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Life On The Refuge: The Last Alaskans

Last Alaskans 1
The following story appears in the July issue of Alaska Sporting Journal 
By Chris Cocoles
Photos courtesy of Animal Planet
Remember when you were young and daydreamed about what life in the future would be like, or at least could be like?
Heimo Korth has more Fred Flintstone in him than George Jetson. He’s more fascinated by the past and what the world around him used to be like; he’s not interested in Tomorrowland.
Korth’s is among a couple handfuls of families still allowed to maintain residency on Alaska’s lonely – that’s lonely, even for Alaska’s standards – Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, featured on Animal Planet’s rookie series, The Last Alaskans.
“This is an adventure; this is joy. You’re bound to nature; nature directs your path,” Korth says during the first few minutes of the show’s premiere episode. “I mean, that’s the way that man has been for nearly three million years. In the land we live in you’re part of the food chain. The only pressure you and all the animals have here is keeping yourself alive.”
In 1980, Congress banned new human occupation in ANWR, which at 113 million acres is about the same size as South Carolina. The owners of seven cabins on the refuge were allowed to continue residing there until their direct living descendants pass away, whenever that time comes.
Most don’t spend the entire year there – the Korths spend a few months out of the year at a cabin in Fort Yukon in the Alaskan Interior, but they trap and hunt through the fall to have enough food to get through the winter. It can be dangerous, regardless of how many months are spent on the refuge.
Korth and his wife, Edna, know all about how fragile life can be in their rugged northeast corner of Alaska, where your nearest neighbor can be hundreds of miles away. Thirty years ago, the Korths lost a child in a river accident when she was 2. It was the kind of unthinkable and horrific tragedy that could destroy a family’s resolve to live in such a primitive setting. But Heimo and Edna , and the others who remain on this beautiful but dangerous refuge – residents share their land with polar bears, brown bears and wolves – are filled with resolve, not regret.
And it’s the kind of fend-for-yourself approach they chose compared to past generations with no such choice.
“If you think about it, any anthropologist will tell you man has been the nomadic hunter for far, far longer than he has farmed in the world,” Korth said. “I guess I feel like me and my wife were kind of keeping up the tradition; I shouldn’t say tradition, but should just say (keeping up) a way of life – with the human population growing – that is dwindling. I’m glad that we live like that, and I’m proud of it.”
LIKE THE OTHER ANWR cabin owners who are the subjects of The Last Alaskans, Heimo Korth was a Lower 48er who migrated to Alaska with every intention of chasing the Last Frontier dream of freedom in a place where you can disappear, metaphorically at least. (According to the Animal Planet bios on the residents featured on the show, Bob Harte hitchhiked to Alaska from New Jersey 40 years ago; Ray Lewis, who has lived in the refuge for 30 years with his wife, Cindy, and three daughters, is originally from Michigan; Tyler and Ashley Selden, relative newcomers to the ANWR, met  at the University of Minnesota Duluth).
Korth’s hometown of Appleton, Wis., wasn’t exactly a major metropolis back in the late 1950s and early ’60s when he grew up. But consider that Appleton’s current population – 73,000 – is bigger than Fairbanks and Juneau combined.
“My dad and mom weren’t very outdoorsy at all. Even though my dad was born and raised on a farm, he wasn’t a hunter or a trapper, and very rarely fished. We lived at the edge of town, and I could walk a block away and be in a farmer’s field with dairy cows around,” he said. “So instead of going into town I always went out of town. There weren’t any cars there, but there were woods to play in. Probably 60 percent of the time I’d go by myself. I loved it and I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to go out with me.”
You can see where this quest for peace and quiet was going to take Korth. His odyssey began in Canada’s Northwest Territories in 1973. This was the during the final days of the Vietnam War and the perception was men Korth’s age (18 at the time) who came to Canada were draft-dodgers, so his presence there was greeted with an icy reception. Still, he longed to fit in somewhere in that corner of North America.
Korth found work assisting a hunting guide, earning just room and board. After two months he asked his boss about opportunities in Alaska to self-sustain as a trapper somewhere. The guide offered to fly Korth to a cabin he used to trap out of. But it was more Alaskan nightmare than American dream.
“I was a cheechako (a rookie outdoorsman, or tenderfoot); I had a difficult time, lost a bunch of my food and fell through the ice,” said Korth, who was unhurt but left the trapping game.
He wrote his guide a letter explaining his failures and got a rather unexpected reply: a check for $500 with two options – use the money to either outfit himself and go back to the cabin or come back to work for the guide. The man had moved to St. Lawrence Island, a middle-of-nowhere Eskimo outpost in the Bering Sea, 36 miles offshore from Russia’s Chukchi Peninsula. Almost every resident there is an Alaskan native.
So Korth was off again to one of the island’s only two villages: Savoonga. It was there he met Edna, though they didn’t start dating until five or six years later. (“Out in an Eskimo village on an island in the middle of a frozen ocean, where do you go out for a date?” he joked.)
Before they fell in love and married in the early 1980s, Korth was already living on his own in a rickety cabin on what is now the ANWR. This wasn’t exactly a romantic spot for young married couples.
“When you’re a single guy in your mid-20s you can live in pretty crummy conditions and you don’t care. I had a little cabin that you couldn’t even stand up straight in because the roof was so low,” Korth said with a laugh. “And Edna got out there and told me later, in her mind, ‘What am I doing out here? This is crazy.’ But she gave me direct orders to raise the roof. A week before winter I worked like a crazy man to raise the house up. I just got it up before the snow.”
