Packers are an integral part of a guide operation. There would be five or six brutal days but worked in between would be easier days of camp chores. They also got to spend more time flying in the “super cub” with me, even if they were sitting back there on a moose quarter or a pack full of caribou meat. My guides might get to see a couple different camps in a season but most packers would make it to all the camps. I’m sure for most of those that had not flown in a small plane, it was quite an experience. Just because of their duties I spent more time with the packers. It was always surprising to me to see the comradery shown between the guides and packers since some of the packers would only be there one season. I have always been proud of AAA’s employees. Follow along and read some of the adventures of the “Packers”.
One of the hardest jobs I had with AAA Alaskan Outfitters from a personnel standpoint was hiring packers. The main reason we needed packers was for our moose and caribou hunts. Some guides hire packers for their sheep hunts but we didn’t do that. Our sheep guides were required to do all the packing for their clients. Most of the time AAA’s sheep guides were Dan, Dee and myself.
A packer’s main responsibility is packing moose. Good packers would also help with the fleshing and getting the hides ready for the taxidermist. They also perform most of the camp chores which was a great help to me and allowed the guides to focus all of their time on the clients.
Because packing out a moose is so physically and mentally challenging, it takes a special type of individual. Who wants to put between 100-150 pounds on their back and walk in hip boots for possibly up to 2 miles and maybe up to seven times for each moose taken! We had six moose hunters so if we were 100% successful; the packers had to repeat this process six more times; maybe in the rain, in a swamp or climbing a hill. Throw in ten to fifteen caribou packs at around 100 pounds each, all in a two to three week time period. Sign me up!!
Back in 1989 after AAA obtained the Otter Lake and the Dog Salmon River camps Brent hired a packer for the Dog Salmon camp and I hired two for the Otter Lake camp. Later in the mid to late 90’s, Brent hired two packers and I hired three. That made for a smother operation. Both Brent and I had packed moose before we started guiding so we were well aware of what was required.
I ran an ad in the local newspaper and got many responses. For me it was easy to weed them out. If they had packed a moose before, I would meet with them. If not, their background had to have experience such as being a Navy seal, an Army ranger, a Marine, commercial fisherman or something that I knew was both physically and mentally challenging. I received calls from individuals from the Lower 48 and after telling them what was required, they would say things like, “down here we just use a winch or we just throw the animal in the back of a pick-up”. They didn’t realize that we didn’t have any roads to use pick-ups or winches. I only hired one guy from the Lower 48 and I will tell you that story later. What was so important was it cost us about $600 in airfare just to get them from Anchorage to camp. So if they didn’t work out and that did happen, we had to hire someone to replace them and pay another $600 airfare. That’s even if we could find someone to hire. Some of my best packers wanted the job so they could use the experience to become a hunting guide. These same packers made some of my best guides. Unless they wanted to become a guide, I only had a couple that lasted more than one season. The pay was only $50 a day including the days traveled in and out, plus room and board so no one was doing it just for the money. You could make about the same at McDonald’s. My personal opinion is that someone in their 20’s, between 5’10” and 6’+ that weighed 180-200 pounds made the best packers. There were always exceptions both smaller and bigger. I just felt it was much harder for someone to carry more than their body weight and especially if they are walking in a swamp in hip boots.
Over the years we had some super packers, too many to mention all of them but I will cover a few special ones, both good and bad.
In 1990, I hired a kid from the east coast. He was the son of one of Tony Lee’s fishing clients. Let’s call him Jr. His dad had booked a caribou hunt with us so they would come up together. Jr. was a young college student who had played football in high school. The summer before he was to pack, he called numerous times with questions about how I thought he could get ready for the job. He told me he was working out with weights. I recommended he go to the local college football stadium and put a 100 pound pack on his back and climb the stairs. He told me he would do that.
