October 06, 2023
I released an audible sigh of relief at the distant hum of the skiff became increasingly louder, drowning out the subtle waves capping over the rocky beach. Truth be told, the rugged and unforgiving terrain of Kodiak Island had provided a mental and physical test of epic proportions that day, and I was more than ready for a hot meal and the warmth of my sleeping bag. The buck strapped to our packs was a bonus and constant reminder of one hell of an adventure.
When I informed my wife that I was heading back to Kodiak Island she gave me a blank, concerned stare. She reminded me of my hunt there in 2017 and the close call I had with a charging brown bear and rough seas that reminded me how quickly life is given and how quickly it can be taken. It is difficult to explain, but those feelings and experiences of solemnity, adventure, uncertainty, fear, and ultimately triumphant success mold and push us to be better versions of our- selves and feel alive. For the adventure-seeking hunter, Alaska becomes an addiction.
Kodiak Island, often referred to as "The Rock," offers DIY hunters the complete Alaska experience with stunning views, plentiful game, unpredictable weather, massive brown bears, and seemingly endless miles of pristine wilderness to explore. Throw in the opportunity to have up to three deer tags in your pocket, coupled with the affordability of this hunt, and it is easy to see why so many DIY hunters flock to The Rock each fall. When I was asked to join a group of friends for a week of hunting the tasty and elusive Sitka blacktails that call this formidable island home, I jumped at the opportunity. Our mode of transportation and home base for this Kodiak excursion was a 65-foot, long-range vessel, rightfully named the Venturess, owned by my good friends and operators of Alaska Premiere Sport Fishing, Travis and Susan Larson.
The predicted forecast for Kodiak the first week of December put temperature highs in the teens and the lows well below zero with sustained 20+ mph winds and gusts over 60 mph. Growing up in northern Utah, I thought I had a pretty good grasp of what“cold”was, but this hunt took that understanding to a new level. As we boarded the Venturess in the harbor and headed south, I don’t think any of us fully knew what the next six days had in store.
Spirits were high that first morning as we loaded into the skiff and skipped across several hundred yards of relatively calm seas towards the shore. Temps were brisk, but the sun was doing its best to break through the overcast skies and the wind was calm for the time being. The nagging thorns of devil’s club that choke the island quickly reminded me of my disdain for them as my father and I climbed to our predetermined glassing point. We saw over a dozen or more deer that day but none got us excited. While savoring the calories and warmth of a Peak Refuel meal for lunch, I pulled out my Garmin inReach and checked the weather. High winds, snow flurries, and brutally cold temps looked to be the norm for the duration of our hunt.
Joining my father and me the second day was my good friend, Shawn Skipper. Ominous gray clouds and snowfall greeted us that morning as we tucked our heads to escape the needle-like piercings of frozen snow plastering our faces on the skiff ride to shore. Once on the beach, the towering peak that we intended on climbing, combined with the less-than-ideal weather made all three of us question our sanity. We half-heartedly laughed at some comment about“type-two fun”and slowly began our ascent.
Several hours later we found ourselves staring through the Leupold SX-4 spotting scope at a bedded buck, tucked out of the elements on the backside of a ridge 900 yards up the drainage. Between the snow flurries, whipping wind, and clouds rolling in and out, it was difficult to determine exactly what the buck had for headgear, but we knew he had a nice frame and certainly warranted a closer look. Trudging through knee-deep snow, we slowly picked our way across several willow-choked ridges that ultimately put us 235 yards above the buck. Skipper steadied for the shot as it stood and delivered a perfectly placed blow. The buck dropped and slid 10 yards down the snow-covered hill and out of our sight. All three of us shared the excitement of Skipper’s first Sitka blacktail, and we relished in the hard-earned success that we had been blessed with. Little did we know that the adventure had just begun.
With our gear gathered, we slowly worked down toward the draw that the deer had slid into. The closer we got, the more our concern grew as the draw turned into a canyon, which then descended into a cliffed-out cove that fell 300 plus feet to a frozen creek bed. I carefully crept to the edge and could see the deer piled up at the base of a massive frozen waterfall. I let out a deep exhale, and muttered,“I think we have a problem.”The three of us assessed the topography and our options to get to the downed buck and ultimately made the decision to cross the frozen creek above the waterfall and try to come around from the top.
Two hours later we had scaled multiple vertical, snow-covered faces on our hands and knees, traversed car-sized boulders, and maneuvered several sketchy, frozen creek crossings. On more than one occasion we were well aware of the catastrophic ramifications of one misstep and carefully pressed on, slowly putting one foot in front of the other. By the time we finally made it to Skipper’s buck, the sun had begun to set, and the eagles had already staked their claim. Luckily the bears had not.
