This story would not happen in today’s world and I for sure would not have had to walk out. The Satellite phone has changed everything about what could be an emergency. I worked for four different guides in 1983 and none had radio or telephone communications. All of these guides are still in business today and wouldn’t even think about not having a Satellite phone. Most have multiple phones. Single sideband radios were the only option back then. Many times the signals were not very good and in some areas no signal at all.
After my being involved in this particular incident, Brent and I made sure that we had some type of communication for AAA Alaska Outfitters. We purchased a portable single sideband radio from Surveyors Exchange in Anchorage. Like I said, some days the signals were so bad you couldn’t use it but that usually didn’t last but a day or so. It was better than nothing!
As soon as Satellite phones came out we purchased one. It weighed 28 pounds and cost $4,200. They charged us $2 a minute but it was a great feeling when I landed my cub at camp and could call Karen to let her know that I had made it. If you ever stop by Surveyors Exchange in Anchorage ask Antonio to show you that big phone. He still has it there. I personally think Surveyors Exchange is one of the best places to rent or buy a Satellite phone in Anchorage.
Hope you enjoy my first guiding experience.
I Can Do This
It was May 1983 and I had just retired from a successful 20 year career in the U. S. Air Force. Right before I retired, I obtained my Assistant Guide License and my Real Estate License. I figured since a guide only works during hunting season, I would need other employment to supplement my guide income.
I really wasn’t planning on working as a guide until the fall. I wanted to do some summer projects which included painting the outside of our house and maybe do some extra fishing. One morning I was looking at the help wanted ads and spotted “Guide needed.” I called the number and a lady answered. I told her my name and said that I may be interested in the job and needed the details. She told me her son needed a guide for a spring brown bear hunt. She asked my name again and when I told her, she said out loud “Roger Morris.” I heard someone in the background yell, “Is that the Roger Morris that worked at the Missile Shop on Elmendorf, AFB?” I told her yes and she relayed my answer and the guy yelled out, “Hire him!”
That was Vern Lee, a civilian that worked at the Elmendorf Power Plant and was in charge of servicing the heating unit at the Missile Shop. I had spent about 10 years at that shop and had talked with Vern numerous times about hunting. He had told me that his son Tony Lee was a guide and pilot. He knew of some of my successes because some of my sheep horn mounts were on the wall in the break room at the Missile Shop.
His wife handed him the phone and he told me about the job. I needed to leave in three days on a morning flight to Dillingham, Alaska. The pay was $75 per day for approximately 15 days. I was to pick up my plane ticket at Pen Air’s ticket counter. Vern was going also for about a week just to hang out at the camp. It sounded like we had a plan.
I met Vern early Saturday morning at the Anchorage Airport. He told me his son Tony had started a new guide business called Westwind Guide Service. He was hunting north of Dillingham and had at least 4 brown bear clients. When we got to Dillingham we met Greg, one of Tony’s’ bear hunters. Dillingham, Alaska is a good sized commercial fishing town about 350 miles southwest of Anchorage. Little did I know that in a few years Dillingham Airport would be AAA Alaskan Outfitters point of destination for its Western Alaska hunting area.
At Dillingham we boarded a Pen Air Cherokee 6 for Koliganek, AK. Koliganek is a small native community of less than 200 people located on the Nushagak River. That was where I met Tony Lee. He impressed me with his “super cub” landing. I hadn’t been around many super cubs at that time. There wasn’t a lot of small talk as we hurriedly loaded Greg into the cub. The winds were blowing about 30-35 mph. Tony got into the plane. I was standing by the plane and he told me that he was going to take off from the taxiway since the plane was facing into the wind. He told me he had a bad crosswind at camp and wouldn’t be picking Vern or me up that day. He also said, “With these winds it’s only a matter of time before I stump my toe.” That was Tony’s way of saying a recipe for an accident.
