DIY Hunting Adventure on Kodiak Island :: Day 3
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No unsettling moments occurred throughout the night and we both woke up rested just before daylight. Unfortunately, a quick peek through the tent fly and it was obvious that the Kodiak weather was going to be a factor. The cloud ceiling appeared impenetrable and started a whopping 200 or 300 feet up from the valley floor. Based on where all the deer were from the night before, this would be a problem. Content to wait out the low clouds, we fixed a couple kettles of coffee, made some oatmeal (3 packets of strawberry and cream oatmeal supplemented with extra freeze-dried strawberries…yum!), and putted around camp until around 9 AM when the dense clouds finally started to break up.

Exiting through the “gate” in our bear fence, we headed out across the head of the lake and pointed ourselves towards the far slope. The plan was to bushwhack up through the brush and exit into a network of great looking alpine bowls and ridge lines. From there, we would have the remainder of the day at our disposal and hopes were high, as long as the weather behaved that is.

Within an hour’s hike of camp and just before the hike started to become more vertical, we located a great buck. Unfortunately, our naivety and inexperience of judging Sitka black-tailed deer probably got the better of us and we made a rather hasty decision to pass. In hindsight, it was a great buck and one we should have seriously contemplated making a play on. Not only was he a great buck, he was close to camp!! Oh well, lessons learned and, as it turned out, we would encounter this buck again on another day.

As we passed from the valley on to the slope of the mountain, we got our first sustained taste of what everyone had warned me about regarding hunting Kodiak Island in the early season. “Words can’t describe how thick the vegetation is.” “Avoid a 1 acre alder thicket even if you have to go a half-mile around.” “Get ready to suffer.” All I can say is that they were right and alder thickets suck. You ain’t lived until you have used a machete to hack your way through alder thickets chocked with salmonberry with only devil’s club to hang on to for 3 straight hours on a 30 degree slope that is extra slippery because everything is wet all the while getting pelted by rain from the sky above and wondering if a brown bear is going to jump out and eat you from behind the next dip in topography. Brutal. Quite possibly my own personal version of hell on earth.

Despite the struggle of the climb through the alder/salmonberry/devil’s club combination, dad wore a smile of accomplishment as he lay eyes on the beautiful country that I promised him really did exist somewhere past the “next” alder thicket. I had multiple conversations with dad leading up to the hunt where I painted brutally honest pictures of how miserable Kodiak Island can be at times — all in an attempt to calibrate his and my expectations with regards to the trying circumstances that we would likely deal with on a regular basis. From first day to last, and his smile after this first bear of a hike (pun intended) attested to it, dad exuded a tremendously positive attitude through everything that Kodiak Island threw at us.

Once on top, we started seeing deer in just about every pocket we looked. A doe and 2 fawns there, 2 small bucks up there, 2 more does down below near the creek, a small bachelor herd way up on top of the mountain, so on and so forth. The 4 or 5 hours were filled with short hikes, intermittent glassing sessions interrupted by rain, fog, or both at the same time, and a steady procession of bucks through the spotting scope. Whenever the clouds dropped, we would wait it out and pass the time by replenishing some calories, reading our maps to plan the next move, or picking salmonberries from the shrubbery around us.

In a couple heavier downpours, we broke out the DIY Tyvek rain shelter that I built leading up to the hunt. It uses 2 trekking poles, some paracord, and a couple tent stakes to pitch. It worked great and is something I’ll be including in my pack for future hunts. It just as easily becomes a meat processing station.

Eventually, the small network of basins played out and we had not found a buck to pique our interests, so we transitioned to hiking out along a ridge which had pockets of open ground among the alder thickets down slope, but which also gave an excellent overlook to the valley beyond which was filled with deer. Literally, anywhere you looked, there was deer. Who knows how many deer were in that valley, but we counted 35 or 40 easily in the next 2 hours – all does, fawns, and small bucks though. We pressed on, holding our elevation on the ridge above, while keeping our eyes turned to the terrain and valley floor below.