Unfortunately, the impact following the buck’s 300-foot free-fall, shattered his antlers, leaving nothing more than coke-can-sized nubs at the base. This buck, which quickly earned the nickname of Jumper, epitomizes the saying that“the trophy lies in the eyes of the beholder.”To most people, he doesn’t appear as much. However, to Skipper, my dad, and myself, Jumper represents a day of trial and triumph that we will never forget.
With daylight fading, we snapped a few pictures, broke the buck down, and made our way for the beach. Looking back now, that day makes for a great story. As we buzzed back to the boat we were just grateful to have escaped the day without hitting the SOS button.
ADVENTURE OF EPIC PROPORTIONS
No one else in our hunting party saw many deer that day, so we elected to continue working our way southward in hopes of better hunting and higher deer numbers. The sun again made its appearance the next morning but also brought blistering, sustained winds and feels-like temps south of -20. The absurdly frigid temps were slowly forgotten as we glassed up several groups of deer from the boat deck scattered across the grassy hillsides above the beach. Bundled up, we boarded the skiff and headed for shore. Our plan of attack was to keep moving in an attempt to stay warm and look over as many deer as possible until we turned up a mature buck. By midafternoon, we had looked over dozens of bucks, ultimately finding a mature one with good mass and bladed tines that was more than worthy of hanging one of my tags on. I was not the only one that had success that day either as several others in our hunting party returned that evening with smiles on their faces and stories to tell.
The forecast that night called for sustained 50 mph winds and gusts much greater than that, prompting Travis and his crew to move the Venturess to a sheltered inlet for the night. The beating winds jostling the boat made it tough to fall asleep, but I was exhausted and eventually drifted off. Blaring alarm sirens snapped me awake in the early hours of the morning followed by the deck hands, Garret and JJ, rushing out of their sleeping quarters below us. Half asleep and unsure of what was going on, I stumbled out of bed as the boat engines fired up. The night was black, but the lights from the exterior of the boat revealed winds blowing snow side-ways at a rate I’d never seen before. I don’t remember how much time passed, but eventually the boat engines again came to a stop and the rattle of the boat anchor plunging downward was music to everyone’s ears. Come to find out, the winds had reached over 90 mph and the alarm was sounding because the boat anchor was dragging along the ocean floor, the winds blowing us where they wished. Travis hastily and carefully navigated the vessel further back into the inlet to escape the hurricane-force winds and dropped the anchor.
The following day was a bust with gale-force winds locking us in the inlet for the majority of the day. Losing hunting days to weather is simply part of the game when in the Last Frontier. We made the most of our down time processing meat and making plans for the following day. The next day would be the last of the hunt before we began our long voyage back to the harbor.
Blue skies and sunshine were a welcome sight on our final morning. However, their deception was short- lived as the subzero temps and 20 plus mph winds abruptly took our breath away as we stepped outside the boat's cabin. Skipper got the day started on the right foot, filling his second buck tag shortly after we hit the beach. With his buck taken care of, my dad and I tucked our heads and pointed our boots inland with high hopes of some last-day magic.
My teeth chattered and hands began to tremble as I studied a small bachelor group of bucks through the spot- ting scope. The gusting wind prevented me from telling exactly what the one buck had going on for headgear, but I could tell beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was a unique stag buck with several nontypical points protruding from his head. Our plan to get within range nearly worked until the wind switched and the buck blew out. Deflated, but determined, we followed in hot pursuit for the remainder of the morning, battling through brutal cold temps and waist-high snow drifts. We finally caught the break we needed when the buck met up with a large group of deer at midday, slowing his pace and allowing us to cut the distance.
With the custom Leupold CDS turret dialed, I settled in behind my Browning X-Bolt McMillan Long-Range chambered in .300 PRC, took a deep breath, and squeezed the trigger. My elevation was perfect, but the excessive wind had pushed the 190- grain Hornady CX bullet 4-inches more than I had accounted for and struck the buck at the base of the neck, dropping him in his tracks. Not even the bitter temps could knock the smile off my face that day as we hastily quartered the incredible buck and loaded our packs for the long trek back to the beach. To top the day off and put an exclamation mark on the trip, dad tagged a mature, heavy 3x3 buck in the waning minutes of daylight.
Kodiak Island once again provided a bounteous hunt from both land and sea. More importantly, The Rock forged friendships and fostered memories of epic proportions for everyone on board. As our plane rumbled down the runway and we left the Island behind, I knew this was only a temporary goodbye to a place that my soul longs to return.