Category Archives: Featured Content

Steelhead Sweetness On First Alaska Trip

Author Randall Bonner, flanked by his trusty travel partner Wrangler, enjoyed the beauty and steelhead-rich waters of Yakutat during his first Alaska trip. (RANDALL BONNER)

The following appears in the April issue of Alaska Sporting Journal: 

By Randall Bonner

Having never visited Alaska, the small town of Yakutat has left a lifelong impression on me. Traveling solo with my Australian cattle dog Wrangler, I booked the trip only a couple weeks in advance without a plan and flew by the seat of my pants. 

I’ve always thought steelhead anglers to often be a bit of a grumpy bunch, but with the plentiful numbers of fish in the Situk River, the atmosphere of the community and its visitors is a completely different story. Drivers of every passing vehicle wave at each other in this relaxed rural environment, yet there’s still several Alaska Airlines passenger and Ace Air cargo flights that come in and out of the small airport daily.

After getting a ride from the lodge’s shuttle, I had a couple drinks at the bar at Glacier Bear Lodge (866-425-6343; glacierbearlodge.com) where I ran into Jared Cady of GetM Dry Jigs (253-302-6828; getthemdry.com) and Lael Johnson of Bait Ballz (206-673-7100; baitballz.com), who were preparing to fish the tidally influenced lower end of the river and invited me to tag along with them. 

Photos by Randall Bonner

SPECKLEBELLY GEESE FLEW OVERHEAD, bald eagles towered over us in the trees and greater yellowlegs roamed the gravel shorelines, a welcoming scene of abundant wildlife that set the tone for our evening quest for chrome. 

Lael and Jared hooked a couple fish swinging flies, and I brought in my first Alaskan steelhead on a spinner. Having thought I was just going to have some beers at the lodge, I had only been in Alaska since lunch and at the river for an hour before smooching an Oncorhynchus mykiss hen and sending her on her way upstream to spawn. 

A brown bear ran across the road in front of us on the way out, as if it was chasing our report and heading to the river. A sign at the ramp warned visitors of an aggressive bruin in the area recently, so seeing my first grizzly from the safety of the vehicle was satisfying.

I was in awe of the beauty of this place and the diversity of wildlife species. Being my first day in Alaska, I felt as if Mother Nature had rolled out the red carpet for me.

The next day, I caught a ride with some friends to the boat launch and explored the river on foot. I hooked some of the biggest steelhead I’ve ever been witness to, but I lost them to snags at my feet as I struggled to keep the fish under control. 

I redeemed myself by shaking hands with a few fresh fish later on, as well as my first Dolly Varden and a rare resident rainbow. I continued catching fish until the sun began to fall and it got too cold for comfort. 

I stood at a popular river crossing attempting to hitch a ride back to the lodge. The first two anglers were camping near the river, and although they weren’t headed to the lodge, they invited me back to their camp for a beer. However, I was eager to return to the lodge (where there’s a roof, heat and a bar), and the next angler politely obliged me and my canine companion with a ride.

BACK AT THE LODGE I met Tony “Famous” Davis and Kristin Dunn from Kodiak Custom Tackle (907-486-1974; kodiakcustom.com). They were headed out for a float trip the next day, but were staying with a couple friends, Shannon and Kate, who wanted to stomp the banks and indicator fish with beads. 

They offered me a ride to the river the next morning, when Shannon started the day with a couple beautiful hens right out of the gate, including one that broke the handle on her net. We headed upriver and settled in at the spot where I had hooked most of my fish the day before. We landed several more. 

We were using just the basket of the net at that point, which was an awkward and exciting experience. The amount of wood snags is intimidating, but with every fish I seemed to get better at keeping them pinned and getting them close enough for pictures.

Tony, Kristin and Ty Wyatt, Glacier Bear Lodge’s halibut captain, took me along for a fun walking trip along the banks of the Situk. While wandering upstream in belly-button-deep water, I hooked a hen early in the morning that caught the attention of a large otter which swam across the river to try and steal it from me. 

I found a small perch tucked into some willows where I could get out of the water and try to quickly land the fish. As I was leaning down to grab it by the tail, the otter popped its head up only a couple feet away to my left. 

I tried to boot the otter in the head to send a message that I wasn’t giving up my fish so easy. It showed its teeth like an angry dog and leaped back into the water while swimming upstream. 

I managed to land the fish downstream and safely release it away from the otter, but it was definitely humbling to know I was meddling with the local wildlife’s territory.

 

IN THE EVENING, WE headed back to tidally influenced water. On my first cast I landed my first ever tidally influenced steelhead on a bead, a mission I’d wanted to complete purely out of curiosity about how soon the feeding instincts of steelhead kick in as they enter the river and begin viewing eggs as a food source. 