But even Edna, no stranger to living in isolation from her island home, also embraced the solitude of the cabin. They could both sustain themselves there, and it was a life dictated on their terms. “Now that’s home,” Korth said.
SOMETIMES, IRONY CAN bowl you over with brute force and downright cruelty. Four months after getting married, the Korths named their first daughter together (Edna had a daughter, Millie, from a previous relationship) after the river that winds its way through the refuge they call home for most of the year. The Coleen is 52 miles long, a tributary of the Porcupine River and a vital artery for the Korths in their home on the refuge. Their first child together, Coleen Ann Korth, was born on May 29, 1982.
In June 1984, the family was in a canoe crossing the Coleen when the boat capsized. Coleen was caught in the river’s swift current and swept away. Her body was never found.
Yet, not only did Heimo and Edna remain strong despite their grief, they were defiant about staying the course in the setting they’d chosen.
“Let’s say a couple has a child and they live in, let’s say, Dallas, and they were born and raised there. They drive out on the highway and they get in a car wreck; the child dies but they live,” Korth said. “Are they going to move to another state to get away from that town? Why would we move away from where we live, even though we lost our daughter? Granted, to this day, many times when I’m walking by myself or me and Edna will be walking somewhere, and even though it was 30 years ago, tears will fall from our eyes out the blue when thinking about it. And it’s hard.”
They’ve carried on in Coleen’s memory. At the end of the debut episode of The Last Alaskans, the Korths make a familiar trip to a place where they both mourn and celebrate simultaneously.
“This is a very important day for us. We’re going to go up to the top of the hill where we put the cross,” Edna says. “Sometimes when we go up there it takes a lot out of us.”
They make the trek to the memorial for a life ended so quickly and abruptly. Flowers are left on the cross – “COLEEN ANN KORTH born 5/29/82; DIED 6/3/84” – as are Coleen’s parents’ tears; hugs are exchanged. “We still have each other,” Edna reminds.
“It’s a very important ritual for us,” Heimo says. “If you’re strong enough to live out here, the hardest part about living here is to keep your mind together.”
The couple went on to have two other daughters, Rhonda and Krin, who themselves grew up learning the hunting, trapping, gathering and survival skills necessary to make it in the bush.
Flash forward a few years later, when Heimo and Rhonda, then 8, were transporting caribou meat on the river.
“Somehow the current caught the canoe and flipped it over. All the meat and my gun sunk in this deep hole. There was ice everywhere; I said, ‘Rhonda, start a big fire; I’m gonna get all the meat,’” Korth said.
“I jumped into that cold, deep water and grabbed the meat and started taking it out. I got my guns out, and while I was doing that I turned around and saw that Rhonda had a big roaring fire going. She knew that I needed that or I’d be dead. She didn’t lose her cool and she just got (the fire) going. I gave her a big smooch on the cheek.”
IN THE CLASSIC novel and film Gone with the Wind, plantation owner Gerald O’Hara tells his daughter, Scarlett O’Hara, “Land is the only thing worth workin’ for … because it’s the only thing that lasts.” This is not Tara. In the Korths’ world, their land won’t last forever. Daughters Rhonda and Krin are now in their 20s and living in Fairbanks. When their parents pass away, the kids will also be able to live on the ANWR cabin, but with their deaths the United States Fish and Wildlife Service regains control after the property was “grandfathered in” to the families.
Heimo once asked the refugee manager if his grandchildren would also get their chance to live there. The answer was a resounding no. So now there’s a sense of finality looming, and Korth acknowledges his appears to be a dying breed.
“Nowadays, the youngsters have very little ambition or desire for the outdoors because everything is so computerized,” he said. “It’s kind of sad because you’re losing connection to the land, or actually the earth. We’re part of the earth – everybody is. People have become so urbanized – and I don’t mean to make fun of you – that they’re losing that. How many people in the big city like Philadelphia or L.A. or New York, when they see the moon, what does the moon mean to them? If they can even see it with the street lights and everything. But when you live in a place where there’s no town, moonlight means a lot. You can do things at night.”
But hope exists in Heimo’s and Edna’s youngest daughter, Krin, whose husband is in the Marines. They already plan to someday live a good part of the year on the refuge.
“I was happy they want to do that because they’re going to continue on what myself and Edna have done; our other daughter, Rhonda, there’s no way. But that’s fine,” Korth said. “(Melinda), my stepdaughter, would never live there again, but every one of them wants to go out once a year for a couple weeks or a month.”
But that’s in the future, and Heimo and Edna hope to have lots of years left together on the refuge. Korth hopes viewers of The Last Alaskans are left with an impression he thinks is lacking on the smörgåsbord of live-action shows meant to depict the excessive wildness and chaos of an Alaskan lifestyle.
Critics seemed to agree, albeit cautiously. The nearby newspaper, the Fairbanks News-Miner, wrote, “The Last Alaskans might be Alaska’s first real reality TV show. Maybe.” There will always be skeptics who don’t believe what they are seeing. Heimo Korth can only do so much to convince you otherwise that these are not actors or showmen (he does admit to the occasional vice from the mainstream world, such as a downing a daily Diet Coke when he spends time in Fort Yukon).
“It makes us look like idiots, like everything you do is on the edge, and that’s not real,” Korth said of other shows. “And I think the audience is going to say, ‘This is real.’ And it is.”
Editor’s note: Animal Planet has renewed The Last Alaskans for a second season.

