The following was originally featured in the February 2016 issue of Alaska Sporting Journal.
A Ketchikan Deer Hunter’s Harrowing Fall From A Cliff
BY JEFF LUND
Once a tooth fragment falls out of the hole in his gums, doctors can take the next step. But it will take some time until oral surgeons are able to drill the posts in Jesse Knock’s maxilla to secure three new front teeth – maybe six months. In the meantime he’s getting to know his dentist, oral surgeon and facial anatomy pretty well.
The novocaine is wearing off, so his face is back to symmetrical and he’s easy to understand, even with the gaping hole in his smile. He’s told the story about his opening day mishap more than he’d like in the six months since it happened, which makes sense. Who likes telling a story about how he or she almost died during a solo hunt?
He’s to the point now that when asked, “What happened?” he says something about an accident while grocery shopping.
Ketchikan is a thin strip of humanity that lines the western shore of Revillagigedo Island in Southeast Alaska. Mountains rise from the sea almost immediately, not in a menacing way like a fjord, but treeless alpine and sheer rock cliffs are visible from the grocery store.
Knock was up there before the season opened; he scouted, filmed and photographed blacktail deer.
“I saw three deer the week before and one really nice four-by-four. I went back up to the same spot on opening day, but they weren’t there.”
The mountain was wet and slick and fog made visibility poor, but it relented intermittently and provided Knock the opportunity to continue the search.
“I went to the top of the spine where I thought they were at and was cooking breakfast under a tarp and a silhouette popped out below me. I worked my way down the ridge. The fog kept moving in and out, but when it cleared I saw them right below me.”
He had an easy shot, but no way to retrieve the deer. “I watched them for probably half an hour, filmed them and decided I wasn’t going to shoot because I didn’t want to just foam at the mouth and do something stupid.”
As the fog continued to lift, he searched for a safe passage.
“I found a gully and a ledge and it looked doable. I thought, ‘If the 3-point stands up, I’m going to shoot it,’ and then he stands up like I asked him to; it was weird. He gave me a perfect broadside shot and I dropped him right there.”
He put on his crampons, grabbed his walking poles and started toward the deer.
“I just had a weird feeling – just a cold, ‘this ain’t right’ feeling. I was going to give up and go around, but I took three more steps…”
GETTING TO ALASKA
Knock grew up in the town of Toutle, Wash., in the southwestern part of the state. He shot his first deer, a Columbian blacktail spike, with his father when he was 13.
He moved to Alaska in 2010 after one of those Alaskan epiphanies people from the Lower 48 have when the Last Frontier gets ahold of them for the first time.
“I thought, ‘How can I move up here?’” He went to school for fish culture and ended up getting a job at a fish hatchery on Etolin Island, north of Ketchikan.
“I talked to the boss on Tuesday and moved up on Friday.”
It’s safe to say he’s never going back.
“I like how everything is slow-paced. Down south every- thing is so fast; it’s a race. People take their time here; it’s meaningful. Where I grew up, you’d hike back in 13 miles and you’d still hear people bugling for elk.”
His first kill in Alaska was a black bear on Etolin Island and since then he and his bow (and rifle on occasion) have put down enough game to fill a wall in a Cabela’s. But his favorite is hunting deer in the remote alpine.
“I could just hunt August blacktail. There’s nothing like waking up above the timberline. It’s just so crisp and clear. You look forward to that the whole time; you have such high hopes, and when you get what you came for, you’re sad it’s over. Killing is just one small part of it.”
“I broke free and I slid down about 20 feet on my stomach. I ended up coming off a small ledge and onto another slope.”
Knock broke fingernails clawing against the side of the mountain, but it was of no use.
“Once I got to a certain speed, I knew I wasn’t going to stop
unless I hit a rock or a tree.”
He went off another ledge, a real one.
“I had a couple seconds while I was free-falling and thought, ‘Wow, this is it, you’re falling.’ When I hit, I hit on my back with my pack on, and the force was so great it rolled me and I hit my face on a rock. I woke up just being wet, wondering why I was wet, not knowing what was happening.”
His front teeth were shattered and his face was “pumping blood.” He pulled a shirt from his pack and tied it around his head to staunch the flow of blood from his mouth. With no cell phone, he was on his own.
He breaks from the story.
He pauses again, then continues.
“I started to come to grips with death. Thoughts of family, my daughter and my girlfriend popped in my head and I thought, ‘Man, I need to get out of here.’”