Vern and I decided to sleep on the dirt floor beside the grader in the state runway maintenance building. Day 2 was still windy so we figured Tony wouldn’t be in that day. We killed time by walking around the village and hanging out at the grocery store where we bought some snacks. That was the only food source for Koliganek. Day 3 was pretty nice so we hung out real close to the maintenance building that everyone used when they were waiting on a plane. Tony was a no show so we thought there must be some kind of a problem. Day 4, the weather was good so we talked to one of the Pen Air pilots and asked him to tell someone in Dillingham that we needed someone to go look for Tony. That afternoon two Alaska Department of Fish and Game Protection Officers showed up in one of their super cubs. We told them that Tony’s camp was somewhere northwest of Tikchik Mountain. Neither one of us had been there so we really didn’t know for sure. They left to check it out and within three hours they were back telling us that Tony had crashed on his strip and thankfully no one was hurt. The runway was too short for them so they couldn’t land. Tony had signaled everyone was alright. They said he could have picked a better place for a camp. We asked if they knew any flying services in Dillingham with a super cub. They told us Armstrong Air had a cub and “old man” Armstrong was the only one who flew it. They said they would tell him to come see us.
After they left Vern told me now that he knew Tony was alright, he was going back to Anchorage because he could do more to help him from there. He called from the phone at the grocery store to see about a flight back to Dillingham. Air & boat are the only modes of transportation to and from Dillingham. There were always two to three planes coming in daily from Dillingham with the town locals. Vern left me some cash for food and caught the first plane out the next morning. About midday a super cub showed up. It was Armstrong Air. The pilot looked at least 60 years old. I don’t know why but at 38 years old I thought 60 was old. He asked if I was ready and we loaded up. Finally I’m getting out of Koliganek after four days of sleeping on a G.I. air mattress on a dirt garage floor and hanging out at the grocery store eating snacks, sandwiches and food out of cans. He asked if I knew where we were going and I told him not really but somewhere northwest of Tikchik Mountain. He didn’t say much but it was a nice day so I just enjoyed the flight. After we passed by Tikchik Mountain we started looking. About ten miles later he told me he saw the plane on that ridge. He flew by twice and said your guy sure could have picked a better place than that. He told me, “I’m not landing there” and turned back toward Koliganek. I asked if he knew anyone that could get in there and he said no. He landed me at Koliganek and I thanked him and told him Tony would pay him once he got back to Dillingham.
I’m back. I called Vern and told him what had just happened and he said that he was hiring a super cub pilot with his own plane and he would come out for me tomorrow or the next day. He said, “Just hang in there.” I was back to walking the dirt road and hanging out at the grocery store.
Most of the locals were commercial fishermen either owning their own boats or working as crew members for the boats owners. In May everyone gets their boats and nets ready for the fishing season that started in June. I met some of them and even had lunch with one guy at his house. I also had dinner with two of the white school teachers. That was a funny evening. They were cooking with a Coleman 2-burner stove on top of their standard gas stove. They said they had run out of propane and had started using the Coleman 2-burner and liked it so it wasn’t a big deal anymore.
I was at the grocery store and Herman Nelson, the village chief came in and said, “I thought you left!” I told him my story and he invited me to his house for breakfast the next morning. He told me that Steve Perkins, a local pilot and herring spotter should be getting back to town soon and would probably take me to Tony’s camp.
I went to Herman’s for breakfast the next morning. This was day six without a shower or change of clothes. I was feeling bad for them but it really wasn’t an issue. They were very friendly and breakfast was good. I found it amusing to see Herman’s cute little three year old son standing on his chair with a runny nose running his little hot wheel car on top of the butter. I never really liked butter on my toast. Later, Herman took me outside and showed me his hanging caribou jerky and dried salmon. I had a taste of the jerky and it wasn’t bad. He was pretty proud of it. I can add this visit to my list of Alaskan experiences. I appreciated meeting Herman’s family and their hospitality.
That afternoon as I was hanging out in the maintenance building another super cub showed up. It was the guide that Vern had hired. He turned off his engine and asked if I was Roger. I said yes and he told me he was going to Dillingham and asked if I wanted to go with him. I told him we needed to get to Tony first. He said he wasn’t working off that strip. I told him I would wait on Steve Perkins to fly me in. With that he started his engine and took off. I never saw him again.
