Elk Hunting 2021

Roy and I drew party elk tags for Eastern Afognak Island. The trip started out auspiciously when son Zeke overslept and missed his flight from Haines to Juneau. Normally, that wouldn’t be too big a deal, except that Roy and I had already left for Kodiak, and Zeke was to bring the tents.

Mark and friends in Alaska

In true rural Alaska fashion, a friend of the family just happened to be a pilot with a plane. He flew Zeke down in time for Zeke to make his jet to Anchorage, and so the hunting trip was back on track.

Roy had freeze dried all our evening meals, so we needed to shop for only a few items like fruit and coffee in Kodiak. I also went to the Salvation Army thrift store for a coffee cup and a writing notebook. Since I help at the Salvation Army thrift store here in Juneau, I was interested in what their store looked like. It was very well organized and clean and bright. The clerk who took my payment had a daughter in Juneau who worked for ADFG.

We stayed with my friend Kevin, who had been like a big brother and mentor to me 30 years ago when I worked with him at the Kodiak ADFG office.  It was great catching up with him, and he was more than happy to have some people to talk to after spending the last several years down south rehabbing his leg from a bad car accident, and then returning home to the isolation of Covid.  We’d put the word out for some items we’d need, and another long time friend, Bob, loaned us a cooler, axe and water jug. Kevin’s extended family had a coleman stove, little fire pit, and a cot. A friend of my brother in law dropped off another cot and set of camp chairs.

I built some extra days into the trip to account for weather delays. As we all made it to Kodiak on time, I asked the air service at Seahawk if they wanted to take us out a day early, and they eagerly said yes, as this would lighten their schedule the following day. So the next day, away we went.

We weren’t exactly sure where we were going. This was my first time hunting this area of Afognak Island. My friend Sam had hunted with success out of Gretchen Lake, and so we headed in that direction. We saw a small group of elk a few miles from the lake, so decided to go to Gretchen Lake, as Rolan had not put anyone else there as of yet. We may have sort of had first pick of a camping spot since we were now going in a day earlier than other hunters with the same permit, and charter operators don’t generally put a second party in a lake they’ve already put someone else in.

Rolan idled up to the side of the lake nearest where we’d seen the elk from the air, and we departed the plane to look around to see if we could find a good campsite. Roy and I looked in one direction, but didn’t see anything with very level open ground. Zeke called from the other direction that he had found a suitable site, and when Roy went up to look at it, he agreed.  Rolan started offloading the gear to us on the beach, and after we offloaded several bags, Zeke started packing them up to the campsite.

When all the bags were offloaded, Rolan took off and Roy and I started humping bags up the short trip to the campsite. When I took my first look at it I thought: these boys have a lot different idea of what constitutes a good campsite than I do. The site was very uneven with lots of brush and devils club. But, here we were. We moved a bit further down the beach from their initial choice, and we made do with an area big enough to pitch the wall tent and enough trees to tie over the 20′ x 30′ tarp rainfly.

Once we got the tarp and tents up, we started to move in, setting up our cots and sleeping bags. That’s when Zeke discovered his gear that had been put in the floats on the opposite side of the airplane from the side of the plane we offloaded had not been offloaded. He was without a sleeping bag.  Luckily, the weather was unseasonably nice, with no rain and partly sunny.
I called the Seahawk office on the satellite phone, and the staff said Rolan had trips out our way again in the morning, and he’d drop the gear in then. Luckily, Zeke had enough clothes with him to keep warm overnight. The next day I tried to call into the office again, and found that the sat phone battery was dead. I knew I’d charged it before we left, but it did not hold the charge for more than the brief call to the office. Now we were in a quandary because we had planned to communicate with Seahawk Air for our pick up, etc.

