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Survivor-Raspberry Island

Survivor-Raspberry Island

Posted by James Brion on Mar 11th 2020

As the transport boat Gemini backed away from the beach, turned and groaned across Raspberry strait toward Afognak, the enormity of our undertaking had finally set in. There I stood along with my veteran cameraman, David Sager in the middle of one of Alaska’s wild places. I felt more like a contestant on “Survivor-Raspberry Island” than a big game hunter at that moment. My equipment list included a topo map, a Thompson Center Icon, a box of trophy grade ammo, the Under Armour on my back and all the optics, food and survival gear I could carry. 40 yards across the beach, I would be met by an entangled wall of devil club, alpine spruce and scrub alder that wouldn’t stop until half-way up the 2200 foot vertical ascent.

Months earlier, with the help of the Magnum Hunt Club’s tag draw service, I had drawn one of the most coveted Roosevelt Elk tags and certainly the most coveted elk tag in Alaska on Raspberry Island. Raspberry is part of the Kodiak Archipelago and sits in the northern part of the chain; sandwiched between the well-known islands of Kodiak and Afognak. Raspberry encompasses less than 100 square miles of real estate; but don’t let its size or name fool you. The island is not soft, and if you are not prepared, it can be downright unpleasant. A mile on Raspberry is equivalent to 4 in the Rocky Mountains of the lower 48. There are only two directions, up and down. If you could find a flat spot on the island, you would avoid it at all cost. 74 inches of annual precipitation provide the basis for an impenetrable entanglement of vegetation that only a grumpy old bear could love. A poorly planned day hunt could easily get you lost in the entanglement, or eaten. It’s one of the few places I’ve hunted where the steep alpine slopes are the easiest parts of the country to navigate, so every day’s plan included mapping out the least arduous way to get there.

Our game plan for this do-it-yourself hunt was to pre-plan several routes on the island that would get us above the vegetation as quickly as possible. Once on top, we would walk the ridges in order to cover and glass as much country as we could until we found the one Roosevelt Elk herd on the island. What’s more, I had determined in my mind that I would only cut my tag if I could get to the herd bull, or another suitable, non rag-horn bull before any of the 9 Alaska residents who also held this tag, put them on the ground. The Island generally grows only one six by six bull per year, and sometimes not even that. However, it grows some of the largest Roosevelts in body size to be found anywhere with bulls topping out at 1300 pounds. Yes you read it right, about the size of a large Shiras Moose!

The behemoth of Elk; the Roosevelts, were introduced to the island in the late 1920’s. Since then they have grown to a herd of just under 100 animals. Calf survival is a problem here. We would later learn that of the 80 animal herd we found on the island this year, you could count the calves on one hand with a finger or two to spare. No doubt due to an unforgiving climate and sharing the small island with North America’s top carnivore, the Brown Bear.

Day one did not start out as we hoped. We woke up to high winds and a steady rain. Nonetheless, we headed out in hopes of at least putting our glass on the Raspberry herd. We did not. In fact we saw no sign of Elk whatsoever. What we did find were bear tracks and scat everywhere we went, and one big lone brown bear feeding on salmonberries at about 1600 feet late in the day.

For day two we decided on a route that was several drainages and several miles away. We prepared ourselves for a day that was going to be long and brutal, whether we found the herd or not. Our route would take us straight up for two hours, but then we would be on top of the world the rest of the day, able to cover as many miles as our legs and optics would allow under the constraint of making it back to the beach before nightfall.

As we neared the top, I heard the roar of wind coming through the saddle above us. When we got there, it was as though we had landed on another planet. A cold, wet sixty mile-per-hour wind hit us in the face like a freight train and our planned route would have us exposed to this wind all day. It was difficult to glass and impossible to walk safely on the spines of the ridges as we had hoped. A fall in this wind while walking these spines would be a fall, followed by a tumble, then a plummet.

I used a large rock to block the wind and started glassing down the valley. Amazingly, I immediately spotted the herd bedded down in the valley floor nearly 2 miles distant. I couldn’t believe the luck, nor how big they looked and how well they stood out even at this distance. Suddenly, our day was showing promise. We could bail off the spine, expecting the winds to become manageable as we lost elevation, then plan a stalk perfectly into the wind on a herd of 80 bedded animals all looking in the opposite direction.

By 1:00 we were dumping our packs and preparing for final stalk. 50 yards from the target tree, where we expected to set up for the shot, a red fox materialized about 15 yards away. He was hunting too and had no clue we were there. We froze so that we wouldn’t spook him back through the herd. At about 5 yards, he saw us but couldn’t quite make us out. So he circled to get our wind, then spooked up the hillside and away from the elk. The stalk was on again.

A long 50 yards later we had run out of cover but were at our target tree. The elk were all still there, bedded, looking away and totally unsuspecting. For the next thirty minutes I would watch Roosevelt Elk relaxing in their island paradise. Every animal took its turn standing, stretching, grazing and re-bedding. All that is except the one I wanted. Two massive horns stuck out of the tall grass on the extreme right hand side of the herd. The best visible bull was a big, shooter 5x5, but I was praying that the bull in the grass was the herd bull and a 6 point.

