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Taking Fishing Personally

Capt. Mark Spencer of AK eXpeditions dipnets for salmon on Alaska’s Copper River, one of several waters in Alaska that are considered for personal use, which is defined somewhere between subsistence and sportfishing, making it a rather complicated industry. (AK EXPEDITIONS)

Capt. Mark Spencer of AK eXpeditions dipnets for salmon on Alaska’s Copper River, one of several waters in Alaska that are considered for personal use, which is defined somewhere between subsistence and sportfishing, making it a rather complicated industry. (AK EXPEDITIONS)

The following appears in the August issue of Alaska Sporting Journal

BY TOM REALE 

Every year, tens of thousands of Alaskans take part in what the state defines as “personal use” fisheries.

There are 80 of these not-exactly-subsistence and not-exactly-sportfishing opportunities around the state. In various fresh- and saltwater spots, locals try to fill their freezers with a variety of fin- and shellfish.

In Southeast Alaska and Prince William Sound, shrimp and shellfish are the primary fisheries open to personal-use rules. Other options in the state include herring, hooligan, crab and clams in Southcentral; salmon, crab, scallops and abalone in Southeast; and salmon and whitefish in the Interior.

These unique fishing venues are restricted to Alaska residents. How they came about is a lesson in resource management, economics and, of course, politics.

On the popular Kenai River, fishermen pull a salmon out of one of the many nets that line the shore. In the salmon fisheries, permits are given per family, with each household allowed 25 fish for the head of household and 10 more for each additional dependent. (TOM REALE)

On the popular Kenai River, fishermen pull a salmon out of one of the many nets that line the shore. In the salmon fisheries, permits are given per family, with each household allowed 25 fish for the head of household and 10 more for each additional dependent. (TOM REALE)

DIVVYING UP ALASKA’S RICH supply of natural resources has always been problematic. Whether it was the exploitation of sea otter pelts or the pursuit of gold, timber, oil or fish, the law of supply and demand has run roughshod over the state. A series of boom-and-bust cycles has enriched some and impoverished others, leaving behind what seems to be a pretty shallow learning curve.

When it comes to fish, especially salmon, the state has been trying for generations to allocate the resource among user groups. In the early days of territorial rules, commercial fishermen set up scores of salmon canneries all over coastal Alaska, and everyone competed to catch all the fish.

One especially devastating method of harvesting salmon commercially was the fish trap. Constructed of wire fencing and wood pilings driven into the ground, they were placed in the path of incoming salmon. According to an article in the Alaska Fish and Wildlife News on the Cook Inlet salmon fisheries, “They were one of the most efficient and effective ways to harvest salmon, but combined with poor federal management, they were a little too effective. In fact, the traps were responsible for catching so many fish, that by the late 1940s, they had decimated most of the salmon runs. By the time fish traps were outlawed in the late 1950s, the damage was done.”

Eventually, reason prevailed and rules and regulations were adopted to keep the commercial fishing outfits more or less in line. Seasons, catch limits and gear restrictions were put in place to preserve a state of equilibrium in the salmon fisheries.

With the coming of statehood and the influx of population from Outside, other user groups began competing for fish. Native subsistence fishers and recreational angling concerns wanted the state to guarantee that there were enough fish left over from commercial exploitation for their use.

The political history of the subsistence issue is a long and thorny one. Beginning in 1960, the state defined some fisheries as subsistence and used the label to set aside certain hunting and fishing resources for “customary and traditional” uses.

The idea was to separate primarily Native Alaskans and rural residents from both sport and commercial users. The law was meant to guarantee that groups who relied on the fish and game for their primary sustenance would have first crack at the resources.

In 1978, the federal government got involved with the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which limited subsistence rights to rural residents.

And, of course, legal and political wrangling ensued. Today, federal agencies have one set of subsistence laws on lands that they manage, while the state defines and manages the issue on state and private lands and waters. And as new issues present themselves, more laws are passed and almost always find their way into the state and federal court systems. It’s pretty messy and still evolving.

Then in the 1980s, the state set aside hunts and fisheries for “personal use,” resources that didn’t fit the definitions of subsistence, sport or commercial use. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game regulations, personal-use fishing is defined as, “The taking, fishing for, or possession of finfish, shellfish, or other fishery resources, by Alaska residents for personal use and not for sale or barter, with gill or dip net, seine, fish wheel, long line, or other means defined by the Board of Fisheries.”

Currently, these fisheries don’t receive priority over other uses – they’re opened and maintained only when there’s a “surplus” of fish to be harvested.

Personal-use fisheries are open only to Alaska residents holding sportfishing licenses. In salmon fisheries, permits are given per family, with each household allowed 25 fish for the head of household and 10 more for each additional dependent. The permits are free, and each day’s catch is recorded before leaving the river. Separate permits for the Copper River and the Upper Cook Inlet fisheries are required.
While shellfish and shrimp fishing are popular in Southeast and in Prince William Sound, nothing comes close to the efforts put in for salmon. The Copper River fishery at Chitina and the Kasilof and Kenai River fisheries on the Kenai Peninsula are the big dogs in the system, attracting thousands upon thousands of participants every year.

Interest and participation in these fisheries has been growing substantially. In 1996, there were about 15,000 permits issued for the Upper Cook Inlet rivers alone. By 2013, that number had grown to over 35,000 and continues on an upward slope.

When we first fished the Kasilof in the 1980s, all of the nets we saw were either long-handled salmon landing nets or homemade contraptions. These were made up of copper tubing, PVC pipe or aluminum tubes with shovel handles or even crutches stuck on the end.

Today, you still see quite a few imaginative designs on the river, but now there are welding shops advertising all manner of nets for sale. And you know that dipnetting has gone mainstream when you see the nets for sale at Costco.

Local resident Jake Weaver’s precarious spot on the edge of the fast-moving Copper River demonstrates that being careful is critical to avoid an accident. One of Weaver’s fishing partners actually fell into the river during one trip, but he was unhurt. (JAKE WEAVER)

Local resident Jake Weaver’s precarious spot on the edge of the fast-moving Copper River demonstrates that being careful is critical to avoid an accident. One of Weaver’s fishing partners actually fell into the river during one trip, but he was unhurt. (JAKE WEAVER)

THE FIRST DIPNET FISHERY to open was at Chitina, home to the now world-famous Copper River red salmon. The first opening every year is between June 7 and June 15, depending on the strength of the early run. Dipping the Copper River can be very challenging. It’s a big, scary, muscular river that occasionally claims the lives of unwary or careless fishermen.

After fishing the Kenai and Kasilof for years, Jake Weaver went to the Copper for the first time this year. He found it to be more than challenging. While the Kenai and Kasilof have very much of a beach-party vibe – kids running around on the sand, and lawn chairs and recliners scattered among the coolers and dipnets – on the Copper, people take ATVs down the river on a sketchy trail and tie themselves to trees while wrestling long-handled nets in the powerful current. It was definitely not a beach party.

“They call it dipnetting but I refer to it as cliffhanging for salmon,” says Weaver, who managed to get 17 fish and his buddies limited out, but it was an adventure. “Just the 5-mile trail going into the canyon on my ATV was exciting, to say the least. I saw lots of people being pretty careless and almost losing their rigs, if not their lives. Then when we were cleaning our fish, one of my buddies fell into the river but we got him out pretty quick. If I go again, I’ll be better prepared (and carry) lots of rope, better footgear and the right kind of net.”

For those without ATVs who want to get away from the roadside crowds, there are several charter outfits on the river. You can either pay to fish from a boat for the day or have them drop you off downriver and arrange for a pickup later on.

Compared to the potentially treacherous Copper, the Kenai and Kasilof River fisheries are a cakewalk. You’ll be surrounded by hundreds if not thousands of Alaskans, all taking a gentle sloping walk into the (relatively) slow current – a far cry from the death-defying adventure on the Copper.

The Kasilof opens in late June and the Kenai on July 10, with most of the fishing effort and success coming later in the month as the run builds.

The rules for dipnetting salmon are quite strict, so ignore them at your peril. Gear use is subject to net and mesh size and depth-of-bag restrictions. Fish must be marked by cutting off tail lobes, permits must be marked, certain species of fish must be returned to the river, etc. Considering that multiple people are ticketed for failure to follow the rules every year, don’t let this be you.

