An overwhelming sense of relief swept over me as the wheels of the plane touched the dirt runway in the tiny Alaskan village of Karluk. The weather made a brash turn for the worst before we left Kodiak, and throughout the short flight the turbulence kept us aware that conditions were doing the opposite of improving. Taj, our pilot from Island Air, reassured us that if he had to rate the weather on a scale from one to ten, we were experiencing a three...
“But we don’t really fly over four,” he said.
Tim came all the way from Washington D.C. for this trip. He contacted me through the network of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers about a week prior to see if I wanted to tag along. He also asked if I knew anyone else who’d like to go; and since Heather couldn’t make it, I had a pretty good hunch that one of our friends at 60th Parallel would jump at the opportunity. I was right, and our friend John was also able to join in on the fun.
Once we’d gotten settled in at the house we were staying at, John and I headed into the field to rendezvous with Tim, who had beaten us out and embarked on a solo mission. We walked up the valley that we’d eventually travel through seven more times, keeping an eye out for our third companion. About 30-minutes in, we caught sight of Tim’s orange hat; and not long after heard a shot ring out from his direction. Could Tim have filled his tag an hour after starting his three-day hunt? We sat down to watch his movements but it was too far for us to tell if he’d been successful, so we continued on, wrapping up the hill to our right.
The sound of that first shot gave our adrenaline a boost, and as we huffed at a diagonal towards the ridge, we spotted four deer looking right at us. We tried to stay low as we approached, but with the strengthening wind at our backs it didn’t take long for the group to disappear. We continued the pursuit, catching up to them multiple times but never with enough time to set up for a shot before, once again, they’d catch our scent. Nearing the summit, and to our surprise, John spotted a nice four-point buck in a patch of snow. He gave me the first opportunity and I obliged, filling the first of my three tags. With the temperature dropping and our daylight fading quickly, we got to work.
John makes a living off of photography, so naturally we took our time; eventually filling our packs by headlamp. Occasionally, we’d scan the hillsides around us, and each time another pair of eyes would reflect our lights back at us. We were completely surrounded by deer taking refuge in the only place on the ridge that gave reprieve from the wind.
The weather had taken a horrendous turn, and we were facing sleet and wind estimated at around 90 mph. Our initial plan to head down the back of the ridge and into the village was quickly abandoned when, even with an extra 60 lbs. on my back, I couldn’t make any progress on the down-climb. Our only option was to go back the way we came, turning our trip home into a 1.5-hour hike by headlamp with sideways sleet wearing blood-soaked backpacks in bear country…
We put our heads down and got moving. We returned to the house a little bit after 7pm, saturated to the core and exhausted. Greeting us at the door was Tim, who was chipper as could be. He had already warmed up some soup in anticipation of our arrival. It turned out that the shot he had taken earlier was also a successful one. He had left his deer quartered and in a dry bag to be recovered the next day.
It’s dog-tired times like these that I’m so grateful to have Heather’s Choice with me. I boiled some water, heated up a Smoked Sockeye Salmon Chowder, and with a celebratory drink in hand, we broke down our gear as stories of the day’s events were exchanged.
The next morning, Tim left early to retrieve his harvest, and John and I followed suit a little while after. Tim had done most of the work by the time I arrived. After briefly helping, he told me he could handle the rest of the hike back, so I headed into the valley, hopping from one tussock to another. Eventually, I met up with John again and I heard the good news: he had gotten his first buck of the trip. We spent some time taking photos and making a “how-to” video about field dressing – something John has been wanting to do for a long time. The weather began to worsen, and not wanting to repeat the previous night’s experience, we loaded up our packs and headed back to the village. It was again dark and windy on the hike back, but without all the rain. Again, we were being carefully watched, as the reflections from eyes began to surround us.
The next day was our last day to hunt. John and I had harvest tickets for two more deer each, so we made a concerted effort to get out the door a little bit earlier than the previous morning. Tim had filled his only tag, so he took a load off and enjoyed a mellow day in the village.
Instead of heading up to the ridge where we had both taken our first animals, we made our way into the flats. About 30 minutes into our hike, we spotted our first decent buck of the day, and what happened next was a flurry:
John took a great shot obviously knocking the deer down; and after only a few moments, another buck popped up behind us. As I pursued, I was led into a patch of alder; and appearing in the brush about 200 yards ahead of me was a small group of bucks. I took a handful of shots, but none connected. Lady luck was on my side, however, as the bucks just kept coming. With one more round before I needed to reload, I crept to about 125 yards away, calmed my nerves, and was able to take my second buck.
Concerned with all of the shooting, John headed my direction with the hope that I hadn’t encountered a grizzly bear. He found me quartering my deer and we began to form a plan. Before we had gotten two sentences out, he spotted another group of deer over my shoulder. I watched as he made his way towards them, and from about 100 yards he knocked down his third buck.
Immediately, he waved me over. I got there in what felt like five minutes and set up for my shot. The first shot missed but the next was successful. The buck bolted into the brush, and after making my way through, I found him lying on the other side – about 200 yards from where John was. Within one hour we had gotten four bucks, filling all of our harvest tickets.
As another short December night swiftly approached, we worked quickly to get our animals quartered and loaded into our packs. We’d have to come back for John’s last deer tomorrow, as three deer split between the two of us made the packs around 100 pounds. Finding some tussocks to prop up against, we got out our trekking poles and hoisted ourselves up to begin the 3-mile hike back to the village.
Alaska seems to humble me every time I venture out into her wilderness. The weather is temperamental, the exposure and solidarity can be dangerous, and the isolation is real. Even though we had occupied a vacant house in this tiny village, we hardly saw another person. The few locals we did meet were welcoming, and I felt lucky to be a guest in a community that obviously relies on a subsistence way of life. To me, the most pristine way I can nourish myself is to provide the very food that I eat. Not only am I fully aware of where these deer came from, I’m also responsible for honoring these animals – and the community of Karluk – by sharing this nourishment with those around me.