By: Paul Kemper
Traditions take many forms. For some, it’s opening day deer camp at the family cabin. For others, it’s meeting at the end of the year to catch up on the season’s hunts. For Montana natives Doug Krings and Dan McMaster, it’s been chasing critters with a stick and string. This year, Doug, Dan, and I started a new tradition.
I met Doug five years ago at a Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers state chapter campout. We had many mutual friends but never met each other in person; when we did, we immediately bonded over our shared love of shooting single-string bows. We’ve hunted deer, bears, and turkeys together, and Doug was the person I stopped to see after I killed my first elk with my recurve. We’ve been through the wringer in the backcountry, and I consider Doug one of my closest friends. I met Dan one night over a few beers while sharing hunting stories in Doug’s living room before heading to elk camp, where we hit it off immediately.For years, Dan fought fires for the BLM. He traveled to many states before finally settling on a small island in Southeast Alaska. Dan has a network of friends who hunt blacktails in Southeast Alaska, but all are rifle hunters. Dan is a bowhunter through and through, so this year, Dan pitched the idea of an early-season alpine traditional bow hunt for velvet blacktails. Dan didn’t have to twist our arms–we were in.
Doug has been to Alaska for quite a few hunts, but I’ve only been once in a completely different part of the state. We spent the summer preparing for the trip, not knowing what a Southeast Alaska hunt would demand from us. We shot multiple 3D archery courses, ran, and hiked with weighted packs through the smoke of an awful fire season under the Big Sky.
We arrived in Southeast Alaska in a stretch of uncharacteristically beautiful weather. With a three-day window before a big front rolled in, we dumped our bags, repacked, and put boots-to-dirt four hours after touching down. Our packs were heavy, and our spirits were high.
We passed a group of cruise ship tourists on a stopover hike on the trail. They took photos as we clipped by.
“Are you guys hunting?” one tourist asked.
“Not yet, but we’re en route,” I replied.
“What are you hunting?” the tourist followed up.
“Deer and grouse if all goes as planned,” I said.
“Wow! With bows? Good luck!” the tourist finished, and we parted ways.
I thought about that interaction as we climbed the mountain. Such a funny juxtaposition: a ragtag bunch of camo-clad, stick bow-toting guys on a full-fledged do-it-yourself adventure in the Alaskan wilderness; and groomed tourists on an ultra-pasteurized, hyper-curated cruise “adventure.”
Onward we marched.
As we climbed, the trail changed from dirt to boardwalk. I’m still unsure how I feel about those planks. Being elevated above the soggy ground made for easier walking, but pounding out 2,600 feet of elevation gain with a 60-pound pack and jarring contact on every step made you wonder if the squishy ground wouldn’t give our hips and knees some reprieve. After stopping for water at 1,500 feet, we donned our packs once more and made the final push to the top.
Soon, the dense rainforest thinned as we crested into the alpine. Miles of muskeg interspersed with patchy timber sprawled as we left the ferns and devil’s club behind us. We slipped off our packs, set up camp, and began glassing.
Off the west end of our perch, we glassed our first deer. A lone doe bedded on the edge of the trees overlooking an interlocked chain of muskeg. We saw another lone deer–a buck–bedded below a rimrock and alder bank off the east side. We took notes as the sunset and built a fire to get dinner rolling.
Dan packed in a bag of spot prawns he caught not far off the island and surprised Doug and me with the delicacy around the fire. After a whirlwind day of travel, packing, hiking, and glassing, this unexpected treat was what campfire dreams are made of.
Another juxtaposition flooded my mind. I started my morning in an airport with hundreds of people and processed food; I ended my day on top of a mountain, eating spot prawns over a campfire overlooking a saltwater bay. I’ve never described protein as sweet, but those prawns were the sweetest and most delicious protein I’ve ever had. Soon after, three satiated, sore, and happy hunters drifted off to sleep.
The following day we were up with the sun and put our glass to work. Hunkered in at camp, we scoured the lush green, salad-covered hillsides for carrot-colored bucks with velvet headgear. Almost immediately, we started picking up deer moving across the hillsides. The number of deer excited us, but we knew finding success was an entirely different challenge with only bucks being legal.
