After Brent and I formed AAA Alaskan Outfitters in December of 1983, our first order of business was to obtain hunting areas. We were thinking of Cold Bay and the Wrangell Mountains. Steve Black had let Brent use his Cold Bay area the fall of ’83 and Brent was working with him to possibly transfer that area to AAA. Both Brent and I had flown into the Wrangell’s with Ken Bunch to hunt Dall sheep. We decided since I was more familiar with Ken, I should be the one to contact him to see if he was interested in selling his area. Ken’s area in the Wrangell’s had a great sheep population, good goat and moose numbers and we could also hunt grizzly. It was a great hunting area. He had not hunted his area for four years because President Carter had locked that land up with the D-2 land grab that created the Wrangell St. Elisa’s Park /Preserve. They had changed the designation of his area in January ’84 to Preserve instead of Park. It is legal to hunt in the Preserve. When I called and asked Ken what his plans were for the area, he told me he was going to start hunting again and didn’t want to sell. He did say however, that if he ever decided to sell he would like to sell it to someone like us. A month later, he called and told me he had talked it over with his wife Evelyn and he was now willing to talk. We set up a lunch meeting with him in Anchorage and made the deal. He financed it with the payments due in November for the next five years. It couldn’t have been any better for us since the first payment would be due after our season.
The Wrangell area included two cabins at Bryson Bar on the Chitina River, two cabins at Big Bend Lakes and horses. The cabins had not been used for four years and had been ransacked by bears. The horses had been running wild on the Chitina River for that same period. Ken thought there were 7 or 8 horses but wasn’t sure since he hadn’t seen them up close for years.
He told us he would fly us in to look for the horses and see the cabins. The following spring in early April 1984, we drove to Gulkana and met Ken at his Flying Service. Neither Brent nor I had experience with horses so Brent brought a book about horse care, which included how to trim their hoofs. He brought clippers and a big rasp. We also had a bag of feed to lure the horses in. We were now ready or at least we thought we were. Ken landed us at Bryson Bar to show us the cabins and to pick up halters, bridles and saddles before we went looking for the horses. The bears had broken in the doors. Some of the windows were broken and at least one rafter had been broken. Everything was in disarray. We knew we had a lot of work ahead of us but knew we could do it and were very enthusiastic.
We grabbed the horse gear and loaded the Cessna 185. It was equipped with wheel/skies so we could land about anywhere on the river bottom. It didn’t take long to locate the horses as they were only a couple miles from the cabins. There were only five. We landed a couple hundred yards from the horses. Brent and I grabbed a small bag of horse feed, started shaking it and hollering for the horses. At first they run off but the sound of the horse feed was just too much for the horse named Friendly. They didn’t want to separate so once Friendly started toward us they all finally followed. Over the years Friendly was always the easiest to catch.
Once we had them eating we were able to catch Friendly and put a halter, bridle and saddle on him. We could see that Friendly was just like his name and more than likely could be ridden by any client. Brent mounted Friendly and started riding toward the cabins and the other horses followed. Ken and I loaded the feed and gear into the plane. He took me back to the cabin and said he would be back the next day to fly us up to look at the cabins at Big Bend Lakes.
I got the corral ready with a long pole that we could use to block the entrance once we had the horses in the corral. Within 30 minutes, Brent arrived with all the horses. They went right into the corral. Once I slide the pole across the gate, we took the saddle and bridle off Friendly, and haltered the other four horses.
Their hooves really didn’t look bad to not have been trimmed for five years. We found that to be true during the next ten years of using the horses. It must have been the rocks and silt on the riverbed that kept them wore down. I read the trimming instructions from the book and Brent did the trimming.
When Ken arrived the next morning, we let the horses go and went to check out Big Bend Lakes. The main cabin had one of the sides knocked out and a broken window so they weren’t as bad as the Bryson Bar cabins but they still needed a lot of work.
Ken flew us back to Gulkana and we were on our way back to Anchorage. It was a great trip and we felt good about our purchase. Actually, we were excited and were ready to get to work.