While the Copper River’s personal-use fishing is all business, it’s more of a “beach party” vibe on the Kenai, although since this is Alaska it’s a little different but a festive atmosphere all the same. (TOM REALE)

While the Copper River’s personal-use fishing is all business, it’s more of a “beach party” vibe on the Kenai, although since this is Alaska it’s a little different but a festive atmosphere all the same. (TOM REALE)

SUCCESS IS LARGELY A MATTER of timing. If you’re there when the fish are running and the setnet and driftnet commercial operations haven’t scooped up too many, chances are you’ll score. It’s important to have the proper gear; even on warm and sunny days, the water is cold and you’ll be standing in it for hours.

Chest waders are a must since you won’t be able to get your net out far enough wearing only hip boots. Warm clothing, sunscreen and perhaps waterproof gloves will complete your ensemble.

Pick out a spot not too close to your fellow dippers and head into the water. “Close” is a very relative term, as during the peak of the runs, dipnetters are bunched up pretty tightly. Observe how others are fishing and behave accordingly.

For the most part, people are quite friendly while marinating in the river waiting for fish, and as long as you don’t jam yourself in too closely and stick your net right in front of another one, you should be fine. Little communities of dippers tend to form, with people sharing tips, congratulating each other when fish are netted and commiserating when the fishing is slow.

When you feel a fish hit the net, give a backward jerk on the handle and pull it onto the beach. Untangle it from the webbing, give it a bonk on the head, and pull or cut a gill to bleed it. Before putting it into the cooler, trim the tail fins according to the regs (the details are on your permit). And don’t forget to fill out your permit before leaving the beach – add a pencil or waterproof pen to your gear before leaving home.

Dipnetting for salmon and accessing the other personal-use fisheries in the state is an excellent way for residents to fill their freezers and stockpile seafood for the long, cold winter ahead. But, like the signs say at the all-you-can-eat buffets, “You can eat all you take, just don’t take more than you can eat.”

Just because your family of four is allowed to harvest 55 salmon a year doesn’t mean you have to take that many. Too often, people go salmon-crazy when the fishing is good, only to wind up dumping the excess the following year when the new runs begin.

If you’re respectful of the resource and follow the laws, we’ll all have salmon for generations to come. ASJ

Netting fish to feed the family is the name of the game, but it’s important for those who use personal-use fisheries to just take what they need and not overdo it. (AK EXPEDITIONS)

Netting fish to feed the family is the name of the game, but it’s important for those who use personal-use fisheries to just take what they need and not overdo it. (AK EXPEDITIONS)

 

 

The Sisterhood Of The Salmon Siblings

Claire Neaton and Emma Teal Laukitis commercial fisherwomen of Alaska co-own a business - Salmon Sisters which features their marine themed designs and products.

Photos by Scott Dickerson and Camrin Dengel

BY CHRIS COCOLES

Fishing was rooted into the genes of sisters Emma Teal and Claire Laukitis at an early age.

Fishing commercially with their parents by the time they were old enough to go to school, Emma and Claire became obsessed with the lifestyle so many in Alaska embrace. Now college graduates after studying on the East Coast, every summer and into the fall the siblings return to the sea to participate in the family’s harvesting of salmon and halibut.

“We haven’t taken a summer off, so it’s become normal for us to come back,” Emma says.

They are also entrepreneurs. Emma, 24, and Claire, 25, created their own company, the aptly named Salmon Sisters (907-299-5615; salmon-sisters.myshopify.com), where they create fish-inspired apparel, accessories and also sell their family-caught fresh salmon and halibut. After beginning as a venture for close friends and family, the sisters’ idea spawned a popular Homer-based business (Claire was included on a list of 30-and-under people to watch in the outdoors community).

“I am excited that it’s had some success, but I don’t think Claire and I really feel it or let ourselves feel it as much as we could,” Emma admits. “There’s just so much we could do and we’re still trying to figure out how to do things right. When people say good things to us (about the business), we’re like, ‘Really?’ It’s nice to be reminded that we’re doing it for a good reason.”

And that reason was a love for fishing in a place that had few other ways to make a living.

Salmon Sisters 2

Salmon Sisters 3

 

IF STONEWALL PLACE ISN’T the end of the world as far as Alaskans are concerned, you might be able to see it from there.

Emma’s and Claire’s childhood home was land’s end on the Alaska Peninsula and the Last Frontier mainland. A short boat ride away began the Aleutian archipelago. Besides all the resident bears and other critters making up the neighbors, it was just the girls and their parents in terms of a human presence. Since Emma and Claire were separated by just 13 months, they were forced to be each other’s best friend, partner in crime and mischief-maker as little kids.

The closest resemblance to civilization was 3 miles across Isanotski Strait to Unimak Island’s False Pass, population 40 (give or take).

“There were kids over there but we didn’t see them very much,” Emma recalls.

“I look back at it now and think, ‘Dang, it is not the nicest part of the state, location wise and weather wise,’” adds Claire, who now goes by her married name, Neaton. “But it’s still the most incredible place; it’s so abundant and there are so few people that’s it untouched. The amount of wildlife was just so plentiful there.”

Their parents, Buck and Shelly Laukitis, are longtime respected commercial fishing moguls who now have a fleet of three vessels. Buck was president of the North Pacific Fisheries Association between 2001 and 2013.

“We pretty much spent our entire childhood outside. My mom was phenomenal and she had these huge gardens, and she always had the little set net out and we were always trying to catch halibut,” Claire says. “We were home-schooled, which was great, and then we moved to Homer for the winters when we were about 10 or 11 (to continue with school). It was great, but the elements reigned supreme. The weather dictated everything.”

It was quite the unique lifestyle for the sisters. They would go out together on their parents’ commercial fishing vessel for a week at a time when most kids are coping with the reality of kindergarten and first grade.

“When we were about 8 we’d go for about a month, and then by middle school we would be there the whole time,” Claire says. “Our family set-net and then we’d longline for halibut for most of the fall. And my dad and his crew had a lot of patience for having two little girls aboard.”

Emma and Claire felt lucky to be able to learn the commercial fishing game at such a young age and contribute to the family’s business. Especially in younger days Emma had to overcome bouts of seasickness, relying on patches and whatever remedies would help control it.

Emma dreaded fishing inside nearby Morzhovoi Bay, where the wind seemed to blow in demonic gusts.

“It made it miserable, very wet, and it seemed like I’d get blown over every time I’d try to do something,” says Emma, who turns philosophical. “I don’t think I realized how insignificant we were there. It was just a reality check when it would get really windy or stormy. It was just that feeling of, ‘Wow; we just don’t matter.’”

But this was a family where you overcame obstacles like an upset stomach or rough seas. No excuses when there is a quota to reach.

“While it’s definitely a lot of work,” Claire says, “it’s just really rewarding to work as a family.”

Even when not at sea, there were plenty of projects at Stonewall Place to get your hands dirty – some tastier than others.

“There was a lot to do and you could keep yourself really busy. We’d help our mom put up fish and we’d pick berries – there were lots of blueberries and cranberries out there – so we’d make a lot of jam and pies,” Emma says. “A lot of your day was harvesting food or fishing – just finding ways to survive for yourself.”

And the girls had an entire ecosystem to themselves to explore when they weren’t helping mom and dad. When the weather did cooperate, frolicking along the beach – “It could be pretty treacherous, so we really weren’t allowed to play in the water,” Emma says – was a favored pastime. They would dig for clams or find sea urchins along the shore, so it was a little less traditional than your standard swingsets or slides to play on.

It was also a hauntingly spectacular setting – rugged coastlines and tall volcanoes rising in the distance. And there was the local fauna, which included plenty of brown bears that traversed the same terrain as the girls.

“We had to hike around with guns because when those bears smelled fish, they’d wander by. As long as you were smart about it wasn’t a big deal. We had a good bear dog that usually could smell them and start barking,” Emma says. “Our parents did build us this platform that was really high up and it served as our treehouse. It was just something that allowed us to play somewhere that the bears couldn’t get to.”

So it was an exciting experience for a couple of kids who – when they weren’t attending school in Homer after the fishing season ended – mostly leaned on each other for companionship and entertainment. But it was time for Emma and Claire to stretch their legs a little more.

Still, there was always going to be fishing waiting for them back home.

