Saturday, April 23, 2011

Guided Bear Hunting- A Primer

I received some correspondence a few days ago that asked about bear hunting- specifically for folks who aren't Alaska residents and who aren't U.S. Citizens. The fish and game laws in Alaska are somewhat peculiar in that regard so I'll give it my best go, of course the usual disclaimer of "use at own risk" and "contact an expert" prior to using this information applies. To point out, I am not a guide nor do I have any financial ties to any outfitter or guide service so the net benefit to me is zero. Much of the information I've presented comes from talking to numerous guides, both in and out of the field.

Alaska Fish and Game categorize folks looking to hunt in Alaska into three categories, they are:
Residents- folks who reside, work, play and otherwise make Alaska their permanent home, have done that for at least 12 months, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. For the record on this- I am a resident.

Non-Residents- are folks who make their permanent home somewhere other than Alaska but are citizens of the United States. Being a non-resident has nothing to do with where you've been living- for instance an out-of-state worker can be in Alaska for 12 months but if they make their permanent home in another state, they're a non-resident. Many folks try this angle every year and ADFG make multiple citations in that regard.

Non-Resident Alien- are people who live outside Alaska and are not citizens of the United States. These would be considered the "International crowd". My blog has a substantial readership outside of the U.S. and most of those folks reading this will fall into this category.

Residency is a tricky issue and I highly suggest you go to the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game website to read the rules on this matter. You may be asking yourself, "But Hodgeman- why does it matter?". Well matter is does since the fee structure and guide requirements differ for each one. In fact, in many units there are separate seasons, drawing tags, and harvest allocation for resident and non-resident hunters. Since this particular post is to be thought of as a primer, and was specifically requested for bears, I'll attempt to stick to that. I won't try to discuss the various seasons and limits for each unit- since Alaska is so large, with such a diverse number of creatures and environments- the seasons and limits vary widely. Please consult ADFG for more information on the area you particularly want to hunt.

For the specifics-
Black Bears, are found nearly everywhere in the state and can be hunted by residents and non-residents without a guide. Non resident aliens however must hire a registered guide to hunt black bears with- in fact, non-resident aliens must hire a guide to hunt any big game animal in Alaska. Alaska has a strict licensing requirement on hunting guides and while there are a few dolts who slip through the cracks, the majority are hard working and knowledgeable folks who are there to help you get your game and get home in one piece.

While black bear hunting is, in itself, a relatively safe pursuit given that black bears are generally not "fighters" and tend to run off to die after being shot- the environment they're found in can be subject to the worst Mother Nature has to offer. Other, more germane areas that house bears require unique methods to effectively hunt bears with (such as calling or baiting) that it often is beyond the skill set or time allotment for many out of area hunters. Prices for guided black bear hunts vary widely throughout the state and many outfitters don't offer them at all. The most common method of guided black bear hunting is via ocean going vessels hunting the densely wooded coastal temperate rain forests. This is a great way to hunt in relative comfort- living shipboard and ferrying out to hunt each day. As a bonus the fresh caught seafood served by many outfitters is a treat in itself. A quick check of pricing on the Internet shows an average of about $5000 U.S. for a guided, vessel based hunt on Prince William Sound/ Katchemak Bay, bear in mind that the geographic area of Alaska will have substantial price variations and any maritime based adventure will be subjected to fuel price increases.

Brown/ Grizzly Bears, truly fall into the category of dangerous game. Only residents can hunt these without a guide and both non-residents and non-resident aliens require a fully guided hunt for these creatures. As an aside- the bears generally referred to as Brown Bears are coastal specimens and eat a diet with a lot salmon in it. With nearly unlimited protein and short hibernation periods (some island residing boars do not hibernate at all) they can grow to truly massive (and fearsome) proportions. Grizzly bears on the other hand reside in Interior areas and live a much harsher existence- they eat a poorer diet, have longer hibernation periods and, as a result, are usually much smaller.
While a coastal bear can reach proportions of incredible size, an "8 foot" 500 pound Interior grizzly is a very nice bear indeed. As a word of caution- the Interior grizzly has a much more dangerous reputation than the coastal bears, their harsh conditions and sparse environment make them more aggressive overall than their coastal dwelling counterparts. Many bear hunters rank a fair chase Interior Grizzly hunt as one of the more exciting types of hunting here given the bear's sulkiness and the wide terrain. Aside from diet, attitude and resulting size- these are genetically only one species of bear. Much like a slight built Finn and a hulking Samoan are both genetically humans, they can be very different in appearance.

