The hunting seasons began in the Interior a little more than a week ago, and many factors are in play to make this year's hunt more interesting than normal.
If you're planning on Unit 13, for instance, it may take two or three days at home to figure out what you can target and where to go. The exceptionally hot summer and head-scratching regulations will make this fall one for the storybooks.
Why, I remember back in '71... Well, this year is going to be similar. If you're a ptarmigan hunter, you are in luck. The survival rate of ptarmigan chicks is incredible because of the hot, dry weather. Every family group has six or eight babies running behind them. And yes, that is the bad news. It was such a late spring that the young can barely fly. Shoot one and all you get are a few wing feathers. My opinion is that it will be September before they can be utilized.
Ducks look real good too. My wife and I recently counted seven groups of young on a small lake. There were more than 40 ducklings, pintails and widgeon. They will be flying by opening day, and the Denali is one of the better duck locales in the Interior.
There also seem to be more mallards than usual. Many winter along the Tangle Lakes drainage and these hardy ducks got an earlier start nesting. Some of the broods are already in the air.
Caribou are the prime target for most who come to Unit 13. The news for the caribou hunter is not so good. There are Tier I hunters, drawing permit hunters, community permit hunters and federal subsistence hunters. More than 10,000 permit hunters will be in the field.
The late spring was extremely tough on caribou, which get set in their ways and have trouble adapting to quickly changing conditions. Deep snow along the migration route to their calving grounds wreaked havoc and caused the Alaska Department of Fish & Game to implement some changes in bag limits and seasons. Hot, dry weather have kept them very high and not as accessible as they have been the past few seasons. The bull-only regulation for Tier I and drawing hunters will make things a little tougher yet.
A few caribou are being taken along the Denali, but it's a here-and-there thing, with no hot spots. Hunters walking in on the north side of the road will do OK if they don't mind a hike. Bring your pack-frame.
There have been scads of big RVs with ATVs behind, and I was chuckling at these being "subsistence" hunters. I thought about it and realized the vast majority of these folks are older guys who have been hunting the Denali since they had an old beat-up Ford and blue tarp. They paid their dues years ago and kudos to the ones who are still at it. I see some of them bringing more generations of hunters along with them. These kids are our future outdoorsmen and women.
My wife and I took our daughter on her first caribou hunt. She is not yet 5 and while she has seen the beginnings and endings of trips, this was her first as an active participant. We were fortunate to take a nice bull pretty quickly. She was enthused and wanted to help carry part of it out of the woods. I was gratified to see she was sad and excited at the same time: "But it will feed us, Dad, won't it?"
Moose are the animal most of us depend on for food. I believe they will be tougher this year, at least along the Denali Highway. The feed is excellent and even though there has been little rain, the water table is very high from the heavy snows of last winter.
However, late spring and heavy snow once again combined to change the habits of these animals. Hunters who have habitually worked the highway will not find as many moose in familiar areas. Cows had their calves at lower elevations and many of the bulls stayed with them.
Regulars may find that community-permit moose hunters have come before them along the road systems. The monster that the Board of Game created with this program ended up issuing a ton of permits that allow early hunting and less restrictive regulations.
Regulations and weather may make this fall one to remember, but the fireweed has bloomed to the top and the cranberries are red. The first frosts have come to Paxson Lake and the lead cows of the Nelchina caribou are tentatively setting foot to the lower swamps. Come and enjoy the fall. Good luck on your trip.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan and two-time Yukon Quest champion who lives near Paxson and commercial fishes in Bristol Bay.