Shortly after, Ty and Tony, who happen to be lifelong friends from Philomath, Oregon, doubled up on a pair of bucks fresh from the salt. Tony’s fish was a redeeming note to end his visit, having been outfished by his partner Kristin most of their time in Yakutat. 

As we continued to push the limits of the rising tide and a hot bite, we eventually turned around to notice the ground we were standing on was underwater, and so was our gear, so it was time to head back to the lodge.

Dinners at the lodge every evening were incredible. Prime rib, shrimp Alfredo, halibut and more, but being able to put in an order for a sack lunch in the evening to pick up in the morning and take to the river the next day was truly a convenience worthy of appreciation. 

Complimentary breakfasts were nothing short of any quality diner as well. After a quick stop at the airport’s fly shop on the way out to pick up some souvenirs, I left Yakutat with my head in the clouds, and I have obsessed about returning someday to do it again. 

THE TARGET-RICH ENVIRONMENT of the Situk is the steelhead stream dreams are made of. It offers the experience for a novice to cut their teeth on the species and for the tinkering tackle-crafter to experiment with new methods. And it’s for the advanced angler to challenge him- or herself and mark the last few checks off their list. 

A mix of younger trout bums packing into rooms and vehicles like sardines, plus wealthy, retired businessmen sipping Scotch and smoking cigars in the lodge all convene on the river to live the same dream. They, like me, have the kind of experience that never leaves them. ASJ

Southeast Fishing Boat Captain Accused Of Illegal Waste Dumping

KTUU has some details on the federal indictment of a fishing vessel captain accused of illegal waste dumping:

According to federal charging documents, the alleged crime happened in June of 2017 when the fishing vessel, Alaskan Girl, was en route from Wrangell to Petersburg, Alaska with four bags, known as super sacks or brailer bags, on board. The bags contained sandblasting waste generated from the recent re-painting of the Alaskan Girl. The waste – totaling 16,000 pounds or 8 tons – had been loaded on to the vessel under the direction of Brannon Finney, captain of the Alaskan Girl.

Fileting, De-Heading Of Bottomfish, Kings And Cohos Prohibited In Southeast

The following press release is courtesy of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game:

Marine boat anglers returning to ports where and when on-site ADF&G creel surveys are conducted will be prohibited from filleting, mutilating, and de-heading sport caught lingcod, nonpelagic rockfish, and king and coho salmon at-sea. Marine boat anglers returning to any port on the road system of the communities listed below, during the times designated, may not fillet, mutilate, or de-head these fish until their vessel is tied up at a docking facility where the fish will be offloaded, unless the fish have been consumed or preserved on board:

Ketchikan: 12:01 a.m. Monday, April 29, through 11:59 p.m. Sunday, September 15, 2019.
Craig: 12:01 a.m. Monday, April 29, through 11:59 p.m. Sunday, September 1, 2019.
Klawock: 12:01 a.m. Monday, April 29, through 11:59 p.m. Sunday, September 1, 2019.
Sitka: 12:01 a.m. Monday, April 29, through 11:59 p.m. Sunday, September 15, 2019.
Juneau: 12:01 a.m. Monday, May 6, through 11:59 p.m. Sunday, September 15, 2019.
Petersburg: 12:01 a.m. Monday, April 29, through 11:59 p.m. Sunday, September 1, 2019.
Wrangell: 12:01 a.m. Monday, April 29, through 11:59 p.m. Sunday, September 1, 2019.
Gustavus: 12:01 a.m. Monday, May 6, through 11:59 p.m. Sunday, September 1, 2019.
Elfin Cove: 12:01 a.m. Monday, May 6, through 11:59 p.m. Sunday, September 1, 2019.
Yakutat: 12:01 a.m. Monday, April 29, through 11:59 p.m. Sunday, September 1, 2019.

The purpose of this restriction is to maximize information obtained through ADF&G angler interview and dockside sampling programs. Southeast Alaska management plans adopted by the Alaska Board of Fisheries require length and sex information for lingcod, length information for nonpelagic rockfish, and identification of tagged king and coho salmon, which can only be obtained when fish are intact. On-site sampling is conducted during the fishing season at many harbors to estimate sport fishing effort and harvest, and contribution of hatchery and wild stocks of king and coho salmon to regional sport fisheries.

This action does not prohibit gutting and gilling fish before returning to port. Anglers may fillet and head king and coho salmon, lingcod, and nonpelagic rockfish on board a vessel once it is tied up at a docking facility where the fish will be offloaded. For further information, contact the nearest ADF&G office or visit: http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/sf/EONR/index.cfm?ADFG=Region.R1

Pebble Public Hearing Meeting Today Is Last As Comment Period Deadline Approaches (Update)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is hosting one final public hearing today as the deadline to make public recommendations ends next month. KTUU has more in the above video, with comments from our correspondent Jenny Weis of Trout Unlimited. Here’s a little more from the TV station’s report: 

Don Fleming has been fishing in Alaska since the early 1970s. He says he started going to Bristol Bay when fishing for steelhead trout in southeast Alaska got too crowded.

