THE WA­GER

a diy hunt for alaska’s feral rein­deer starts with straf­ing rain but ends with a buck for the ages—and a wicked mus­tache

Outdoor Life - - CONTENTS - By andrew mckean

When a dream hunt for Alaska cari­bou and deer takes a turn, the au­thor and his bud­dies con­coct a bet that no one re­ally wants to win.

ko­diak Is­land rain is hard to take when you’re con­fined to a spike tent and your pickup plane can’t fly.

But it’s un­bear­able when you’re sit­ting around a ta­ble in Henry’s Great Alaskan Restau­rant in the city of Ko­diak, watch­ing rain pound the win­dows, each fresh squall keep­ing you from fill­ing the fat stack of hunt­ing li­censes in your pocket.

This is not how I wanted last Oc­to­ber’s trip to Alaska to start, with me mop­ing around town like a crab­ber without a boat. But be­ing grounded had its up­side. It turned my four bud­dies and me into base-camp gam­blers.

“I pro­pose a bet,” Steve said, as we or­dered an­other round. “We have tags for cari­bou, deer, and ducks, plus we can shoot all the foxes we see, and we have li­censes for fish and crabs. We need a point sys­tem. Bull cari­bou are 5 points, cows are 3. Buck deer are 2 points, does are 1. Fox and ducks are a point apiece.”

We all nod­ded, vi­su­al­iz­ing the back­coun­try bounty our tags rep­re­sented.

“What are we play­ing for?” asked Ryan. “How about this?” of­fered Rafe. “Who­ever wins—ac­cu­mu­lates the most points—has to grow a mus­tache. He has to show up at next year’s SHOT Show with a big, skanky ’stache.”

We are all friends from the shoot­ing and hunt­ing in­dus­try, and we’d all be at the Shoot­ing, Hunt­ing and Out­door Trade Show in Jan­uary as a func­tion of our jobs. We all had pro­fes­sional rep­u­ta­tions to main­tain and, with the ex­cep­tion of Aaron, whose nor­mal riot of fa­cial hair was ei­ther ev­i­dence of his bo­hemian na­ture or to­tal dis­re­gard for per­sonal hy­giene, mus­taches weren’t in keep­ing with our im­ages.

Af­ter a mo­ment of con­sid­er­a­tion, we agreed to the terms of the wa­ger, shak­ing hands while the North Pa­cific lashed Henry’s win­dows. I loved the au­dac­ity of it, a sort of anti-bet, one that none of us wanted to win, although each of us on this DIY hunt wanted to bag the big­gest and most game of the bunch.

feral rein­deer

Grounded for a third morn­ing, Aaron and I fished for arc­tic char just out of town be­fore we all gath­ered with the lo­cals at Big Al’s sport­ing goods store. Some­one asked us what we were hunt­ing, and Steve piped up about cari­bou.

“You mean feral rein­deer?” the Ko­di­aker coun­tered.

Turns out our cel­e­brated cari­bou were La­p­landic rein­deer in­tro­duced to the is­land back in the 1920s. Still, we had tags to hunt them, and “feral rein­deer” had a per­verse ring in keep­ing with our wa­ger. Be­fore we left the shop—in a dither be­cause our pi­lot called to let us know the ceil­ing was lift­ing— we learned that duck sea­son on our side of the is­land wouldn’t open for an­other week. We wouldn’t need the Brown­ing shot­guns we had packed, af­ter all.

The plan for this hunt was first to get dropped by float­plane on the south­ern tip of Ko­diak and spend a few days hunt­ing rein­deer. When our tags were filled, we’d ra­dio Mike Flores, whose Ninilchik Char­ters runs a 48-foot ten­der boat, the Sundy, big enough to sleep the five of us. We’d get picked up by plane, dropped off at the Sundy, and spend the rest of our week hunt­ing Sitka black­tail deer from the boat and fish­ing. But the rain de­lay cut our time in the field nearly in half.

