It was a dizzying month. After our last student group left, I set off for the wide world to keep plugging and pitching Inian Islands Institute. Having decided that October was “the month,” I may have been a bit too cavalier with scheduling my time in one city after another, from Portland to Seattle to San Francisco and beyond. After all, I thought, it’s all the Lower 48 – compared to Alaska, it’s all in the same neighborhood! In the final tally, I gave 6 presentations and sat in 43 meetings in 20 cities, with 17 planes, 28 trains, and 30 buses connecting it all. At such a feverish pace, at times I became a bleary-eyed shell of myself, a zombie lurching. Though I remained pretty confident that the year was still 2015, I was so disoriented and sleep-deprived you could’ve convinced me otherwise. It was time to get back to the Wilderness.
This is deer season, when Southeast Alaskans are putting up meat for the winter. So I set off for Lemesurier Island (pronounced LEM-uh-shur), just this side of the Inian Islands. Normally, November is not the time of year to be kayaking solo through Icy Strait, but the forecast looked benevolent, and besides, I needed some cold spray on my cheeks to clear my head. Though the island was fogged in as I set out, the sea was calm for this time of year, and I trusted my compass to guide me there, and the fog to lift in due time. About to round the last corner towards the cabin, the sun even came halfway out – enough to cast a shadow but not to blind – and I set down my paddle and bobbed in the waves, gratefully listening to the ocean and the seabirds.
I smiled to see Hank paddling out from the cabin to meet me. He’d known to expect a visit, but didn’t know when – no way to send a message out here. His tall frame moved easily across the water, his bearded face beamed at me. “I was hoping you’d catch this good weather,” he said, thrusting a beer in my hand. “Dang dude, that’s a long boat. You compensating for something?”
“I’m compensating for a lot,” I replied. “Is it working?”
He laughed, “I don’t think I’m the right person to be asking that to!”
I hung my wet gear up by the woodstove, and it being dark by 4 pm, I settled in for a long evening of board games, beer, and venison & carrot stew with Hank and his family.
It was snowing at dawn the next morning. Hank said that this being the peak of the rut, with this fresh snow revealing their tracks, this would be one of the best hunting days of the year. Not wanting to let the short daylight waste, I packed a lunch, gathered my gear, chambered a round and checked the safety on my rifle, and set off into the woods.
The wind led me uphill. Deer have an acute sense of smell, so if you walk downwind they will be long gone – as fruitless as hunting a whale up a mountainside. At first, I checked the direction of the wind every few minutes with my lighter, as Hank had taught me. The breeze in the forest can be too faint to feel, yet strong enough to carry your scent – and to tug a flame sideways. But soon, I realized that the drifting snowflakes made a much easier and more beautiful anemometer, and the lighter stayed pocketed.
I moved slowly through the forest, trying and failing to be noiseless. I wore wool above and below – it keeps me warm even when wet, and it moves silently, without the sibilant scraping of raingear. Every few steps I stopped to watch and listen, the silence so profound I could hear the snowflakes landing. Around me in the forest, columns of fine ice crystals fell in a rush, where the breeze had unsettled them from high branches. I blew the deer call, watched a moment longer, and moved along.
Once, I turned just in time to glimpse a large buck stotting away downwind, alarmed at my scent. A few minutes later, as I stood peeing in the snow, a doe approached me within 20 feet. Frozen, I watched her delicate movements – flicking her tail, testing the air with her nose, her long legs carrying her gracefully over ground buried deep in moss and snow. I was brutish in comparison, clumsy as a scuba diver walking the forest in flippers, weighed down by my tank, the world distorted through my dive mask.
Eventually, the wind led me high onto a ridge, and most of the deer sign had petered out. I circled back downhill towards the ocean cliffs, knowing daylight would fail soon. Then I saw movement: a buck ambling away from me, calmly, upwind, unaware. I stared for a moment before remembering the deer call. I blew twice, and watched. Moments later his back flashed between logs, then his head, staring at me from 50 yards away. Is this it? I wondered, heart beginning to pound. I blew the deer call twice more as I removed the scope cover and fumbled the safety off. I leaned against a tree for a brace and raised the rifle. No good – too much movement. Knowing the moment was quickly passing, I blew the call again. The buck stared, seemingly transfixed, as I crouched and extended the rifle in front of me, resting it on a swale of moss. I looked through the scope, and still he stared. Crosshairs on his head. Steady. Calm. There is no doubt.
My ears were ringing in my skull as I watched the deer topple, its limbs chaotically upended before it settled in the snow. I chambered another round and breathed trembling breaths, as a doe I’d never seen, no doubt the one he was courting, walked off into the forest.
When I found him, the buck’s left eye was bulged out of his head. Blood trickled from his tongue and nostrils, and one of his antlers was split by the impact. I placed my hand on his neck and felt his fleeing warmth. His antlers had a pronounced “Y” shape, showing him to be a 4-and-a-half year old. A big deer. Fat snowflakes spun in the air and alighted on the two of us, as I silently watched this beautiful animal in death.
A deer needs to be field-dressed, viscera removed, before bringing it home. Though this was only my second deer, Hank had taken me through the whole process last year. Luckily, I thought as I dug in my bag, I‘d taken copious notes to guide me through doing it alone. But groping through my bag a second time, I slowly realized that I’d forgotten my journal, and with it, my ability to finish what I’d started. I looked back at the animal whose life I’d taken, feeling less proud than a moment ago. Could I remember what to do? I moved the deer to a flat spot in the snow, feeling chagrined and uncertain. I made a slit in the belly. Was it the right place? Looking for the body cavity, I cut deeper. Was that the stomach I saw, or just a layer of fat? I shook my head: I am disrespecting this animal. I paused and stood up, hand over my mouth, searching for what to do. I came back and cut again, apprehensively, knowing that if I punctured the guts, I could ruin the meat. Finally, I couldn’t go further. I called Hank on the radio, letting him know where I was and that I needed help. “I’ll be right there,” came his voice through static, as he kindly gave up the rest of his own day hunting in the woods. I sat next to the deer to wait. The wait would be long. I was cold.
With the deer dressed and skinned, hanging in the chill of the barn to drain, I sat next to Hank’s daughter Linnea. Looking out over a 3 p.m. sunset in Icy Strait, the mountains of Chichagof Island blushing in the long light, I told her how bad I felt for dishonoring the deer by not knowing how to care for its body properly. “Well,” she began, “the biggest honor we can do when hunting these animals is a good kill. What we do afterwards – the ceremony and the celebration of the animal – that we do mostly for ourselves.”
Pretty wise words for a 12-year-old. I showed her the head, lying on the forest floor with the rest of the skin, and how the bullet had passed through his forehead, just between his eyes. He didn’t even hear it, she whispered, her words a great comfort to me.
“Where do you suppose he is now?” I asked.
“Who knows?” she replied, “Maybe back out roaming the forest with that doe.”
“That’s a good thought.” I hope so.
And so, dear friends of Inian Islands Institute, I want to express my gratitude to all of you – for volunteering, laboring, donating and supporting in a thousand ways. All of the hard work is paying off – last month, hectic as it was, we received our first major donations to buy the Hobbit Hole, amounting to $250,000. We have truly come to life since last Thanksgiving, and today we celebrate. Happy Thanksgiving to you all!