Hunting makes for busy Denali Highway

John Schandelmeier
BRADLY J. BONER / Daily News archive 2002

The first day of moose season makes the Denali Highway a hectic place. This year, thousands of state caribou permits, each carrying a rider that the holder of the permit can also only hunt moose in Game Management Unit 13, brought in legions new hunters. Motor homes trailing ATVs, pickups with canoes strapped on top, and cars overflowing with camping gear filled the normally quiet roadway.

One would suspect that daylight on Sept. 1 would have found the hills and trails crawling with moose and caribou hunters. Not so, although by eight or nine o'clock most were stirring and the smell of bacon had begun to waft from campsites.

The few lodges were filled with breakfast hunters, and many moose were being "taken" in conversation around the table. The hardcore may scoff, but really, this is what hunting today is about. It is more about "looking" and less about bagging meat. The moose may be up at 5 in the morning, but that's a little extreme for many hunters on their Labor Day vacations.

"Glassing" is much more pleasant after the first cup of coffee. Caribou tend to move in the afternoons and evenings, making them a more likely and agreeable objective.

Five thousand years ago, the Ahtna people were here. Families lived and traveled with the caribou, depending on them for sustenance. Moose were scarcer then; it was a big day when one was taken.

Yes, it's a stretch to compare the motor homes and campers of 2011 with the traveling Ahtna. The suburban dude with the shiny rifle and hot side-by-side is not one in spirit with the old people of the past. However, men still wait patiently on hilltops in hopes of game ,and success still involves the entire party.

I grew up in a hunting family. I was allowed to skip school to hunt; moose, caribou, ducks and grouse were all targets -- and food for the table. That attitude no longer prevails, and there are too few teenagers in our hunting population. However, from the perspective of years, living in one of Alaska's prime hunting spots, I'm seeing a change.

Hunting is once again becoming a family affair. How many people really need a moose or caribou to survive the winter? Certainly it helps with the grocery bill, but the real benefit of hunting comes from being outside, in touch with the natural world.

Wives and kids stay near camp, relaxing, picking berries, fishing and hiking while Dad goes out and gets the 4-wheeler muddy. The abundance of caribou near the highway system this season almost ensures that a permit holder, with a little time, will harvest an animal. A few moose are taken this way, too.

Unit 13 requires prospective hunters born after a certain date to take a hunter education class. This is a good idea for most folks today, and those who hunt the Denali see the benefits in the form of less trash in the ditches and fewer holes in the highway signs.

In the '60s most Alaska kids in the sixth grade could have taught Hunter's Ed. It's good to see the parents of today's hunting families out again with their kids, instilling values that will stay with them for a lifetime. We can only hope this leads to a wider attitude of respect for our animals and our lands.

John Schandelmeier of Paxson is a lifelong Alaskan and Bristol Bay commercial fisherman. A former champion of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, he has written on the outdoors for several newspapers and magazines.