For our anniversary, DW and I went up to the Alpine Creek Lodge which is off of the Denali Highway. The ostensible goal was bear hunting but we really just wanted to get away from the city for our anniversary and to celebrate me actually being home for awhile. The drive up after work there was a bit long, but the weather was beautiful and we got plenty of great photos on the way in. Denali was visible for most of the drive.
We overnighted in Cantwell at the Backwoods Lodge, where the proprietor was kindly enough to give us a 10% discount. I don't have much to say because all we did was show up, collapse and go to bed before getting up early in the morning to continue in on the Denali highway. I can say that the Backwoods Lodge had a clean, well appointed room for a reasonable rate (going by AK standards at least).
The Alpine Creek Lodge is at mile 68 of the Denali Highway, so there was about two hours on the gravel road and plenty of scenery. We saw lots of critters on the way in. We had the Trapper's Cabin, which was a cozy little place tucked just below the main lodge. We liked it as it had more privacy. There was no running water and minimal electricity in the cabin, but it was comfortable and had a toasty wood stove. The lodge was only 20' away and they had plenty of hot water for showers in the morning. Jennifer and her staff were great hosts and I was surprised that all meals were included for the price of our room!
I would reccomend the Alpine Creek Lodge. Realize that you are not going to get a four-star hotel room. It is an off-the-grid property in rural Alaska. What you do get is decent grub, a clean and comfortable place to sleep, friendly hosts and company, a very fun and well-behaved dog to hang out with, beautiful scenery, and access to great outdoors areas. The price is also extremely reasonable, in my opinion, for what you get. Realize that meals are included -- this is a huge convenience. It was great to stumble in after hiking for 8 hours to have a hot dinner ready on the table for us.
HUNTING & CRITTERS
We spent about two days out roaming the trails near the lodge. Spot & stalk didn't work so well for us as the terrain was very forested, so we switched to a blind/track strategy. We set up a blind at a nice vantage point over some habitat that seemed bear friendly which one of us would watch while the other checked other paths for sign. I was able to find a decent sized fresh grizz print and started circling. Sure enough, I soon found fresh scat, torn apart piles of fur/feathers, and trees stripped of bark with bits of fur. Then, I found a large muddy area with very clear tracks: one set about 7" across (i.e. pretty freaking huge) and two more sets about 1/2 to 1/3 that size. I assessed that it was a big momma sow with two cubs and decided I wanted no part of that!
So while we saw no bears, we did see lots of other critters. We had three caribou at 75 yards and numerous more and longer distances. It was nice to have a 'bou literally in my sights; it'll be better still this fall once they are in season and I can use my tag! We also saw moose, lots of birds, and porcupines. The first one we saw was so freaking big we thought it was a bear at first until we glassed it carefully; excited about the sight, we checked the game regs that night and found that there was no season/bag limits on them.
The next day, DW took one porcupine (her first kill); it was sleeping up in a tree and she brought it down with a shotgun blast. I was disappointed in the performance of the shot we used; it knocked the porc out of the tree and stunned it, but I had to coup de grace it with the Mosin (which destroyed about 15% of the meat -- a .30 caliber leaves a big hole on a little critter...). When we dressed it, we found that none of the shot had visibly penetrated the skin to lodge in the flesh beneath; there was just bruising. Although, there could have been more grievous wounds hidden from our sight or that were concealed after I whapped it with the Mosin. This was a point blank shot with no brush in the way too. I am not sure whether to blame the shot or the rifled barrel (she was primarily rigged with sabot slugs for bear with shot for incidental game), but either way, we need to put some more thought into the shotgun setup for small game.
I took another; it was scampering away but I hit it with a single action shot from the trail revolver. I continue to be very satisfied with the performance of .38 special on small game. It seems to work more reliably than .22 LR on some of the larger animals without destroying much (or any) meat. This porc got hit with an "FBI load" +P 158 gr semiwadcutter and collapsed instantly. I think the spine was hit and the bullet went on through the heart-lung area with an obvious exit wound in the front. No meat was damaged. I need to remember to pack some cheaper soft point .38 special in the future for small game rather than using my more expensive personal protection ammo, but I forgot to throw the cheap stuff in the ammo can for this trip and I figured that given a choice between 200 gr .357 mag hard cast corbons (last ditch bear shots) and .38 special +P, the .38 spec was the way to go for small game.
