Most of us dream of living where we can hunt and fish. For many of us, this dream means settling into a farm or ranch that may have been where we grew up hunting. For a few, it’s making a far away move to a place where game abounds and vistas are the visual norm. As hunters I believe we all crave a simpler life. When that perfection is found, the world just seems to make more sense.
For me, that place was Alaska. I could think of nowhere else that provided such expansive wilderness, a sense of adventure and true independence. And, of course, there was always the draw of the world-class, big-game hunting.
My first adventure above 60 degrees of latitude was a wilderness float trip with my son. It rained for six days. We were lucky to get out of the southeast Alaska valley without injury and only a slight case of hypothermia. Even after the tough, wet, buggy week afloat, I was still captivated by the truly wild notion that all you had to do was step a few miles off any highway and you would be immersed in one of the greatest public wildernesses in the world. I couldn’t wait to return.
The strained economy robbed value from my Midwestern home, paychecks shrunk and living expenses continued to rise. With two kids in college and a wife in graduate school, the financial trouble was acutely exacerbated.
Nevertheless, with kids poised to flee the nest, and a new career taunting my wife, we both agreed that our large, St. Louis suburban home was an albatross that limited our future and choices. However, after the “For Sale” sign went up, we watched the market plummet. Each day our dream of moving to a place where we could have more lifestyle choices diminished as the stock market fell and housing moved into swells of red ink.
After sticking it out for nearly two years, we had plenty of time to discuss the ideal place for us to move. We looked in the Rocky Mountain West, the Pacific Northwest and even in Maine.
With a heavily reduced budget in hand and a sense of adventure calling, my wife made it clear that if she got a vista, she would lend a nod to the Great White North. So we hopped a plane and rented a car and wound up driving two thirds of all the paved roads in the state. In the end, we settled on a town with a population of 800 called Talkeetna.
We purchased a small, unfinished home on a 22-acre lake. At 600 feet in elevation, the 20,000-foot-plus vertical rise of Mount McKinley offered the primary sales tool I needed.
The Move to Alaska
Paring down furniture, childhood keepsakes and years of accumulated outdoor gear (yes … even firearms) is a cleansing, yet volatile experience.
My choice was to shove (and I do mean shove) all of that stuff into an 18-year-old, 26-foot U-Haul with an 18-foot car hauler trailer. With my dog and carpenter buddy on the bench seat, the overloaded truck achieved a steady, 15 mph climb up the 10 percent grades of the ALCAN Highway.
The frost heaves on the road surfaces caused by freezing, thawing and refreezing broke four of the 10,000-pound straps that held my Chevy Avalanche in place on the car hauler. We had to stop every 30 miles to check or replace them. It was slow and tense, yet absolutely one of the most breathtaking drives of my life.
Our New Home
For Alaska the town has older architecture and a definite sense of character. Residents are interested in neither the lives nor the lifestyles of their urban-dwelling neighbors in Anchorage, 90 miles south. The fiercely independent populace offers an extreme variety of survival skills, and on a normal day it can be uncannily quirky.
If you ever watched “Northern Exposure” on television in the 1990s, then you’ve seen a comically honest portrayal of my new hometown; in fact, the series was actually based on Talkeetna.
During the summer months large busloads of tourists called “boat people” invade the town. The bustling Talkeetna Airport has a world-class collection of desirable bush planes. With skis mounted to the landing gear, the Pipers, DeHavilland Beavers and numerous turbo-charged Otters service Mt. McKinley tourist and mountain expeditions to nearby base camps below the summit.
Hunting season attracts a number of big-game hunters the air-service companies ferry into the interior for moose, bear and caribou.
There are a few restaurants, gift shops and the famed Roadhouse where you can order blueberry sourdough pancakes the size of your head—and that’s the half order.
Outside the protection of the Alaska State Troopers there is no police department. Many locals proudly carry guns. There is a welcome non-urban and definite “Don’t Tread On Me” vibe.
Just about everyone in Talkeetna owns a dog. On any given day at the hardware store or our post office, four out of five vehicles have a canine patiently waiting for its owner to return. Dogs are an important part of life in Alaska, and they do more than just pull sleds. A dog is the perfect companion during the long winter and an ideal alarm and bear deterrent. Keep in mind that although you may have a neighbor an acre away, the vast wilderness is often just a few hundred yards away.
The public radio station KTNA is the primary source of news. Daily reports include the school lunch menu, weather, sunrise and sunset times and “Denali Echoes.” The Echoes are messages to basin residents who live in the bush and have no phone service. They can range from “We have a week’s worth of work for Tom C. Please be at the shop on Monday,” to “Nagley’s [general store] has the ammo Bob E. ordered."
Now, the Game
Depending on the area, a bull must be 50 inches wide or sport three to four full brow tines on one side. By design, this keeps a hunter from just shouldering a gun and downing an average bull. The fact is, unless it is a huge animal, you really have to study a bull with a binocular before pulling the trigger.
As an upland hunter, I find the local birds a pleasure. Spruce grouse are abundant. Waterfowl hang out on every lake and river oxbow. Compared to my days of hunting the heavily pressured Mississippi Flyway, the local ducks are not call- or decoy-shy and are highly responsive.
It’s hard to even think about Alaska without discussing bear hunting. The black bears are extraordinarily large in some areas and, of course, as a resident you are allowed to hunt grizzlies. All these tags are available for residents for just a few dollars compared to the bill that awaits a nonresident hunter, particularly for brown bear.