Advanced ATV-hauling trailer technology; quiet, smooth-running, late-model pickups; a short stretch of newly-paved roadway; and the near-total absence of wildlife make this the quietest hunting season in 25 years of observing (and formerly taking part in) this annual spectacle along upper Hatcher Pass Road.
In years past one could hear it all night and all day long---the rumble of traffic and the distinctive rattle of ATVs bouncing around on those flimsy trailers with the little wheels. But now everything rolls smoothly because no one wants to haul today’s expensive off-road vehicles on trailers likely to dump them on the roadway. Except a hunter can’t even buy a moose in Hatcher Pass anymore.
There are no more dawn to dusk thumps of heavy moose guns or shotguns along the roadways. Every few days a single shotgun blast signals the end of what is now a rare bird---the once plentiful ptarmigan. It’s gotten so that I can tell the demise of an individual bird that I saw just a day before. The few roadside ptarmigan left were mostly shot in the months before hunting season even began.
Not once in the preseason or since have I heard those tell-tale, evenly-spaced, 3-shot groupings of my neighbors sighting in their moose guns. The old, beat-up pickup trucks of locals are no longer parked along the roadway---those hunters that do come up to the West side of Hatcher Pass have invested heavily in newer and bigger vehicles of every description. Whether they are economically well-off or just in debt I do not know.
One neighbor speculates that hunting at Hatcher Pass is only for the rich. I do notice a lot of large trucks and trailers with commercial logos---business owners using their company vehicles for hunting. And the low-flying, moose-spotting aircraft showed up briefly---but only to verify that the land was just about emptied out. Presumably the really rich don’t bother with this hunted-out area at all. It’s only those who have some money and don‘t know any better.
I waded across Willow Creek the first Sunday of moose season and climbed to 4500 feet where I could see the entire West Valley from Hatcher Pass right down into the Susitna River Valley. At dusk there were a few aimless gunshots---likely nothing died.
For a week or two the rigs kept rolling in and out so there was no way I could count just how many outfits there really were. It’s just my observation that there must be more hunters than there are moose. There is an ideal predator-to-prey ratio for everything. Tyrannosaurus Rex to herbivorous dinosaurs. Wolves to caribou. This ideal ratio is about one predator to twenty-five prey animals. Roughly the same for both dinosaurs and modern Alaska fauna. Note to Fish and Game: it’s called relative abundance or some such scientific nonsense.
Around here, those hunters who have the time, money and equipment to go long and deep across two or three river drainages have the best chances of success. Experienced locals who know where the last moose are might come back with something. A friend was hoping that a spike-fork bull that was hanging around would end up in his sights so he didn’t have to go off on a long, hard motor trek. He wound up going to Cantwell.
Alaska State Fish and Game brags about the moose “success” in McGrath and Nelchina after killing a thousand wolves and a hundred bears (“Herds up in areas of wolf control, Anchorage Daily News. 9-14-2009). Nonresident hunters will be allowed to hunt bull moose in the Nelchina Basin for the first time in a decade. That‘s good news for the trophy guiding industry---but has nothing to do with claims that predator control was for “subsistence.” Not by a long shot.
Hatcher Pass remains a wildlife wasteland---there is nothing left to kill. So why not kill wolves and bears in Hatcher Pass? Because there ain’t many of them left either. There ain’t hardly nothin’ in upper Hatcher Pass bigger than a marmot---and even those have been mostly killed off near roadways. It’s so easy to kill marmots because they draw attention to themselves with their piercing warning whistles.
Same goes for ground squirrels---near roadside turn-offs I’ve found them lying dead with little bullet holes in them.
The “good news” is that things are really quiet. No tumbling .22 bullets whining past the cabin. No rifle bullets flying just over my head as I walk on the road. No bird shot spattering in the leaves or against siding. No shotguns going off, with engines idling, vehicle doors slamming and tires spinning as someone makes off with a “bird“ shot right from the roadway. Not a sound except for the occasional cabin weekender popping off a few dozen rounds “in the country.” Or at night when another road sign bites the dust.
In the past two decades---while the moose, bears and caribou were being wiped out around here---politicians refused to stop the slaughter because upper Hatcher Pass was such a “popular” area to hunt. Well, folks, it ain’t even popular anymore.
Now, in September, the hunting rigs have mostly departed. There never was any traffic this year prowling the subdivision roadways looking for game. Even with their shiny new vehicles, hunters realize that they can’t hunt what isn’t there. Those well-equipped rigs that kept rolling silently in have now rolled out just as silently. The hunters are mostly gone. And so is the wildlife.