In the months ahead of the cold November morning that found me and two close friends, Scott and Nick White, camped under a fresh blanket of snow along the shore of a small interior lake on Kodiak Island, I considered many aspects of our planned trip, including thoughts about the unpredictable weather, big bears, and the long nights spent in a small tent far from all civilization. Then I reflected upon the allure of the adventure that taunts the mountain bowhunter, a difficult notion to explain to those living with such simple creature comforts as a secure roof, running water, and clean underwear. The desire for adventure and its accompanying hurdles is not explainable until you have felt a burn deep within you to push outside of your previously defined limits. The desire for these adventures defines a kind of personality that does not easily fall in line with the patterns of everyday life.
As bowhunters driven to hunt in the mountains with traditional tackle, I believe we are a small subset of such adventurers. While there may be more efficient ways to collect meat or trophy, none provides the experience of carrying the carefully carved artistry of a handcrafted single string bow. This is the experience I could only hope we would fulfill by flying deep into Kodiak’s southern finger valleys and majestic mountains.
Camp set up after first installing the electric bear fencing.
While outlining the logistics of the trip the previous spring, I was stuck on one critical question. Who would be the partners willing to take roughly two weeks away from family, work, and everyday obligation? Brothers Nick and Scott White are seasoned bowhunters not only in their backyards of central Kansas. They have also experienced the challenge the mountains can provide to the yearning bowhunter. Each has refined his craft in the whitetail woods to a science only few others I am aware of can rival. This kind of dedication combined with adventurous personalities defines the determined mountain hunter. They understand the meaning of hunting hard and yearn for the fulfillment of a laden pack. Our conversation in early March was short and to the point, summarized with the words, “We’re in.”
Fast forward six months and we were watching in wonder out of the convex windows of a Beaver float plane as we gained altitude, rising above the center crest of Kodiak’s mountains. I’m still not sure any language would be appropriate in describing the craggy ridges cutting straight from the rocky beach line below. I appreciate Ansel Adams’ desire that photography could do justice to vistas such as these. Impassable cliffs gave way to sloping, grassy benches, only to jut upward again in relentless progress toward the sky. The peaks were capped with glacial flows as smooth as a freshly Zambonied ice rink. The intense nature of this terrain contrasted with my home state of Colorado, where the mountains’ vastness has given way to crowded trailheads and over-used wilderness. Accessible only by sea and air, this country gave a fresh meaning to “remote,” although admittedly we are only seeing a small section of the expansive 49th state.
Our final destination lay along the southern tip of the range where the hills crest just over a couple of thousand feet before cascading downward into secluded streams and marshes along the braided valleys. Our flight concluded after an hour’s journey across the island to the small alpine lake we would call home for the next eight days.
Stepping off the floats onto the soft tundra, my boots sunk through the soft ground structure. We scanned the shoreline, seeking a flat section of ground with an adequate terrain break from the inevitable wind and rain that would be essential to the Alaska experience. On the south side of a small alder grove, we began to sink the stakes outlining our charged perimeter fence. With the drone of the plane’s engine drifting on the wind as he rolled over the horizon’s saddle, the understanding of the remoteness of our camp began to materialize.
The author with his first day Sitka blacktail buck.
We had spent the last hour airborne, flying 80 miles from the town of Kodiak. There was no drainage to follow downhill ultimately intersecting a trail leading the way to the truck. Our means of extraction were dependent upon the weather allowing safe landing in anywhere between eight to ten days. I do not mean to paint a picture of three tough guys doing something that has never been done before. This is the normal for those accustomed to the country. As Roland, our pilot, stated when discussing the questionable flight conditions, “This is life on Kodiak. It’s all a matter of respectful risk taking.” That is the appeal of adventure, pushing yourself slightly further than perceived possible, yet understanding and managing the risks within a tolerable level.
Within minutes of landing, I questioned those limits as my gaze drifted up the hillside and put my eyes on the first bear-shaped Volkswagen Beetle. I had been vocalizing my confidence, or lack thereof, in the small fence we pulled around our tents minutes prior to appreciating the size of the bruin as he feasted on a small patch of berries and foraged through the moss high above the little lake. With my only prior bear experience coming from a small black bear, you might imagine my surprise when looking at the 1000-pound animal with a monstrous head. While attempting to occupy ourselves erecting the tents, readying our bows, and packing for a short evening on the hill to glass for the first sign of deer, my eyes would inherently drift back to confirm that our friendly yet hungry neighbor had not left.
