After nearly a year of planning, I finally made it to Alaska to hunt, explore and test myself in the last Great Wilderness.
Although I had originally intended to hunt Caribou in the high Arctic Tundra, plans changed and I wound up going on a solo drop hunt on Kodiak Island seeking Blacktail Sitka Deer.
Since my shelter, food and safety gear were already taken care of in my original plans, I needed to rethink my packing priorities. For a solo drop hunt, I had to pack all my food, shelter, safety equipment and hunting gear into the field with me. Additionally, the weather was calling for 30 degree temperatures, rain and lots of wind.
In this post, I will describe the kind of gear and safety equipment I would need and packed in to the field and my experience putting it all together.
I planned to be dropped off on Kodiak Island with a .243 caliber rifle (used for Deer hunting, not for Bear defense) because my larger rifle needed to be sent back to the factory for tuning just days before my trip. I was very grateful that my bush pilot, Erik promised to equip me with a Sat phone, Bear spray and an electric bear fence which I could use around my gear/meat tent.
My tents are only rated for 3 seasons but seeing as how I would not be facing Arctic cold, I figured it would work out alright. I elected not to bring my dad's sidearm because I was assured by both of my pilots that the bear spray and electric fence would serve as adequate bear defence and decided to let go and trust their expertise.
I must admit, even after all the time spent planning, I was feeling underprepared and that nothing I could do or pack could ready me for what lay ahead. It was go time, ready or not.
With my stomach cluttered with butterflies, I set off for Alaska. Once my plane got close to Anchorage, I saw my first glacier! This trip was going to be epic, whether I was prepared or not.
Upon landing at the small Kodiak airport, something incredible happened. I met a fellow hunter named, Jerry staying at my hotel. He and his companions joined me on the airport shuttle and we started discussing our respective hunting plans. Once he learned that I was hunting solo in Brown Bear country with only a deer rifle and bear spray, he insisted that I take his sidearm. It is a very large caliber hand gun used for bear defense. At first, I declined his offer, not wanting to take this man's weapon. Then I stood in front of a mounted Brown Bear in the lobby of the hotel who's head was as big around as the lid on an oil drum. "OK. I'll buy it from you." , I said. He refused, "Absolutely not. I don't need the money, I've been very blessed." he said. I continued to plead with him to let me pay for it when finally he said, "Not another word. I'll be in a cabin with other people who have extra guns. Take it and you be safe out there, young lady."
He literally gave me a brand new pistol, just like that. Words can not discribe the generosity and concern this man showed me and I will forever be grateful to him. Indeed, I was the one who was blessed.
Later that morning, I met up with Erik who outfitted me with the Sat phone, Bear spray and electric fence. He loaded my gear on the bush plane, told me to climb up, strap in and get ready to fly!
Once we were airborne and I saw the terrain, I knew this trip was truly going to be a test of physical, emotional and psychological strength. In fact, I distinctly remember thinking, "These lands are going to kick my ass."
We spotted two large herds of Caribou and looked for a safe place to land. I still had the Caribou hunting tag and thought I could double my chances if I happen to get close to them. It's tricky business getting close to Caribou. You can locate them by plane and land nearby, however because of Alaska's no hunt/fly law, you are required to wait for 24hrs after landing to hunt. This applies to many species in Alaska but not for Sitka Deer.
Erik landed the plane on a small lake and dropped me off at a remote location on the Island. Once he flew away, I could immediately sense how completely out of my depth I really was.
It was 30 degrees with CONSTANT 25mph wind on freezing wet Tundra terrain. For those of you who have never experienced walking in the Tundra, it is akin to walking uphill on empty cardboard boxes. Wet, cold, unstable cardboard boxes. After just a few hours into my arrival, my ultralight hip waders were torn and punctured leaving my boots waterlogged and freezing. Man, do I have a colorful gear review for that product!
It took me the better part of 4 hours to hike in and set up my camp against raging wind and cold. My camp included two separate tents 50 yards apart. One where I would sleep and the other to store my gear and any meat harvested. Both had to be anchored down with excessive amounts of para cord and tent stakes. I was told to tie them off to the biggest rocks I can find. The snag of course being that there are no rocks. Just huge rolling piles of spongy wet moss. So, I did the best I could and made sure that my wallet and Sat phone were on me at all times because if my tent went rolling across the open Tundra like a tumble weed, there would be little hope of getting it back easily.
At this stage, my boots were totally soaked but still plyable. I expected by morning they would be good and frozen solid. Still, I was able to get both tents set up and was erecting the electric bear fence. A few important things to note: First, it was evident that this fence had seen a lot of miles and was clearly jacked up. Many of the poles were broken and several wire supports were missing but I still managed to get it set up around my gear tent. The final step of instructions read, "connect the ground and hot wire to the energizer to deliver the current." I searched through the bag. "What wires?!" In the bag, were NO wires! The bear fence is purely decorative! Being all alone in the wild afforded me the opportunity to shout as loud as I wanted, the first phrase that came to mind, "Oh, Sh*t!!" The sun was low in the sky and I wondered how I would sleep once night came.
