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Then and now: The wild Nelchina caribou hunt

  • Author: John Schandelmeier
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published August 14, 2017

A tent encampment is part of the scene on the Denali Highway during the 2017 caribou hunt. (John Schandelmeier)

The Denali Highway opened to public traffic in 1957. Since then, folks have flocked to the alpine terrain that characterizes the highway. People come to look at the mountains — Hayes, Hess, Deborah and countless other nameless peaks that rise dizzingly from the roadside.

Families come to pick the abundant blueberries that proliferate in the glacial moraine.

Mostly, though, hunters are here. They arrive with Nelchina caribou in mind.
My first trip to the Denali was a 1961 caribou hunt. A line of vehicles was parked along Maclaren Summit, waiting for a herd of caribou on the north side to cross. There were no Supercab pickups then. Four of us were stuffed in an old Chevy. I was just a kid, so I got to sit on the gear-shifter. I remember thinking, "There's no way a hundred caribou are going to try to break through this gauntlet."

However, in spite of the firing line of 50 rifles, the timeless urge to migrate motivated the nervous milling animals to charge for the highway. I did not even consider shooting. I sat by the wheel of the truck mortified, excited and wondering.

I understood the caribou; they had to cross. It was the hunters that baffled me.
Why did they want to hunt from the roadside in such a way? Now, from the perspective of more than 50 years, I have a better understanding of the hunters. They had to shoot. Their urge was also timeless. Since the Ahtna Native hunters of the distant past, the need to provide has driven us.

Not the wild west anymore

The Denali Highway is not the wild west it was 30 or 40 years ago. Hunters, for the most part, have become a bit more civilized, at least on the surface. They still come by the thousands to chase Nelchina caribou. Motorhomes, with ATVs attached, rule the Denali on opening day.

On Aug. 10, there was 135 camps between the Swede Lake turnout at Milepost 17 and the Maclaren Summit, some 20 miles down the road. Another 40 or 50 were parked in the Tangle Lakes campground.

Caribou hunters were everywhere. But because the herd was scattered this season, the Denali did not seem as crowded as it has been the past several seasons. The Swede trail had its usual contingent of 30 rigs, as did the Oscar Lake trail on the Maclaren Summit. But most encampments were smaller groups. Two or three vehicles crowded tiny turnouts. Usually, a tent or two sat beside the RV.
RV's and four-wheelers outnumbered tents three to one on opening day.

However, by Saturday night, the character of the hunt was already changing. Tents and walking hunters began to dominate. Credit the caribou with that change.

Caribou are restless souls in constant motion. The need to move rules them. They feed on the move. They will run from a single fly. Caribou will travel 10 miles to lie on a snow patch on a hot day, then come back over those same miles and more to feed in the cool of evening. A buzzing ATV will set them off on a journey over the next set of hills.

Nelchina hunters learn quickly. Best as I could tell, foot hunters had a success ratio better than 50 percent — perhaps as much as four times better than those working the few, overcrowded motorized areas available. Tents are not going to replace campers, but there is certainly a good number of them set along the highway. The good news is that caribou are scattered the entire length of the Denali Highway, allowing those seeking their winter's meat some escape from overcrowding.

Walking hunters harvested this caribou, then packed it in from 5 miles off road.  (John Schandelmeier)

The hot weather of the Aug. 10 opener has given way to clouds and light rain. Hunters seem more relaxed. One couple I talked with were overjoyed with a nice bull they had taken five miles off the road. They were tired, but content and not at all put out by the long pack back to camp.

Hunt quality more important

The story this couple tells is typical of what many Nelchina caribou hunters say. The quality of the hunt has assumed more importance than the kill. This is good, an attitude that preserves the nature of the Denali. This weekend, I stopped behind a pickup parked in the middle of the highway. Both doors were open and a couple of guys with binoculars were watching a small group of caribou a mile out. It was a few moments before they realized that someone was behind them, and that they had the entire road blocked.

Where on a public road — except the Denali Highway — can that happen?
I saw hunters with rifles in one hand and a berry picker in the other several hundred yards from the roadside.

A tourist with a flat tire had a truckload of hunters helping him change it.
This is the Denali. There are almost unlimited caribou permits available, there are confusing regulations and there is overcrowding. But we are getting the best of hunters and seem to have escaped the worst.

Opening day crowds have mitigated. The Sunday crowd that will be here through early this week are beginning to roll in. Pick-ups and SUVs packed with gear, not ATVs, are a significant part of this morning's traffic.

Maybe there is hope for Alaskan hunters of the future. If so, credit the restless Nelchina caribou.

John Schandelmeier lives near Paxson and is an avid hunter and sled dog racer who has won the Yukon Quest. 

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