Alaska, the Last Frontier, the ultimate wilderness, the daydream of big game hunting aficionados around the world. All of these ideals are true, but to experience Alaska at its finest, you pay for it. At least that is what I thought before I heard about do-it-yourself drop camp hunts. While the price wasn't free - it surely was comparable to many of the hunts I have been on in the lower 48.
Selecting a Trip
There are many options out there for bargain Alaskan hunts. Do-it-yourself big game hunts for black bears, blacktail deer, inland moose and caribou are all reasonable. With so many options out there, where should one begin?
I have been fortunate enough to go on a couple of Alaskan hunts, and in my opinion it is pretty hard to beat Caribou hunting. The animals are plentiful, and getting a good trophy is a real possibility. The scenery is also incredible. In addition to all this, caribou trips are affordable - in fact, they will cost much less than many people pay for a whitetail lease in their home state. But regardless of what animal you pursue, there is planning that must be done before you depart on your own do-it-yourself adventure.
Hunting in Alaska involves more unique forms of travel than those encountered in the lower 48. Both Delta and Alaskan Air service most of the major cities in Alaska. From there, hunters can depart on small bush planes, float planes, ATV's, snow machines or boats (sometimes a combination of all). If you are prone to motion sickness, be sure to bring an anti-motion sickness drug as there is often turbulence and in the case of boats, large ocean swells.
There are essentially two types of drop camps. The first is the packaged kind available from several outfitters, such as the unguided caribou drop camp offered through Cabela's. There are also air taxi services that drop you off in a hunting area. The main difference between the two is that the outfitted hunt comes complete with food, tents, water, cooking utensils, cots, chairs etc, while an air taxi simply takes you to a destination and drops you off - you supply everything else. For last year's Caribou trip, I chose the later, as I owned all of the gear I needed and initially thought I would save several hundred dollars.
However, in the future, I will do the complete outfitted package. Here is why. Even though I initially saved around five hundred dollars on the trip, I had to provide the food and then had to pay to ship it into the area along with all the other gear I brought. In Alaska, every pound is worth its weight in gold when dealing with airlines. When all was said and done, it was a lot more work providing everything myself and I didn't end up saving much money.
If you are still teetering on the edge of doing an outfitted drop camp or heading out on your own consider these final two points. On an outfitted hunt, the outfitter provides everything, including the stove fuel and food. Since stove fuel (in any form) is prohibited on commercial airlines, and bringing your food from the lower 48 is not a viable option, you have to spend a day in Anchorage (or another large town), buying groceries and stove fuel. If you have the extra time, it is not that big of a deal, but it does take the better part of a day that could be spent afield. By the time you buy the food and fuel, pay the extra weight charges, and spend the day doing it, the cost of an outfitted drop camp does not seem so expensive.
What to Bring
Even if you go with an outfitted camp, there are still many personal items that must be supplied by the hunter. Aside from your rifle and ammunition (stainless and synthetic is always preferable in Alaska) bring a small daypack or a fanny pack complete with fire starters, GPS, compass, two knives (one large with a gut hook for general gutting and skinning and one small one for caping), a utility tool, sharpening stone and a first aid kit. Since rain is a constant factor, I packaged everything inside small, Zip-Lock™ bags.
For optics, I prefer to use both binoculars and a spotting scope. I use the binoculars for general glassing and the spotting scope for judging trophy quality. I carry the binoculars on a bino strap to keep them out of the way when crawling and stalking. Also bring a Zip-Lock™ bag full of optical grade tissue for cleaning and drying the lenses of both items.
Depending on where and what you are hunting, your clothing requirements will differ. As a general rule, practice the technique of layering. Start with a good wicking under layer, followed by an insulation layer, topped off with a waterproof layer. If you are hunting in the early fall, GORE-TEX or Dry Plus waterproof material will work fine, but if you are hunting in the spring (for black bears) or late fall especially around the coastal regions, also throw in a set of rubber rain gear. Socks are important, and I usually bring more than I am going to need. For a week-long hunt, pack at least six pairs of medium-weight socks with six pairs of thin liners. If the hunt may be cold, bring an insulated stocking cap and two sets of waterproof gloves. Store all extra clothing in waterproof, dry bags.
Transporting Meat and Trophies
This is one factor of the do -it-yourself hunt that was a learning experience for me. Shipping the meat back home from my caribou hunt was relatively easy. Dry-Lock boxes are required, and can be bought in many places throughout Alaska with prices ranging from 5 to 15 dollars. Essentially they are a waxed cardboard box, and are required by most commercial airlines for the shipping of any perishable items such as meat or fish. The boxes can hold 75 pounds of meat (most airlines limit each bag to either 70 or 75 pounds anyway, so the boxes are about the perfect size). After packing the boxes, they can be checked as additional luggage and picked up at your final destination's baggage claim.
While getting the meat home is no problem, the rack (in the case of moose and caribou) can pose quite a problem. Most airlines servicing Alaska have a policy on accepting racks as checked luggage, but it seems their policies change constantly and are different from each other. Even if you are successful at checking your rack as luggage, the pain of carting it around the airport (both arriving and departing) is more of a hassle then I care to undertake. Using a professional shipping expeditor is a good idea. However, I chose to ship my antlers via USPS (FED EX, UPS and other carriers also ground ship antlers from Alaska) by myself without an expeditor - it turned out to be a nightmare.
The only reason I mention it is to dissuade others from doing it. An expeditor (make contact with one before you go to Alaska) charges about 100 bucks for the service of packaging your rack for shipment plus applicable shipping fees. I decided I could do it myself and save some money to boot. I did succeed and saved a little money, but after the experience, I will gladly pay double not to have to do it again. To make a long story short, it involved three trips to the Post Office to get packaging material and meet their strict guidelines (all by hotel shuttle bus), and four hours of my time. Then when the rack showed up on my door step, 14 days later, (that's right a full two weeks), the smell was...well lets just say, "Intense." To top it all off, it cost almost as much as using an expeditor. Take my advice, use an expeditor - it is money well spent and your local post office will be much happier with you.
Alaska doesn't have to remain an unreachable dream. To use a timeworn adage, the longest journey begins with the first step. Take out your calendar, mark the dates off and start planning. With proper planning and research you are already well on your way to making it a reality.
Click here to book a hunt with Cabela's Outdoor Adventures.