I just received a forwarded email from one of my hunters, from yet another air charter that is refusing to haul standard rafting gear aboard their aircraft. He provided them with a list of three boats offered by a low-end manufacturer who specializes in cheaper, light-weight boats that have no long-standing track record on Alaska's wilderness rivers, suggesting those boats as alternatives.
This is the third air service I have encountered in the last year that is clamping down on this issue; the problem is growing. We have been carrying industry-standard gear into the field for decades; why is it now becoming an issue?
SUMMARY OF THE PROBLEM
1. Some air services are now dictating what passengers can take aboard the aircraft, even if the loads are well within weight limits and no other safety issues exist.
2. The boats being recommended are not acceptable for float hunting for moose, either because A) they don't provide enough lift, B) there are concerns related to the quality and performance of the products.
SCOPE OF THE PROBLEM
Here is a short list of the four situations I know about, with four different air services:
1. A well-known air service in western Alaska is supplying boats and camping gear for float hunters, and is STRONGLY suggesting that hunters use their gear exclusively. They are providing 14' self-bailing NRS Otters. One boat per pair of moose hunters, usually without a frame or oars (canoe paddles instead). Will they be the next to insist that we cannot bring our own gear?
2. A well-known south-central Alaska air service is now INSISTING that hunters use the boats supplied by the air service, and REFUSES to transport anyone using their own equipment. They are supplying NRS Otter self-bailers; one boat per pair of moose hunters. Rowing frame and oars included.
3. A Fairbanks-based operator REFUSES to carry customer's boats as of this year, and strongly recommends three boats that have been pitched to him by a local retailer. The boats he is recommending are the PR-49 packraft, the Wilderness X-Stream canoe, and the Maxxon Legend.
4. An older operator based in the interior is providing 14' non-bailers (NRS Otters) on the basis of one boat per pair of moose hunters. No frame or oars (just canoe paddles).
WHATíS THE ISSUE WITH THESE BOATS?
If we use a two-person moose hunt as our benchmark for this discussion, then we are dealing with the following rough numbers:
Weight of hunters: 400#
Weight of camp, food and personal gear: 300#
Weight of meat and trophies: 1400#
TOTAL PAYLOAD: 2100#
We could shave a little weight by trimming our gear weight, but that's our smallest number. We're not going to lose much there. There's not a lot we can do about the weight of a moose, so I guess the only other thing we can do is only send skinny hunters to the field?
1. NRS 14' Otter Livery (non bailer): NRS doesn't post capacities for any of their boats anymore (long story you can read about on our inflatable boats page). But a similar-sized boat from AIRE posts a capacity of about 1,496 lbs. AIRE is known to be conservative with their capacities, but it would be safe to say that this boat would have a similar capacity. The AIRE rig is their 143R, a self-bailer. You could push the limits on the non-bailer by overloading it (and it would carry more than the bailer that way), but you can scratch the shallow rivers off the list, along with those that require quick maneuvering to avoid hazards. The bottom line is that this boat is not adequate for the load we quoted in our example.
2. NRS Otter 142SB (Self-Bailer): Capacity is the same as the AIRE boat we quoted. Again, this boat will not do the job. I carried an entire moose, two empty packs and two people in a 12' Otter self-bailer once (just down and across a slough on a drop camp hunt), and we had four inches of water over the floor inside the boat. A hunter contacted me just yesterday on this issue and last fall they had one moose, two hunters and gear aboard this boat (the Otter 142SB), and water was almost flooding the floor. No way could they have hauled two moose in that boat.
3. PR-49 Packraft: At the risk of incurring the wrath of the packraft crowd, packrafts are not adequate as a primary boat for moose hunting. The material is thin and the boat is highly susceptible to catastrophic tube failure in shallow water or if it encounters sharp rocks, tree limbs, sweepers or beaver punji-sticks. It also does not have the carrying capacity you need. Even if we put two of these boats on the water, we would still be over the load limits.
4. Maxxon Wilderness X-Stream Canoe: Although this boat posts a load capacity of 1,800 lbs., I believe this number is way too high for this boat. When compared to the AIRE Traveler, this boat is only 18" longer, the tube diameter is 2" larger and the inside width is 5" narrower. The Traveler posts a capacity of 750 lbs. I cannot see how the X-Stream can carry over twice the load of the Traveler without grossly overloading it. This boat cannot safely carry the load posted in our example. We're still 300# over their stated limit. The hunt could be conducted with two of these boats, but I would want rowing setups on each one. The weight of this boat is 72 lbs. without rigging, so we are looking at 144 lbs. for two of them. You could put a 15' NRS Otter SB out there instead, and it would weigh less (131 lbs. without rigging).
