Looking down on the snow-covered slopes, the underlying frozen icy scree was not visible. What was visible were two forms making their way up to a bench on the mountainside where they might have a better view of the area. The first figure carried a large pack, but the man carrying it moved steadily with sure steps and good progress. That would be Mike Munsey, master guide and operator of the oldest hunting camp on Kodiak Island, as was his father before him.
The second figure moved erratically behind Mike, obviously struggling to keep pace in spite of a much smaller pack. This one slipped on the ice, stumbled over the uneven ground and fought the dense leafless alders and choking underbrush, which frustrated his efforts making him look like an old man. Finally, as Mike jumped over a small stream, our second climber attempted the maneuver, but caught his toe on a snow-covered root and managed a most ungraceful face-plant in the stream.
The humble face-planter would be me, and I become more humble by the minute as my ineptitude was revealed. I had hunted with Mike’s dad, Park Munsey, about 40 years before when we took a peninsular brown bear and caribou. On that occasion, my son, Dusty, shot a bear Park described as the biggest one he’d seen in 25 years. Park suffered a fatal stroke the following year and I wept unashamedly at the news.
Mike took over direction of the hunting operation and, five years later, I shot a brown bear on Kodiak with his team. In the ensuing years, I did a lot of international travel, but always wanted the adventure of going back to Kodiak Island again.
We were told that the winds were too high for the propeller driven Beaver, so we were taken to the airport to be treated to a ride in their new turbine powered amphibian Beaver, which could “probably” handle the high winds over Amook Pass.
Our pilot, who radiated competence and professionalism, told us frankly that we were in for a very rough flight and passed out airsickness bags. I grinned, having a few thousand hours in my logbook, but poor Patrick moaned, “I hate it when they tell the truth,” to which we all laughed and I took an instant liking to Patrick.
The flight was as advertised, but as Mike had informed them by radio, the winds at his camp were tolerable. We had expected the flight to be aborted at any time and were much relieved when we were deposited at the camp dock to the assembled crew of the camp including Mike’s pretty wife, Robin.
The Sitka blacktail we were after, Mike explained, is stockier than the Columbian and has heavier, albeit shorter antlers. They are native to the Alaskan coast and neighboring British Columbia and were introduced into Kodiak and Afognak Islands. They live about six years and don’t produce more than a 4×4 set of antlers. Bears are not a significant threat to the population as a whole. Hunter success rate is high because deer are numerous and hunters few, but for my money, because of the terrain and weather on Kodiak, it is a highly underrated hunt that can be very difficult, particularly for octogenarians.
The following morning we had a hearty breakfast before daylight and then geared up for a boat ride to our assigned areas. Because of the forecast for rain and the already snowy terrain, I wore my rain gear, knowing I’d get soaked struggling through the dense snowy brush. Detwiler went with Mike’s younger brother, Robert, while Patrick and his dad hunted together with Ryan Augustine, a very hard working and affable young man. Mike saddled himself with me.
Our boat rides in sturdy metal craft powered by 75-horse Honda or Yamaha motors were on average about 30 minutes and we reached the shore in front of our respective areas just before shooting light.
Returning to our opening scene where I ended up face down in the stream, Mike quickly turned to assess the commotion. I was only embarrassed and unharmed except for my gloves being filled with icy water, which really made my hands cold. I hurried after Mike as fast as I could and suffered a second fall, more spectacular than the first, as I grabbed what looked like a substantial stalk in the undergrowth to help me up an incline only to have it break and send me sliding about 10 feet backward down the slope. Fortunately, Mike missed that one and I caught up with him on the bench we were seeking.
We shed our packs and I hurriedly grabbed my heavier gloves and hung the wet ones on a branch to dry. We settled down to glass over the hillside opposite about 200 to 250 yards off. We had seen several deer and one good buck on the way, but the brush was so heavy as to preclude a shooting lane. Now elevated as we were, we had a good unobstructed view of several clearings. The heavy brush nearly everywhere is one reason for the difficulty of this hunt.
The next day was a repetition of the first but this time Mike took a set of antlers to see if he could rattle in a buck. It was below freezing, documented by an icy hillside, but the wind was down and the conditions good under a gray overcast. After a short walk, we reached a meadow offering good shooting lanes. Mike started striking the antlers to each other, the ground and a tree trunk. Amazingly enough, we were rewarded within just a few minutes with a very pretty tall fork-horn coming to us.
Mike and I grinned at each other, agreeing silently that this youngster was not a shooter. The deer walked up to within five yards and cocked his head one way then the other, staring at these two strange and immobile creatures. Then, he turned and walked directly behind us, coming even closer to give us another once over. Being satisfied, he then calmly walked back into the brush. Simple as I am, that minor encounter was worth the trip.
On day three, Mike selected a different area and we again climbed to be allowed a view of a large meadow. We glassed awhile, spotting one nice buck moving off to the cover on our left and then another more than 300 yards to our right. We slid quietly down to get a closer view. Mike thought this one with a doe was good enough. I stepped as quickly as I could and with the rifle braced on a tree trunk, picked them up in my Leupold but could only see two white rumps going away. As I couldn’t tell which was the buck, I didn’t chance a shot.
