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Becoming a Hunter at 30

I did not know what I was doing. Having recently moved to Kodiak, Alaska I found myself on the side of a steep unnamed mountain, in soaking wet Carhartts toting a school bag for a hunting pack and a rifle that I hastily fired for the first time the evening before. I could feel my feet rubbing raw against boots that should have been broken in more. I was a Captain on my College football team, and could still squat a small family but at this moment I felt weak, out of shape, and simply exhausted. I tried to pretend that I wasn’t nervous about Brown Bears, and hypothermia, and falling. My long time friend Josh, a professional guide-caliber hunter was being kind and ignoring my crashing, thunderous footsteps through the salmonberry bushes and sky lining on the ridge lines. We were in pursuit of Sitka Blacktail Deer. The Bucks were elusive in light rain. This was day one. Josh was successful later that season, bagging a nice buck on a solo hunt, but I wasn’t so lucky. Nor should I have been. I didn’t deserve it. As good of a fisherman as I am, I was that bad of a hunter.

CSullivan_Vertical.jpgI was raised the son of a Coast Guard Officer, fortunate enough to live in some of the finest fishing areas of the country growing up. I caught Mahi Mahi and Tuna outweighing me by eight, and by my teenage years, worked on various fishing boats. But hunting was something different. The same principles as fishing applied but the playing field was leveled. Fish finders, super braid lines and four-stroke outboard engines had to be swapped for a set of lungs that could push me up Kodiak’s vertical peaks and eyes that could pick out a deer who seemed to disappear in the brush. Josh had to move off island the following summer, bound for Cordova, Alaska and I was on my own to learn to become a hunter. That second season, I began to refine my skills.  Since I didn’t draw any tags for elk, moose or goats, I focused on the local population of deer.  I got in the hills on my own, and started to understand how to move silently and track animals. Still, I was unsuccessful. Life is not a Disney movie.

That winter I poured through books at the library, spent hours at the range, getting my 30-06 dialed in perfectly, and attained a level of mountain fitness that allowed me to glide over the hills effortlessly. However that winter was bad; it was bad even by longtime Alaskan standards. Between Thanksgiving and Mother’s day the snow kept falling and the temperature were dangerously low, causing a large die off of the deer herd. Estimates were at 60%.

By the arrival of hunting season, the reports were dismal. Still I pushed on, tackling mountains that were intimidating too all but the hunters who were in the best of shape. “Use the quads that God gave you”, Josh had told me, avoid any areas were an ATV could make it. As the season progressed, I feltlike a hunter; stealthily moving through the mountains, confident and calm. During one solo hunt, I was able to put a stalk on a brown bear and a bedded down doe without being busted, just for practice. I was there. I just needed an opportunity.

Fate has a funny way of working out. Josh was going to be on island for Halloween, the last day of the season, and despite work, we were both able to cut out for a day. The forecast was calling for wind and rain, but we were pleased by the calm cold stillness that the morning brought. The once emerald green mountains had yielded to a golden wheat drab with the first alpine snow, signaling the beginning of the rut. We started out before dawn, beginning the long hike up an unnamed mountain. Quickly and quietly we worked our way over two steep shelves and we were half way up another pinnacle by 11AM. We spotted deer on other mountains, but nothing nearby. Then we saw him; a beautiful 3×3 two gullies across, at 700 yards. We glassed the buck for a while, watching him move from right to left, always out of range, despite attempts to close the gap. The vertical gullies between us did not allow us to get to him. After bedding down, the deer worked down the farthest gully and disappeared. We wondered if we should just bail, or make one final play on him? We decided to climb high and fast, looping around the high pinnacle behind us to see if he would pop out at its base.

Like a couple of dall sheep we raced up the pinnacle, then around it, and eased down the back side, where the gully emptied out. Covered in sweat and dirt, we dropped our packs and slid down the steep incline on the seats of our pants, glassing as we worked our way down. When Josh waved and pointed, I knew it was my moment. I lowered my binoculars, chambered a round, eased off the safety and tried to get my breath under control. Due to the steep incline, I had no rifle rest. At 150 yards, this could be interesting. As I came to this conclusion, Josh sat in front of me, instructing me to rest the gun over his shoulder. No other words were spoken, just the trust of a head nod between friends. The Buck walked out through the Alders as if we planned it, I got on target, briefly took my eye off the scope to ensure boots were clear of my trajectory, then reacquired my sight picture back and squeezed. I never heard the shot. The animal went twenty yards and piled up. I became a hunter, and something deep inside awoke.

I ran my hands through its beautiful hide, thanked him for giving his life to feed my family. This meat would feed my pregnant wife and me for a year. We quartered him out, leaving just a few bones for the magpies to pick on. The strain on my back as we hiked out felt like a badge of pride. After nearly three seasons of education, I finally earned my diploma.

Life has taken me away from Kodiak, and into the daily grind of suburban life, bills and traffic, but I am planning next fall’s hunt on new ranges. I am now a hunter living in the modern world. I anxiously await fall’s arrival so I can don a pair of well-worn boots, and a rifle that feels like an extension of my body, to set off into another world. This fall I will be taking my younger brothers with me, to begin their education.

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