For the guided hunter these hunts are often the most expensive and frustrating experience of their sporting life. Many (wealthy) hunters may return several seasons to harvest that true "10-footer" after repeatedly unsuccessful trips. A quick check on the Internet shows that coastal bears command a higher price overall - about $20,000 U.S. on average for a 15 day hunt while Interior grizzlies are somewhat less expensive. Hunting brown bears is an often unsuccessful hunt, even using a guide with tremendous experience. As a large apex predator their densities run extremely low, the animals are reclusive and true trophy specimens somewhat more so. Many frustrated sportsmen may spend an entire 15 day hunt in a great location and never see a single bear.

For further consideration:
For the non resident or non resident alien who may have never been to Alaska, it is important to rely on and work with your guide and his staff to make your hunt pleasant. I can confess I've never been on a guided hunt but I know and am friends with many guides and often hear the guide's version of unsatisfactory hunts. You're paying your guide for his knowledge and expertise- USE IT. Ask his opinion about everything you can possibly think about- right down to what kind of boots to wear. Your guide will spend more days in the field than many sportsmen hunt in a decade and he's seen people show up with any and every kind of equipment imaginable. Many reputable guides will literally provide everything you need except the clothes on your back and most will be very forthcoming about what they are going to provide and what they expect you to show up with. Remember-this is what these guys do for a living. If you show up to camp prepared, with some experience in the field, can follow his directions, and are willing to work hard for your animal you will be a delight to your guide and the entire hunt stands a much better chance of success.

When it comes to importing firearms into the U.S., I've often heard visiting non-resident aliens bemoan the laborious process of getting a firearm into the United States. I have no personal experience with such matters but I bet your guide has...ask him. While obtaining a rifle in the U.S. is as easy as it gets anywhere in the world as a resident, I've heard getting one in from another country is rather a pain. I would ask your guide to provide advice if you have a special rifle you want to use and just flat ask him to loan or rent you one if you don't. It's a good idea, particularly if you're hunting brown bears- it is unlikely many European hunters would have an appropriate rifle for such a beast just lying about. Many African rifles will have the right ballistics for bears but African hunting is generally dry and easy on guns- Alaska hunting is usually a wet nightmare. If you have a wonderful old Hollands it simply may be too valuable to bring here.

For the non-resident flying in from the Lower 48, transporting your rifle as luggage on your flight up is a piece of cake. I've done it often enough that its now routine for me. The Anchorage and Fairbanks airports have a streamlined process since there are so many firearms in transit here but your local airport may not- it would be advisable to check prior to your departure to see what they have in place. As a final note on firearms- it is not unusual for a guide to ban handguns in his camp and its his prerogative to do so. I carry a handgun when I don't expect to see a bear and that isn't when I'm bear hunting. Many guides are reluctant to have a camp full of tenderfoots sleeping with pistols under their pillows. I don't blame them. If your guide says handguns are not allowed- leave it at home, they are frequently nothing but dead weight on a hunt anyway.

Prior to choosing a guide it would pay to check around with some of his past clients, many will provide referrals upon request and I would be suspicious of one who wouldn't. Given the popularity of hunting forums on the Internet, I would certainly search out everything I could find on a guide prior to booking an expensive and, frankly, dangerous hunt with him. I would also suggest that you use good logic when sorting such unsolicited referrals because it is quite possible for a guide to work his tail off, do everything right and a client leave empty handed and unhappy through no fault of the guide's. Many guides will be forthcoming about such hunts and after meeting some guided hunters in the field it is a wonder that as many harvest game as they do. Unfortunately, bear hunting is often the ultimate expression of ego-maniacs who care little about hunting but want a "10-footer" for the office lobby to show his prowess. I would be leery of that person in any endeavor.

