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With Family and Friends

December 2018
Story by Hal Crawford
State: Alaska
Species: Deer - Sitka Blacktail

Have you ever been out in a beautiful, remote area and said to yourself, “Boy, I wish I had someone else with me to share this adventure!” That thought is the theme behind this bucket list hunt to the wilds of Alaska with my two sons who grew up watching me go on several North American hunting adventures and return with stories and pictures. It was not hard for them to get hooked on the outdoors and all its wonder.

I believe some things are just meant to happen. Our older son, Nick, and his wife were moving to the Pacific Northwest last spring. Naturally, his younger brother, Calvin, came along from our North Dakota home to help with the move. Little did they know, I had been corresponding with someone they would recognize from the Sportsman Channel about a deer hunt in Kodiak, Alaska. A phone call came from our hunting contact during the drive, and I learned there were four spots left and that he lived in the city we were headed toward. That evening, we made our way to his home to finalize plans for this Alaska hunt. We knew just the guy to complete our four-man crew, family friend of the boys, Cory. Now, it was official. We were booked for a self-guided boat-transporter Sitka blacktail hunt.

Early fall hunting season blew by all too fast, and before we knew it, we were departing for Anchorage and then flew to Kodiak. We spent a day in Kodiak, enjoying the sights of the fishing village, and departed that night on a 10-hour boat ride to our first hunting spot. Each day, we would look at the topo maps and pick a spot on the shoreline for our skiff to take us to in the morning. The 18-foot skiff boat would run us to shore at dawn and pick us up each evening at dusk.

We dealt with all the elements Kodiak Island and the Alaskan Peninsula could throw at us – 40 mph wind, rough seas, horizontal rain and snow mix, and unforgiving terrain. This hunt was not one for the weak of heart. Several tags each in our pockets, liberal bag limits of three bucks each, and the rumor of a tough winterkill had us twitching on the trigger early in the hunt. With the ability to cover ground and bone out and backpack the deer easily with these young men, we returned to the beach the first day with three deer in our packs. Early sunsets, a wonderful cook, and a warm, dry place to sleep made recovery each day from our long hikes easier. Freezers on board kept the meat and hides cold and preserved.

Each day presented us a fresh start and a new adventure. Mid-week, we were treated with three days like I have never seen in Alaska – low winds, clear skies, great hunting conditions, a lot of deer, and bears, sometimes five or six in one day! Your senses are always up when hunting, but when you see a big brown bear and you’re holding a bow, nerves reach a new level. We hunted in pairs, a rifle hunter with a bow hunter. It was safety first around the giant meat eaters.

We had one close encounter that I will share now only because we are past it. On one of our beautiful mornings, I was fortunate enough to knock down a stunning buck while we were all still together. We were less than a mile from the beach, so we opted to take photos, field dress the deer, and drag it back to the beach where we could radio the skiff driver and have him transport it to the boat. We affixed two waterski rope handles to his horns, and the boys grabbed them and headed out with the deer in tow. I glassed for deer while waiting with the packs and guns. They got about halfway to shore and it looked like it was going well, so I hiked up to a nearby knob and started glassing. It did not take but 10 minutes when out of the grass about a half mile away a huge brown bear stood up. I stared at him through my binoculars and figured he was at least a nine-footer. He had his super nose in the air, trying to figure out where the deer smell was coming from. He dropped down on all fours and headed in the direction the boys had dragged the deer. When he came to their trail, he didn’t miss a step and turned to follow them. All I could do was watch as they had already dropped down a wash in the cliff to the beach.

As they tell it, the skiff met the boys and they threw the deer on and promptly turned to head back up the beach toward me. They were only 20 feet off the beach when the big brown bear came over the cliff. The next few minutes were a blur to them as they scrambled back down while pulling out their side arms. Even 10mm Glocks seem pretty small against a hungry brown bear. The boys backed up to the water’s edge as the skiff driver turned around and came back toward shore to rescue them. The bear got down to the beach, and the boys fired a few warning shots, attempting to scare him off. These shots never really scare a 1,000 lb. brown bear, but he was annoyed enough with the noise to turn around and head back up the wash. They took a minute to sigh with relief before they looked at each other and said, “Wonder what Dad’s doing?” They started running down the shoreline to find another cut up the bank and climbed off the beach.

Fortunately for me, I had heard the shots and saw the big bear come off the beach and head towards me. He headed right down the drag trail of the deer, which lead him to our packs. I ran down off my glassing knob, grabbed both rifles and some shells, and got back up high enough to be visible. The boys were moving my way and could see me, relieved that I was aware of the bear and not sleeping on my backpack. The bear was less than 100 yards away when I met up with the boys and handed them a rifle. Fearing he would ransack our backpacks, we marched towards him trying to look as big and sound as loud as we could. He walked off, giving us an opening to slip in, grab our gear, and exit the territory, and we did.
Almost two miles later, we climbed up on another knob to glass for deer and have some lunch. I happened to look over our back trail and there he was. Our big bear friend was following us! This escalated the situation as he was now hunting us. We had only one option to avoid another close encounter, so we headed towards the nearest shore, radioed the skiff, and were shuffled across the bay to hunt for the rest of the day.

Respect for these apex predators must be at the forefront of one’s mind on each day’s excursion. Encounters are avoidable if you keep your wits about you.

At the end of the week, we had tallied nine deer, leaving three tags unfilled only because we had each claimed trophies and did not need to be greedy. Memories were made which can’t be bought in a store, played on a video game, or watched on TV, although we happily reminisced when parts of this trip were aired on the Sportsman Channel.

Feeling like movie stars, all of us were home safe and sound with families who were thankful that all went well. Thinking back on the trip, a seasoned hunter and outdoor writer on board with us asked me about the hunting I had done and what my favorite journey had been. I thought for a moment of the places I had been over the years and calmly replied, “The hunting trips I have taken with family. Those are my favorite.” He smiled because he understood. Borrowing a quote from a friend, Jason Hairston, “Hunting teaches life lessons like preparation, hard work, persistence, and patience and the rewards these can bring you. Lessons, I believe, our children do not experience enough today in this instant gratification and participation award generation.” Don’t wait too long to take your kids hunting. It’s one of those rare things that can last a lifetime.

Alaska Deer Hunting