In 1925, the first airplane to land above the Arctic Circle set down on the gravel bar along the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River near Wiseman. Residents had anticipated the plane’s arrival and a young boy was the first to spot it far off in the distance. As the plane rolled to a stop, the people rushed the canvas framed aircraft, causing the pilot to fear that the plane would be damaged. The event was revolutionary and would change life in Alaska. Some people of Wiseman who were present at the time looked back on that event as the greatest moment in their entire lives. Before the airplane, the quickest means of travel within the territory was by dog sled in the winter season and steam boats in the summer. Although fast for the time, these methods would result in weeks of travel for those wishing to cover significant distances. The airplane of that era could cross the entire state within a day.
As air travel increased, so did the ways in which it was used. Early on, the primary use was in ferrying people and goods in a quick manner. Prices remained high and use by the general public remained low. Technology and the territory grew together over time, offering a reasonably priced means of getting around the country. The plane became a popular tool in conjunction with hunting. A flight out to a remote area or a chance to spot animals from above increased the odds of success. Caribou, moose, or sheep would be spotted and the plane would descend. In the early days, you could shoot from the air and people would kill animals from above. There were also those that landed close by. By the late 1960s, laws were instituted that prevented hunting on the same day in which you flew.
Today the use of planes is pervasive throughout Alaska and a critical component of modern life within the state. For most communities in Alaska, all goods, mail and anything that isn’t sourced from the land, comes by air. Planes fly daily to remote villages, ferrying goods and people back and forth to and from the major urban centers. Scheduled travel between communities isn’t the only use of the plane. The variety of air taxis and bush plane services offer a means for hikers, floaters, campers, hunters and anyone looking to access remote terrain a means of travel.
The fall season is likely the busiest in the bush environments. Across the state, hunters charter air services and outfitters fly clients out into remote regions to access hunting areas. Until last year, spotting sheep from the air was legal. This meant that outfitter services could fly around the mountains, identifying legal sheep from the air and setting their clients down nearby based off what they had found.
A day after the opening of sheep season this past fall, I was out checking hare traps with Claire near a sheep outfitters camp. Walking past the camp, we were approached by one of their clients from Oklahoma, who had just returned from his hunt. He had been successful on the first day, killing a ram off in the mountains to the east before flying back. After parting, Claire mentioned how impressive it was to get a sheep on the first day of the season. Initially, I thought so too. But upon further thought, what likely happened wasn’t as captivating. The hunter was probably flown out the day before the season started, dropped off high on a mountain ridge or top by the Super Cub. While spotting sheep is illegal during the season, there are no restraints any other time of the year. My guess is that the sheep were spotted the day before, the hunter was dropped off in close proximity, and awoke to kill a sheep nearby once the season opened before flying out once more. All for the low, low price of about $20,000.
I have tried to understand the thought process of someone enlisting such a service but it appears to be beyond my comprehension. I cannot envision spending such a large amount of money in hopes of killing a single animal. Booking a charter service is within my realm of understanding, but still something I wouldn’t choose to do. Proponents of airplane use see increased access and opportunity, whereas I see declining animal populations and access available to the few. The pie is getting smaller, but bits and crumbs are still to be had for those willing to pay.
It is my opinion, that the use of the airplane should be banned in association with transporting hunters, gear or game. Often when making the case for the elimination of motorized transport in regions one hears the argument of elitism. But eliminating motorized transport isn’t elitist, rather it levels the playing field. After all, who is able to afford the exorbitant services of a guide? Paying $15,000 or more to kill an animal? Even if one is to go without a guide, how many are able to afford charter services that can total to more than $2,000? It’s not the everyday person. It’s the person with the high paying job that is buying access that the majority can’t afford. Almost everyone can walk or float, very few can afford to fly.
Inherently, hunting is a challenge. Restricting the use of new technologies is not without precedent. Within Alaska’s Hunting Regulations, there is a whole list of general hunting restrictions for all game. The following are a sample of instances in which one may not take game in the state:
- “Driving, herding, harassing, or molesting game with any motorized vehicle such as an aircraft, airboat, snowmachine, motor boat, etc.
- Using a machine gun, set gun, or shotgun larger than 10 gauge.
- Using a helicopter for hunting or for transporting hunters, hunting gear, game meat, trophies or any equipment used to pursue or retrieve game.
- Using a pit, fire, laser sight, electronically enhanced night vision, any forward looking infrared device, any device that has been airborne, controlled remotely and used to spot or locate game with the use of a camera or video device, radio communication, cellular or satellite telephone, artificial salt lick, explosive, expanding gas arrows, bomb, smoke, deer urine, elk urine or chemicals.”
These are just a few points within a page of restrictions. I believe the time has come for planes to enter this category. Where is the challenge in landing nearby an animal or on top of a mountain, and walking the few hundred yards or so until the animal is in range for a shot? The advantage an airplane gives is not unlike the advantages conferred by other restricted activities. Helicopters allow access in more areas, but they are more alike than not. Why is one banned while airplanes are able to roam free?
The airplane has offered people the ability throughout the years to follow game without restraint. If animals aren’t present in one area, you can simply fly to the next valley over and find what you’re looking for. With an increased human population and fluctuating wildlife population, such combinations can prove disastrous. For example, sheep populations within the state are at a fraction of their historical numbers. Airplane access only exacerbates this problem.
The elimination of the airplane would likely result in greater pressure being exerted upon wildlife within the road system. This means that other regulations would have to be enacted in order to avoid the decimation of populations. Firearm restrictions should be expanded along all road corridors if not already in place. Areas that have firearm restrictions, like The Dalton Highway Corridor (DHC), should be maintained, expanded and extended. It should be made worthwhile for hunters to travel further afield from the road. To use the DHC as an example (the area I am most familiar with), regulations could look something like the following. No hunting would be allowed within a ½ mile of the road. Archery only would be maintained within ½ mile to 5 miles of the road, with the use of firearms being permitted after 5 miles. For those who wish to hunt further, say 10 miles from the road, regulations become minimized. For an animal like sheep, full horn curl requirements could go by the wayside replaced by regulations requiring ½ curl or larger. Both bull and cow caribou could be harvested with greater bag limits than presently allowed.
Something like this is extremely unlikely to be enacted in the near future, with the influence and size of the air industry coupled with the state making large amounts of money through non-resident hunting. But it’s fun to think and wish otherwise anyways. As a more realistic alternative, something like guide use areas could be enacted on state lands. The current practice that avoids communication and cooperation with a focus on maximization of personal gain results in a Tragedy of the Commons type scenario. In order to be willing to conserve an area’s wildlife, people need skin in the game. Guide use areas offer the best means of achieving that. And while we’re at it, let’s get rid of that airplane.