A red fox trotted across the rocks before it sat down at the waterline. We both faced the water and gazed toward the hills across the bay and the jagged peaks in the distance. The full moon lit the snow-capped mountains so that they glowed, and the fox curled up to go to sleep near a log.
When the sky brightened, a family of three river otters emerged from beneath the old cook's house. They scrambled to the dock, slid into the water and came back up with a sea cucumber. Their three bodies worked almost as one — they moved in a triad of heads lifting and ducking as they nuzzled and brushed against each other.
A female kingfisher landed on the flagpole. It sat there, neat and still, for so long. How often had the kingfisher tempted a photographer only to disappear in a flash of orange-blue light? The flight was too fast to follow as the bird appeared again, now on the dolphin — not the mammal, but a marine structure where ships moor.
It was probably the way the morning unfolded without me each day.
What goes on in our lives that brings us to adventure is talked about more often than what takes us away from it, and the hunt we planned in this faraway place turned out not to be a hunt at all.
Steve and I had carried one of our English setters, Parker, down the stairs and to the vet three times in the previous week. By the time all the tests came in, we learned that there was no chance she would recover. She never showed she was hurting until it was too late, and we had to say goodbye.
The grief of losing her made the timing of a deer hunt in a remote place daunting. On our first visit to the vet, he had mentioned he was planning a trip to the Dakotas. Steve asked if he would hunt pheasant while there.
"Maybe," he said, but then he paused. "To tell the truth, with my job, I have to put down so many animals, it has taken the urge to kill an animal out of me."
I thought about his words as Steve and I sat in the truck in the parking area at the Anchorage airport. Our flight had been canceled due to weather, and neither of us felt much like hunting. We delayed for two days before deciding to go after all.
It was rare we had someone to watch the dogs at home for a week, and Steve's family had flown up for the task. When the weather cleared and flights started again, we left for the retired cannery in Uyak Bay on Kodiak Island. But our reason for going had changed.
The original plan was to hunt Sitka black-tailed deer. Instead, we spent most our time wandering the waterfront and grounds surrounding the old Parks Cannery. The weathered wooden lofts and corrugated metal were a gold mine of prized material — that galvanized patina and story-rich lumber that sells well. But they also provided a retreat.
"If I shipped it out in containers, I'd have a fortune," the owner said. "But then it would be gone."
I found myself exploring the lofts, open warehouses and decks somewhere between the shadow of the Industrial Revolution and the reality of borrowed time. Yet new life grew green on the rotting lumber of the dock as if were a nursing log.
I had never hunted Sitka deer before, and when we ventured into the woods on the second day, Steve reported: "She hasn't seen the rabbit yet." He meant the proverbial rabbit. A new hunter will look for the whole deer and miss the only visible signs — ears, antlers and fur — in the same way it took me seeing a rabbit's eye before I learned to look for its eye.
"They will watch you as you walk by," the man who had been the previous watchman and now owned the cannery said.
I liked how he interacted with wildlife, calling a particular seal "Lucille" and referring to the cormorant as black swans. He talked a lot about deer, and I enjoyed understanding more about their life year-round on the island.
It was true, I had not seen any deer. There was plenty of sign around the cannery. Deer antlers rested on windowsills and decks. They had been crafted into door handles and made part of a driftwood chair. They are nearby, I thought, as I imagined the face of a buck in tree bark and made antlers out of branches.
Sitka black-tailed deer are not native to Kodiak. According to "Game Transplants in Alaska," a publication by Fish and Game, the first deer moved to Kodiak were captured in the Sitka area in 1924. The most interesting story is how William Hanlon and his 19-year-old son Ike trained their dog Tuffy to chase deer into the sea. They would then pull the swimming deer into a small skiff.
The purpose of the transplant was to increase recreational hunting and provide additional food. As much as I had an anticipatory dread about shooting one, I knew I wanted the deer meat. Every sign of deer renewed my interest. They probably were watching us.
We hunted briefly during the days, joined the owner on a leisurely boat trip to the post office in Larsen Bay, and on the last night, a cross fox visited us as we sat on the deck to watch the sunset. He had one eye and looked into mine with cat-like poise before laying down just a few feet away.
We talked about how the weather and the full moon made for poor hunting, perhaps. The animals moved at night and the snow was late, leaving the deer to feed on available forage in the difficult-to-traverse 2,000-foot range.
Steve calls the first time we hunt a new place a "scouting year," and it makes sense. There's value in learning the basic shape of the area from the ground, and I could now make out landmarks and specific ponds and flats. In our short time there, I only saw one doe high up on a hill.
I could not feel disappointed in the failure of my first deer hunt given the circumstances. It was enough to feel the ancient history in the woods and in the spirit of those who worked and lived there still.
Christine Cunningham of Kenai is a lifetime Alaskan and avid hunter. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.