“I’m not opposed to mining,” Flemming said, but he is particularly concerned about Pebble Mine. “I think that this mine is in a place that has inherent danger to it, to change the ecosystem that is so fragile in Bristol Bay.”

Fleming’s solution is to mine elsewhere. “I think there are some other deposits in other areas,” he said.

The U.S. Corps of Engineers’ public comment period ends on May 30.

Update; KTUU has some reaction from the meeting:

 

Three Dead In Noatak Snowmachine Accidents

I was just reading through one of our May features that included snowmachine transporting through the Arctic, so it hurt to see the news that three people died in Alaska when two machines carrying them fell through the ice. 

Here’s KTUU with more:

AST says the accident was reported to Kotzebue Troopers around 1 am Monday after two snowmachines carrying “several travelers” fell through the ice.

One of the travelers was able to reach Noatak and contacted Troopers who arranged a search and rescue effort. One person was reported dead and two others missing.

Fighting For Their Land, People

(PHOTO BY WELCOME TO GWICHYAA ZHEE)

 

The following appears in the April issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:

BY CHRIS COCOLES 

She spoke at the podium with eloquence and conviction, but it was clear that her ordeal – and her people’s ordeal – had taken an emotional toll.

Bernadette Demientieff stood before a capacity crowd at a Seattle REI store auditorium – she was in town for a premiere of a short documentary depicting her Alaskan Native tribe’s fight to stop drilling on nearby public land critical to their subsistence lifestyle – and couldn’t help but choke up, slightly at first and then even more as she continued to share her story.  

Bernadette Dementieff is the executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. ““This is a human rights’ violation and a human rights’ issue. This is our home security and this is our identity,” she says. (CHRIS COCOLES)

“We very much still live off of our land, and we honor our tradition and our way of life. It’s been a really tough fight and a battle, because I feel like I’m trying to convince people that we matter,” said Demientieff, one of the tribe’s most influential members. “We’re real people with jobs. We have families. We have children. I have five grandchildren and they matter. Our ways of life matter. We matter.” 

The film she was representing lasts just over 13 minutes, which in theory won’t be able to do the Gwich’in’s struggles justice. But 13 minutes is probably 13 more than you’ve previously heard about these proud people of the North in the fight of their lives against a federal government that, in Demientieff’s opinion, “is not concerned at all with our concerns.”

If Demientieff has her way, those 13 minutes of the documentary will change minds. 

Second chief Mike Peter is part of the Gwich’in community in Fort Yukon fighting the drilling plans in nearby Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (WELCOME TO GWICHYAA ZHEE)

THE GWICH’IN ARE SPREAD throughout the northeastern Alaska Interior and Canada’s Yukon and Northwest Territories in 15 villages and towns. The tribe’s roughly 6,000 members – other estimates run as high as 7,000 and down to 4,500 – represent the continent’s second most northern Native American population next to the Iniut.

Demientieff is executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, which operates out of Fort Yukon, Alaska, a town of about 550 residents, most of whom are of Gwich’in descent. This town 10 miles north of the Arctic Circle is also the chief filming location for the film, titled Welcome To Gwichyaa Zhee. (Fort Yukon’s Gwich’in name translates as “House On The Flats.”)  

It’s a city without any roads that stretch very far out of town. Locals primarily get around by boat in the twisting mainstem and tributaries of the Yukon River. Fort Yukon has a market, but the reality is cold, hard and unforgiving through its price tags. Here, a gallon of milk costs about $15. 

“There’s no fresh vegetables. Everything is canned for the most part, though there is some frozen stuff. (But) everything that’s frozen looks freezer burned,” says Dr. Len Necefer, one of the film’s codirectors. 

“And the costs are crazy. I remember we went in (the store) and were kind of sick of eating our (provision meals provided by Patagonia, one of the movie’s major sponsors) and we were wanting to find some ramen. A pack of ramen was like $4 or $5. And we thought, ‘It better be worth it.’”

For Fort Yukon residents, a more feasible way to put food on the table is to pass on the grocery store and use the natural resources surrounding the town. And there is a bounty of fish and big game the Gwich’in harvest regularly. 

The Gwich’in dialect refers to the Alaska’s coastal plain, dominated by the 19.64 million acres of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, translated as “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.” For the Gwich’in, life begins and ends with their northern neighbors, the Porcupine Caribou Herd. 

“The Gwich’in and the Porcupine Caribou Herd have had a spiritual and cultural connection for over 40,000 years. We migrated with them,” Demientieff said. “Our ancestors settled here so we can continue to live off of the caribou.”

