Affording the wild

Outdoor sportsmen can avoid the high costs of guided hunting or fishing tours by planning their own trips. A 20-day trip on Alaska’s Noatak River costs $1466 for two people, compared to $2000 per person for a 10-day guided tour.
What sportsman hasn’t fantasized about taking a long hunting or fishing trip into remote country? Abundant wildlife, traveling and camping far from the road, and the solitude of untouched landscapes all beckon. What doesn’t beckon is the price.

A one-week guided Alaskan or Canadian hunt for moose or caribou costs between $3500 and $8000. Guided fishing trips in the north country run $4800 per week at a lodge; $2000 to $2500 at a tent camp. Ecotourism trips, which involve no guided fishing or hunting, cost $2000 to $3000 for 10 to 12 days. Multiply these costs by two people, or by two adults and a couple of children, and the total price can be prohibitive.

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There is another way, however, to find challenge and adventure in the most remote backcountry: going on your own. It takes much planning but the savings and rewards are great.

Cost Analysis: In 1988 I took a 20-day trip on the Noatak River in north-western Alaska, fishing for grayling and char and hunting for caribou. Adjusted for 1996 dollars, this trip’s itinerary and costs were as follows: commercial flight from Fairbanks to Bettles: $110; float plane to the headwaters of the Noatak: $638; canoe to Noatak village (347 river miles to the west), then commercial flight from Noatak to Kotzebue: $55; and commercial flight back to Fairbanks: $249. Total air costs for two people, who share the float plane, is $1466.

By contrast, a local outfitter charges $2000 per person for a 10-day trip on the Noatak that doesn’t include hunting. Going on their own, two people would save $2434, plus have 10 extra days on the river. Granted, the outfitter is supplying boats, tents and food, as well as his knowledge. But with $2434 saved, two people can buy: a folding canoe ($1500); food for three weeks ($400); a very nice two-person tent ($210); and have $324 left over to put toward licenses or film. The real savings are enjoyed on following trips, because the necessary travel and camping gear are already on hand.

The System: Logistical mountains–deciding where to go, learning about hunting and fishing opportunities, locating air flights, and buying food and equipment–turn back many would-be adventurers. If the process seems daunting to you, try this system:

1) Read Sports Afield and other adventure-travel publications to decide where you want to explore. Contact travel bureaus for those areas. To get a feel for weather and travel conditions, visit a library and the Internet, reading accounts of others who have traveled there.

2) Call the departments of fish and game in Juneau, Alaska (907/4654100); in Whitehorse, Yukon (403/667-5715); and in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories (403/873-7411) for latest hunting and fishing information.

3) Order maps of the area from the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver (1-800/USA-MAPS) or from the Canada Map Office in Ottawa (613/952-7000).

4) Using the above resources and a travel agent, generate a list of bush pilots. Call them for prices.

5) Prepare your equipment. Buy and pack your food at home–three pounds per person per day.

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