Mark's tent setup

The wall charger for the unit was in it’s case. The charger read that it had an input of 110 volts ac, and an output of 6 volts dc. I had a battery power pack that had an output of 5 volt dc from a USB cord. So, after consultation with the youngster, we decided to try to cut the wall charger cord and splice the fitting that went into the sat phone to the USB cord and hope for the best. I gladly let him use his 20 something eyes to strip the 20 gauge wires, tape them up with the electrical tape we use to cover our gun muzzles, and then we tried it. It worked, to the amazement of all, but most of all, Roy. I turned the sat phone back on and we were back in business.

Roy initially thought we had too much gear when we were packing for the trip, wary of some perhaps luxuries we didn’t need, like cots. We all soon changed our minds on the cots, as they indeed provided us all with good night’s sleep and we could each store out bags underneath them. I took my 10 x 12 wall tent, which I’d never set up, along with my 11 ft long Thermos Prairie Schooner tent, which I bought from my elder coworkers  when I worked in Kodiak. They used it for elk hunting back then, and said I could buy the tent for $25, as that’s what they paid for it. I’ve had the tent now for 30 years, and still use it.  However, it turns out the three of us fit perfectly into the wall tent, with two cots along the side walls, and a cot along the back wall, so we didn’t use the smaller tent.

My niece in Anchorage regularly houses friends and family coming through town to hunt, and on one occasion, some boys had bought an electric bear fence for a hunt, and left it with her. We borrowed it for this trip, and it worked great.  There was 108 feet of wire, which was more than enough to surround our little compound. The fence takes just 2 D batteries, and Roy tested it with his finger and confirmed that it indeed did shock when touched. I was also glad I picked up an MSR 10 liter water bag filter in Juneau with the gift certificate the scout troop gave me last Christmas, as every lake or pond seemed to have an active beaver family working.

Weather was dry and mostly clear, with a little breeze, day 1 and 2. In October. On Afognak. Wow. We scouted the area on the eve of opening day for our permit. We had drawn the second period, so the area had been open to the first period permit holders the two weeks prior. Rolan told us he had only one successful hunting group during the first period, so he was a fountain of encouragement. Roy and Zeke went in the direction of the elk we’d seen from the air, and I went in the opposite direction. The area was mostly clear cut, with some small stands of old growth forest here and there.  Logging roads made travel pretty easy, but walking through the logged off areas, or seeing into areas through second growth from the road, was a challenge.   This area of Afognak is alot different than the old growth regions on the western side of the island I had hunted previously with my in laws.

That day, we all sort of fell into our chores around the camp. Zeke liked to do the cooking, so he made breakfast in the morning and heated the water for the freeze dried meals in the evening. Roy made salami and cheese sandwiches with lots of mayo and mustard for everyone for lunch. I made the morning coffee.

We made a plan for opening day. Roy and Zeke would hike around a small lake and go to a big clear cut in the area they’d seen the elk on the flight in. I would skirt the other side of the lake, which was mostly small spruce trees, grass and brush. There was fresh elk sign in my area, but I didn’t see any elk. At one spot, I squeezed a few chirps from the cow call Sam lent me, and a mostly white raptor of some kind I’d seen atop a snag responded by dive bombing me at my sitting position atop a stump. Zeke and Roy saw a deer they passed on, and Zeke thought he saw an elk leaving the road into the grass and brush as they neared the edge of the clear cut. No elk on Day 1, but beautiful skies and dry weather and temperature near 50- just perfect for hiking.  As I returned to the near end of the lake to get back up on the road, I saw swirls at the mouth of a tiny feeder creek to the lake – little Dolly Varden, with white-edged fins and orange sided spawning colors. I watched them for several minutes before climbing up to the road. Roy and Zeke were waiting for me, and it was an exciting discussion when I learned they’d seen an elk and a deer.