Treasure Quest: Snake Island’s Big Debut




Alaskans Cork Graham and Jeremy Whalen had quite a smashing debut in their live-action adventure series Treasure Quest: Snake Island, on the Discovery Channel.

Here’s the release from the Discovery Channel, with other news about another show we profiled, Alaskan Bush People:

ALASKAN BUSH PEOPLEwas the #1 Prime Time telecast across all of television and cable in key demos in Prime Time, delivering a whopping 4.84 million Total Viewers P2+ on Friday, July 17 in L+3. The premiere ofTREASURE QUEST: SNAKE ISLAND was Discovery Channel’s most watched and highest rated non-spinoff series premiere this year and Discovery Channel was #1 in all of television in Men on Friday.

ALASKAN BUSH PEOPLE at 9PM delivered a 2.29 P25-54 rating with 4.84 million Total Viewers P2+ in L+3. It was the #1 Prime Time telecast in all of television across Persons and Men 25-54/18-49/18-34, no exclusions. This also marks the seventh straight week ALASKAN BUSH PEOPLE was cable’s #1 telecast across Persons/Men/Women 25-54 and Persons 18-49, no exclusions. 
The series premiere of TREASURE QUEST: SNAKE ISLAND at 10PM earned a 1.10 P25-54 rating with 2.24 million Total Viewers P2+.  It was the #1 program on all of cable in its time period across Persons/Men/Women 25-54 and Persons/Men/Women 18-49, no exclusions, and is Discovery Channel’s highest rated and most watched non-spinoff series premiere this year.

Driven by Alaskan Bush People and Treasure Quest, Discovery Channel was Friday’s #1 network in Prime across M25-54, M18-49, and M18-34.

Look for our Q&A on Whalen in the upcoming August Alaska Sporting Journal. Here’s a sneak preview of tonight’s new episode of Treasure Quest: Snake Island at 10 p.m. Pacific (check local listings):





Safety, Not Selfie, First When Surrounded By Wildlife

Photo by National Park Service

Photo by National Park Service

Summer in Alaska means visits to some of the most beautiful and diverse ecosystems in the world. But sharing the Last Frontier with wildlife comes with the responsibility to stay safe. In other words, don’t assume that taking a selfie with animals behind you is the smartest idea.

