Days 1-2: Exploring Alaska’s Tongass National Forest

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It's 7:00 a.m., and I'm on the only daily commercial flight from Seattle that lands on Mitkof Island in the fishing town of Petersburg, Alaska. As we make our final approach, the clouds and rain are so thick that I can barely see the ground, almost until the plane touches the tarmac. The visibility is about what I expected. After all, I just landed in one of largest temperate rainforests in the world.

The airport terminal consists of a garage and a 1,600-square-foot building. Being an East Coast boy, this isn't the kind of airport I'm used to, but it seems a fitting location to start my journey into the 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest, in which Petersburg sits smack in the middle.

My first order of business is getting a bead on a Sitka blacktail deer, and my hunting guide Scott Newman is going to help me achieve that goal. The blacktail is indigenous to the coastal temperate rainforests of Southeast Alaska and British Columbia. However similar it appears, the Sitka blacktail is not the same as the common blacktail deer found in parts of the Lower 48. Though I had plenty of whitetail under my belt, I knew the chance at a Sitka blacktail was once-in-a-lifetime. The anticipation was almost unbearable.

Our trek to blacktail glory started with a boat ride to Kupreanof Island, where we found the Suzuki Samurai that Scott had dropped off with a larger boat the day before. Scott's nephew, Brian (aka Pack Mule), joined us to help carry equipment and set up camp. We drove 15 miles on old logging roads, and then began our nine mile hike into the mountains. Though the climb was rigorous, the setting was spectacular. At one point we were surrounded by skunk cabbage with leaves so big I felt like I was in a scene from Jurassic Park. The smells--Sitka spruce, alder and cedar--were simply intoxicating. I took it all in until we finally reached some level ground and set up camp at the base of the alpine face we would hunt the next morning.

In the Tongass during late summer, blacktail does and fawns feed in the lowlands on the lush rainforest vegetation. The bucks, on the other hand, are high up in the alpine region with their antlers still in velvet. The deer population fluctuates yearly and is very heavily regulated by the harshness or mildness of the Alaskan winters. Blacktails seek winter refuge in old growth forests. Unfortunately, those old growth forests were the target of much of the clear-cut logging that has threatened the Tongass. Clear-cut logging is incredibly destructive. All the trees are simply removed, inviting soil erosion and loss of essential wildlife habitat. The good news is that the U.S. Forest Service has changed its focus from management of old growth logging to managing the younger growth (20-year-old trees). Consequently, the amount of old growth clear-cutting has been significantly reduced.

The existing clear cuts, however, are in need of restoration, and Trout Unlimited has taken on this important project. Impact studies have shown that the Tongass is vital to the Southeast Alaskan economy. TU is working with commercial and sport fishermen and other allies to lobby the Obama Administration and Congress to conserve high-value watersheds and to direct more funding and attention to restoring ones that have been scarred by logging. Through these efforts, TU hopes that future generations will be able to experience blacktail hunts like the one I would embark on at first light.

The next morning, the slope was shrouded in thick clouds, making the "spot" part of "spot and stalk" impossible, so we sat tight and waited. Finally, just after noon, the clouds lifted. Scott continually glassed the lush face for our quarry until he spied three bucks. One of them was a big-bodied 2X2 with good mass and a nice set of eye guards. It was a mature buck that Scott told me in a whisper was bigger than average for the area. We both agreed that this would be our shooter.

After a bit of planning, we climbed into a small ravine that kept us hidden. For two hours we slowly moved closer to the buck. When we popped up, Scott had gotten me within 200 yards of the buck that was still grazing. Everything was now in my hands. I knew that if I missed, I might not get another chance. I raised the gun, but the buck quartered toward me. Though not an ideal shot, I lined up the shoulder as best as I could and squeezed the trigger of my .270 Winchester. The buck dropped. I turned to Scott who was smiling wide.

All I could think was that one day I would return to these mountains to hunt with my son, so he could experience the same rush.