The following appears in the April issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY BJORN DIHLE
Last summer, my little brother Reid was faced with a tough decision. His first child’s due date was Aug. 1, which also happened to be opening day for Sitka blacktail deer.
This meant he was going to have to be real tricky and risk his marriage if he wanted to get out after a buck. I suggested sneaking into the mountains for a morning hunt and returning in time to feed his newborn raw-deer heart. He was philosophical, even superstitious about the predicament.
“It will be a boy; I’ll name him Ruger Olaf Dihle and he will become the greatest hunter ever,” Reid said.
The summer passed quickly and his wife Meghan’s belly plumped up like a blueberry. Luke, our older brother, had been dreaming of little other than opening day since he’d finished his hunting season the previous winter. He’s kind of the John Lennon of meat hunters, the sort of guy who dreams big, needs two giant freezers and has a fan base of young girls (his three daughters). His girls are more efficient at butchering and processing fish and game than the majority of outdoorsmen, including me. It’s always a little embarrassing when a 7-year-old shows you up filleting a salmon on the docks.
Generally speaking, Luke can talk Reid into doing anything when it comes to hunting. For example, let’s say there’s a mountain goat three mountains over, a blizzard coming and little chance of the two guys finding their way back to the tent – quite possibly for several days. And throw in a sexually frustrated Sasquatch, a few KGB hitmen and a series of vertical cliffs that would liquefy the bowels of most professional mountaineers. Luke would still want to make the stalk. With a few grunts, he’d convince Reid into going and I’d sit at the tent drinking whiskey, eating Cheez-Its and getting weird.
So, it was a bit of a disturbing surprise when Reid decided not to join us on the annual Aug. 1 foray.
Whatever happened to putting family first?
Luke is obsessed with mountain goats – they’re his favorite animals to hunt. It’s gotten so bad that whenever I walk into his house I feel like I’m entering some sort of pagan ritual. There are horns all over and sometimes he and his wife Trish are dressed up like goats. For years he’s wanted to pull a doubleheader, first making a goat hunt on the mainland south of Juneau. Afterwards, if we had luck, he wanted to put the meat in a tote of ice on his boat and jaunt up a mountain on Admiralty Island for Sitka blacktails. I, as the token fat guy on our hunts, am horrified and exhausted just thinking about this. Under the guise of being a good brother, I suggested we do one or the other hunt, and then try to be back in town for the birth of Reid and Meghan’s baby. I was, after all, Meghan’s substitute birthing coach. I took the job very seriously and had stocked up on 40s of Steele Reserve, barf bags, a mixed CD of meditation music and a variety of Little Debbie tasty snacks, mostly to make the whole process more enjoyable for myself.
IF THE WEATHER WAS good, we’d climb high and try for goats. If the weather was marginal, we’d clamber up a smaller mountain and go after deer. And if we were lucky, the baby would be late and we’d make it back in time to pretend we’re good brothers.
On July 31, after drinking a cup of coffee, I shouldered my pack and walked down to the South Douglas boat launch to meet Luke. Meghan’s contractions were becoming more regular, and I had a suspicion that it would not be long. Nonetheless, we tore off onto a flat ocean.
We were cowboys, maybe even desperadoes – the sort of men who drink kale smoothies and occasionally leave the toilet seat up to spite our ladies. We kept a sharp lookout in the fog and steady rain, as there are plenty of things like icebergs, deadheads, rocks, whales and other boats to run into in Stephens Passage. Humpback whales appeared for a few moments like giant gray ghosts before sounding back into the depths. Loons, surf scoters and Harlequin ducks skimmed over the ocean and then conglomerated in large raucous rafts. Salmon, on their way to spawn in streams and rivers, leapt constantly into the air. Gradually, the fog began to lift, revealing the rainforest and mountains of Admiralty Island.
“Going after a goat would be iffy,” I said, staring up at heavy clouds clinging to the mountains on the mainland. Rain drummed the canvas top of Luke’s skiff.
“Yeah, we might just be sitting in the clouds for days. You want to give Admiralty a try?” Luke asked.
While I enjoy hunting and eating those white monarchs of the mountains, I’d rather chase deer. An August buck, if the meat is properly cared for, is delectable. I’d been drooling for a month or more just thinking about the first venison of the year. I nodded, and we slowly putted past a reef and entered a large bay. Inquisitive harbor seals circled the boat as Luke anchored. I studied brown bear, deer, mink and otter tracks crisscrossing the tidal flats.
The easiest place to hang and stash our gear was in a small stand of spruce trees near a salmon stream. We hoisted our deflated raft as high as we could above a couple well-used bear beds. After pissing around the tree – hoping to discourage any bruins from doing too thorough of a job investigating – we hiked along bear trails through a series of meadows. And we knew there were bears there.