Which hunt would I choose? Frankly if I were a non-resident alien (or perhaps a non-resident) looking to experience Alaska hunting for the first time I would without hesitation go for black bears from a vessel. Moderate cost, high success rates, world class fishing and outstanding scenery are a wonderful experience no matter the outcome. Even as a resident, many hunters choose these vessel based hunts as a "hunting vacation" if you will. If I were someone with experience hunting in the American West or in other mountainous terrain I would most likely pursue Interior Grizzly as a secondary species with either a caribou or moose hunt. In fact, most resident hunters pursue bears as a secondary objective to other game- I know I do.  The hunting is often the same and many outfitters offer grizzlies and other predators at a moderate cost when attached to another hunt. For an outfitter primarily guiding moose hunters, a grizzly in their area may negatively effect the moose population and if they can sell you a trophy fee to bang a griz off your moose's gut pile the next morning its a real win/win as far as they're concerned. In regards to brown bear hunting, given the low chances of success, the considerable (!) expense, and the relative misery (think 15 days of rain and wind) of many coastal brown bear hunts it would take a very big itch for me to want to scratch it with that hunt.

Good hunting to you!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Petroglyphs and Gratitude

I just noticed that the hit counter on my blog crept up there past the 10,000 mark. Given that some well known blogs generate that many or more hits in a single day; that may seem a bit underwhelming at first read but I'm awed beyond belief that a mere handful of you folks would take the time to read any of my ramblings- much less 10,000 times. Along the way I've made several friends, maybe yet unmet and distant, but people I still call friends anyway.

I don't post nearly as often as many bloggers do and what I say perhaps isn't nearly as profound. I started this endeavor (and continue it, by the way) as a solely therapeutic pastime. Something to keep the mind and the heart and the will engaged on those long, cold nights and to share something precious and fundamental to me with the rest of the world. I don't do this for commerce or salary but for the pure joy of doing it. You see, my professional life entails a fair bit of writing- technical things mainly. Things about widgets and gizmos doing this and that in certain sequences and how the planet will counter-rotate if it doesn't happen in the prescribed Archimedian way. Things about risk analysis and economic profit and systems engineering. Things given to soulless, driven men who dissect and analyze and pontificate on- in order to chart a course and accelerate a plan.

Things without personality. Things without passion.

I fell somewhat headlong into that gig by dint of being something of a technical geek with a head for engineering and science, a background in construction and industry as well as having a small modicum of talent for crafting sentences together to form coherent thought- a witty nerd if you will. I had enjoyed creative writing in my college career and even had a Literature professor push me to devoid myself of all that silly engineering crap and pursue a rewarding career in writing, even though she thought I had a written voice that sounded like Billy Graham with an attitude problem. I didn't take her advice (at least not yet) but I managed to publish a couple of items along the way (among much unpublished garbage I'll add). A few years ago I turned back to more creative writing as a way to vent the content of my soul and soothe the aching and pondering that middle age brings to those paying attention as life blazes past.

Perhaps I share that need to vent, maybe along with just loving to tell a good story, with those primitive folks whose dabbling on the cave walls show the bison and deer, fish and mammoth that made up their daily sustenance. Without written word, their arcane sketching show how they viewed themselves relating to their world. Hunter and hunted, predator and prey, death and life- clearly portrayed even a millenia later. Maybe I am affected with that same need- a modern man scratching out digital petroglyphs to leave some kind of mark that said, "I was here and I ate the caribou."

When I first started publishing this blog, I thought to myself-"If more than a half dozen people ever bother to read it then I will be doing OK." That bar was passed a long time ago. I have to convey a debt of gratitude to all of you who take the time to read this out of the endless content the digital age provides. Everytime I receive some bit of correspondence or comment about something I've typed- I get excited. A petroglyph seen and understood, a sand painting comprehended, a campfire tale that was remembered. Excited to be involved in the creative flow of ideas and information and ...thoughts.

Thoughts on the Great Outdoors.

Thank You,

Photo Credit- Uknown. Google Images.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Specialization is for Insects...

I realize the gunwriting business and much of the hunting and shooting industry revolves around a certain amount of "Walter Mitty-ism" but the climate of late is bordering on the ridiculous. The lynchpin event that resulted in the Robert Heinlen quote that serves well as a title was the fact I worked for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers at the Fairbanks Outdoors Show as well as attended a local gun show over the same weekend.

