At some point you leave the nest. In my case, it was post-college, after I took a teaching job in California. When I say leaving the nest, I don’t mean in the traditional sense — moving away from home, making my own way. No, leaving the nest for me meant giving up the safety blanket of hunting with others. I had no one else to go with me, but my drive was there so I hiked the mountain to hunt alone.
My mom is one-for-one in her hunting career; a Nebraska whitetail. It died instantly but she felt so bad that she made my Dad shoot it again and vowed never to kill another deer. Dad was not so lucky… We moved to Alaska when I was five, in 1986, and he helped a cousin pack a blacktail out of a clear-cut. That miserable experience tainted his view forever. All that work for such a little deer. It killed his hunting career before it ever started, so I didn’t grow up hunting.
My former basketball coach took me the year before Dad passed from cancer. It was then that I started to be interested in this hunting thing. I bought a license in California and drew a tag in a place with a 7% success rate. I had seen bucks all over back home, but the program was different in California. Way different. In the three years that I exercised that insanity, I saw exactly two does. In 2013, at the age of thirty-two, I finally shot my first buck. It was August on Prince of Wales Island, a few miles from my hometown of Klawock. There were four 4×4 bucks, but I shot a forkie because I was overwhelmed — There were so many horns, I just picked a body and shot.
Two years later, with no one able to join me, I packed up my gear, tent, rifle, and headed up that same mountain. There’s a logging road that provides incredible access to the alpine, which makes this mountain popular with locals and visitors who think they have found some sort of secret. As far as bargain alpine hunts, I’m not sure it can get much better. That said, by the time mid-August rolls around most of the big bucks are killed, chased to the backside, or down the ridge and across a spine to another peak.
I had shot my first buck on a little hill there the year before — a little rut forkie with eye guards — so I felt ready for the mountain and whatever I needed to do to get a buck where my hunting life started. I had cell phone reception. I had at least some semblance of knowledge when it came to making stalks, and had boned out deer before. I was nervous, yeah, but it was now or never. I had no choice but to take the next step.
The weather called for clear skies once the sea fog burned off. I camped halfway up the north-facing slope so I could look below me in the morning at whatever might be bedded, and I didn’t have to work as hard to get to the ridge the next day. Surprisingly, I managed to fall asleep despite the strong winds whipping my tent, and the excitement building in me. When I woke up and unzipped the tent, I saw deer, but not what I was looking for.
There was a forkie bedded 100 yards below me and two others sparring 500 yards down and to my left. I watched for a few minutes, then refocused. There was fog on the top, which I expected, but the amount was disconcerting. I charged up the mountain to the top ridge and looked down at clouds. Though it was the later part of mid-August, I was cold. The breeze was cold. The lack of sun was cold. The fact I had hardly slept because of stiff winds made me cold. The wind had died and the calm was made eerie by the fog. I sat on the ridge, attempting to glass through breaks in the clouds. On one particular break, I saw four deer below me. My forty dollar binos couldn’t tell me if they were bucks or just does with tall ears. Since the heads didn’t move, I couldn’t be sure.
Fog. After another break, no more luck. More fog.
I moved down the ridge to where a finger divided the face I was looking at from another. Near the bottom was a buck. I only knew this because its head moved and some stuff above it moved at the same speed. It would have to do. The binos couldn’t tell me exactly what that stuff was, but it looked like it could be worth chasing. I also decided that my want for new binos had become a need.
To the right of the deer was a small grassy knob, if I could only get behind it, I’d be right on top of the deer and have an easy shot. The face had multiple chutes cut by eroding snow runoff. I dipped into one and started to work my way towards the knob. I’ve never been particularly patient but I decided that if there were a time and place, this was it. Doing my best ninja impression, I laughed in my head at the thought of all this as I did a crab walk down the muddy cut in the mountain.
I was doing it. A solo hunter stalking a deer on a mountain between fog. It was one of the moments that hunters try, and fail, to properly put into words.
Rocks tumbled, but not far. I slowed, squatted, then rose slowly to look down toward the deer. I couldn’t see it, but the knob I noticed from the ridge was close.
Further, I crawled. Kicked a few rocks, knocked my frame pack and slid — perhaps I wasn’t a ninja — but everything considered I was a decent predator.
I checked the knob again. Close, but a little further to go. This was the last stalk. The last few dozen yards until I popped up and saw exactly what I was stalking. I was alone. There was no voice of reason, no voice of suggestion. Just me. I crawled up the knob and snuck my rifle into position. Seconds crept by as I waited for a break in the fog…Nothing but a doe.
I felt deflated. I had just spent an hour sneaking my way down a couple hundred feet of elevation to stalk a doe. I was frustrated with myself, my binos, and the fact that I’d have to hike all the way back up and over. I rose and sat on the nub, noticing in the grass some twenty yards below me that there were some reddish sticks poking out. Almost in slow motion, the sticks turned towards me. Horns. The buck knew I was there. I shouldered my rifle as the deer stood from its bedded position and lost sight of it in the recoil.
The thick vegetation prevented me from seeing the animal. I had to find the fall line, which I did pretty easily. A few bushes had stopped its slide down the mountain. I lifted the horns to see my biggest buck, a big 3×3 with eye guards. My heart beat louder and harder than before the shot. I know people who have shot bigger bucks, but they hadn’t shot this one on this mountain. I had. Something primal stirred in me, not the alpha-male who dances around the carcass like it’s Lord of the Flies that anti-hunters expect. Something deep, reverent, spiritual, something that is missed by comparing slabs of meat under plastic. Something about my value as a provider and participant in life. Something about not being just a consumer, shuffling the money I make to the faceless people who put that meat in stores…
When I lifted the head, the body broke free of what held it and the deer slid another 30 yards down the mountain. This time it came to rest on a small shelf flat enough for me to work. I was so excited and frantic, I forgot to take in the moment and memorialize it. I took two bad cell phone pictures and that was it. As if almost embarrassed at my good fortune in relation to my experience, I went to work taking the meat off the bone, stuffing it into bags and loading my pack. I had a buck, a big buck. The buck of my life so far and I had done it on a mountain, in the fog, on day two, by myself.
This was me spreading my wings. Leaving the nest. With my buck boned out and in my pack, I had to get all the way back up and over the mountain to camp, fit all my gear on top of the meat and get back to my truck. For the first time since I started hunting, this didn’t seem daunting. I was a changed man.