Salmon fishing in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game 'Alaska Peninsula Area' also known as 'Area M'. This has been a controversial fishing region.

BY THE TIME THEY’D finish high school and were ready for college, both the sisters wanted to experience something different far away from Alaska. They both chose the Northeastern U.S. for school: Emma at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., and Claire at the University of Vermont in Burlington.

It was for sure a change of scenery – if not full-on culture shock – for both siblings. Claire jokes that while she would spend her summers away from college back in Alaska on a commercial fishing boat, her school chums flocked to the island beaches of Martha’s Vineyard off Massachusetts.

But their connections to locally sustained fish and goodies provided classmates with treats like salmon caught by the family fishing boats or delectable homemade jam that the girls made with their mom so often growing up. For Claire, Vermont’s DIY mentality and organic vibe made it a perfect fit.

“And the people there have such an appreciation for the outdoors,” she says. “Everyone is incredibly involved with being outside and just doing something, which made it great.”

Williams is a private liberal arts college located just south of the Vermont border in western Massachusetts. Like her sister’s alma mater, it was in a rural area even smaller than Burlington, but unlike Alaska, major metropolitan areas like New York and Boston were just a few hours away.

“It was my first time away from Alaska, and most of my (classmates) were from the East Coast and big cities,” Emma says. “But there were actually quite a few (other students) from Alaska and we ended up competing on the same crew team; all the Alaskans were on the crew team. I guess it allowed us to still be close to the water. I know once the summers came I wanted to go back out fishing.”

Life in the Lower 48 was good. Claire met her future husband in Vermont, and since finishing up at Williams Emma is now pursuing a graduate degree in design at the University of Washington in Seattle. But they longed to eventually return to their fishing and family roots in Alaska.

“We decided that this is what we wanted to devote our lives to,” Claire says. “We’re back, fully, and we wouldn’t want to change anything.”

And they’ve also recruited newbies to their way of life. Claire’s husband and Emma’s boyfriend fish together on one of the Laukitis boats.

“We all get to see each other pretty often, which is great,” Emma says.

It would have been perfectly reasonable for two young ladies who’d spent most of their childhood on the family fishing fleet to consider doing something else, especially after finding new opportunities to pursue from their far-flung college campuses. But they realized right away that, just like their parents, this way of life was in their DNA.

“There are days when you say, ‘This is not worth it.’ You do feel terrible and question, ‘Why are we doing this?’ But I don’t think I ever (fully) felt that in the big picture. It just always seemed worth it,” Emma says. “We were with our family and most of our friends fished, so I don’t think we felt we were missing out on anything. This was our world.”

A skiff ride across False Pass, also known as Isanotski Strait, the Aleutians, Southwest Alaska, summer.

Salmon Sisters 6

SUMMERS WERE ALWAYS RESERVED for netting salmon and later on longlining massive halibut to go to market, but what about the rest of the year? Emma and Claire were young and hungry to keep themselves busy.

“We didn’t want to give up fishing in the summer but needed some full-time, year-round employment,” Claire says. “So we started Salmon Sisters.”

The ladies wanted to create a clothing line durable enough to handle the unpredictable conditions for Alaskans, but also with a stylistic and creative touch that buyers “would feel good about wearing,” Claire says.

Claire majored in business at Vermont and figured she would utilize that degree to sell fresh and wild seafood for a processor. Emma’s Williams degree was in studio art and English, so with one sister’s understanding of how to start and maintain business and Emma’s artistic touch – plus their love of all things fish – why not combine it all and make good use of their time in the offseason?

“She’s always sketching something or dreaming (up an idea); she just excels at it,” Claire says of Emma. “I can’t draw anything.”

“I actually get a lot of my ideas from my sister and my dad,” adds Emma.

They started out modestly – creating a few designs for apparel meant for family and close friends. But as they wore hoodies with their own artwork, it started to sink in how symbolic the gesture was and the reaction they received. Claire recalled a defining moment when they were delivering fresh halibut in Dutch Harbor.

“This is us; we fish here and this is our identity and I feel so proud to wear this,” she remembers being told. “It was such a good representation to what we were all about. We started screen-printing rockfish or salmon on shirts and they were received so well by our peers and we were so excited to wear them. And we just can’t thank Alaskans enough for supporting us.”

Emma Teal Laukitis and Claire Neaton, owners Salmon Sisters, an ocean inspired brand based in Alaska. Products include apparel with custom artwork, Alaskan seafood and other handcrafted goods. Emma designed the original artwork while Claire manages the business side of the company.

YOU DON’T HAVE TO just wear what you buy from the Salmon Sisters. They also sell what they catch – offering fresh and wild sockeye salmon and halibut (10 pounds worth per order). Furthermore, with every purchase of Emma’s and Claire’s products, they’ll donate a can of locally caught wild salmon to the Alaska Food Bank.

“As commercial fishermen we’re incredibly proud of what we’re producing,” Claire says.

Says Emma, “I don’t think we ever project anything that we don’t feel.”

A high percentage of customer-driven sales takes place in the sisters’ home base of Homer, but traveling around the state Claire and Emma get a rush when they see random passers-by decked out in their sweatshirts, tees, hats and leggings (they also offer accessories like tote bags and coffee mugs).

“It’s just neat to know that someone would want to find a connection to salmon and our great state and purchase something,” Claire says. “And we feel proud about that.”

And if they can just get some tips on being better sport anglers, that would be nice too.

“When we get off the commercial boat at the end of September, we’ll say, ‘Oh wow, let’s go catch a fish! But we’re just not very good at it,” Claire says with a laugh.

“Emma and I don’t know how to fly fish and a lot of that stuff. But for a lot of our customers, that’s their passion and lifestyle. So it’s great to kind of learn a lot from them.” ASJ

Editor’s note: Like Salmon Sisters at facebook.com/aksalmonsisters and follow on Instagram (@aksalmonsisters). Check out more on photographers Scott Dickerson (scottdickerson.com) and Camrin Dengel (camrindengel.com) at their respective websites. 

USFWS Releases Duck Breeding Survey

A green-wing teal pair at Yukon NWR. (ALLEN STEGEMEN/USFWS)

A green-wing teal pair at Yukon NWR. (ALLEN STEGEMEN/USFWS)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its 2016 duck breeding population survey, which you can see here on the Ducks Unlimited website (which includes a graphic breaking down each specific species).

Here’s a portion of DU’s press release on the stats:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) today released its report on 2016 Trends in Duck Breeding Populations, based on surveys conducted in May and early June by FWS and the Canadian Wildlife Service. Overall duck numbers in the survey area are statistically similar to last year and remain steady. Total populations were estimated at 48.4 million breeding ducks in the traditional survey area, which is 38 percent above the 1955-2015 long-term average. Last year’s estimate was 49.5 million birds. The projected mallard fall flight index is 13.5 million birds, similar to the 2015 estimate of 13.8 million.

The main determining factor for duck breeding success is wetland and upland habitat conditions in the key breeding landscapes of the prairies and the boreal forest. Conditions observed across the U.S. and Canadian survey areas during the 2016 breeding population survey were generally poorer than last year. The total pond estimate for the U.S. and Canada combined was 5.0 million, which is 21% below the 2015 estimate of 6.3 million but similar to the long-term average of 5.2 million.

“In light of the dry conditions that were observed across much of the northern breeding grounds during the survey period, it is reassuring to see that the breeding population counts were little changed from last year,” said DU Chief Scientist Scott Yaich. “But, with total pond counts similar to the long-term average, and with hunting season and winter mortality being a relatively small part of annual mortality, it’s not surprising to see that populations largely held steady.”

“What’s not reflected in the report is that there was fairly significant improvement in habitat conditions after the surveys were completed,” said Yaich. “In some key production areas, heavy June and July rains greatly improved wetland conditions. This could benefit brood rearing and the success of late nesting species, as well as give a boost to overall production through re-nesting by early nesting species.”

ADFG Opposes New Federal Hunting Regulations

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

(Juneau) — The State of Alaska is strongly opposed to new regulations by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that erode fish and wildlife management authority on Alaska’s national wildlife refuges. Scheduled for publication on Friday, August 5, the new regulations override the state’s sovereign authority to manage fish and resident wildlife in Alaska’s 16 national wildlife refuges.

