CHASING SITKA BLACKTAILS IN THE HIGH COUNTRY OF SOUTHEAST ALASKA
by Bjorn Dihle
HUNTING IS OFTEN THOUGHT OF as a tradition that’s passed on from father to son. For me and my two brothers, growing up in southeast Alaska, that was the way it was. During much of my boyhood, though I was chubby and nearsighted, I dreamed of becoming a hunter who would rival Daniel Day Lewis’ character Hawkeye from the movie The Last of the Mohicans.
I spent a significant amount of time staring into the mirror, shirtless and flexing, while repeating tough one-liners like, “I put Copenhagen on my
Cheerios,” and “You call that whiskey? Tastes like apple juice.” To train to become the ultimate man-predator, I’d strip down to my underwear, stumble through the woods and attempt to leap over downed trees while yelling things like “Wolverine!” and “I will find you!”
During this era, I believed that women were unable to hunt and found it distasteful. A few years later, though, my older brother, Luke, and his wife, Trish, had three little girls. Kiah, Adella, and Braith—from eldest to youngest—taught me that just about all my conceptions of what it meant to be a girl were wrong. Sure, on occasion they’d do things like pretend to be a princess or a fairy, but that didn’t prevent them from helping butcher and process the deer and salmon that make up the bulk of their family’s protein. I’m convinced their wearing butterfly wings, gowns, and high heels only made them that much more efficient with a knife.
When the girls got older, they began accompanying their dad on hunting trips. Often, Luke invites me along to teach them life lessons. The girls love my longwinded lectures, which range from me elaborating on the limitations of existentialism, to pantomiming how to explode a charging grizzly bear’s heart using a five-finger death punch, to explaining why it’s okay for guy hunters to wear pink. In fact, due to a lot of people’s negative feelings towards hunters, it’s my belief we should replace “hunter’s orange” with “hunter’s pink.” I quickly realized these girls’ aptitude for the woods and ability as hunters far exceeded mine when I was their age. The biological reality is that women can hunt just as well as men. The only difference is that for generations, society has said otherwise.
On the day before the 2019 August 1st Sitka blacktail deer opener, I lectured Kiah and Braith about proper twenty-first century pronoun usage regarding wild animals as we hiked up a mountain on Admiralty Island. It was bucks only and we were heading into the high country where they were fattening up on greens.
“Don’t ever assume gender. Just because a deer has antlers doesn’t necessarily mean it identifies as a buck. Always consider that before pulling the trigger,” I said. Both girls sighed.
We gorged on fat blueberries as we neared tree line.
Kiah and Braith politely asked me to stop my chattering when we began seeing good deer sign. Soon a few does appeared. Then a fork-horn buck stood silhouetted atop a ridge. We hunkered down and made a quick dinner as the sun set on an expanse of mountains and ocean. I studied Braith and Kiah as the shadows grew long and alpenglow crept down the glaciers and mountains of the Coastal Range. It was pretty cool that my dad had hunted this mountain when he was young, and now, his granddaughters were doing the same. Despite state and federal politicians trying to start a tidal wave of exploitation in southeast Alaska, including logging the last stands of old growth forest, I hoped these girls would be able to one day bring their kids to hunt the mountain.
At first light, Kiah and I struck out in one direction, while Luke and Braith went the opposite way. Fog hindered visibility, so we moved slowly, hoping a buck would appear in the gray. Admiralty Island has one of the densest concentrations of brown bears, which makes a deer hunt a little edgy. We spotted two does before a small buck appeared downwind.
We were busted, but Kiah slowly sat down and took a rest with her rifle off her knee. Before she was able to work the rifle’s bolt, the buck was gone. We walked to the edge of an area I figured would have deer. It was too foggy to see anything, so we lay on our bellies and hoped the clouds would clear. I began to whisper a life lesson about the importance of patience, but Kiah hushed me and told me to stay focused.
Swirling clouds began to break, and, sure enough, a big buck stood sky-lined on a ridge 400 yards away. We belly crawled over wet deer lettuce and heather to a rise. Several other deer were closer on the mountainside. Alarming any of them would spook the monarch. I glassed the different animals and spotted three smaller bucks.
“He’s big!” Kiah whispered, staring at the distant ridge.
“These young bucks will eat better,” I whispered.
We crawled to within 150 yards of a fork-horn and, slowly, Kiah eased her pack off and lay her rifle atop it. At the sound of her shot, the buck collapsed. I gestured to one of the other bucks, a big spike, and asked her to shoot it for me. She calmed her shaking hands, then waited for the animal to turn broadside and offer a clean shot.
Hunting, at its most basic and honest, is about having a direct relationship with nature and your food. There are few things I find more rewarding than this privilege. I knelt and put my hands on each animal and whispered my thanks and apologies. Kiah did the same in her way. Then, we set to butchering. We’d each take home close to 50 pounds of the best meat in the world, not to mention the several quarts of broth the bones would yield. We loaded our packs and hiked back to camp. Luke and Braith showed up a short while later, their heavy packs filled with the meat of a nice buck.
I followed my brother and his two girls as we began the long pack out. I thought about a recent conversation I’d had with a guy who expressed his frustration with how difficult hunting Sitka blacktails can be. Other men have said the same thing. I wondered if I should start telling them the yoke of masculinity was weighing them down and that they need to learn how to hunt like a girl? At tree line, we paused and glanced out at the ocean, forest, and peaks. I looked back up the mountain and thanked it and the deer one last time before wading through blueberry bushes into the forest .