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Palin's big game hunt not reality for most Alaskans

Craig Medred

Real Alaskans must envy the way former, half-term Gov. Sarah Palin hunts on her TV reality show, "Sarah Palin's Alaska.'' All real Alaskans, excepting the comparative few who still live in rural Alaska, scrimp and save and finagle to try to find a way to make work the economics of hunting in the 49th state. Alaska is the most expensive place in America to hunt big game, which makes hunting complicated for the poor and average folk.

Not so for Palin. When she goes to the freezer and finds it low on vittles, she decides to take "a couple of days'' to fly from Wasilla to the Brooks Range to shoot a caribou. Most Alaskans would spend a couple of days just driving from Wasilla or Anchorage to Deadhorse on the Dalton Highway, a road distance of about 850 miles, to save money to be able to afford a charter flight back into the country.

Not Palin. She charters a twin-engine DeHavilland Dash, a much more comfortable way to travel, to the tune of more than $35,000.

Palin appears to have spent a minimum of $42,400 on her above-the-Arctic Circle caribou hunt. That's the figure a Hollywood website more into movie-making logistics than hunting calculated for transportation and lodging after talking to the businesses that provides those services.

Read the story and you'll notice the $42,400 doesn't factor in any gear -- and Alaska's ex-governor, a well-known clothes horse, clearly got a spiffy new wardrobe for her show.

Have you priced Gore-Tex outerwear lately? Ooh la la! It's not cheap, but she probably should have held out for a new rifle, too, instead of borrowing one and then another.

Experienced Alaska big game guides will tell you that everyone shoots better using a rifle with which they are familiar. And Palin certainly could have used this reality show gig to get herself, say, a new Weatherby Mark V Ultra Lightweight Rifle in .30-06 caliber, still the best all-round cartridge for the 49th state.

Sure, this rifle costs nearly $2,000, plus the cost to scope it, but with her own rifle and some time spent at the shooting range, Palin might not have missed a standing caribou four times.

Cut the poor woman some slack on that, though. Shooting well and accurately is harder than it looks. It takes a steady hand, a good eye and practice, practice, practice.

And it's clear from watching Palin on the Discovery Channel that despite all her hyping of the Second Amendment, she's not a regular shooter nor has she ever been a regular shooter. People who use or have used firearms regularly handle them like extensions of the body.

Watching Palin with a firearm is like watching someone who barely learned to ride a bike 20 years ago get back on a bike today. Suffice to say, for the purposes of this analogy, Palin is no Lance Armstrong.

Back when her ex-brother-in-law Mike Wooten was in trouble for illegally using a hunting permit in the name of Palin's sister, Molly, to shoot a moose, numerous sources close to the family said there was a simple reason Wooten shot Molly's moose for her: The Palin women don't hunt.

Watching Sarah handle firearms, this is easy to believe, but give her credit for getting out there and trying to burnish her Second Amendment credentials. She's talked the talk and having done that, she's womanned up to walk the walk.

Alaskans should commend her for that no matter how envious they might be of her rich-folk hunting style.

Suffice to say, that $42,400 figure for travel for Palin, her father and a friend to go hunting -- plus the entourage she dragged around Alaska with her to film "Sarah Palin's Alaska" -- is probably much less than it cost to conduct the hunt she described as lasting "a couple of days,'' which is a long time to spend in a tent if you're not used to it.

Sarah, who thinks charter aircraft costing $350-per hour and up are like taxicabs in Alaska, obviously prefers to do her hunting Midwest style instead of Alaska-expedition style, which requires days just to get the gear organized. Better to hop in airplane, meet up with an outfitter who has everything set up, hike out onto the tundra, pop a caribou and go home.

Substitute a pickup for an airplane; a comfortable tree stand for the outfitter; and this is pretty much how you hunt whitetail deer in Minnesota and Michigan. Shooting deer in those states can be a cost-effective way to put meat on the table. It's not cost effective in Alaska. Palin's caribou was estimated to cost more than $140 per pound, but that figure is surely low, given that it calculated only the costs of lodging and transportation and assumed she got 300 pounds of meat off the little caribou cow she shot.

No way. After gutting, skiing and butchering, the meat on that animal would be closer to 200 pounds, if that, than 300 pounds, which raises the cost of a few caribou steaks, some caribou roasts, and a lot of hamburger to more than $200 per pound -- if the Palins flew all the meat back to Wasilla.

Many a hunter now donates much of the kill to a village in rural Alaska just to save on the cost of flying it out. Some have even given up on the whole Alaska hunting idea because of expense and moved to where it is cheaper and easier to hunt. One just sent me photographs from an elk hunt in New Mexico.