Blacktails are funny creatures. They prance like a caribou across the muskeg, moving effortlessly and silently where two-legged creatures get swallowed by the bog. They have whitetail antlers with mule deer faces and a gorgeous double throat patch. In the summer, they are orangish with short, stubby legs and bodies that look like a sausage about to burst through its casing.
We watched these Vienna sausages feed, bed, and disappear into the thick cover across the tops of the island. Once they were out of sight, we moved to get the wind right and still-hunt our way through the sparse timber, hoping to catch the flick of an ear or a head turn before getting spotted. The plan was bulletproof from a distance, but moving quietly and slowly through the new terrain was a learning experience of its own.
The ground was mysterious and left me with no obvious way to plan an approach. What looked solid would swallow my leg to my crotch. What looked soft would support two people sneaking in a line–until it wouldn’t. We operated in a maze of guessing our next steps as we attempted to get close to the deer. In Montana, I’m used to trying to avoid pinecones, branches, and cactus in the final moments of a stalk. In Alaska, I was just hoping to stay above ground.
Doug and I set out after the deer we spotted that morning while Dan picked his way through patches of cover off the backside of our camp. Stalk after stalk, and we’d freeze in our tracks as a doe would step out within bow range. Only bucks are legal, so we took the time to enjoy the encounter. Upon arrival, the bedding area looked completely different from our morning perch.
Still-hunting our way through the alders led us to the ledge where we watched a buck bed the night before. An almost sheer face covered in wet vegetation was our only path down. After a hellacious approach on a soaked cliff face, we decided to take our chances with vegetation. After a few hours of cursing, slipping, and sliding down the mountain, we made it to the open muskeg. Looking back up the grade, Doug and I both questioned our sanity.
Over and over for the next three days, we repeated unsuccessful stalks through an uncharted country. On the fourth day, the clouds rolled in, so we decided to pack camp and try our luck on old logging roads where we hoped to glass for deer at lower elevations between the shifting clouds. But first, we recharged with a shower, a hot meal, and some coastal fishing off the island.
We spent a day stocking up on salmon, halibut, prawns, and crab in the pouring rain. Dan’s dad, Dick, was in town with his childhood friend Olie, so we took the time to share stories, secure some food for the trip back, and plan the last leg of the hunt.
Most of the island is public land. We scoured our maps and located a few areas with considerable road access that allowed us to cover the mountain from bottom to top and back down again. We chose mobility over how remote a place was to be fluid and move with visibility. We glassed muskegs during peak hours and still-hunted through swaths of cut timber, trying to make the most of our time.We pulled out all stops on the last night, still-hunting muskegs on some public ground close to town. There was nowhere for the water to drain down the mountain at the lower elevation, so it sat and pooled and waited under the muskeg for an unsuspecting hunter to step and swallow him whole. Does crossed in the distance between timber patches in the center of the muskeg. Doug and I flanked the thick forest that formed the fringe of the muskeg in a push reminiscent of the two-person deer drives I did as a kid during the Pennsylvania flintlock season. Staggered, we carefully stepped along the edges, trying to stay above ground.
From across the fog, I saw Doug freeze as a doe slipped towards me. I sank up to my knees as the doe trotted by, and a buck approached from behind her. He stepped out at 60 yards, well out of my effective distance, and we locked eyes. We examined each other, him moving effortlessly across the soggy ground–me buried and stuck. He floated away silently as I wiggled my way out of the earth and walked back to the truck with Doug under the cover of darkness.
We ate halibut, spot prawns, and crab back at the house. We shared stories from the trip, from hunts gone by, and plotted what we’d do differently the next time we chased blacktails in Southeast Alaska. The night disappeared, as did the food and a few beers, and I thought about crossing paths with the tourist at the trailhead.
‘Good luck!’ rang in my head. So many close calls and almosts; we couldn’t get close enough to close the deal, and we were leaving tired and battered. But looking around, I couldn’t help but be grateful for how lucky I was–for these people, for this place, for these experiences and lessons learned, and for this new tradition. Because the best part about building a tradition is knowing there is always next year.