As it turns out, when your body succumbs to total exhaustion and you have an enormous hand gun beside you, it's pretty easy to get some shut eye. After all, I was really careful to put anything that carries a scent in the gear tent and that's gotta be worth something. Right?! In any case, since the sun set at 6:00pm and didn't rise again until 9:00am, I found that resting was a good way to fill the fifteen hour nights.
The night was wild, windy and cold yet beautifully clear. The moon was waning but still nearly full allowing for delicate pale blue lighting against dark silhouettes of ridge tops and Tundra contours for miles around. Without any light pollution, the night sky was magnificent. Vast and choked with stars. Although stunning, the nighttime wind led me to think more about my gear tent flying away than about bears.
After a long night and enjoying a good old dehydrated meal for breakfast, I loaded up my hunting pack with extra layers, safety equipment, a couple of snacks, sat phone and my rifle. The morning preparation gave me a little time to come up with a plan if my hunt was successful. In light of my frozen waterlogged boots and lack of bear fence, I decided that I would use the sat phone to arrange for early pickup should my hunt be successful. There is no reason to risk frostbite or bear attack once I have fresh meat 50 yards from where I sleep.
I began working my way across the Tundra step by wet unstable step towards where the Caribou were last seen. After the manditory 24 hour wait time, they were nowhere to be found and were long gone, way beyond walking distance. Then suddenly, some movement along a nearby ridge caught my eye. They were Blacktail Sitka Deer! Lots of them!
My focus shifted instantly. The ridge side where I had seen them was easily 700-800 yards away. Way too far to take a shot. As I moved in closer, trudging clumsily through the wet Tundra, I kept thinking to myself, "I feel like a baby!" Totally without practice and terrible at moving stealthily in these land, I was at the mercy of the Tundra and the grace of the Sitka Deer.
The closer I got, the more curious the Deer became. They went about grazing and occasionally looking up to watch me. They didn't seem to mind me walking in their direction. After all, there are no trees in the Tundra. You can't miss a human walking clear across the open planes. They kept an eye on me and went about their morning.
Finally, after nearly a mile and a half from my camp and crossing a small river, I was in range. At about 300 yards, I needed to move just a little closer. The Deer were grazing in a clearing on a hillside just past a large patch of Alders. I moved in to between 200-250 yards and settled in to take my shot.
When Deer are in the rut (breeding season) high levels of testosterone in the bucks can make their meat taste extra gamey. I drew my sights on a beautiful, large, fat doe looking straight at me. My heart was pounding as I said a prayer of gratitude aloud. I calmed my breath, slowly pulled my trigger....and missed. In all honesty, I missed a few times. The strong winds were enough to push my bullet clean away from my target. Luckily, she didn't seem to mind at all. Once I figured out that I needed to wait for a calm in the wind, I just hoped that this beautiful doe would wait for me. She did.
During a break in the wind and at the lowest point in my breath, I paused and slowly pulled my trigger. She fell instantly and without suffering. This is where the hardest work began.
I believe that working hard to acquire meat is more rewarding than buying it already processed at the store. It is intimate and connects me directly to what it means to eat meat. I have a relationship with each and every animal I hunt. A different story unfolds each time. Whether I'm successful or not, I never leave a hunt empty handed.
When I saw her fall, I thought, "Thank you, Deer." Then, "Ok. Now, I just have to get through that patch if alders and process her quickly." It is common for Brown Bears to investigate the sound of gunshots because it often leads them fresh kills. Some local hunters call it "ringing the dinner bell". A Bear could easily challenge and chase me off of that deer. No contest.
Those alders were no joke! A relentless tangle of unyielding brittle branches, snagging my pack, gun and clothing every step. They are so thick, it makes it impossible to move quickly or see very far. I researched about alders and the Tundra terrain, but until I actually experienced the struggle of trying to move through them, I had NO IDEA how ridiculously difficult it really is.
Once I reached the downed doe, I thanked her and placed a small pinch of sacred tobacco and buck brush on her chest in gratitude for her sacrifice.
I worked fast to skin the doe and prepared to gut her quickly and carefully. Once the gut cavity is opened, the smell of organ meats is quite strong and can attract Bears in no time.
Because she was shot on such a steep slope, I was fighting to keep her from sliding down the hill as I processed her. Only now, I was covered in blood, the gut cavity was open and the clock was ticking.
