“Should I wear these pants or my stretchy ones?” Tracy Gagnon is sitting on the floor of my living room, hunting gear spread out around her, holding up a pair of lightweight hiking pants. Today is a momentous day for Tracy. Not only is it the day after her twenty sixth birthday, but it is the morning of her first ever hunting trip. She has sighted in her thirty aught six at the range, and her head is full of the philosophy of subsistence hunting.
This is a big step for Tracy, who is originally from Las Vegas, and moved to Sitka a year ago to run the SCS program, Fish for Schools. “People in Las Vegas don’t have guns!” she tells us (we laugh because that’s probably not true), “no one hunts, at least no one I know.” Actually, she says, her fifth grade teacher did make the class venison sloppy joes one time. And come to think of it, there was an ex-boyfriend who had an unsettling set of deer antlers mounted above his bed…but other than that, Tracy feels that she has had very little exposure to subsistence hunting culture.
Since moving to Alaska, things have been a little different. Tracy decided to start hunting because she wants to be responsible for her food, and up here, hunting seems like a good way provide for herself. A friend of hers once explained that he never feels more connected to the land than when he is hunting. Never more connected to the animal until he has lifted his gun to fire. Now we are in the car on the way to the harbor, and Tracy tells us she is awed by subsistence hunters in Alaska. “They know the place…they know how to read the wilderness, and they have a deep respect for the process,” she says. She has heard so many stories of the rituals of respect that people have with hunting, reassembling the carcass after harvesting the meat, leaving a lock of hair on the mountain, always thankful to the deer for being in the right place in the right time, and standing still instead of bounding away. “I’ve never had those experiences,” Tracy says, “so my main underlying reason [for hunting] is practical, but I’m also excited about the process.
We make it to the beach by nine, and we are up the ridge in an hour. We are getting a late start, but the extra sleep was worth it. The day could not be more beautiful. As we hike up through the trees, morning sun glints on the edge of each false summit, until we finally break out onto the alpine, where our ridge stretches out in front of us, and snowy peaks block out the horizon. We all agree that we are unbelievably lucky to live in the most beautiful place on earth. Our hunting location will remain unnamed, but I will tell you that we were in the Tongass, and not too far from Sitka. We see two float planes all day, and not a single other person. “Can you believe we woke up this morning and got to do this?” Berett (the photographer) asks. The ridge is about three miles long as the crow flies, and slowly climbs in a meandering curve up to a frozen lake nestled in a deep bowl. We hit snow after five hours of slow hunting, and the dog lies down to cool off. We go a little farther, then start down, still not giving up the hunt. It’s hard to feel discouraged when you have such a glorious landscape to distract you.
Unfortunately, Tracy didn’t bring her beginners luck, and we make it back to the beach at seven without sighting a deer. My mom, the experienced hunter on the trip, tells us not to be disappointed. “Subsistence hunting is like a kind of religion. Most religions have some aspect of faith in that which you cannot see.” She tells us about a time when she was looking down a hillside, and she knew there must be a deer down there because the dog was going crazy, sniffing the air and prancing around like it was Christmas morning. Mom rested her gun on a boulder and looked and looked and couldn’t see anything through the scope, and finally, growing impatient, the dog ran around the boulder and spooked the deer that had been laying there with it’s back against the warm rock. “Deer surprise you when you are at your lowest and feel like giving up.”
We don’t come home with a deer, but we are not entirely empty handed; Tracy found some bright orange Chicken of the Woods mushrooms that she brought home for dinner, Berett got lots of great shots, and the dog brought back a forest’s worth of sticks matted up in her fur. Back in the living room thirteen hours later, Tracy is still excited; “I actually think I’ve never seen a more beautiful view in my entire life. Twenty-six is a good year!”
Photos by BERETT WILBER
Berett Wilber was born and raised in fishing family in Sitka, Alaska. Currently studying as a junior at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, the photography skills that she developed as a kid running around Baranof Island have developed into a dedicated interest and professional tool. Although she’s worked in many interesting places, from the steps of the capital in Washington, DC to the prairies of the Midwest, the Tongass is still her favorite place to shoot.