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Mark Penninger took this Sitka black-tailed deer with his bow during a recent hunting trip in Alaska near Kodiak Island. ().
Mark Penninger took this Sitka black-tailed deer with his bow during a recent hunting trip in Alaska near Kodiak Island. ().

- Stories by Dick Mason

- The Observer

The perplexed looks and behavior said it all.

The Sitka black-tailed deer Mark Penninger was observing in Alaska were encountering humans for the first time.

"They were curious when they looked at us,'' Penninger said.

Penninger, a La Grande bow hunter, was recounting a nine-day deer-hunting trip he made in the fall to an unnamed island 10 miles south of Kodiak Island. His party of four were the only people on the island, which despite its size is rarely visited by people. The island takes several days to circle on foot.

"Some of the oldest deer there probably have never seen people,'' Penninger said.

Sitka black-tailed deer encountering people for the first time behave strangely only if they are upwind and can't detect their scent. Once human scent is detected, Sitka deer run, said Penninger, a U.S. Forest Service biologist.

The island has few visitors because flying an airplane in is often difficult due to inclement weather. No weather reporting instruments are on the island so it is impossible for pilots to know what the conditions are like beyond what the pilot can observe. Pilots flying hunting parties in often must turn back due to high winds.

Knowing that no other people were on the island made hunting easier because the hunters didn't have to worry about other hunters tracking the same deer.

"When two hunters are stalking the same animal, they can sometimes throw things off for each other,'' said Penninger, who like everyone else in his party, uses a traditional bow.

A lack of hunters in an area is especially important for bow hunters in Alaska because archery and rifle seasons for deer run concurrently. This means a bow hunter could be stalking a deer only to have a rifle hunter nail the animal from a greater distance.

Penninger also welcomed the absence of something else — Kodiak brown bears, the largest land carnivores in North America. A large male can stand more than 10 feet tall on its hind legs and 5 feet tall on all four legs. They weigh up to 1,500 pounds.

Bears rarely come to the island because they have so much to eat at Kodiak Island. Penninger found no evidence that bears were present during his hunting trip. Their absence made for a much more relaxing trip since the bears are a threat.

"Attacks are rare, but they do occur,'' Penninger said.

People are most often attacked when a bear believes a food source is threatened or someone is between a sow and her cubs.

Penninger's party consisted of Oregon residents David Brinker of Dallas, Tom Vanasche of Albany and Brett Hahn of Salem. The men took a total of eight Sitka black-tailed deer. Penninger harvested two deer, the best of which was unofficially scored at close to 100 points. The deer will easily make the Pope & Young archery record book once officially measured since 75 is the minimum score needed.

Hunting for deer in the Kodiak area is easier than in Northeast Oregon in part because deer are more plentiful. Penninger usually saw 30 or 40 deer a day, far more than he sees here.

Penninger's party started hunting Oct. 27, a few days before the deer entered their rut. The party left Nov. 8, when the deer were in full rut. The timing helped the hunters because deer are more vulnerable when in rut since they are distracted and less wary.

Hunting during this span allowed hunters to observe how dramatically deer behavior changes during the rut. Bucks ignored doe calls initially but within days became extremely interested. Bucks also began posturing and sparring.

"We had a fascinating look at animal behavior.''

Conditions in the Kodiak area were wet, cold and windy. Penninger was prepared for the frigid conditions because he has developed a healthy respect for Alaska's weather after making six hunting trips there since the 1990s.

Penninger plans to return to Alaska this summer for a hunting trip in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Visiting the 49th state is always an invigorating experience for the knowledgeable La Grande outdoorsman.

"There is such a vastness. The landscape has no human footprint. It is truly a wilderness setting.''

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