“This is continued erosion of the state’s authority to manage fish and wildlife for the benefit of Alaskans,” said Bruce Dale, Director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation. “We are proud of our science-based, constitutionally mandated programs to sustainably manage habitats, predators, and prey to feed Alaskans”.

“Although the Service itself conducts predator control on refuges, it just does not approve of state efforts to increase the number of ungulates available for food in Alaska,” said Dale. “Moose, caribou, deer are important sources of natural food and food security for many Alaskans and cornerstones of the subsistence way of life.”

The new regulations require that fish and wildlife be managed for natural fluctuations, superseding the state’s ability to manage stable wildlife populations for subsistence and other consumptive uses under the sustained yield concept. Dale said the regulations, which affect national wildlife refuge landholdings of nearly 77 million acres statewide, will have significant impacts on Alaskans, especially those who rely on wildlife for food.

The regulations also contradict the state’s role under agreements made in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act to manage fish and wildlife on all lands in Alaska. The regulations also limit public input for discretionary closures of activities on refuges and create a confusing third tier of regulations for resource users.

The Department of Fish and Game is reviewing the new regulations and will work with the Department of Law and Gov. Bill Walker to consider its response.

 

USFWS Clarifies Rules On Refuge Predator Hunting

Photo by Lisa Hupp/USFWS

Photo by Lisa Hupp/USFWS

The following press release is courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:

In response to public interest and concern about predator harvest on national wildlife refuges across Alaska, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) today announced a final rule to clarify that predator control is not allowed on national wildlife refuges in the state unless based on sound science and in response to a conservation concern or is necessary to meet refuge purposes, federal laws or Service policy. In addition, the rule defines the process that will be used for considering predator control, prohibits certain methods and means for non-subsistence harvest of predators, and updates the procedures for closing an area or restricting an activity on refuges in Alaska.

“Alaska’s National Wildlife Refuges are incredible landscapes with wildlife populations that support subsistence traditions and recreational opportunities like hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing,” said Service Director Dan Ashe. “The Service manages these refuges to conserve species and preserve biodiversity and environmental health for the continuing benefit of present and future generations of all Americans, while balancing the need to provide sport and subsistence hunting opportunities. Consistent with existing law and agency policy, sustainable harvest of fish and wildlife, including predators, remains a priority public use on national wildlife refuges in Alaska.”

Under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), all refuges in Alaska are mandated to provide the opportunity for continued subsistence use by rural Alaska residents in a manner consistent with the conservation of natural diversity. The final rule will not change federal subsistence regulations or restrict taking of fish or wildlife under them.

The state of Alaska regulates general hunting and trapping of wildlife, including on national wildlife refuges.

“Whenever possible, we prefer to defer to the state of Alaska on regulation of general hunting and trapping of wildlife on national wildlife refuges unless by doing so we are out of compliance with federal law and policy,” Ashe continued. “This regulation ensures we comply with our mandates and obligations.”

The rule will help facilitate the ability of the Service to maintain sustainable populations of bears, wolves and coyotes throughout national wildlife refuges across Alaska and will ensure a consistent and transparent approach to management of predators.

The regulations were published as a proposed rule and open for a 90-day public comment period between January 8, 2016, and April 7, 2016. The rule was modified in response to written public comments and testimony provided at public hearings. A table showing the changes that were made between the proposed and final rule and the Service’s responses to all substantive comments can be found in the final rule.

The new regulations will become effective 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.

Additional information, including a copy of the final rule can be found at: https://www.fws.gov/alaska/nwr/ak_nwr_pr.htm.

For more information about national wildlife refuges in Alaska, please visit http://www.fws.gov/alaska/nwr/nwr.htm.

Picking The Perfect Hunting Partner

Hunting planning 1

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

BY PAUL D. ATKINS 

Note: This is a two-part series on what makes a great hunting partner or partners and the choices you make when it comes to putting together an adventure to remember or in some cases forget. The experiences we share with others and even more so the memories we create, whether it’s in a camp or a blind or maybe even a boat, help shape our perception of what a great time in the outdoors should be.

As I quietly glassed from a small hill, I could tell what my hunting partner Garrett Ham was thinking. Moose hunting had been slow the last three days and my bowhunting friend was eager to fill at least one of his tags before heading home.

As usual I had a rifle with me just in case, and the two big caribou bulls bedded down 1,000 yards in front of us looked inviting. We knew without saying a word what the plan would be. The open tundra wouldn’t allow a bowshot, but the rifle would. If we crawled in as close as possible, he would take the first shot and then hand me the rifle as soon as the second bull stood. The long stalk began.

Hunting planning 2

FINDING THE RIGHT HUNTING partner isn’t something new. Guys and gals have been doing it for years, and when you do find one you usually want to try and keep them around as long as possible. Here in the Arctic I have had several over the years who have brought out all kinds of emotions in me. Some I hated to lose, while others I couldn’t get away from fast enough. So, I have created what I consider to be a checklist to see if you and your partner are compatible when it comes to getting along in the wilds of Alaska or anywhere else, for that matter.

PASSION OR OBSESSION (whichever the case may be)

First and foremost, you need to associate yourself with like-minded people. This will depend greatly on the task ahead and what you truly love to do. Whether it’s hunting hardcore for wild sheep or mountain goats or maybe chasing caribou for days, crossing miles and miles of tundra before taking a break, you will need somebody who cares enough to stay in shape and not bow out when things get really tough. Mountain hunters have to have rigor, and the want to succeed always outweighs the need to just be there. If you find one of these people, then you’ve found somebody special, especially if he or she wants to go along every year.

Hunrting planning 3

SHARING THE LOAD 

This comes in many forms and is probably one of the biggest when it comes to forming and ultimately ending a hunting partnership. Great hunting partners are just that, and it doesn’t always have to do with the hunting part. For the most part it begins long before the hunt begins.

The planning and preparation of any hunt is a joint effort with equal involvement by all parties. It’s where you decide to hunt, the logistics of how you’re going to get there and, the biggest factor of all, costs.

I’ve seen a lot of hunts go bad due to expenses and how they’re shared. But even worse, I’ve witnessed lifelong relationships ended due to who is paying for what. We’ve all heard these horror stories – how one hunter had to pay more than his share or in the end didn’t get his fair cut when it came to sharing the spoils.

Great hunting partners don’t do this. We are all in it together and each person in camp looks forward to the time spent together and doing their part for the enjoyment and contribution to make the hunt more successful for all.

garrettcaribou

CAMP ETIQUETTE

Speaking of camps, this part of the hunt may sound trivial but it isn’t – for me, it’s one of the biggest factors when it comes to choosing the right person to hunt with. Here in Alaska, most if not all hunting is done from a camp (though in best-case scenarios, maybe a lodge or cabin of some kind). It doesn’t matter whether you fly out and do a DIY camp, where you will be living on the tundra for seven days with nothing but a tent or two, or boat upriver to stay in a rundown shack buried in the spruce trees along the bank for the weekend, how you conduct yourself in camp will tell everyone there what kind of person you are.

I’ve always lived by the motto “take care of camp first.” Whether that is keeping gear organized, gathering wood at every chance or volunteering to do dishes or cook, they all are just as important to the hunt as the hunt itself. I’ve hunted with guys who absolutely love this part. Some never leave camp in order to make sure that all of us are taken care of and are happy. They resemble more of a guide than a fellow hunter and those folks make great hunting partners and ensure those camps are special. In the end, you will go the extra mile for them, even if they don’t want to go in search of caribou or moose.

On the other end of the scale, though, I’ve been in camp with those that won’t lift a finger except to grab the last piece of bacon, or worse, just sit around camp complaining about the weather or mosquitoes, constantly counting the days until they can get back to town. That’s the type that I don’t like to be around, and I would imagine most other hunters don’t either. As a rule of thumb, pick those who not only like to hunt, but enjoy camping just the same.

Caribou Paul

GEAR JUNKIES 

This type of hunting partner is special and it’s always good to have someone in camp who shares his or her passion when it comes to the latest and greatest. I’m not one of those but consider myself more of a “what has worked for me in the past will usually work this time” kind of guy. Don’t get me wrong: I have the best Cabela’s has to offer, but it’s usually an improvement on something that has already worked once or twice.

