Shalas’áaw – Tlingit For “Deer With Full-Grown Antlers” By Casey McConnell

Having explored most of the mountains near our homes, my hunting partner and I were ready for the challenge of unfamiliar terrain. Pictures and online videos of huge bucks — for Sitka Blacktails at least — from alpine hunts in the southeast sent to us by friends had been in the back of our minds for far too long. The potential for a chunk of time off work during August of 2014 had only fanned the flames. Of course, we could have been successful in filling our freezer with decent sized bucks by visiting our regular haunts; sleeping in our own beds at night, scrambling into the alpine at dawn, and making it home in time to marinade and grill tenderloins for dinner. But we’d done that. We wanted the challenge of going somewhere different, and going after something bigger. We were after shalas’áaw, “deer with full-grown antlers” in the Tlingit language. Our best bet to find deer of this stature would require a trip south from Juneau, Alaska to Prince of Wales Island by boat. We would camp on the boat or mountainside; staying until we ran out of time, ran out of good weather, or crossed paths with what we were after — mature thick bodied bucks laden with tender venison — and hopefully adorned with impressive antlers.

After planning all spring and counting down the days, our departure date arrived. We managed to get flexible schedules and align our trip perfectly with a weather window between low-pressure systems. It was clear and sunny, as we boarded the boat and headed for uncharted terrain.

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The cruise south was pretty uneventful, save for a few patches of fog. We slept on the boat that night since we had gotten slightly behind schedule. Between refueling and slowing to dodge humpback whales in the fog as we crossed Frederick Sound, we’d tacked a few extra hours onto the trip. At about three in the morning, the boat tilted abruptly on a thirty-degree angle, and my hunting partner slid across the v-berth on top of me! The tide had gone out and our boat was beached, though it remained balanced on the muddy beach. As the tide continued dropping the boat became evermore unstable. One roll-over to reposition in my sleeping bag set the whole boat tipping to one side. With nowhere to sleep it was time to get up! We inflated the rubber raft we would use to get back to the boat — if we came back at high tide — and carried it with us to the beach.

After making coffee, double checking our packs and waiting for the sun to get closer to the horizon, we began our hike. I’d studied maps of the area all winter and spring and knew where we needed to get to, but the darkness of the forest made it a bit of a mystery. Up was a given, the alpine is always several thousand feet above sea level when you’re hunting coastal Alaska, but in the dark, it was difficult to pick an easy path. We struggled up through hellacious salmonberry brush and the tallest, thickest, and most prickly devils club I’d ever seen or felt. Save for our heavy breathing, a single small plane flying overhead, and an occasional bug drawn to our headlamps it was totally quiet and dark beneath the thick canopy of spruce, hemlock, and cedar. We were immersed in complete wilderness — perfect!

As daylight broke we were able to identify cliffy sections in the timber and we skirted around their bases. I made sure to flag our route from there up, as searching for a viable route downhill with heavy packs is miserable. We continued on, gaining altitude and shortly after getting our first glimpse of the alpine we started spotting deer. I wrestled my camcorder out of my pack and zoomed in. That first deer was a very large bodied three point, though it appeared to be missing an eye-guard on one side — a whitetail hunter might have called it a seven-point — three main points on each side and a single eye-guard. Back home this would be a shooter undoubtedly, it would be a shalas’áaw for sure. But we were further south, and this deer — though big — wasn’t fully grown. If this was the first deer seen in the first minute there was a good chance we’d find something even larger.

At a surprisingly level and dry spot well hidden by a small stand of cedar, we dropped our overnight gear and made our way to the edge of the alpine to begin glassing. Deer were seemingly everywhere feeding hungrily, unconcerned about being conspicuous. Some were small, some were big, but nothing huge. No shalas’áaw. As my binoculars wandered along the ridge I spotted two other hunters, also glassing the same bowl. It was so quiet and the air so still that I could hear them talking from several hundred yards away. The plane that flew by that morning must have dropped them at a nearby subalpine lake. An unfortunate coincidence, though they hadn’t seen us in our hidden glassing spot. I took some video as they disappeared over the ridge, while also watching the deer disappear.

