Nelchina Caribou, Access and Opportunity
By: Michael Rogers
It is my favorite time of the year, everyone has one and mine is early August. For much of the Great Land, early August marks the start of hunting season and for hunters the excitement is like Christmas, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July rolled into one singular event. It also marks the start of some hard-core complaining. I’ve already read a few pieces, specifically regarding the crowds that flood the Denali to hunt the Nelchina caribou.
I get it, I really do. I’m a regular on the Denali and I hunt there every year for something on the order of 50 days or so every fall and many more over the course of the year. After a couple of weeks the crowds, the rude behavior and the endless parades of cars and trucks and ATVs pounding the precarious road and the trails into pulp gets darn old. I spend time in the area pretty much all year round and August and September see more use than the rest of the year combined and those people can bring problems. Everything from pooping in the bushes and leaving a mountain of toilet paper behind every roadside willow patch to outright poaching and unsportsmanlike behavior. I could join the complainers and talk about how much I hate everyone and their brother for invading my particular corner of Alaska. I could talk about poaching, ruined stalks and dimwits flock shooting caribou at 800 yards from the hood of a truck.
I could do that, but I won’t.
I’ll take a different tact. The Nelchina caribou hunt presents something unique. It’s a relatively accessible hunt with a high success rate and might just be the perfect “beginner Alaska hunt” out there. I try very hard to teach at least one newcomer to Alaska hunting every year and the area the Nelchina caribou herd inhabit is just more approachable than any other place I’ve been. The walking is pretty easy compared to bushwhacking through devil’s club down on the Kenai Peninsula and car camping along the road doesn’t carry the logistical challenges of a fly-in hunt to the remote Brooks Range or the southwest parts of the state. It is pretty easy for a relative newbie to drive out to the Denali, camp by the side of the road, see plenty of animals and stand a better than even shot at punching the tag. It’s practically a wildlife manager’s dream come true.
By all official accounts and my personal experience, the herd seems to be doing better than fine, maybe too good as far as numbers go. Last year we were encouraged to shoot cows to slow population growth. My first trip of August had me watching about a thousand head of caribou on a single mountaintop with plenty of yearlings and calves in the mix. It appears the herd is thriving despite the hunting pressure. People who go down there and report there aren’t many caribou simply aren’t looking in the right places. I’ve got to admit, my angst about the hunting pressure is more aesthetic than practical. So it’s likely this reason that I’ve decided to think differently about this Nelchina Caribou hunt, particularly after last year.
Last year I got to meet some pretty interesting folks, not the typical whack and stack crowd or the slob hunters that I could rail against for more pages than my publisher will print, but some pretty neat people with a unique perspective. The first was a young couple from Anchorage, twenty something hipsters if I had to come up with a label, that were camped beside me. I had carried in a caribou and had the quarters hung up in camp one evening and they came over for a visit. They were probably typical of the “locavore movement”, deeply concerned about where their food comes from and the environmental impact of industrial farming. After a fling with veganism, they decided hunting offered the most direct and responsible path to eating some meat. They borrowed a rifle from her Dad, took their hunting education courses, and showed up on the Denali.
They’d been at it for three days without success when they came over for a visit to ask my advice about how to get close enough to a caribou. I can only assume they saw the hanging quarters and decided I must know some information I could offer them. I gave them some pointers on field dressing and told them some detail about how caribou typically behave. I also pointed out a particular ridge top about a mile off the road and suggested they should sit up there in the morning and evening and wait for one to wander on by within rifle range since I’d watched a group cross that ridge every day for a week. They headed up there the next morning and were positively enthralled to be packing one back to camp by lunch.
I helped them with some finer points of meat care, had a celebratory moment with them by photographing them smiling with their meat proudly hung on a makeshift pole and helped them pack it inside the rocket box on the roof of their standard issue Prius for the trip home. Perhaps a bit more than a caribou died that day. I was no longer a camouflage-clad barbarian filling bloodthirsty tendencies and they were no longer want-to-be hipster yuppies, both of those stereotypes expired as quickly as the caribou they shot. They are nice folks and I’m hoping we run into each other again this fall for coffee and tenderloin over the fire.
I also met an elderly man and his young grandson on a hike back to my truck parked by the road. They were butchering a caribou and having a tough go of it so I lent a hand. He was partially disabled from rheumatoid arthritis and the two hundred yards he had walked in was probably the limit of his physical ability. He hadn’t hunted in twenty years when a “young” neighbor of 70 suggested he try this hunt out. They were able to ambush a caribou and between the two of them, find success. “Real Alaska Hunting” hadn’t been on his radar since his battered 1970s .300 Weatherby was new and he had some great stories from his time on Kodiak and in Nome from the 1950’s and 1960’s. While a lot of my friends sneer at the thought of a “ditch ‘bou”, this one was the absolute limit for this guy anymore. Give me a choice between hunting the side of the road and not hunting at all and I’ll take a “ditch ‘bou” every time.
I didn’t pry, but it was obvious from their conversation that the boy had some form of family issues and neither Mom or Dad was around much any more. I’ve got to admit, it was like a living play of Robert Ruark’s “The Old Man and the Boy” being acted out in my presence. There was a whole lot more going on here that just a caribou getting turned into food, it was a formative moment for them both. The boy felt older and the man felt younger and that was a first good thing for them both in a long time apparently. I’ve often felt that hunting and time outdoors was good for my soul, but I’ve rarely been able to witness or perhaps recognize it in another.
I walked away from our meeting more than a little melancholy that at some point my son will grow up and leave and my physical ability deteriorate to “ditch ‘bou” levels of effort. I can only hope when I reach octogenarian status I’ll have the ability to hobble the two hundred yards across the tundra, there will still be a Nelchina caribou herd crossing in the thousands, and I can still shoot my battered rifle straight enough to make it count.
I get the detractors to this hunt. It’s not the hunting that many think of when Alaska comes to mind. It’s certainly not the remote hunt filled with plentiful animals and no people. It’s not endless empty vistas and quiet that only true wilderness brings. It is certainly not the hunting of the old Alaska that many desire to go back to. The bad apples in the barrel can certainly stand out with the litter and the bad behavior and these days the state has more of them than it can stand. I can and certainly do get mad when I see people trashing the countryside and otherwise ruining a good time. Heck, while I’m able I just outwalk the gong show by going in a couple of miles or more. But I’ve also got to remember that despite the negative behavior along the road corridor, there are some people for whom this is the ideal hunt and as good as Alaska can get.
And for that, I’m grateful.