Rainy, Reindeer Adventure
by Tim Neal
When I told my wife that I had booked a hunt through Jim Shockey Hunting Adventures at the SCI show, “You booked a hunt where and for what?” was her response. I said that I was going to the Aleutian Islands to archery hunt reindeer. “Why?” she asked. To me, it made perfect sense; we have all seen the Jim Shockey TV show and the great reindeer that they have harvested, and I wanted one. Additionally, my father was stationed there during World War II, while serving in the Army Air Corps, and I wanted to see for myself the country he had told me about as a child. Reindeer? She questioned. I explained that a reindeer and caribou are closely related, and that most people think they are the same species. Whatever, she replied. After 37-years of marriage, she has giving up when it comes to my hunting.
Shortly thereafter, I invited and convinced my good friend, Paul Carter, to join me on the adventure. That September, we touched down on a small gravel landing strip in Mikulski, Umnak Island, Alaska. The year round population of all of Umnak Island—nearly 700-square-miles of Aleutian wilderness ranging from sea level to 7,000 feet with two active volcanoes and no roads outside of the small village—is 17. However, there are approximately 5,000 reindeer. Soon, we had our gear and fresh supplies unloaded, re-packed into two Polaris Ranger UTVS, and we were headed to the lodge. I was hoping for a dry, warm place to sleep, and when we arrived at the lodge we were pleasantly surprised to see a modern, five-bedroom, three-bath lodge with all the amenities.
We met Bret and Ashley Weaver, who would be overseeing our trip, Danny, our native Aleut “scout,” and Tracy and Blake Milford, a father and son from Georgia who would be the other hunters in camp. We stowed our gear in our private bedrooms and sat down to Ashley’s hot, homemade soup and bread dinner. This was to be Bret’s first year running the camp. Previously, he worked in Kodiak as a bear and goat guide, and a charter boat captain in the summer, where he worked for my good friend, Roark Brown, owner of Homer Ocean Charters. Bret and Danny would hunt with Paul and me, and Tracy and Blake would hunt with Vinnie, another native Aleut. After lunch, we drove out in the crew cab Rangers to an area where I could check the sights on my bow, and the others could check their rifles. On the trip, we took a quick tour of the village with the main feature being the 100-year-old Russian Orthodox Church. All the other buildings in village showed the wear of the harsh environment, but the Church looked immaculate. That night, after a great halibut dinner capped off with homemade dessert, we drew cards to see who would get first shot. Somehow, I won, and I was up first in the morning.
The next morning started with a great pre-dawn breakfast. Then, we loaded our gear and left at first light. Here, there is no traveling in the dark. There are no roads on the island once you leave the village, so it was too likely we would drive over a cliff or into a canyon. The plan was for all of us to hunt together, and then split up later in the morning. Since we were the first hunters of the season, we weren’t sure where the reindeer were going to be. So, off we went, stopping to glass now and then from any high vantage points. We had traveled nearly two hours and about 20 miles when the first reindeer were spotted. We looked them over and decided that there were not any first day shooters. We kept moving, seeing more and more animals the closer we got a nearby volcano. A few hours later, we spotted a group of bulls with a possible shooter. Bret, Paul and I went in for a closer look and after discussing it, we decided to pass on this bull. When we met up with the others Blake said he would be happy to put that bull on his wall. We watched as Blake, Tracy and Vinnie worked their way to about 250-yards of the bull; with one well-placed shot, Blake was done. Brent, Danny, Paul and I traveled on as the others took care of Blake’s bull.
A few hours later, we were perched on a high hill looking over a broad river valley that flowed out to the Bearing Sea. From here, we could see for miles and we could see hundreds of reindeer scattered in small groups everywhere. We started looking over likely candidates with our spotting scopes. We saw bulls with great tops, but weak bez, bulls with great bez and shovels, but weak tops, and bulls with good bez, great tops, but weak shovels. This went on for a couple of hours until we spotted a bull in a large group too far away to know for sure, but it needed a closer look. We dropped off the hill, found a reasonable place to cross the river, and headed towards where we last saw the big bull a couple of miles away. We had to pick our way through other groups of animals using the terrain as much as possible to conceal our presence. At times, we would duck-walk or even belly-crawl as we skirted the other reindeer. Soon, we relocated the large group we were after, and worked our way towards them belly crawling the last hundred yards. We studied all the bulls in the group and thought that the largest just might be what we were looking for. The bull was only 150-yards away, so we slowly crawled its direction. After just 50-yards we were met with an impassable canyon; we were stuck. We asked Danny about the canyon. Even though he had lived here all of his life, he had never been to this spot before and didn’t know a way around the canyon. We had no choice but to head back towards the Ranger as it was getting late. We were about half way back when we heard a rifle shot. We got back to the Polaris just in time to see Tracy’s group loading up his bull. The first day was over and it had been fantastic. Our hunting partners had harvested two great bulls, enjoyed great weather, and had seen hundreds of reindeer. I couldn’t wait for tomorrow!
