The Wildest Hunt: A Film About the Tongass National Forest

Two deer hunting buddies trek into the Tongass to show why it’s worth protecting

Editor’s Note: Bjorn Dihle is a hunter and writer based out of Juneau, Alaska. This fall, he and his hunting partners made a film about deer hunting in the Tongass National Forest, which could become exempt from Roadless Rule protections. The comment period on removing the Tongass from Roadless is open until 12/17. Leave your comment here.

At the beginning of a Sitka blacktail deer hunt last August, I followed a well-worn brown bear trail to a salmon stream on Chichagof Island in northern Southeast Alaska. I was hunting with my close friend Forest Wagner and filmmaker Ben Hamilton. The watershed we were in was part of the 26,000-square-mile Tongass National Forest, the largest intact temperate rainforest left on Earth. A bear appeared beneath the root wad of a fallen spruce. It walked closer, lifting its nose and trying to catch our scent before sauntering away. We studied a nameless mountain rising into the swirling gray clouds. Tomorrow we’d climb to the alpine with the hopes of shooting a buck or two.

That night Ben, Forest, and I sat near a fire listening to the ocean lap onto the beach. I’d agreed to be part of this film after it became clear the U.S. Forest Service, under orders from the Trump administration, was about to abolish the 2001 Roadless Rule in the Tongass. Stripping Roadless Rule protections would open up 185,000 acres of Southeast Alaska’s last old growth rainforest for clear-cut logging and destroy critical habitat for bears, salmon, and deer. If it happens, hunters and fishermen for generations to come will lose the opportunity to pursue their way of life. I grew up eating Sitka blacktail and salmon, the lifeblood of the Tongass. Now, I feed these same foods to my nine-month-old son. Without the Roadless Rule, the woods and mountains my family have utilized for three generations may no longer be huntable.

Hunter aiming a rifle in Alaska's Tongass National Forest
The author hunting blacktail deer in Alaska's Tongass National Forest.Ben Hamilton

I’d chosen the mountain we were hunting for two reasons. One, much of the area around it had been logged. To open its remaining stands of old growth trees to clear-cut logging would essentially make it so people could not hunt the area in the decades to come. Two, some biologists believe it’s one of the most bear-dense mountains in the Tongass. Brown bears are the soul of this country. It had been no small thing for Forest to agree to be part of this project. A fellow lifelong Alaskan, he’s the only person I know who has fought a brown bear while falling off a mountain and survived. He’d never talked about it to the press, although reporters from media stations around the world had hounded him. It was much easier for Forest to venture into dense brown bear country than talk about the attack. With the future of the Tongass in jeopardy, however, he made an exception for this film.

In the morning, we shouldered our backpacks and began climbing through the ancient forest. Adventures and, hopefully delicious venison, lay ahead in the high country. Ben paused and glanced down at a giant bear trail.

“My wife asked that you don’t get me killed,” he said.

As Forest said in the film, in order to venture into this wilderness, you must acknowledge that there are risks and consequences. Brown bears are as much a part of the Tongass as the old growth stands of trees. Being a hunter also means accepting that there are consequences if we don’t take a stand and protect wild public lands. It’s up to us to fight to keep the Roadless Rule intact in the Tongass so people can hunt this exceptional rainforest country for generations to come.