From Reuters:

 A Yellowstone National Park visitor was gored this week as she tried to snap a selfie photo close to one of the park’s famed bison, the fifth attack on a tourist who has ignored warnings to admire the mammals from afar, officials said on Thursday.

The 43-year-old Mississippi woman and her daughter were standing with their back to a bison when it charged on Tuesday, tossing her into the air and inflicting minor injuries, Yellowstone spokeswoman Amy Bartlett said.

She was the fifth Yellowstone visitor since May to be gored by one of the park’s popular bison, which can weigh as much as a ton, and the third tourist seeking to take a picture of a buffalo while crowding too close.

The millions of tourists who visit the park annually are warned when they enter Yellowstone, by handouts, signs and orally to keep a distance of at least 25 yards (meters) from bison and to give even more berth to creatures such as grizzly bears, said Bartlett.

Yet the message is clearly not getting through to some individuals who flock to a park that spans more than 3,400 square miles (8,800 sq km) of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

I get it. We all want to take that epic photo when we’re on vacation. But here’s the bottom line: don’t take for granted that animals couldn’t care less about making your Instagram feed and increasing your likes. Photobomb? Phooey!

Stay safe at our national parks.


Valdez Derby Buzz

Abby Wease with a 5.44-pound pink.

Abby Wease with a 5.44-pound pink.



The following report is courtesy of Valdez Fish Derbies:

Local boy makes good: Jase Branshaw with a 6.22-pound humpy.

Local boy makes good: Jase Branshaw with a 6.22-pound humpy.


VALDEZ, Alaska – The Valdez Kids Pink Salmon Derby brought hundreds of children to Valdez Saturday in hopes of winning a longboard, skateboard or fishing pole in the Valdez Kids Pink Salmon Derby. This is the 8th Annual Kids Pink Salmon Derby.
The weigh-in station gave away 300 free t-shirts to kids age 5 to 16 that got a line wet. The winner of the 5- to 7-year-old age division was 7-year-old Jace Branshaw of Valdez, who won his age division and took top honors for largest fish in the derby with a 6.22-pound pink salmon. Abby Wease took second place and had the third-largest fish with a 5.44-pound pink. And a Valdez local, 7-year-old Autumn Boone, sealed third place in her age division with a 5.36-pound fish.



Aaron Williams with a pink of 5.46 pounds

Aaron Williams with a pink of 5.46 pounds

In the 8- to 10-year-old division, Calvin Todd of Fairbanks took top honors as well as the first-place place prize of a longboard with a 5.40-pound pink. Aaron Williams of Fairbanks was back again to win the division for a second year in a row, in the 11- to 13-year-old age division with a 5.46-pound catch. Logan Heckathorn won the 14- to 16-year-old division with salmon weighing 5.28 pounds.

In the Valdez Halibut Derby, Fred Hyder still leads the way with the 253.8-pound halibut he caught July 10 aboard the Jaime Lynn. Milton Fujino of Hawaii is currently in second place overall with a 216.8-pound halibut he caught July 12 aboard the Jaime Lynn, and Candice Janke caught her first halibut ever and got on the board in third place overall with a 215.8-pound halibut. The Silver Derby started Saturday and hopes are high for a great year.

Victoria Herman took the early lead in the Valdez Silver Salmon Derby with this fish weighing 12.88 pounds.

Victoria Herman took the early lead in the Valdez Silver Salmon Derby with this fish weighing 12.88 pounds.

In the Silver Salmon Derby, Victona Herman of Montgomery, Texas took an early lead with a 12.88-pound silver she picked up July 19 aboard the Sound Affair. Bud Corbin of Santa Barbara, California is currently in second place overall with a 11.28-pounder he caught July 19 aboard the Martie Kay. Finally, Eloisa Saunders of Washington is currently in third place overall with a 10.34-pound silver she caught July 18 aboard Reel Nuts.