We waited out the hot and sunny portion of mid-morning and early afternoon near a small pond, enjoying the cool filtered water while lying shirtless in the alpine. Sun tanning weather that summer had been sparse and we were taking full advantage while the deer hid. As I lazily glassed the hillside, once again a single deer came bounding up and over into view. Shortly after one of the hunters came over as well. In no-time, our binoculars locked and I saw his free hand pointing right at me, my reflectively pale legs and chest had no doubt given me away! His hunting partner’s head snapped around and looked directly at me too. I smiled and waved, and they disappeared back over the hill, no doubt as dejected as I had been earlier when I noticed other hunters in what I thought was a most remote area.

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The deer didn’t come out for an afternoon feed – still too hot no doubt, so we scooted back to our campsite. Once there we glassed back to where we had come from, strategizing a better route for the next day, and saw two very large bucks. Perhaps shalas’áaw. The plan for the next day was to retrace our steps up from camp to the ridge where we’d seen the big deer and continue further, investigating the side of the mountain undisturbed by the other hunting party.

After a fitful sleep — overly excited by the quantity and quality of deer — we awoke and skipped breakfast, trying to beat any competition to the spot we wanted to explore. As we crept through the area where we’d seen the two large bucks, we could see many deer, though not the ones we’d seen the previous night. We pushed on and crested the ridge. More deer were in view further down the ridge and in the bowl below. As we got out the spotting scope my phone vibrated a few times — a patch of cell service. I figured it was worth checking-in with my folks and sending a few quick pictures if there was enough signal. To my dismay, I instead read a series of texts I’d missed from the day before which immediately changed the goal of the day. My hunting partner’s mother had been battling cancer and had taken a sudden turn for the worse. “GET HOME NOW” was the last text sent. We hustled off the mountain, collected camp and practically ran back to the beach. It was a bittersweet drive north; thinking about being surrounded by the biggest deer I’d ever seen and having to walk away. There was consolation in knowing that we made the right call in leaving when we did — there was still time to get home before dark. Shalas’áaw could wait. Many things come and go, the deer would be there forever.

Our freezers didn’t go empty – we settled for a couple decent bucks that we shot on day trips up some mountains closer to home, but the big deer we’d seen on our trip south kept the embers smoldering and we made plans to return in 2015. Our schedules weren’t quite as flexible as they’d been the year prior and we couldn’t wait for perfect weather. I had to fly to Ketchikan and then ferry over to Prince of Wales where I met my partner who’d driven down by himself for a do-over of our 2014 hunt. Same spot and same partner, though we anchored the boat in slightly deeper water this time, avoided hiking in the dark, and fortunately had the whole place to ourselves. Again, we spent the morning glassing, middle of the day resting, then repositioned as the deer fed back into the open. The midday sun was not as intense as the last hunt, and we were rewarded with a marvelous sight: a shalas’áaw at last. It had a huge body, good eye-guards, and as he turned slightly, revealed four points on each side as well. He was almost perfectly symmetrical – a beautiful specimen with fully grown antlers. I decided to try to take him and made moves to close the distance between us while attempting to film as we advanced.

As we closed the distance to 350 yards, he rose from his bed and walked up over the ridge, out of sight. He hadn’t gotten big by luck alone. In the fading light, I scurried up to get within 300 yards of where he had disappeared, a range inside my comfort zone with a good rest. My 300 RUM was sighted to 200 yards and I knew my ballistics well. The kerfuffle going on below him must have been intriguing, and perhaps the big four-point felt safe in the cliffs above us because he poked back over the hill and looked again for where the sound had come from. I was in the perfect spot when he came back into sight. I quickly laid my rifle on my pack and flopped my body over a moss-covered rock; a rest as steady as I’d ever get in the field. He stood peering in my direction and I remained motionless, only moving to position the camera in his direction. It seemed like forever that I waited for him to turn. He fidgeted, looking nervous, like he wanted to retreat again but offered no broadside profile. I decided on a neck shot and the loud report broke the silence of the calm evening. The echoing “whap” audibly confirmed the shot was a success and I could see through my scope that the buck had dropped surprisingly fast. The sun had set and the light was fading so we had to hustle to the deer — finding it in the dark would have been quite difficult even though we knew right where it had died. There wasn’t time to bone out or quarter the buck that evening — nor was there a need. It was breezy and the gutted deer cooled quickly as the air temperature had dropped and a deep crevasse nearby still had snow in it. We lowered the buck down and flagged the spot with a white game-bag, managing to pick our way down the mountain and return to our tents as total darkness set in.