The next morning I was wakened by the sound of a plane landing. I heard it stop but it wasn’t by the maintenance building. I looked out of the window and saw a super cub and a guy walking across the runway about 50 yards behind the building. I grabbed my coat and ran out the front to catch up with him. When I caught him, I asked, “Are you Steve Perkins?” He answered, “Yes, why?” I told him who I was and what I needed. He told me that he had had a good year spotting herring and really didn’t need any more money. Besides, he said, “I don’t want to get in trouble with the locals! They might not want me to do it.” I told him that Herman was the one who mentioned him to me. He said he might talk to Herman later but right now he was going to take a much needed shower. He really wasn’t very friendly and I was starting to wonder if I ever was going to make it to camp.
Around lunch time I decided to go down to the grocery store. Looking down the street I saw Herman coming my way. Before he made it to me Steve came out of his house and stopped him on the street so I headed their way. When I got there I told Herman that Steve thought that they might get mad at him if he flew me into Tony’s camp. Herman looked at Steve and said, “Roger has been here too long already and I don’t want him to start liking it. We don’t need any more white guys around so get him out of here.” I’m pretty sure he was kidding but I really did want out of there. Steve looked at me and told me to be ready in an hour. I thanked Herman and told him goodbye and went to grab all my stuff. I was leaving Koliganek again.
The things I learned while at Koliganek are, I found that most of the residents were very nice and friendly to this white stranger, don’t drink while taking a community steam bath as two different people were burned and had to be air evacuated out during my stay, the most common male graduation present was a boat motor prop and candy was the biggest seller at the grocery store. I had stayed way too long.
I went out to look at the super cub. It looked pretty tattered. Lots of duct tape. Knowing what I know now it needed new fabric and much more but I had to get out of there. We loaded up and were on our way. He asked if I had been out this way before and how long I had known Tony. I told him I hadn’t been there before and had just met Tony. Once we passed Tikchik Mountain I told him it wasn’t that far and we started looking. We spotted the camp, he made two circles and said, “I’ve seen better.” Then he set up for the landing. He made a great landing and after we were on the ground I could see why no one liked the strip. You had to land uphill for about 150 feet and dog leg to the right for the final 200 feet. Again knowing what I know now not a bad spike camp strip but not a base camp strip. After we purchased Tony’s Otter Lake area in 1987, I landed on that strip a few times but never used it for a camp.
Tony, the clients and Tony’s cousin Andy, who was his packer, were there to meet us as soon as we got out of the plane. Tony thanked Steve for bringing me in. He asked Steve if he would work for him the rest of the season. Steve told him the same thing he had told me that he had made good money spotting and he really didn’t want to work. Tony asked if he would come back in the morning and take him to Dillingham or Koliganek. Tony just needed to get out of there so he could get a plane. Steve said yes and with that got back in his plane. He taxied over the hill and turned around and started his take off. He came up the hill slow and then seemed to struggle getting off. The airplane sank as he ran off the strip and then it was flying. That was the last time we saw Steve.
Tony was relieved that I was there. He had not been able to leave the camp since he was waiting to basically be rescued from his crash. He told me that I would guide Roland starting in the morning and then take Greg after I got Roland a bear. I asked if he had seen any bears so far and he said no. I personally like hunting brown bear in the mountains and they were about 5 miles away. There were rolling hills with trees which I didn’t care for but I was here and I would do whatever was necessary to get Roland and Greg their bears.
Tony’s camp was an 8x10 wall tent with two cots for the clients with the cooking area set up on one side at the end by the door. A small table was in the middle with the cots to sit on during the day. A small four man tent was outside for the guides to sleep in. I was just thankful that I was in camp and not back in the village.
I told Roland and Greg our plan. Roland, I think was in his late 50’s and Greg was in his late 20’s or early 30’s. Greg who had been in the plane accident appeared to be very nervous. He couldn’t or wouldn’t sit down. He was always pacing. He later told me he had been a helicopter pilot in Viet Nam and had been shot down twice. I was thinking perhaps the accident was creating flashbacks for him. After a great supper we were off to bed around 11:00 p.m.
