feature By: Drew Kress | July, 19
The captain of the 43-foot Delta was one of my old friends dating back to the time I spent fishing for halibut in Seward, Alaska. The diesel motors started up, and we were cruising along to the other side of the island to begin our pursuit for Sitka blacktail deer and mountain goat. By late afternoon we were almost to the bay that we decided to hunt. Getting anxious, my brothers and I requested to be dropped off on shore for a late afternoon hunt.
I split off from my two brothers and went on a solo afternoon adventure. I couldn’t stop thinking to myself: This is finally it, after a year and a half of waiting, my feet are on the rocks.
I was so excited to find my first blacktail on Kodiak. I had hunted blacktails earlier in the year in south central Alaska, but it proved to be quite the challenge. My initial thoughts when hunting new areas are to figure out the lay of the land: Where would the animals be traveling to? Would they be feeding or bedded down? What should I be looking for in the topography in order to be a successful hunter? My way of figuring these questions out is done by walking and looking, and walking some more.
After about an hour of hiking and glassing, the sun had set below the mountains. It was almost like a switch had been turned on. I went from struggling to find deer to spotting deer all over the hillside. I was able to spot a decent buck in the distance, and with three tags in my pocket I thought it was a no-brainer to go after it. I planned my stalk and took off.
Halfway to where I last saw the deer, I found myself stuck in a maze of alders. I was trying to be quiet, but the amount of brush and alder trees just about made me sound like I was banging two cymbals together. After enough brush thrashing from myself and camera gear, I saw the small buck top over the hill. With my hunting resiliency, I took a new approach on my stalk. I wasn’t ready to quit yet.
After walking 100 yards or so, I saw movement in front of me about 50 yards away and had an amazing encounter with a young buck. I stood in the deer’s presence, merely two feet away, and enjoyed the buck’s innocence and beauty. The buck went on its way, and I decided I had enjoyed enough of the island for one day. I headed back to the boat and enjoyed the serene stillness of Kodiak Island.
The next day we woke up and glassed the mountains for little white dots. We had talked to a mountain goat biologist and were told we would find goats along the cliffs. After a half hour I was getting sick-to-my-stomach nervous. We couldn’t find any goats. Then, like the snap of a finger, a small fog bank blew off the mountain, and it was almost like a smack of obviousness to the face. Forty or so mountain goats were standing on the peak of the mountain like the kings they are.
Overwhelmed with excitement, we came up with a quick plan for the hike up. I knew my dad, who was 48 years old, was going to be struggling to make it up. I knew as a U.S. Army infantryman I could handle just about any realistic amount of weight, and I took it upon myself to make his hunt easier and carried more gear. We began the trip up.
I decided to take the job busting through the brush and trees because I knew I had the endurance to do it for hours and hours. The trip up took its toll on everyone. Devil’s club and thornbushes do not have any prejudice; my hands and face felt like I had been in a fight with a rude housecat.
In the early afternoon we reached the alpine and took a lunch break. I was pretty happy I would not have to touch devil’s club for at least another day. We finally had reached the ridgetop, so we dumped our packs and started looking for goats. The fog swept through the small valleys and across ridges like a white bedsheet. It was proving difficult to find anything within 100 yards in any direction. In the unrelenting fog, we made a camp and prepared for the cold and windy night.
Before the sun fully set, I decided to take another look up the ridge to see if I could find anything. Through the fog I saw some figures in my spotting scope. I zoomed in, and there they were. As if everything was depending on me for the success of this hunt, I found them. I ran back to our mountain camp and explained to my dad and brothers that I had found the goats. I would not sleep at all that night due to the excitement and chilly Kodiak weather.
Peeking out of my sleeping bag, I discovered first light. I unzipped my bag and was met with an unpleasant situation. My boots were frozen in an unfavorable position. I attempted to use my pack stove to defrost them. That proved difficult, so I put them under my armpits and crawled back in my sleeping bag. I woke my brothers up, and they faced the same fate – frozen boots. After a half hour of defrosting them against our bodies, we were fully dressed and ready to finish what we started.