I grabbed my awesome Caribou Gear Game Bags (if you've never used them, get them.) and packed up the beautiful Sitka Deer in my pack. Remember when I said that she was beautiful, large and fat? Well, as it turns out, I could not pack her out with the additional weight of my safety gear and rifle. I was being crushed into the soft Tundra by the weight of my pack. Even with trekking poles, my right leg slipped into a drainage up to my knee and I fell over in the opposite direction. Thankfully, I wasn't hurt but I knew it was only a matter of time before I seriously injured myself if I tried to continue.
At that moment, I had to make a call. I hauled the deer through the gnarly alders, marked the area with blaze orange flagging tape and left her there so that I could hike back to camp and shed the weight of my hunting gear.
It took me ages to get back. Once back at camp, I took everything out of my bag except bear spray and a bit of water. That clock is still ticking so I had to hustle back to the Deer.
Back through the Tundra and across the creek, I could see the orange flagging tape sticking out horizontally, clinging to a shrub despite the fierce cold wind. "Just a little farther", I said aloud. I remembered to speak up in case Bears are nearby. "HEY, BEAR!", I shouted a few times before approaching the Deer. The coast was clear.
I packed up the beautiful, large, fat Sitka Deer in my pack and after teetering on my back like a turtle on its shell, steadied my feet and set off on my final trip to camp.
Along the way back, I found a shed Caribou antler. What a score! It came in handy too. After another hour, I arrived in camp, exhausted to the point of near vomiting, thirsty, bruised and elated. I set my trekking poles and antler shed across two rolling lumps of Tundra, effectively making a meat rack. The Deer meat was safe at camp...for now.
All said, it took me a full 6 hours of fast paced, heavy hauling, trekking and trudging through miles of treacherous technical terrain, freezing water and piercing cold wind to "secure" that meat. Every step of that experience was a gift.
It was after I climbed into my tent to escape the desicating winds and drink some water when I realized just how risky my situation had become. I was covered in blood, my boots were freezing over, I almost seriously injured myself during the hunt and now, I placed the bounty of my successful hunt in camp with no bear defence. I desperately wanted to protect that meat and knew that if a Bear came to take it, the stakes would be very high because of a situation that I had created.
I used the satilite phone to call Erik for pickup. Although I was prepared for a 7-10 day trip, I had a successful hunt and got all I needed from this epic journey in just two days. And I'm alright with that. Part of being a hunter for me is letting go of expectation by learning what my environment has to teach me.Llistening for when it's time to stay or go. Avoiding obviously dangerous situations so that I can live to hunt another day. Choosing to let animals walk away from my crosshairs because it may be the right thing to do. It's all part of being in the present moment.
In that short time, I learned how dangerous it can be for someone to get into that kind of situation during their first trip in an environment like that. I would have been much better positioned to stay longer if I had a hunting partner, functioning bear fence and better hip waders. I also learned that I am totally going back! Solo hunting is very rewarding and now that I know better how to move in those lands, which gear is useless or priceless and best strategies to keep myself safe, I feel more confident than ever to get my gears shifting toward my next big adventure hunt.
A sneak peek on the trip that I'm already planning for this Spring/Summer 2016 involves Alaska and the chase of Caribou. Thanks to Jerry, I will be bringing my new revolver on all of my upcoming Alaskan hunting adventures.
Returning from this adventure, I am indeed a changed person. I have a stronger drive than ever to push my limits an test my grit. To learn from our Wilderness, Wildlife and folks who have experience and wisdom they so generously share. Each time I leave the woods, I want to get back to it sooner than the last time. I don't mean to paint this picture as one of harsh elements, difficulties, dangers and the harrowing nature of hunting alone in treacherous terrain. Rather, as a clear description of my personal experience as I grow to be a better person and a better hunter trough respecting the Wilderness and testing my limits. This trip was an amazing gift because of its difficulties.
In keeping with theme of changing plans, my originally scheduled "Cari- Barbeque" celebration has been replace by this year's "Black- Tail Event " or perhaps I'll call it a "Sitka Soirée". Regardless of what I end up calling it, I will be hosting a feast to honor all the animals who constantly and patiently teach me and who sacrifice the most by allowing me to harvest them. I owe them deep thanks, prayer and gratitude.
This post is dedicated with all my gratitude to the Wild lands of Alaska for swiftly checking my ego an expectations and letting me live to tell the tale. To Kodiak Brown Bear for graciously ignoring me. To Blacktail Sitka Deer for her sacrifice and meat that will feed my family and lessons that will help me to become a better hunter. To Caribou who first led me on my most heart opening adventure. And to Jerry for his unparalleled concern and generosity toward his fellow man (and woman). Folks like him remind me to keep my heart and mind open, to be kind, patient, compassionate, dedicated and generous. True virtues of a great hunter.
I am truly blessed to have been challenged, changed and driven in this way. My path is one of the Wild and I will continue to walk it with curiosity, confidence and gratitude.