Monday, October 30, 2023

Prince of Wales Deer Hunt - November 2022

Southeast Alaska is a special place. For me, the magic of this northern rainforest is because it seems to be another world, or perhaps another universe, from the high desert of the Rocky Mountains where I grew up.

I love deer hunting in Southeast, and for years have dreamed of trip to Prince of Wales Island to chase the ghosts of the rainforest that are Sitka Blacktail Deer. Last November, Mike, Ethan, Ian and I were lucky enough to go.

Ethan and Ian flew north from California, Mike from Nevada, while I flew south from Anchorage to rendezvous in Ketchikan. We planned to take the airport ferry into town, find our rental vehicle, shop for supplies, then ferry to Prince of Wales.

First off was the task of locating our Turo 4Runner in the Ketchikan airport parking lot. Mike arrived in ahead of us and knew we had a black 4Runner reserved, so tried the doors on the first one he found. It was unlocked and the keys were stashed above the visor. It was a rusty beater with floors covered in trash, but apparently this was the best I could find. Upon turning the key in the ignition he discovered the battery was dead. A look at the license plate revealed this wasn't our rental. Just like most cars in small town AK - unlocked and with the keys in them. Imagine where he would be if it had started.

Now in possession of the correct vehicle, and hungry and excited, we were ready for a supply run. We bought way too many tortillas, eggs, and sausages, barely crammed our gear and ourselves into the truck, then headed for the ferry.

With the SUV parked below the deck, we climbed upstairs and kicked back for the cruise to POW. Ferries are a different style than the cramped, loud, and uncomfortable utilitarian boats that we usually use; I always enjoy their comfort, space, and perspective high above the water.

When we drove off the ferry and onto the island, night was falling on the rainforest around us. With headlights filling the dark road, we drove north towards the Sweetwater Lake Cabin. Occasionally we'd see the glowing eyes of a deer peering out of the trees, or a rear end as one slipped back into the forest. Each animal increased our excitement and anticipation for the days ahead.

After two hours driving through the inky night we pulled off the road to park on the shoulder from where we hoped the cabin would be the closest. Under the little beams of our headlamps, we thrashed around the deadfall and devils club of the old growth until the outline of the dark cabin appeared out of the gloom.

Knowing that we'd want to start hunting as early as we could the next day, we packed our loads of gear to the cabin, lit a fire, and crashed for the night. All too soon, we were crawling out of our sleeping bags and into the morning's murky first light.

Just days ago in the Prince William Sound, I'd seen deer around the snow line at 1,000 feet. Thinking that might be where they were here too, we headed for an area of high muskeg. As we left the road and hiked into the woods, there were some fresh tracks in the snow and it seemed promising. Mike and I had a successful Blacktail hunt the previous October in the Prince William Sound, so Mike went with Ethan for the day, while I split off with Ian.

Throughout the day, rain showers rolled through followed by beautiful light of the angular sun in late fall.

We'd walk thru the muskeg until finding sign and the right landscape, then stop to call until we were cold. Then move again until we warmed up.

It was a quiet day for Ian and I. We saw barely any rubs, limited sign, and no deer. By the end of the day I was pretty sure that we were in the wrong elevation band. Climbing back towards the truck at the end of the day, we looked across the green spruce trees spilling out below us towards towards the moody waters of the Alexander Archipelago.

Closing in on the truck, we encountered a horrendous mix of primary growth and deadfall. I've heard horror stories of labyrinths of impenetrable vegetation in Southeast Alaska and never really believed them. Boy was I wrong. As night closed around us we crawled in a circle over, under, and through the walls of wood and I realized we were on the verge of an epic. Eventually we staggered out of the grasping branches to find Mike and Ethan on the old logging road by the truck. They'd had similar luck as us, seeing one doe and little else.

Back at the cabin, we lit the stove, shoved food down our throats, and made a game plan for the next day. With a plan to try a lower elevation muskeg complex closer to the cabin, we passed out on the hard plywood bunks of the cabin.

Early morning of the second day found us driving down a dark logging road towards the muskegs. Bouncing along the little lane, deer scattered in the headlights in front of us, and we knew this was a better place.

As we crept away from the truck and into the woods, we passed the remains of the summer's salmon run scattered across the banks of the creek by birds and bears. 

Like the previous day, the weather was a showery mix of rain, sun, and snow. The cold precipitation was chilling and we wore our rubber raingear to help keep the water out and our warmth in.

There were rubs on the edges of the meadows, and Mike and I worked together to find deer while Ethan and Ian split off to do the same. Walking deeper into the muskeg, we called in a curious little button buck who hung out to investigate us before slipping into the woods and out of sight.

It was quiet in the wet shrubby meadows, so Mike and I tried hunting the forest. In the safety of the trees there was sign of deer everywhere and webs of game trails tunneling through the underbrush. We crashed around looking for enough visibility to stop and call. The brush was too loud and the line of sight poor, so we returned to the muskeg.

