Lessons from Alaska

Planning, executing, and returning with coolers of meat fills a primal need in me. Sorta like our ancestors going off to war in the spring to conquer new lands and treasure for the clan.  But in a light hearted sorta way.  Still, each time I head out to distant places with a weapon over my shoulder, I learn interesting things. Here are some interesting discoveries I’d like to share. 

1. I am impressed by the genuine warmness of the Alaskans. Locals on various hunting forums shared tips and hunt locations seemed honestly hopeful we had success.  In fact, I made a friend who called each night and gave me suggestions where and how to continue our adventure. If not for him, we wouldn’t have brought any fish or bear home. Thanks Art! I’ll get a blue quail hunt lined up for us. The rest of the union could learn from their friendliness.

2. Flying with guns to Alaska is a breeze. TSA rules for flying with them are found here. Airlines have their own rules as well, so always check whatever airline you are flying.  Alaska Air makes it simple.

3. Four kids, 5 guns, 6 carry-on bags, 6 checked bags, 5 backpacks, plus a food bag and toy bag pretty much fills an SUV. Tetras skills come in handy when packing and I recommend ponying up for the largest Suburban the rental company offers.

4. The TSA now uses a dog in addition to the normal screen.  Oliver and Finn walked sort of like models on a runway, side by side, between a couple rope dividers as the dog and his handler sternly watched.  As Finn passed, the lab perked up and happily trotted after my little man tail just a wagging.  This indicates they suspect the four year old as a terrorist.  Oliver too.  Finn had his favorite toy in hand, a fishing plug with the hooks removed.  This is what I think grabbed the dogs attention.  After a thorough pat down, bag search, and magic wand wave,  they determined Finn and Oliver were not, in fact, threats to Travel Security.  The delay forced Susan (who stayed behind) and the boys to run to make the plane. It was a close call. It looked like they would miss the flight. I texted Susan hoping to encourage/console her. “Just get on the next plane you can and we will wait in Anchorage for you.” Luckily, they made it aboard five minutes before takeoff.

Finn with his fishing/ bomb sniffing dog lure

5. We were wet and chilly each day afield. Rain, sweat and dew on the tall grass kept us damp, but our wool baselayers proved warm enough despite the sog. The Outdoor Research gaiters I bought were useless, my boots and socks soaked the whole time.

6. Some suggested base camping above tree line, and I agree that’s better than climbing up and down each day for serious hunters. But we aren’t serious hunters, only hunting every other day.

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7. Leather work gloves, the kind used to build barb wired fences, are required anywhere Devils Club is found. Packing a machete seemed dumb, but it made easy work of the devils club. Im glad we brought it. That said, a week later and we are still finding little “gifts” in our elbows and knees we brought back from the spiny plants.

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Oliver skirts the edge of a patch of Devil’s club.

 

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Truck is about 5 miles that way.

8. I don’t like slings on rifles when I have a pack on, so we brought along the Kifaru Gun Bearer system for carrying our guns. It worked great on the trail for hands free walking and quick removal for shooting. But it failed multiple times after our first jaunt off the trail and through the alders. The alders would rip it loose, and then afterwards the upper strap would simply come off our packs (Mystery Ranch Crew Cab and Eberlestock Main Frame). I’d recommend something more heavy duty to strap your gun in when going though the alder jungle. They resemble fig trees planted too close to each other. But alders and devils club are better than….

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9. Dead spruce. Blowdowns suck. Climbing over dead trees from knee to chest high really slowed us down and wore us out. But it is where animals go to escape us humans and I can see why. Here is Oliver climbing through the blowdowns to our bear:

Bear never hit the ground

9. Grizz Fear. It was real, but lessened the longer we were in Alaska . We were about 200 yards off the trail where we shot the black bear on the first day. The trail was little used, bordered by grass over your head, and had several places a  bear had bedded down. We walked through a “toilet” where a big bear enjoyed pooping on a regular basis. Mostly high bush cranberries by the look of it. We could only see about 50 yards in any direction where I quartered our black bear. Our main concern was a brown bear smelling the black bear as we cleaned it and coming to eat it and us.  This meant a rushed quartering job and heavy packs.  We overcame our grizz fear the more time we spent in the woods, and by the end of our vacation only had a healthy respect for the big old bruins.  

10. Like any hunting, the game is where you find it. We expected to get our bears way up high. Nope, all bears were seen between sea level and 1500 feet. Go figure.

