That December morning in 1984 dawned clear and crisp in Kitoi Bay, on Afognak Island, Alaska. There were still some crunchy patches of snow covering the ground, but not enough to cause me concern. The snow would help in checking for fresh deer sign and in following a big buck track made sometime during the night or early morning, if I happened to cross one. I had promised myself that if the weather was nice, I was going to take my grandfather’s rifle out and hunt Sitka Blacktail deer.
I gathered my gear and the rifle and headed out the front door of my house at the Kitoi Bay Fish Hatchery. I was planning to start hunting on a small ¼ mile-long peninsula of heavily timbered land jutting out into Kitoi Bay. The peninsula trail was only a few hundred yards from my house. As I approached the area to begin the hunt, I adjusted the shoulder straps on my daypack and loaded the magazine of the rifle. I closed the bolt-action on an empty chamber and started slowly still-hunting along a familiar game trail headed out one side of the peninsula.
I had made my way maybe a hundred yards out along the trail, having stopped often to listen and watch, when I heard something moving around on the crusty snow over toward the other side of the peninsula. I started still-hunting in the direction of the sound, being careful to avoid any snow patches for fear of spooking whatever had made the noise. I had quietly hunted about halfway across the peninsula when I caught a flash of movement through the devil’s club brush near the base of a mature Sitka Spruce tree.
The dark-furred marten was scurrying around, nosing into holes and sniffing, checking for some small animal or bird it could catch for dinner. I relaxed and watched the marten’s antics until it disappeared around the tree and moved off toward some more appetizing smell.
I had taken no more than a couple of steps forward when a mature, three-point Sitka Blacktail buck came charging up from the far side of the peninsula, as intent to find out the source of the noise as I had been. The buck stopped abruptly when he saw me standing still, maybe twenty yards away. I had frozen in position at the first appearance of the deer, but the buck’s eyes bored right through me. He knew something was wrong but couldn’t quite figure out what.
Just then, the marten began scrambling through another patch of snow about twenty yards further out on the peninsula. The buck turned his head toward the noises the marten made in the crunchy snow. In one fluid motion, I chambered a round and brought the rifle up to my shoulder. The buck whirled back to face me at the sound of the cycling rifle action and, just as he turned to run, I fired.
My mom’s parents had both passed on, so my dad’s father was granddad. He was the one I remember coming, with grandma, to visit us in Michigan and we, in return, visiting them at their home in Ohio. He had been a tool and die maker who, in the late 1930’s, had started doing his own gunsmithing work because he couldn’t find anyone to do what he wanted the way he wanted it done. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, he specialized in converting military surplus German Mauser and American Springfield O3/A3 bolt-action rifles into sporting arms for the returning servicemen who wanted a high-power rifle for hunting.
The rifle I was carrying that day on Afognak Island had been my grandfather’s. He built it for himself to use while deer hunting. The rifle had started out as a G.33/40 military Mauser, originally manufactured in 1940.
I had just started to show an interest in his tool and die making work and especially in his gunsmithing endeavors when my grandmother made the phone call. My family made that last visit to Ohio, knowing granddad would be gone soon. While we were there, granddad gave me his rifle and asked me to take care of it for him. I was thrilled and saddened at the same time. I was fourteen when he passed.
After the shot, the buck ran out of my sight, headed for the far side of the peninsula. I listened for and heard the crash of a body falling to the ground while running at full stride. It happened just seconds after the echo of the shot reverberating around the bay had died down. I started following the buck’s fresh tracks and blood trail in the patchy snow and found the animal dead on the far side of the peninsula, lying on the edge of a 20-foot drop-off. Another few feet and the buck would have tumbled off the side of the peninsula and fallen into the saltwater.
I dressed out the buck, saving the heart and liver for supper that night, and started dragging him back toward my house at the fish hatchery. I had the feeling my grandfather had been watching the morning’s events and was happy and proud of my accomplishments. I also felt that he was pleased to know his rifle was continuing in the tradition of deer hunting he had begun with it almost 40 years before.
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