When he arrived I was impressed with his build, a muscular framed 180+ pounds and about 5’10” tall. I decided I would guide his father and we would hunt caribou out of main camp. That way I could show him what he would be doing. The first day we had to climb a couple of 800 foot hills to get into a valley above camp. I could see neither was in good shape. They said, “I can’t believe you can still climb like this, how old are you anyway!” I was 45 then, still in the prime of my life and a couple years older than his dad. Late that evening we killed a really nice caribou about five miles from camp. After pictures and butchering, Jr. and I divided the load. I made sure that I had just a little more weight than he did. We started for camp and it didn’t take long before they started complaining. His dad said, “Jr. has too much weight, it going to hurt him.” I stopped and said, “You want to trade packs!” He said, “Yes.” He tried to pick mine up and said, “Yours is heavier than mine! I’m not trading! Are you some kind of animal?” It was a long evening and I knew I had a problem.
The next day I flew out to check on my spike camps. We had a moose down at one of the camps so I came back to main camp to pick up the packers. I had hired an older Air Force guy as the other packer. I got a camp ready for them and flew them over the moose kill. It was in a bog and the pack was going to be about 500 yards, which is not that bad of a pack. Back in 1987 my first client at Otter Lake had killed a moose in the exact same spot. I had packed one load and one of Tony Lee’s packers had packed the rest of it to the pickup spot. So I knew what kind of pack it would be. My guide had quartered the moose and had bagged everything in game bags. I landed them about a mile away on a hill top because that landing area was much longer. I left them there and told them I would pick them up in the evening the next day. The following day it was too windy for me to fly so I waited. The next day was better and I left camp close to noon. As I flew by the kill site I could see all the game bags were still there in the same spot with one about 20 yards from the others. I then landed on the hill where I had left my packers. I walked over to the tent and unzipped the door. There lay both packers in there sleeping bags. I said, “What’s going on, why haven’t you packed the moose?” The older guy said, “We almost lost Jr., he fell down a bank and hurt his back, and my knee is hurting.” I was pissed! I had two grown men who were fine and lying in their sleeping bag in the middle of the day and a dead moose that had to be packed to the strip so I could fly it back to camp.
I said, “So you aren’t going to pack the moose?” A weak no came the reply. I said, “I will be back for you guys after we get the moose taken care of!!” You are leaving us here!! I zipped up the tent door and walked to the plane. You might ask why I didn’t believe them. The moose was surrounded by a large swamp field, with no banks near and the one quarter was laying only 20 yards from the rest of the meat so I knew it was an excuse. Packing moose is a tough job. I flew to the next spike camp up the river and landed there. My guide Eric Sjodin met me at the plane. He told me they had also killed a moose. After congratulating him and the client I told them my dilemma. I told Eric I needed him to pack his client’s moose back to this strip today and I would pick him up late the next morning. He said, “No problem!” I loaded the client in the cub and flew back to base camp. When I arrived in camp everyone wanted to know what was going on. Jr.’s dad was concerned about his son. I told him he was fine and that as soon as I got the two moose taken care of I would pick up Jr. and the other packer. They had everything they needed and I should get them back to camp tomorrow evening. Jeff Hamburg, who was guiding his first client, was in camp and I told him I needed him to pack the other moose. He said, no big deal and I flew him over the next morning and he got it done. Later that night I called Karen on the Single Sideband radio and asked her if she would hire two packers. She had her own job to do but said she would work it in.
Eric packed his moose. I had started early the next morning and flew both moose back to camp, hung them in the meat house and then picked up the packers. The next morning was change out day. Jr.’s dad wanted his son to fly out with him but I told him there was no room on that plane. It was my responsibly so I told him I would fly them out myself later in the week. He then hired the pilot that picked up the other clients to come back for him and his son. I never hired another packer from down in the states.
