Alaska is the midst of hunting season. Hunters from the cities descend on more remote areas in their search for big game. Many hunters who have time and dollars to spare opt for air support. River boats, many equipped with jets, fill all navigable waterways. However, the vast majority of today's hunters, whether from big towns or tiny villages, own an ATV.
Affordable all-terrain rigs, for practical purposes, first came on the scene in the late '70s and early '80s. Sure, there were the fat-tired cycles here and there prior to that time, but they were tough to handle off-trail.
Three-wheelers for the general market appeared in the late 1970s. They made their appearance on the hunt scene around 1980. Honda pioneered the first 3-wheelers in 1970, but the machines didn't really gain popularity until the introduction of the Big Red in 1982.
The following year, Suzuki introduced the Quad. The LT 125 had a retail price of just under $1,200 compared to a Big Red price of nearly $1,700. That doesn't seem like much money compared to today's price of nearly ten times that for a new side-by-side. However, consider that in 1982 the retail on a half-ton Chevy truck was just $5,400.
Today's ATVs are used mostly for recreation. Hunting season rolls around and the 4-wheelers are loaded on the trailer and taken to the woods.
Alaska ATV trails are relatively limited. In my experience there are nearly two ATVs per highway vehicle this time of year, and the Denali Highway and the Eureka area have far more traffic per mile of trail than the main highway does. The odds of a motorized off-road hunter taking an animal are relatively poor.
The chances of success improve if the hunter owns a pack frame, but the majority do not. The limited opportunities along established trails has led to the creation of a massive spiderweb of trails in popular hunt districts. A prime example is the Alphabet Hills area. The Alphabets are generally reached from the Denali Highway pullout at 17-mile.
This system of trails was started by miners with caterpillars coming in from the Paxson area headed for the Valdez Creek mining district. It was an easier route than the horse trail that took off from Meiers Roadhouse 15 miles south of Paxson on the Richardson Highway.
Quickly, outfitters and local hunters realized that the Denali country offered an excellent opportunity for big game. The Swede Lake trail was pushed in by the late 1940s by hunting parties with old Weasel track rigs. The military used the area for maneuvers in the '50s and extended the trail system as far as the Middle Fork of the Gulkana.
Enterprising folks continued to extend the trails into the Alphabet Hills as far as the Keg and Moose Creek areas. There were other access points to the Alphabets but the trail system stayed relatively stable until approximately 15 years ago. The large track rigs that utilized the area were expensive and high maintenance, limiting their availability to a few users. The advent of an inexpensive, low maintenance, easy-to-operate alternative changed that dynamic.
In 1980, ATV user days in Unit 13 was reported as zero in a survey by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. I was unable to find reliable published statistics on ATV use today, but in 2000, user days ran up in the 20,000 range. The result of this massive influx of traffic on the Alphabet trail system has created an almost unbelievable network of trails in the hills. Hunters are continually searching for untouched areas farther out. Newer and better rigs are able to access locations that were previously unavailable.
The excessive cost of a new side-by-side (over $25,000 for a fancy model with all of the bells and whistles) is apparently justified by its use as a family vehicle the rest of the year. However, the impact of off-road traffic on the game population may not be.
A few years back, the Alaska Board of Game formed a task force to address ATV use in Alaska's more popular hunt areas. Two years of discussion yielded no concrete results. The consensus of the committee seemed to be that ATV hunters were determined to have full access to all areas of the state. "Nobody's gonna tell me where I can ride!"
Wisconsin, which has a high population of off-road users, limits ATV travel to the state trail system and does not allow off-trail use — even to retrieve game.
In Alaska, the closest we come to that in Unit 13 is the Tangle Lakes Archaeological District where ATV use is limited to a few designated trails. The Sourdough Controlled Use Area has similar restrictions. These regulations seem to work quite well in these two areas, though admittedly they are not religiously followed by all users.
It might be time to take another good look at our ATV regulations concerning hunting. Alaska is a huge place. There will not be a one-regulation-fits-all solution. What works for a village member in Kaktovik will not be the same for hunter in the Nelchina Basin. A committee that takes a hard look at ATV use in Southcentral Alaska should be composed of all user groups, not just the hunt crowd.
None of us who utilize all-terrain rigs for hunting and recreation are going to completely pleased with what a task force may propose. However, it may be that the time has come for us to look at the present situation and research a solution. It may be time to fix something before it breaks.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives near Paxson with his family. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.