AAA's Most Challenging Client

After our 1999 hunting season I attended the Alaska Professional Hunters Association’s annual meeting.  Most of the professional Alaskan guides attend this meeting which includes a banquet.  It’s a great time for guides to get together and discuss their past season and to work on guide related issues.  While talking to some of my guide friends and acquaintances I mentioned that we had had a client that broke his leg twice and he still wanted to continue his hunt.  A couple of them said, “Whoa, that’s a tough dude.”  Then I would tell them it was an artificial leg and continue my story.  The client’s name has been changed to protect his privacy.  I will have to say that Al really had the desire and fortitude to hang in there.  He was determined.

 My partner Brent booked Al at the 1998 Eastern Sport and Outdoor Show in Harrisburg, PA.  It’s the largest sport show in the US with an average of 400,000 eager hunters attending.  When Brent booked Al he was in a wheelchair but didn’t say anything about his leg.  He booked him for a fall hunt in ’99 so Al had a year and a half to prepare for his hunt.  He was coming on a fifteen-day combo caribou/moose/brown bear hunt.  In my opinion it was the best hunt to come on if you are only going to hunt Alaska once and wanted the most for your money.  We booked four of these hunts each season.

AAA's Western Alaska base camp at Otter Lake.  Cabins are prohibited in this area.  Our Wrangell Mountain Area and the Alaska Peninsula Area both have cabins at the base camps.

AAA's Western Alaska base camp at Otter Lake.  Cabins are prohibited in this area.  Our Wrangell Mountain Area and the Alaska Peninsula Area both have cabins at the base camps.

After Brent booked Al he gave me his records since the hunt would take place in Western Alaska.  I was responsible for this area and kept in contact with all the hunters who were coming to hunt there.  Each hunter filled out a required hunter information sheet which included height, weight, age, medical issues, special foods or drinks and point of contact.  I always reviewed them before I filed them by the year they were to hunt.  On some hunts we had hunters booked out as far as five years in advance.  I noticed that Al had stated that he was a diabetic but didn’t indicate any special foods.  I thought that was strange, but figured he had it under control.  I’ve hunted with others who were diabetic.  I still had a season before Al was to hunt so I just filed his records.

It was right after the end of our ’98 season when Al gave me a call to see how our hunts had gone.  I told him we had a good season and we’re looking forward to hunting with him the following year.  After a little small talk, he said, “Did anyone tell you I have an artificial leg?” I told him no I didn’t know that, but that wouldn’t be a problem if he could get around alright, that we had a previous hunter with an artificial leg with no issues whatsoever.  I told him I saw that he was a diabetic and asked if he was on a special diet?  He told me no that he had an insulin pump attached to his belt and if he ate the wrong foods he just cranked up the dial.  That really wasn’t what I wanted to hear but he knew what he needed to do better than I did. 

It is now the year Al’s hunt was to take place and he had sent the remainder of his deposit so we were on track.  Some time in late spring Al gave me another call and asked if anyone had told me that he had had some heart problems during the spring!  I said no and asked if he was going to cancel.  He said no way, that his doctor said he just needed to take it easy.  I wasn’t convinced at that time that this was really a good idea.  We are out in the boonies, and the only way out is a small plane, weather permitting.

Al was from the East coast and was driving up.  He planned on buying a freezer for the meat from the hunt, putting it in the bed of his truck, and stopping nightly at camp grounds to plug the freezer in to keep the meat cold or frozen.  He is the only hunter out of at least 500 that had this plan.

Al made his second payment and I sent him his letter with instructions on how to get to Dillingham.  I hadn’t heard from him so I assumed he was still coming.

As the Grumman Goose touched down on Otter Lake I walked up to the lake to say goodbye to the hunters that were leaving and to meet the new hunters.  After all the other hunters had made their way out of the plane there standing in the doorway of the “goose” is a 6’5”, 250+ pound Al.  He didn’t have his hip boots on so I walked out about ten foot in the water, shook his hand and turned my back to him and said, “Climb on!”  I had done this many times but not with someone this heavy.  I made it back to shore and said my last goodbyes so the clients could load up.  Al and I along with the other seven clients walked the ¼ mile to camp.

The "Goose" used by Freshwater Adventures in the early years to bring our hunters in and out.

The "Goose" used by Freshwater Adventures in the early years to bring our hunters in and out.

Al was really excited but all I could see was this giant of a man limping up the hill to camp.  I finished all the licenses as the guides were having the clients shoot their guns and store their excess gear in their tent that they would use when they were in main camp.  Most of them would be flown out to spike camps as soon as they got ready.

I assigned Steve Lanphier as Al’s guide.  Steve is an easy going conscientious guide that loved making clients dreams come true.  He really likes guiding regular working class people.  I knew Al was in good hands.  I decided to take Al and Steve to a small hill overlooking the King Salmon River.  I had spotted a 60+” moose up stream about four miles and the caribou were migrating through the area.  I figured the moose would work his way down river as they usually do.  Over the years this has been a good spike camp and we had taken some nice moose in this area.  Also the ground was fairly firm so I was hoping this would help Al get around better.

