  It offers many of the comforts and amenities of home in a truly vast empty tundra.  From home cooked meals, to hot showers, it has it all.  This camp is highly recommended by ACHL.

Everts Air Cargo -  This was our chartered air service to Kavik River Camp, and cost was included in the Kavik booking fee.  The pilot was friendly, knowledgeable, safe, and very experienced.  If I were to charter my own flight this would be my first choice.

Rivers Edge Resort -  We spent several nights at this resort in Fairbanks.  It was well priced with clean rooms and I would stay again.  It was  great mix of economy blended with comfort.  It could have used a mini-fridge in the room, and a free continental breakfast though.

Alaska's Premium Ice - This is a ice-making business run by a local Fairbanks Alaskan.  For the life of me I can not remember his name, but he was a genuinely great person.  He allowed us to us one of his freezer trucks to freeze and store our caribou meat prior to our flight home.  If you are looking for short term freezer space for a very nominal fee, give him a call.

Wal-Mart Fairbanks - The subject of a previous ACHL post entitled, "The most expensive Wal-Mart Ever," it was never the less a very important resource.  I found the manager and staff to be very helpful, and the prices to be only slightly more expensive than its counterpart in the lower 48.


Traveling and Hunting in Alaska is considered the pinnacle of a northern adventure to most. It can also be a costly and daunting expedition.  Take your time before you travel, plan, and prepare and you will have the experience of a lifetime.  Closing thoughts this time come from the actor Danny Kaye: Life is a blank canvas, you need to throw all the paint on it you can.
The Author with a decent Bull


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