Kodiak—Alaska’s prized emerald. Few places on Earth evoke such a primal response to push the limits of adventure and peril, tugging insatiably at a hunter’s heart for a chance at a trophy black-tailed buck. A temptress, her infatuating beauty and mystic charm stir a forbidding impulse to ignore her menacing alter ego. Seductively, she beckons her callers to cast aside inhibition and trepidation: to challenge her gale-whipped waters; to climb her jagged peaks and traverse her wide valleys; and to push physical endurance beyond sensible limits in search of concealed treasures.
Mother Nature was in an uncommonly good mood when she took up hammer and chisel to sculpt the spectacularly scenic wilds of Kodiak Island, ideally suited for land, sea and marine life—while much less suitable for human habitation. Lush carpets of vegetation, meandering streams and grassy marshes and remote hidey-holes accessible only by boat or plane provide for abundant wildlife. It’s Sitka black-tailed deer, waterfowl and brown bears that draw the most interest from hunters, and they travel from all parts of the world—from all walks of life—to harvest Kodiak Island’s bounty.
Ours would be an unguided hunt—our charter captain and crew providing transportation, warm sleeping quarters and hearty meals. Each day we’d venture ashore to test our mettle, arriving back at the boats after dark tired and fulfilled. Each
jotted journal entry would provide only fleeting ghosts of the memories, the experiences, the emotions—often too intense and too personal for words.
NOVEMBER 14: The Witch of November blissfully stirs her cauldron, cackling gleefully like a demented old hen. Her malicious brew of spitting wet snow and soupy fog has reduced visibility to near zero. It means an unscheduled overnight stay in Anchorage. I stretch my legs and shake off the effects of the long flight from Minneapolis, while waiting for my luggage to appear on the conveyor. Kodiak Island will have to wait until tomorrow, but things could be worse. I’m in Alaska with some of my very best hunting buddies, and only one day away from pursuing Sitka black-tailed deer.
NOVEMBER 15: The fog lifted during the night, and we rush to the airport to catch the short flight to the Kodiak airport. A few hours later, we board an ancient twin-prop Norseman Islander that literally bounces down the runway before grudgingly grabbing air. I dig in for the white-knuckled flight to Larsen Bay, occasionally releasing my grip on the foam seatback in front of me where my fingerprints are deeply—probably permanently—imprinted. Fifty mph winds buffet the small aircraft and visibility is so poor we have to drop below 1,000 feet to navigate a smattering of small islands and inlets, and to avoid other air traffic. It’s no comfort that our pilot doesn’t look a day over 18, even though he assures us that today he’s celebrating his 26th birthday.
I loosen my hold on the seat cushion and whisper a thankful prayer as the plane touches down on the gravel runway at Larsen Bay. We’re greeted by charter Capt. Mike Flores of Ninilchik Charters, and our gear is transported to the marina where his stout Delta fishing boats, the 50-foot Sunday and 43-foot Arctic Endeavor, are docked. They’ll be our home for the next week. We get settled in, traverse Uyak Bay and anchor in a sheltered cove where we’ll spend the night. After eating a hearty salmon dinner and stowing my gear in the claustrophobic sleeping quarters in the bow of the boat I’ll share with five other hunters, I turn in and quickly fall asleep to the sound of gentle waves tickling the hull. I awake a short time later to a chorus of snoring bunkmates, each seemingly trying to outdo the others. Thank God for ear plugs!
NOVEMBER 16: My rifle didn’t make it on the flight the previous day, so while most of our group goes ashore to hunt, I accompany Mike back to Larsen Bay. At the marina we get word the town of Kodiak got 10 inches of snow overnight. Could’ve used it here to push the deer down. As it is, we’ll have to climb 1,000 vertical feet to the snowline, where Mike says the mature bucks are.
NOVEMBER 17: It’s the fourth day of the trip, and I finally get to hunt. The morning breaks clear and cold, and I’m put ashore on Amook Island with friends Linda Powell from Remington Arms and Doug Jeanneret with the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance. We begin our
ascent, which is surprisingly steep and extremely brushy for the first 400 vertical feet or so.
After an hour of slowly picking our way through tangled alders, we stop for a breather and to glass the surrounding hills. We aren’t even settled in when Linda reaches over and tugs on my coat sleeve, “Deer … buck!” And indeed it is—a beautiful 3x3 with eye guards sneaking through the brush not 40 yards away, seemingly oblivious to the fact he has company. I shoulder my rifle and take the shot as he enters the far side of an opening. Clearly hit, he bolts and I hear him pile up a short distance away. We celebrate our good fortune with back slaps and photos, then transport the deer to the Arctic Endeavor so we can resume our hunt.