With tents set, the D-battery powered hot wire blinking, and packs on our backs, we climbed up to the nearest high point above the brush line and kicked in a glassing seat from the soggy hillside. Scanning the foreign landscape for the first time, I felt awed by the contrasting colors. The deep blue of the lake faded into dark brown marsh grass studded with bronze-red brush between alder lines. Where the hills steepened in grade, patches of vibrant green moss interlaced the surrounding dead grass, with the tips of the peaks holding a light dusting of white. A passing pair of bald eagles working the last of the afternoon thermals distracted our view. This was the Alaska I had in my mind’s eye, miles and miles from anywhere.
The early hours of the following morning felt welcome after an inordinately cold night on the ground. The two-and-a-half-gallon frozen block of ice, peculiarly similar in shape and size to what was once our water jug, suggested the temperature had dipped well below freezing during the night. The stillness of the morning was interrupted by the slow simmer of water as it warmed under the presence of the compact MSR Windburner stove. With the sun in a state of laziness that late in the year, there was plenty of morning darkness left in which to enjoy the simple pleasure of hot coffee and oatmeal under the cover of the Hilleberg’s vestibule while trading words across the gap separating our tents. We made a plan to venture down the valley for the morning in an attempt to locate what would still be the first deer of the trip.
The author packing his buck back to the landing strip.
Anyone who has pursued unfamiliar game in unfamiliar country will understand the challenge we faced as we tried to spot movement under the shade of the mountains as the sun worked its way around the ridge. When I look for game, I am focused not on finding the animal, but rather the distinct difference it creates upon the blank hillside. I look for what shouldn’t be there. Not having seen one of the blocky blacktails we were after or the new background they inhabit, the entire hillside seemed foreign. It would take a careful eye to pick up the first sign of game high on the hillside above our glassing position.
Three quarters of the way to the crest of the peak we spotted a group of deer that included two chocolate horned bucks curling their lips at the passing does, attempting to taste the sensual aroma of the early November air. We watched as the biological hierarchy determined the direction of the deer. One of the mature bucks was the obvious holder of the ring. He took his two does over the adjacent ridge, while the other moved to nose another doe. The hunting instinct kicked in, and Scott, the closest to the deer, picked up his bow and headed in pursuit, hoping to stay below and intersect the lone traveling buck. All seemed perfect as he worked into position, flashing the decoy figure of a doe to get the deer’s attention. Almost immediately, the deer changed course and moved purposefully down the cut toward his fate. Beginners’ luck? Well, beginners we are not, but the wind swirled leaving the love-sick buck surprised as his nostrils filled with a mixture of the camp kitchen and fumes from yesterday’s airplane ride. Appearing confused, he continued to look over his shoulder as he slowly worked to gain elevation back to his place of security.
These deer seemed unfamiliar with the presence of man. They live in a part of the world where danger is associated with four-legged predators. In consequence, it was our experience that they would not immediately run from us. A flash of a decoy or even the use of an oversized foam hat resembling a deer’s head would provide enough distraction to allow movement across small openings in the terrain, provided the wind stayed in our face. As with most ungulates, their sense of smell proved superior. Scott was a living reminder of this fact as he moseyed his way back toward our position.
Throughout the previous hour, I worked to steady my binoculars between wind gusts, watching Scott’s approach while scanning the ridge where the second buck had seemingly vanished. It took me several hours to understand the folds in the side of the mountain. What had appeared as an unvaried slope was in fact broken by a draw hidden in the shadow of the peak. This fold only became evident as I spotted movement working away toward the horizon. The skyline provided the perfect silhouette of a small figure, a doe. Being November, it was a fair assumption she was not going to bed alone that morning.
My scrutiny intensified as I watched a set of chocolate forks appear in tow. The buck pulled his head upward while stepping straight legged toward the doe. We patiently watched, hoping he would bed down back in the cut from which he had appeared or continue onto a small bench cut into the hillside. After he hadn’t moved more than ten feet from his original position within the last 30 minutes, I made the decision to move into a position allowing me to strike once I felt confident of his location. Starting roughly a half a mile from the deer, I dipped low out of sight in the alders to approach from a parallel cut, struggling to remain quiet as I moved through the tangled, dead alder branches. I dipped, bowed, crawled, and weaved through the spiderwebbed mess, breaking out a short distance later only to look upon the empty ridge where the deer had previously been. As it was late in the morning, I concluded the buck had made his bed nearby, concealed under tall grass, during the short period I had been out of sight.