I guess I’m more of a system guy. When I first came to Alaska I was a novice – green in color – and had to have the best of everything, thinking it would make me a better hunter. It did, but over the years I’ve come to rely on the same products each year, filling my dry bag with virtually the same gear before any hunt. Still, if you have a hunting partner who has brought something along to test out, it can be pure joy, plus you usually learn a lot too!

MR. PHOTOGENIC

Photos are an important part of any hunt. I know they are to me and not just because I’m a writer. Being able to recapture the day or days in the field are big parts of any adventure. The idea of looking at a photo and remembering a particular camp or sight that many will never see is truly special to most of us.

Since memories are all we have in the end anyway, for a lot of hunters this is a big part of why they do what they do. Finding a like-minded hunting partner who likes to take pictures, or in some cases film, is a blessing in disguise. I’ve been very fortunate to have great hunting partners who like to shoot video or take pictures at every given moment. My good friend Lew Pagel is a prime example of this, and so is another close friend, Scott Haugen. These two are exceptional when it comes to capturing the moment – usually when you least expect it. It goes back to everything I’ve mentioned above. Great hunting partners make great hunting adventures. Some of the moments we’ve captured will forever be etched in my mind due to their ongoing passion and obsession.

Hunting planning 5

PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE

We all have friends who have the next great hunt or fishing adventure in mind. They come to you and ask, “What do you think?” It’s ongoing and usually happens as soon as the season is done; it’s always planning, always thinking about what we can do next. How much fun can we have next year? These are the kind of hunting partners I want to be around.

I’m really looking forward to the future and what next few years bring for Eli, my 13 year-old son, and I. Our adventures in Alaska are going to be grand and hopefully I can help him capture some of that same passion and what it takes to be great hunting partner. Hopefully he will share many camps with people who share in the adventure long after I’m gone.

GARRETT AND I CRAWLED through the willow and alder toward the bedded caribou bulls. We’ve been friends for a long time and I thought about all of our adventures togther – Africa for plains game, Arizona for elk and lion, the Alaskan Arctic for moose and caribou. All were special hunts and in all those years we never crossed each other or disagreed on anything. Most times we went home successful, signs of a true hunting relationship and true friends bonding.

As we approached the caribou and we were in range, I handed him the rifle without saying a word. Within seconds both bulls were on the ground and we were happy, to say the least. It wasn’t until we got to them that the true essence of our friendship was tested. A 67-inch bull moose – unbeknownst to us – was standing 100 yards away. Although we both had tags, I handed Garrett the rifle.

Next month, join me for Part II of this series, where I will describe what it takes to create and plan a hunt of a lifetime in the great Alaskan outdoors. 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 to the Alaska Sporting Journal.

Summer Salmon Slammin’ In Alaska

Thanks to Buzz Ramsey of Yakima Bait for submitting these great shots via guide Mike Kelly (360-269-7628.)

 

Zack Yebury with his first king salmon his dad Bob is holding. The Yebury's are from Tacoma Wash. The Hawg Nose FlatFish is what's working and limiting my boat every day.

Zack Yebury with his first king salmon his dad Bob is holding. The Yebury’s are from Tacoma Wash. The Hawg Nose FlatFish is what’s working and limiting my boat every day.

Tim Wilkins of Spanaway Washington with a chinook  he took from the Kenai River.  Jeff was back-trolling a silver and blue colored Hawg Nose FlatFish when the Chinook grabbed it and ran.

Tim Wilkins of Spanaway Washington with a chinook
he took from the Kenai River. Jeff was back-trolling a silver and blue colored Hawg Nose FlatFish when the Chinook grabbed it and ran.

Jeff Woolf of Portland, Ore. with a Chinook he took from the Kenai River. Jeff was using a silver and blue colored Hawg Nose FlatFish when the Chinook hit.

Jeff Woolf of Portland, Ore. with a Chinook he took from the Kenai River. Jeff was using a silver and blue colored Hawg Nose FlatFish when the Chinook hit.

 

Don Calkins of Anchorage, Alaska holding a chinook he caught while  back trolling a Hawg Nose FlatFish in the Kenai River.

Don Calkins of Anchorage, Alaska holding a chinook he caught while
back trolling a Hawg Nose FlatFish in the Kenai River.

“Larry from New York” holding a Kenai River  chinook he caught while back trolling a Hawg Nose FlatFish.

“Larry from New York” holding a Kenai River
chinook he caught while back trolling a Hawg Nose FlatFish.

 

 Dwight DeForest of Tacoma Wash. holding a Chinook he caught while back trolling a Hawg Nose FlatFish in the double trouble finish.

Dwight DeForest of Tacoma Wash. holding a Chinook he caught while back trolling a Hawg Nose FlatFish in the double trouble finish.

 

 

 

the Russian House Of Fish

Russian River 2

 

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

BY DENNIS MUSGRAVES

 As I slid into my waders and strapped on a pair of studded boots, the nearly vacant campground parking lot was a good indicator that we would find few fellow anglers riverside.

My friends and I have had banner days at the location we were preparing to fish, and this day looked as if we might have most of the water all to ourselves. Anxious at the prospect, we quickly assembled fly rods, shouldered daypacks and began our hike.

After a short jaunt from the parking area, my angling cohorts Chris Cox and Paul Ferreira and I descended a steep stairway switchback to the river’s edge, standing briefly to survey the rushing water.

It was obvious fish were present. More than three dozen fire engine-red salmon were finning just under the surface, holding at midriver. The once-silver-sided sockeye were in full spawning regalia and stacked like bricks. However, they were not exactly what we were looking for.

Our interest was focused on the subtle motion of a dorsal fin or tail sweep by a hungry trout or Dolly Varden utilizing cover and concealment of the riverbed, while hovering close behind the colorful sockeye and waiting to pounce on wayward salmon eggs in the current.

I was peering through my polarized lenses and not seeing any movement, so I asked, “You guys see anything besides those
fire trucks?”

“No, but they’re there,” Chris replied with confidence.

Actually, seeing a trout is not required to catch one, though it does lend a degree of confidence. The correct placement of a cast and drift of an offering is more important than actually seeing a fish. After all, it’s pretty much a dead giveaway where the locals hang out: the trout lay right behind the ripe salmon, taking advantage of any stray eggs.

The three of us entered the hip-deep water in stages, leaving plenty of room between each other to work particular sections of water with our fly rods without crossing over each other. Chris went in first, then Paul and finally me. Not unexpectedly, the action began immediately with my first drift behind the salmon. And it did not take much work before all of our fly rods began bending over almost simultaneously.

Yelling out “Fish on!” to let my friends know I’d hooked up with a leaping rainbow trout was rather pointless – the high-flying fish was evidence enough. Nonetheless, each of us echoed the same words in verbal confirmation that our fishing adventure had begun.

Russian River 1 Russian River 3

 

 

ALONG WITH THE GLORIOUS salmon fishing Alaska provides every summer, I often take advantage of casting a line for resident trout species. Rainbow trout and Dolly Varden are abundant  and can be found in nearly every flowing waterway where salmon are present. Although there are many streams and creeks to choose from in the Southcentral region of the state, the Sterling Highway just past Cooper Landing leads to one of my favorite places to go fishing for trout. The Russian River has great access, provides a scenic setting and is normally full of active fish.

The stream is most notable for its iconic red salmon fishery; the clear-flowing water annually attracts thousands of anglers eager to harvest sockeye. A smaller run of silvers also makes a return to the river following the reds. Trout seem to garner second-class rating from most visitors when compared to salmon, but I suggest you not overlook the opportunity.

The Russian’s usual moderate flow rate and narrowness make it a great river for wading anglers, even for the novice fisherman. The water twists through a thickly forested landscape of spruce trees, cascading over a bed of rocky boulders for about 13 miles. The rippled shallows, deep pockets and undercut banks provide ideal conditions for resident fish to thrive.

You can be successful catching trout from the beginning of spring and throughout the open-water period since the fish make the river a year-round home. Dry fly and nymphing is popular in the spring before the salmon arrive. Subsurface streamers, flesh patterns and imitation bead attractants become the choices of most seasoned anglers later in the season when salmon are present.

The presence of all the salmon (in various stages of decay or spawning) also make it prime time with regular bruin encounters. Bears are routinely present along the length of the Russian River and its confluence with the emerald Kenai River for good reason: They’re fishing also. Anxiety over bumping into a bear won’t stop us from our pursuit, but it certainly encourages us to stay alert in the wild.

