The first Tier I caribou hunt of the fall opened about a week ago along the Denali Highway and already it is over.
Last season, the Nelchina caribou herd was thousands of animals above what the Alaska Department of Fish & Game had determined optimum for their range. It encouraged hunters to shoot cows, handed out more than 10,000 permits and hoped it could bring down the herd size.
The Nelchina was in excess of 50,000 strong a year ago. The goal was to bring the population down to the 35,000 range, but the hunters couldn't do it entirely. The caribou were scattered during the early part of the season. The season reopened in October, but again the animals didn't cooperate. A large number moved across the Richardson Highway before the opening of the second season.
What hunters couldn't accomplish, Mother Nature could.
Last winter was a hard one for caribou. The Nelchina herd winters near the Canadian border. Deep snow made feeding conditions tough, because caribou need to paw through snow to reach the lichen that sustain them through the winter. Calf survival was poor. The search for easier feed areas brought them into contact with a portion of the Fortymile caribou herd. It is likely that some of the Nelchina animals joined that herd.
Whatever the reason, only 35,000 Nelchina caribou came back to the Alaska Range that is their home. Fish & Game set a limit of 500 for the Tier I early season of the Nelchina hunt and similar numbers for the remaining hunts. By Wednesday, 400 bulls had already been harvested and a number of hunters were still in the field and had not reported their success.
Thus, Hunt RC-561 closed Saturday at midnight. A second Tier I season, Hunt RC-562 with an allocation of 500 bulls, is scheduled to open Sept. 1.
Last week was a marked contrast to a year ago. Last August traffic on the Denali was steady, and streams of ATVs roared down the roads and trails. There were more than 80 camps between Tangle Lakes and the Maclaren.
This year, the majority of the traffic has out-of-state plates or is a rental. A scant half-dozen hunting camps are scattered along the Maclaren Summit.
The drawing hunt folks will have their turn at the caribou herd begininng Monday. There are fewer of those hunters. The advantage of the draw hunt over the Tier I hunt is this — those with a drawing permit can hunt Nelchina caribou and then go off to hunt moose in any other place they wish. Those with a Tier I permit may only hunt moose in Unit 13.
What that might entail for the September hunt in Unit 13 is anyone's guess. My personal thought is there will be far fewer hunters on the Denali Highway. Moose hunting along the Denali is not high on the list of successful hunt locations. Caribou have always been the main attraction here, with the possibility of tagging a moose a potential added bonus.
Many of those who hold a Tier I tag for the recently closed season, which is now just a piece of paper, may choose to forgo the moose hunt. Additionally, the cold, wet summer played havoc with ptarmigan. The broods are small and birds will be tough to find. The upside is a healthy waterfowl population and decent blueberries.
Those who choose the Denali in early September should find smaller crowds. The highway is in decent shape considering the rains of August. Walking hunters will see very wet, high water conditions. Moose will be up out of the big swamps and into higher terrain. Hunters who choose the Maclaren valley will find heavy helicopter traffic as mining activity continues through September.
Federal subsistence tag holders should come prepared to pack. Tangle Lakes, a favorite destination for Glennallen and Delta Junction residents, is extremely light on caribou at this time.
However, if the cold and rainy weather persists, the caribou could begin to move early and improve hunt conditions. Two times in my memory, the present conditions continued into September and we were able to use snowmachines the last few days of the season.
The morning temperature last Friday at Maclaren was 38 degrees with rain — within a whisker of those snowmobile years. Maybe it has been this summer's inclement weather, but whatever the reason, traffic has been down along the Denali Highway.
This seems to be a trend, at least in the Interior. People show up in big numbers for specific purposes, like hunting caribou, but are less inclined to take a trip just for the sake of getting out.
The hunting crowd shows an increasing amount of white hair these days. What is happening to our younger-generation families? Kids love to go camping. Caribou and moose may not be readily available, but the tundra hasn't changed much. There aren't many places with cellphone reception on the Denali, so maybe it is time for that quiet weekend when the phone is left at home.
The early Tier I caribou season may be over for this fall, but that could be a huge bonus for those who feel the need of a silent retreat. Thirty vehicles passed my cabins on the Maclaren one morning last week between daylight and noon. By late September, I'll be able to count cars on one hand.
Get out and enjoy Alaska. Now is the time.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives near Paxson with his family. He is a two-time Yukon Quest champion and a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman.
This article has been edited to include details of the second Tier I caribou season.