Picking apart the terrain in Alaska for alpine Sitka blacktail deer
August and September are alpine months in Southeast Alaska, though September productivity drops off drastically as the weather changes, food up top dies, and bucks drop into the timber. This is typically in the second half of September. Luckily, you’re not dealing with a full-on buck migration as in other states. A typical Sitka blacktail ecosystem can provide summer and winter range within 3,500 feet in elevation and just a mile or two. This is typically presented in three huntable terrains: high muskeg, clear cuts, and alpine. Deer are dependent on timber for winter protection and can be a place to find deer, but the three listed locations are the most targeted. All that said, know that the access and movement from plan A to plan B can be very difficult. It’s not simply a matter of hiking up one ridge, glassing across, spotting something, and being over there by noon. The terrain is thick and topographical lines indicate 100 feet of elevation.
If you have a tag already or are looking at planning an Alaska Sitka blacktail hunt in the coming years, hopefully, this article will put you in the right place and provide some guidance!
Pick mountain clusters that allow a lot of hiking along the same ridge, knowing that getting across to the opposite ridge, in many cases, is impractical if not impossible. Choose a ridge with lush-looking alpine and access, then look for logging roads that will provide a route to put you within striking distance of alpine. Next, assume those roads are knitted together by conspiring alders. I scouted an area that looked like it had reasonably good access to alpine, and the images showed just a thin set of green lines bordering the driving surface. The road would take us six miles to a network of high muskegs that climbed to a final stretch of timber, then a steep climb to open alpine. Excellent terrain for deer.
I shared the plan with my buddy Dave.
“It’s a jungle. All grown in.”
He had been there the previous fall on a pre-rut scouting trip with a friend and said four miles of it was nothing but continuous lashing from alder branches like a non-ending game of Red Rover. They had to turn around before they reached the muskegs.
Somehow, I convinced him to load up his four-wheeler and give it another shot. It was open. The forest service had moved in to thin some second growth and had cut back the alders to reach the work area.
A road that has been cleared of alder branches is sacred information for those with and without four-wheelers. We made the trip on the four-wheeler, camped within a mile of the road, and hiked down a long, timbered ridge to where the alpine shot nearly vertical from the forest. We gained the high ground, found a 4x3 buck with one of the top two or three heaviest bodies I had ever seen bedded at the foot of a cliff, and Dave made the shot.
Another key consideration is how you will access the great-looking logging road turned hunting trail. Southeast Alaska is made up of 1,700 islands, so will you be on the limited road system? Are you renting a boat? Flying in? Flying in can be a great way to get away from people, but not every lake can be accessed safely, and just because someone rents the forest service cabin doesn’t mean someone else won’t get flown in and camp along the shore.
As difficult as alpine hunting can be thanks to the sheer amount of miles, it is by far my favorite way to hunt blacktails. There’s nothing like it. Choose your cliché. Clear cuts can provide great action the entire season and are a good option if the weather corks your Plan A. In 2021 after getting rained off a mountain during the opener, I hiked into a network of clear cuts that was a few years old and shot a 4x2 at just under 800 feet of elevation on August 5. People kill big bucks in August at sea-level muskegs or clear cuts just off the water. These are island deer, so migration patterns aren’t like the Lower 48 (or interior Alaska), which features summer and winter ranges.
In the same way, you should assume all roads are cluttered with alders, only key in on clear cuts that look very fresh a mapping app like GOHUNT Maps. Within a year or two, the territory is lush with food for deer, and they can be found on the edges or even bedded down in the middle. But as spruce, hemlock and cedar begin to reclaim the territory, it becomes nearly impossible to penetrate, let alone glass.
Plan on being wet. You’ll be wet from sweat on sunny days. You’ll be soaked from sweat and rain on typical southeast Alaska days. You’ll have little problem finding drinking water, but the closer you are to those alpine or high mountain muskeg puddles, the more the mosquitos and no-see-ums will harass you. It can also be difficult to find a flat spot that doesn’t ooze with brown water when you step or try to set up your tent, so you might have to hike higher on the mountain. Don’t worry too much about being too close to the deer. I’ve unzipped my tent to take a leak at first light and saw a deer bedded 50 yards away just over a small hump and patch of lupine. You don’t want to be in their kitchen, but in their garage is fine.
Also, know that even the alpine on sunny days will be slick. Morning dew allows deer to get their water when they eat and makes footing incredibly difficult. Trekking poles and or crampons are a must, especially when packing out.
Water also brings on the dreaded hypothermia.
In 2018 a buddy was up from California, and we planned our ascent up a mountain to coincide with a break in the weather. It would break around noon, so we’d hike through the rain, the weather would break, we’d shoot a deer, and be done with it. We hiked in the rain, got soaked, ditched our camping gear (that was protected by dry bags), so we wouldn’t be setting up in the rain, spotted a deer, and almost went purple as we waited for the bedded deer to rise and the fog to relent long enough to get a quality shot. The rain stopped, and the clouds and fog thinned enough to reveal a second buck closer to the ridge. So as my buddy waited, I decided to get the blood flowing and tuck back behind the ridge and work my way to the other side of the bowl toward the other deer. I told him I’d wait until after he shot. My buck stood up from behind some brush just after Cody fired. I took my shot. The sun came out, and we packed the deer back to our camping gear, then off the mountain.