Black and brown bears can appear docile, but they are unpredictable and very large wild creatures. Keeping your distance and making noise is prudent. We always do our best to give them plenty of room and the right of way, since neither my friends nor I ever want to become the next bear mauling headline in Alaska.

If you make a trip for trout just after the sockeye fishing closure, which we did for this particular outing, you will find that most fishermen have left in a mass exodus from the Russian River campground. It’s a perfect time to go, with big stretches of the river often unoccupied but plenty of willing trout waiting for your cast.

Russian River 5 Russian River 4 Russian River 7

I QUICKLY REELED THAT FIRST fish towards my open hand. As it lay in the cold water of the Russian, I took a moment to admire the pattern of small dark spots decorating its olive-green skin. The fish’s blushed-pink gill plate extended the length of its body in vibrant display, the unmistakable mark of a rainbow. I removed the hook from the corner of its mouth, opened my palm and the trout energetically swam back behind the suspended spawning salmon.

Paul and Chris managed to land and release their catches also. Paul’s fish was an equally dynamic rainbow like mine. Chris managed to tail a very respectable silver-sided, pink polka-dotted Dolly Varden, a 20-incher. Our trout trifecta was just the beginning of another memorable adventure, catching fish with friends and enjoying good times wading a classic trout fishery in Alaska.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Russian River 8

 

As I often tell others inquiring about rainbow trout and Dolly Varden fishing, traveling great lengths is not required in order to take in the fantastic freshwater fishery in Alaska. Self-guided outings can be had along the road system at plenty of locations, and are easy day trips.

Arguably, no better example can be found than that of the flowing waters of the Russian River. Catching a spirited rainbow trout or a colorful Dolly Varden should be part of any visiting or local angler’s agenda. The two species represent all that is beautiful and wild about the 49th state. ASJ

Editor’s note: For more on Dennis Musgraves’ adventures in the Last Frontier, check out alaskansalmonslayers.com

 

 

The Homestead Whisperer

Marty Raney holding a chainsaw withMatt Raney Misty Bilodeau near the Russell Family Homestead in Bedford, Pennsylvania.

Marty Raney holding a chainsaw withMatt Raney Misty Bilodeau near the Russell Family Homestead in Bedford, Pennsylvania.

The following report appears in the July issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:

BY CHRIS COCOLES

PHOTOS BY THE DISCOVERY CHANNEL

Marty Raney’s first view of Alaska was from high above the ground, and it almost felt like it was from the heavens.

In the 1970s, a then-teenaged Raney, who grew up exploring the Cascade Mountains just east of Seattle but longed for evenmore wide-open spaces, was flying to Ketchikan from the Emerald City and ran into a friend who worked for Alaska Airlines, Duane Tibbles.

“He told me, ‘Wait until we fly and I’ll have a surprise for you.’ I was just sitting there in the tarmac and, sure enough, he came back, pulled me away from my seat and let me ride in the cockpit of the 737,” Raney says. “To this day, I certainly have never forgotten his role in inspiring me to pursue the Alaskan lifestyle.”

Raney didn’t need to spy the terrain from the cockpit to know the Last Frontier would become his most hallowed ground. He conquered Alaska as mountain climber – he’s reached the summit of Denali multiple times and guides on North America’s tallest peak – logger, musician, survival specialist and homesteader.

The latter two traits have made Raney a somewhat reluctant TV personality after he was a regular contestant in the National Geographic Channel series Ultimate Survival Alaska. This summer, he and two of his four children put their off-the-grid skills to good use by helping struggling families on Discovery Channel’s rookie show, Homestead Rescue.

“Coming off 35 episodes (of Ultimate Survival Alaska), I watched and listened and learned, and now I’m at a point where I know what type of show I want to be involved in,” he says. “It was going to be real and if everyone wasn’t on board we would just stop dialogue right then.”

Raney, who turns 60 on July 28, appears to have gotten the series he signed up to star in. It’s real people facing real problems in really remote spots from Pennsylvania to Montana to, naturally, Alaska, where those who dream of tall mountains, pristine lakes and the wilderness – like Raney himself did – migrate.

Marty Raney sitting on top on the greenhouse build on a log at the Garcia Homestead in Fort Garland, Colorado.

Marty Raney sitting on top on the greenhouse build on a log at the Garcia Homestead in Fort Garland, Colorado.

Marty, Misty and Matt talking at the Deeters Homestead in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Marty, Misty and Matt talking at the Deeters Homestead in Fairbanks, Alaska.

 

MAKEOVER SHOWS ARE SOME of reality TV’s founding fathers as the genre evolved. Have a problem with your wardrobe closet? You can’t get your house decorated? Your dog growls at the neighbors? Never fear; the experts are here to solve your tales of woe.

“Discovery is calling me an expert, but I’m not an expert in anything and I told them that,” Raney says. “(But) if anybody is going to look me in the eye and call me out for being on this show, I want to know who it is. I’ve had to this day a hard life.”

Still, when Raney and his daughter Misty and son Matt agreed to makeover the homesteads of off-the-grid residents for the Discovery Channel project, the family patriarch was adamant there would be no forced drama, no showmanship and, most importantly, no scripted material.

Raney, who said he was presented with multiple show pitches and nearly agreed to a deal with the History Channel, praised Discovery and Homestead Rescue’s production company, Raw Productions and producers Sam Maynard and Mike Griffiths, for adhering to his wishes for a show without an agenda.

“They basically found real people who lived off-grid for a variety of reasons. There were no camouflage-wearing, gun-toting, government-hating doomsday types on this show,” Raney says. “I really have to tip my hat to Discovery for hitting the ball with the big end of the bat and finding real people for me to visit and help.”

In one episode the Raneys went to Montana’s Wolf Creek area to assist a couple with no water source, no livestock or garden and suspicions of a mountain lion lurking close to their dwelling (evidence of the cat walking on the roof was visible). Marty goes to work on finding water so the husband can stop making daily trips to and from town; Misty, an established farmer, helps develop a system for growing crops; Matt, whose expertise is hunting and tracking, becomes a sleuth to help detect the likely appearance of a mountain lion. It’s safe to say that with every homesteader who takes on the challenge of living far from civilization, predators pose one of the most concerning safety threats.

“There are definitely coyotes and fox, and definitely, which shocked me, an amazing amount of bird predators, and you can’t kill them because they’re all protected. They’re rampant,” Marty Raney says. “We looked up during filming on location in Pennsylvania, on camera, and I counted 20 vultures, hawks and bald eagles circling the homestead at one time. Crazy.”

Raney didn’t want to give too much away about what he, Misty and Matt encountered on their wilderness home improvement tour, but he couldn’t resist teasing one memorable moment.

“We drilled a well in Nevada and the drill owner told me, ‘Yeah, Marty, I’ll take your money. I’ll drill 500 feet and it’s going to be dry; 500 feet and dust is going to fly out of this hole,’” Raney says. “I told him to drill that hole anyway. And I’m going to tell you right now that the hole wasn’t dry. What happened was a miracle.”

Hyperoble? You don’t get that sense when chatting with Marty Raney. He’s convincing when he tells you that no, none of what you see with he, his kids and those they try and help is contrived once the cameras are rolling. Marty is the epitome of a no-nonsense Alaskan. Roll the camera and let’s see what happens is the mantra of his vision for Homestead Rescue.

In another moment at the 9,000-foot level in Colorado, a trail cam looking out for predators revealed something Raney says will “blow peoples’ minds.”

“They’re going to think it was scripted and hopefully they’ll know by then that we don’t script that stuff. You can’t get off-grid and leave civilization for the wilderness and be at the top of the food chain anymore,” he says. “You move into the predators’ neighborhood and are gonna have to deal with the problems because he’s not the best neighbor.”

Raney could relate from his early days in bear-infested Alaska.

Marty at the Deeters Homestead in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Marty at the Deeters Homestead in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Misty holding equipment at the Deeters Homestead in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Misty holding equipment at the Deeters Homestead in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Misty Bilodeau, Matt Raney and Marty Raney with the completed wood sculpture at the Russell Family Homestead in Bedford, Pennsylvania.

Misty Bilodeau, Matt Raney and Marty Raney with the completed wood sculpture at the Russell Family Homestead in Bedford, Pennsylvania.