I knew better...really, I did.

The older I become (and possibly the more cantankerous) the more I realize that specialization is a genre that really takes little talent. It is a much more arduous a task to make something good for many things than to make something excellent for a very narrow window of use. Case in point with rifle design- I looked at rifles that were tailor made for all sorts of uses, sheep hunting ultralights in wee speedy calibers, varmint rifles that weighed 13 pounds in even more wee and speedy calibers, heavy game rifles that fired cartridges the size of cigars, super magnums that fired standard bullets at impossible speeds- but few rifles that I'd consider just good general purpose rifles.

In the years gone by, most of the generally available rifles were what could call general purpose but of late even the term "general purpose rifle" has resulted in some rather esoteric designs that baffle the imagination. Consider that the basic design of rifles has changed very little since the work of Mauser, Whelen, and Browning (the profusion of cartridges notwithstanding- I don't generally consider cartridge variations progress). So what does constitute a "general purpose rifle" and just what is it good for. Col Cooper made a stab at it in his "Scout Rifle" design and I owned one for a few years and did some good work with it. I found few faults with it other than ferocious price but it isn't what I really consider the sole example of general purpose. To begin the idea one must establish just what the instrument is for- too many items find their way into our inventories as answers to questions we never asked.

What's it for? Obviously a general purpose rifle is not intended to shoot the most specialized of targets, in the hunting world that would constitute the largest and smallest specimens- prairie dogs and elephants. On the target range it would preclude the most specialized disciplines- I'd have a hard time calling benchrest or biathalon rifle "general purpose" by any stretch of the imagination. We could readily say that a general purpose rifle ought to weigh something less than eight or nine pounds fully equipped to maintain its status as conveniently portable and it should come chambered in a cartridge that is powerful enough to cleanly take the general run of game on the continent the user is located on.

For North America that would be things like deer, elk, moose, black bears, caribou, sheep, goats and the like at most common hunting ranges- say to 300 yards. Most people shoot poorly at even less than that and I consider any shot further to become a specialized endeavor. It would be hard to beat the 30-06 cartridge and any of the similar chamberings (.308, .270, .280, 7x57, 8x57, etc.) for that kind of shooting. Cooper also included combat in his list of things a general purpose rifle ought to be equipped for and while I have no personal desire to see combat I can only agree that historically the rifle has been used in that role extensively. Given that the majority of the world's armies fire massive amounts of underpowered ammunition at each other, I would gladly take my rifle over any of the current offering of assault carbines if it came right down to killing other people. In summary, I would suggest we leave the varmint cartridges, most of the magnums and the "medium and large" bores out of the question. A .338 Winchester Magnum is a great cartridge in its place but I can't say I'd consider it that useful as a general purpose round and consider the .223/22-250 class of cartridges in much the same light.

I think the general purpose rifle ought to be bolt action. I dislike the automatics immensely for a variety of reasons and its hard to think of the single shot or double rifles as "general purpose" given some of the parameters. Most people can be taught the operation of the bolt rifle in an afternoon- to include stripping down the bolt and maintaining the weapon, even the relatively uninitiated. I must confess I find the autoloading rifle out of place in the hunting field despite their growing popularity here and while I've spent a good deal of time with one on the range it is certainly not a favored action of mine. As a military arm the autoloader tends to have more moving parts and be more difficult to teach the manual of arms on than a good bolt action ever was. As the world's armies largely abandon marksmanship for "fire superiority" (whatever that means) I can only guess that means if you can't shoot well you should just shoot a lot. A serious rifleman only needs a few rounds to accomplish what needs doing. In the wars of the past the thought of going head to head with a platoon of crack riflemen filled field commanders with dread- ie. the Boers, the American Colonials, and the Jaeger regiments are some of the more obvious examples. Today's wars tend to have troops spraying a lot of ammunition and killing each other with high explosives instead.