In preparation for our sheep season, Brent and I attended a horse packing class. The instructor did a good job of showing us how to throw a Diamond hitch and a few other knots used when you are packing horses. The key was keeping the weight even on both sides of the pack. We bought a scale to use to hang and weigh items so we could get the weight real close. One thing he told us was not to pack over 100 pounds on a horse. I told him that was crazy. I only weighed 175 pounds and I have carried between 100-125 pounds on my back packing out moose. A 1000-pound horse should be able to carry at least twice as much as me. He said something like it was dead weight and didn’t move on their backs. The first moose we killed I put two hindquarters on Queenie, one quarter per side. She did fine.
It was now early July and we needed to get the cabins renovated. We had all the dimensions so our civil engineer, Brent Jones, went to work. He figured out everything we would need right to the last nail. Both of us had a little carpenter experience so that worked to our advantage. We decided to use T-111 for the outside walls and ¼” clear plywood for the interior walls. We would re-roof everything with roll asphalt. We flew in over 18,000 pounds of building materials and supplies to accomplish our renovation.
Ken Bunch had built everything with 3/8” plywood cut in 2 ft.x 4 ft. so he could get it into his C-185. We were going to have it flown in on a Beaver on floats for Big Bend Lakes and a Beaver on wheels at Bryson Bar. In order to fit the sheets into the Beaver we would have to cut them down the center but could leave them 8 ft. long. We would put them over the other plywood making the walls twice as strong. The old doors were hollow wood and mounted swinging in. We had a metal door for Bryson Bar mounted to swing out with 2x4 backing as molding. We had a solid wood door for Big Bend Lakes swinging out with 2x4 backing as molding. We felt this would stop most bears. In the 21 years that we had the Wrangell Mountain area, bears never got into the cabins. We kept them clean and used mothballs to cover the smells.
Brent and I spent two weeks on our renovation. The weather was beautiful, the cabins were looking great and Brent and I were really getting to know each other. Being together 24/7 can do that. We had known each other for about ten years but had not spent much time together. We both really loved hunting, our feelings toward people or now clients were very similar and our desire for their success was the same. We were going to have a very successful business. We had both worked for other owner/guides that didn’t actually guide anymore. We wanted to change that so when a client booked a hunt with AAA either Brent or I would guide them. That worked for us the first couple of years. As we expanded, we had to hire other guides but Brent and I continued to guide hunters.
The cabins were now ready. The next thing we needed was more horses. In Alaska, you don’t have much of a selection and all horses cost at least $1,000, no matter what shape they are in. We were told we needed to get in touch with Chuck Edmonds or better known as “Chickaloon Charlie”. He was something else. He had quite a few horses and told us he had picked most of them up in Canada. He lived right outside of Palmer, Alaska. Brent and I drove out to look at his horses. He had good and bad but we really didn’t know the difference. We wanted to get at least six. We told him we wanted horses anyone could ride and that could be used as packhorses. He showed us around and selected six that he thought would meet our needs. We liked a few of them but picked a couple others that we liked better.
Red Pepper was one of the horses Chuck selected for us and had put a halter on him, attached a lead rope, and brought him over next to the corral. He gave me the lead rope and told me to hold him. He gave Brent a saddle and then he threw a saddle blanket over Red Pepper’s back. Brent threw the saddle up on his back then reached down to cinch the saddle. As soon as Brent pulled on the cinch, Red Pepper reared up on his hind legs with a jerking motion catching my index finger between the ring on the halter and the snap on the lead rope and after three or four rearings I knew it was broken. At this point, I should have known we were in for trouble. We got him settled down and cinched up the saddle. Chickaloon asked, “Which one of you guys is the best rider?” Neither one of us had owned horses but both had ridden before. As we looked at each other I said Brent and Brent said Roger and I said I‘d ride. I mounted the horse and Chickaloon opened the gate. We were immediately at a rodeo and I was sailing through the air. Chickaloon hollered, “I thought you could ride!” I said, “I can ride but I’m not a bronco buster!” He grabbed the reins and mounted the horse. He said, “You have to hold a tight rein to keep him from bucking!” Red Pepper goes around in a circle then settles down. He said, “This would be a great horse for you guys.” We told him again we need horses anyone can ride not a rodeo horse. He told us that he had bought Red Pepper from a rodeo because he didn’t buck much anymore. We told him we didn’t want a horse that bucks at all. We selected the six horses we wanted and told Chickaloon we would pick them up in 3 days. We gave him his $6,000 and were on our way back to Anchorage.