We were up at 6:00 a.m., had a good breakfast and Roland and I were off for what I hoped to be a great day of hunting. I told Roland we would walk toward the mountains to the North. After walking about a mile and a half, I found a good vantage point where I could see a small stream that was running by a small hill. There were a few alder patches on the hill. We sat there all day. I spotted a couple of caribou in the distance but that was it. Spring brown bear hunting can be extremely boring especially if you are not in a good area. Roland and I did a little small talk, ate a good lunch and kicked back and continued glassing. About 5 p.m. or so Roland stood up and said, “Martini time!” I said, “Somewhere I guess.” He said, “I said, Martini Time!! That means we need to leave and go back to camp.” I told him that from 5 -10 p.m. was the best time to hunt. We can’t leave now. He responded by saying he was paying for this hunt so when he wanted to leave we were leaving. He put his small day pack on his back and said, “Let’s go.” I told him I hated to argue with him but if I was going to get him a bear he had to listen to me. With that he turned toward camp and started walking. I loaded up and caught up with him. I just couldn’t believe we were leaving at the best time to hunt. I tried to take my time spotting as we walked. We came up on a small ridge and for the first time that day I could see the camp. All of a sudden I spotted a big black bear right outside of the tent. I told Roland we needed to hurry that maybe Tony and the others were not in camp and we might be able to get that bear. We were now about 500 yards from the tent and the bear was standing on his hind legs. This was crazy! Then all of a sudden we heard a gunshot and the bear went down. We both took off toward the tent. By time we arrived Tony and Greg were outside laughing and carrying on. They said Tony was frying chicken with the radio blasting and Greg had decided to go outside and relieve himself. As he bent down to go out of the tent he saw the bear. He grabbed his rifle and shot the bear at point blank range. It was a beautiful 7’+ black bear. You can’t beat that. It was going to be a night to celebrate and we sure did.
When Tony asked why we came home so early I responded, “Martini time.” He had been with Roland the last 6 days so he understood. He told me he was disappointed that Steve didn’t come back and was hoping he may show up the next day. But, as I said before he never showed.
The next morning we were off a little earlier and went back to the same place to spot. About 11:00 a.m. a single brown bear came out of the creek area and was working his way across the side of a low hill. He was about 1000 yards away with the wind in our favor. The bear looked to be about 8’ or so with no visible rubbed areas. I told Roland my plan. We would go toward the creek where we would have some cover for the first 500 yards then we would be in the open. The bear was moving slowly eating a little grass. We came out of the creek and the bear was about 400 yards from us. He was moving away not looking back much so we were able to get about 225 yards from him. I got Roland set up using my pack as a rest. He was shooting a .338 Winchester Magnum with 250 grain bullets. The bear had just turned giving us a 45% quartering away shot. The sound of the .338 broke the silence and Roland yelled, “I’m hit.” I looked at him and his glasses were broken with blood running down his face. He had been scope dinged badly. He asked, “Am I alright?” I said, “Yes keep shooting!!” He shot a couple more times and then yelled, “When are you going to start shooting?” I said, “When you hit him!” By Alaska law it is illegal for a guide to shoot unless he is shooting at a wounded or a charging animal. The only blood I saw was Roland’s. The bear had no idea where we were and had slowed down before he dropped into the creek bed. I grabbed Roland and said let’s go. We ran as fast as we could to the creek bank. It was more like a draw with a twenty-five foot bank on both sides about 150 yards across. There was very thick alder in the bottom and by the time the bear was coming out on the other side we had laid down and were looking across. I told him to shoot. As soon as he fired the bear let out a screech and turned back into the creek and at that point I hit him with a 300 grain Nosler Partition from my .375 H&H and he was down. We made it over to the bear and high fived. It was a beautiful 8’ boar. Roland kicked back and lit up a cigarette. After pictures I found out why he had screeched. Roland had shot him in the left nut and other than the one 300 grain Nosler there weren’t any other holes. After I skinned the bear I loaded him up and we were on our way back. It was “Martini time!”
