by Ruth Cusack
In the spring of 2014, we headed to the coast of the Alaska Peninsula to hunt coastal brown bear. It was a fairly bumpy ride across the Shelikof Strait from Kodiak Island, but our pilot did a great job of managing the turbulence and successfully landing into a 35 mph headwind. Once we landed, it was all we could do to anchor the plane and offload, but we jumped out, grabbed gear, off-loaded and stacked our gear as quickly as possible, then waved good bye to our good friend and pilot Roland for the next 15 days.
It’s about this time that I remembered where we were! The Alaska Peninsula hailed by some as the land of the smoking giants and well known for its rugged beauty, long list of active volcanoes and home to some of the largest salmon runs and brown bear in the world. The Peninsula, which is also well known for its coastal winds and frequent storms, makes picking the right base camp location as important as remembering to bring ammo. This could mean the difference between having a great hunt and chasing your base camp down the beach. I usually do my best to find a flat location with some sort of a wind break to protect our camp from the predominant wind directions; usually a bluff, mountain side or clump of alders. We found our spot, and after a few branch trims and tent and bear fence setups, we are home sweet home and ready to begin searching the area for bear signs.
Later that night while we were having dinner our hunting partner Andrew asked why we picked this spot to camp and what we look for when setting up a campsite. It’s a really good question and for us the answer is what we refer to as the “3 W’s” (Weather, Wildlife and Water), specifically in that order.
Weather: When hunting and picking a campsite on the Alaska Peninsula where 40-foot waves like those seen crashing across the bows of the boats on “The Deadliest Catch” slam against the shoreline, you have to consider prevailing winds and storm patterns. In a place like this, protection from the elements is a key part of picking a good location. You have to remember that if the weather turns and a storm rolls in, you will have to be prepared to ride it out. Unless you are in a life-threatening predicament, help is not going to come your way. A great tent by itself will not withstand these types of conditions – you have to have a great tent in a great location. On this hunt, we spotted a location which was flat and just along the edge of some alders with large overhanging limbs. We always carry a saw with us and by cutting these limbs, we created a flat opening which was protected by the alders on either side of our site, so we were able to stack the limbs as a windbreak for additional protection. Another weather pattern we have to consider on a coastal hunt is the tide. Alaska has huge tide patterns with some areas having tides up to 30ft, with tides changing in heights to where a tide book or a GPS with tide information can come in pretty handy. Just because your camp is dry today, doesn’t mean it won’t get soaking wet if you have a significant increase in tide depth.
Our goat hunt is another example where weather must be considered when selecting a camping location. We hunt on Kodiak Island in late October where big wet storm patterns are a frequent occurrence. These storms have a tendency to blow in from the east and our drop-off is on an alpine lake on top of a big valley which lays east to west, rifling those easterly storms in like a bullet through a gun barrel. Unfortunately, this location does not have any trees and few resources are available for building a break, but we were able to find and setup behind a little knoll, which gave us shelter from the brunt of those big easterly winds. Without this barrier, we would have been in a heck of a bind in 2009 when a great easterly blew in with 45-mph sustained winds, gusts up to 65-mph, and the most rainfall ever recorded in a 24-hour period. Great camping weather!
Here’s what we mean: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PylrnSDprIM
These are two great examples of where weather and weather patterns play the biggest part of our selection for a remote wilderness campsite.
Wildlife: The second biggest factor that we consider when selecting a campsite is mostly in consideration of bears. A good friend of ours is a local bear knowledge expert on Kodiak Island and participated in the investigation following the Timothy Treadwell incident. He once told us that campsite location played a big factor in that attack, and that bears literally had to walk through his camp and around his tent when traveling to and from their feeding area. It’s never a good idea to set up a camp that will interfere with wildlife movements. One well-known fact is that bears have a tendency to walk the exact same trail, and there are places on Kodiak Island where bears have literally worn individual step holes in the side of a mountain from centuries of placing their feet in the very same spot.
We always look for a spot that is away from game trails. We will usually try to set up with the front of the tent providing a good view of game trails and glassing areas, with the back and sides usually backed-up to some sort of blockage or cover where any animal coming into camp will make a lot of noise before they reach our site. It’s just a precaution that has always served us well. On the peninsula, we had a big bear walk right by camp while we slept and you could see where he just moseyed on by without even one step in our direction.
In the fall of 2014, we had a bear encounter during our black tail deer hunt on Kodiak Island. This bear entered our camp from behind our campsite and we knew he was coming in a long time before we actually saw him. We were prepared well before he reached our camp and we successfully ran him off, but to say there were a few excited folks in camp would be a serious understatement.
Bear encounter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FfqTrP-Rhcw
Water: Last but not least of the things we look for is a good source of fresh water. Our least favorite of all of the camp chores is packing water. Life is good if we can find all of the weather and wind advantages mentioned plus a ready source of fresh water. Since most of our water sources tend to be mountain streams or river drainages where wildlife has a tendency to travel, we will generally try to find a location which is close, but not next to a water source.
Picking a campsite near a good water source is another example of where weather can become a big factor, especially when hunting near a river system or during the late fall where a couple days of steady rain can flood a river drainage, or turn a small mountain stream into a raging river.
Both in 2009 and again in 2011 when our tent became closer to being a waterbed than a tent site, placing our camp played a big factor. In both of these cases, we had to deal with a lot more water than anyone would reasonably want to sign up for. Had we set up in any other location, instead of having water running under the tent and stomping a mud pie under our vestibule, we would have had a much more severe problem. We would have had water in the tent!
These three “W’s” are the things that we take into consideration when picking a remote wilderness camp, because when you decide to do an Alaskan remote wilderness hunt it’s usually going to be 10 to 15 days in a land that’s beautiful yet unforgiving. It’s a hunt where it is all on you. If you don’t bring it, you don’t have it, and if something goes wrong it’s all on you. Taking these things into consideration could help you enjoy an adventure of a lifetime without the added adventure of an emergency rescue.