Alan Marble is the retired chief of DNR law enforcement (top cop CO), who now works as a cook-chef in a hunting fishing camp in the summer in the Alaskan bush. He chronicles his adventures (blogs?) and here’s the latest. Started his distinguished career as a CO in the Western Yoop.
Opening Day August 21, 2013
The alarm was set this morning for 7:15 but I was awake before 6:30 and try as I might I could not conjure up another half-hour of sleep. I have a daily goal that no one precedes me into the little lodge before the first pump pot of coffee is filled and CB has already indicated that he is an early riser. Daylight was already brightening the sky as I slid out of my sleeping bag, into my shorts, fleece top and sandals and flip-flopped my way down the gravel towards the kitchen.
Yesterday was opening day of brown bear season. When dishes were done and everyone fed I finally straggled to my tent at 1 am under a stunning full moon, struggling in and out of clouds. I heard Pat mention that he was going to go find his camera but was too tired, and I remember feeling the same. The sight was enough….a full moon, or nearly anyway, its reflection shimmering on the current of the Peace as it flows into the lake.
Our transition from anglers to hunters is complete, or nearly so….a couple of diehard fly anglers will come in September and fish all alone on these swift waters. That change provides an entirely different feeling to camp, an anticipation felt even by the cook. The hunting guides all stand a little straighter, speak a little louder….gesture more flamboyantly, and play a subtle but steady game of one-upsmanship with each other. Each of the guides in camp have stories to tell….some are better at the retelling than others….some are perhaps more factual in the retelling than others…but the do form a loose fraternity that, push comes to shove, binds them all together. I have to be content to sit and listen quietly, which never has been my forte’.
Last season one of these fellows guided a bow hunter on a combination brown bear and moose hunt. The hunter was from New York, apparently one of the richest folks to ever grace Fishing Bear Lodge….his family had amassed a huge fortune in art. This hunter brought his bodyguard, a first for camp. The bodyguard proved to be a pleasant amiable fellow who tagged along every day on the hunt. The guide succeeded in calling in a huge bull moose, grunting and bellowing and busting branches as he came to the seductive cow calls issuing from the guide’s horn. The bull appeared and showed his stuff, a rack of antlers 6 feet wide, close to 2,000 pounds all told on the hoof, but would not close to anything close to bow and arrow range. Try as he might, the guide could not budge that bull…a bull that size had survived wolves, brown bears and winters for 8 or 10 seasons by being instinctively cautious, despite the reproductive pulse in its veins….and this September day was no different. He expected to see a cow when he came out in the open, and she plainly was not there.
After a few moments drawn out to a fine wire, waiting for the bull to commit, it shook its head and seemed about to withdraw. Troy whispered to his client…”do you want my rifle?”
The animal was easily within a safe and certain rifle shot. Nothing in the licensing or tag purchase process does a hunter have to commit to a choice between bow or gun….it is the hunter’s choice.
“No,” the client whispered. I have taken some fine bulls with a rifle before.”
A few minutes later the bull turned broadside as if to go. “You sure?”
“Yes,” the client replied. “I’m sure.” And as quickly as that ton of black fur and antlers had appeared, it was gone.
At dinner much later that night, the client told Troy that he wish he had accepted the offer. He left camp a few days later, sans bear or moose, had not even drawn back his bow, but by all indication had had the hunt of a lifetime.
So Monday our five hunters flew in….they came in late, as Rick had experienced the nightmare of back-to-back aircraft problems that had left him with his 185 out in the Togiak National Wildlife refuge, awaiting a part, and his workhorse Beaver on the ground with different engine problems. Another lodge owner picked up the slack and brought in two flights with a father and three sons from Kansas and a judge from Montana, along with their rifles and baggage. That brought the number in camp to 14, which begins to fill up our dining room. We settled our hunters in their cabins, gave them the tour of the bathrooms and hot shower and filled them up with some terrific clam chowder (if I don’t mind saying so myself) and sandwiches. Justin held a council of war and began to provide assignments to the assemblage of guides….