Halibut Derby – Overall Leaders
1st Fred Hyder Willow, AK 253.8 lbs. July 10 Jaime Lynn
2nd Milton Fujino Kaneohe, HI 216.8 lbs. July 11 Jaime Lynn
3rd Candice Janke Fairbanks, AK 215.8 lbs. July 18 Aleisha

Halibut Derby – Weekly Winners – Week #8
1st Sandra Smith Santa Fe, NM 143.6 lbs. July 19 Dan Orion
2nd Patrick Matt Salihor, AK 102.0 lbs. July 19 Dan Orion

Silver Salmon Derby – Overall Leaders
1st Victona Herman Montgomery, TX 12.88 lbs. July 19 Sound Affair
2nd Bud Corbin Santa Barbara, CA 11.28 lbs. July 19 Martie Kay
3rd Eloisa Saunders Jelm, WA 10.34 lbs. July 18th Reel Nuts
Kids Derby Winners on Next Page
Valdez Kids Pink Salmon Derby – 2015 Winners

5 to 7 Age Division
1st Jace Branshaw Valdez, AK 6.22 lbs.
2nd Abby Wease Salcha, AK 5.44 lbs.
3rd Autumn Boone Valdez, AK 5.36 lbs.

8 to 10 Age Division
1st Calvin Todd Fairbanks, AK 5.40 lbs.
2nd Gracey Garrett Fairbanks, AK 4.94 lbs.
3rd Camden Masson Fairbanks, AK 4.78 lbs.

11 to 13 Age Division
1st Aaron Williams Fairbanks, AK 5.46 lbs.
2nd Brad Baker Valdez, AK 5.10 lbs.
3rd Liberty Gum North Pole, AK 5.00 lbs.

14 to 16 Age Division
1st Logan Heckathorn Valdez, AK 5.28 lbs.
2nd Caleb Hughes Wasilla, AK 5.10 lbs.
3rd Kailey Fowlkes North Pole, AK 5.04 lbs.

For more information on the Valdez Derbies, visit: valdezfishderbies.com



What’s Up With The Hooves On This Moose?


Photo by Becky Grady

Photo by Becki Grady


Check out this report from KTUU in Anchorage on a moose with hooves you have to see to believe. 

Battle said the copper deficiency causes moose hooves to grow faster than they can wear away. The condition results in an elongated and curved hoof, commonly known as ‘sleigh hoof.’

“We see them every so often here in Anchorage and I know sometimes on the Kenai Peninsula,” Battle said. “We get reports of them in Anchorage about once or twice a year at best … it’s not very common.”

According Battle, the southcentral region of Alaska has low levels of copper in the soil and vegetation that moose commonly eat, which could explain why more reports of the phenomenon are made here than in other parts of the state. 

Why don’t a higher number of moose in the region display this deformity? Natural selection, Battle said. “When you have a deficiency of a needed mineral in a particular area, some individuals will be more efficient at absorbing it than others.”

Baseball Brawling In Alaska Summer League

Photo by Tom Reale

Photo by Tom Reale

Last summer, our associate editor Tom Reale checked out some baseball when he profiled some of the college players’ experiences in the Alaska Baseball League. Reale caught up with a couple of the players’ outdoor adventures. Here’s a little taste:

“You go from being a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a big pond,” says Conkle, who excelled both pitching (4-3, 3.28 earned-run average) and hitting (.328, 2 home runs, 37 RBI) at North Alabama in 2014 as a junior. He was batting .225 with 11 RBI for the Chinooks in mid-July.
His host family is very outdoorsy, and he’s been able to get out for some hiking trips. “We did a hike to Mt. Baldy and had a moose walk up to within 50 years of us! I was even able to get some video of it – very impressive,” he says. He’s also been able to spend some time at the family cabin near Talkeetna.
“There’s no electricity, no cell phone coverage, no running water, and an outhouse,” Conkle says. “It’s important to get away from everyday society, away from all of the modern conveniences and to just clear your mind once in a while.”
Shane Armstrong is a right-handed pitcher from Hillsdale College in Michigan, which, like Conkle’s North Alabama team, is a Division II school. He’s also been very impressed by the level of talent in the ABL.
“This is definitely the best league I’ve ever played in. It’s not common for guys from D-II schools to be able to play against players from the SEC and other D-I schools,” he says.
Armstrong’s been salmon fishing on the Kenai River and Russian River once apiece this summer. “We caught one fish, and we’re still working on eating it,” he says.
He’s also gotten out to go hiking on Baldy and Flattop, and learned on a hike on the Matanuska Glacier that “shorts and tennis shoes aren’t the best gear for hiking on ice.”