We continued our strategy of finding good habitat and sign, plus the right amount of cover, then stopping to call until we got impatient. At one such spot we called then stood silently tucked in the bushes. Five minutes of waiting and a nice buck came sprinting into sight. His neck was swollen and he was clearly crazed by the hormones of the rut. Another blow of the fawn call reached his ears he came to a screeching halt and spun looking for love or at least a fight. A short offhand shot from the 30-06 to his vitals and he was ours.

He had a big body and beautiful antlers rubbed to a shiny burnt orange color. We were stoked. Knowing he might have a competitor in tow, we blew the fawn call again then started processing the big blacktail. As we worked, Mike caught motion out of the corner of his eye, and looked up to see a three by three peering at us from the bushes. Mike tiptoed over to his gun, and another buck was ours!

By the time we were done processing the two animals, the sun was set, night was arriving, and we needed to boogey back to the road. With the muskeg illuminated by the rising full moon, we carried our loads back to the meet Ian and Ethan at the truck.

Like us, they'd spent the day trying to crack the code, and had been rewarded with a nice buck who they'd called out of the timber.

Content with this hunting zone, we returned to the cabin on the lake to repeat the process early the next morning.

For the third day, Ethan and I stuck together while Mike went with Ian. Ethan and I have so many fond memories together over the years and know each other so well. Adventures (or anything) with Ethan is always a treat and I was stoked as we hiked into the old growth together.

The old forest was a beautifully green sanctuary. We stopped to sit on the shed-sized stumps of the old giants and call.

Visibility was good in these woods, but no deer came, and we crawled out of the jungle to return to the more open landscape of the muskeg where we'd done well the day before.

Calling at the edge of a meadow, it wasn't long before Ethan hissed over that there was a deer sneaking up right behind me. The young buck seemed confused about my mating potential and was too close to me for Ethan to safely shoot. 

The movement of my turning head startled the fork and he bounded out of sight before Ethan could get a clean shot. I figured he was gone and was ready to move on, but Ethan knew better and called him back in with the fawn bleat. As the buck tried to sneak back towards us, Ethan masterfully shot the moving deer offhand through a window in the branches. He was the perfect size for high quality meat.

Hours seem to slip by like minutes in the of the temperature rainforest - when we were done processing Ethan's animal the shadows were getting long and it was time to start the slog back.

It was past sunset when we reached the 4Runner. There was no sign of Ian and Mike, so Ethan and I tiptoed off the road and into a nearby glade to call until dark. We blew the call and waited. Within minutes, the head and wide shoulders of a buck floated out of the dusk. 

It was a short shot, and the bruiser disappeared. Walking towards the spot, we could smell him well before we saw him - the mature buck was in the heat of the rut. 

It was a short drag back to the truck where Mike and Ian joined to help quarter the deer in the dark.

Three days down and all of us were happy with our harvest. So, for our last full day we decided to take it easy, explore, and catch up on chores. We slept in a bit, then left the cabin to see some new areas.

It was a beautiful clear and cold November day and we watched in awe as the fog wrapped around the spruce trees by the night's condensed moisture burned off around us.

To start out, we decided to see if we could find any deer in the many old clear cuts of the island.

Moving from one cut to the next we saw a few does, but couldn't get any bucks to stand up or come in. Regardless, it was nice to enjoy the comradery of the group and the low pressure program of the day.

After no success in a handful of clearcuts, we turned down a new road to find the snow covered in the tracks of a pack of wolves. Additionally, we were in a secondary growth forest poor habitat - this was no place to find deer. We poked around for a little bit, then called it quits. We needed to refuel the truck and start breaking down our harvest for the journey home.

Driving into Coffman Cove, we found fuel, a crisp north wind blowing off the water, and not much else.

Then it was back to the cabin to survey the work ahead.

Between guns, gear, and meat we'd be tight on weight for our return flights and needed to debone the quarters.

Working under the light of our headlamps, we finished processing the game, packing, cleaning up after ourselves, then cleaning up again after Ethan and Mike's egg fight. East down the lake, the road was closer to the water, and we loaded up the cabin's skiff to ferry our gear. The cold north wind was blowing hard, and Ian and I were splattered with chunks of ice by the time we oared to the takeout.

Another full day and we needed to hit the hay for the early start to catch the ferry home. We closed our eyes, and before we knew it, our alarms were bringing us back to life in the pitch-black cabin. Stumbling to the road, we squeezed into the overloaded 4Runner and drove south under the lights of the aurora.

Somewhere along this dark drive I missed an important turn and didn't notice until we pulled into Thorne Bay instead of Hollis. Suddenly we were running really late - time to see how fast the rental could rally unfamiliar, icy, and winding roads booby-trapped with kamikaze deer. 

As the first light awoke the rainforest around us, we came screeching into the terminal without pancaking a deer, crashing the truck, or missing the ferry. With the morning sun reflecting off the water to kiss the big boat, we loaded up for the cruise back to Ketchikan and our flights home.

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