One down, one to go. The next morning Greg and I took off in the opposite direction. We were going toward the Tikchik River. I found a good spotting place overlooking a small drainage that ran into the Tikchik. I told Greg to sit down and get comfortable. That wasn’t going to happen. All he did was pace. He felt we were cut off from the world and he wasn’t going to see his daughter again. I told him that was crazy and plenty people knew where we were. I said when you got shot down in Viet Nam people were shooting at you. No one is shooting at you here. For some reason I couldn’t convince him. It was not a fun day for either of us. We didn’t spot anything that day. Real boring and disappointing.
After we were back at camp Tony and I were chatting and he asked me how come I wear my hip boots up all the time. I told him that’s just how I had always worn them. He said let me show you a better way. He told me to pull the tops of my boots down to my knees. Then he kneeled down and did two rolls. One was to bring them up and the other was to tighten them at the knee and then if I was crossing water just to pull them up. For such a simple idea it is amazing how much easier it is to walk in the hip boots with the tops rolled down. I used to wear holes in mine where my thighs rubbed together. Over the years I have probably told 300 or 400 people about rolling their ankle fit hip boots down. Yep, so simple.
That evening we were listening to the Dillingham Public Radio Station. They were relaying messages and one was, “Tony Lee in the upper Tikchik we will pick you up when the lake ice goes out.” Greg and Roland both looked around and asked when is that? I said, “Sometime in June I guess.” Tony said don’t worry someone will come in before that. He told them that a cub on floats could land right now on the water at the mouth of our lake. I didn’t say anything in front of the clients but later I asked Tony where the closest fishing lodge was. He said the Royal Coachman owned by Bill Martin. It was on the back side of Tikchik Mountain. That was about 13 air miles across but more like 20 to 25 ground miles going around the bottom of the mountain. I told him if he wanted me to walk out I would. He said thanks but no thanks. Just don’t say anything to the clients. I said, okay.
Hunting was real slow the next two days. No bears were spotted and things were getting crazy in camp. Roland had run out of cigarettes, cigarette butts and gin; Greg was still cut off from the world and looked like he had lost 20-30 pounds. I found out later that Greg had just come back from Mexico and had picked up some type of bug that may have caused his weight loss. Somehow it came up that they had heard I volunteered to walk out. That night Tony said if I wanted to try walking out that it was fine with him.
I was on my way the next morning around 6:00 a.m. I had a light pack of my rain gear, jacket and some food. I had an FAA sectional chart as my only map and no compass. In all of my hunting in the mountains of Alaska I always knew where I was and never used a compass. I hadn’t hunted any flat land with large trees where a compass is a must. Anyone who has been in this type of terrain in the spring knows you have snow in some areas, ice on most of the lakes and small streams with the swamps in various states of being frozen . I tried to stay on the south sides of the hills because of less snow and tried to stay out of the alder. The first couple hours went pretty well but as the temperature rose I started to posthole in the snow. It was now in the mid to high 30’s. There was a large lake between the camp and Tikchik Mountain which was frozen but had a swamp all the way around it. I had to stay clear of that area. I was trying to stay within a mile of Tikchik to use as a gauge for my direction. That was pretty hard because of trying to cross the small creeks, beaver ponds and beaver dams. About 2:00 p.m. I was in the trees and couldn’t see the Tikchik so I felt I was going the wrong way. I turned back trying to angle to Tikchik and in about an hour I was climbing out of the trees on Tikchik. I climbed high enough to get my bearing. I knew that the lodge was about two miles from the base of the Tikchik and where the Nuyakuk River rapids ended. I was on my way again about 4:00 p.m. and it started to rain. I didn’t put my rain coat on because I was already drenched from sweat and I knew it would just make me sweat more. I felt I was making good time other than my two miles going in the wrong direction. Around 6:30 or so I started to hear the roar of the Nuyakuk River so I knew I was getting close. I finally broke out of the brush and could see the lodge. It was on the other side of a small back eddy. I could see someone down by the water. He waved and I started to cross. The water was just a little over my hip boots but I didn’t care. I was wet from top to bottom anyway and I knew I had made it.