After clawing our way to 1,000 feet, we gingerly skirt a slippery side hill that’s split by deep draws littered with deer sign. There, we stop to eat our bag lunches and take another breather.
We see several deer, including a small buck that stumbles down a steep grade in pursuit of an uncooperative doe. We’re about to move on when another buck materializes on the next ridge over, silhouetted against the sky. Doug settles in and makes the shot, and we watch the deer tumble into the alders below. It takes us a while to make our way down, and I can’t help but wonder if a bear within earshot is doing the same. We’ve been told not to linger after a kill because the local brownies respond to gunshots.
We quickly field dress the buck and drag him out of the thick brush where we have a better view of our surroundings. It’s a long downhill drag to the beach, and Doug decides to take the direct route down a steep slope as Linda and I skirt the hillside on a more gradual path.
We’re just beginning our descent when movement catches my peripheral vision—a huge brown bear sow with twin cubs. I reach over and grab Linda’s arm, trying not to alarm her, “We’ve got company.” We slowly ease to our knees. The sow is inside 200 yards and appears to be trailing us. I consider getting up and looking large when the trio changes course and heads up the hill, apparently on the buck’s blood trail. Linda and I seize the opportunity and drop down off the hill unseen. We rendezvous with Doug and help him drag his buck the rest of the way down to the beach.
NOVEMBER 18: Uneventful day. It rains off and on all morning, just enough to put a chill on everything. It takes 3 hours for Joe Arterburn of Cabela’s and me to hike up to the snowline where we find a good vantage point, eat lunch and then glass for a couple hours. On the way up we stumble onto “Bear Avenue”—a tight passage between two large boulders loaded with brown bear sign. While scrambling up the rocky slope, I hear a soft, guttural growl behind me and spin around to face my worst fear … Joe. He smiles and proudly pats his stomach, “That was me.”
We see one small buck chasing a doe. It appears the rut is kicking in. Joe taps my shoulder and points to the bay far below us. A dozen or so orca whales are playfully circling the Arctic Endeavor. Spectacular! We watch for a few minutes and then gather our gear. Time to start down if we want to make it to the beach by dark.
Back aboard the Sunday, Linda proudly shows me the nice buck she killed earlier that day … wish I could’ve been along to watch her excitement. Doug had a good day, too, shooting his second buck. Word is, we’ll be moving to a different area in the morning. I’m looking forward to the boat ride and a change of scenery.
For supper we have bear meat and bean chili. Not a great choice considering the tight sleeping arrangements. Enough said.
NOVEMBER 19: A pod of fin whales checks us out on the way to the bay where we’ll go ashore to hunt. Cameras in hand, we all go out onto the deck to enjoy the spectacle. The sun breaks free from the scattered clouds and we’re treated to a rare hour of sunshine. Joe and I hit the beach at 10:30 a.m. and immediately hunt our way up to 900 feet. I pick the trail and it turns out to be a brutal climb, the last 500 vertical feet on our hands and knees. I think Joe considers pitching me off the mountain when we finally reach the summit. Adding insult to injury, the wind is whipping on top and the deer aren’t moving—probably hunkered down, waiting out the squall. We tough it out for an hour and then drop into a draw and begin our descent to the beach. On our way down the heavens open up and a focused sunray breaks through the clouds like a giant spotlight panning the aqua-velvet bay far below us … incredible.
NOVEMBER 20: Hunting with Joe and Linda today. We beach at first light and begin spot-and-stalking our way 2 miles to where we’ll be picked up at dark. Only see three small bucks … the big boys are probably up higher. Three of the guys hunted ducks today and got their Zodiak beached at low tide, delaying our pickup until well after dark. It’s not cold, but we attempt to build a fire for something to do. Everything is soaked and all we produce is a dismal smudge. Back at the boat we’re told three good bucks were spotted up high. Doug, Joe and I decide to head up there in the morning. Tomorrow’s the last day of the hunt … feels a little desperate, but we’ll give it the college try.
NOVEMBER 21: The island has taken an accumulative physical and emotional toll, and it takes all the optimism we can muster to make the hike up to the snowline. As predicted, it takes 3 hours to get to where the deer had been the previous day. A squall kicks up as we settle in for a 2-hour sit and there’s absolutely no deer movement. We call it quits and hunt our way back down. I feel exhausted, but in a good way. As the hunt comes to its conclusion I take stock of the highlights of the past week—the breathtaking beauty, the challenges, the dangers, the physical and mental highs and lows. It would take a lifetime of trips to Kodiak to get my fill.