Finally, we slid out and around one alder thicket and stumbled right into 2 bucks bedded just slightly below us in elevation and totally clueless to the fact that we were anywhere in the vicinity. The width of the closer buck immediately grabbed our attention, but it was a long debate whether or not he was a buck we were interested in taking this early in the hunt. After all we were a long ways from camp and the buck we had passed first thing earlier that morning was looming larger as a buck we should have pursued when the opportunity presented itself. Because we had snuck in so quietly under cover of the wet ground and yucky weather, we had the luxury of setting up the spotter and really studying this buck hard. His antlers were that beautiful color I had always envisioned Kodiak bucks to have, and the shot would be by all accounts a relatively easy one. But we still had not seen a Sitka black-tailed deer on the ground and we really did not know what “just beyond his ears” meant…13″ inside spread or 15″ inside spread. The issue of assessing scale was really throwing us for a loop.

Much longer debate summarized in short, after 45 minutes of studying the buck and taking cover a couple different times as rain showers blew in and out. I decided that I would attempt to fill our very first tag of the trip. I won’t over-dramatize the actual moment of taking the shot, because quite frankly the initial excitement of “there’s a buck!” had long since dissipated. After we agreed I would take the shot, I set the spotter up in a solid position, checked the chamber to make sure a cartridge was in position, took a bead, gave dad the warning, and took the shot. He folded at the rifle’s report and I told dad to hold his position until I climbed down the hill to locate him in the high ferns and grass.

Seldom the phenomenon of “ground expansion” occur, but it definitely did in this instance, and the whole experience of being up close to a Sitka black-tailed deer put a lot of things into perspective – not the least of which was the actual size of the buck we had passed earlier that morning! Of course we did not have a scale along on the trip, but I would estimate the average weight of an early season Sitka buck on Kodiak’s south end to be in the 175-200 pound range with ease. They are in ridiculously good condition and have fat layers in excess.

The antlers, as with the body size, were disproportionately larger than we had expected. The inside spread was one-eighth inch shy of 16 inches even and the mass was considerably heavier than we were estimating. All this added up to my very first ever Sitka buck measuring 85″ – 10 whole inches above the Pope & Young minimum (not that I’m saying this was a bowkill because obviously it was not, but stated only for perspective’s sake). Dad and I took some time to admire the buck, take a whole bunch of photographs, and be intentional about soaking up this major moment in our Kodiak Island adventure. The old adage that “once the trigger is pulled, the work begins” is true though, and we found that out in true Kodiak fashion on this night.

Dad kept an eye to the sky for the next pulse of nasty weather and was on full alert for any cruising Kodiak brown bears, bear spray and loaded firearm in hand. From slightly upslope to command a slightly better vantage, he watched as I put my Havalon to work butchering, even using my machete to detach both rib cages per Alaskan wanton waste requirements. Before long, all quarters were out of the rain lying under the doubled up sheet of Tyvek and into game bags they went. Partitioning all the gear and equipment into dad’s pack, I shuffled both full meat bags and the skull of the buck on to my Kifaru and we started back up the hill to re-locate the game trail we had been using to cruise the ridge line hours earlier. This was a chore and it probably did not help that our worst pack-out of the whole trip would prove to be our first of the trip.

The push back to camp lasted nearly 4 hours and definitely qualified as a character builder. In the words of my elk hunting buddy, I guess “it remembers fun.” Type 2 fun for sure. The worst part was that we took a new route back to camp that I was a little uncertain of as afternoon turned to dusk and then into night. That said, I am certain that it was still a better option than retracing our bushwhacking nightmare from 8 or 9 hours earlier in the day. All in all, our route off the mountain was a much longer path and added upwards of a mile to the journey but my plan worked out in the end, and our final descent was free and clear of the alders and salmonberry that had plagued us so badly before on the initial ascent. See the last picture on this post for the yellow route we approximated in our descent.

Just after 11 PM, we shrugged our packs off our aching shoulders and hips, unloaded meat from the Kifaru and into the meat shelter, shared a water bladder to parch our thirst, scarfed down an apple, and crashed in our sleeping bags within seconds of our heads hitting the pillows.

Only because it is interesting to look at in retrospect, here is a rough plot of our day’s course up the mountain and back down. The total measured distance was only 4 and a quarter miles but does not include all the ducking and weaving, zigging and zagging that probably puts that number more in the 5 and a half or 6 mile range. Regardless, this and the elevation profile graphic helps to put Kodiak Island’s south end in perspective for those curious. Oh, and the downward turned red arrow on the 3D landscape is where we took my buck at the back end our day’s loop.