I also contributed the following sidebar about some of the coaches’ experience coming to Alaska (full disclosure: in my previous jobs as a sports reporter I was on the college baseball beat, so I have a lot of background covering the sport):

College baseball coaches are a pretty tight fraternity. I learned this firsthand being a college baseball beat writer at two newspapers, the Los Angeles Daily News and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Baseball coaches are rivals when they are in opposing dugouts and have every intention of beating the guy on the other side of the diamond, but unlike other college sports like football or basketball, feuds are rare. They get to know each other at conventions, camps, the recruiting trail, and in outposts like Alaska.
In 2009, Arkansas was scheduled to meet Cal State Fullerton in their opening game of the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. It was a reunion of then Arkansas assistant coach Todd Butler and Cal State Fullerton head coach Dave Serrano. The two were once young coaches who worked together on staffs in the Alaska Baseball League in the 1990s.
Both grew up about as about as far away from the Last Frontier as you can get: Butler in Louisiana, Serrano in Southern California.
“It’s 20 hours of daylight and four hours of darkness,” Butler said that day in Omaha, just before he caught up a little bit with his fellow Alaskan alum, Serrano. “I remember when I flew into Kenai in 1991, we went to the field and we had no lights. How were we going to play night games? They said it’s never dark.”
Butler, who’s now the head coach at Wichita State University, quickly adapted to the summer in Alaska routine. After coaching a 6 p.m. game, he’d head out to the Kenai River and cast for sockeye salmon in 10 p.m. summer sunlight.
Butler’s Arkansas Razorbacks got the best of Serrano’s Cal State Fullerton Titans in Omaha, but they enjoyed meeting up again. Serrano is currently the head coach at Tennessee, where his son Kyle, a pitcher, just finished his freshman season for the Volunteers. The Alaskan connection has gone full circle; Kyle Serrano spent this summer playing with the ABL’s Matsu Miners.
“I was kind of leery going to Alaska,” Serrano told me back in 2009. “What am I going into? You hear Alaska and you think snow and think igloos. I left Alaska feeling like everybody in the world should experience Alaska one time in their life. It’s a beautiful part of the country.” 

You may wonder why I’m bringing up all of this feel-good mumbo jumbo. Well, check out this report and video about camaraderie gone awry when two opposing managers duked it out earlier this week in a game:

From KTUU in Anchorage:

Peninsula Oilers head coach Kevin Griffin and Anchorage Bucs head coach Mike Grahovac ignited a benches-clearing brawl late Wednesday night when the two exchanged words and then blows in the top of the 14th inning of their Alaska Baseball League game

Grahovac was ejected for arguing balls and strikes, and as he approached the Bucs’ clubhouse on the third base side of the field, Grahovac and Griffin started their argument.  Griffin was coaching third base for the Oilers, who were at bat at the time of the incident.

Such fights in the Alaska Baseball League, especially between coaches, are extremely rare.  The umpires in the game gave a full report to the league office based on theiraccounts of the incident and video replay supplied by KTUU-Channel 2.  There is no word as of yet from the ABL office on how severely any of the participants in Wednesday’s brawl would be disciplined.

So there is some fight in these guys, and let’s face it: these college players and coaches are simply following in the footsteps of the big-leaguers they want to emulate! Happy days on Alaskan diamonds!

Game Warden Campers Learn About The Job


Game warden camp 3

Photos and Story By Steve Meyer 


“What a great job!”

It seems sportsmen and –women around the world share that sentiment as the game warden walks away after contacting a hunter or angler. Well, except maybe those who have reason to dislike the game warden, such as the poacher. What could be better than spending your job in the outdoors, interacting with those who pursue recreational activities and helping to ensure the future of those activities?

Unless one is not behaving appropriately, experiences with game wardens can and should be pleasant ones. For children growing up in a world that may not include a lot of interaction with the outdoors, perhaps they have already formed opinions and contain fears about those who enforce our fish and game laws that do not mirror the real world of wildlife enforcement.

WITH THAT IN mind, there are several programs nationwide that seek to introduce youngsters to the real workings of protecting our nation’s wildlife resources.

Maine and Oklahoma are two of the more prominent places that have developed these “game warden camps.” It was these camps that caught the attention of Jim Hjelmgren, chief refuge enforcement officer for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska.