Another called the other day from Arizona where he was traveling cross country with a string of horses -- animals the average working man can barely afford to feed in Alaska, let alone transport to and from hunting country.

The Southwest, not to mention the aforementioned Midwest overrun with whitetail deer, is an easier and more productive place to hunt than Alaska.

There are actually people in Anchorage who fly Outside to go hunting for this very reason. Hunting in Alaska is expensive, hard and often unproductive, especially in the places most Alaskans can afford to hunt.

Unless you want to invest in expensive air-taxi flights, or live in the Panhandle where Sitka blacktail deer are readily accessible, there aren't many legal big-game animals to shoot in Alaska. Forget all that nonsense about the 49th state's bountiful wildlife. It's bull. The reality shows that make it appear Alaska is rich in wildlife lie. They aren't real.

The reality is this:
- The average annual, statewide moose kill in Alaska, which covers 586,412 square miles, is about 8,000 animals.
- The average annual moose kill for the Scandinavian countries -- Sweden, Norway and Finland -- which cover about 130,000 fewer square miles than Alaska, is 200,000 animals a year.

There is at least an order of magnitude more moose killed in Scandinavia each year than there are moose living in Alaska. Alaska does have more caribou, a cousin of the Scandinavian reindeer, than moose, but unlike moose, which can sometimes be found along the state's few roads, most of the caribou live far from the state's population centers.

That's why Sarah had to spend so much money to go shoot one when she opened her freezer and found that "we're down to just five moose packages, three caribou packages.''

Most Alaskans, upon seeing this, would have said, "OK, it's salmon for dinner again tonight'' -- fish being the natural bounty of the land in the 49th state these days as fish were for the first Alaskans of long, long ago.

The way most Alaskans fill their freezer is with a dipnet, a device used to scoop salmon out of Alaska rivers, not a rifle. Salmon are plentiful because they don't live in Alaska. They leave Alaska as little critters to feast on the richness of the ocean environment and then return to the 49th state by the millions to be eaten by people and bears, both of which also eat moose or caribou if they can, but recognize that usually they can't.

Alaska is a much better place to be a human or a bear than a moose or caribou. Humans can store food. And bears sleep though the long, dark winters to emerge when the land is alive again beneath the midnight sun. Moose and caribou have to struggle through the time when the land is cloaked in the white death of winter. It is not easy.

These are some of the realities of Alaska you don't get in reality shows.

Environmentally, Alaska isn't all that friendly of a place to live unless, of course, you have money. Money can't buy happiness, but it sure as heck can purchase convenience. It's a lot easier to order out a pizza, or arrange for a semi-canned hunt, than to spend days chasing futilely after big game near Sarah's home base of Wasilla in the Susitna Valley. Sarah's dad, Chuck Heath, knows about the difficulties of Alaska hunting. It's nice to see that his daughter, being newly wealthy, is now treating him to the more comfortable style of Alaska hunting known to those with money.

Heath used to be relegated to taking a unique form of Alaska welfare to go caribou hunting in the Nelchina Basin east of Wasilla. Nobody called this hunting welfare, of course, because even though it was limited to a select few it wasn't easy. The practice was and is called "subsistence,'' though Chuck and wife, Sally, really never needed caribou to subsist.

But they were among a select group of Alaskan residents who qualified for special permits to hunt one of the few road accessible caribou herds in the state, and so they did. What qualified them for these permits? The fact that they'd lived in Wasilla for decades and claimed to "need'' the caribou for meat. Whether they really needed a dead caribou every year, let alone two -- one for Chuck, one for Sally -- is debatable, but they got two permits because they could, and if that meant many other Alaskans were denied an opportunity to hunt caribou, so be it.

Once elected governor, their daughter could have tried to fix this system to give all Alaskans at least a chance to hunt Nelchina caribou, but she didn't. Why? Because it's better to enjoy the privileges of the ruling elite than suffer with the masses. Sarah might win her points on the national political stage by launching attacks on the elite, but in Alaska she has long enjoyed being a political elitist and now she seems to be really enjoying being among the economic elite.

Nothing wrong with that. It's good old capitalism at work. But it does make one wonder how much reality there is likely to be in her Alaska reality show, and judging by the episodes to date that answer would appear to be "not much." It is, however, most interesting to ponder the view of Alaska people Outside might get from watching the show.

They probably could come to believe, as Sarah has said, that airplanes are like taxi cabs here. One can only guess what their reaction might be when they visit the state and find out what one of these winged cabs cost.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com