Hunting > Whitetails

Red-Carpet Blacktail

When the author agreed to speak at Friends of NRA-related events in Alaska, he had no idea how good the "pay" would be.

Dave Hardy’s email was an invitation to come as a public speaker, but somehow my eyes locked on “southeast Alaska … September” and then jumped to the last sentence, practically an afterthought, suggesting some hunting might also be arranged (“around here … goats, bear or blacktail deer …”).
That got my attention.

Could I say a few words at the annual Sitka Friends of NRA Banquet (FONRA), asked Dave, followed by a presentation at the public library, where, might I conjure up a talk that somehow encompassed famous outdoor writers, shooting and hunting books and my observations as an editor for NRA Publications? Rather than come to grips with all that, I shot back, “Sure, I’ll be glad to come (hunting).”

Only later did the gravity of it hit me. Although I genuinely enjoy presenting to live audiences, the enjoyment doesn’t kick in until the first sentence leaves my mouth. The run-up to such events is always unnerving, the last few hours before showtime, high anxiety, my personal bout of buck fever.

■■■

Come September Dave was there to fetch me at the Sitka airport. Though he had written several American Hunter articles, this was our first face-to-face encounter. He towered over me, and that seemed fitting for a career Alaska Fish and Game bear biologist (now retired). He came across as unabashedly upbeat, lacking the hard edge that can come from extended time in the bush. Dave’s house—where I would stay—was no cabin in the bush. It was cozy and stylish with a dramatic view of Sitka Sound, display cases full of native dolls and collectibles, a few choice game trophies and bookcases galore. I met Dave’s wife, Paula, and their miniature poodle, Mossie, and understood right away that this was their domain.

My trip had been compressed to just five days on the ground, and since parts of two days would be spent in town earning my keep at the Friends banquet and library gigs, time available for recreation (hunting) would be limited.

Dave countered by assembling an airtight itinerary that rivaled NASA at its best. Friday morning we stopped to get me a fishing license, then met Capt. Foy Nevers dockside. Dave and Foy agreed that the cool, cloudy morning was nice weather—for Sitka—and off we motored in search of salmon, ling cod and halibut. The fish must have been enjoying the mild conditions elsewhere, but I did learn that Foy is a staunch NRA man and member of the local FONRA committee. He also told a tale about a close scrape with a grizzly—not an unusual occurrence in Alaska, but Foy tells his better than most.

A gentle rain was falling the next morning when William Stortz came to collect me at Dave’s for skeet shooting at the Sitka Sportsman’s Association. Another fine day—for Sitka—they agreed. We joined the other Saturday-morning regulars at the range perched right on the rim of Olga Strait. Its backdrop was a study in grays and blues—steely water, passing cloudbanks, dark mountains looming across the way. I could see the orange clays well enough and hit a bunch, but wasn’t going to win any prizes in that crowd. The competition was good-natured, but with an edge that clearly mattered. In a place known for its big-game hunting, I fell in with some darn good shotgunners.

One positive note was that the shooting kept me from overthinking my role—small as it was—at the evening’s FONRA dinner. That changed abruptly during the pre-event briefing. In command, barking out assignments, committee chair Debbie Stilson turned and said, “And then, Mr. Zent, you will offer the invocation.” It was not a request. Dear Lord! Had I ever led prayer for so many folks? I didn’t think so.

And so I asked Him to bless the food, all the volunteers who contributed so much and the fellowship we were enjoying. I asked for divine help in realizing our purpose—raising funds to support shooting education and activities. “And one more thing, Lord, send our country wise leaders who will work with, not against, NRA.” Judging from the good meal, the fun and all the money brought in, I believe my prayer was heard.

Intermittent sprinkles fell the next morning as Dave and I joined head librarian Sarah Bell for a boat ride with fishing poles. “You’re experiencing an incredible spell of nice weather (for Sitka),” they assured me. We didn’t catch fish, but found a great concentration of salmon when we briefly visited a hatchery. I saw egg collecting, hatching tanks and fry by the thousands. Conservation around Sitka, I learned, depends on proactive management of fisheries, wildlife and timber resources. It’s a big, complex job with many factors and stakeholders.