Caribou annually migrate through the Arctic NWR in spring, and when President Donald Trump announced less than a year into his term that a portion of the refuge – about 1.5 million acres in an area known as 1002 – would be opened to gas and oil drilling leases. Conservationists opposed the plan. The Gwich’in feel they can’t function if the plan goes through and threatens the natural resources they are so dependent on.     

“For 30 years, the Gwich’in have been fighting to protect the coastal plain of the Arctic Wildlife Refuge,” Demientieff said. “This is a human rights’ violation and a human rights’ issue. This is our home security and this is our identity.”

Codiirector Len Necefer (in bow of boat), a Navajo, felt connected to the Gwich’in’s plight given what happened close to home with the proposed shrinking of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. (WELCOME TO GWICHYAA ZHEE)

WHEN HE AND CODIRECTOR Greg Balkin agreed to take on the project of bringing the Gwich’in story to life via film, Necefer already had a personal connection that made it even more bittersweet. 

Necefer is Navajo. He grew up in the Arizona desert and comes from a family of miners who suffered through significant physical and mental trauma while they made a hard living. 

“My grandfather was a uranium miner and he lost his right lung because of silicosis when he was 40. But he was one of the lucky ones because most of his friends were dying. And this was because mining companies weren’t giving their miners adequate breathing protection at the time,” he says. 

 “In my community, there’s major coal power plants that (are producing) for most of the West, cities like Phoenix, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. That coal power comes from our community. A number of my family (members) were coal miners and again, they got sick and fell ill. My grandfather ended up succumbing to pneumonia in his later years because of the impacts of mining.”

Necefer wanted a better life for himself and went to college, and earned engineering degrees from the University of Kansas and Carnegie Mellon University. After earning a Ph.D. from the latter, he began working for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs, and as it turns out, was no stranger to Alaska and, more specifically, one Native community known as Fort Yukon. 

“I worked at the Department of Energy and we would go multiple times when we worked with this community. So I had contacts,” says Necefer, who also had something else just as he began settling in to a job with the federal government. He’d had enough of the federal government.

A moment during Trump’s term as that hardly endeared the 45th president  to conservationists was also a particularly hard body blow for Necefer and the Navajo Nation in the Southwest. In summer 2017, Trump’s then Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, announced plans to reduce the sizes of multiple pieces of federally protected land. The most damaging decision would splinter Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah. 

In all, Zinke’s plan would slash most of Bears Ears’ 1.3 million acres, reducing the land to all of 160,000 acres, an 85-percent downsizing. Trump signed off on Zinke’s recommendations for Bears Ears and other national monuments, much to the chagrin of the Navajo community.  

Bears Ears is very sacred ground to the Diné for various reasons. 

“It almost feels like sometimes with issues that Native people face, these sorts of policies are death by a thousand paper cuts. And Bears Ears was a blow,” Necefer says. 

The monument includes – you guessed it – oil, gas and uranium deposits. But it’s also the site of burial grounds of previous generations of Navajo elders and various ceremonial sites.  

“In my own family, I know people who are incredibly depressed because of what’s happening. People that felt a sense of hope, having that stripped away. Because in Bears Ears, the thing that we were fighting was for archaeological resources. And that’s why the monument was pushed so hard, because there’s 20,000 years of history. For us as Navajos, it’s not all of our history, but we feel a duty to protect it. And I think when you look at our public land system, that’s what it’s intended to do, protect our heritage. And I think it’s kind of infuriating when folks don’t have the respect to see the heritage that we’ve meant to this country as well.”

By the time it was Arctic NWR under siege, Necefer had had enough. In the film, Necefer, who narrates, says, “I remember telling my boss, ‘If they open up the refuge, I’m gone.’” 

Necefer is now an assistant professor for the University of Arizona’s American Indian Studies program and the Udall Center for Public Policy. He’s joining the fight against the perceived government assault on public land for the purpose of drilling and other developmental projects. 

“This history of energy colonialization has affected Native communities for decades, if not centuries,” says Necefer, who also has started an outdoor apparel company called NativesOutdoors (natives-outdoors.org). “This is something that’s ongoing and we have the opportunity to stop it.”

Fort Yukon’s market and gas pumps charge locals $15 for a gallon of milk and $6.40 for a gallon of fuel, so families depend on harvesting moose and the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which migrates across Arctic NWR land that would be drilled if the current administration’s plans go through. (WELCOME TO GWICHYAA ZHEE)

Subsistence hunting and fishing are critical to the Gwich’in. (WELCOME TO GWICHYA ZHEE)

IN WINTER 2018, A GROUP of 17 people – and a handful of dogs – got together in Utah to relay race through both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase National Monuments. Grand Staircase was another on the Trump Administration’s list of public lands recommended for size reduction. Included in the running party were Necefer and Balkin, a Seattle-based filmmaker, outdoor adventurer and conservationist. 