Joe, a fixture in camp for 15 or more years, in his early 30s, short in stature….he knows how everything in camp runs and what to do when it does not, and was critical to my breaking in when I arrived as a greenhorn in 2009. He has guided fishermen for years and is very popular with his clients….and began guiding hunters in 2011.
Lars, whom I like to introduce when he enters the room as, “Lars, the Tall and Red-headed” was born and raised in Germany and moved to the US many years ago and is an American citizen, and proud of it. He is perhaps 6’2” with short cropped red hair…..he is young, also in his mid-30s….when he smiles his boyish grin I am put in mind of a very tall Opie from Andy Griffith, with an Arnold Schwarzenegger accent. His Engish is impeccable, however. He has guiding here since before my time.
Troy hails from Wisconsin but recently moved to Iowa in search of the biggest white-tailed deer antlers in the country. He is an interesting amalgam of characters….short and stocky, he is a rodeo rider and calf-roper…..a fanatical archery hunter who lives for the hunt and is willing to travel far and wide. I put Troy in his late 30s. He uses the “f” word in every sentence he speaks, and it quickly fits in and is overlooked as he uses it with precision as a noun, verb, adjective….adverb….even as a gerund in a pinch. He is one of the most animated storytellers of all, and sometimes succumbs to his own stories and has to take a break to stop laughing. Troy travels the world to practice his passion for hunting….in pursuit of tahr in the lung-popping altitudes of the mountains of New Zealand to Admiralty Island of Alaska for brown bear. He invites us all to visit him on his new land in Iowa to share a pheasant hunt or hook up with him in New Zealand on a hunt down under….and he means it when he offers.
As you are reading this you are probably drawing a mental image of an Alaskan hunting guide. You need go no further than Larry. Larry is a retired firefighter from Spokane, he is 65 years old and has been married to the same woman for 45 years and has lived in the same town longer than that. He is tall with a shock of white hair, a lean clear jaw line and piercing blue eyes. He probably could have made money in Hollywood as a western sheriff but he would never, ever have suffered the fawning fools that attend the film industry. He knows exactly what he wants me to pack in his perishables box for camp and he brings exactly what he needs to set up a spare but comfortable camp with tents, folding chairs to sit in and the gear to prepare hot grub at the end of the day. Larry specializes in a specialized version of the spike camp….he runs a boat from here up the system to a remote corner of Lake Kulik and sets up tent camp there. In a pinch, or in the case of a successful hunt, he can bring hunters back to the lodge, or make the trip if need be for additional food or fuel. Joe is guiding with him, and they left yesterday for camp with two of the three tall, lean boys from Kansas. Larry ran the jet prop boat with the gear and food, and Joe led the way with the two young men.
Four more guides are out in the spike camps in the national wildlife refuge and I will probably, unhappily, share very little if any time with them. Johnny from Iowa rolled into Dilly late yesterday and Justin flew his directly out to camp to join his packer and a client. Johnny is a dead ringer for Bret Favre and I suspect has had a little bit of fun with the likeness over the year.
Big Joe (as compared to little Joe, camping with Larry up on Kulik) is from Montana and also guides there and runs his landscaping business. He is generous, fun, a terrific storyteller in his own right and has apparently mastered the art of remote camp guiding. Jill and I have a standing offer to come and stay and hunt (or not) in western Montana in Anaconda if we ever wander that way. His dad, Fred, a renowned wildlife sculptor, lives nearby. Fred was here with Joe in 2011 when Jill and worked together, his goofy sense of humor and willingness to pitch in made each day in camp a delight. Joe comes honestly by his pleasant nature – that apple did not fall far from that tree.
Ken is a tall, loud taxidermist from the UP…he likes to play cards and likes to stay one up on the others. He snores and for that reason alone I am glad he is out in spike camp….he pitches in and helps and, beneath that loud exterior a very compassionate heart beats.
Ben also hails from Montana and guides lion and elk hunts there. His first season here he was guiding a bear hunter from Pennsylvania when a sow with two cubs appeared, walking steadily in their direction, unaware of the hunters’ presence. When they stood up and announced themselves the sow charged, without warning or preamble. The hunter and guide got twisted up in their feet and fell in shallow water and Ben was first on his feet to fire a warning shot. The sow turned and stopped practically in top of them, and then gathered her cubs and left. Ben is very short in stature….Richard clearly remembered seeing the sow’s head over Ben’s shoulder when he touched off a shot. The pupils in Richard’s eyes took 24 hours to return to normal.