The general purpose rifle then is a bolt action weighing a nominal 8.5 pounds and chambered for a "standard" cartridge. I believe we all shoot better with a telescopic sight and for something to be called "general purpose" I think a fixed 4x is more than sufficient for nearly any field shooting one might do (generalized or otherwise) and although I don't like variables personally I wouldn't be opposed to a low powered variable of the 1-5x or 2-7x class with objective lenses of less than 36mm. I do think the scope and mounts should be rugged enough to withstand the rigors of field use- the failures of over sized and powerful target scopes in the hunting fields are legendary. I won't mind iron sights on a rifle but I really think these days they're something of an anachronism. Most factory iron sights are little more than ornamentation and I'm usually delighted if a rifle is equipped with decent sights but if its not- so what, a fixed 4x will be generally more accurate, just as quick and just as robust. I know folks wring their hands about scope failures but I've hunted with scopes a lot under rigorous circumstance and have had exactly one failure in the field.

So in review we have a rifle that looks and sounds very much ordinary- a .30-06 (or similar) bolt action rifle weighing 8.5 pounds (give or take) with a decent 4x scope. Almost any manufacturer of bolt action rifles is going to produce such a piece and in the fiercely competitive firearms market the price will often be held in check by competition. Since this type of rifle has been popular for decades the used market is bursting with excellent buys as well on these rifles as their owners abandon them for pieces with more flash and pizazz- probably to their chagrin. The market is flooded with much more specialized pieces but they could be looked at as things more inferior than this one- it will readily accomplish 99% of anything you're apt to need a rifle for- bragging at the hardware store excluded. The manufacturers and the gun press would like you to believe that you need a battery of rifles- one perfected for each individual species you might hunt. While such an endeavor might be fun for the end user and profitable for the maker- it is wholly unrequired.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Becoming a Mountain Animal, A Photo Journal.

Here is the northern approach trail- a strong wind storm had drifted the trail in several feet deep in places. From this point the climb is 2900' vertical.

Half mile of post-holing across the relatively exposed flats leading to the slope- exhausting for me and the dog.

At the foot of the slope the trail starts its climb behind the lee of the mountain. Soft spots in the collapsing snow made footing unpredictable.

About a mile in- the trail to the summit diverges from the brush lined path and starts up the exposed west side. Bands of brush on the slope holding deep drifts had to be navigated around. Some of these were over ten feet deep and impassable.

At the edge of the ridge the trail turns sharply up and south at this massive pile of rock. From this point on the climb is an exposed knife edge ridge and devoid of any vegetation taller than a couple of inches due to the prevailing wind. I was happy for Primaloft jacket in my pack at this point.

After many minutes of scrambling up the ice slickened rock, the view behind gives some idea of the elevation gained in the climb. Too much exposed rock for crampons and not enough bare rock traction for comfort.

A view to the south shows the storm thats blowing in- this storm would dump several inches of snow prior to nightfall and pack vicious winds at this altitude.

Pressing to the summit across the barren landscape. Note the wind loaded east slope- that cornice is 20' deep and will last for several weeks to come.

The approach across the summit plateau is a walk on an other-worldly landscape of bare rock and snow. The snow covered Granites in the background is where my sheep hunt will take place.

The summit cairn. Finally, after 2 hours 15 mins of hard hiking with a loaded pack.

Happy for a summit break. A little water, some trail mix and a racing descent to beat the storm blowing in from the south.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Training Day

I must apologize for the dearth of posting lately as I've been very busy at work and the after work hours are consumed with family time and training for my upcoming sheep hunt.

I thought I'd share a little of my plan for sheep training. Besides eating right and usual exercises, training for sheep hunting contains a few items that I'm doing to give myself a leg up on the unique demands that mountain hunting dishes out. So in addition to routine cardio (jogging, walking, skiing) and strength training (core exercises, weight training) I'm including some new things in my routine.

First, you simply must get oriented to a vertical environment. Sheep live in rugged terrain where they can feel safe from predators with their incredible ability to run, leap and cavort up nearly sheer cliffs. Sheep respond to danger by putting vertical distance between themselves and perceived threats. That means you'll be climbing...a lot of climbing. After speaking with an acquaintance of mine who guides for sheep, it is apparent that mere cardiovascular fitness isn't enough. He reports that even experienced marathoners quickly tire if they tend to spend most of their time on flat land. The muscles required for running or jogging on flat land are not the same as those required to negotiate a 45 degree slope. He refers to the fitness required as being in "sheep shape" and insists that his hunters spend some time preparing in vertical environments, even in the office building stairwell if no mountains are available!