“We ran 6-mile relays and 250 miles over a weekend. And it was everyone from pro runners to folks who had to buy their first running shows in a decade. And we made this 13-minute film called Messengers,” Necefer says. 

That’s how Necefer and Balkin met and then collaborated on what eventually became Welcome To Gwichyaa Zhee. The Wilderness Society approached Balkin and Necefer to create a short documentary about the Gwich’in and the fight to preserve their way of life. 

“For me, (Fort Yukon) is a faraway place that many people aren’t going to get to go to whenever they feel like it. So my hope is that people feel connected and they can relate to the Gwich’in and that they have schools with kids who live there,” Balkin says. “They don’t live in igloos and they live a life very similar to ours – and with more respect to their land. So I hope that the film inspires people to do research to learn about them. Maybe to reach out to people like Bernadette who are fighting. And to stand up and support them.”

Balkin and Necefer spent time in Fort Yukon last fall during moose hunting season with local families while they compiled film footage following around village locals in town. Like the enormous cost of food items, Balkin was amazed that fuel cost the families $6.40 per gallon to fill two 50-gallon tanks. 

But the experience of watching them reel in a few Yukon River northern pike and attempting to call in a bull moose – they didn’t get one on this hunt – represented more than just compiling scenes for a movie. 

“We didn’t know anyone and luckily there was a bed and breakfast in the village, and that was our home base. The communities are so small that we went on the local radio station. We were there long enough to start to see some of the same people and they were very open to sharing their story,” Balkin says. “And they thought it was fascinating that we were up there. The people were very welcoming and they were inviting us over to have moose meat, showing us the town and talking about what their lives are like. It was an honor to be there.”

The film follows local resident Mike Peter’s family fishing and hunting excursions. The reality of what could happen to the plentiful caribou that migrate through and around the proposed drilling sites has them concerned because of their thousands of years of reliance on the ungulates as a critical food source. 

Peter and his family all discussed the potential devastating effect drilling could have on the Gwich’in people. 

“If they open that place up there, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, that’s where the caribou migrate … Can you imagine what it would do to those animals?”

“People think because they’re down there, that’s it not going to affect us. It’s going to affect us.”

“And a lot of people think too Alaska is just a wasteland. But it’s not.”

“We live here.”

At one point, Peter is waiting for a moose that previously appeared to show up again. He falls silent for a split second, the only sound generated by singing birds.

“You hear that? Nothing,” he whispers before laughing – almost sarcastically. “Now you can’t tell me this is not worth fighting and protecting.”  

For Necefer and his friend, Aaron Mike, another Navajo who accompanied he and Balkin on the trip, while they were thousands of miles from their threatened sacred ground, but they could relate to what was going on in Fort Yukon. 

“I think I have lifelong friendships in these communities now that I want to maintain,” Necefer says. “They shared their story with me and I almost feel like it’s my duty to do something about that to support them in what they’re going through. I think there’s a personal duty there.”

And he hopes the video he and Balkin shot and which became Welcome to Gwichyaa Zhee will illustrate what the priorities should be in these lands of the far north. 

“So often the refuge has been framed as beautiful landscapes, caribou and Gwich’in,” Necefer says. “Now we’re trying to frame it as Gwich’in, caribou and beautiful landscapes.”

(WELCOME TO GWICHYAA ZHEE)

“We are up against an uphill battle. We are up against the elected leaders and up against corporations,” Dementieff says of her people. “It’s really been tough. But we refuse to give up.” (WELCOME TO GWICHYAA ZHEE)

FOR DEMIENTIEFF, THE FIGHTING never slows down, as she pleaded with that Seattle audience to be as outraged as she and her people are. (“Thank you for trying to learn about us,” she said.) 

“They want to bring in 53 90,000-pound vehicles into our sacred land and they want to blow 63,000 tons of force into the ground,” she said. “There’s a 52 percent chance that they’re going to run over denning polar bears and other smaller animals. But they still want to do it. So this is just a really sloppy and disrespectful way that they’re moving forward with this. And nobody’s listening to us.”

It hasn’t helped that the Gwich’in feel like they’ve gotten far more support outside of Alaska from politicians like Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) than senior Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowksi, whose father Frank, former Alaska U.S. senator and governor, fought to open up the refuge for drilling during his days in office back in the 1980s in the Senate.

In a June 2018 editorial she wrote for The Seattle Times, Murkowski cited the Alaskan Pipeline that carries petroleum between Prudhoe Bay to the north and Valdez to the south through the Last Frontier. 

“Back then, we were told that the pipeline would wipe out caribou herds and become the greatest environmental disaster of our time,” the senator wrote. “Yet, with time, technology and strong environmental protections, those sensational claims have proved wrong. Today, we have greater reason than ever to be confident in our ability to safely access these resources.”

