Alaska on a Shoestring
October 28, 2010
Who says you need a guide to bowhunt the 49th state?
Alaska's big game is the stuff of bowhunting legend. It's the rare archery hunter who doesn't dream of traveling to Alaska in search of bowhunting adventure. Unfortunately, most have convinced themselves that bowhunting Alaska is beyondtheir financial means. These concerns are well founded. Guided Alaska hunts are some of the most expensive around. Single-species hunts for mountain goat, Dall sheep and brown bear can run anywhere from $9,000 to $14,000. The price of a fully-guided hunt for even Alaska caribou could finance a multi-species archery hunt in southern Africa.
The floatplane is the 4WD of the north. The venerable de Havilland Beaver--made in the 1950s--is the best of them, able to haul heavy loads and take off and land short.
After 10 Alaska forays of my own I can assure you, with advanced planning and by saving a few extra bucks you can afford to hunt Alaska on your own. While the Alaskan quarry already mentioned requires a guide by law, many highly-popular species do not. Choose the incredibly-gorgeous Barren Ground caribou, impressive Alaska/Yukon moose, abundant Sitka blacktail or silky-furred black bear. These Alaska species can be legally and successfully bowhunted unguided, at considerable savings.
Now, "considerable savings" shouldn't be confused with cheap. Alaska's an expensive place to operate, even when on your own. The best hunting normally involves aircraft and bush flights are pricey--something to the tune of $375 an hour, including turn-around time. The best game country is normally found two to three hours from civilization. Too, although Alaska's often labeled a "hunter's paradise," game can prove relatively scarce. There are exceptions when luck and timing are right on, but there's a whole lot of country up there without any game at all. Moose, in particular, typically afford low population density due to harsh environment and size, lest they eat themselves out of existence. Caribou, though often found in large herds, migrate by their own whims. There might be 10,000 caribou over a distant ridge, but if they fail to arrive during your stay there's no reaching them. Sitka deer and black bear are normally the exception, abundant in prime habitat and easier to bank on.
Finally, Alaska weather is some of the most inhospitable and unpredictable on earth. It's not uncommon during a 10- to 14-day stay to sit out as many days as you hunt. Rain arrives inches at a time, pushed horizontally by ripping winds. You live in rain gear--and sometimes hip boots--even on "nice" days. This is especially true during the prime months of September and October. When it's nice out biting insects drive you nuts.
A float trip down a lonely river is one of the best ways to see lots of country, remain mobile and experience real Alaskan adventure but is extremely demanding and comes with added expense, dangers and much hard work. During a float trip arriving at the pickup point on time is priority one, lest your ride leave without you. In all seriousness, failure to arrive at an appointed time can cost you big money in an extra flight.
Time is everything in Alaska. Bowhunting in general is time consuming, but you must also make allowances for Alaska weather down time. This also makes weather delays on both ends of your hunt commonplace. Booking anything less than 10 days is a mistake. This is no place for tyros. Alaska bush can kill the unprepared. There's also a lot of work to be done in simply camping, eating, and hopefully, packing meat. Most importantly, statistics show that non-resident, unguided hunter success is normally quite low. This is especially true of moose, do-it-yourself success sometimes falling as low as 10-percent, depending on area. Aside from terrain familiarity, this most often hinges on mobility, because not only do many outfitters have aircraft handy for regular reconnaissance, but boats or ATVs allowing them to cover more ground. Still, a non-guided Alaskan bowhunt can be arranged for as little as $2,000 to $2,500, door to door.
Patrick Meitin (left) with friend Tom Drumme and his second Boone & Crockett caribou taken in a single week. Plenty of advanced research and planning can put you in this picture this season.
The drop-camp's the safest bet for first-time Alaska archers seeking affordable adventure. A bush-flying service transports you and your gear into productive game country of there choosing; sometimes checking in at mid-hunt to fly out meat, or should you require a move. The latter adds to costs, but can provide cheap insurance against a skunked hunt. Drop camps also include various degrees of service, dependant on price. You might opt for an outfitted camp--all necessary camping gear and food provided--or load your own gear for a ride into game country.