Eventually the bull stood and I verified six points. Absolutely the largest bull in the Raspberry herd in both horn and body. He took a few steps, tilted his nose back and showed off his typical stubby tined, massive Roosevelt rack.

The icon roared, sending a 180 grain Accubond through the high shoulder/spine intersection. I was shocked to see the 1300 pound giant crumple like a sitka deer. As he fell straight down, not moving an inch, the rest of the heard jumped up all around him and bolted off. We had just taken the herd bull from Raspberry Island and it was a beauty! What’s more, it was all on film for Nosler’s MagnumTV, an accomplishment we had only hoped for up to now.

All of us elk hunters know that this is where the real work begins, and in this case, it’s also where the adventure began.

After a walk up and a photo shoot, I looked at my watch and began constructing the rest of the day in my mind’s calendar. I figured if the two of us could skin, quarter and cape the bull in three hours. We could make it back to the beach in time for the transport boat to pick us up at dark. It would be close. If we ran into any unforeseen problems, it would absolutely mean a cold and dangerous night out with the bears, drenched in the smell of dead elk.

Those of you who have hunted Alaska are familiar with their strict wanton waste laws. You take every strip of edible meat from the field. Including ribs, neck meat and all trim. What’s more, the horns come out last. They stay with the meat until the last load. Just exactly the opposite as we do it in Montana. So we separated all meat and the head from the carcass. We moved the meat and head away from the carcass expecting that a bear would certainly go to the carcass first. We placed the meat and head in a very visible location, so that we could see it well to insure no bear had claimed it when we returned the next day. Then we packed up our gear and hot-footed it back to the beach. We reached the beach just after dark, sparing ourselves a cold, sleepless night in the field.

I had made a plan to hire a packer to help pack out our meat if we were successful, knowing that a single hunter and cameraman would have no chance of packing an animal of this size off of this island before being claimed by a bear. Our packer was Cody Jacobson, a solid, size 14 boot type of guy from North Dakota. Corey first asked us how we cared for and placed the meat and what our plan was for approaching at a distance. These all seemed like unexpectedly relevant and detailed questions to be coming from a packer. Then I learned that he had moved from North Dakota to Anchorage a few years ago and has been working part time as a brown bear guide. Now it all made sense, and since we were in bear country, it would be comforting to know I had a fellow packer who was knowledgeable about (and not afraid of) brown bears.

Our first sign of trouble came when we peeked over a ridge 1000 yards from the meat. Where the bull had fell, and the carcass was, it should have stood out like a beacon. Instead it was nowhere to be seen. What’s more, I put my Nikon ED 50 spotter on the place where we had piled the meat and horns, and it looked like a John Deere garden tractor had spent the night there. In a 10 yard circle the ground was plowed up and piled to the center………….”hmm, I wonder what’s buried there?” I murmured dejectedly.

At this point we put our game face on and switched to autopilot. I put a Nosler Accubond up front in my TC Icon. Cody levered a round in his 405. We moved in to about 400 yards and watched the location for over an hour, expecting a bear to emerge from an alder thicket and giving his position away. If we could spot the bear we would know how to approach the cache—or not—and hopefully salvage our elk, or decide that the cache was claimed and guarded, meaning we would have to leave the claimed elk to the bear.

After an hour of not seeing no activity at the cache, we made a plan to approach from upwind hollering constantly to let the bear know that humans were present. Frankly, I would have called off the approach right then if the Raspberry Island bears were not hunted and had lost their fear of humans. But fortunately, they are hunted, and the bears we had seen up to now on this hunt certainly still had a healthy fear of us. So we continued on boisterously toward the cache, guns loaded, heads swiveling, and hearts in our throats, fully expecting at least a bluff charge from one of the alder patches at any second.

We reached the cache with no sign of the bear. I covered Cody while he poked and dug for any edible meat. We found two front quarters and one hind. All in great shape. As he was frantically stuffing meat in the freighter packs, Cody said “I feel like a burglar”, which prompted an uneasy chuckle from my cameraman and I. Then he said, “Your horns aren’t here. Do you want to look for them?” “Not in the alder patch”, was my reply. We both know that they were with the bear, and the bear was in the alders. In record time we loaded three quarters on our backs and high tailed it out a safe distance.

On the way down the ridge, laden with meat, we met the big old boar coming out of the alders and heading back to gorge again on the three quarters of elk that he had left in his cache. He was unaware of us and would be disappointed to find that we had stolen those three quarters back. We left the bear and headed to the beach where the transport boat Gemini would be waiting. Just before the beach the whole Raspberry herd appeared again on a ridge in front of us. I stood there and took in a sight that I will never see again. Roosevelts standing belly deep in grass on their Raspberry Island paradise. The peaks of Katmai national park stood strikingly across the ocean behind them. Although I had lost much of my elk to a giant Kodiak, bittersweet never entered my mind. It was impossible for the moment and the entire adventure to seem anything less than picture perfect.