The following appears in the June issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY PAUL D. ATKINS
It was an epic hunt, but like all epic hunts it was a challenge. The big moose, plus two enormous caribou sat in game bags under a tarp a mile or so upriver.
It was a long way from our camp, but also the only place where a pick-up by plane looked remotely possible. So with our cache secured, we constructed a makeshift gravel runway running adjacent to the river. I was pretty proud of it, even if it was only 300 feet at its longest point and rough in spots.
Our pilot had instructed us over the satellite phone that morning to build it, making sure it was clear of stumps, driftwood and any big rocks that would prevent a landing. Our hopes were for a pick-up later that afternoon. The only thing we couldn’t seem to clear out was the rain, which somehow seemed to be coming down harder and harder, even if there wasn’t much in terms of clouds or overcast.
As usual, it was hurry up and wait until finally our transporter was spotted in the distance, then landed with a soft thud on the gravel tarmac we’d built.
Thirty minutes later the Cessna 180 was filled with people, gear and a good part of a 65-inch moose.
A second plane was waiting in the wings, as it were, ready to land to pick up the remaining meat and passengers. To say we were heavy was an understatement, but it was manageable, and getting airborne wouldn’t be a problem.
I had complete faith in my transporter, with whom I had been involved in some pretty tricky situations before but who made close calls look easy as only great Alaskan pilots can do.
It was only as we approached the end of the agravel bar with our wheels still on the ground that I began to worry …
I’VE HAD MANY EXPERIENCES like the one above – the list seems endless, actually – and each has provided its own excitement. After living and hunting in Alaska for the last 20 years, each adventure has afforded a close call or two, and a few that weren’t so close. Most of them have been either by boat or plane, with a few on snowmachine.
Over the years people have asked me whether I prefer traveling by boat or airplane best, and to tell the truth, both have their benefits. Most people who come to the Arctic to hunt or fish or to Alaska in general usually have only one choice. Sometimes you can combine the two, but it’s rare. For most of us, it depends on several factors and greatly depends on the circumstances and your quarry.
When I first arrived here I had few friends and not many choices in hunting partners. I had no boat and knew absolutely nothing about transporters, planes or gear needed for such excursions. So I attached myself to several locals who had boats and asked them if I could just go along for the ride.
This worked – as did I, helping them with everything from building camp and hauling water to skinning and packing meat to earn my keep. Before long these arrangements became friendships and I was hunting right alongside them.
Boat hunting was my first introduction to the Last Frontier and for me it was about as great as it got. I didn’t know better, as I had never been “flown out” to hunt, so it was all new and fun, and at the time basically all that I knew.
There are many advantages to being on a boat come September, the biggest being able to move when needed or when things are a bit slow at camp. If you’re not getting the action you need to fill the freezer or find the trophy you’re looking for, just jump in, fire up the outboard and head in a new direction. This is a great way to see a lot of country, check out new locations and areas where the animals can usually be found.
Another big advantage is that you can load up the boat and head out on any weekend and in some cases during the week. Gas prices have a lot to do with this, and if times are cheap, it can add up to a lot of great trips spread out over a couple of months in the fall. It also provides for a great family experience, especially if you want to take along the kids for a weekend outing. This is pretty common here in the Arctic and a great way to introduce youngsters to hunting and fishing. A boat experience is something they’ll never forget and for many it’s the only way for them to help in taking an animal or two.
Lastly, you can hunt by boat the same day you’re traveling in one, whereas when you fly, you have to wait until the next day. If you’re boating and locate a caribou or see a moose, for example, you can plan a stalk and make your move within minutes. There have been many times when we’ve cruised upriver after work, found accessible game and been back that same evening with fresh meat.
Even though boating sounds like a pretty safe bet, it does have its disadvantages and doesn’t come without dangers. I’ve been on a boat voyages that turned from seemingly simple outings to downright scary in a matter of minutes – getting stuck on a sandbar for a couple of days and crossing a lake that should have never been crossed to start with are a couple that stick out in my mind.
Most people who get into trouble on boats take risks that they shouldn’t have, and they usually end up paying for it one way or another. Boating is dangerous enough that if you’re not prepared, bad things will happen.
On one of my first boat experiences I was with friends and we had been hunting caribou all day across the infamous Kobuk Lake, which is 30 miles wide and 75 miles long. The Kobuk is a shallow piece of water that whips up when there is any kind of wind. It was Sunday night and we were heading back to be at work on Monday. The open boat was comfortable and the first 10 miles across were easy enough, but then a westerly wind picked up and our ride became a trip from hell. Eight-foot swells pounded us and before long we were soaked. The bottom of the boat was full of water. It was nerve-wracking, to say the least, and we were frozen to the bone.