It took her two days but Karen did the impossible. She hired two packers. Both would work multiple years and be outstanding packers. The two new packers, Marty Phelps and Joe Mack, flew in two days after the old ones left. When they got off the plane Marty asked, “Where is this moose we need to pack?” I said we have one down but you guys can get set up in the bunk house first. Marty said, “I have my pack and I’m ready to go!” I told Joe I would be back for him in about an hour. I dropped Marty off and came back for Joe. It took about an hour for us to return to where I had dropped Marty. When I landed I could see a pile of moose quarters on the strip and I could see Marty coming about two hundred yards from us. That was the last load. He told me he tried to pack two hind quarters at one time. He told me he could stand up, but couldn’t walk. I told him that was crazy. Two hind quarters weighed about three hundred pounds and not to ever do that again. He told me he had packed the two front shoulders in one trip. I couldn’t believe it. What a mule! Over the years we would have two other packers who could pack two front shoulders in one load. Both Marty and Joe were outstanding packers and Marty would get his guide license and guide one year for me.
In August 1993 on a sheep hunt, Marty lost his life in a freak hunting accident. A very large chunk of glacier ice fell on Marty and his identical twin brother Mike. It covered both of them. Mike was able to push his way out but Marty was too far under and would never be recovered. We lost an amazing college football player, friend and a fine Christian young man that day. I still have a bad feeling about the accident because I was the one who recommended they go there. In fact my friend Ron and I had been through that ice field.
The following year Mike wanted to come out and follow his brother’s footsteps. He packed for two years. He was another one who could pack two front shoulders in one load. A fine young man and friend.
Another duty for packers was to run the clients, guides and camp gear by boat from the camp across the lake to our strip. On change out days I would have to fly out up to six clients, their guides and camp gear, so twelve trips. That made for a long day and on occasion I pushed darkness. One of my most conscientious packers was Jeff Hamburg. He was a big husky guy about 6’5” so he could pack about anything. He was the one that ended up packing the moose earlier in the story even if it was his first year guiding. As he was running the boat back and forth from camp he would always bring me snacks without me asking for them. He knew I didn’t take any breaks between flights. On one occasion I was returning from my last load and my daylight was just about gone. In the distance I could just barely make out the silhouette of the boat coming across the lake. As I flew across the dark strip I could see someone lighting a lantern, then the second lantern. It was Jeff and Joe Mack. They knew that I would need the lanterns at each end of the runway. I tried to get the cub set up for landing using the lanterns but the winds were too strong and blowing across the runway. I made two attempts and had to go around. Jeff was also a pilot and knew my capabilities so they pulled the lanterns and placed one of them just above the bank and placed the other one about 100 feet into the wind. It was now pitch black. I set up for landing using the lanterns and making sure I would miss the one on the bank. As I got over the lantern I flared and the airplane basically fell out of the air. Because of my big balloon Air Streak tires I bounced straight up about 25 feet and came straight back down and that was it. I had landed in my tie downs. What a night and what a landing. Without the lanterns I couldn’t have landed. Thanks to Jeff and his fast thinking I was safely on the ground. The next year I got battery powered buoy lights for each end of the runway.
One good thing about having two packers is they keep each other going and most of the time it turns into a competition. That was true with my Navy Seal, Bob Mitchell and a big Alaskan guy, Marty Myre. Bob started out kind of slow at first but by the end the challenge was on. They were ribbing each other all the time and Marty kept Bob all worked up. I remember flying by Bob as he made the crest of a hill, both arms held high in the air like Stallone in “Rocky”. That also worked for Thor Juliussen and Jeff Chilcote and then the next two years with Thor and Randy Hestand.
Our youngest packer was Scott Herbert. Scott was the son of my good friends Mike and Bonnie Herbert. I worked for Mike when I was in the Air Force and then he guided for AAA. Scott was in high school and packed both in the Wrangell’s and Otter Lake. Scott was a body builder who won the title “Mr. Chugach” in 95’, 96’ and won “Mr. Alaska” in the teen category in 96’. He was always up for a challenge. Young guys are like that. He was in on our hardest pack, the one everyone called “the pack from Hell”. It was a 73” moose that Sagen guided on. It was five miles from his spike camp but I had told him I thought I could land at a knob about a mile and a half from the creek where they had killed the moose. The packers had to come up a 75 foot creek bank then walk for 1 ½ miles in a swamp slightly up hill. No place to set down. It was brutal. Scott also packed in a set of locked moose antlers that I had spotted about two miles from camp. However, his biggest feat was getting the all-time record for going the longest without a shower, 30+ days. What a super young man. No job too big. He is currently and proudly serving his country in the Air Force.
