Photography by Calvin Connor
The conclusion of this story takes place in the lush alpine of Southeast Alaska, but it begins in the spring of 2018 at a Rocky Mountain Goat Alliance (RMGA) survey in the Black Hills of South Dakota. A group of us were discussing what hunts we had planned for the upcoming fall. I mentioned I was traveling to Alaska in early August to hunt Sitka Black-Tailed Deer – and that my plan was to go solo. A sitka deer hunt in Southeast Alaska had been on my mind for quite a while. Having never been to that part of the world, I had dreamed of the mountainous islands and ocean views. The August hunt had intrigued me most as I preferred spot and stalk type hunting in the alpine. Calvin Connor mentioned that he would be interested in going with if his schedule allowed. Four months later after multiple planning texts and phone calls, Calvin and I found ourselves in Tacoma International awaiting our flight to Alaska.
Calvin works in the outdoor industry as a freelance photographer and has a ton of hunting and backcountry experience; needless to say, I was glad to have him along. Another close friend of mine, Luke Giesey was already in Alaska and had done some pre-scouting. Luke had other obligations but planned to meet up to hunt with us whenever he could arrange it. While Calvin and I had rifles for the hunt, Luke would pursue his buck using archery tackle.
Calvin and I intended to spend five days backpacking across the Alaskan alpine in search of sitka bucks, however, an unplanned set back met us at the airport as my duffle containing my backpack gear did not arrive. A visit to the local sporting goods store provided with us game bags, a knife, and some other miscellaneous camp gear that would hold us over. Calvin and I then met up with Luke and went on a short hike to try and spot some deer for the hunt the following day. The time behind the glass produced five bucks, and we acquainted ourselves to the mosquitoes and wet conditions that would accompany us the remainder of the hunt.
The following morning Calvin and I headed to the basin we occupied the previous evening with hopes of catching a glimpse of those same bucks. We searched until mid-morning when Calvin spotted a deer moving near the top of another basin that was just visible from our position. The plan was to work our way up into the alpine anyway, so we headed towards the deer and began the ascent. While we were unable to relocate the deer, that first ascent demonstrated some of the challenges of navigating in Southeast Alaska. I was caught most off guard by how rocky the ground was; rarely when ascending or descending were we ever on solid ground. Instead, imagine wet slippery rocks the size of old box computer monitors with 3-12 inch wide “gaps” between them. These gaps were hidden to the eye by masses of vegetation and deadfall. Every few steps, one foot would slip through one of these aforementioned “gaps” and our momentum would come to an abrupt halt as we slammed our shin/knee into a rock and often tumbled over. This phenomenon seemed to be the worst when descending as gravity assisted with many more tumbles.
After finally summiting, Calvin and I picked our way along the ridge the remainder of the afternoon. The scenery was beyond what either of us could describe. Mountainous islands and ocean views surrounded us as we spent our day exploring from above – looking into basins hoping to catch a glimpse of a deer moving through the lush foliage.
As evening approached, we settled in and began glassing a large basin below us. Calvin and I started high, then slowly worked our way down the mountain; stopping frequently to take advantage of the different glassing angles. After an hour or so of this, Calvin spotted a buck bedded underneath some cliffs to our left. We debated amongst ourselves the best approach to take. That evening a strong wind was blowing, so we agreed it was best to try and close the gap and then relocate the deer.
With daylight fading – we slowly started our descent down the mountain towards where we had last seen the buck. Conditions for relocating the deer were not at all in our favor – most of the landscape proved to be too thick with vegetation to see any sort of animal movement. In addition to the thick cover, the descent proved to be much steeper than we expected so our entire focus was on not slipping and falling down the mountain. With daylight fading, I remember thinking to myself how I had given up on spotting the deer, and that every step of the descent taken in daylight was a blessing, when I heard Calvin from behind me “Deer! Below”
We confirmed it was the buck Calvin had just seen, however within seconds it fed into the thick foliage where we again lost sight of it. We both continued to move down towards where the buck had disappeared when I saw it feeding through some brush 200 yards away. With my binoculars, I saw a clear opening the size of a basketball right on the vitals of the deer; while broken brush concealed the rest of the buck’s body. After we both confirmed it had antlers, Calvin confidently found the buck through his Leupold VX-6 and took the off-hand shot. The 6.5 Creedmoor shot true and the buck collapsed into the brush and out of sight. We quickly worked our way over to where the deer fell and found the buck lying expired and motionless. We both soaked in the moment and then began the process of photos and butchering – valuing every second of daylight.
Calvin and I were then faced with a decision: Option one was to return the way we came. The route was several hours longer and involved much more uphill hiking, but was a known and safe route. The alternative was to continue down the steep slope, this reduced the distance significantly, however navigating the wet rocks and cliffs in the dark was not something we were eager to tackle. Ultimately, we decided to work our way down slowly and continually evaluate as we go. With headlamps on, we loaded our packs and slowly began the descent.
It’s amazing how hunting, specifically mountain hunting, bonds people together. Calvin and I hardly knew each other before meeting 24 hours previously in the Seattle airport – now our packs were loaded with meat as we navigated down the mountain together. Highlights of the pack-out included getting continually smacked in the face by alders and helping each other up as we seemed to alternate stepping in the “gaps” and falling (typically face first). Seven hours later we had reached our destination, took care of the meat, and caught up on some well-needed sleep.