That won’t do much to quell the Gwich’in people’s fears. Former President Barack Obama protected 12.8 million acres of Arctic NWR land from drilling before his successor’s 2017 reversal proposal was passed by both the Senate and House of Representatives.  

“We went to D.C. to testify that we want healthy land and healthy animals that we survive off of. The president of my corporation testified,” Demientieff said. “So that’s how chaotic it is up there right now. We are up against an uphill battle. We are up against the elected leaders and up against corporations. It’s really been tough. But we refuse to give up.”

“We want to tell the world that we’re heard and to do it in a good way. And that is not always easy, especially with this administration. They’re just bulldozing their way into our homelands and they’re not giving a damn about the impact that it’s causing us.” ASJ

Editor’s note: Check out gwichyaazhee.us for more information, and for more details on the Gwich’in people and their fight, go to OurArcticRefuge.com.

HOW TO WATCH

Welcome to Gwichyaa Zhee is now available to watch online and the filmmakers encourage anyone interested to host “watch parties” of the documentary with friends and family. Get started at gwichyaazhee.us. ASJ

TUNDRA MUSKOX HUNT BECOMES A GAME OF WITS

The following appears in the April issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:

BY PAUL D. ATKINS 

PHOTOS BY LEW PAGEL

To be honest, I wasn’t in the mood to shoot a muskox on that day; I was more in just-looking mode. 

The weather wasn’t the greatest and the hill we were sitting on wasn’t the most comfortable, especially with the wind whipping us in the face. The climb up was treacherous too. When we did sit down to glass, I had a difficult time finding anything through my Leicas. 

But we were there and in the right place for muskox. We glassed for several minutesm, my buddy Lew looking in one direction and me in the other. Then I spotted something on a far mountainside about 5 miles away. I thought the dark spots were rocks at first, until one moved.

JANUARY IS A LITTLE early for me when it comes to filling my muskox tag. But like most things here in the Arctic, you go when you can go. We do the same with everything else – whether it’s cutting wood at minus 20 degrees or chasing bears at plus 40 degrees, if you can see across the sound it’s a good day to ride.

The weather had been difficult recently, though maybe weirder is the word I’m looking for. The up-and-down temperature variation had been crazy. One week it was below zero, the next I was in a T-shirt. Maybe it’s climate change? I don’t know, but I’ll leave that to the experts. 

I do know that it seems to only get bad (snow and wind) on the weekends, the only days available to those of us who work during the week.

But this day was decent. The wind in town was calm and you could see the hills in the distance. Lew texted me that he would be over about 11 and for me to pack my bow. If you’ve read my stories in the past and stay updated with our muskox adventures, then you know that each year I get a tag and our annual hunt becomes more of a ritual than anything else.

This is an event, if you want to call it that. It usually takes place in February, though, when the days are longer and the sun is a bit warmer for my taste. You also know that I love to bowhunt, so taking another muskox with a bow was something I really wanted to do this year.

I love bowhunting, as it’s something I’ve been doing up here for years, especially during the fall when Lew and I go camping and hunting upriver. It’s easier than – if such a thing exists – spot-and-stalking big game in and out of the willows and the spruce. It has become second nature. I’ve even taken ox during the fall as well. Believe me, being on foot without snow and ice to deal with does make it easier.

Bowhunting during the winter is quite different, though. The cold isn’t the problem, and even shooting a bow in the extreme can be done with little difficulty. It’s the wind that’s a killer. Being in places that aren’t ideal for making a good shot is not fair to anybody, the animal included. 

I can’t tell you how many times we’ve taken the bow on winter trips, only to leave it strapped to the snowmachine or sled and grabbed the rifle instead. It happens just about every time these days. But that’s hunting. 

I once was a purist and would not take a rifle along, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve changed my focus. It’s not so much about the bow or rifle but the adventure and ultimately filling my tag and putting meat in the freezer. Yet there have been times that a rifle was the only choice and all I had with me was a bow. 

I remember once I was hunting muskox during March on the next to last day of season. I made it to the top of a mountain that looked, at first, to be not climbable. I made it, though, only to come face to face with four bulls, which all looked identical. 

It was a hard climb and the temperature was at least minus 30. I got close, but not close enough. They were just out of range. Even though I thought about launching an arrow, I decided not to. I did have a rifle, but it was leaning up against my machine halfway down the mountain. Darkness was setting in too and I knew if I climbed back down and up again it would be dark by then. 

All I could do was watch, which sometimes is enough. I climbed down and went home, but came back the next day and took one of the bulls with a rifle. So, in the end it all worked out. It was a memory that I will never forget.

NOW I WAS ON A hunt that was much different. Lew arrived at 11 and we were off. The hitch on my sled was broke, so Lew towed his big red Siglin behind his Ski-Doo. As we pulled off the mainland and onto the ice, I was dreading the ride across the sound. 