We turned around and haphazardly made our way back to the mouth of a river, where we built a fire and spent the night. The next day was clear and calm, which allowed us to make our way across easily. Many who push it don’t, but thankfully we survived.
AS FOR BOARDING A small plane and flying out for a hunting or fishing trip, it can be as exciting as it gets. Loading your gear and climbing into a bush plane knowing that an incredible adventure to a remote part of Alaska awaits is the ultimate for some; I know it is for me.
Being able to see country from above and taking in the mountains and tundra from a new viewpoint becomes more like a dream than reality. It’s an experience that you will never forget and will jog your memory for years to come.
Booking a fly-out for a drop-camp hunt or a float trip should be on everyone’s bucket list. There are just too many advantages not to. I believe the biggest is that you can fly into places that you can’t get to with a boat. If the animals aren’t cruising the rivers or migrating in places where they’re boat-accessible, then you’ll have to go to them. Places where they can be found sometimes occur inland and getting there can only be done by plane. Most of the good transporters can land a
Super Cub or 180 just about anywhere, and they know the places where game will be congregating too.
I’ve flown out many times over the years and each experience has been different. Some years we keep close to town and the rides are short, while other trips have found me sitting in the back of a Cessna wondering if we were ever going to land. Each, however, was an adventure that in most cases put us where we needed to be – around animals and/or fish.
One of the big pluses that flying offers is the sense of remoteness and solitude that outdoorsmen love. Being in new country with a rifle or bow in hand with zero camps, zero sound and zero people to disturb us is something that is truly desirable, especially if you have miles and miles of tundra to yourself.
JUST LIKE BOAT HUNTING, there are disadvantages to riding on planes, with cost being one of the biggest. Over the years I’ve seen the price of flying increase rapidly. The high price of fuel, maintenance and insurance are among the main culprits, but demand has also played a big part of the increase.
Back in the old days, a trip up north to hunt moose, chase caribou or maybe look for a bear cost roughly $300 to $400 per person. It was fun and it was cheap; if you were a local you could do it a couple times each fall. If we were in luck and we took a couple of animals, then it might cost more on the return, but not much – not like today.
These days it’s a minimum $2,000 anywhere, and can double if a second flight is needed to haul out meat and extra gear. Drop camps are a lot of fun, but fun costs money.
Another disadvantage of flying is weather. Yes, it can affect boat hunting too, but even more so when going airborne. Weather is always an issue in Alaska, especially in September. Rain is a guarantee at some point, and it will be accompanied by dark clouds and limited visibility.
This can keep hunters in camp for days, wondering if the transporter has forgot them or not. Good pilots don’t take chances, no matter the cost, and in time they will usually show up.
If you’re flying instead of boating, you might be limited in your ability to move. Landing strips or gravel bars can sometimes be hard to find. Hunters who land in an area are limited to the amount of country they can cover or see.
Animals have to be in the area or at least coming through, if success is your goal. If not, then it becomes an expensive camping trip. But there are ways to solve this. One is to take a raft or skiff of some kind along. This enables hunters to float downriver (or up, if they so choose), allowing them to move or at least see what is around the next corner.
Another method is to call the transporter and have them fly back and move you. This can get expensive, as another fly-out will be required, adding to your bill. The meat issue also has to be considered when flying. Since most hunts are usually five to 10 days in length, harvesting animals early in a hunt, especially in warm weather, can be disastrous. Warm temperatures play havoc on meat; if you kill too early, you risk losing some if not all of your game.
You hear so many stories about plane crashes in Alaska that you have to wonder about it. I’ve been involved in some close calls: Once, the engine quit and we had to make an emergency crash landing on a gravel bar; another time we landed in a spot that I didn’t think was long enough, only to stop abruptly on the edge. There have been more, but in each case I was with experienced pilots, and lucky for me they are considered some of the best in the business.
Most Alaskans have a boat of some kind and prefer to use it versus booking flights. I’ve done both and can honestly say I do not have a favorite and like them both.
The experience of seeing new country from the air is breathtaking, but being able to navigate a river all day in search of game is about as good as it gets. Whichever you choose, make sure to do your research long before you book a flight or buy a boat. Not all transporters and not all boats are created equal.
AS THE END OF OUR HANDMADE runway on the gravel bar came into view, my pilot, Matt, pulled the 180 up and we were off. I remember the tundra tires were still wet from river as they passed through the willows on the other side. White-eyed and grinning, Matt looked back at me and mouthed the word “close.”
I sighed with relief as we headed back to Kotzebue with our lives intact. It had been an incredible trip, I thought to myself, but next time I’ll take the boat. ASJ
Editor’s note: Paul Atkins is an outdoor writer and author from Kotzebue, Alaska. He has written hundreds of articles on hunting big game, fishing and surviving in the Alaskan Arctic. Paul is a monthly contributor in Alaska Sporting Journal.