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11. Be ready to shoot at all times. Just as we exited the first patch of alders on the first morning, our bear greeted us not 40 yards away woofing and bouncing on a fallen tree. I really wanted Oliver or Keegan to get the first bear, but Oliver was about 15 yards downhill picking his way through the alders. I motioned for Oliver to come shoot.  He couldn’t get to me in time.  The bear turned toward us and I shot. 

12. Bears look big. When I saw the bear, I thought it was at least as big as the last bear I shot.  Turns out it was just an average sized sow for the Kenai. Probably 150 pounds, but we were stoked to get one together.   About three hours later we were thankful it didn’t weigh 400 pounds.

13. Toting about 80 pounds of red meat on your back sure make pack mules sound enticing. The first 250 yards down hill were the worst. Maintaining balance under a heavy load was a new experience for me–the most I’ve rucked is about 60 pounds.  To get back to the trail, we had to scramble over deadfalls, tight rope walk a few down trees, and go back through the alder jungle bending over and high stepping through the thickets.  Oliver’s pack was about 50 pounds, and mine was probably in the 120 pound range.

We left the boned out rib cage, vertebrae, and the entrails. Everything else we brought out, including about 25 pounds of the purest white fat I’ve ever seen.  We didn’t waste anytime, due to the brown bears.  Oliver stood look out while I skinned and I expected any minute for an angry red eyed grizzley to barrell in upon us.  That’s why we decided to put some miles between us and the gut pile, rather than stick around deboning the meat.  This podcast is mostly to blame for our fears, but I highly recommend listening.

Contemplating heavy packs and salmon

The last mile was rough. By then, Oliver’s forgotten belt meant his pants kept dropping. My arms were numb. Somewhere in this last stretch I lost the .22 we carried. Either fell out, or I just forgot to grab at a rest stop.

14. So I sorta have a history of losing things while hunting.  Knives, truck keys, countless fishing rods and once a cooler full of ice cold drinks.  But now I know that you can at least check the trail head registry if you lose something out hiking.  While loading the suburban for the next hunt, I realized we’d lost the .22.  Minor meltdown ensued. Then I drove back to the trailhead. Saw a lone hiker we’d seen the day before coming out and asked if she’d found a rifle. No, but someone left a note at the register they found one. I found their names. The campground had a host, I went to her place but she wasnt home. Then I fed the hiker’s names into the google, found they were from Michigan, and had a business. Left messages on a variety of answering machines.  Finally they responded.  She told me they found it, but had given it to the park host. The park host told them if I didn’t come by that night, she’d give it to the Forest Service Officers in the morning. We drove over immediately, found her gone, and left a note with our name and number. The next day we got a call from Forest Service, and I eventually met up with them the next day. Whew. Thank goodness for good people.

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Keegan carrying the recovered .22

15.  I’m not at all convinced our efforts for brown bear defense were worth it where we hunted. I bought bear spray at Walmart in Anchorage and borrowed my brother in law’s pistol. From the outset, I felt it was much more likely the bear spray would hurt one of us long before I’d need to use it on a bear. Sure enough, on the third hunt I bent over and the bear spray discharged in the holster. The safety mechanism failed, and it didn’t ever allow me to return it to safety. Luckily, nobody was hit.

I bought a cheap holster for the borrowed pistol. After descending about 1000 feet down a mountain, I realized I’d lost the pistol.   The return up sucked, but I luckily it was east to find. Honestly, the areas by the salmon filled creeks where we most likely would have seen a grizz were so thick it felt pretty hopeless if a big brown bear wanted to get us. I guess I will bring a pistol next time, but with a higher quality holster.

Since you can’t fly with bear spray, I dont know if I will mess with it again. To be honest, I think if I turn the corner and mama bear and cubs are right there, I’m toast anyways.

Thick Grass during pack out
It wasn’t difficult to imagine bumping a mad Mama bear in this thick, high, grass. We talked loudly while en route.

16. Trekking poles gave us issues. Mostly because they were telescoping and were pulled apart by the alders who grabbed anything sticking out. We lost the bottom half of two.

17. Fish and Game over on Raspberry Street in Anchorage are good folks. I could tell they wanted us to be successful. The lake they suggested had an excellent dolly varden run which we enjoyed immensely. Everyone should make some time to stop by and see their headquarters. Full of information and happy to share.  

18. Microspikes helped a ton on the wet grass, but one of my boys kept stepping on himself and falling. Worth it in my opinion, that grass is slick. These aren’t quite full on ice crampons, but close.

19. Fishboxes are for sale everywhere and do fine with frozen bear meat, squirrel and salmon. Made it back to mid 90’s Austin frozen fine. One did get cracked though and leaked a little cherry lemonade on the baggage claim.