Admiralty Island is the paradigm of Southeast Alaskan wilderness. Its true name is Kootznoowoo, which in Tlingit means something like “fortress of the brown bear.” The Russians called it Fear Island. At 100 miles long by about 25 miles wide, many believe it has the densest population of brown bears in the world, at one per square mile. Annually, around 50 bears are killed on the island by sport hunters. The hunters target big males, which isn’t thought to negatively affect the population. Males kill cubs and subadults to eat and bring females into estrus, so some say it may even help. I’m hesitant to drink that Kool-Aid but will vouch that there definitely appears to be no shortage of bears on the island.
Many people are surprised to learn that Admiralty has only one documented case of a bear killing a person, a timber cruiser in Eliza Harbor in 1929, after he startled and shot it. Nonetheless, Luke and I hollered as we waded through thick brush towards a steep ridge. The blueberries and huckleberries were so thick we kept getting distracted from hiking. Soon, we both had purple mouths. Zigzagging up game trails and through devils club, we eventually crested the ridge and found a nice critter trail to follow.
In the evening, we broke out of tree line and into the disorienting swirl of clouds. Wandering around in the fog on Admiralty is always a little unnerving. It’s easy to get turned around and there’s always the possibility of stepping on a bear – an exciting, but rarely enjoyable phenomenon that often ends with both bear and human unexpectedly having diarrhea. One bear I ran into crapped so much as it ran away, I couldn’t help but think of the words “fecal propulsion.” Personally, I prefer crapping my pants privately. Or in the company of my girlfriend, MC. For some strange reason it brings her no end of joy. She lights up whenever she tells another “and then Bjorn pooped his pants story” at the wine tasting and etiquette parties we frequently attend.
Luke and I bumbled into a doe and then a small spike-fork that stared at us with tragic innocence just 20 yards away.
“Maybe we should set up camp here before we spook the rest of the area,” Luke suggested.
While eating dinner, we watched the small buck and a couple of does come in and out of view as the wind swirled sheets of mist. It was well after dark when I took our food a short ways from camp to hang in a mountain hemlock tree. I was pissing around the area when I heard Luke scream, “No! No! This can’t be happening!”
If he was being mauled by a bear, his aggressor was the quiet type. Maybe a mute bear, or perhaps it was the KGB – or was it perhaps the IRS? I knew those lowlifes would eventually catch up with me. I hustled back to find Luke holding a flashing, beeping gadget that looked like it was thinking about blowing up.
“What the heck?” I asked.
“I accidentally hit the rescue button on my new inReach tracker!” he yelled.
I bellowed with laughter as he cursed and hammered the touch screen. What a funny story! I could tease him forever about this! I could just see the headlines in the newspaper now: “Deer hunter rescued after electronic accident.”
Suddenly, I realized I was with Luke and would suffer the same sort of defamation. Brother Reid would tease us forever about this. We put our heads together and tried to figure out how to turn the thing off. Nothing seemed to work. Soon we were both screaming.
“I’m going to throw it off a cliff!” I yelled. “No, wait! I’m going to shoot it!”
A half-hour of horror later, both of us were still hyperventilating, but we’d finally figured out how to turn the cursed thing off and send a message asking not to be rescued. We rolled into our sleeping bags a bit emotionally exhausted, but looking forward to first light.
THE BOWL WE CAMPED next to was devoid of deer in the morning, likely a result of our theatrical performance the night before. Glassing with our rifle scopes, we slowly clambered up the ridge and into the clouds. In the far distance we made out three bucks – all looked like nice fork-horns and frying pan trophies.
Southeast Alaska’s deer are a smaller subspecies of blacktails. Their ancestors wandered up the Pacific Northwest coast to Southeast Alaska around 10,000 or so years ago as the massive Cordilleran ice sheet began to melt. They intrepidly made miles-wide ocean crossings and colonized virtually every island. Through time, they grew stockier, smaller and became more accustomed to the rain and darkness. When heavy snows came, most starved to death or died from exposure. Even today, populations vary greatly depending on the winters.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates there are roughly 200,000 blacktails in Southeast Alaska – give or take quite a few depending on the winter – with hunters annually harvesting around 12,300. Some hunters prefer to go after early-season bucks in the high country; others like to wait for the late season when snows push them down. When the clouds broke, revealing an expanse of mountains and ocean so beautiful that it made me pause, it was a clear reminder why I love hunting in early season the best.