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I slept well that night, and after a quick bite of breakfast the next morning we picked our way up to where I’d left my deer, checking that it was un-scavenged. Continuing on, we made our way towards the mythical backside of the mountain we hadn’t gotten to the year prior, trying not to spook the deer in our path. As we suspected there were again bucks aplenty on that side of the mountain, and we put our glass to all we could, assessing each for mass, height, and symmetry. Nothing in particular stood out above the rest and as the sun rose higher they began filtering down from the alpine into the shaded edges of the timber. As deer started moving, a new one showed itself, having fed out of a hidden draw. While its antlers were not exactly symmetrical it seemed much bigger than the rest. We ran across the bowl to get a better look, and upon closer inspection, he looked even larger than from afar. It had however seen us, heard us or sensed our approach with the uncanny sixth sense big bucks seem to have, and was trotting straight away fast. I had time to get the camera on it and was able to let out a whistle which stopped it as it turned, quartering away over 200 yards out. My hunting partner was ready and didn’t squander the buck’s hesitation. It kicked after the bullet burst both lungs, then ran a short way before stumbling to a stop. Whew! It had happened so fast. Quite the juxtaposition from my hunt the evening before.

We snapped a few pictures before breaking the deer down and shared the weight on the hike back to where we had cached my deer. As we were boning out the deer, clouds had begun rolling in, and as we walked back across the bowl towards camp we became engulfed. We got back to the ridgeline I had marked with the game bag but couldn’t see more than twenty feet in any direction. I made a grid pattern around where I thought it would be and eventually stumbled into it. We boned out my buck as quick as we could and escaped down the mountain as the winds steadily picked up. After a quick rest at camp, we tidied up and redistributed the weight between us. With spirits high we hauled our two shalas’áaw down the mountain, their heavy bodies making the sketchy descent extra taxing.

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Unfortunately, our hike down to the beach was not the end of the day’s grind — the breeze we had experienced up high had been funneled down the valley and was intensified at sea level. It had whipped up the water and was pushing the boat towards a pile of jagged rocks, which the motor was perilously close to hitting! In our efforts to better position the boat this year and to keep it off the beach we had dropped a stern anchor and a bow anchor, however, the wind was catching the boat broadside and the jerking of the waves had loosened the stern anchor which was now dragging as the boat swung around. I shook off my pack, set down my rifle and tried to run to the boat. Fatigue, stiff soled boots, and large unsteady rocks prevented me from building up any speed. After what was by far my slowest ever 400-yard dash I took an unsettlingly easy step from a large rock to the boat’s swim step — we had narrowly avoided serious damage to the motor. I cringe at the thought of what would have happened had we taken our time on the mountain, or taken a few more rests on the hike down. I quickly slacked the stern line, allowing the boat to swing away from the rocks and come into the wind instead of broadside to it. Once safely away from the rocks, I was able to start the motor and idle away from the beach, breathing much easier now that the certain destruction of the lower unit had been averted.

After saving the boat, loading our gear, and pounding a couple of sports drinks while we soaked our feet in the sea, all that remained of our hunt was a simple boat ride. This cruise north was more leisurely and much less stressful than the year prior and we had lots to talk about. We’d seen lots of deer, had both made great shots and quick kills, the weather was mostly good, and we had the mountain to ourselves. We both spent August 2016 and 2017 successfully hunting bucks closer to home, though I would be lying if I said I didn’t spend all summer trying to figure out a way to make my two-day weekends into a three or four-day weekend and get a chance at the shalas’áaw in the southeast. My thoughts drift again to this area as I have two separate four-day weekends in 2018…all I need is a little good weather.

Posted by Adam Janke