by Brian Watkins
I’ve hunted goats while balancing on cliffed-out peaks in Alaska. I’ve spent 22 continuous days chasing sheep with a bow. I’ve hiked over mountain passes chasing moose, but it all pales in comparison to a Kodiak elk hunt. The terrain encompasses the mountains of Kodiak, shooting straight up from the saltwater’s edge. Every step forward is a step up or down as you constantly ascend and descend each pass. Now add the alders over most of the mountainside, so thick that every time you forge past one, your pack is caught in the middle of the bush and your legs are entangled in trunks beneath you. That’s the easy way through. Surrounding the alders are salmon berry bushes, so thick that they hold you up if you fall. They constantly whip back in your face like a backfiring sling shot. Each step you take feels like you’re standing waste deep in the ocean trying to hike against the incoming tide. It sounds hard enough until you add the arctic swamp. The ground seems hard as you sift through the salmon berries, only to find out it’s a swamp that swallows you to your knees. Your legs get stuck in the swamp, while your body is thrashing through the salmon berry bushes as you grab for the alders to keep you up all the while climbing the side of a mountain.
We had eight days of hunting the massive Raspberry Island elk in that country. Lucky for us, we were gifted with five of those days having 60 MPH winds. All of it filled with deer, elk, and the infamous Kodiak Brown Bears. All things considered, it’s an adventure hunter’s paradise.
Some people in this world would read what I just wrote, cringe, and vow to never endure that island. Then there are those of us who love it. We live and breathe the adventure of misery, triumph, determination and will to succeed. Yep, we aren’t right in the head and we’re probably flat-out crazy.
For Dad’s 60th birthday, we spent a week chasing goats on a father/son trip on Kodiak. We went 4/4, but he vowed to never return to Kodiak. I was able to trick him into coming one last time by calling it Raspberry (Raspberry is basically the first island to the north of Kodiak Island in the Kodiak Archipelago).
Flying over the island, we were in hopes of finding “the herd.” I had done my homework. I called ADF&G biologists, multiple transporters on the island and even first-season tag holders who had hunted it. All of my hard work led me to believe I had the elk figured out. Boy was I wrong. As we flew over as much of the island as we could, we were only able to find four elk, all of which were in areas I had never discussed before. We were left feeling perplexed. “The herd” was supposed to be on the north tip of the island. The plan was to land in the only plane-accessible bay and hike north. With seeing few elk, we switched our plan to hike west based on a gut feeling.
We spent two days spike camping in the West Mountains, staying high to glass every valley we could. The only thing we seemed to turn up were bears and deer. The elk weren’t around us. So, we pressed back to base camp and developed ideas of what to do. Based on all of the research I had done, we headed North on day three. Back through the salmon berry and over the ridge we went. We spent the next three days hiking into the wind and glassing every inch of every valley. I was beginning to lose hope and question my ability to find elk.
On the evening of day five, I was set up to glass as I hunkered down from the high winds. At last light I was able to see a lone elk on the next ridge over from us. It was over a mile and a half away and too far to tell whether it was a bull or a cow. I watched it feed as the sun went down. Day six started before first light. Getting dressed to fight the cold, I jumped out of the tent to glass. Immediately I found the lone elk and patiently watched it. It had started feeding up the valley, paralleling us as it grazed along. I took off down the mountain to try and cut him off. It was almost a two mile dash to get ahead of him. As I made my way to the base of the valley, I was able to put horns on him—a decent looking 3X3. He had begun to feed toward the dark timber on top of the mountain, which would mean trying to find a needle in a haystack. My goal was to get ahead of him, remain downwind and set up as he approached the tree-line. As I tried to move ahead of him, I realized he was going to beat me into the timber. I was just a little late in getting to him as he disappeared. I spent a couple of hours trying to find him, but he had given me the slip and seemed to vanish into thin air. With him being the only elk we’d seen in six days, I was down and out. We had hiked the entire north end of the island, and most of the west side. We had 2.5 days left to hunt and not much hope.
We decided to give one of the transporters a call from the satellite phone to see if he could take us to where we saw two elk the day we flew in. It was a long shot as they aren’t typically in that area, but it was my last idea. Lee Neil with Big Timber Lodge answered and was pumped to hear from us. I told him what we had been seeing and he agreed to pick us up by boat and take us to a new area. We made a plan for day seven to get picked up on a nearby beach. After Lee picked us up, we headed out into the big water. We were at the ocean’s mercy as seven-foot seas lifted us high into the air and gave out just as fast. We came around the island to find calmer water. Mother Nature works in mysterious ways, because as we came into a bay to escape the pounding, Dad spotted the herd! Unfortunately, the herd was in a pretty tough spot. The only way to get to them was from upwind, and it wasn’t looking good. Every direction seemed impassible, or upwind. Lee also let us know that if we went after the elk, the weather showed that he wouldn’t be able to come back out to get us for five days. That was the least of our worries at this point. I was scanning the mountain for a way to the herd as a horn caught my eye. BULL! Two bulls were within a stalkable area, and bedded down. It was time to make a move. Dad opted to watch from the boat as I could move more quietly alone.
As I was making my stalk, a squall came into the valley. I couldn’t see a thing, but knew the weather was good cover. I forged my way through the brush as fast as I could. I was making a lot of noise and was worried about blowing my cover. After seven days, this was it. As I came into the area the bulls were, I said a quick prayer for a game trail–I needed something to cut my noise down. It sounds cliché, but I promise you, the skies parted and the sun came out. The wind calmed down and I stumbled right onto an open deer trail. That trail led to the clearest spot I had seen on the island. A small, football field-sized green field. I made my way into sight of the two bulls, now 90 yards away. Still bedded, I went for a neck shot as the vitals were obscured by brush. I let the shot go as it all came together. The bull was dead in his bed and didn’t move a muscle. After seven days of fighting terrain and jungle-like vegetation, and only seeing one elk, it all came together in that one valley.
I hustled my way back down to the beach where my dad had just jumped off the boat. That moment is actually what is embedded in my mind. It may have been our most defining bonding moment of our lives. Spending seven frustrating days getting beat up in the mountains, and to have it all come together in just a couple of hours had us high on emotion. That hug seemed to last a lifetime as we rejoiced in what we had been through. The world seemed to stop for just a couple of minutes as we exulted in the hunt we had just experienced.
After the excitement of satellite calls to loved ones, we went to work. I figured if we could get the elk down to the beach by nightfall, we might be able to miss the five-day wait on weather. We spent eight hours butchering and hiking meat back to the beach. With two loads left, I called Lee and he said he could make the pick-up. It would be dark by the time he got to us, but Lee is a good man and didn’t want to leave us. So, we hoofed the last two loads as fast as we could.
The pickup got interesting. It was dark and the break on the beach was picking up. Lee had to throw us a raft on a line to keep from getting his boat caught in the tide. With the building winds, we were forced to wade out into the ocean to retrieve the boat. The first two loads were all meat. The third load was gear. Each time the raft would be pushed out to us. We would wade out to retrieve it and fill it up. Lee would pull it in, and his nephew would unload. The last load was us. The seas were building and we had a pretty wild ride getting back to the boat. But thankfully, Lee made the trip to get us and we headed back to his lodge in the dark. It’s always an edge of-the-seat ride when you can’t see the driftwood or any other obstacles in the ocean. Thank God for Lee!
Brian Watkins grew up in Pennsylvania and made the decision to move to Alaska to chase the dream of living a hunting lifestyle. Follow his hunting adventures on Instagram @Alaska_Lifestyle