We crept from rock to boulder and spotted another three deer below in a valley some 500 yards away. One was a decent fork, but there was no way to continue without being seen. Luke wanted a bigger buck and suggested hiking, a risk in that it could spook what remained in the area. I’d never passed on shooting a fork-horn and wasn’t about to start, even if there were bigger bucks around.
When the clouds rolled back in and shrouded us, we made a rapid descent into a gorge. I climbed out and spied the buck, but it was a bit far for a shot and I didn’t have a good rest. Mist soon swirled back in and I rapidly crawled another 100 yards to the edge of the valley.
I bundled up my jacket, chambered a round and waited. Minutes later, as the clouds began to thin I made out the shape of deer moving below. Gradually, the buck’s antlers appeared out of the gray. I waited until he turned to the side and fired; he fell over and lay still.
“Well,” Luke said, as the clouds rolled back in, “I think I’ll roll on and try to find that four-by-four.”
We have a long-standing joke about a mythical four-by-four buck. Reid once told Luke he’d retire if Luke ever shot one. Two years prior, I was standing with our older brother when a true monarch popped its head up at dusk just 20 yards away. I’d just taken a fat fork-horn and was about to climb down a steep slope to gut it and splay it open to cool overnight.
Well, that moose of a deer looked up and Luke, without a moment’s hesitation, fired. It tumbled down a slope. After I’d taken care of my deer, I turned on my headlamp and climbed over and found Luke reassembling a giant, broken set of antlers.
“It was at least a four-by-four,” he said, shrugging.
BACK ON ADMIRALTY, I took every ounce of usable meat off the buck and kept the ribs intact for Luke’s three daughters to gnaw on. For years their favorite meal was deer ribs. Now they’re becoming more sophisticated.
It was a long, slow hike back to the crest of the ridge. Rain and wind buffeted me as I sat above camp looking out on the ocean. Luke emerged from the swirling clouds, I shouldered my pack, we hiked down to the tent and he told me about his hunt. He’d been skirting along the ridge and slowly approaching the three bucks we’d seen earlier; soon a bowl full of deer came into view.
Right off the bat, he noticed three big guys, including a three-by-four, bedded down. He crawled and sneaked from bush to bush until he was almost within range, which for him can be well over 300 yards.
Luke looked to his right and saw two bucks watching and acting like they might spook. If this were to happen, all the deer in the bowl would likely run off. He had a good rest, so he shot the larger of the bucks. Luke then rose to his full height and was greeted with a dozen sets of eyes and antlers. The mountain was so remote that the deer didn’t spook as he walked over to begin working on the downed buck.
We broke camp and began the long slog to the ocean. An hour or so before sunset, we made it to the salmon stream. As we inflated the raft and loaded up our gear, the sound of galloping came echoing down the stream. A bear, preoccupied with the salmon it was chasing, was running at us.
“Hey!” I yelled, and the horrified bear looked up and peeled out of the creek and into the safety of the forest. Aboard Luke’s skiff, we shared a drink with the bugs – we sipped Rainiers while they drank our blood.
A sow and her cub walked along the shore until they disappeared into the gloom. A few deer came out on the tidal flat – we checked for antlers and teased each other about hiking to the top of the mountain when there were deer to shoot on the beach. It was too late to make it back to Juneau, so we elected to spread our sleeping bags out and wake up early to do a little halibut fishing before heading home. “More deer,” I said, gesturing at the beach as we motored up the bay. Luke shook his head.
We dropped our lines baited with chunks of a pink salmon we’d caught that morning off a point. A lot of the time halibut fishing around Juneau can be slow and unproductive, but that day we had hits almost as soon as our leads hit the bottom. Within an hour we had four 25-pounders, the size that makes for some of the best eating.
FOR THE FIRST TIME in several days, the sun burnt through the clouds and we were left with breathtaking vistas on the ride back to Juneau. Humpback whales were everywhere; at one point, a pod of 30 or so killer whales swam past, and some of the more playful and inquisitive ones came for a closer look when Luke put the boat in neutral.
We were eager for news on Reid and Meghan, and we soon found out the baby was indeed born on August 1. The proud parents named her Wren Meadows Dihle, and after a rough start in this world she was doing well.
I processed the fish as fast as I could, cleaned up the ribs for my nieces and, then with MC, headed over to Reid and Meghan’s home. Luke’s girls were sitting outside holding their cousin. Braith, the 7-year-old, showed me how to hold Wren.
“Why didn’t you name her Ruger Olaf?” I asked Reid.
“Don’t worry, she’ll still become the greatest hunter ever,” my little brother said as he proudly looked at his baby girl. ASJ
Editor’s note: Bjorn Dihle lives in Southeast Alaska. His first book, Haunted Inside Passage, will be published in May 2017.