As I was getting the super cub loaded and making room for Al we ran into our first problem.  If you have ever gotten into the back seat of a super cub you know that is not the easiest thing to do even with two normal legs and especially if you are big and tall.  Al’s prosthesis was on his right leg which is the one you need to put all the pressure on so you can swing or lower yourself into the back seat.  He made two or three attempts and then said, “Maybe if I take my leg off.”  With that I said, “Whatever works, we’ve got to get you in.”  I was finally able to get hold of his leg above the knee and hold him as he basically fell in the back seat.  I wasn’t sure how we were going to get him out, but knew we would.  He got buckled in and away we went.  After a smooth landing and with a lot of work we got him out of the cub.  He said, “This is unreal” and wanted us to take a picture of him by the cub.  He said he couldn’t believe he was finally there.  Steve had set up a nice camp on the flattest place he could find about 300 yards down the hill in the alder.  I said goodbye and told Steve that I would check on them often.

Me landing the cub at one of our mountain top camps.  The flat top mountain you see in the background to the left is like the one I dropped Al and Steve off that overlooked the King Salmon River.

Me landing the cub at one of our mountain top camps.  The flat top mountain you see in the background to the left is like the one I dropped Al and Steve off that overlooked the King Salmon River.

The next evening I flew over to check on them.  The camp was only about 10 miles from base camp so it wasn’t a big deal.  After landing and as I was getting out of the plane I could see Steve coming up the hill.  I went down to meet him.  His first words were, “This ain’t going to work!” I said, “Why not?” He told me Al almost went into a diabetic coma.  He said when they got up they had a little breakfast and he spotted a herd of about 500 caribou crossing the river below camp coming up the hill at an angle below them.  There were a couple of really dandy bulls in the bunch.  It looked perfect to get a shot if they could get to a point about 250 yards from camp.  Steve said he told him to stay close and be ready to shoot.  He said he was bent over moving fairly quickly keeping his right hand down and behind him waving it as to say, keep coming and stay close.  Guides do this all the time.  He said he was about 100 yards from the point and looked back and Al was about 75 yards back sitting on the ground kind of slumped over.  He said he hustled back and as he got closer he could see Al wasn’t looking too good.  Al looked up and said, “I need sugar quick!”  Steve immediately started grabbing the blueberries that were all around them and gave them to him.  So much for turning up the dial.  Steve then ran to his pack and grabbed Al a candy bar.  He said they stayed around camp the rest of the day.  The caribou of course got away.  I went down to see Al.  I said, “Hey man does this happen often?” He told me no but it has happened before.  I said, “I thought all you had to do was crank up your dial!  We don’t want you to die on us!  This is the wilderness!  No hospitals or anything like that.”  He assured me he was fine and with that as Steve and I were walking back to the plane I told Steve I would bring Eric over later that evening to help him.  Eric was a big packer, in the Marines for 12 years with lots of life experiences.  Later that evening I dropped Eric off and headed back to camp.

The next evening, I flew over to check on the guys.  Again as I was getting out of the cub both Steve and Eric were walking up the hill.  I got out and met them about half way.  They were both shaking their heads and said, “Al broke his leg?” I said, “What, how?”  They told me as he was going down to use the latrine he tripped and fell and broke his prosthesis.  It was only about ten yards from the tents. They carried him back to the tent and then stayed up most of the night using super glue and duct tape to repair the leg.  It was working but they also had made him a crutch out of a big alder limb.  We walked down to the camp and I said to Al, “What are we going to do with you guy?  This is getting serious.  We’ve got to figure out if we will be able to get you close enough to even take one animal, much less three.”  I told him I had checked on the moose before I landed and he had moved down another two miles.  So tomorrow he may be right below you.  I asked him if he thought he could get down there.  The river was about 1000 yards below them and about 500 foot in elevation.  He told me it was pretty hard going down hill.  I said, “Do you think you could take your leg off and crawl?” I know that sounded weird but some way he had to get down there and then he would have to get back.  We talked a little more and I asked if he had any other problems.  He said, “I’m not sleeping very well because of my three herniated discs!”  I shook my head and told all three of them they could hunt most of the next day but we needed to pull this spike camp and get him back to base camp.  Steve, Eric and I walked up to the cub and I told them I would be back tomorrow around 5 PM to pick them up.

When I got back to camp I called my partner Dan on the Sat phone and asked him to pick up an old military stretcher.  My plan was once we got Al back to base camp, which was flatter ground; we would use the packers to carry him around on the stretcher.  Dan said, “No problem and he would make it to camp late the next day.”  We had a plan, but would it work?

