Monday, September 26, 2022

Kodiak Road System Deer Hunt - September 2022

Fieldwork in remote Alaska can be a bear: horrible logistics, bad weather, uncertain schedules that drag on, droning machinery, and sometimes difficult and usually unusual people. Its also a chance to see beautiful and wild places that you might not otherwise. In September I headed to Kodiak Island for a few days of environmental work about an old laundromat that used to throw its dry cleaning fluids out the back door. Some people.

Hoping for a quick overnight hunt when I landed, I tossed my gun in my luggage pile next to the work gear. When I landed on the island I ran to pick up a pile of sampling equipment from air cargo, stuffed a few energy bars in my pockets, then drove south in hopes of finding a buck.

When I pulled off the Pasagshak Road there were already three trucks parked and I wondered if it was gonna be a busy night. I quickly caught up with a group who looked more like your stereotypical moose hunters than my solo backcountry skier type. I worried they might feel like I was encroaching, but they were looking for a goat, and with a promise not to scare off any shaggy white carpets they waved me on.

The trail was steep, though would have been worse if wet and muddy, and I didn't have much time to work with before dark. So, I was drenched with sweat from my sprint to the alpine by the time I emerged from the thick brush and tall grass that is so alien to mainland Southcentral AK. Over the years, a key for me to improve my harvest odds has been to get out of sight of eyes of road hunters glassing from their trucks. So, I dropped off the ridge and out of site of civilization. As I descended to the next low pass I ran into two guys returning from a successful goat hunt. They looked totally worked as they climbed out of the valley; I knew I could be in their shoes the next morning. 

Climbing out of the valley pass in the maroon sunset I could see a couple tents tucked into a draw and knew I should hike as far as possible to give them space. With that in mind, I kept going until I couldn't see the ground under my feet and needed my GPS to confirm I was perched in a high spot that hopefully would have a good panorama of a view the next morning.

Unfortunately when I crawled out of bed at first light my panorama was the uniform gray of the inside of a cloud. Shoot. It was probably clear under the clouds, but I wanted to be in the alpine to look down for deer feeding near the brush line.

Sitting down to wait out the fog, I promptly fell asleep. This will come as no surprise to anyone who knows how useless and dysfunctional I am in the mornings. I woke with a start as the fog cleared and the sunrise started to kiss the mountaintops with marmalade light. Shit! Hoping I hadn't missed too much of that valuable early morning when deer are the most active, I peered into the protected shadows and draws below me to where a group of deer were feeding. Historically, deer hunting for me has been an October and November activity in the thick country of the Prince William Sound. When you encounter a deer you're usually close enough to easily see if its has antlers. Looking across the wide open country below, I couldn't see antlers from that distance. Many of the adults had small fawns with them, so it seemed likely that they were a nursery group. Additionally, they often disappeared as they fed in and out of the thick brush surrounding them. Even if there was a buck in there it would be easy to lose in the bushes. 

Looking for better odds, I turned my attention elsewhere. 180 degrees away on the other side of the ridge two deer were feeding downhill. The sun was just starting to touch these two and they were already heading towards the protection of the alders.

So, I looked where I didn't want to find deer - farther from the road. Of course, I immediately picked out a large group of deer across the valley and on the next hillside another mile away. Some were clearly does paired with fawns, but then there was a large solo deer feeding above and away from the rest - it seemed like it could be a buck. 

I grabbed my gun and scampered down the ridge for the sidehill crossing to their hillside. As is so often the case, more of the animals came in and out of sight as my perspective changed, and the critters fed in and out of the nooks and crannies or sat down and raised out of their beds. For example, I eventually saw several other deer on the picture hillside below as I traversed across the slippery slope, but at this moment only one is visible like a rock on the skyline:

Working closer, I kept my eyes on the maybe buck high on the mountain. Then its fawn stood up out of the grass next to it. Bummer - self doubt immediately started to creep in as I wondered if I was just looking at another maternal group. Glassing while I thought about what to do, my eye caught two deer butting heads as they pushed out of a hollow. Sweet!

As I worked across the treacherous hillside and nearer the group, I inevitably had to crawl through bands of thick and loud alders. If I had a god I would have prayed to him for some silence. For better or worse, I do not, and a few of the does started to pick up on my presence. There was nothing to it but to continue to work closer by using the moguled terrain for as much cover as it could provide.

Raising slowly over one of these bumps in the terrain, I saw the flash of antlers in the grass ahead. There was a buck feeding away from me down a draw! At this point all the other deer I could see were either staring straight at me or thinking about running away. There wasn't time (especially since I needed to get back to work) to figure out if there were other bucks here. This would be the one. I crawled through a ravine and into range, set my gun on my backpack, and found the buck in my scope. He was grazing away from me with his head down, not a perfect or easy shot, but what I had to work with. I shot for the neck with the goal of not wasting any meat.

The round hit the beautiful animal and he exploded out of the blocks and downhill towards the cover of the steep brush. I wasn't sure if he just had a few more steps in him, or I was looking at a wild goose chase after a wounded buck through Kodiak brown bear country. Especially by myself, I had no interest in any scary tracking, so I caught the running animal in my scope and dropped him with another round before he could disappear into the jungle.

Stoked, and honestly pretty surprised to have lucked out with a buck on the road system in September, I started the work of processing the plump meat. Given my distance from the road, I was really thankful he was younger and my pack out would be bearable. I loaded the harvest in my pack and started back to pack up my tent. Looking up towards camp, I regretted my choice of putting my expensive and flimsy fabric shelter on the highest point in the area AND in the middle of a knife-edge ridge. It seemed like a better idea in the dark.

Back at camp, I quickly packed up, ate my last bar, then started the off-camber descent towards the next pass. The terrain was steep and exposed, and I took my time thankful that I had my trekking poles, but wishing I had my microspikes for traction against the 100 pound pack.  

I was relieved when I got off the steep terrain of the slippery mountainside and into the more moderate terrain of the valley. Starting the next climb I remembered the goat hunters I'd seen suffering here the previous night - I felt the same way. Getting greedy, I looked below me at what I thought might be a series of grassy meadows connecting to the road, and decided to try a different return route with less vertical, but more unknown. Turns out those grassy "meadows" were actually filled with the shoulder height thorns of salmon berry bushes.

By the time I fully grasped the mess I had gotten myself into it was too late to ascend back to my originally planned route. The briar was so thick that it sometimes literally stopped me in my tracks as I leaned downhill into the impenetrable vegetation. With boots full of prickly sticks, thorns protruding from my exposed and scratched flesh, and out of the few bars I packed, I knew I was on the verge of an epic. Four and a half hours after leaving the deer's skeleton behind, I fell out of the thicket and with a sigh of relief crawled onto the road. Time to rush back to town and get to work!

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