Pat is new in camp but a familiar face in the circles of hunting guides in western Alaska. Justin has known him for years and asked him on short notice when another of his guides could not make it due to a court appearance. Pat is affable and outgoing and another great storyteller and loves strong black French roast coffee as much as I do. I am glad he is guiding hunters out of Fishing Bear rather than out in the spike camps, as I will get a chance to know him better. One of his earlier Alaskan gigs was as winter caretaker of the Goldenhorn Lodge, ten miles up river, and he has the stories to go with it.
That is the guide line-up. Along with the jostling for position and bragging rights is a fierce passion for hunting, for seeing a shadow that slowly transform into 900 pounds of brown bear hulking its way down the strand in the gloom….for answering the grunt and bellow of a distant moose and coaxing it closer. They don’t mind the real work, hell, I think it is their way of putting the final personal touches on the hunt and as they sit in the fleshing tent and work the bear hide, inch by inch in their hands, removing every scrap of fat and tissue….or working like ants crawling over the impossibly huge carcass of a moose, just as it begins to cool, harvesting the loins and tenderloins, all the ribs….the legs taken off as 200 pound quarters and precariously lugged to the boat. It is making the meat of the kill and of taking the remembrance of the trophy that is far more than a head or hide gathering dust on a wall. It is not for everyone, granted….but I, for one, am thrilled to my core to be a small part of it all.
Monday the hunters arrived, and Tuesday…yesterday….was opening day. It is unlawful for a person to fly and hunt within the same 24 hour day, for obvious reason. Monday afternoon after the hunters unpacked and settled in their guides took them for a boat ride to fish and see some of the countryside. The hunters’ excitement was beginning to bubble up and they needed an outlet, and it provides some quiet time for the guides and hunters to get to know one another.
Tuesday morning was a pretty dawn and I was up at 6:30 to get the coffee on and breakfast around. Fifty or sixty pancakes and three pounds of bacon later, the hunters were ready to go. They had to wait, however. As I prepared box lunches, the guides moved slowly and methodically putting together the tools of the hunt trade, loading and fueling the boats….Joe and Larry took additional time to get their camp together and loaded. They were the first to head out. The guides thinking is sound….they do not want to spook bears at first light that have been out feeding all night and are just headed for sleep. They do, however, want to be in place and settled and quiet when prime time begins to come on, towards evening.
I asked the guides the question I did not want answered….”what time will you be back in for dinner?”
They all responded with different voices but the same message. “Probably not till 11. Maybe even later.”
So be it. As the last boat roared off down the lake I sat on the little deck in the sun and pulled ot my notebook. Looked over the menu I had planned and made some changes and added to my grocery list for Justin. He was gone in the plane and would be flying to the camps all day.
Alone for the remains of the day. Dinner prep would take about three hours and I could delay that until 6 or so. I had 8 pounds of chicken thighs to roast and some wonderful jarred Alfredo sauce to warm up and cover the chicken with at serving time. I had slaw to chop in my new Cuisinart and slaw dressing to make. Three loaves of bread to cast and then bake, one hour before 11 so it would still be warm in their cores. I needed to bake a batch of brownies for dessert and make a big sausage and egg casserole for Wednesday’s breakfast.
I grabbed my binocs and shotgun and ambled off to walk the gravel to get a touch of exercise and stretch my legs. Reggie and Boone leapt to their feet and away we went, splashing across the tiny creek that, two weeks ago, was too fast, deep and wide to cross in waders. One hundred yards down was very fresh bear scat, purple and blue and studded with undigested crowberries and blueberries, and, alongside it, the telltale wash of water on the gravel from the belly fur of a bear that I must have surprised as my boots crunched on the gravel and it lumbered from the lake up into the concealment of the alders. I took a quick photo and we walked on.
Alaska. It gets deep under your skin