An Island Harvest, By Drew Kress

I was waiting in a line at the Anchorage airport with my dad and two brothers. Stuck in a daydream wondering what I was about to encounter on this trip. After the hours the plane ride had passed. I found myself at the Kodiak municipal airport overwhelmed with excitement. We grabbed our luggage, then made our way to the boat harbour to meet the transporters for the trip.

The diesel motors started up and we were cruising the salt. Heading to the other side of the island to begin our pursuit for Sitka blacktail deer and mountain goat. The captain of the 43’ delta was one of my old friends from times I spent fishing halibut in Seward, Alaska. By late afternoon we were almost to the bay that we decided to hunt. Getting anxious, my brothers and I requested to a drop-off on shore for a late afternoon hunt. I split off from my two brothers and went off 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 rock”. I was so excited to find my first blacktail on Kodiak.

I had hunted blacktail earlier in the year in South Central Alaska, but it proved to be quite the challenge. My initial thoughts when hunting new areas is to figure out the lay of the land. Where would the animals be travelling to? Would they be feeding or bedded down? What should I be looking for in the topography to be a successful hunter? My answer to figuring these questions out is 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 flipped. 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, it was a no brainer to go after him.

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 brush and alder trees made me sound like I was banging two symbols together. After enough brush thrashing from myself and the camera gear, I saw the small buck top over the hill. With my hunting resiliency, I took a new approach to my stalk. I wasn’t ready to quit yet.

After walking a hundred yards or so I saw some movement in front of me, only 50 yards away. It was a young buck I had an incredible experience with. I stood in his presence, mere feet away and enjoyed his innocence and beauty. The buck went on his way and I decided I had enjoyed enough of the island today. I headed back to the boat and settled into the serene stillness of Kodiak Island. The next day we woke up and glassed the mountains for little white dots. We had talked to mountain goat biologist and he told us we would find goats along the cliffs here. After a half hour, I was getting sick to my stomach with nerves. We couldn’t find any goats. Like the snap of a finger, a small fog bank blew off the mountain, exposing what had been in front of us. Forty or so 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. My Dad, who was 48 years old, was going to be struggling to make it up. As Army Infantrymen, I knew I could handle any realistic amount of weight.  I took it upon myself to make his hunt easier, carrying more of his gear. We began the trip up. I decided to take the lead and the job of busting through the brush and trees. Out of all us, I knew I had the endurance to do it. The trip up took its toll on everyone. My hands and face had felt like I had gotten into a fight with a rude housecat. The devil’s club and thorn bushes do not have any prejudice. In the early afternoon, we had reached the alpine and took a lunch break. I was pretty happy I would not have to touch the devil’s club for at least another day. We finally had reached the ridge top, we dumped our packs and started looking for goats. The fog swept through the small valleys and ridges like a white sheet over a bed. It was proving difficult to find anything within one hundred yards of any direction of you.

With the unrelenting fog, we made a quick camp set up and prepared for the cold and windy night. Before the sun 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 had discovered first light. I unzipped my bag and met an unpleasant situation. My boots were frozen solid 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 dressed and ready to finish what we had started. The winds were fierce and 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 two hundred yards and got into shooting position. I told my dad and brothers to pick a goat upper middle, lower middle and right. I assured them not to shoot a nanny with a kid. I said we would shoot on the count of one. Without beginning my count down my dad let off a shot with his .338 RUM and dropped a goat. The goats scattered in different directions, stopping to try and figure out what had happened. We took aim and harvested two more goats. We shrugged our excitement off and realized the amount of work that was ahead of us. We hastily cut up the goats, heading back down heavy but successful hunters. After six hours of descent and dusk approaching, I took the final steps to the beach and dropped my pack. Loaded with three days of camping gear, food, water and a 4-year-old Billy, it was a welcome reprieve. I radioed the boat to pick us up and I felt the feeling of an ended hunt. Even with the wounds on my feet and soreness of a previously broken back, I would’ve turned right around and done it again. There are times in life that our emotions are so strong that it is necessary to stop and take it all in. I stood there on the beach content and proud of everyone, especially my Father. We passed out in our bunks that night with dreams of mountain hunting once again.

The next day I was ready to pursue some blacktail deer and reopen the wounds on my feet. I once again took off on a solo hunt with the camera gear and my rifle. I had almost the entire day to hunt. I packed some lunch food and remembered it was my birthday. I threw in a dehydrated ice cream sandwich to celebrate later. I glassed the area off the beach, coming to 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 the binos. I glassed and almost recited different poetry in my head about nature and the continuum of all that is the wild. I remembered what I had been doing a year ago today. I spent my last birthday and over eight months in total fighting in Afghanistan in the Army.

This whole trip was imagined as the finish line to me. As a gift to myself for doing something most will never even think about. I snapped out of my fantasy dream world and went back to hunting. I moved slowly through each opening and brush thicket, glassing for a mature Sitka black tail. I came over a small knob and spotted a spike buck. I admired him and contemplated pulling the trigger, but I wanted to have more time to hunt. Skirting around the small buck trying not to spook him, I headed for higher country to find a mature buck. After an hour or so of walking and gaining elevation I sat down and pulled out the binoculars and tripod. I set everything up and began my glassing session. I looked hard on the far hill side, watching it carefully for movement. I looked on the low areas to try and find bedded deer, and I also kept a sharp lookout for bears. I wasn’t finding any deer and the day was slowly coming to an end. Packing up my stuff, I decided to head for what I thought would be another great glassing knob.

As I was walking, I caught a glimpse of movement to my right. In plain sight stood what I thought was a dandy black tail. I discarded any thought of filming this event, un-shouldered my rifle and took aim. I fired a shot at the buck and heard the “thwack” of the bullet impact. I chambered another round and hit him again in the chest. I walked over to the buck, thanked him for the life he had lived and calmed my excitement. I took a few film shots, quartered the deer out and put him all inside my pack to begin the three mile walk back to the beach.

On my way back, I took a break or two and enjoyed the beautiful vista one last time. I stared out beyond the landscape and couldn’t believe the amount of experience I gained as a hunter and a mentor. That is why this trip meant so much to me. I’ve grown and learned so much from hunting that it has become 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!

Posted by Nolan Osborne