DIY Hunting Adventure on Kodiak Island :: Day 2 Cont…
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The primary and most urgent of tasks after drop-off was to select the flattest, driest site possible – a challenging task in a hummock-infested valley of soggy tundra and infinite small dips and rises. Thankfully, the flattest spot we located (still not very flat!) was right beside where Rolan had dropped us and our gear on the lake shore. First up was the Seek Outside Redcliff tipi, second up was the Shangri-La 2 Go-Lite meat tent, and last was the bear fence. All told, we spent at least an hour tightening up straps, cutting pull-out stakes from a nearby alder patch, and organizing our gear. The most time consuming task was using my machete to lop off all the vegetation from underneath the bear fence strands and make sure we had a perfect circuit to deter any curious Kodiak brown bears.

Thankfully we had a couple hours back at the floatplane base to get semi-organized, so parsing our hunting gear from camp supplies was relatively quick. Within 2 hours, we had the guidelines stretched taut on the shelters, a few energy bars and jerky stashed in our pockets, a rifle slung over one shoulder and a spotting scope over the other. Based on the map work I had done before the trip and confirmed by the fly-around prior to landing, we decided to head up the mountain behind camp and explore a hanging basin that looked quality. That said, it only looked quality. We had never hunted Sitka black-tailed deer before and all the talk of Kodiak’s brutal winter of 2016-17 left us wondering if we had chosen a poor spot that was great last year or if we had landed in the middle of Sitka black-tailed deer heaven. It didn’t take long to reveal the answer.

Forty-five minutes of hiking got us halfway up to the alpine bowl (photographed from fly-in above) and we had not spotted any deer when the first doe walked off a dense alder thicket and crossed the slopes above us. Then more deer, and more deer, deer over there, deer down the hill, deer up in the saddle. Answer, we were in THE spot. This was the Kodiak Island I had read about and dreamed about. We slipped further upslope and eventually landed in the alpine bowl where we spotted what appeared to be a solid buck coming out of some country that looked more like mountain goat habitat than deer habitat. I asked dad for the spotting scope tripod to get our long-range optics set up for a closer look and that’s when our ideal start took a bad turn. The tripod was gone. I had strapped the tripod between the Badlands 2800 bat wing design but had not taken the time to unzip the gun scabbard and anchor it well enough. In the insanely thick vegetation that we had been pushing our way through, our only hope was that our trail was fairly well defined as a mashed down trail where we had absorbed much of the moisture and crushed some of the vegetation under our boots.

Back to the buck…I did the best I could balancing the scope on top of my backpack frame and was able to tell a little about him at a range of 500 yards but not enough to make an informed decision on night 1. He appeared to be a big boxy fork with at least an eyeguard and still in velvet. He was alone and definitely fulfilling the prophecy of most everyone I had talked with preparing for the trip – the bigger bucks will be highest on the mountain. True. That theme would not change.

Rather than run back and try to find the spotter right away, we placed dad’s white handkerchief high up on a large pushki (cow parsnip, more on this little devil later) plant and pushed up to the saddle that defined the upper lip of the alpine bowl. We glassed more deer along the way and figured we had seen 30-35 deer including 6 or 8 bucks by the time we reached the end of our hike. Right in the saddle, there was a huge pile of bear scat and was a fast reminder that we were not the apex predators on the island and our guard needed to be sharp at all times. Back down to the white handkerchief.

Fortunately, we were able to pick our way along slowly and successfully back-trail. Two or three hundred yards down the slope and at one of the many creek crossings, I looked down and there was the spotting scope tripod. We had a huge sense of relief and resolved to be much more careful in how we lashed gear to the packs as well as double- and triple-checking each time we set stuff down to glass that we had gathered everything back up before continuing. For field judging and long distance glassing, I shudder to think how difficult the next 8 days would have been without a quality spotting rig. As dusk was approaching and we did not want our first night on the island to be a headlamp expedition, we hurried back down the mountain and were unclasping the gate portion of the bear fence right as dusk transitioned more to darkness. Perfect timing, a good acclimation hike to break things in, and a 4 hour hunt that affirmed our selected location would be a wonderful place to spend the next week and a half in Kodiak’s interior.

DIY Hunting Adventure on Kodiak Island :: Day 1 & 2
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Mom had this ad torn out of a magazine and waiting on the counter when I walked in the door Sunday night, August 27th. True words. I had just driven in from Columbus, OH, and made the 7 hour drive down to central North Carolina where dad and I would depart from Raleigh-Durham airport the following day at 5 PM. With almost a full day Monday to get organized, the trip was off to a smooth start with open roads and all gear and equipment accounted for. Every checkbox had a check inside it and now it was just a matter of getting our big adventure to Kodiak Island, Alaska started. A truly great adventure it would be!!!