We had our first of many excellent meals that evening that Roy and his wife Brenda had cooked and freeze dried – spaghetti. It was a joy every day to go hunting and know we’d be eating great meals in the evening. Zeke would heat a litre of water in the jet boil each evening, and then add a little to each of our mylar bags of freeze dried dinner, and in 10 minutes, it would be re-hydrated gourmet dinner. Other night’s meals I remember were venison strogonof,  venison chili, salmon chowder, and macaroni and cheese with venison.

Another “must have”, along with the cots, turned out to be a buddy heater that screws directly into a 20lb propane bottle my brother in law bought me for Christmas years and years ago. We lit the heater each night for 30 min to an hour before we went to sleep, and then in the morning, I lit the heater at first light and put the coffee on, as the heater can also be used as a stove.

On Day 2, I went with Zeke to the clear cut, and Roy took a turn going along the lake. While Zeke and I were each atop a stump and looking for elk in the clear cut, an official looking brown truck with antennas pulled up 15 yards to my left on the road, and the two occupants glassed the same clear cut. They never saw us. They continued down to the end of the road about 50 yards below to turn around, and Zeke and I hopped off our perches and the truck exited non the wiser.  Roy walked all the way over to the clear cut and joined us later in the day. Like me, he’d seen the elk sign along the lake, but no elk. He’d also sampled the blueberries along the lake like I had, and we agreed they are much sweeter than those here in Southeast. Zeke left ahead of us on the way home and took a walk down a muskegy valley from the road to call for deer. He saw one, but the deer took off before he could shoot. Another sunny and dry day. I was wearing hiking boots for a change, as I didn’t need to wear my rubber boots with the dry weather and mostly dry ground we were hiking.

On Day 3, we decided to try around Gretchen Lake. Roy and I were sure we heard a cow elk the first night we were camped, so hoped they might be near our lake. Roy went to the timber on the higher elevation around the north side of the lake, and I walked somewhat parallel to him nearer to the lake.  Zeke went around the other side of the lake from us.  We were out of camp less than an hour when I heard Zeke shoot. I hunted most of the way to the lake outlet, then returned right along the lake to camp. Roy crossed the inlet and kept going around the lake and back to camp. Zeke had shot a small buck black tailed deer, and returned to camp with the meat in his pack. As I was heading back to camp, a trooper landed on the lake in a super cub. He checked Zeke’s deer tags and his meat sack to be sure he’d salvaged all he was supposed to. Zeke cooked a backstrap from the deer over our campfire and we had that along with our evening freeze dried meal.   Another dry day and beautiful weather.

Day 4 saw a change in weather. It started raining and blowing at dawn, and continued til dark, when it let up. No one was up for hunting in the wet blow, and we huddled in the tent. The wind was blowing right into the wall tent door and under the sides, and we scrambled to stake down the tent sides with stakes and baggage, as well as plug up the areas of the tent at either end of the roof peak where the ridgepole went through. The rain fly threatened to blow away all day, but only one corner tore free, and I retied it right away.  We were especially appreciative of having brought the heater. Zeke made a great scramble of eggs and cheese and other leftovers for breakfast, and later some no bake cookies that went great with all the coffee and tea we had time to drink. The storm blew itself out at dark, and by evening it was calm and the stars were out again.

On Day 5, Roy and I headed in yet another direction to the country behind the far side of the lake.  The road there lead to a massive clear cut that made the country look like what I imagine it would if a nuclear bomb was set off. The forest had been clear cut for miles and miles, with no trees left at all. It makes me sad to see that for some reason. I saw not a single sign of elk there. Only bear scat.  As we returned to camp in the evening of another bluebird day, the temperatures were falling noticeably colder in the evening. Some of the puddles in the muskeg had a thin film of ice, and we were ever more appreciative of the propane heater at night and again in the morning.  We had more back strap over the campfire and freeze dried mac, cheese and venison for dinner.