Nick and his snowy stalked buck.
Hoping for some confirmation, I looked back to Nick and Scott, who were both pointing their thumbs skyward. Conservatively favoring the far downwind side of the ridge, I worked hands over feet climbing the dry creek bed. The precipitous terrain provided essential breaks that aided a parallel approach from the valley floor. With the bench’s lower lip within sight, I stopped to gather my thoughts and assess the final approach, still slightly unsure of the deer’s exact position. As I downed several gulps of water, faint movement caught my eye—the twitch of an ear 70 yards from my seat. As any seasoned bowhunter is aware, the slightest sounds and movement become critical at that distance, requiring what was once described to me as imperceptible movement. I pulled my way up the last several feet to the edge of the bench in the manner, locating the dark tips of the buck’s antlers contrasted against the red brush in which he had found his bed.
Still 50 yards away, I worked on the downwind side with only his horns visible, stretching the last of my cover and watching his lower jaw move side to side as he chewed. I had reached a distance from which I felt comfortable shooting in case he stood and exposed his vitals above the line of red brush. With an arrow nocked, I shifted my weight ever so slightly as the buck stood and studied the artificial doe’s face affixed to the front of my riser. As he paused, I drew and released the arrow. In dismay, I felt the string catch the bunched sleeve of my jacket and watched as the arrow landed at his feet. He bounded briefly and stopped again, only five yards farther away as I nocked a second arrow and reached my anchor again. This time no string hit my sleeve, yet the arrow again landed between his legs. With conscious elevation adjustment, I nocked a third arrow and sent it down range.
Although this one flew higher, the distance had still been farther than my compensation allowed for, and the head shaved the hair from his armpit. I pulled the final broadhead from my quiver, adjusting further for my improper distance judgement while the buck stood in a bewildered state. He appeared to be wondering why this doe staring him down was sending sharpened projectiles under his chest. Anthropomorphism aside, the decoy attached to the riser of my bow coupled with the silence of the shots had kept his curiosity heightened long enough for me to accurately adjust for the distance of the next shot. The final arrow’s precise arc followed my gaze to the tuft of hair I’d focused on several inches behind his shoulder. At its impact and pass-through, he kicked and careened downward, nearly catching me off my feet. Within seconds he was over the rise of the bench and out of sight, but not before laying down a trail of blood in his wake.
Scott with his one-horned buck
I felt conflicted emotions following the shot. This was a trip for which I had planned over the past six months and I had spent more time traveling to the destination than in the act of hunting. I felt a need to endure the wind and rain, the aching feet after repeated days of frozen toes, the excitement of a passing bear tending her cubs in the beaver pond below. I did not want to be cheated out of the adventure just because I had capitalized on the bedded deer. Little did I understand the days that lay ahead. I enjoy the act of shooting as much as anyone, but that was not the sole purpose of traveling to the remote south end of Kodiak. I was intrigued by the fabled stories of the Kodiak brown bear. I yearned for the solitude of being confined to a small ten-foot square tent and vestibule while gale force winds ripped at the exterior, accompanied by curtains of rain. I hoped to repay the duty of carrying a heavy pack as Nick and Scott took deer of their own. I anticipated days of hiking the steep mountains surrounding our lake to peer over the alpine saddles, exploring the land beyond our nearby reach. Had I lost out on that experience with an anxious flurry of arrows on the first morning of the trip? In the end, that is the goal when carrying a bow through mountains. But had I endured the necessary sacrifice to carry the meat and trophy home?
The days and stories preceding our final flight back to the lower-48 hold the truth. I came to Alaska not with the sole purpose of locking a yellow tag around that deer’s antlers, and I am leaving with more than a pack of meat. My satisfaction came from placating my desire for exploration and adventure.
David is a traditional bowhunter living in the mountains of Colorado with his wife, daughter, and four hounds. An engineer by trade, David is a passionate hunter and outdoorsman who enjoys writing to share his adventures.
Equipment Notes: On this hunt, David shot a 62# Wengerd Ibex recurve and Day Six arrows tipped with Cutthroat three-blade broadheads.