In the last blog post we talked about how, since the grocery store is 60 nautical (sometimes very stormy) sea miles away, procuring food from nature’s grocery store is our way of life. Here we continue the story.
Hunting in Alaska takes being bush savvy and having good fitness, determination and a dash or more of luck, especially when seeking majestic, powerful, hardy and extremely tasty elk, as they live on the steep mountains and spruce tree filled valleys. They were introduced to northern Kodiak in 1929 and have thrived. ADF&G allows the herd to be managed through hunting, supplying families and adventurous folks with high quality meat through a lottery drawing tag system, should they have Lady Luck on their shoulder.
Our hunt began with a beautiful 20-mile skiff ride from our home in Uganik, skirting the notorious Shelikof Strait, a stretch of water that has sunk many boats bigger than our little 23-foot heavy-duty aluminum skiff. So we picked our traveling weather with care and arrived in Onion Bay without a hitch and with enough gas jugs to get to Hawaii and back.
Quickly we found a suitable camp spot in a stand of spruce trees with a nice little bight to protect it from winds, and that night it surely got windy. However, before night fell we shrugged on our packs and hunting gear to take a “quick” jaunt up the 2,000 foot ridge line behind the tent to scout out the lay of the land and see if we could catch a glimpse of the elk herd. On top the beautiful mountains stretched out across Kodiak, Raspberry and Afognak Islands and we sat out of the wind glassing for animals. We didn’t even see one critter bigger than the brilliant orange fox whose nap we disturbed, bounding away, fluffy tail streaming behind. No matter. We popped back down the mountainside and made a quick dinner with our Jetboil (a nice stove that boils 1 quart of water in about 3 minutes) of split pea soup and our previously canned venison and pepper jack cheese. Dessert was “balls,” a favorite self-invented food based on cocoa powder, chia seeds, and peanut butter; energy food meets treat.
As darkness shrouded us in our cozy tent, the rain and wind picked up. In the parlance of Alaskans, it began to blow. Having never anchored up in Onion Bay, we deployed a double anchor system, one tied behind the other with plenty of scope, maybe not the 7 to 1 ratio recommended by Bernard Moitessier, a solo sailor guru, but solid nonetheless. Still I worried, listening to the wind roar over the tops of the 50 foot spruce trees. After hours of sleepless tossing and turning, a habit of being a fisherman worrying about boats in the stormy seas of Alaskan waters, we rationalized that if the anchors were to drag, the skiff would still be in the shallow, protected waters of Onion Bay. In the morning, the skiff waited patiently for us in the spot we left it, accessible by our inflatable dingy and oars.
On our hike to that day’s hunting spot, we passed a somewhat shocking plethora of other camps, hunters also trying to harvest an elk who had been flown in by De Havilland Beavers on floats and dropped off. We are not used to seeing ANY other people where we usually hunt, but here we expected it. Some people bring everything but the kitchen sink in planning to stay awhile. We were glad we had found an out of the way spot for our camp.
Hiking through the hushed mossy spruce forest was very different for us open country folk, but soon enough we found ourselves climbing up golden dry grasses and bushes to find another airy perch to glass for elk. Mother Nature had another trick up her sleeve, though. Fog rolled in off the Shelikof, filling up the land from sea level to mountaintops, and it would flow in and flow out for the next few hours, changing the view tremendously from 30 yards to 5 miles. We hunkered down with tea and binoculars, waiting for the view to open up.
In the end we never laid eyes on the herd and only heard distant gunshots. Camping was great, but it got soggy with temperatures in the 40’s and humidity at 96 percent, and we had no way to dry out wet hiking clothes and such. Responsibilities called us back to town before too long, so after packing up, we headed out into the rising sun with our bow pointed towards Whale Pass.
Kodiak had one more surprise for us. The flash of fins caught our eye ahead so we cut the motor and drifted quietly, hoping the pod of killer whales would pass close to us, and that they did. Two younger ones split off and gracefully swam under our skiff, their white bellies showing green as they turned on their sides to look up at us. They reunited with their leader, a giant male with a 6-foot dorsal fin coming up 100 yards behind us. This kind of rare event is what keeps us loving Alaska.
The glassy water sped by us as we cruised along enjoying the fair tide push as we made our way through the pass, but as we rounded Spruce Cape, exposed to the full, undiluted might of the Gulf of Alaska, we started bucking into the waves. The leftover easterly lump from a few-day-old weather system under laid a stiff southwest wind, causing steep waves topped with whitecaps. As we crashed into them, the wind peeled off the tops of the waves, sending heavy spray into our eyes until we backed the throttle down. Adelia was at the wheel and enjoying the way the ocean entered all her senses and demanded her attention. She’d rather drive a skiff in that weather than a car in the “big city” of Minneapolis any day.