20. Couldn’t find a sealer on Saturday and the regulations said the bear hide and skull couldn’t be frozen when brought to be sealed. So that was stressful trying to time the thawing of the hide and skull to when we expected to return to Anchorage. Took it to Knight’s Taxidermy and they took care of sealing it for us.  They were really nice folks as well.

21. My wonderful wife Susan pretty much flipped out worrying about us during our hunt. Surprised me but I guess it shouldn’t have. The uniqueness of Alaska set her maternal instincts off. Alaska is different. Wild, dangerous, and seemingly untamed. We finally had a few “family hunts” on a really easy trail with all 6 of us. We had a couple bear encounters, and I believe those helped Susan relax.

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The first encounter was woman who came running off the trail, saying a grizz was coming, really panicked, and had wet herself. We were just unloading from the truck, so they got back in and I grabbed my rifle in case it was a black and had Oliver get ready. He saw the bear and reported it definitely a grizzley and we hopped in the suburban. 

The second was an encounter during our family hunt with a mama bear and cubs.  We bumped her and caught a glimpse as we parallelled them on the trail.

22. Fishing rules are fairly complicated, I’d suggest studying them before arriving. Trying to read a map on your phone going down the highway to see if treble hooks are legal is not the best way for sure.

 

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23. Wolves: we heard some, but didnt see them. About 200 yards off the trail in the middle of the day it sounded like some puppies were wrestling. I thought some hikers were coming with young dogs. Then there were strange noises with a moaning quality which eventually just turned into a classic howl. One of the highlights of my sporting life.

24. No freshwater salmon fishing around Seward allowed. We had to drive over to Soldotna to get to the legal silver salmon fishing. 

25. Excellent Dolly Varden fishing, though. Did really well. Vibrax spinners and spoons did most of the damage.

26. Knights Taxidermy was cool. 

 

27. The Seward area had a weird population of orange, black, white and grey rabbits running around everywhere. Invasive or snowshoe?

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28. Salmon have teeth! A net and billy club is highly recommended, as they even have teeth on their gills. My thumbs were sliced up from all the sharp mouths I lipped.

29. Check to make sure your hotel has a fish cleaning station.  Ours in Soldotna claimed they did, but in fact just had a single saw horse. That’s not a cleaning station, by any stretch.   I learned in a pinch you can fillet fish in a hotel bathtub. Food for thought.

30. There are more than high and lowbush blueberries to pick and munch. High bush cranberries, crowberries, and red elderberries are what we gathered.

31. Beach Combing is pretty different in Alaska.  

32. If you have a youngish fam, have the means to do so, this trip was an absolute blast. No, we didnt tag three bears or a wolf, but we caught silver salmon and dolly varden, shot squirrel, grouse and ptarmigan. Picked gallons of an assortment of berries, not just blueberries. The only thing different l would do is to add on a few more weeks!

 

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3 comments

  1. Glad you enjoyed. Folks often underestimate the dangers out there. Rarely are those dangers 4 legged though. Think your thumb is tough? Try that from May to Sept as a guide. LOL. I sleep with bag balm on my hands and in surgical gloves at night. Fish billy? Nah, there are so many rocks around… I’ve never used one up here. Net, yes.
    Treble hooks? Not needed IMHO. Use singles all the time. Trebles are just a PITA.
    Best silver salmon fly? Hook with black yarn. LOL. But I’m serious. My folks catch limits on eggs and I grab a fly rod with black yarn on a hook and typically can sight cast to 3 salmon to catch 3. I suck at fly fishing.
    Bears. Yeah they are around, I didn’t see you mention moose. I give much more attention to moose than bears. Wolves the same, just mostly bears or wolves ain’t gonna happen. Bear spray. Not for me. A gun. Always have one. Never discount the use of a gun. You might not stop the issue right away, but I”d much rather have the gun and take on the situation after I”ve been attacked if needed. And use a gun you can handle and fire accurately and repeatedly. 500 SW I’ve yet to see someone that can accurately shoot one.. does no good to miss 5 times but have had the baddest revolver on the block to the moose or bear.
    I’m sure glad I moved from TX to AK. TX is just miserable heat and humidity. You dont’ have so much heat at Matagorda, but the humidity… I tell my SIL its too hot to fish the coast there if I can’t wear waders and a hooded sweat shirt. Mostly I loved ducks on the coast.
    Jeff

    • Thanks Jeff. More good advice. We didn’t see any moose, but Ive read they can be bad news. Humidity is rough here, but we have a good breeze most of the time. Ducks here are pretty stellar.

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