The following appears in the January issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY CHRIS COCOLES
His dreams are fulfilling yours.
Consider this: Billy Molls, who’s led big game Alaska hunts for more than 20 years, got his start as a teen as the guiding world’s equivalent of office go-for. Yet ask him to remember his best Dall sheep or downed grizzly taken on a pleasure hunt and he can’t cite an example.
“I’ve never shot a big game animal for myself in Alaska, and I really don’t have a burning desire to do it,” admits Molls, 42. “By the time I was 12 years old, I knew I wanted to be a hunting guide in Alaska. I figured that was my backdoor to experience the Alaskan wilderness. So this is pretty much all I ever wanted to do.”
The grandson and son of hard-working, no-nonsense trappers and farmers in rural Wisconsin, Molls’ passion for the outdoors, adventure and drive has served him well. He’s still based in Wisconsin, where he lives with his wife and daughters and guides hunts in his home state. But his heart and soul is in the Last Frontier, where he regularly films the hunts and has produced several DVDs, including recent new releases that feature a Dall sheep hunt and fitness tips for the field.
From the time his trapper grandfather Bill encouraged young Billy to chase his dreams of hunting in the vast wilderness of the 49th state, Molls knew what he wanted and where he wanted to do it.
His website (billymollsadventures
.com) refers to him as a “Modern-Day Mountain Man.” It’s a moniker he takes pride in, inspired by his mentors back on the farmlands of northwest Wisconsin.
“My grandpa told me, ‘If you want to have an outdoor adventure, Alaska is the place you need to go,’” Molls says. “So I figured, ‘I’ll go hunt in Alaska.’”
IN ONE OF MOLLS’ DVDs, High Country Brown Bears, he takes on the giant spring bruins of the unforgiving coast along the Alaska Peninsula. There, besides the bears, Molls and his client Lonnie Cook face heavy rain and wind, strenuous climbs and a brutal packout of a 9-footer from a steep creek bed after the bear slid down the hill.
“To be a consistently successful trophy brown bear hunter, it takes a wide-ranging skillset,” Molls narrates during the film. “Experience, strength, stamina, endurance and patience are necessary. But perhaps most important is mental fortitude. Enduring those cold, wet, windy days Alaska is so famous for is not for the faint of heart.”
And through the magic of the camera, Molls captures just how breathtaking and dangerous such trips into the Last Frontier’s remote backcountry can be.
On his first hunt as the main guide years ago, a client’s request spawned a new title to Molls’ resume: filmmaker and storyteller.
“The client had a video camera and he videotaped his hunt. He shot the bear and he had asked me to videotape him shooting the bear,” he says. “He sent a copy of all the footage that he took and of course I shot a little bit of him shooting the bear. And he sent that to my parents while we were in Alaska. And then after that I bought my own camera and started filming all my hunts.”
What most fascinated Molls about the filming of he and his client’s successful hunt wasn’t so much the actual moment of connecting on the shot but what led them there in the first place. His parents shared the video with friends around their Wisconsin home.
“It seemed like everyone was perhaps more interested in the lifestyle that we lived (in the field), what we ate, the weather – those kinds of things,” he says. “It’s not just killing an animal, but really it’s the adventure. And we started filming and after 10 years I decided to put this DVD together.”
He has about 15 programs available for purchase, a selection that includes stories of moose and caribou hunting in Alaska, footage from one of Molls’ own adventures on a trip to New Zealand and multiple bear hunt recaps.
Molls hopes all of his videos will provide viewers with a behind-the-scenes look at once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for his clients.
“I love the storytelling aspect, especially in more of my recent videos. And we’re really trying to connect the human element of each adventure. Because I think I find hunting and life to be synonymous in so many ways and every way imaginable,” he says.
“You can touch a deep chord that resonates with enough people, and it’s something that will stand for a long, long time. I really enjoy that part of trying to connect with people.”
In High Country Brown Bears, Molls gets some alone time between the departure of client Lonnie Cook and the arrival of the next hunter, Rob Mullins. He spends it soaking in the wild country he always wanted to explore thousands of miles away growing up in America’s Heartland.