The hatchery visit provided another welcome distraction, but this time I was on the hook for an hour-long PowerPoint presentation. I figured it would appeal to a keen reader/writer like Dave, but wasn’t so sure others would agree. Thanks to a grant from FONRA, Kettleson Memorial Library now offers an extensive collection of shooting and hunting books and magazines. Sarah and Dave have assembled scores of classics and newer editions, enough to keep Sitka’s many shooters and hunters busy. As a result library traffic picked up and these works are popular checkouts.

Venturing off-script, I told my audience how much libraries have meant in my life, and from that beginning it was mostly smooth sailing. We didn’t draw an especially big crowd but it sure was a good one. Few left early and the concluding Q&A was thoughtful. Afterwards I exhaled … and finally turned my attention to the hunting we had planned.

Over the next two days, I would be hunting the native Sitka blacktail deer. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but figured it would involve considerable effort given the vertical landscape. Of course two days was a ridiculously short time, perhaps no more than going through the motions. I would be hunting, yes, but probably not killing, and certainly couldn’t hold out for a big buck. Biologist Dave provided a short-course on this relatively small deer of coastal Alaska, noting that it is, in his opinion, the very best tasting venison of all.

My host had recruited a young conservationist, Andrew Thoms, to take me out the first day, and by the time we set forth with packs and rifles to hike up Harbor Mountain, the sun was showing amid patches of blue sky. Sitka was enjoying its best weather in years, I heard someone say. On a steep but well-groomed trail the walking wasn’t terribly hard, and we finally topped out above timberline and continued on to a glassing vantage where we found deer sign.  But not deer, not until we were almost back to the truck after dark.

Overnight I prayed that the “Lower 48” sunshine would hold. If so, fisheries biologist Dave Gordon would take a day off and fly me in his Cessna 180 to hunt a remote area on an island north of Sitka. While there was no guarantee we would locate deer—big country, needle in a haystack—it certainly would provide a look at wild Alaska and a bona fide mini-adventure.

Yes, it was partly clear and calm, perfect for flying. One of the Daves joked that I could take credit for the unprecedented (for Sitka) sunshine. But I certainly couldn’t, or for the vistas we saw flying over parts of Alaska’s famed Inside Passage that attracts cruise-ship visitors by the thousands.

Dave landed the floatplane on a small lake, marked only with a number on his map. It was surrounded by stately timber that marched up the surrounding hills. We climbed through the forest until breaking into open ground, a high, rugged plateau of boulders and stunted vegetation. Dave poked his head over a ridgeline and spun back with an expression that could only mean one thing. He mouthed, “Big buck,” and so we traded places.

Soon, thanks to Dave’s help and hunting smarts, I beat some long odds and had my deer. He was big, actually tubby, with spiky, whiskey-brown antlers that won’t sniff record status but make for a neat trophy nonetheless. That surprising turn, along with the view from the buck’s skyline turf, will stand as an extraordinary deposit in this hunter’s memory bank.

With the prime venison and those unusual antlers in tow, we returned to Sitka by mid-afternoon and made a date to gather at Dave Gordon’s house that evening. Our dinner included venison steaks, greens from the garden and a stout red wine. We insisted on recounting our hunt for Dave and Paula Hardy, and Gordon’s wife, Leslie, but couldn’t stay late because I had to pack up for my flight the next morning, and cut and wrap deer meat. The stars were out that night.

No easy character to pigeonhole, Dave Hardy is a bibliophile, gun crank, outdoorsman, gentleman, scientist, storyteller, optimist and old softie when it comes to his wife and family dog.  All the Sitkans he enlisted rolled out the red carpet to help immerse me in what an NRA editor, shooter, hunter and outdoorsman would logically find most interesting about their community.

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