The last day of hunting started with light rain. Neither Roy nor myself were much interested in hunting in the rain after seeing no elk in the area after looking in most all directions from camp. Zeke put his rain gear on and went looking for more deer. Roy and I started packing up our gear in preparation for pick up first thing in the morning at 9 am, just after sunrise.  I decided to tackle sewing a patch on a hole in the front wall of the tent. I had tried using flex seal tape to patch it, but the tape was not wanting to stick to the canvas, so I sewed the tape as a patch with the sewing needle and dental floss I had in my camp kit. It took quite awhile to complete, but in sunny weather with nothing else to do, it was quite enjoyable. In the end, the patch looked okay and was solid.  Zeke returned in the afternoon having not seen a deer or elk. Roy said it was time to eat lots of food “for fun” to lighten our load the next day. I cut the rest of a chub of dry salami into rounds and fried both sides in the pan over the camp fire. Then I cut strips of cheese for each round, and put on the pan cover until the cheese began to melt. We then ate the salami and cheese on Ritz crackers, and  we all agreed life at that moment was pretty damn good,.

The next morning was sunny and calm. Again. What a week.  When I called in our weather at first light to Seahawk, however, they said it was really blowing in Kodiak and to call back at 10 am. We weren’t sure if we’d get out now, so we packed most of the gear to the beach pick up spot, but left up the tent just in case. The call back at 10 showed it had calmed down, and now the pick up time was going to be around 1230, so we relaxed for awhile in the sun, and then took down the big rain fly tarp and tent. We folded up the tent, and bulldogged it into the duffel bag it came in. The wall tent and bag weigh 47 lbs, so just right to meet the 50 lb max for airline travel.

Rolan showed up right on time. He said due to the wind direction, he’d have to ferry us to Izhut Bay in two loads so he could safely take off from Gretchen Lake. We loaded half our gear and me in with Rolan, and made the short hop to the bay, where we offloaded the gear and me on a gravel bar. Rolan soon returned with Roy, Zeke and the rest of the gear, and on to Kodiak we went. On the way back we had a big surprise – fin whales. I’ve never seen them before and initially thought they were humpbacks because of the white coloration on the underside.  Fin whales are the second longest whale after the blue whale, and are more sleek than the humpback. We could clearly see several of them swimming and blowing for quite awhile as we flew from Afognak to Kodiak.

The fun wasn’t over when we got to town. Roy’s wife found out there was a cutting edge farmer in Kodiak growing greens in a 40′ container. Roy made an appointment to see them the next day. We all got showers and told Kevin about our trip.

We visited Gideon Saunders and wife Siene Allen’s Brightbox Farm the next day. It was like looking at the future of farming and perhaps how we can feed the billions of new people who will need to eat in the coming decades. When we met Gideon, I saw he had a BP hoodie on, and asked him if he’d worked on the North Slope. He said he had, for 25 years and finished as a plant operator. A perfect background for this new venture. Three vertical panels hang in the container, with lettuce, chard, kale, and other greens growing out either side of each panel. LED lights alongside the panels provide light for the plants, and nutrient rich water drips from top to bottom to provide fuel for the plant growth. Gideon said he can harvest 1000 heads of lettuce a week, and demand is so high he could operate two more containers just to meet it. He sells weekly to 30+ customers who pick up orders at his garage, and he delivers to local grocery stores and restaurants. The various lettuce, chard, herbs, etc grow from seed to harvest in about 7 weeks.

Kevin took us all to the local brewery later that afternoon, where we met his son and son in law and heard stories about Kodiak life. We picked up some Salvadorian food from a nearby food truck after the brewery visit, and headed back to Kevin’s for dinner to watch the playoff baseball game.

It was another trip of a lifetime. It was weird to have people send their “condolences” that we did not harvest an elk, as if a family member had died. Could be I’d have been disappointed in my younger years, but surely not now.  We had beautiful weather, great food, good company and solitude on our week at Afognak, and none of the 3 of us thought it was anything but great. And we’re already planning the next trip. Plus, when we all jumped on the scale for our return weight for the plane charter, we’d collectively lost 10lbs!

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