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Denali Highway scorecard: Big berry crop, decent caribou hunting, rain

  • Author: John Schandelmeier
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published August 28, 2017

Berries should be plentiful along the Denali Highway this fall. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

MACLAREN RIVER — Rain. Denali Highway. Yes, it's fall. The leaves are turning. The cold rains of August are right on schedule. If there ever was a "normal" year, this is it. Spring did not come early. The waterfowl nested in June, as has been their habit.

Every August for the past 40-odd years, I have wondered if the young would be able to fly by the Sept. 1 opening day. The young ptarmigan of the season are just now large enough to justify a shotgun shell. The blueberries are beginning to get loose on the plant.

Visitors who come to the Denali Highway to pick berries will be pleased with the 2017 crop. Blueberries are big and plentiful. The north sides of the hills are almost as good as the south slopes. There has been a light frost in some areas, but not enough to soften the berries. One can still use a picker. Tangle Lakes, the Maclaren and the slopes that parallel the Susitna are all excellent.

Caribou hunting has also been better than one might expect, given the number of hunters. The caribou are scattered from one end of the Denali to the other. Most groups are fewer than a half-dozen animals, thus not so spooky as a huge herd. There are fair numbers of decent bulls. In spite of the hunting pressure, many animals are visible from the roadway.

Ptarmigan hunters have had excellent success too. Opening-day hunters found the babies still peeping, but the young are now ready to eat.  Ducks may be a bit of a challenge this season, although there are lakes with good numbers of birds. The upper Tangle Lakes system seems to be fine — although 50-Mile Lake is light, as are of the lakes on the Maclaren. Monahan Flats (along the Upper Susitna) also had a poor hatch this season. Young trumpeter swans haven't feathered out yet. An early freeze-up will be a major issue for that species given that the trumpeters also had a subpar hatch.

"Poor" will also define the moose hunting on the Denali Highway this season.  The Alaska Board of Game, in its infinite wisdom, has upheld and expanded the community hunt. Some 85 groups ("communities") are eligible for this "any bull" hunt that starts early this season. Each community is composed of at least 25 people.

There are limits as to how many moose can come out of various locations. However, it seems that an extra 2,500 or so hunters in the woods, most of them from cities, will wreak havoc on the moose population. The three-tier season the state and federal government have in place has, in many cases, wiped out the animals that were easy to access.

Hunters from urban areas usually have better equipment than their village counterparts, thus have a leg up on the locals. Regular-season hunters will find the Swede Lake area, Tangle Lakes and Maclaren tough places to find moose. Trails on the west end of the Denali Highway have been hunted hard too.  Folks who have the means to get far off-road and the time to stay may at least get a look at a bull moose.

Expect Labor Day traffic to be horrendous. Those Tier I caribou hunters all are required to use Unit 13 as their moose-hunting grounds (questionable wisdom from the Board of Game). Since that regulation was installed, one must look both ways before trying to cross the Denali Highway during the first few days of September.

Yes, the Denali will be crowded in early September. Moose will be hard to find. Walking will be required to find a duck. One will need raingear to beat the brush for ptarmigan.

However, the blueberries are fantastic. The bugs have mostly drowned or frozen. The mountains are still here.  There is new snow on the peaks.

No doubt, the end of summer is an attractive season.  I hear complaints about the coming of winter and its snow, ice and cold. But most of the folks who gripe are still here — and would have it no other way.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson.  He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.

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