A qualified guide is the key to a successful hunt for non-resident hunters. There are three classes of licensed guides in Alaska; the assistant guide, registered guide and master guide and all are based on experience and passing the Alaska Guide Exam. AAA Alaskan Outfitters had some of the best. Follow along with me and the Otter Lake guides in The Barbarians From the North.
They say a business is only as good as its employees. I agree with that statement and will add that in a service provided business they are paramount. A big game guiding and outfitting business is completely service oriented. As a co-owner of one of the largest hunting businesses in Alaska, I have always said our guides were our most important asset. AAA Alaskan Outfitters employed sometimes as many as 20 guides in a year’s season. We were fortunate to have some of the best in the State.
There are many qualities required to be a good guide. Being a good hunter is a given but there are others that are just as important. Most of the time, guides are alone with their client 24/7 for seven to fifteen days. They cook for them, share a tent with them and, no matter what the clients’ capabilities are, i.e., in shape/out of shape, young/old, physically fit/unfit, our guides had to make every effort to get them their animal. They had to do this while making it fun even if it rained or snowed every day. It takes a great personality to do all this, which I think is a primary trait of a guide. If you are a great guide your clients will leave as lifelong friends. My partner Brent always wrote in our newsletter in the Alaska Peninsula section, “thanks to all of you who arrived as strangers and went away as friends, after sharing experiences that will never be forgotten”. That is what a guide must do. Make every hunt the hunt of a lifetime, never to be forgotten.
My story is mainly about our camp in Western Alaska. As a partner of AAA Alaskan Outfitters I was the guide of record for that area. That meant I was responsible for everything my guides and packers did or didn’t do. Good guides are hard to find and great ones even harder. There are a couple reasons for this. One is because of the short Alaska hunting seasons. Guides can only work 45 to 60 days per year, so they can’t make enough money for that to be their only income. Most always had other employment. The next one is after guides acquire experience and want to make a living as a guide they usually start their own business. We understood that and have had many great guides work for us for three to five years, obtain their experience and then go out on their own. However, we were fortunate that even a few of those guides would still work for us part of our season. Some only wanted to work two to four weeks as a vacation from their full-time jobs or just to get out in the wilderness. That worked for us.
In 1987, we purchased our Western Alaska Area, better known as Otter Lake, from Tony Lee. Two of Tony’s guides, Gary Thompson and Curt Johnson stayed with us for five years. They initially set the old time rustic hunting camp atmosphere for Otter Lake and it stayed with us. We did however add a larger main tent for cooking and eating, but the Otter Lake camp would always be just a wall tent camp. We needed six guides for the 30-40 day season. We hired Eric Sjodin, “the Swede”, in 1990 who was a good fit. Several of my old military friends and hunting buddies also guided for us, Earl Boucher, Ron Watts, Mike Herbert and Chuck Miknich. I always appreciated them for helping out even if it was for only a week or two. Chuck and Ron stayed the longest, working for us for ten years.
I think some of Alaska’s best guides start out as packers. You learn everything about the guide business starting at the bottom. If I had a packer that thought he wanted to become a guide I would let him spend as much time as he could in spike camps with different guides. That way they could see how different guides operate. I also took him with me when I had a client in main camp. Some of the ones who stayed with us after obtaining their assistant guide license were Jeff Hamburg, Sagen Juliussen, Marty Phelps, Thor Juliussen, Jeremiah Simmons and Tom Losk, they all did a great job. Most of them had full time jobs so they could only work a couple weeks a year. Sagen stayed with me until I retired. Marty lost his life at an early age in a tragic hunting accident while hunting sheep in the Wrangell Mountains. Tom Losk, a client who hunted with us for two years, ended up coming back to pack for us for two years. He obtained his assistant guide license and worked another year. Jeremiah worked for four years until I retired and then worked for Brent at the Dog Salmon River camp.
In the early to mid-90’s Gary and Curt went out on their own and Eric left the State. We rounded out our guides with four guides that worked the full season. They were Steve Lanphier, John Koldeway, Mark Confer and Bob Wambach each with years of experience. We hired Demitrious Deoudes, “Dee” for our Wrangell Mountain area and he would join us in Western Alaska in the spring and some fall seasons. Dee is still guiding for Brent at the Dog Salmon River camp. With these new guides, Chuck and our part-time guides, I felt we had the best guides in Alaska.
One of my most important tasks was to assign a guide to a client. I tried to match my guide’s personality with that of the client’s personality using traits such as temperament. For some of the clients I only knew what was on their information sheet that they provided after booking their hunt. Some of the others I met at the hunting shows. Dan and Brent gave me their opinion of the clients’ personality traits that they booked at the shows. Most clients would call me once or twice before they arrived for their hunt so I picked up tidbits of information to help make my choice. Usually, I told the guides who their clients were before they arrived. On a few occasions after meeting the client in person I switched guides. I never knew for sure until the hunt was over if I had made the right decision. But I knew when the hunters were leaving and I was saying goodbye to each of them and they commented, “That Steve is the best guide I have ever had!”, “Thanks for giving me your best guide, John, he was great”, or “I can’t believe what a great guide Sagen is”. I received comments like these over and over on all the guides. I loved that and it always made me feel proud of our operation. We were providing a hunt of a lifetime to each and every one of our clients. That was our goal.
Bob Wambach and couple of our part timers quit guiding for us in 1998, so we hired EJ Hiett and Dennis Byrne. I met both of these guides through the North American Wild Sheep Foundation. Their experience and personally made them a perfect fit for AAA. The last guide I hired was Shawn Stone. Shawn came with lots of experience and worked well at both Otter Lake and the Dog Salmon River camps. They all worked with me until I retired.
My seventeen years at Otter Lake left me with many great memories of each of my guides and I could tell many wonderful stories but that would be a book in itself.
At this point you might be wondering how I came up with “The Barbarians from the North” as the title. On the Alaska Peninsula in October of the odd numbered years, AAA Alaskan Outfitters had their fall brown bear season. We would have fourteen or fifteen brown bear clients. Brent usually had five guides plus himself that did the Dog Salmon River camp moose hunts. So they would remain for the brown bear hunts. Dan and I brought five of our Western Alaska guides down to the Dog Salmon River camp to round out our brown bear guides.
The Dog Salmon River camp is located about 200 miles south of Otter Lake. It was a cabin/lodge type camp with its own cook, client cabins and a bunk house. In the early years it was quite common to see Dave Vaughn coming from the shower house in shorts and sandals. Coming from the north from a mountain-man type tent camp operation where most of us had beards and talked about things like who had the camp record for going the longest without a shower, Dave was quite a sight. I think Dave was one of the ones that started the saying that we were “the Barbarian’s from the North”. When one of my guides told me what they were calling us I told him I felt it was a compliment. I would put my guides up against any other group of guides any day.
My guides and I had a wonderful relationship, always having each others back. I couldn’t have asked for a better or more loyal group of guides and friends. Thanks to all of you Barbarian’s for making our Western Alaska camp the best it could be and for enriching my life.