PAXSON -- "How'd you guys do?" queried the dude on the big Honda. My hunting partner and I looked in askance at one another. It was a question more suited for campfire conversation rather than a couple miles off road on an ATV trail. However, with the four-wheeler mentality of the hunting population in today's world, the question may not be so off-key.
As recently as 1980, there were no ATVs on area trails. Off-road trails were the exclusive territory of the big Nodwells, and old converted military Weasels. There was the odd home-built swamp buggy and a few walkers. However, since 2008, more than 60 percent of Alaska hunters use four-wheelers. Because ATVs do not need to be registered with the state, any number is an estimate. My observation is that 60 percent is low.
When caribou season began in the Denali Highway area this season, it seemed like every pickup and motorhome was being pushed by a trailer full of side-by-sides, six-wheelers and camouflaged four-wheelers.
Don't get me wrong; I am not against motorized hunting. I own a couple of Hondas. I occasionally use them for hunting or transporting game. The problem is not the use of ATVs. The problem is the sheer numbers.
Worst than rush-hour traffic
A good example is the Osar Lake trail on the Maclaren Summit. This a designated ATV trail within the Tangle Lakes Archeological District. That means you can drive a rig along the trail, but not off it. The Osar trail is 8 miles long and a well-known hotspot for early caribou. Opening day of the 2014 season saw 70 ATVs at the trailhead. Traffic on Osar was heavier than rush hour on the Denali Highway.
I would guess that fewer than a half-dozen of the riders had a pack board with them. Any caribou taken was going to have to be very close to the trail. Most of the ATVers were "road-hunting."
The guy who asked how we did was on a seldom-used, swampy trail in timber country. He and his companions said they had been on several trails that day and had not yet seen anything. My partner and I had been out all day too, but had covered most of our miles by foot after parking our Hondas.
There are many states where off-road vehicles can be used for hunting, but only for transport to and from camp, not for driving forth and back scouting game.
Is this something Alaska should consider? Four-wheelers, which typically cost $8,000 to $12,000 new and much less used, are affordable to most Alaska hunters, which means there will always be a lot of them on the trails.
Quality of the hunt
Several years ago, Alaska formed a task force that attempted to reach a consensus on motorized ATV use for hunting in the 49th state. No concrete results were achieved. And if 60 percent or more of hunters use four-wheelers or their kin, restricting their use in any way will be a tough sell.
However, it may be time for hunters to take a look at the quality of the season just experienced. I realize that for many, the main goal of hunting is getting outdoors -- not necessarily taking game. However, trails crowded with rigs diminishes the quality of that experience.
In areas where there are few restrictions, the trails off-road are turning into a maze of new pathways, as each new hunter pushes beyond the last in an effort to reach untouched country. This is especially noticeable in the Alphabet Hills area. The trail system in that corner of Game Management Unit 13 has tripled in less than 10 years. Safe havens for moose are vanishing.
The main access to the Alphabet Hills trail system, the Swede Lake trail head, was so crowded that trucks were parked along the Denali Highway and in nearby Department of Transportation gravel pits. One of my neighbors counted more than 100 vehicles and trailers on Labor Day.
The Eureka area trail system, which accesses the southwestern portions of the same area, may have been even more crowded. It's time for hunters to consider how and where ATVs are best used for hunting. We need to decide on regulations that maintain the quality of our outdoor experience while still allowing the use of the tools and equipment that help us.
Alaska has wisely created some areas where only non-motorized hunting is allowed. There is plenty of hunting pressure in these areas too, but the pace is far less frenetic. Perhaps we should create regions where ATVs are restricted to camp transport, areas where they are confined to designated tracks, and locations where access remains unrestricted.
Will there be a solution that suits everyone? No. All hunters will take a hit of some kind. Call it a compromise.
"How did you do?" the hunter asked. Well, it was a good day. We saw a few moose, some caribou, a couple flocks of ptarmigan and some bear tracks. We watched a Northern Shrike chase a gray jay and listened to a bald eagle chirruping from the top of a dead tree. We paid attention and tried to decipher the scents our dog tested on the breeze. We saw not a single bull moose, but it was a great day.
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.