The next morning I awoke to the sound of rain pelting the side of the lodge. After dressing, I met the others in the kitchen for breakfast. We drank a couple of extra cups of coffee to see what the weather would do. As the sky brightened, we could see it wouldn’t be great, but decided we couldn’t shoot anything in the lodge. I layered up in my First Lite merino wool inner and outer layers, then a set of Sitka raingear, followed by a set of Healy Hansen Impertech rain gear. We loaded up in the Ranger and headed the 20 or so miles to where we had found the majority of the animals the previous day. Two-hours later, we were trying to glass in the 40 to 50 MPH winds, with rain falling sideways. After a few hours, we made the decision to call it a day. Even with two sets of rain-gear on, I was soaked.
The alarm went off the following morning and I laid in bed just listening. I could hear the wind, but not the pelting rain. I got dressed, ate breakfast, and we headed out. We headed to the far end of the river valley to where we had seen most of the reindeer on our first day. The wind was blowing about 25 to 30 MPH, but it was only raining intermittently. This was good, as I could tell I was getting sick from the soaking I had taken the day before. We looked at a few groups of reindeer, but didn’t find any that measured up to our self-imposed standards. We got to a high point and started glassing some new country when Bret spotted a group of nine bulls in the distance. He pointed out a wide bull off to the side. I looked through the spotting scope, and then had Paul look. We discussed it and decided that this was probably a shooter. This was Bret’s first year guiding on the Island and he let us know that he didn’t have a lot of caribou experience; he was mostly a brown bear and goat guide. Both Paul and I had been on caribou hunts before, but certainly weren’t experts. This actually made it more enjoyable for me; it was more like hunting with a friend then a guide. We discussed the options together and made a group decision. As we discussed this reindeer’s attributes, I looked back to the main group. As one of the bulls walked off, I could see another bull bedded that had been hidden. One look and I said, “I’ll shoot that bull.” Just then, the wide bull walked over to the bedded bull. As they got closer, the bedded bull got up and charged the wide bull; the fight was on. I am not sure how long they fought but it was intense. Finally, the wide bull turned and limped over the hill. We discussed it some more and after looking at probably close to two thousand reindeer these two were as big or bigger than any we had seen. I had first shot and would try to shoot whichever of these two that would present an opportunity. We made a plan for a stalk and took off. We made a mile-wide circle around a hill and worked towards them with the brisk wind in our face. We were soon a couple hundred yards away, but ran out of cover. This was barren, treeless country and you only have topography to use as cover. As we laid there trying to figure out our next move, the wide reindeer came back over the hill and rejoined the herd.
Now we had both target animals 200-yards away. Paul could have easily laid down and shot either one with his 300 Ultra Mag, but I wasn’t through trying to get into bow range. We backed out and dropped into a deep cut that had a small creek running through it. This let us cut under the animals unseen and come in from a different direction. We had the crest of the hill they were on for cover most of the way. There was a mound of dirt about two-feet high at the top of the hill. The wind wasn’t great, but was quartering away from the herd. Paul and Danny stayed back as Bret and I started belly crawling towards the small mound. It took a while, but we made it. As Bret peaked over the mound, I got my bow ready. He ducked back down and said the bull has bedded with two others not far away. We peaked back over just as the closest reindeer got up and looked our way. Bret said 50-yards as the second reindeer got out of its bed, followed shortly by our target bull. They started slowly walking to our left directly into the wind. I rolled up to my knees and drew. I quickly thought of the wind and their walking and placed my 50-yard pin just in front of his chest and squeezed my release. The
bull jumped and reindeer were scattered like a covey of quail. As the bull dropped into a ravine and out of sight, I nocked another arrow. The group of nine bulls all emerged together on the far side of ravine facing the opposite way. I could see the bull was hit hard, but a little far back. Bret said 98-yards as the bulls moved off, but the wounded bull just stood looking back at us. I know 98-yards is a long way, but the bull was wounded and I just wanted to get another arrow into him. I placed my last—90-yard—pin on its tail and then held about a foot into the wind aiming completely off the body, and squeezed the trigger. I watched the T3-tipped Goldtip Kinetic drift over five feet and 12-ring the bull. The bull took two steps and collapsed. The other bulls ran off before Paul could get up to me for a shot. My first arrow had hit right at the diaphragm, passed completely through, and traveled another 50-yards. My second arrow hit perfectly, just above the heart, and also passed through. Both arrows were stuck in the dirt not 30-yards apart. We spent some time taking pictures, reliving the stalk and shot, and then field dressed the animal. We somehow got the Ranger to my bull and loaded it up. This had taken a couple of hours, enough time to let the rest of the bulls settle down. We headed off in the direction that they had disappeared. After a couple of miles of looking in a few valleys, we relocated the eight remaining bulls. We double-checked to confirm that it was the same herd and that we were looking at the same wide bull. A short stalk left Paul with a 200-yard shot and he had his trophy reindeer. After some more picture taking we loaded a second reindeer in the Polaris Ranger, not without some difficulty and headed back to the lodge.
When we got back home to Arizona, we officially scored our bulls. Paul’s bull scored 419 3/8-inches and mine scored 401 1/8-inches, placing it number three all time in the SCI archery record book.