Even though I don't require a guide- I feel that is good advice and have incorporated my favorite fleigberg in my training regimen a couple of days a week. Training so far has been up the gentler north trail- a 2800 foot vertical climb over about a mile. The longer and much more rugged southern route would be suicidal with the snow and ice cover we still have on the ground. As spring arrives and the snow dissipates, I'll work in the steeper face and find a few other mountains to climb as well. With the arrival of full summer- the training regimen will be backpacking into the hunt area, climbing the mountains and looking for that toad sheep I'm looking to bag on opening day.

Second, sheep hunting often requires carrying crushing loads, for miles. A moose hunter may move a huge load of meat from the field, but few moose hunters hunt very far from motorized transportation and the terrain tends to be more forgiving as well. At this point my base load of sheep hunting equipment weighs just shy of 60 pounds...that's pre-sheep. Many sheep hunters report loads of well over 100 pounds after they harvest and bone out an animal among two hunters. Frequently if hunters are solo or carrying a lot of heavy gear they have to start the time consuming and laborious process of ferrying- splitting the load into two or three segments and having to transport their harvest and gear in relays. Every mountain will climbed and every mile walked- twice or more. Ferrying a load of moose meat a mile or so through the forest is one thing, ferrying 150 pounds 20 miles through the mountains is another thing entirely. The stories of heavy laden sheep hunters burning equipment or quickly establishing caches and abandoning some of their gear are legendary here. Every year some bear will root out and destroy several hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars worth of unattended equipment the hunter simply couldn't carry any farther. There is even at least one legend of a custom Sako rifle left under a rock pile the hunter never came back for. No wonder the diehard sheep hunters spend incredible amounts of cash buying the lightest and most exotic gear available.

Given the weight burdens that are foreign territory to all but the hardest core backpackers and professional meat packers- getting experience moving across the mountainous terrain with a load is paramount to success. In the light of that, my sheep guide compadre' suggests starting in the spring by hiking with a pack containing increasing amounts of weight throughout the summer. In this endeavor it is very possible to give yourself a training injury that will set you back weeks if you don't go slow and build up to the loads that you'll start your hunt with. At this point my pack weight is 35 pounds- essentially my day hunting gear and some extra "training ballast" thrown for good measure.

Another future suggestion is what my friend calls, "The Liquid Mistress". Simply a freighter pack frame with a 5-8 gallon water jug strapped on. At roughly 8 pounds per gallon it doesn't take much water to add up to tremendous weight quickly. You simply add more water as your regimen proceeds. A partially full container also has the added benefit of being a dynamic load- the water will slosh around as you move, requiring your muscles to constantly correct with each step. Since moving downhill is much harder than moving up (at least for me), the ability to simply pour out some water at the top to lighten the load before descending is a good thing if you tire quicker than expected or feel like you strained a muscle or joint.

Getting use to moving with a heavy, dynamic load in steep terrain is essential to staying safe in sheep country. A sprain or fracture will often scrub the hunt entirely and may cause you to abandon valuable equipment while you hobble your way out to civilization. More seriously a minor sprain or injury can also be a lynch pin in the chain of events leading to a catastrophic fall. Often the companions of severely injured hunters report to the rescue team that the hunter was injured minorly a day or two before and chose to continue the hunt with limited mobility. Staying healthy, agile and on your feet is vitally important on hunts like this.

In order to do the training required to achieve the level of fitness required, staying healthy during that training is important as well. Old injuries (particularly those to the back or joints) must be proactively managed so they don't flare up and leave you in worse shape than before. Personally speaking, given my history of an old and significant back injury, I'm seeing a health professional every week who monitors my progress and looks for signs that my old injury isn't coming back to haunt me. Given my exuberance for this hunt I could easily over train and be in bad shape by opening day. That would be a shame. For anyone preparing for a rugged hunt like this I can't stress enough not to overlook a local health professional or even a sports trainer to keep you on track.

In the photo- departure for a training hike up the mountain in the background. Despite the fact I was dressed lightly for the 22F temperature and light snow, I was sweated through the merino wool shirt and fleece vest by the time I made the summit.