The next evening I was able to get everyone back to camp and Dan showed up with the stretcher.  The following day Al, Steve and a couple of packers hunted close to camp.  They didn’t spot anything to go after and that night after dinner as we were all sitting around talking I asked Al why he chose the 15 day, three specie hunt for his first big game hunt since he really wasn’t sure if he could handle it.  He said the same thing I mentioned earlier in the story.  He was only going to come once and wanted to get the most for his money.  He had borrowed money from his 401K for the hunt.  The hunt price was $16k.  I told him I wished he had chosen the $3,000 caribou hunt because I just couldn’t see him getting the three animals.  I was feeling really bad for him because I want every hunter to get what they’re hunting for.  The next morning as we were eating breakfast someone ran in the cook tent and said there were caribou behind some of the tents in camp.  With that Al and the gang grabbed their rifles and took off.  Later that day Al killed a caribou.  It wasn’t the largest caribou but it was a good one.  He was really excited!  One down two to go.

Al with his caribou.

Al with his caribou.

That night we celebrated and Al told me, “I told you it would work.”  I was really glad he had harvested a caribou.  During the evening a storm came up with rain and heavy winds.  As Al was going to his tent he fell, let out a loud yell and broke his prosthesis again.  We put him on the stretcher and got him to his tent.  This time the break was worse.  We had pieces everywhere some from the new break, some were from the old break.  We had to remove most of the old duct tape.  Everyone wanted to help and some did for a while but it was only a two-man job so Eric and I were up until about 2:00 AM.  It was repaired but we knew it couldn’t hold a man his size.  If anyone has ever seen the old style prosthesis, it has like a neoprene sock and that had also torn this time.  He could use it but only with a crutch.  I told Eric I didn’t see how we were going to be able to get him another animal.  We had other clients with animals down and I needed packers to pack.  Sadly, Al was taking up all of the camp help.  

The next morning, I had the guys carry Al over for breakfast on the stretcher.  We showed him his repaired leg and he said he knew that was the best we could do.  He said, “I have a spare leg back home and I will see if my wife can FedEx it up.”  I said, “Half of your hunt is over today! To get it shipped up to Anchorage, have someone pick it up and get it shipped to Dillingham and then hire a plane to bring it into camp will take at least four days.”  I told Al we had a plane coming in that day to pick-up four caribou hunters and he needed to get ready to go out on that plane.  I told him he can wait in Anchorage and once he picks up his leg he can come back out to finish his hunt.  With that I called Jill at Freshwater Adventures, the flying service that would be picking up the hunters, to see if she could find a set of crutches for Al to use to get to Anchorage.  She found a set and Al left that afternoon.  He was never able to meet up with his leg so he left Anchorage driving to the east coast.

That was quite an ordeal for Al and the rest of us.  He really wanted to stay but we just didn’t have the resources.  I was just thankful he had a least killed a caribou.

The following year Brent told me he booked Al on a spring brown bear hunt.  I said, “Are kidding where are we going to put him?” He said, “We will put him at “Agripina River” with Willis Thayer as his guide.  He said there is a bear trail that comes down into the valley about 400 yards from camp and they can just watch that trail.  I said good choice of guide and I guess we can just hope a bear will come down that trail during his hunt.  He has 16 days.

It is the spring of 2000 and PenAir is flying all of our brown bear clients into Pilot Point.  Dan, Gary and I are picking them up at Pilot Point and ferrying them into our Dog Salmon River camp in the three “super cubs.”  Al is in the last load and Gary brings him into camp.  I’m setting at the table eating lunch and Al walks in.  He said, “Roger, how’re you doing?”  I jumped up, shook his hand and said, “Great, how are you?”  He said, “I would be great if I didn’t have this detached retina!!”  He told me he was shooting his .338 Winchester magnum at the range and the recoil had detached his retina.  I said, “Are you suppose to shoot that rifle anymore!”  He said the doctor told him that he shouldn’t but he didn’t want to cancel out.  I said, “I can’t believe you are diabetic, have an artificial leg, heart problems, three herniated disk and a detached retina and you are going after a brown bear!”  This has to be a first.  He said, “I now have a new leg.”  The one that broke was for someone weighing less than 200 pounds so I sued the doctor and won.  I got a new leg and enough money to come on another hunt.

Al was flown to Agripina River and on the 14th day of his hunt he shot an 8’ bear coming off the mountain on the main trail.  Brent’s plan worked prefect.  When Al got back to the Dog Salmon camp he was ecstatic.  He told me, “Now all you have to do is get me a moose.”  I told him he needed someone who did guided float trips for moose and I just didn’t think we had an area where he would have much of a chance.

Al with his brown bear.

Al with his brown bear.

Al left camp a happy hunter and so were we that he left with a bear.  We love it when it all comes together.  God is good!!  I’ve never met nor had a client as dedicated to hunting as he was.  After numerous attempts to reach him regarding his story, I heard that he had passed away.  RIP Al.