A drop-camp via reputable flying services offers assurance that you will arrive in the right place at the right time. Pilots normally have a good idea where caribou herds are located, and where they're headed. They might have spotted several legal moose in a particular valley and know of a landing site to put you close. I've also hired flying services willing to spend an extra half-hour in the air "scouting," allowing us to better grasp the lay of the land before landing. The drop-camp is normally offered at a flat rate per person.
Buyer beware! There are chiselers in every trade and I sincerely wish I could expose some of those I've been taken by. Some operators are all about volume, dumping hunters any place that's convenient; places where a couple dozen others may have preceded you that season. Before booking insist on references, just as if you're booking a fully-guided hunt. Ask for recent bookings, and references from those who were successful as well as not. Contacting references assures booking with an outfit that puts clients on game, provides services promised and helps avoid hidden costs, even after a successful hunt.
|Moose Marshes |
Moose are found throughout Alaska, those areas including two- to three-hour flights out of Anchorage most popular. Drainages such
as the Stony, Hoholitna and Mulchatna rivers and the Lake Clark region are all worthwhile bets, though hunting is more difficult due to hunt dates that typically conclude before the rut gets into full swing. By arriving as late in the season as possible you increase your odds of calling success. The Cordova area can be worthwhile, with the possibility of behemoth bulls, but non-resident hunters are limited to a single unit--with a limited number of landing sites available. Success is dependent on hunting pressure in those few places. Consult Cordova Air (www.cordovaair.com) to get an idea of how many hunters might be hunting those areas during a given season. Cordova receives several daily commercial flights, adding to transportation costs $175 to $200. At present, the best moose hunting is found farther north, in areas around McGrath--the Iditarod, Innoko, Galena and Yukon rivers in particular. Some of these areas don't permit floatplane access, meaning boat-floats to reach better areas. See a game proclamation for more details. Farther north, areas out of Kotzeboe and the Brooks Range can be worthwhile. These northern areas add considerably to the cost of transportation, but bulls seem to rut earlier, increasing the odds of rutting action.
On Your Own
After gaining experience via a drop-camp hunt, it's also possible to arrive with your own ideas on hunting area, gear and food, simply hiring a flying service to get you into the bush. You might have to shop around to find a flying service willing to take you someplace other than their regular "stops," because often there's a conflict of interest with an outfitter who gives them regular business in the area. This also means owning your own top-notch camping equipment.
Finding productive ground starts with calls to regional Alaska Game & Fish Department biologists. Alaska wildlife professionals spend a lot of time in the air, actually looking at game instead of computer screens. Invest in long-distance telephone calls, delving into various areas according to desired game.
Once a promising area's discovered order topographical maps and seek viable landing sites; normally lakes or large rivers. Additional calls to bush carriers reveals if an area allows access. Calling various flying services is another worthwhile investment, because many will offer hunting-area suggestions of their own.
One of the most productive and exciting avenues to Alaska adventure is a float trip. A flying service deposits you on a productive river with rubber rented raft and gear, leaving you to your own devices. You then float to discover promising game country (normally readily-accessible ridges offering vantage) and set up Spartan camps.
Discovering promising sign invites erecting a base camp and hunting until time or wanderlust sends you downstream. Floating also allows fishing for salmon, char or grayling to supplement dehydrated fare. On a recent float with a close friend we covered some 200 miles of river in 12 days and saw plenty of game.
When self-outfitting, shipping necessary gear up well before arrival assures you make airline baggage allowances. Most airlines allow only two bags weighing no more than 50 pounds. Extra bags or "overweight" bags are charged at $50 to $100 extra, depending on carrier. Ship gear to your layover hotel, or to flying services. Arriving the afternoon before your bush flight allows time for grocery shopping.
author shared a Kodiak Island drop-camp with two hunting buddies, who all went home with trophy Sitka deer. Sitka blacktail hunts are not only super fun, but highly productive.