The last time we’d crossed it, a wood-cutting adventure, it was rougher than a cob. The windblown trail, capped with snow hills and chunks of ice, pounded us for two hours instead of the normal 30 minutes it takes to get across. It was miserable.

This time was much more bearable. It was relatively smooth and effortless. We flew across and once we made it to the other side, we stopped at our usual spot to have a little coffee and discuss the strategy for the day. The skies were blue and the sun was well lit behind us, but up ahead the fog had started to roll in and I wondered if we would even be able to see anything on the mountaintops. I started having doubts and thinking this might be a short day for finding a muskox.

We ventured forward and found ourselves in the mountains. I followed Lew closely. He busted through fresh snow and made his way to small hill overlooking the Noatak Valley. It’s a great spot to glass, open and wide, allowing a hunter to see for miles. 

We parked our machines and climbed to the top, leaving me huffing and puffing for air. The terrain was treacherous and my bunny boots had a hard time finding traction, but I finally made it and sat down to glass.

As I mentioned earlier, they weren’t rocks; they were muskox. I watched carefully through watering eyes to make sure the rocks were moving, and I wasn’t seeing things. Finally, I motioned to Lew to come over and have a look. He confirmed what I was seeing, then looked at me and grinned. 

“We didn’t dress up for nothing; let’s go,” he said.

Like I said I wasn’t really in the mood to shoot a muskox, but what I wasn’t really in the mood for was to snowmachine across 6 miles of tundra, river and rocks to get there. They didn’t look that far, but in the Arctic distance is deceiving. 

I knew that even though we picked them up while glassing, they were still a long way off and probably in a place that wasn’t easy to get to. 

I also knew we would have to take time into consideration. It was 1:30 in the afternoon and it would be getting dark around 5:30. 

We went anyway.

WE MADE IT TO THE river and then cruised to the base of a hill that led up to where the herd should be. Coming off the river and heading into the tundra can be a tough move. But you can usually find an old trail, or at least a cut or flat spot where the snow isn’t too deep. 

The shortest route to get there was over a bank into the trees. Lew went first and made it with ease as his big machine barreled through the deep sugary snow. As was normally the case, I watched until his return, allowing Lew to cut us a trail. 

It was coming back where we had a problem. Coming over the last rise, the bottom fell out and Lew buried his machine in 6 feet of snow. An hour later, now soaked in sweat and breathing hard, we finally dug it out.

We continued upward towards where we thought the ox would be. We went on forever across the tundra field – until we met a steep embankment packed with hard snow. We had to go up – there was no way around – so we did. But once we got to the top it was nothing but rock. There was windblown, sharp shale as far as the eye could see. The wind was ferocious and blowing so hard we could barely stand up.

Lew and I got off our machines. I looked at my bow, but again I knew that in this weather it was going to be a rifle hunt. I grabbed the .300 Win. Mag. and we headed toward a small rise to get a better look and to see if the muskox were still there. They weren’t. 

The muskox herd had moved off in the distance and was a mile away, but all I could see was one. I told Lew that my machine was already hot and would for sure overheat in the rocks, so I would continue walking towards the herd and hopefully get into position. 

I told him to walk back to get my camera and a box of shells, then maneuver his air-cooled machine through the small amount of snow that was there and meet me at the bottom.

I walked into the unknown. I didn’t know where the animals were exactly, and I didn’t know how many there actually were. Trying to keep one eye on my footing and another ahead I made it to the base of a snow hill where a lone willow stood. 

The muskox were out of sight, and I knew the wind was in our favor, so I decided to catch my breath and wait for Lew to arrive. He did and with careful anticipation we walked around the snow-covered base to have a look.

We saw nothing at first, but all at once the whole area opened up and there were muskox everywhere. The only thing we had in our favor was that we were on the low side of a rise and could move pretty much undetected. 

We were stalking our way towards them when a cow spotted us, but she didn’t seem to care much. The herd itself was around 20 or so and the animals were to our right. They were feeding up the side of a hill. To our left was the prize we were looking for: two lone bulls feeding together and trying to catch up with the others. 

It was incredibly perfect. The bulls were a couple hundred yards off and moving towards the rest of the group. Lew whispered to me for us to try and make it to a large snow-covered tussock that was ahead of us about 90 yards. 

I was sure we would get busted, but we made it and the tussock ended up making the perfect rest. The bulls had no idea we were there. Now it was time to relax and just watch.

The bulls fed along and the decision became which to take. I looked at each through the scope. It was nice actually, as it was so much different than any other hunt I had been on. Lew and I actually got to talk about it – something we rarely do – even after all the times before. 

Finally, I decided on the bigger-bodied bull on the left. He was an old warrior with a busted boss and looked to fill the freezer quite well. Carefully aiming and accounting for the wind, I felt the recoil from the big rifle slam into my shoulder. 