Hjelmgren, a very community-minded man, thought a similar program introduced to Alaska would be a great vehicle to form local ties with children and their parents. Knowing refuge manager Andy Loranger of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge to also be committed to his community, Hjelmgren contacted him, and the latter embraced the concept and set to work making it come to fruition in spring 2014.

Developing a program that brought children in and provided a comprehensive introduction to what really goes on in the world of wildlife protection wasn’t easy. Loranger is quick to point out that refuge officer Kelly Modla became the driving force in getting the program started. Modla is well known among local outdoor enthusiasts and is tireless in her work with local youth in various aspects of her position, another community-focused individual (do you see a theme developing here?).

The program took shape in the form of catering to kids of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade ages. Keeping this age group interested is a challenge that was met by developing numerous stations, each a different aspect of life as a game warden, that the kids would rotate through and be able to actually participate in. That is a lot to cover in two days, but the refuge employees have done a great job of orchestrating the event.

Game warden camp 4

DAY ONE STARTED with the gathering of participants and assigning groups with their stations to begin the course. Having an introductory icebreaker is always good for these types of events, and what better way for kids than with horses?

Retired backcountry ranger Rick Johnston brought out two of his own horses and the kids gathered around while Rick explained some of the ways game wardens use horses on the job. The kids all have the opportunity to get close and pet these iconic animals that are so closely tied to our outdoor heritage. From there, the kids break into groups and head for the various stations that are staffed with refuge officers and biologists, U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service officers, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officers, Alaska Wildlife Troopers, Alaska State Park rangers, and Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists.

When developing the warden camp, refuge representatives realized pulling it off successfully would require a lot more staff than normally available. Scheduling it while annual regional in-service training for Alaska’s refuge law enforcement officers was in session in Soldotna provided the perfect venue to have many officers on hand without incurring additional expenses of travel and lodging. Those with the various local state and federal agencies were quick to volunteer assistance, which resulted in plenty of professionals attending the event.

Game warden camp 5

TAKING A TOUR of the course finds one observing game wardens showing the kids remote control decoys used to enforce various wildlife and safety regulations, including shooting a prohibited species or shooting from the road. Moving on to the station found refuge manager Loranger and ADFG’s Jeff Selinger explaining the intricacies of migratory birds (namely ducks and geese), big game and furbearer management and enforcement. There was plenty of waterfowl taxidermy on display, as well as numerous skulls, hides, horns, and other artifacts from the wildlife world for the kids to examine.

The next station featured Rex, the golden Labrador retriever (ASJ, April 2015), putting on a show of his talents for wildlife detection and his ability to enhance successes in the field with his partner, officer Rob Barto.

Next door, KNWR law enforcement supervisor Chris Johnson was donning a RedMan suit, a padded suit used for baton training, and showing the kids the equipment carried daily on the duty belt. They had the opportunity to try on a ballistic vest and a duty belt; then they got to beat up Chris with batons. Well, not really, but he explained some of the situations where a game warden might have no choice but to use force to subdue someone and then gave them a chance to use a baton and “subdue” him. The kids obviously had a great time at this station.

Game warden camp 2

THE KNWR HEADQUARTERS sits on a hill surrounded by wooded acreage. A trail down the hill through the woods leads to Headquarters Lake, a picturesque body of water surrounded by spruce, birch, and alder woods and muskeg swamp. The lake teems with all sorts of bird life, and the trails in the area often exhibit grouse and moose; it’s a terrific setting for learning about the care of wildlife resources.

On the lakeshore officers explained some of the issues with boating accidents and how officers can be called in to assist boaters in trouble. The kids experienced some hands-on experience throwing life rings and ropes used for rescues.

Just up the hill from the lake, an archery station, which would continue through both days, was bustling with activity. The idea with these stations is to introduce the kids to some of the nuances of archery and shooting, not to mention some of the problems officers face with those who are not conducting themselves appropriately in their world.

The last event on the tour for the first day of camp was a wildlife forensics station. Here, the kids learned how game wardens use technology and outdoor skills to find/preserve evidence for solving poaching and other wildlife violations. They made plaster casts of shoeprints along a trail, used a metal detector to find spent cartridge cases and were challenged to find evidence near a wildlife crime scene.