It had taken me thirteen hours to cover about 32 scale miles counting my extra four or five miles going the wrong way.
I was met by Mary Martin, Bill’s wife and one of their lodge workers. Mary gave me some clothes to change into. She was cooking dinner and told me to have a seat that her husband Bill should be home anytime. I still remember the taste of those pork chops, they were delicious. I told her my story and she said she couldn’t believe that I had walked out that far and was glad no one was hurt in the accident.
When Bill arrived he sat down for dinner and listened to my story. He asked if I thought he had enough room to land on the opened end of our lake. I told him Tony thought so. To me it looked like we had about a half mile of open water. “How deep is the water,” he asked. I told him I wasn’t sure. He said we would drop a message to them and have someone go in the water and find out. He needed three feet of water for the Beaver floats. “You understand.” Yes sir I said. Bill wrote a note and put it in a coffee can. He taped it up and tied a long streamer to it. We better get out of here before it gets too dark. It was 9:30 or so. We jumped in his jet boat and went down stream about a quarter mile to another little back eddy where he had his Beaver tied down. A de Havillard Beaver is one of the favorite planes for fishing lodges. It carries a great pay load, lands and takes off in very short distances and flies slow which is good in bad weather. I call it a big super cub. Currently we are in a down pour.
We both get into the airplane and he starts the engine. As soon as it is warm he taxis into the river and away we go. It takes us only about 20 minutes to get to camp. We fly over the first time and no one is up. I guess they didn’t think I would make it. He started to circle the camp and Tony and Andy were now out of the tent. He told me to get ready to drop the can with the message. I would need to push the door open against the wind and drop the can on his command. He said, “Now!” I pushed the can out and the streamer someway got caught low on the wing strut. It was hitting on the side of the plane. I couldn’t reach it from the front seat. He told me to get in the back and open the side door and see if I could reach it from there. As I pressed the door with my shoulder I could see the coffee can twisting in the wind. I reached out got hold of the can and ripped the streamer loose. By time I got it loose we were a ways from the camp. He said to wait for his command and to push it hard because he didn’t want it to get caught on the tail section of the plane. Once we got into position he yelled, “Drop!” It was on its way. After they got the can Andy took off down the hill to the lake. He waded out in the water. He was to raise his arms above his head, one arm per foot of water when we fly by him. Bill lined up low and to the side of Andy. He told me to look from the back side window as he was looking out of his side window. As we flew by Andy raised both arms once and then one more arm. That meant 3 foot which is what was needed. Bill looked at me and said, “He indicted 3 foot, do you believe him!” I said yes there is no reason not to believe him. Bill said, “Roger Morris are you telling me to land my plane in that water with these $25,000 floats.” I said, “What” and he repeated himself. I said, I guess I’m telling you to land. He turned the plane and got set up and landed. Once he was on the water he looked at me and said, “Good water and good bottom.” He stopped the plane by the ice. He told Tony to get the clients and their gear. I will take them out tonight and pick you and everyone else up in the morning. We had lost most of the light but at least it had stopped raining. We loaded the clients and they were off. Tony seemed happy that I had made it and that he would be in Dillingham the next day.
Bill showed up at 10:00 a.m. We had most of our gear down by shore. The first thing he said was, “those clients think you are quite the hero and after looking at the walk you made I would agree.” He asked what I was doing for the summer. I told him some summer projects. He said he would like to hire me as a fishing guide. I thanked him and told him that I wasn’t that good at fishing and if I was going to be a big game guide, I needed to spend my summers with my family. We landed at the lodge, picked up Greg and Roland and were off to Dillingham. Once we arrived in Dillingham we all caught the first plane to Anchorage and then said our goodbyes. My beautiful wife was there waiting for me. My first guide season was over and I was happy to be home. I thought, “I can do this.”