The big bull was down and the ritual over. We had our muskox. It’s always surreal for me once I walk up to an animal I’ve taken. I think it has something to do with the moment and how fast things go down sometimes. 

For me it’s the fact that I know what I did and what I’ve got, but you’re still not 100 percent until you actually lay your hands on the animal. I always say a little prayer and thank the hunting gods for a great animal and a great opportunity once I get there.

We got the bull field-dressed – which is a whole other story, especially in a hard wind on a flat surface – and loaded it into Lew’s sled for the ride home. 

It was 4:30, but it felt much later considering how long it had taken to get there. Plus the hunt itself felt long. We grabbed my machine and made it down just in time. The weather gods said that was enough and it decided to storm. 

Luckily for us we took the river back and followed the marked trail. If we hadn’t, the whiteout would have made things much more difficult. ASJ

Editor’s note: Paul Atkins is an outdoor writer and author from Kotzebue, Alaska. He has written hundreds of articles on big game hunting and fishing throughout North America and Africa, plus surviving in the Arctic. Paul is a monthly contributor to Alaska Sporting Journal.

 

 

Peterson Creek Sportfishing Shut Down

The following press release is courtesy of the Alaska Departmetn of Fish and Game:

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Sport Fish announced today that Peterson Creek, north of Juneau, will be closed to sport fishing. Specific restrictions are as follows:

  • Peterson Creek, including Peterson Lagoon, from the intertidal waters within a 200-yard radius of the creek mouth at saltwater to the falls approximately 1.5 miles upstream are closed to sport fishing for all species from April 15 – June 30, 2019 to protect spawning steelhead.

Snorkel survey expansions, based on years when concurrent weir counts were available, indicate that overall production of steelhead in Peterson Creek has declined in recent years. For the last 4 years (2015-2018), snorkel survey index counts conducted each spring have been below the 1997-2014 average of 28 fish (equal to an escapement of about 116 fish), when steelhead abundance in the creek appeared to be relatively stable. The 2018 snorkel survey count of 6 fish was the lowest on record since surveys began in 1997. A conservative approach is necessary to manage the Peterson Creek steelhead stock during this period of low escapements.

For more information please call the Division of Sport Fish Region 1 office at 465- 4270.

Sport Fishing Closed in Peterson Creek

New Bill That Could Restrict Nonresident Hunting Ops States Its Case

Our magazine was launched with the idea that Lower 48ers could go to Alaska to pursue the hunting or fishing trip of a lifetime. Well, an Alaska state senator’s bill that would decrease hunting opportunities to nonresidents hit the senate floor this week for discussion.

Here’s more from the Fairbanks News-Miner on the bill, created by North Pole  Sen. John Coghill (R) that the bill says would be beneficial for more Alaska residents to hunt:

Testimony against SB87 came from the leader of the Alaska Outdoor Council, which represents a large consortium of hunting and fishing organizations in Alaska.

Rod Arno, the council director, said delegates at the council’s annual meeting in Fairbanks last week voted in opposition to SB87.

Arno said the proposed law was unnecessary because Alaskans already have hunting opportunities in times of shortage not available to nonresidents through the resident-only subsistence system.

He also argued against further restrictions to nonresident hunters because they pay high license and tag fees that finance most of the state’s wildlife management budget.

 

 

 

Kuskokwim River Drainage Shutting Down For King Salmon Fishing

The following press release is courtesy of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game:

The Division of Sport Fish is closing the entire Kuskokwim River drainage (including all tributaries) to sport fishing for king salmon, effective 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, May 1, 2019. This does not include Kuskokwim Bay drainages. All king salmon caught while fishing for other species may not be removed from the water and must be released immediately. In addition, anglers may use only one unbaited, single-hook, artificial lure in the Kuskokwim River drainage. These restrictions will remain in effect through 11:59 p.m. Thursday, July 25, 2019.

The preseason forecast of 115,000–150,000 king salmon suggests that the Kuskokwim River king salmon run in 2019 may be similar to 2018 when the Kuskokwim River experienced an estimated total run of approximately 132,300 and spawning escapement of approximately 109,500 fish. In 2018, the drainagewide escapement goal (65,000–120,000 king salmon) was attained, however, this was largely due to substantial closures of the subsistence fishery. Restrictions to the subsistence king salmon fishery are expected again in 2019.

The anticipated restrictions of the subsistence salmon fishery on the Kuskokwim River warrants a total closure of sport fishing for king salmon in the Kuskokwim River drainage and the prohibition of bait and multiple hooks during the king salmon run. If inseason stock assessment information indicates that a majority of the king salmon escapement goals and subsistence needs in the Kuskokwim River drainage will be met, restrictions may be relaxed.

For additional information contact John Chythlook, Kuskokwim-Goodnews Area Management Biologist, 907-459-7361.