I hired Eric Spitzer in 1999. He was a lean 6’5”, twelve years in the Marines as a DI and as a Foreign Embassy guard. He had many attributes that made him an outstanding worker. He had driven to Alaska to become an Alaska State Trooper. He was the third packer who could pack two front shoulders in one trip but most of his fellow packers wanted him to pack the heavier hind quarters so they could pack the lighter front shoulders. However, my rule was you rotated who packed the hind quarters because I thought it was unfair to the guy that had an easier time with hind quarters to pack them all.
The first job I remember Eric doing was breaking beaver dams. We had a client who shot a moose in a three foot deep beaver pond. The beavers had made three dams and had the creek backed up at least a mile. I showed Eric what I wanted done from the air and when I returned 30 minutes later with the other packer the three dams were broken and the moose was lying in a foot of muck.
On another occasion a client had wounded a brown bear right at dark. It was his last hunting day and after he left the next morning I flew Sagen,Thor, Steve Lanphier and Eric close to where the client had wounded the bear. My guide E.J had marked where he had seen the bear go into the alder with surveys tape. We lined up in a straight line and started looking for blood. I told everyone to put a round in the chamber and they all laughed. As they had done that when they got out of the cub. I found the first drop of blood and then we all got closer together moving very slowly. After spotting five or six more drops of blood all of a sudden I heard Eric go, “Oh” followed by two quick shots from his 12 gauge Riot shotgun. He was using double 0 Buck shot. Eric was about six feet to my right and I ran over by him and shot the bear again with my 375 H&H, using a 300 grain Nosler Partition bullet. It was over. Eric told us he was bent down looking for blood and all of a sudden his eyes met the eyes of the bear at about four foot away. The bear was still alive but moving slowly. Eric said, “That was a rush!” We all high fived and got ready to skin the bear. From the shot to the recovery was exactly how it was supposed to work.
That winter I got a call about a reference for Eric. They were doing a background check for the Alaska State Troopers. I gave him a glowing reference and told them as an Alaskan I would sleep better at night knowing he was on the job. Eric currently is a Sergeant, second in command at the Alaska State Trooper Academy.
It was a first for AAA to have a client to become a packer. Tom Losk, from PA, came and hunted moose and caribou two times. On the second hunt he asked if I would let him come back and be a packer. I said, “Why would you want to do that?” He told me he would like the challenge and maybe get his guide license. I said, “We’re always looking for good packers.” Tom came back the following fall and packed. After obtaining his assistant guide license he came back and packed and guided for us two more years.
The same year that Tom started packing we hired Jeremiah Simmons, a lifelong Alaskan that had recently gotten out of the Marines. He also obtained his assistant guide license. They worked great together and did a super job. Jeremiah stayed with AAA and worked at the Dog Salmon camp after I retired.
Last but certainly not least, I hired Chris Moore, gold miner and commercial fisherman, the fall of 1996. Chris was our oldest packer at that time. He was in his late 30’s. He wasn’t a big guy, somewhere around 6’ but boy he could pack. He was in on the “pack from Hell”. Chris became really good at fleshing and doing the final work on the heads before the skins were salted. He also took great care of the meat house. One of our Wildlife Protection Officers who came by about once a year said we had one of the best kept meat houses he had ever checked. That is really important for a guide operation. After four years as a packer, I started calling Chris my camp manager. I counted on him for many things. We started taking him to the Dog Salmon both in the spring and fall. He became camp manager at both places. After 20 years with AAA Alaskan Outfitters Chris is still the camp manager for Brent at the Dog Salmon River camp. Chris is a good man and a good friend.
I miss the measuring nights in the cook tent around the warm barrel stove with cookies and canned fruit. Those were the fun times. I want to thank all of our packers for their hard work, dedication and their friendships. You guys truly enriched my life and I will always remember all of our special times.