Alaska Dream Hunt
By Ian McMurchy
I just returned from a wonderful hunt in Alaska. I understand that Alaska might not be the first choice for a dream hunt for some readers. Matter of fact I hope to experience the Yukon and NWT before I hang-up my hunting boots. Right now Alaska’s my dream hunting location. I would like to share the realities of such a hunt.
So let’s say you have made up your mind to go on a BIG hunt and have the finances in place. First, a person has to get over a sort of bewilderment. A state of awe, anticipation and anxiety. The realization you are actually going on your dream hunt sets in slowly.
Alaskan dreams cost a lot of money. That is a lump you have to swallow. Ten thousand dollars used to cover the outfitter fees for a major species such as brown bear or sheep. Not any more. As a matter of fact moose have now joined the high-dollar species since good moose have become hard to find. Most Alaskan outfitters have websites that explain where they hunt, how they hunt and how much the pain will be. Physically and financially.
Once the outfitter gets your 50% deposit you are committed. A corner has been turned – your dream is closer to becoming reality. Then the contract arrives from the outfitter. Now you have tangible proof. You can hold the paper in your hand and it says your going - for real. You read and re-read the contract. Aside from the sticker-shock you start to accept that the hunt is going to happen. Dreams can become reality, simple as that.
Then you get serious and start to think about the basics – how do I get there, what gear do I need, what licenses and permits, how physically demanding will the hunt be, what kind of weather will we experience. Way back in the back of your mind you also think about how dangerous is this going to be. You have no control over the aircraft, boats, weather and most of all – bears.
Travel is the easiest, you simply rely on a travel agent who gets you there and back on the dates you specify. Gear is another story, unless this is not your first rodeo and you have already acquired the essentials. You start walking, lose some weight and get a check-up to make sure you will last long enough to do the hunt.
My latest hunt had some special considerations. First, we were going into an area that hadn’t been hunted for decades. Our hunt was the first commercial hunt – period. We would be hunting on a small lake near the Copper River delta. The crew was small, outfitter Wayne Woods and I and another hunter and guide. I did not know who the other hunter would be. Wayne mentioned he was a good fellow, somewhat older than myself.
Then tragedy. Three weeks before our hunt Wayne’s son was killed in Iraq. I know his family and cannot describe the concern and frustration I felt for them. The news put a damper on my enthusiasm but the days moved on and I had to get ready. My airline travel was arranged so all I had to do was prepare myself and assemble my gear. I would purchase the licenses in Cordova.
Strangely, gear was not an issue for this trip. This was my third Alaskan hunt in two and one half years so I know what works up there. I would rely on Filson and Cabela’s clothes and boots. Optics was from Nikon, their 8x42 binocs and a 2.5-10x50 Monarch Gold riflescope. I used Badger Ordnance rings so I knew the scope would not move. This trip I carried a new T/C Pro Hunter rifle in .416 Rigby. A similar combo, an Encore in the big Rigby loading had worked perfectly on brown bear. I was confident it would do the job on an Alaskan moose.
My ammo was also proven. I packed custom loads from Superior Ammo in Sturgis, SD. The 350 grain Swift A-Frame bullets shot into an inch and one quarter in the 28 inch barreled Pro Hunter. I was limited by weight this trip since the airlines dropped the allowable weight to fifty pounds per bag. Plus I understood we were supposed to keep our gear weight to 70 pounds for the flight in. tight.
Before I knew it I was on an Air Canada flight to Vancouver, then on to Anchorage. Connections went smoothly in Vancouver. The U.S. customs agent looked at my Form-6 firearms papers and wished me a great hunt. Five flying hours and I was in the airport in Anchorage about mid-day.
I had booked a hotel near the Anchorage airport. That evening I enjoyed a fine meal and spent some time re-organizing my gear and cameras. This trip I left my 35mm camera equipment behind. I was totally reliant on digitals so I recharged batteries and checked the cards for each camera. The next day about noon I returned to the airport and caught a commuter flight to Cordova.
Wayne Woods and guide Shawn Schock met me in the tiny waiting room at the Cordova terminal. As we gathered my gear I sensed that Wayne was still the consummate guide and outfitter despite the agony he was living. We loaded my gear into Wayne’s truck in the ever-present Alaskan rain. A person simply cannot have good enough raingear when you are on Alaska’s coastline. Wayne had motels rooms booked and after a hot meal we shut down early.
Cordova had not changed since my last visit. Commercial and sport salmon fishing dominates everyone’s lives during the spring and fall. Since we wore camo many folks asked what we were hunting. Everyone wished us good luck. There is no anti-hunting sentiment in Cordova.
The next day we picked up my licenses and went to the airport to pick up the second hunter. To everyone’s dismay he was not on the flight as expected. This happens in Alaska. Weather ruins the best-laid plans. That evening John showed up so our group was complete. The next morning we drove to a rifle range and checked our rifles, then loaded all the gear into Wayne’s big truck and headed to the airport.
In light rain we loaded a Cessna 206 and a DeHaviland Beaver with enough gear to settle the floats significantly. Flying with good bush pilots is always an experience. Flying with Terry Kennedy from Cordova Air Services is a special experience. He jokingly mentions that “After 25,000 hours of bush flying I darn near got this thing figured out…”. Terry is so good you relax and enjoy the scenery. You even ignore all the dark clouds, rain and snow-squalls as you progress through the mountains. He is the man and he will get you there safely.
When you get to camp the first hour is interesting. You are assigned a bunk and your gear is thrown into your “area”. Wayne’s cabin was newly built so there wasn’t any provision for hanging gear. We grabbed handfuls of four-inch nails and pounded them into the rafters for hanging all of our gear as we needed. Wayne and Shawn quickly got the stove and lights working and we got settled in. That evening we watched about a dozen brown bears catching salmon diagonally across the lake. Alaskan regulations state that you cannot hunt the same day you fly so we shut down early.
You quickly learn that your gear has to be organized or else. I hang my flashlight, binocs, laser, raingear, rifle, pants, shirt, hat and a few other essentials on designated nails. I always return the object to its individual nail so I know exactly where everything is at any time. Extra clothes stay in the duffle bag under your bunk.
As you settle into the hunting routine you sense your mind and body changing. No telephones. No T.V. No hassles whatsoever. The weather and each day’s hunting plan become paramount. You are breathing good air, eating great food, drinking water from a spring that needs no filtering. You are with great companions and the area is rich in wildlife. Life slows down hour to hour but days fly-by. Before you know it Terry returns and your gear is being packed into the bowels of a big red Beaver floatplane. In mere moments you are back in civilization. In another blink of the eye you are enjoying your first hot shower in several days. Then you sleep in a real bed and wake up thinking of the long trip home.
How do these hunts end? Very simply. Wayne and Shawn take you to the airport a couple of hours before your flight departs. They help carry your guncase and bags to the appropriate counter and they say their good-byes. You tell them not to hang-around and wave as the big truck leaves the parking lot. It’s still raining. But memories of your 60-inch moose and John’s brown bear kill will keep you occupied during the flights home.