Confessions of a “foot hunter” — truly an endangered species
The elusive Willow ptarmigan, seen here on Bird Ridge, a non-hunting area (of course).
I thought about writing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head office in Washington D.C. to see if they would consider putting a rare and vanishing Alaska species on the endangered list: the human foot hunter. (Not a person who hunts feet, but one who uses his own feet for locomotion and access to hunting areas).
The agency probably isn’t aware that this unique breed is quickly becoming displaced by folks on four-wheelers, snow machines, half-tracks, float planes, riverboats, airboats and other mechanized conveyances. Foot hunters, I reckon, are becoming as scarce as voters on election day. Everyone I know from high school started hunting with off-road, all-terrain vehicles before they were 40.
During an outing in Broad Pass a few Septembers ago, near Cantwell, I almost felt guilty that I was tromping around on the snow-dusted tundra without issuing a warning to the mechanized crowd. The way their heads snapped as I walked by made me feel like I should be prepared to administer first aid and supply neck braces. Perhaps they weren’t as surprised that someone would actually consider walking somewhere as they were with my stupidity for thinking there would be any game within a 30-square-mile radius after they had tracked and traversed the area for countless years. (I apologize for the long sentence and will pause for a moment to allow you to stabilize your oxygen level).
Over time I have developed my own method of hunting, however, that puts me on a more equal footing, so to speak, with the motorized hunters. I call it “verticality.” I climb to a place where a snow machine, four-wheeler, weasel (mechanical kind) cannot possibly go…which involves grades at 60 percent and greater. Upon these higher, hard-fought plateaus, I hunt with the prospect of finding something. Generally, it’s only peace.
Granted, my hunting area is rather limited. But I’m sure it won’t be a surprise to anyone that the animals have arrived at some of the same conclusions. I shudder at the thought of people descending from the sky in gyrocopters, or jet packs. I suppose that day is coming.
It takes a lot of effort, but it’s really rewarding to get off the beaten track and access remote areas on foot. The animals, such as wolves and coyotes, are often so surprised to see someone on two legs that they often stand immobile and stare curiously.
In all my years of tromping around, my wildlife sightings have included three wolverines, two wolves, a couple of red foxes, about three or four coyotes, three lynx and of course, lots of bears and moose.
My hunting success rate, however, is generally rather low. I must admit that many species would suffer the impacts of severe over-population if everyone hunted like me. On the other hand, there are many places that today are absolutely barren when they were once teeming with critters — ptarmigan, for example.
“There are plenty of ptarmigan around,” a snow machiner told me a few years back. “They’re only 15 or 20 miles back in those valleys.” Of course, 15 or 20 miles is nothing but a brief jaunt on a snow machine.
I have nothing against mechanized hunting in general. Some of my best outings in Alaska have been via float plane. I just think there should be a few more “walk-in only” areas set aside, and perhaps a few more restrictions on where the ubiquitous four-wheelers and snow machines can go. In my all my years here, I think these vehicles have changed the face of Alaska more dramatically than any other single thing. Four-wheeler tire marks can be seen everywhere, and they don’t disappear for years.
But I must confess, as I did in an earlier column, that I often walk on snow machine trails to access areas that would otherwise be quite difficult to reach on snowshoes or skis.
Since my hunting success rate is so poor, for entertainment I’ve thought about walking around in heavily motorized areas carrying fake ptarmigan kills loaned to me by a taxidermist friend. It would be fun to see people do double takes. I guess living in a modern, mechanized world has really warped my sense of humor.
During moose-hunting season one year a jokester put a sign along the Parks Highway up near Trapper Creek, reading: “Moose this way,” with an arrow pointing down a small road to a gravel pit. Some people were actually pulling over and driving down the road.
No, I wasn’t that jokester. But whoever it was, he must have had a good laugh.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River. To contact Frank: firstname.lastname@example.org.