A third got away from us because we were so shocked at how fast it moved. We stared, stupified, as this one swung out of a tree with simian-like agility and then scampered off into the brush. We shot at it with a shotgun blast but it didn't react at all; we tried to track it and there was no blood trail. Given that the last shotgun blast caused minimal wounds at point blank range, I think after a ~15 yard shot with thick brush in between us this fellow wasn't even stung on his rear end. I suppose it deserves to live and make more baby porcupines that have the run-away-from-hunters-with-guns-insticts.
GEAR & LESSONS LEARNED
I need to get Alaska-appropriate boots. I have a pair of beat Vasque Skywalkers that have many, many miles on them with moderate to heavy loads over rough terrain. However, the mid-cut hiking boot does not work when cutting through Alaska brush and muck. There was a lot of tundra/taiga terrain that had tons of mud, standing water, and rivulets. My feet were soaked as water came in over the top of the boots; DW stayed high and dry. Gaiters might have helped some but overall I think higher cut boots are necessary.
We also decided to lighten our packs. After day 1 we stopped carrying salt, saving 5 lbs each. The salt got left back at the lodge, and if we actually did shoot a bear then we figured we'd haul back salt after the first load of meat. Otherwise it is dead weight.
The spike camp concept worked well. On day two, we hiked down about 6 miles to our blind and then dropped our packs there. For roaming around nearby trails and for bushwhacking in a circular sort of manner, we just carried weapons, camelbaks, binocs, and essential survival gear. I would have liked a fanny pack and/or vest so that I could carry a little more gear than I can strap to my camelbak/put in my pockets. At no time were we more than 30 minutes from the blind/spike camp, so I wasn't too worried about not having all of my other supplies. I could easily go back to get them if necessary. Having a light, close load (not a heavier external frame pack) was very helpful when bushwhacking, climbing up to spotting vantage points, scrambling across streams, jumping puddles, and so on.
I think a trail revolver would be helpful. We did not carry one when doing our main hunting and I think that was a mistake. The trail revolver would have been optimal for harvesting small game for the pot, as I saw later in the trip when I nabbed my porcupine with it. Additionally, both of us were a bit nervous when doing meat care chores about a bear or other predator showing up unexpectedly while our hands were busy and rifles stacked a few feet away. At least when weight is not critical, I think it makes sense to carry a general purpose handgun of some sort. I need to get a guide holster for mine.
The shotgun had disappointing performance. There are a few factors here. It came in literally the same afternoon that we left town. I had time to disassemble, degrease, oil, and reassamble before we left, and we sighted it in off the Denali highway with sabot slugs on the rifled barrel. We utilized shot shells for small game. They did not work very well. I think there are a few factors here:
- The shot pattern with a rifled barrel is apt to be unpredictable. Combined with heavy brush, a smaller 20 guage may not be slinging much shot towards the target.
- We might have been using inappropriate sized shot. I just grabbed some that were on the larger side of "rabbit" range according to the manufacturer's claims, without doing much research.
The mosin-nagant did everything I asked of it, and it is a very rugged design. I have faith that it will fire under extremely adverse conditions if necessary, and the bullet packs plenty of punch with reasonable accuracy. It is just darn heavy to carry. I think I made the right choice going with the lightweight X-Bolt!
The skeeters were bad... Setting up spike camp on a higher point with a breeze seemed to help a lot. A long sleeve shirt was the right choice too. Also helpful was the trusty old standby of Ben's 100% DEET sprayed on the brim of my hat, collars, and sleeves. (Bens 100 Maximum Pump Deet Repellent - 1.25 Oz).
That's about it for now. Hopefully DW will get some of her awesome photos posted soon, and we'll either link to them or add them to this post.