We borrowed a couple horse trailers from a friend of Brent’s to take the horses to McCarthy, Alaska. From there Brent and our new wrangler would take the horses into camp. When Brent went to pick up the horses Chickaloon had switched two of them and had given us Red Pepper. Brent was on a tight schedule and didn’t have time to argue. Red Pepper’s name would be changed to Pepper and would be a great pack horse but no clients would ever ride him. They were on the road to McCarthy, which would take about eight hours. From there they had to cross the Kennicott and the Nizina Rivers both glacier fed so crossing in the morning was best. The Nizina was the worst. They had to go over two different mountains cutting trail as they went. Both mountains were over 5,000 foot in elevation and then they dropped down to Bryson Bar on the Chitina River. The trip was about 45 scale miles and it took them 7 days. That was quite a feat for a man who had never done a horse trip. Brent never ceased to amaze me with his many abilities and skills during our 23 years as partners.
It was the first week of August and we still had lots to do before the clients were to arrive on August 8th. My daughter Michelle, who was fifteen, wanted to go into camp with me so she could help take the horses back over Mac Coll Ridge to Big Bend Lakes. She told me the only horses she had ever ridden were at the State Fair and they were hooked together in a circle. I told her this was going to be quite a trip but was happy to have her come along. We traded places with Brent. He was going back to Anchorage to bring in the clients. Troy Smith, our new wrangler, was to round up our old horses and shoe them before we took them back over Mac Coll Ridge to Big Bend Lakes where we would start our sheep hunts. We caught the horses, got them shoed and were on our way about 10:00 a.m. on August the 3rd. We crossed Canyon Creek close to where it joined the Chitina River. River crossing on a horse can be scary especially to a new rider. Chief, the horse Michelle was riding, was very timid and completely out of his element so that made it more difficult. He was one that Chickaloon switched on us at the last minute. Chief made it through the first season but didn’t make it through the first winter. Bucking the brush and cutting more trail was rough especially since Ken’s old trail went straight up the mountain without switchbacks. Switchbacks would have made it better for the horses for sure. We climbed 4,000 feet and dropped on the other side before it got too dark. We pulled off the saddles, spread the saddle blankets and tarps on the ground, and slept under the starlit sky. Michelle was one tired young lady but she never complained. The next morning we were up early, had oatmeal for breakfast and were on our way. We made it to the Big Bend cabins around 2:00 p.m.
The next couple of days were spent cutting a trail toward Canyon Creek glacier and some of the other connecting trails. These trails hadn’t been cut for 6 or 7 years. Finally, the trails were finished and the cabins were cleaned and made ready for the clients.
On August 8th Ken Bunch flew in Brent and our first two clients, Bob Gourley and Mike Dobransky. They would be hunting sheep. I said goodbye to Michelle and she got in the plane and they were on their way back to Gulkana.
After all the preparation, Brent and I were excited about exploring our beautiful new area. The Wrangell Mountains are God’s spectacular masterpiece. Brent would guide Mike and take him up Young Creek. He would be on his own with four horses. I would guide Bob and we would go up Canyon Creek. Our wrangler Troy would hunt with me taking care of the remaining seven horses and I would be giving him some instruction on sheep hunting. We left Big Bend about midday on August 9th. Opening day for sheep hunting was August 10th, my birthday. I would be turning 40 and was looking forward to celebrating with a sheep kill. It took both Brent and me a few days for both Mike and Bob to get their sheep. Mike took a beautiful 40” ram and Bob scored with a 39” ram.
We had four more successful sheep hunters with an overall average of 38”. That was 3 ½ ” over the State average. Mike came back later in the season and took a 9” Billy goat. He was one of four successful goat hunters. During August, we hadn’t seen any moose so we were getting worried since we had two moose hunters on their way. However, on September 1st, opening day, a beautiful 62 ½” moose showed up right across the lake and Bryan Kettel took his first Alaska trophy. A couple of days later, our 76-year-old hunter Fred Franz harvested a heavy 5-point brow 57 ½” spread moose. We took one small grizzly and that was under a trophy fee so we were 100% successful on all the other species.
At the annual Alaska Professional Hunters Association banquet the following year, AAA Alaskan Outfitters received 7 of the 21 awards. For our first year in the business, we felt that was a great start for these two West Virginians.
I will have more actual Wrangell Mountain hunting stories coming up in the future, especially about my horse hunting experiences.