In 2019, the weather provided the same weather opportunity on the same mountain. Since it was too foggy to glass, I deployed a tarp and huddled under it while I waited for the rain to stop. It did, but the fog wouldn’t relent. Not wanting to move in the fog and possibly bump a deer, I stayed. But my wet clothes (I had put my puffy jacket on, but not the pants) kept stealing warmth. When I couldn’t feel my ankles, I knew what was coming. I was on the road to hypothermia. My body was drawing blood from the extremities to keep the vitals warm. There was no more waiting. More waiting results in irrational or dangerous decision-making. I got up, skirted the ridge, got warm through movement and eventually saw a nice buck that was bedded in an unretrievable area. Even if I had killed it where it was bedded, there was no way to safely reach it, especially given that it had rained for the last two days, and the saturated alpine ground gives way easily under the weight of a hunter. Live to hunt another day.
I've ran a few marathons and stay in shape, but I’m not Cam Hanes, Remi Warren, or Ryan Lampers. (Who is?) I’m a high school teacher, not a professional hunter, influencer, or freak athlete. That said, here are a few tracks from camp to successful shots I've had in the past:
- Elevation gain: 1,031 feet
- Distance: 2.3 miles
- Speed: .65 mph
- Elevation gain: 1,392 feet
- Distance: 3.2 miles
- Speed: .52 mph
- Elevation gain: 1,632 feet
- Distance: 1.3 miles
- Speed: .6 mph
All three of these hunts necessitated a good portion of the previous day to get to where we camped and illustrate the slow pace of making through the last bit of timber. It takes a long time to gain elevation. Moving at a mile an hour or gaining 1,000 feet in an hour is solid work considering the circumstances. It’s not the steepness, it’s the relentlessly thick nature of the forest. The canopy is too thick to see mountains for a frame of reference, and with cloud cover usually a given, the sun can’t assist your internal compass. Topographical lines mark 100 feet in elevation, so e-scouting can’t provide details about how much the terrain undulates and whether or not you will have to make your way down 20 yards of slope with nothing to grab on to except devil’s club.
Game trails don’t necessarily lead to places to shoot their friends, and following them can take you down and off the wrong side of the mountain. That’s why few people hike at night unless you’re on a logging road or know the area very well.
So the previous day of the above hunts was spent on a boat getting to the base of the mountain, using logging roads to make the climb to within striking distance, then covering the ground in the morning.
A few years ago, a few hikers were lost on a mountain right behind Ketchikan. One went for help. The other wandered off an incredibly well-marked trail and off a cliff. Searchers figured that maybe he saw the lights of Ketchikan and was tempted by the straight route. It’s a tragic story with some other complicating details, but it illustrates the temptation.
After my wife took a beautiful Wyoming mule deer on opening day in 2021, we reasoned that we could cut off a lot of hiking by simply walking along the inside of the bowl, dropping down to the trail and it would take us out. It worked beautifully. Rather than retrace our steps out and around, we cut a mile off the pack out and were checking in her buck with Game and Fish in no time. We could assess the terrain with our eyes and pick a route, not look at a screen and guess.
For the same reasons as above, shortcuts can be miserable failures that add time or even necessitate turnarounds when you can’t see the entire route. Descending into a stretch of unstable, soggy peat with a heavy pack can be frustrating or even dangerous. The better you are at reading topographical maps, the better off you will be, but when the weight of the pack and general exhaustion is keeping you from a few chunks of backstrap or at least a Peak Refuel, you might read what you want to see rather than what’s probably there.
Scree is present in Southeast Alaska, but it is not a dominating feature as it is further north. Cliffs are carved from glaciers, and the wet, temperate climate provides ample opportunity for vegetation to cling to some of the most severe monolithic faces. Cut time when you can and when it’s safe.
I’m not your mom
One of my good friends and mentors (even though he’s younger) was hiking with crampons when an entire section of saturated alpine gave way. He slid off a small cliff, landed on his back, and rolled with such force his mouth shattered when he hit a rock. Hardly able to walk, he managed to get himself to a trail and was picked up by a helicopter. He is not the type to take risks for the sake of telling others or attempting to win some imaginary “Alaskan Badass” competition. He is confident, competent, and gets into rugged country. His accident shows that things just happen.
In no way am I attempting to scare hunters off from a dream hunt in the rugged, thick temperate rainforest that is Southeast Alaska. But situations become survival situations quickly. Everything you have read has talked about how rainy and wet it is here, and cell service is mostly non-existent and that’s all true. When situations arise, there is no hiking to the nearest private property, finding the highway or hiking higher on a mountain to get a signal on your cell phone. Planes can’t get into remote lakes whenever you call them. They can land when the weather permits. There should be a little feeling of responsibility to the float plane pilots and their families, as well as the volunteer search and rescue (not to mention your own family and friends) that you’ll be prepared enough to not put them unnecessarily at risk because of a poor decision.
Accidents happen enough. Prevent what you can.
Enjoy the experience
You’re in Alaska. People come to Alaska just to see it. You’re here to hunt. Don’t ruin the trip by throwing tantrums. If you’re a resident, know that your tags cost you $0. That’s reason enough to be happy.
Jeff Lund grew up on Prince of Wales Island and is a high school teacher and freelance writer. He hosts The Mediocre Alaskan Podcast and his column I Went to the Woods appears twice a month in the Juneau Empire.