NORTH BEND, WASH., HAS a TV claim to fame beyond native son Marty Raney’s ties to the Seattle suburb about 30 miles east of the Space Needle. Many of the filming locations for the 1990s cult hit Twin Peaks were shot in North Bend. The city is also known for the surrounding foothills of the Cascades as Interstate 90 begins its climb to Snoqualmie Pass.

Raney grew up “in the last house on Mount Si Road.” The nearest neighbor was about a mile away. He took advantage of the country framing his rural Washington home.

“I think when I was 12 or 13 I went up the Mount Si Road to Goldmeyer Hot Springs and basically hiked from there to Stevens Pass, 35 miles through the Cascades,” he says. “I lived at the base of Mount Teneriffe behind Mount Si. I’d climb that a lot and didn’t really know what I was doing. I didn’t really have any technical skills but definitely scrambled a lot through the Cascades. I just loved the outdoors. And obviously, I ratcheted that love for the outdoors and mountains to a place more wild and where the mountains were bigger, and that was Alaska.”

By the time he was 16 in the early 1970s he was ready to quit school, which eventually led him north. Raney’s welcome-to-Alaska moment came as a logger on Prince of Wales Island, where his home was a floating logging camp.

“I was on the tail end of a romantic, beautiful but hard lifestyle of logging. Those trees were so big they would cut them down to about 40 feet long, tie them together and have a massive float that you could put anything on. You could build a skyscraper on them,” Raney says. “So they built houses and fourplexes and they dragged trailers onto them. And they would just tow these rafts – floating camps, if you will – from bay to bay.”

After he married his girlfriend, Mollee Roestel, they longed to get further away from civilization and built a home near the shores of Chilkoot Lake, 30 miles north of the city of Haines. Nearby streams teemed with spawning salmon, providing the couple with a convenient food source. But where there’s a salmon run there are also hungry bears seeking fresh fish.

“It was crazy,” Raney says of the bruins that shared the land and competed for the watershed’s coho.

Raney finds the irony now that his life experiences make him an off-the-grid guru. In reality, in his younger days Raney struggled to keep Mollee and their newborn oldest daughter, Melanee, fed. And there were other challenges: Mollee went into labor on the homestead, and when complications arose, Melanee was delivered after an emergency plane ride to Whitehorse, Canada, in the Yukon Territory.

“Even though my Haines homesteading days were long ago, I was taken back there constantly when I saw how hard it is just to get water,” Raney says of filming Homestead Rescue. “When I saw there’s no refrigeration and there’s no power, I realize how hard my life was.”

“And at times we were hardscrabble. I’d come home after a hard day of logging skinny and hungry. I would fish for salmon just on the edge of Chilkoot Lake. And hopefully I’d catch something for food for my wife and me. So I could relate to a hard life; trust me.”

But that’s exactly what makes this family what it is. The four kids, Melanee, Miles, Misty and Matt, are chips off the old block (see sidebar). When Marty was traversing the Cascades as a young boy looking for more, he found it on the floating logging camps or dodging the brown bears while subsistence fishing and hunting in around Chilkoot. And he’s never regretted the choices he’s made to live off the land.

“I don’t know if I’m special in any way, but I certainly like adventure and I live in Alaska, where adventure abounds and it calls. So it seems incessant – sometimes loud and sometimes quiet – but certainly a ubiquitous call from the wilderness to explore – to climb that mountain and ask, ‘What’s on the other side of that ridge?’” Raney says.

“Just in the subsistence lifestyle in Alaska, you’re going to have an adventure. You can’t dipnet the Copper River without an adventure; you can’t moose hunt without an adventure. And for much of the subsistence lifestyle – I don’t know the percentage and it’s probably more than I want to admit – that it isn’t so much about the fish or the meat, but it’s about the experience and the unknown and unpredictability of each and every moment.”

One of the themes that will resonate for viewers of Homestead Rescue is this: If you aspire to abandon city life to live like our forefathers, be prepared for some of the most difficult times of your life or risk the consequences.

“I think every family didn’t realize how hard it was going to be – the lack of electricity, the lack of water, the lack of modern conveniences, and the problems you were going to have from rattlesnakes to bears – because now you have moved to the country,” Raney says. “But what I think was something that I never predicted was that I would be emotionally impacted by these peoples’ reasons for being off the grid.”

Don’t let the cowboy hat, the stern grimace and the walrus-style mustache fool you. If Raney’s appearance screams gruff and tough, he’s anything but.

“I cried like a baby on this show because I got emotionally involved with (the homesteader’s) stories. I became empathetic with their struggles,” he says. “I don’t think any of these homesteaders went out there totally prepared, and certainly unforeseen circumstances happened, sometimes daily, that compounded the challenges of making such a life-changing move to the country.”

The Raney family arrival at the Zabecs Homestead in Kinsale, Virginia.

The Raney family arrival at the Zabecs Homestead in Kinsale, Virginia.

RANEY FIRST CLIMBED DENALI, all 20,308 feet worth of North America’s highest point, in 1986. Every member of his family has also reached the top. He’s hit the summit in all its glory in his 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. “And I’ll climb it in my 60s,” he predicts.

These days, when he finishes the journey up “the high one,” Raney will sometimes break out his guitar – he strums one that’s shaped like an Alaska state map – and play one of the tunes he’s written. (He released an iTunes album,
If That Bus Could Talk, with Raney recreating the iconic photo of Into The Wild subject Christopher McCandless.)

The trek up what was formerly known officially as Mount McKinley is now a routine part of this Alaskan’s journey from a restless youth seeking an escape hatch from civilization to a go-to source for how to survive and thrive in the desolate backcountry. But ask him about his first successful ascent at Denali in 1986 and Raney’s emotions get him again.

“As I approached that last 20 feet to the top of Denali, I was crying and the tears were freezing …” Raney recalls, his voice trailing off before pausing to collect himself. “The tears were freezing in my face. And when I got to the top I remember being ever aware that I was standing on the top of the continent and that there was no place higher than this point. And I had never felt so small and insignificant in my life.”

“It wasn’t about jumping up and down or taking the photos or stabbing the flag (in the ground). I never felt so insignificant looking at 360 degrees of foreboding, wild, jagged ridges and glaciers. It was the most scary terrain as far as the eye can see in any direction.”

It was a view not unlike the one he had from the cockpit of that 737 years before, the world he longed for in front of him – the best view in the world.  ASJ

Editor’s note: For more on Marty Raney, check out his website at martyraney.com. New episodes of Homestead Rescue can be seen on Fridays on the Discovery Channel. Like the show at facebook.com/HomesteadRescue.

THE WILDERNESS FAMILY 

Marty Raney’s kids are just like him in that they are constantly seeking something to push them.

“It’s just been recently that National Geographic and others have found out about us and want to sing our praises and make money off us. But I’ve never answered a casting call,” Raney says. “National Geographic knocked on my door. I don’t watch TV. (But) I think about the fact that I probably take for granted what people like about our family.”

Marty’s and wife Mollee’s oldest daughter, Melanee, owns and operates an Alaskan whitewater rafting guide service, Chugach Adventures (alaskanrafting.com). Mindy and the family’s youngest, Matt Raney, who appear with their dad on Homestead Rescue, are accomplished in the outdoors. And then there’s their brother Miles, who might be this adrenaline-seeking clan’s biggest badass.

The bio on martyraney.com states that Miles “may be the most traveled human being in the world.”

Marty Raney admits that is “a boisterous, bombastic and arrogant statement, perhaps. But what I really mean is that it’s inarguable. Some of the trips he’s done he should have been killed on.”

Miles’ passion is mountain biking solo across entire nations – and a few years back he took perhaps his most daunting trip on two wheels. Miles biked from Madrid, Spain, eventually crossing between the European and African continents into Morocco and continuing all the way down to the west coast of Africa before ending his journey in Cape Town, South Africa.

The most dangerous part of the ride was through the nation of Côte d’Ivoire, or Ivory Coast.

“You tell me right now: Can someone bike from Madrid to Morocco, and Morocco down through Ivory Coast to Cape Town and survive, alone? (Ivory Coast) is teeming with
al-Qaida and tribal factions of people who hate Americans.”

