January 05, 2018
The Land of the Midnight Sun offers some of the most dangerous, rigorous, inspiring, grueling, and rewarding hunting opportunities in America. Researching and making a good plan and adequately preparing your gear, your body, and your mind are critical to success and sometimes to survival. Here's where to begin.
Don't just plan to hunt near roads and hope you'll be successful. You'll struggle horribly. Flying into a remote area via bush or float plane is the best way to swing the odds in your favor. For best success, pick a reputable air service that specializes in taxiing hunters to good areas. You'll pay a premium for the years of research such pilots have dedicated to finding areas that consistently produce.
Alternately, research good game populations for whatever species you're dreaming of by calling state biologists, studying big-game records and so forth, then study terrain on Google Earth to pick a likely looking area near a lake. Call air taxi services in the region and book a floatplane flight into your spot. It's a bigger gamble, but less expensive.
Some hunters choose to be flown in and dropped on a river. They then raft their way out to a pickup point near civilization, pausing to hunt along the way. You'll save on round-trip flying fees, but you will need to pay extra to fly in packable rafts.
Logistics are always a challenge in Alaska. Fly to Anchorage or Fairbanks and rent a truck. Give yourself at least a couple of days between your planned extraction from the bush and your flight home in case you get weathered in and the pilot can't get to you.
If you are successful, pack your meat in insulated boxes and check it on as excess baggage on your flight home. Alternatively, leave it in a local cold-storage facility and schedule a refrigerated transport truck such as those run by Alaska Express Trucking through Canada and into the United States.
Or you can donate your meat to a local charity or an individual in Alaska. But moose and caribou are fantastic eating, and you're a ruddy fool if you don't go the extra mile to get your meat home.
Only the best-quality gear stands up to the difficult northern elements. Howling winds, eternal drizzling rain, bone-numbing cold, and mud all combine to destroy gear.
If you fly in via Super Cub (the best way to access really remote, unpressured areas), you'll be limited to 55 pounds of gear, not including your rifle. Assuming you're a chap of somewhere between 160 and 210 pounds, you can usually wear your binocular, ammo, hunting knife, camera, raingear, and waders if you need to in order to bring the weight of your pack down.
Pruning your gear (plus, all your food for a 10- to 12-day hunt) down to 55 pounds is incredibly challenging.
Your sleeping bag, paired with a top-shelf pad, is critical. Savvy Alaska hunters recommend a bag rated for zero-degree or lower temps even for late summer hunts, because the weather can turn nasty fast. I use Mountain Hardwear's Wraith, a superb down bag rated at minus 15, and have been grateful to have the warmth even while hunting moose in early September.
A premium tent that combines light weight with wind- and rain-defying design is vital. Choose a four-man tent for a two-person hunt, to provide room for gear and for drying out soggy clothing.
Boots are always a puzzle in Alaska. Some areas call for hip waders while other areas demand durable leather hunting boots. Alaska is never dry, and I tend to pick a boot that shrugs off swampy conditions even when hunting leather-boot country. Good options are Muck rubber boots or top-quality duck boots of the type made legendary by L.L. Bean. Neither offers much ankle support, but they're quiet for stalking and keep your feet dry.
In most of Alaska's units, meat must be left on the bone while packing out. Only a few pack types are capable of hauling 140-pound moose hindquarters whole. It's impossible to beat the Frontier Gear of Alaska Freighter pack frame sold by Barney's Sports Chalet, but the KUIU Icon Pro series comes close.
For safety and security, take a modern emergency communication device. A satellite phone works, but can be pricey. Instead, try Garmin's inReach units which have an SOS button that sends your coordinates to emergency rescue and dispatches the cavalry, and it offers capable GPS features and weather forecasts. Best of all is the satellite texting feature, which enables hunters to communicate with loved ones and bush pilots.
Clothing should be of premium quality. Makers such as KUIU, Sitka, and Browning offer superb options. Go with merino wool base layers as they keep you warm or cool depending on temperature and don't hold odor — a feature you need after 10 days in the backcountry. Be sure your raingear is fishing-boat waterproof. "Water resistant" doesn't cut it.
Choosing an appropriate rifle is both fun and challenging. Accuracy is important, as is reliability, and you'll want it to be corrosion resistant. Pick a Winchester Model 70 or similar action of controlled-feed design, in stainless steel, preferably finished in Cerakote or a similar super-finish that shrugs off rust. Go with a premium composite stock. Wood stocks warp in eternal moisture, and plastic, injection-molded stocks become brittle in extreme cold.
For game up to and including caribou, any good deer cartridge will serve. However, moose are a different story. They have slow nervous systems and a tremendous capacity to soak up bullets. A mature bull weighs double that of a big bull elk, putting the term "adequate cartridge" in a new light. You need 30 to 50 inches of penetration from your cartridge.
Personally, I believe most 7mm cartridges are the minimum for moose. Medium-bore .30s are adequate, and the magnum .30s quite good. Bigger is even better. There's a good reason the .338 Win. Mag. is so incredibly popular in Alaska.
If you're hunting an area infested with brown or grizzly bears, it behooves you to carry something with authority. My favorite do-everything Alaskan gun is a Rifle's Inc. Winchester Model 70 chambered in .375 H&H.
As for an appropriate bullet, choose a controlled-expansion projectile in a heavy-for-caliber weight. Hornady's 300-grain DGX Bonded is good for close-and-personal work around big bears, and Hornady's 250-grain GMX is perfect for reaching out on caribou, wolves, and black bears.
Whittle your miscellaneous gear to a minimum and choose mountaineering quality to keep weight down. Tent, waterproof matches, paracord, backpacking stove and fuel, water purifier, knife sharpener, packable saw, solar charger, compass, batteries, camera, and so forth must all fit inside the few remaining pounds of leeway left after your other gear weighs in.
Whether traversing tundra — which is like a three-foot-deep, waterlogged, Swiss-cheese sponge — in pursuit of caribou, packing out moose quarters, or breaking down a giant bull knee-deep in an Arctic lake, your body will need to be in tip-top shape.
Plan on shedding a few pounds. Every pound you get rid of makes carrying a heavy pack a lot easier. Walk at least two miles a day for three months prior to your hunt to get your joints and sinews lubed up and working. Focus weight training on strengthening your core. Controlling a 140-pound pack on treacherous, soggy terrain calls for a strong trunk.