Knock started up toward the trail on a severely sprained ankle that wouldn’t require surgery, but put him in a walking boot for over a month. (His deer was later recovered by a friend.)
“I wanted to get to the trailhead to where I could bleed out or pass out and someone would find me.”
He made it to a vacant U.S. Forest Service cabin, so he continued down the mountain toward Ketchikan, where he encountered a pair of hikers.
“They looked at me and were terrified.”
Incredibly – not to mention irrationally – Knock convinced the couple to continue their hike and help him on their way down.
“I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to burn their time with my accident. I told them, ‘You guys do your hike and on the way back down, let me use your shoulder.’”
They continued, and Knock made it another 200 yards. The adrenaline leaving, he started to feel the damage done to his ankle from the fall, and the subsequent hike.
Two nurses from Washington on a summer internship were next to encounter Knock. The nurses immediately provided care.
“It’s weird that that’s who I (saw),” he said. “They were awesome.”
Knock used a cell phone to call Ryan McCue, a friend and owner of RDM – a local business that does flightseeing and floatplane charters. The rest of the fog burned off and McCue was landing his tiny tourist helicopter on the mountain within an hour.
Knock spent the day in the hospital and was released.
“Everything worked out – how I fell on my backpack and the chute that I went down – that I only went down the 10-foot one. I still can’t believe it. It’s weird to me. I’m not that lucky.”
The proximity to Ketchikan makes the DG006 mountain goat permit highly sought after – one could literally walk from the cruise ship docks to the hunting grounds – but only 15 are issued annually. Knock was one of them.
He was probably not mentally ready to get back into the mountains for deer, but sitting on such a coveted tag was more than he could take. So two months after his fall, he was after mountain goat – an animal notorious for finding the most ridiculous of places to live– within a few miles of that slope that almost claimed his life.
“I was limited on mobility, and I honestly wouldn’t have gone hunting this quick if I hadn’t drawn that tag. Once I get something set in my mind, I have a hard time getting it out.”
Knock knew he couldn’t go full tilt to fill the tag, but mixed in with dramatic monoliths and steep chutes of the island are flat bedding areas relatively close to the trail, and plenty of goats.
Knock, his girlfriend Ashley Butler and his buddy Beau Dale spent three days chasing a big goat that was eventually shot by someone else. Butler shot a buck and packed it out with Dale. Knock stayed behind and ended up seeing a friend hunting the same mountain.
The weather was warm and clear – rare for early October – but he was short on time. If he didn’t fill the tag on this trip, he would have to wait until the end of the month when the weather was sure to have deteriorated.
“I had one more day to hunt and I was definitely not mentally ready to do the end of October hunt in the snow,” he said.
They hiked along the finger of a ridge and walked up on a sleeping goat at 30 yards.
Dale had taken Knock’s bow when he hiked out, but Knock had his .270. He hesitated.
“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to shoot him, then he winded me. He looked at me and the entire year flashed before me and I decided, ‘Yeah, I want him.’”
The goat was on the edge of a cliff. Knock fired. The goat rose, but rather than rolling, jumping or falling down off the ledge, it ran uphill – rare for a wounded animal – and died on the trail.
It took 11 hours to pack out.
“I couldn’t walk for two days after that,” Knock said.
It’s the nightmare of every outdoorsman and family member –an emergency. But you can’t think about it. Plan for it, sure, but when you’re side-hilling alpine, you can’t assume you’re going to fall. You hold on, get tough and make it work. There is inherent risk in some of the most rewarding activities.
In a society that is increasingly encouraging lives with training wheels and bubble wrap, there are those who continue to pursue what makes them feel alive.
Knock’s passion for alpine hunts hasn’t waned in the least. After the successful goat hunt, he and his family filled five blacktail buck tags during the rut.
“They are already asking me, ‘When can we go hunting again?’ My girlfriend is so supportive,” he said. “She lets me do everything I want to do. She feeds the alpine obsession all year round.”
As Knock puts more months between him and the accident, he moves forward with fresh perspective.
“I’ve hiked in steeper stuff (than where I fell). It’s made me think about more than just filling the tag and actually coming home. It knocked some sense into me. This place is no joke.” ASJ
Editor’s note: Jeff Lund is the author of Going Home, a memoir about fishing and hunting in Alaska and California. For details, visit JeffLundBooks.com.