From his oceanside camp, Molls spies a group of seals circling offshore in an attempt to confuse the baitfish they were hungry for. He watches bald eagles soar above the mountains he and Cook had just climbed to approach bears. A fox prances along the beach near his camp. Welcome to Alaska.
“I wanted to be an Alaskan hunting guide. That worked out. I wanted to be an outdoor writer or I would have liked to be a hunting video producer. So strangely I was able to do all those things.”
From where he started, it was a remarkable journey.
WISCONSIN IS KNOWN FOR beer, brats, the Green Bay Packers and its farming culture. America’s Dairyland lives up to the state nickname. Farming is how the Molls family made its living in Turtle Lake, about 100 miles south of Lake Superior at the Wisconsin-Minnesota stateline.
But Billy’s grandfather Bill was also a professional trapper dating back to the Great Depression, a skill he handed down to his son Joe and grandson Billy, who was mesmerized by their trapping prowess when they brought back muskrat, beaver and pelts of other small mammals.
“They knew. They would set a trap (in a specific location) and in my mind I always thought of it as, they knew a language that I didn’t – the language of these animals,” Molls says. “Why are they setting a trap there? They’d answer those questions, but to me it was this big riddle. They thought like wild animals.”
And it fascinated young Billy. When he was 8 years old, he and Joe left by boat for a muskrat trapping expedition on Lightning Creek. Once they passed one of their family friend’s farms and into Wisconsin’s version of the bush, it solidified what Billy wanted to do with this life.
“As soon as we oared the jon boat away from the road, passed the neighboring farm and got out of sight of the power line and there was no evidence of man, something came alive inside me,” “I knew that day I wanted to make my life in the wilderness.”
Grandpa Bill, though he never had and never would make it to Alaska – he passed away 14 years ago – still made a convincing argument to his grandson that if hunting for a living was Billy’s career choice, there was no better place to pursue it than the Last Frontier.
So Billy began to read every magazine article on Alaska hunting. The state became his obsession, the white whale so many young outdoors geeks want to conquer. Somehow, someway, he would guide there. Alaska was 3,000-plus miles away from Wisconsin, but felt even further way spiritually as well as geographically.
“As a kid we really never went on vacations or anything like that. I’d never really been more than 200 miles from my house until I was 18 years old,” he says. “We always had food on the table, but by today’s standards we were most definitely poor. I never saw my grandpa or my dad go on any hunting trips of that magnitude. So I just kind of assumed that it was beyond me.”
Yet right after high school graduation, Molls left Turtle Lake and started his pilgrimage to the north. He made stops in Montana for guiding school, then Idaho where he cut his teeth as a packer.
By the time he made it to Alaska, he also had to start out as a packer for a guide there. And as you might expect it wasn’t the most glamorous of first jobs (see sidebar). Still, Molls was well on his way to eventually opening his own big game guide service.
“My first two years as a packer I was definitely a grunt. It was my job to carry heavy things. (But) I was pretty good at skinning and I knew a lot of the basics of hunting. I had so many years of trapping and being a farm kid in general, I knew a little bit about everything. I could run chainsaws, had common sense and could drive vehicles and think on my feet,” he says.
“And I had a good work ethic more than anything. To me, none of it was ever work. I could carry heavy loads all day. I mean, that was my dream. I was in Alaska; it didn’t matter what I was doing.”
THESE DAYS, MOLLS GUIDES whitetail hunts in Wisconsin and spends parts of spring and fall taking hunters out for Dall sheep, moose, caribou and, of course, bears. Trips like these are expensive hunts but bucket-list items for everyone from the wealthy to average Joes – just like the Molls – who have saved for years for that one special trip.
“I’m not so much about getting a 28-year-old kid that’s an ultra-marathon runner a Dall sheep. I want to get one for that 65-year-old man with two artificial knees who worked his full life so he can finally afford to go on his dream hunt,” says Molls, referring to one of his most memorable hunts.
“This guy’s only got one climb up the mountain, so he’s got to make it count. For me, that’s where I get the most satisfaction and personal pride in what I do. I really try to take all my time and experience to make the client’s dream a reality. It makes it pretty rewarding.”