All-Important Hunting Buddy
Obviously you can't venture into Alaska wilds alone; for blatant safety reasons, and to share the wilderness workload. You'll also need someone to split purchasing or providing necessary gear. Choose this/these person(s) wisely. Alaska's weather and wet, rough and tumble terrain can get on anyone's nerves. Spending 10 to 14 days in close quarters with a chronic whiner can ruin a good time quickly. My buddy Steven Tisdale is the epitome of the perfect hunting partner. He always keeps a good cheer, does more than his share of camp chores--and doesn't take it personally when weather turns sour or game eludes us.
There's also the aspect of splitting food costs and purchases of necessary gear. This also keeps costs down on shipping and airline baggage fees, avoiding the extra weight of duplicate gear. Even bush carriers providing drop-camp services institute baggage allowances, something like 45 pounds per person. The remainder's charged at about $1 a pound. Keeping gear light saves money. You aren't charged for personal weight, so before boarding bush flights dress in heavy duds and hip boots, wear binoculars and fill jacket pockets with extra gear. Leave unneeded gear and hard bow cases in hotel or flight service storage.
And yes it's wet in Alaska, but no you don't need a change of clothes for each day. Purchase the best raingear you can afford, preferably something with Gore-Tex, and you should stay relatively dry. Today's synthetic togs dry faster, stay "fresh" longer (especially those with antimicrobial treatments). Aside from fresh raingear, underwear and socks (wool), two warm base-layer changes, a fleece jacket, warm vest and sweater are more than enough. August through October hunts aren't as cold as you'd think, the average day hovering around 35 to 45 degrees, sometimes at the edge of freezing, only occasionally into the teens; in which case you layer.
The author shared a Kodiak Island drop-camp with two hunting buddies, who all went home with trophy Sitka deer. Sitka blacktail hunts are not only super fun, but highly productive.
Most pointedly, when hiring airplanes on an hourly basis, the cost is for a full plane, not per person like a drop-camp situation. If two people and gear make a load, you split the cost by half. Three people and gear is split in three ways. How many people create a group depends on what type of aircraft a carrier is flying. Something like a Cessna 206, for instance, makes two people and gear a load. A DeHavilland Beaver allows three people and gear. The extra bulk and weight of a whitewater raft for a float means a more expensive Beaver becomes a two-person flivver.
Besides bush flights, you're in for hunting licenses, commercial airfare and lodging and meals prior to and following your hunt. With airfare, typically the earlier you book the cheaper. Shop the Internet (www.cheaptickets.com or www.travelocity.com) for better prices, though remember that purchasing discount tickets means you're stuck with them should something prevent you from making the trip on schedule. Flights accessing
Alaska are long enough that "red-eye" flights aren't really an ordeal, allowing you sleep in route. These flights also normally offer the best prices. Book hotels with the same mindset and you'll sometimes receive better rates, especially if you book farther from the airport. In that case confirm that a shuttle service is available or the cost of a taxi ride could off-set any savings.
Alaska non-resident hunting licenses aren't cheap. You'll need an $85 hunting license to start, also allowing shooting game birds and hares. A $30 temporary fishing license provides added fun and good eating. Big game tags are purchased separately and individually; $400 for moose, $325 for caribou, $225 for black bear and $150 for Sitka deer. One of the neat things about Alaska is that a lesser animal may be tagged with a tag of greater value; a moose tag used for caribou, or deer tag for bear, for instance. Study possibilities carefully and purchase tags accordingly.
The next time you see some lucky bloke posing with a wide grin and his impressive Alaska trophy, resist the urge to label him a "trust-funder" or "fat-cat." He just might be a guy like you, with wife and kids and mortgage, a guy who scrimped and saved to make his Alaska dreams reality. With a bit of extra effort and savings, you can put yourself in that picture this fall!