Raleigh-Durham to Seattle went off without a hitch. Sitting cross aisle from one another, we both lucked out and had an empty seat between our respective aisle seats and the window seats. Money on a 5+ hour flight. Seattle to Anchorage was a shorter flight and luck was again on our side with no one crowding our elbows in the seat next to us. The plan was to grab some sleep on this flight but the excitement of the trip did not allow that to happen. We played 3 or 4 games of cribbage instead and talked at length about all the anticipation and pent-up excitement of the adventure.

Landing in Anchorage shortly after midnight, we had a 6+ hour layover until the early flight out of Anchorage to Kodiak was scheduled to leave at 7 AM. With that, we found some empty benches and fashioned the most comfortable pillows we could muster and grabbed some fragmented and restless shut-eye. There was no sense worrying about the fact that the windy and foggy weather looked almost certainly to doom our morning flight, there was nothing we could do about it so why worry about it. Talking to some seasoned Kodiak residents in the airport, our concerns were validated and the general consensus was that Tuesday would be spent in the Anchorage airport until flying conditions improved on Wednesday. Oh well, that’s Alaska.

Somewhat miraculously the desk attendant made the announcement at 6 AM that the flight was still on cue although low cloud ceilings and a brewing storm in Kodiak could still derail us. Even miraculously, an hour later we were sitting on the plane and bound for Kodiak. I can’t imagine the ceilings being lower on the runway and it was definitely windy but I guess that is par normal for aviation in the great state of Alaska. A smooth landing and quick taxi to Kodiak’s teensie airport and we were on the Island at our designated and planned time!

Seahawk Air was there with a van shuttle to greet us and 3 pieces of baggage plus a gun case later and we were headed to town to run a few last minute errands.

We pit-stopped at Big Ray’s outdoor store, the local True Value hardware store, and Wal-Mart (yikes groceries are expensive in Kodiak!) to grab our 7-day fishing licenses, a bit of terminal tackle suitable for tackling salmon or whatever other fish we were lucky enough to find hungry, a box of #4 steel 12 gauge loads for ptarmigan, a 5 gallon bucket with waterproof lid, some fresh fruit, coffee creamer, tortillas, and 2 boxes of split (and more importantly…dry!!!) firewood. From there we walked up to the Shelikof Lodge and enjoyed a really great pancake and eggs breakfast. While in there, we got to listen in on 2 mountain goat hunters harrowing experience from the night before. They had been weathered in on a road system hunt and attempted to escape the elements by fording a river. The attempt failed and left them soaked to their collarbones with no dry gear and nothing but a cold night filled with 35-45 mph wind. They almost died. Literally. Hypothermia nearly got the better of them and they were a stark reminder that Kodiak Island is not a place to get complacent. It is one of the most unforgiving places on earth and that is why it attracted me in lure of adventure. It was definitely a sobering caution for our next 10-12 days on the island.

The waitress brought the bill and we gave Seahawk Air a call that we were done and ready to head for the floatplane base. We were second in line behind a different group of goat hunters and our scheduled departure was for 2:30 which left us 2+ hours to get organized a bit, top off charges on our electronic devices, and make last contacts with our loved ones.

I stared quite a bit at this old map in Seahawk’s office hardly believing that we were just a couple hours from stepping out into Kodiak’s wild interior on the adventure of a lifetime. Saying it was surreal would be a huge understatement but I do not know of any other way to describe it.

Rolan eventually arrived and our gear was waiting down on the docks to be loaded. Goodbyes were texted and telephoned, gear was loaded, gas tanks topped off, and we were taxiing out into the strait where we’d be leaving civilization for a destination as yet unknown but still strangely familiar after as much research as I had invested. From the time we took off to the time we landed, the landscape seemed vaguely recognizable and I was able to retrieve the names of lakes and bays and mountains from my mind even before Rolan would come in over the headset and give us information about whatever it was we were flying over at the moment. Quite the frankly, the experience and spectacle of the floatplane ride alone was worth the price of admission for the entire trip. It was simply over-the-top in terms of stunning beauty and all the interesting features we were able to see. Schools of ocean jellyfish that levitated like giant beluga whales, one of the world’s largest salmon canneries, a salmon-choked river loaded with more Kodiak brown bears than we could keep track of, rocky mountain peaks, and squishy flat tundra valleys filled with beaver dams. I had no idea that river deltas at low tide were such grand pieces of natural artwork either. The contrast of the surrounding greens with the grays and blues of water penetrated by emergent sandbars and sediment outflows. Unreal.

