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.