“There was a dark cloud over my presence when my son biked Africa; it was 25,000 kilometers (about 15,500 miles). There were weeks at a time where we never heard from him. And I constantly watched the news wherever he was and I wouldn’t have been surprised had we never heard from him again. I was almost preparing for myself for that.”

But Miles made it back after 10 months in Africa, and he’s biked throughout China, Australia and New Zealand, among other places. Melanee, Misty and Matt have also pushed the limit at various levels throughout their lives. But considering how often their dad has climbed Denali, which per the National Park Service has officially claimed at least 120 deaths since 1932, the apples haven’t fallen far from the tree in this family, which is very tight-knit, Marty Raney says. And its zest for life made creating a series centered around three members a no-brainer to pursue.

“Discovery really liked that they came across an Alaskan family. You don’t have to climb Denali to be a real Alaskan – but you certainly have to love Alaska and have to live an Alaskan lifestyle,” Raney says. “Everyone gets along and I’ve never seen my kids fight. We’re just not that type of people and everyone’s pretty mellow and easy-going. But when it comes to adventure or a task, they’re incredibly intense.” CC

 

 

HER FIRST HUNT

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The following appears in the July issue of Alaska Sporting Journal

Editor’s note: Our correspondent Bjorn Dihle recently pitched a story to us, but in this case Dihle wasn’t going to pen it; his niece, 12-year-old Kiah Dihle, would be the author of this piece. “She’s a talented and thoughtful writer and her article about her dad teaching her to hunt will resonate strongly with your readers,” Bjorn wrote. We agreed with that sentiment, so enjoy Kiah’s point-of-view on her introduction to hunting with her family. 

BY KIAH DIHLE 

As a kid growing up in Alaska, I am fortunate enough to have a seemingly never-ending supply of wild game and salmon end up on my plate.

I’ve never really paid attention to the steaming venison roast or halibut casserole on the table. It’s not that I don’t like the taste of what Alaska has to offer; it’s just that I have always taken for granted the food that has been at every family dinner. It always seems to be there – never asking for anything in return – and so far, I have never given it anything.

I embarked on my first deer hunt at the age of 11 (I just recently turned 12). I found myself panting and wiping perspiration from my forehead as we trekked up one of the many mountains on Admiralty Island, near Juneau and well-known for its dense brown bear population. The funny thing is, our bear trouble that hunting season didn’t happen on the island that has so many of them; it happened on another island that is much less likely to have bruins.

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I WAS WITH MY dad and grandfather as we squatted on the rocky cliffs looking at the alpine below for deer. The prickly plants dug into my backside and my eyes were nearly closed, as we had been waiting there for several hours.

While my grandfather and dad looked and as the wind gently caressed my face, I dozed off for a short time. By the time my dad prodded me awake, I had 32 mosquito bites on one hand and multiple bites all over my face.

“Hey,” my dad whispered, nodding to a minuscule brown spot in the distance, “you see that buck over there?”

I squinted. “Yeah,” I mumbled groggily and stretched. I had a feeling that he would want me to go after it, so I stood up readily.

“Do you want to go get it?” he whispered excitedly.

I frowned at him, failing to see his enthusiasm at hiking a half-mile and attempting to make a nearly impossible shot at a deer half concealed by brush. But I shrugged anyway, and said, “Sure, let’s go!”

My dad and grandfather stared at me in disbelief. I felt a certain excitement about making an attempt to get the blacktail that made me forget the difficult climb down. I already had my pack on and was reaching for my gun, ready to go, when my grandfather said to my dad, “Luke, that looks to be a long shot and a steep climb. I think maybe you should do it before the buck runs away.”

I looked at him and was disappointed, but, after some thought, I agreed and watched my dad race across the ground, stopping behind trees every now and then. I memorized how he did it – the way he stayed low to the ground and concealed himself at every chance he got.

Soon I heard a shot and watched the buck tumble to the ground. My grandfather and I met my dad to gut the deer and put the meat in game bags. I was overwhelmed with emotions as I walked up to my dad, who was holding the deer by its antlers. The animal was indescribably beautiful; its brown coat shone in the sun, and its eyes, glazed over, still held intelligence that gave me yet another reason to respect this great beast and ask questions about it.

I wondered why someone would kill an animal as beautiful as this one. Was it because they wanted a trophy, something to show off to others? Or was it because they wished to have the experience or because they needed the food? I don’t know what I would have felt if I had shot that deer, but I think it would have bettered my understanding of each piece of meat I eat at dinner.

With every bite of any animal I have, I am taking a bit of that animal’s life. As I looked at the deer my dad held, I decided to fully appreciate every spoonful of deer stew I ate and every piece of grilled salmon on my fork.

My uncles still tease my dad about this hunt, saying that he pushed me out of the way to get the nice-sized buck, and although I laugh along with them, I have a feeling I would have never been able to make that shot.

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ABOUT A MONTH AFTERWARDS, my dad and I climbed through the woods of a mountain on Douglas Island, searching for another deer. We finished the hike through the treacherous, slippery vegetation and continued on to the alpine where the deer usually lay hidden.

We scoured the trees and rocks that dotted the side of the mountain, but with no luck. As we sat concealed by a blueberry bush to watch for deer and enjoy a Clif Bar, I lightly punched my dad’s shoulder and said, “Are you going to push me out of the way this time?” Unfortunately, we were not successful that day, and as we got situated for the night, I became determined to get a shot at a blacktail the next day.

As dull morning light seeped through our orange tent walls, my dad and I opened our eyes to an overcast sky and left camp to go hunt for half a day.

We came back empty-handed after I spooked a doe, and though disappointment snaked through the air, the excitement of the hunt remained. We began to pack our sleeping bags and mats in our backpacks. As we began to take down the tent, my dad reached down to one of the corners.

“Kiah,” he whispered.

His fingers ran along a 5-inch-long tear in the orange fabric. “Look at this.”

“How did that happen?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he replied. As we headed up to get our cooking gear, I stopped and bent down.

“Dad,” I whispered, confused, “what’s this?”

He came to my side to examine the object in my grime-covered hand. A lemon-lime sparkling water can sat staring back at us, drops of moisture running down its aluminum sides. Water leaked out of five punctured holes in the can: four at the top and one at the bottom.

I gave my dad a confused look, and he pointed to another object half covered in a chunk of dirt 5 feet away from where we stood. A nearly identical can sat lopsided in the same condition as the first. Truly puzzled, I packed the cans in my bag, and my dad and I continued down the mountain, every now and then whispering about the sparkling water cans and keeping an eye out for any movement that would indicate a deer.

We got back down the mountain and walked to the road. My dad went to get our truck while I waited quietly, enjoying the crisp fall air. When he returned, I got into the truck and unloaded my gear. Dad called my mom to tell her that we were back. Once he got off the phone, he smiled at me.

“Guess who those sparkling water cans were from?”
he asked.

I shrugged and laughed. “Did Mom know where they
came from?”

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 “Yes!” he replied. “Bjorn and Reid [my uncles] hiked up to our camp spot and left sparkling water cans for us to drink.”

“As they turned around after setting the cans by our tent, they saw a massive black bear across the tent from them. They said it was one of the biggest black bears they had ever seen. Reid said he debated shooting it because it didn’t act scared of them and he didn’t want us stumbling onto it, but in the end, they managed to push it off.”

“Wow,” I laughed. “That’s crazy! I guess the bear came back and tried to take our sparkling water cans. He must have been the one to rip our tent too!”

We drove home and I turned on the radio, switching it often. As X Ambassadors’ song “Renegades” played on our speakers, I thought about the question that I had asked my dad and uncles multiple times before I’d gone hunting: “What is it you love about hunting?”

What I really wanted to know is why they would take a two-week-long hunting trip in locations ranging from the bitter-cold Brooks Range to the incredibly wet mountains of Southeast Alaska.

They all replied somewhat differently, but they had a few things in common. All of them said, “I do it for the adventure.” They also agreed that they did it for their bellies.

I’m sure that is why many of you reading this article hunt: the peace and the solitude, the adrenaline and the pain, the gunshot and the animal; they’re all reasons that we go hunting.

So I encourage those reading these words who haven’t tried hunting to try it. Explore! Instead of coming home in your car listening to Justin Bieber and worrying about all of the problems going on in life, escape the chaos and get out into the wilderness.

I certainly haven’t done much hunting, but from the five experiences I have had, I can say that it will change your life for the better. ASJ