Zig Ziglar, the famed motivational speaker, talked a lot about dreams during his seminars during his 1970s and ’80s heyday when he barnstormed the map inspiring businesspeople. That includes that aspiring Wisconsin hunter.
“I’m paraphrasing (Ziglar) now, ‘If you want your dreams to come true, make enough other people’s dreams come true,’” says Molls, who himself hopes he can someday educate those unsure about the sport or even anti-hunting activists.
He even made his dad’s dreams – and in many ways, Grandpa Bill’s – come true when Joe made it to Alaska to hunt with Billy a few years ago, and one of Joe’s high school buddies joined them.
It was a sentimental experience for the Molls – Billy made a DVD about it called Hunt for the Unknown – as they paid tribute to Bill, who never had that chance to join his son and grandson in Alaska.
“(Joe) used my grandfather’s old .303 Savage rifle that my grandfather deer hunted with. So in a way it felt like my dad, my grandpa and I all hunted together,” says Billy, who in many ways feels like he’s living out two dreams as he’s evolved into the big game hunting guide he vowed to follow through on.
“You might even say he kind of lives inside me. A lot of times when I’m in the wilderness, I still kind of feel connected to him,” he says of the old trapper Bill. “I know him better even though he’s been gone 14 years. I feel like I have a better idea of who he was now. The more I’m in nature, the more I understand about him.” ASj
A GUIDING DEBUT TO FORGET
Billy Molls knew right away that Alaska was where he wanted to be to experience the hunting guide lifestyle. But like so many eventually hitting it big in various fields, he had to pay his dues first.
Molls’ early jobs reinforced the notion that spending multiple days in remote, weather-affected locales in Alaska isn’t always as exciting as it sounds.
He recalled one of his first trips as a packer for a hunting guide on Kodiak Island after he left the Lower 48 for Alaska. The party headed out into a snowy area after spotting a brown bear, and Molls knew as the “last man on the totem pole” he was going to do the dirty (and wet) work.
“The guide and the client both had snowshoes but we only had two sets. So I had to go without them. So we’re going through 4 or 5 feet of snow during a 2-mile stalk,” he says. “I would go crotch-deep with every step. My hip boots were filled with snow.”
As can be the norm on bear hunts, the long wait for the bruin to move was doubly difficult for the group’s packer. The snow that had accumulated in Molls’ hip boots turned to freezing water during the duration of the four-hour standoff. Hypothermia would have become a concern had he been stranded.
The good news? The client finally shot the bear, which fortunately was in a spot where they could return the next day to pack it out.
The bad news? Molls, as the newbie packer, was going to have to go through another brutal experience.
“We got back to camp and I couldn’t even eat; I just huddled in my sleeping bag all night,” he says.
When they got back to the shooting site, they found it was a big, 10-foot-7 bear, which meant it was going to be a pretty heavy pack that the new guy would be carrying back to base camp, though at least he had snowshoes this time around.
“We’ve got about a 150-pound bear hide (to take) 9 miles back to camp. So that was just grueling. I took it like 6 of the 9 miles and I just couldn’t pack it the whole way. It was just so heavy. I think the guide was a little bit disgusted. We switched packs, and his was still real heavy but not as heavy as mine,” he says.
The lesson here, kids, is this was the moment when 19-year-old Billy Molls might have become discouraged or doubted that such a life was for him, even after dreaming of Alaska as a youngster in Wisconsin. Even after spending a couple years learning the ropes in Idaho and Montana.
But what happened on the way back to civilization made this a defining moment of a career, which has gone on now for more than two decades.
“I felt like I was a failure. I thought, ‘There goes my dream. I’m not man enough to pack that heavy load.’ We cruised in our Zodiac for about 5 miles on the ocean back to our spike camp. As we’re riding back, I’m looking at the mountains on Kodiak Island, the guide and the client are on either side of the Zodiac,” Molls says.
“I was just kind of despondent. I wouldn’t say depressed but I kind of felt lost. And after a while, I don’t know if the guide sensed it or not, but he punched me in the thigh and said, ‘Hey, you did a good job.’ That meant a lot to me – just that he recognized that I had a very heavy load. I didn’t get it all the way out but that he was happy with what I did. That gave me the confidence that I could actually do it.” CC