Once we landed in rein­deer coun­try, we set up camp, erected an elec­tric bear fence, then hiked to high points to glass for an­i­mals and watch for brown bears. We never saw a rein­deer (or, gladly, a bear), but it turned out the moun­tains above camp were full of big black­tails. Rafe and I each killed nice bucks—tak­ing the lead in the mus­tache bet—while Steve bagged a fox.

Af­ter two days of rein­deer­less hunt­ing, we climbed to the high­est peak and called Flores for a float­plane pickup the fol­low­ing morn­ing. Hik­ing back to camp, Aaron spot­ted what he thought was a drop-tined buck tucked back in brush. It was hard to con­firm the sight­ing, and Ryan and I doubted Aaron’s field skills. Af­ter all, Aaron didn’t even have a ri­fle. He was along pri­mar­ily as our pho­tog­ra­pher and videog­ra­pher. Still, field tra­di­tions abide, even deep in the bush, and who­ever first spots an an­i­mal gets first dibs on it. I handed over my .300 Short Mag.

Af­ter a short stalk, the buck flushed and Aaron made a sweet off­hand shot. As we ap­proached the dead deer, our jaws dropped. It sported not one, but two drop tines. Its thick, gnarly antlers were cov­ered in vel­vet and lit­tle polyps and warts. It was the largest black­tail I’d ever seen.

“Looks like it’s cov­ered in bar­na­cles,” I quipped, en­vi­ous that our pho­tog­ra­pher had killed what would un­doubt­edly be the buck of the trip. My con­so­la­tion: Aaron would look sick with his hip­ster whiskers sculpted into a gun­slinger’s mus­tache.

set­tling the bet

The best way to de­scribe the rest of the trip was as a race to not win the fa­cial-hair con­test. As we butchered deer meat on the stern of the Sundy, we jigged for hal­ibut while glass­ing for bucks and fox. Ryan caught the only hal­ibut. Crab­bing was a bust. It was hard to look at the 50-pound meat boxes sit­ting empty on the deck with any­thing but dis­ap­point­ment, given our ex­pec­ta­tion of a turf-and-surf ex­trav­a­ganza.

On our fi­nal day in Alaska, Steve killed a black­tail doe, and then Rafe took the lead when he killed a beau­ti­ful apri­cot­col­ored fox as it trot­ted along the beach at low tide. Rafe was vis­i­bly un­com­fort­able at the prospect of grow­ing what he called a “porn­stache,” so it was no sur­prise that when he spot­ted a lit­tle spike buck from the boat, he was in no hurry to go af­ter it. Aaron and I looked at each other, and raced for the lit­tle in­flat­able Zo­diak to take us to shore.

We beached the boat, qui­etly slipped .300 WSM car­tridges into our Hell’s Canyon ri­fles, and peeked over the ti­dal berm into a swampy bog. There was the spike, and just be­hind it, an­other deer. Aaron dumped one while I swung on the sec­ond.

It was clear, as we walked up to the deer in the fad­ing light, that both were tiny bucks. Mine sported two pen­cilthin antlers—one of the small­est spikes I’d ever seen, let alone killed. Then Aaron lifted the head of his buck. It had only one twig-like antler, a half spike.

“That set­tles it,” Aaron huffed as we dragged the bucks to the beach to gut. “You win,” said the owner of the Bar­na­cle Buck. “Your bucks had a to­tal of four antlers. Mine…only three.”

I protested then, just as I protested three months later at the SHOT Show, from be­hind the most well-earned mus­tache you’ve ever seen.

clock­wise from top left: stalk­ing black­tails from ground and boat; load­ing our ri­fles; hal­ibut; is­land trans­porta­tion; the au­thor’s buck; aaron’s arc­tic char; set­ting up a bear fence; a cari­bou tag; rein­deer base camp; the bar­na­cle buck.

from top: aaron, the au­thor, and ryan with a brace of tro­phy black­tails; steve’s arc­tic fox; cook­ing black­tail ten­der­loins on a ko­diak is­land ridge; load­ing a float­plane’s pon­toons; steve with a black­tail doe; and the au­thor with his prize mus­tache.

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