The winds were fierce, and our whispering turned to almost shouting at each other. We found the goats and began the final leg of our stalk. We crawled on our hands and knees for about 200 yards and got into shooting position. I told my dad and brothers to pick a goat in the upper middle, lower middle and right of the heard. I reminded them not to shoot a nanny with a kid. I said we would shoot on the count of one.
Before beginning my countdown, my dad let off a shot with his .338 Remington Ultra Magnum and dropped a goat. The goats scattered in different directions and then stopped in an effort to figure out what had just happened. We took aim and shot two more goats. We shrugged our excitement off and realized the amount of work that was ahead of us. We quickly cut up our mountain goats and headed back down, heavy but successful hunters.
After six hours of descent and as dusk approached, I took the final steps to the beach and dropped my pack that was loaded with three days of camping gear, food, water and a 4-year-old billy goat. I radioed the boat to pick us up and felt the feeling of an ended hunt.
With wounds on my feet, soreness of a previously broken back and all the other pain I was experiencing, I would gladly have turned right back around to do it again. There are times in life when people experience so much emotion and positive feelings that it’s necessary to stop and take it all in. I stood there on the beach content and proud of everyone, especially my father. We slept hard in our bunks that night with dreams of mountain hunting once again.
The next day I was ready to pursue blacktail deer and reopen the wounds on my feet. Once again, I took off on a solo hunt with just camera gear and my rifle. I had almost the entire day to hunt. I packed some food and remembered it was my birthday. I threw in a dehydrated ice cream sandwich to celebrate later.
I glassed the immediate area off the beach and came up with the conclusion that the deer would be over the next valley, out of the wind. I took my time hiking and soaked up all the beautiful mosaics that were Kodiak Island. I stopped and pulled out binoculars. I glassed and recited different poetry in my head about nature and the continuum of all that is wild. I remembered what I had been doing a year ago the same day.
I spent my last birthday and more than eight months total fighting in Afghanistan in the army. This whole hunting trip was imagined as the finish line to me, like a gift to myself for doing something most people will never even think about. I snapped out of my fantasy dream world and went back to hunting.
I slowly moved along from each opening and brush thicket, glassing and looking for a mature Sitka blacktail buck. I came over a small knob and spotted a spike buck. I admired the buck and contemplated pulling the trigger, but I wanted to have more time to hunt instead of packing out the deer. I skirted around the small buck, trying not to spook it, then headed up to higher country to glass for a more mature buck.
After an hour or so of walking, I sat down and pulled out a binocular and tripod. I set everything up and began glassing. I looked hard on the far hillside, watching it carefully for movement. I looked on the low areas to try to see if any deer were bedded, and I also kept a sharp lookout for bears. I wasn’t finding any deer and the day was slowly coming to an end, so packed up my stuff and headed to what I thought would be another great glassing knob.
While walking slowly, I caught a glimpse of movement off to the right. In plain sight stood what I thought was a dandy blacktail. I discarded any thought of filming, unshouldered my rifle and took aim. I fired a shot at the buck and heard the thwack of the bullet impact, then chambered another round and hit the buck again in the chest.
After the shots, I realized I didn’t film it and became a little upset with myself. I walked over to the buck, thanked it for the life it had lived and calmed my excitement. I took a few photos, quartered the deer out and put it all inside my pack to begin the 3-mile walk back to the beach.
On my way back, I took a couple of breaks and enjoyed the beautiful vistas one last time. I stared out beyond the landscape and couldn’t believe the amount of experience I took in as a hunter, mentor and all-around human. I think that’s why this trip meant so much to me. I’ve grown and learned so much from hunting that it has become almost like a tough life coach. As tough as it can be, I will never shy away from the challenge or quit. Until next time, Kodiak Island.