I checked with the airline the following morning and my duffle had still not been found. So, Luke joined Calvin and I on a hike to an area we planned on packing into and setting up a spike camp once my gear arrived. Rain came down the entire day, and finding deer proved to be difficult as the fog rolled in making the basins impossible to glass. Calvin and I recounted the previous day’s adventure to Luke and bounced ideas off him concerning plans for the rest of our trip. The fog never broke, the three of us hiked out in the dark hoping the next time we came here it would be to stay.
Finally, the next morning I received the call that my duffle had arrived! After a quick retrieval trip, Calvin and I loaded our packs and ascended into the alpine for the remainder of our hunt. We selected a camp location near the bottom of the basin that Luke recommended to us the evening previous. A quick gear note: I have used floorless shelters on other hunts, I found a “floored” shelter very comfortable for this hunt. With moderate temperatures, constant light rain, and relentless misquotes – the “floored” option seemed to fit the bill perfectly.
That afternoon we explored more of our surroundings, and around dusk, we settled in on a glassing knob to see if we could turn up a buck. With an hour of daylight remaining, Calvin spotted a buck working through the brush about 300 yds above us. I hastily positioned my rifle for a shot, however by the time I was in position to shoot – the buck had worked its way into taller foliage, making him no longer visible. The taller foliage was a strip about 75 yards wide, so Calvin and I patiently waited until dark for the buck to work its way back into the open. To our dismay, the buck had other plans and we didn’t catch sight of him again. This was the first buck we had seen since Calvin had harvested his. While disappointed that it didn’t come together, I fell asleep hoping tomorrow would be the day everything would fall into place.
At dawn we continued the search, watching the area that the buck had disappeared in – our patience was not rewarded as neither Calvin or I were able to locate him. In early August the vegetation is so tall and lush that unless a deer is standing in an opening, there would be no way to physically spot one. For four hours we stayed in the same general area searching for the buck but only turning up three black bears. With our focus fading, I looked back towards camp and spotted a deer feeding next to a large grove of aspens. We rushed towards a shooting position and looked at the deer through the spotting scope – a small buck! In my mind, I thought this is perfect, harvesting a deer in the morning and close to camp is the perfect situation. Dressing the deer could take place in daylight, close to camp and water – we could enjoy some fresh meat around a fire that evening, in my mind, the deer was already dead. We ranged the deer and he was just over 300 yds away — a very makeable shot. With the camera rolling, I fired… and missed. I hastily took another shot and missed again as the deer hurried into the aspens. This was a no excuse situation – I had time to get steady and ultimately just ended up rushing the whole process. I was so confident in the situation that I didn’t adhere to the attention to detail required.
The rest of that day we pressed on and continued to search for deer, although deep down I had felt that I had blown my opportunity. Finding deer in the alpine proved to be very challenging, let alone getting set up for a shot. The thought of the miss never left my mind. I replayed the mistakes I made in my head throughout the day, thinking that I missed the only opportunity I would have. As I sat in my tent late that night, I thought about the next day and how it would be our last. With most of my gear saturated with water, and mosquito bites covering my entire body, I set my alarm for 2:30 a.m. — I was motivated to give my best effort.
Calvin and I sat, the following morning, on a large rock at the bottom of a basin as the light began to filter in, we spent time behind our optics and enjoyed our last morning on the island. The long wet days, infinite mosquitoes, and the rugged terrain had an effect of us, but we weren’t letting it show. Calvin, after tagging out the first day, stayed energized, focused and positive the whole hunt, even after watching me miss an animal the day before. We were recounting the experiences of the hunt when we caught movement high in the peaks! Looking through the binos we could both see antlers – and it seemed I would get a shot at redemption. With the miss still on my mind from yesterday – and the deer at 500 yds – I did not want to rush this shot. After verifying with the spotter that it was indeed a very good buck, Calvin advised me to dry fire my rifle a few times to get comfortable. Taking his advice, I removed the .308 Winchester cartridge from the chamber and dry fired with the buck in my scope four separate times, visualizing the bullet impact with every trigger pull.
Re-chambering the round, I settled my 500-meter reticle hash on his body and squeezed the trigger, immediately Calvin said “You shot right over the buck’s back – like an inch over.” I instinctively compensated my aim accordingly and squeezed off another round – a solid hit! I followed up with one additional shot to anchor the buck – and the hunt was over.
We quickly filtered some water and began the trek up the mountain to the deer. Although the distance was only 500 yds, it took us over two and a half hours of steady climbing to make the ascent. Once we “thought” that we were about in the right area, we began to make circles to try and find the deer. After only a few minutes, I was fortunate to notice bright crimson on a hanging leaf, and from there the search was soon over.
In preparing for the trip, I recalled thinking much more about the terrain and elements I would encounter than the animal I was pursuing. I wanted to have a backpack hunt in the alpine of Alaska, be immersed in the rain and lush foliage, while being surrounded by spectacular mountain and ocean views. As Calvin and I took photos and began the process of quartering the deer, the experience was everything I could have asked for. That morning the sun broke through and the views were the best I had ever seen.
About a week later we received a text and photos from Luke, he shot a great buck at 27 yds with his bow– also in a high alpine basin…