June 20, 2023
The last frontier, for many, is a place that is far out of reach and seemingly inaccessible; a place that holds a deep and secure spot in the souls of many adventurers. It’s a place that drives us to leave our families in the safety of our modern homes and venture into some of the most remote areas in North America.
“We have begun our descent into Sitka,” the flight attendant announced over the intercom. As I felt the plane dropping, I strained my eyes to see past my fellow passengers and through the aircraft’s porthole window. Fog, thick and muted, was all I could see until, below the cloud bank, water appeared, and we were getting what felt to be dangerously close. Trusting the well-trained Alaska Airlines pilots, I figured the runway would soon appear. It did, not a moment too soon. I rushed to stand and grab my carry-on bag as the chime of the seat-belt sign rang in the cabin.
THE ABC ISLANDS
Colloquially known as the ABC Islands, Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof are exceptionally large islands in the northern part of the Alexander Archipelago famed for its vast and barren landscapes that are, for the most part, free from the grips of modern civilization. The area is known for its dense wildlife populations and boasts an impressive number of Sitka brown bears. Chichagof is regarded as holding the highest per-square- mile population of brown bears anywhere in the world.
Though considered brown bears, these bears are unique. According to a genetic study published in PLOS Genetics by James Cahill, a graduate student from UC Santa Cruz, these bears share many characteristics with other brown bears of the world, but studies have revealed that they also share DNA with polar bears. It’s believed that at the end of the last ice age, brown bears from the mainland interbred with the isolated polar bears of the islands and eventually transformed the population into what it is today.
Along with brown bears, the islands are home to lush forests teeming with other wildlife—including the Sitka blacktail deer, the reason for my trip. These deer are smaller in stature than the deer found in the lower 48, but they are tough and live in some of the most inhospitable terrain in the region. Not only are they fun to hunt, but their meat is some of the most delectable of any game species in North America.
The ABC Islands aren’t for the faint of heart, even just getting to the area requires a journey. Once there, your main mode of transportation will be a hopefully seaworthy boat captained by an old pro who knows the area. The sea is unforgiving and navigating the different channels and sounds in the islands is not a job for a novice. Located on Baranof, Sitka is one of the largest towns in southeast Alaska and besides that small community, human influence on the ABC Islands is next to none. The town lends itself as a home for wayward fisherman who strive to make a living from the sea. Industry here is driven by boats and salmon seasons. What’s more, there are only 14 miles of roads in all of Sitka; beyond that, you’ll be floating, flying or hiking.
ABOARD THE WESTERN PROFIT
Upon arrival, Chris Tinkle of Leica and I waited patiently at baggage claim as we were greeted by Dustin McLeod of Alaskan Raven Guides. The McLeod family has been hunting in the Sitka area for over 60 years, and although they specialize in brown bear hunts, they love chasing the elusive blacktail.
Leaving the airport, we went to purchase tags and I played tourist by buying a pair of Xtratuf boots—good thing, too, as they would turn out to be my go-to boots for the following days.
The truck finished out the rest of the mileage around the city center of Sitka and came to rest at the harbor where our floating home awaited and where we would link up with the rest of our crew: Ryan Trenka from Leica, John Zent with the NRA and Jago Miller of Tweed Media.
The Western Profit is a converted 64-foot Navy tugboat built in 1954 by National Steel and Shipbuilding Corp. in San Diego, California. It lends itself perfectly to a floating home for hunters as they embark on an epic southeast Alaska adventure. Below deck there are three rooms with cozy bunks that, paired with gentle roll of the sea, brought a soothing deep sleep for the duration of the trip. There was also a head, a full shower and an engine room that served as storage and a warm place to dry out wet gear.
THROUGH THE NARROWS
The ABC Islands are encircled by sounds and channels that see immense tidal swings throughout the day. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Sitka, Alaska sees average tides in the 7.7-foot range—meaning the surface of the ocean rises and falls nearly eight feet between high and low tides. When navigating the waterways of the region that means a lot of surge pushing and pulling the vessel, and where there used to be water, is now dry land. An experienced captain is necessary for safe travel through the many hazards.
During our nearly seven-hour trip to our hunting grounds, we had to navigate a small stretch of water that, when tides are changing, acts more like a river than the ocean. As we passed through, we were against the tide, moving slowly as the waves lapped against the hull of the boat. It was fascinating and smooth sailing, but I greatly appreciated having McLeod’s knowledge and experience at the helm.
As we passed through, we watched humpback whales surface, traveling our same path. The fluid motion of the whales was astonishing as they left us in the rearview, moving with the utmost ease against the rushing tide. Through the narrows, we enjoyed the scenic ride north to Chichagof where we would start our hunting. All the while we glassed the shorelines in hopes of seeing a brown bear or a deer low on the beach.
As anyone who has hunted Alaska knows, the weather is always a big factor in your hunt, and it’s appropriate to expect several days of being weathered in. This trip was no different. Our first couple of days were spent longingly looking towards the cloud- covered peaks just hoping for the weather to pass.
Hunting blacktail deer early in the season is different than when most folks hunt them late in the year on Kodiak. Instead of hunting the beaches for deer that have been driven low by snow, we were looking to the green mountain tops above the treeline. Though deer could be found throughout the elevation of the mountains, hunting them in the thick timber is near impossible and our best chances would be in the high country, where herds grazed along the open muskeg.
