[Note: The following was first published in the October 2013 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]
Copyright © 2013 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.
It was an area in northern Alberta we knew very well: every stream, wetland, cutline, road and game trail. We had hunted there for 15 or more years as game was plentiful. We usually got our moose, only missing in those years when none of us got drawn for moose licences or we just had plain bad luck. The forestry and petroleum industries had been there all along and had indeed provided the access we used to penetrate the forest. Early-on their activity was easily avoided. We had a variety of comfortable campsites and hunting areas from which to choose and stay out of other people’s way.
However, in the last few years, both industries began ramping things up: more roads, wells, pipelines, gas plants and forestry cut blocks broke up the terrain as if in some kind of frenzy. And the traffic on the roads and the noise was getting hard to avoid.
Strangely, the fact we were in a region of key woodland caribou habitat didn’t help the situation. Now, if you know anything about woodland caribou, you know they prefer low-production, old-growth forests far from human disturbance. So, you would think the protection of such habitat would restrict activities of industry. That didn’t appear to be the case. Instead, Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development appeared to be compensating for the loss of habitat with reduction of wolf numbers (through poisoning and aerial shooting) and the lowering of the moose population through the increased issuance of cow/calf tags (on the theory that moose attract wolves, which in turn kill more caribou). So, we were seeing a significant drop in moose numbers but had never seen a woodland caribou to recognize it.
Good forestry practices with regard to regeneration of the forest will eventually produce good habitat for moose and other animals, such as deer (but not caribou), who feed on the vegetation that is produced in second growth. So, these areas should produce game again. But will it be necessary to continue the war against the moose population, especially if there is little caribou habitat left? I’ll leave that question for another time.
Of more immediate concern to our quartet of moose hunters was our need to move our centre of operations out of the way of the resource extraction frenzy and find a more suitable hunting area. But where do we go?
Of course, this wasn’t the first time we had moved camp in our 40+ year history of moose hunting. In the early days we used to move a lot to find a suitable area. Then we found one we liked and stayed a few years. However, we eventually got pushed out by the area’s increasing popularity with other hunters. This scenario was repeated a few times before we finally settled on our most recent territory.
In those early days, finding a new site meant searching paper maps and getting recommendations from others. Maps were often out of date, and other hunters are always reluctant to reveal too much information. They might recommend a general area, but no specifics—and for good reason, few hunters like to see many others in their favorite areas. So, a scouting trip is called for. Now, scouting ahead of the season is always a desirable thing to do. By having information about the lay of the land, the location of fall habitats, suitable camping sites and road/trail conditions, you can save a lot of time during your hunt. However, the time to make a special scouting trip, especially in northern Alberta, is often difficult to come by. People only have so many days off work and then there is the cost. Like so many, we often scouted on our first hunting trip into an area.
Nowadays, through the magic of the Internet, you don’t have to rely on outdated paper maps anymore when looking for a new area to hunt. Google Maps (www.google.ca/maps/) and Bing Maps (www.bing.com/maps/), for example, can easily provide you with up-to-date maps on your personal computer, tablet or smartphone. It is easy to navigate to the region you want to inspect and zoom down to the detail you require (within limits). Both services also shift to satellite views that provide you with interesting information about vegetation cover, road conditions, cutlines, etc. The latest version of Google Maps allows for 3-D views provided you have the latest software and equipment to run it. Such views give you some idea of the topography but one must remember that these views are extrapolations of data received from very distant cameras, and much is exaggerated or under-represented.
It might be a generational thing but although I enjoy using digital maps and indeed get much information from them, when I’m on the ground I prefer to refer to a dog-eared and marked-up paper map. I have a file box full of old maps from all my hiking and hunting trips over the years. Each year, I peruse the maps for the area we plan to hunt and check to see if more recent ones have been produced by the federal or provincial government. I grew up outdoors with a map and compass and can use each almost instinctively. As well, government topographic and access maps provide a lot of information that is not available from a satellite image. Topographic maps provide information about elevation and the steepness of terrain. They also give some idea about vegetation etc. As well, one cannot rely on digital information being available in the field. Internet access is limited and batteries die.
Once your party agrees on the general area you want to hunt, the next thing that must be done is scout the area and ground-truth the information you’ve gleaned from map and Internet. Whether the scouting is done in a separate trip or in the first few days of your hunt, it involves the same tasks:
Finding Habitat—if you understand the biology of the animal you are hunting, you know what habitats it is likely to be in or near during your hunt. Your maps should give you an idea where these are but you can only obtain the essential information you need to know on-the-ground, glassing the countryside, driving the roads and walking the trails.
Determining Access—finding the habitat is one thing but accessing it can be another. What roads, cutlines and trails will get you to the habitats you need to investigate?
Camping—if you are planning a multi-day hunt based out of a camp, you need to find a suitable place to put that camp. Is it close to the areas you want to hunt? Are the sites well drained in case of rain or snow, protected from the wind? Is there an area where you can hang your game?
Moving your hunting operation can be a lot of work and frustration. But it can also be an opportunity to learn a new piece of territory and expand your hunting skills. A little homework up front and some careful scouting can improve your chances of making that first trip a successful one. Who knows, you might just want to return next year.