As we circled the valley where we would call home the next 8 or 9 days, I began taking pictures in rapid fire succession of the surrounding mountainsides, hanging basins, and long winding valleys. Having a bird’s eye view of what vegetation types were where would turn out to be invaluable knowledge that we would lean on in coming days. After a quick 360 of our lake, Rolan set the old De Havilland down on our lake and cruised downwind to the end of the lake where we would unload our gear, wave goodbye to our pilot, and begin erecting our campsite.

Deep breath time. We’re in the heart of Kodiak.

Kodiak Island or Bust
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DIY Kodiak Island Hunting Adventure 2017 :: Expectations
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I’ve made it a habit to articulate my emotions, goals, objectives, expectations leading up to most every big hunt I’ve taken in the past 6-8 years. Each “expectations” post usually starts similarly with some acknowledgement that each hunt is another “trip of a lifetime.” I try to treat each one as if they are the “trip of a lifetime” in part because they are, they are that meaningful to me, and in part because one never knows which moment could be your last. For better or worse, that’s sort of how life works. Each hunt is such a build-up with so much time, effort, (sometimes expense), anticipation, conversation, and planning that they all feel like the “trip of a lifetime.”

I’ve been thinking about adventuring to Kodiak Island for quite some time, nearly a decade in fact. Kodiak Island has always intrigued me, fascinated me, drawn me. This trip is definitely a “trip of a lifetime” and here are my expectations and goals.

The #1 goal is safety and I want to come home to central Ohio in one piece. I’m sure dad wants to return to North Carolina in much the same condition.

The #2 goal is to adventure (using “adventure” here as a verb) at a level that does this “trip of a lifetime” justice. For dad and I, this will peg out the adventure meter for any shared hunt that we’ve done in the past and any that we are likely to do in the future. Admittedly though, the 1st and 2nd goal necessarily exist in a state of a precarious balance. I won’t detail one potential activity until the trip is over (it may involve a coho salmon run, a death slog of several miles, and staying overnight in an old & abandoned salmon cannery) but we definitely plan to carpe diem!

Our #3 goal is to maintain a positive attitude. I know this and dad knows this, but it’s important to remember that just because it is an adventure, that doesn’t mean it won’t suck a lot. Pushki (cow parsnip), rain, Devil’s walking stick, swarming insects, rain, potential weather delays, more rain, soaking wet and impossibly dense vegetation, blisters, general misery due to over-exertion in a brutal place like Kodiak – expecting hardship (“embracing the suck” as I’ve heard some guys say) goes a long ways in preserving that mental edge necessary to adapt, overcome, and thrive on Kodiak Island. Having the right equipment and having quality equipment that is reliable goes a long ways in coping with unfavorable conditions too, and I’m confident that those bases are covered. It will undoubtedly be a major challenge to overcome the mental obstacles of the trip.

For brevity’s sake, I’ll identify our #4 and final goal to each shoot a quality Sitka blacktail deer. We will be carrying 4 tags, but we don’t HAVE to fill all 4 to be completely successful. (Though we gladly will!!) For me personally, I’d define an ideal Sitka buck as one having dark-colored antlers with hefty mass and at least one of his fighting tines with that classic blacktail split. Past that, width, tine length, number of tines don’t really matter too much. I’m not sure how dad will define his idea of a trophy Sitka, but we’ve got patience, time, and optics to hopefully sort through a bunch of deer and find some quality bucks.

I could write a ton more in this post as I have done a lot of thinking and dreaming about Kodiak Island over the past 9 months and more extended timeline even before this trip became a reality in late December 2016. I expect we’ll engage in all sorts of other adventure along the way – ptarmigan hunting, bear viewing (preferably from a difference), fishing in different settings for different target species, seeing the Island’s diverse population of color morph “cross” foxes, bald eagles galore, sensational wildflowers, and probably some intimidatingly horrific weather conditions. There is even a tentative forecast that the Northern Lights could make an appearance if they coincide with good viewing conditions.

Kodiak Island or Bust!

Infolinks 2013