With thick cloud cover holding tight to the mountains, we waited patiently, scanning beaches, patrolling river inlets in the skiffs and fishing for salmon until Mother Nature gave us an opportunity to hunt. Though the rain seemed relentless, we enjoyed our time and caught plenty of fresh fish for dinner. We even got to set crab pots, a first for me and a new hobby I may need to take up if I ever live on the coast.
A TORTUOUS CLIMB
Day three brought a break in the weather allowing our crew to make for the beach, so we jumped in the skiff and headed to shore. We tied off the skiff with a long line that would pull the anchor off the bow when it was taut. Remember the tidal shifts? This technique ensures the boat is still in the water upon our return.
With the skiff secure, we started our climb. Dense is most likely an understatement when describing the forest and undergrowth in southeast Alaska. Not only is the old-growth timber woven tightly, but downed trees also layer the soil as they rot, making every step unstable and uncertain. Even more nerve-racking were the brown bears. Mere minutes into our hike, a sow with two cubs scurried away from us through the brush—thankfully, they didn’t come our way.
Beyond decaying trees and brown bears, the undergrowth is a labyrinth of sharp aggressors. Devil’s club is prominent and serves to remind of your journey for weeks, if not months, to come as thorns work their way out of your skin until they finally get expelled by your body. Many a missed step led to a tumble through patches of devil’s club. What’s more, the vegetation held all the rainwater from the previous days. I wore Kuiu’s lightweight Kutana raingear to not get drenched on the way up.
We were fighting more than just the dense forest as well. These mountains may not be that tall in terms of elevation, but when talking about vertical relief, they are incredibly steep. Each step made our muscles burn. We took a lot of breaks on the ascent to hydrate, snack and wait out the rolling fog, which made glassing the alpine muskeg impossible. The breaks also allowed us to manage body temperature to ensure we kept from getting too sweaty in the raingear. Finally breaking through the timber to see open muskeg with short shrub growth was a sight for sore eyes. It was time to start hunting.
AMONG THE CLOUDS
The land above the forests was beautiful. When clear, the scenery was breathtaking and the remoteness humbling. It didn’t take long for us to start seeing deer, the bright, almost red hue of their fur made them pop against the green background.
Traversing the ridgetops, we continued to climb in search of a shooter buck. After lunch, we crested another ridge and headed farther away from the boat. Although we weren’t climbing through the forests anymore, the muskeg still made it tough walking as it sucks at your feet in with every step.
We glassed up several groups of deer and some lone, bedded bucks, but none were what we were looking for. Moving down the ridge, two bucks appeared farther away and feeding fast. One of the two was a shooter, a 2x3 with eye guards. They were moving and we didn’t have much time. I moved up quickly to cut the distance and find a solid shooting position. As I lay prone, the Spartan Precision Javelin Bipod found purchase in the soft soil. The range button on the Leica Geovid Rs shot back 484 yards. The Bergara Premier Mountain 2.0 was plenty capable of the shot, and I had DOPE that was confirmed before my departure.
Twisting the dial on the Amplus 6 2.5-15x56 and settling in, I racked the bolt, chambering Hornady’s Outfitter .300 PRC cartridge tipped with the 190-grain CX bullet. Overkill? It’s easy to think that it would be on such a small-statured animal but they’re tough, and with added security it offered in country so heavily populated with brown bears, I didn’t mind the extra firepower. My breathing settled and the crosshairs came to rest on the point of the shoulder as I accounted for wind. At the report of the rifle, the resounding thwap of the impact was unmistakable. The buck soaked up the impact and started walking, a follow-up shot hit a little low, but brought an end to the encounter.
My tag was filled, but we still had a job to do. Working dili- gently to break down the buck, we took every piece of usable meat, put it in game bags, loaded up the packs and headed down the mountain. Upon arriving at the beach—after a few tumbles through the devil’s club—we were relieved to get back on the skiffs and motor to our floating home.
Leaving the region a couple of days later brought a mixed sense of sadness and relief. The trip had come to an end. In the rearview was a place which I hold such a deep appreciation for. Though it’s always tough to end such a great adventure, it’s also rewarding to get home to the family safely—though I’ll always be planning my return trip to the Last Frontier.
GEOVID R 10X42
More than three decades ago, Leica first introduced the Geovid laser rangefinder. Over the next 30 years, innovation and dedication has driven the company to create some of the finest sport optics in production. The latest model is the remastered Geovid R and it is meant to bring the finest glass and rangefinding capabilities together in a compact and affordable package.
Built in the Portugal factory, each set of Geovid Rs is assembled by hand—many of which had also worked on the original Geovids. This new model brings an improved rangefinder that can range from 10 to 2,000 yards. While on the hunt, I successfully ranged timber more than 1,400 yards distant with repeatable accuracy. While the new R holds much of the same style as its predecessor with the solid- bridge construction, the ergonomics have changed so that the optic fits comfortably in the hand.
Optical clarity is of utmost importance for hunters. The Rs use Leica’s Modified Uppendahl prism system and the lenses are coated with HDC multilayer coating for optimum color fidelity. The picture is clear, even when being used in lowlight situations. The 10x42s weigh in at just about 34 ounces. It is easy to be concerned about the durability and longevity of any optic. The binos are robust and will hold up to field abuse and are even waterproof up to 16.5 feet—in Alaska they spent more time wet than dry and faced some heavy impacts during falls.
With the Geovid R, you’ll notice that it doesn’t feature the ballistic calculator that other models offer. There’s a good reason for that. By simplifying the product, the company can keep the prices down and sell a high-performance optic that won’t break the bank.