5. Maxxon Legend Canoe. This boat is new on the market, and on general principle I donít recommend brand-new products anyway, unless produced by a company with a stellar reputation (longevity in the Alaska market, low failure rate, stable, consistent product line, top-quality materials and workmanship, etc.) But I'm concerned about the size of this boat as well. Stated capacity is 1,250 lbs., but as we saw in the previous example, these numbers are vastly overstated for safe operations on many Alaska rivers. What if we used two of these boats? One man, half the gear load and a moose with cape and antlers is going to put you at 1,050 or thereabouts. That's 200# short of a stated max load on this boat. There are certainly lakes and rivers where you could make this work, but taken as a generic recommendation for Alaska rivers, there is no way I would put one of my hunters in this boat, given the loads we are looking at in our example.
Finally, while I have a lot of faith in the quality of the materials and workmanship in the NRS boats (they've been out there for a long time with a proven track record), I cannot say the same for Maxxon. The material is PVC, which tends to gouge and scratch on abrasive rocks. Therefore most reputable companies using PVC are going with thicker fabric, to avoid fabric failure in the field. AIRE uses PVC, and I trust their fabric implicitly because it has proven itself in Alaska for decades. Itís thicker, which gives it the abrasion protection you need, in order to avoid wearing through to the base cloth layer. They also use a heaver base cloth, which helps prevent simple punctures from becoming longitudinal tears. Maxxon does not have that track record yet. I think both of the Maxxon boats would be vastly improved with a spray-coating of urethane; arguably the most abrasion-resistant material on the boat market.
I realize these comments might raise some hackles here, because of product loyalty. I have no dog in this fight, nor am I bashing anyone. I am simply pointing out concerns I have on behalf of my moose hunters who need reliable boats with enough lift to do the job on a variety of Alaska river systems. As such, I am open to your words of correction if I am in error on any of this.
BUSH PLANE CAPACITIES
I have posted a list of the common Bush planes used in Alaska, together with the relevant stats on each, AT THIS LINK. This should give you a rough idea of what an airplane can haul, however each aircraft is configured differently and rated separately in terms of carrying capacity (two Beavers on floats don't necessarily carry the same load). So you still need to work with the air service on how much weight you can carry. But when I get a pilot who flies a DeHavilland Beaver telling my hunters that the total payload in that aircraft is two hunters and 100 lbs. each, we have a problem. The average Beaver will haul over 1,000 lbs. of passengers and gear. I have been doing this for over 25 years, and I know what most of these aircraft will carry.
BOATS FOR FLOAT HUNTS
I have also posted charts on the various types of inflatables, including the dimensions of the boats, current retail price, and estimated load capacity. Keep in mind that there are no industry standards for calculating raft capacity, so manufacturers are making these numbers up. Some are better at it than others, and are posting what I believe to be VERY conservative numbers. AIRE and Northwest River Supplies, along with SOTAR fall into this category. And there is at least one that is grossly overstating the capacity of their boats. I believe the Maxxon boats listed on our pages fall into that category; it is my understanding that they calculate capacity based on how much weight it takes to push the tubes down into the water to the midpoint (the boat is halfway submerged). Brother, if you do that in the field, you are simply asking for trouble. 1) you lose most of your ability to move the boat around obstacles, 2) you are at serious risk of swamping. At a minimum, you will get splash-over and your game meat will get wet. Here is a list of the various pages, for each type of boat:
ROUND BOATS PAGE
I don't know what we can do to turn this situation around, but perhaps if the word gets out that hunters have had enough, and will seek out operators that will allow them to choose their own equipment, that might be a start.
In a way, float hunters have themselves to blame for this problem. We push the weight limits offered by the charters, forcing them to weigh up all our gear to avoid going above maximum standards. Often this happens simply because hunters have no experience in Alaska, therefore they don't know what works and what doesn't. They end up relying on other people for their information and sometimes they get bad info.
We need to be diligent to avoid over-packing. When an air service gives you a weight limit, be sure you are at or under that limit. If they give you a list of prohibited items that you cannot carry in the cabin of the aircraft (bear spray, etc.), don't try to sneak anything aboard. They are interested in the safety of their crew, their passengers and their equipment.
Folks, we need to take a stand on this issue. As long as there is not a safety issue, there should be no problem with an air service transporting whatever hunters are carrying. There is no reason I can see that we should allow an air service to dictate what equipment we are using in the field, as long as we are within the limits of safety and have met the DOT / FAA regulatory requirements.
Working with an air service is a team effort, involving the air service, the pilot, and the passengers. When one of these entities over-reaches themselves without justification, that's when we have a problem. Let's work together to help educate each other and the commercial service providers on this issue. Let's quit forcing the air services to plan our hunts for us simply because we have not done our homework. Let's help our air services focus on their core mission of providing safe transportation to and from the field at an acceptable price, by doing our part in locating our own hunting areas, packing appropriately, and not pushing the limits.
I hope we can get this issue resolved soon. Meanwhile, this is just a heads-up to float hunters out there.