We then went on to a farther patch of cover and had lunch. Mike decided we should climb a nearby nob where we would have an unobstructed view of the surrounding area. We had just forded a small stream and were halfway to the top when a buck ran out of the brush to our right at the base of the hill opposite. “Shoot him,” Mike whispered sharply.
I unslung my rifle with my pack in place, brought the crosshairs to the buck’s right shoulder and squeezed off a shot. I knew he was mortally wounded as I could see blood spray out the offside, but he took off at full speed and ran a circular route to fall dead in front of us. As we quartered and skinned the heavy-horned 3×3, we found he had been heart shot, but still managed a 50-yard burst in an effort to escape. I’m always amazed, seeing how far an animal can go with a decisive killing wound.
As Mike prepared the deer, I emptied my pack, wearing my coat and filling all my pockets with small gear in an effort to help transport the animal back to the shore. We put the hide, head, antlers and all we could stuff from Mike’s pack into mine, loaded the quarters into his pack and took off. I know he had a hundred-pound pack, but even with my smaller load, I still couldn’t keep up, although he did rest a bit more often up the hill and down to the beach. The tide had come in and the level was up about 10 feet, but Mike had anticipated that and our boat was secure.
The next day both Mike and I were re-invigorated and planned to return to the same area. As we were enroute, we encountered a boat from a camp a few miles off. Mike related that the outfitters in the region generally are very good about separating hunting parties by a few miles and have good relationships.
We learned that there were hunters near our intended destination so Mike decided we would go elsewhere and turned the boat around. The weather was supposed to be very cold with high winds, but that did not materialize and a warming sun through blue skies made a long boat ride most enjoyable. I marveled at the snow-capped peaks arising from the shoreline and really enjoyed the ride.
We went ashore across a beach covered with clamshells and sidehilled above a very picturesque valley with a reasonably large open meadow stretching below the intersecting hills. We began to see deer and made ourselves comfortable nests in the underbrush under a warm sun. We continued to see deer, but nothing better than we had already taken appeared. We ate our lunch and glassed ’till mid-afternoon when Mike elected to pack up because of the long boat ride to camp.
That was the day’s highlight. The winds never materialized and home we sped over glassy waters in a landscape of rarely equaled beauty. We saw sea otters, an occasional seal and then Mike pointed out a waterspout of a breaching whale and then three more in unison. “It’s a pod of fin whales,” he explained as we approached within a hundred yards. We drifted close by as they passed, surfacing and blowing and I marveled at their magnificence.
On our last day, we left a bit earlier, sharing a boat with Robert Munsey and Don Detwiler. Mike had a plan in mind as he purposefully led us over the hills, down into the meadow and up on the side of a central knoll. We saw several small deer and then after what seemed only an hour or so, Mike silently and calmly said, “There’s a deer over here better than your first one.” I glassed his direction and indeed was to me a very nice 3×3 meandering in the brush not more than 125 yards off. “Let’s take him,” I said. Mike smiled and nodded and pointed to a tree where I had a standing rest. “Don’t shoot till he’s clear,” were his only words.
I watched him for a few minutes as he walked into and stood in an opening in the dense brush. I knew I had a good shot but asked “OK?” questioning to the boss. As he nodded, the gun went off and the buck dropped.
I ran over to him and was ecstatic. I thought he was beautiful, being both typical and symmetrical. We went through the requisite photo shoot and as before and divided the load (albeit unevenly favoring me) of the quarters and all edible portions.
While he was preparing the deer, I queried Mike as to whether or not he had ever had trouble with bears at a kill site. I had heard lots of stories about how a rifle shot was like a dinner bell and bears were a great concern. We had seen fresh tracks during our walks, but no actual sightings. Mike said he had never been bothered by bears, but had them come and sit close by, observing the proceedings with interest. He said it was a very bad idea to throw them an offering. Ryan related an episode where a bear had a paw on his pack while he was preparing a carcass but did not object as Ryan tugged the pack away on leaving. Ryan is twice as big and ten times as brave as I am. I would have left the pack “with my compliments, Monsieur!”
Good rain gear is essential and I wore mine everyday. A “stopper” for real cold glassing is necessary. I like wool, but it’s heavy and the newer synthetics with windproof shells do fine. Warm gloves, even mittens for long waiting are a must. Finally, I considered all kinds of footwear and settled on my insulated Kenetreks, which kept me absolutely warm and dry.
I am an octogenarian and I thought it was a tough hunt, but that little deer on my wall reminds me of a truly great adventure. If you crave a little something different, a tough hunt after a relatively uncommon quarry with a very well organized and comfortable camp led by a man who knows probably as much if not more than anyone about Kodiak Island, then consider challenging Kodiak with Mike Munsey.–Donald Lee Bricker