A stark bit of realism was on hand in the form of a brown bear cub that had been struck by a motor vehicle,  and which was used to show some of what wardens would look for/do in the event of an animal believed to have suffered an illegal demise.

Day two’s itinerary included scenarios where the kids were able to participate in checking, questioning and subsequently deciding whether to issue a violation notice to both duck hunters and a fisherman along the lakeshore. They learned some basic GPS and map-reading skills as well as issues surrounding cold water survival. The air rifle station was busy and one of the favorites of attendees.

Game warden camp 1

THE ATMOSPHERE OF the KNWR game warden camp is clearly one of respecting the wildlife resources shared by everyone. For those who love the outdoors, the importance of building relationships with nature in the next generation is critical to our outdoor heritage. The first KNWR Game Warden Camp was conducted in 2014, and of course, it was a learning opportunity for all involved.

This year’s camp was even better, and judging by the interest will continue into the foreseeable future. This has been the pilot program, the first for the National Wildlife Refuge System. With the success, according to Loranger, other refuges around the state and the nation are looking into having their own camps for prospective game wardens.

One side note: before this article comes to print, the KNWR will have celebrated the grand opening of the new visitor’s center adjacent to the current refuge headquarters facility. It is a fabulous place to visit and worth taking a look.

The efforts of the KNWR in involving the community in our outdoor heritage should be applauded.

There was a time when outdoor activities in Alaska centered on hunting and fishing. Now there are all sorts of outdoor interests that take place within the bounds of wildlife refuges. The KNWR has done a good job of seeing that all of those interests are accommodated and respected, which is not an easy task. ASJ

Editor’s note: If you have a youngster who would like to participate in next year’s camp, be sure and check with refuge officer Kelly Modla (907-260-2851) as soon as possible. The nature of the camp limits the number of participants to 40 and it fills fast. For more information on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, go to kenai.fws.gov or facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.


How Alaskans Celebrate July 4

Scott Hamman puts on a show every Fourth of July around the Kenai's Cook Inlet. (SCOTT HAMMAN)

Scott Hamman puts on a show every Fourth of July around the Kenai’s Cook Inlet. (SCOTT HAMMAN)


Happy Independence Day, everyone! As we celebrate our nation’s birthday for the 239th time today, be safe with your fireworks, don’t drink and drive and take some time to embrace the struggles of the Founding Fathers to forge a nation out of a ragtag bunch of once British colonists fighting a world power across the Atlantic.

Our Steve Meyer filed this report that’s appearing in the July issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:

By Steve Meyer

There are simply not many things that cannot be accomplished when one has an adequate amount of explosives. At least that was what we all thought when in days past, there was always a case of dynamite and several hundred feet of det cord stashed in the shed.

Yep, it hasn’t been all that long ago when you could get those things pretty much when you wanted. And it hasn’t been that long since a get together on the Fourth of July would include them.

Reminiscing from past Fourth of July holidays, blowing stuff up on a small scale was what it was all about. Oh sure, where it actually got dark the fireworks were okay and running around the yard in the dark with a sparkler lit up was sort of fun. It was a lot more fun when you had a compadre willing to sword fight with them.

But mostly it was the firecrackers. Perhaps that should be qualified with “for young boys” it was the firecrackers. With firecrackers there were innumerable things that could be blown up such as ant hills, dirt clods, pop bottles; basically if it looked disposable or otherwise something that wouldn’t draw the ire of parents, it got blown up. A rite of passage was having a firecracker go off in your hand. The little ones, called “Lady Fingers” if memory serves correctly, were fairly anemic and you could get use to and even enjoy them going off in your hand. Granted, they hurt, but there is that pain/pleasure thing.

The bigger ones, “Black Cats” is what I remember, that were about an inch-and-a-half long weren’t so much fun. All sorts of bad stuff could happen with one of those detonating in your closed hand. The fun part with those was grouping them together and trying to get them to go off simultaneously and blow up something really big, like falling a small tree or if you were lucky the swollen stomach of a long dead animal.

The fallout from those episodes didn’t make you popular with your mom, but dad usually thought it was pretty funny – no doubt from previous experience as a youngster.


Christine Cunningham prepares to fire a cannonball into Cook Inlet on the Fourth of July. (STEVE MEYER)

Christine Cunningham prepares to fire a cannonball into Cook Inlet on the Fourth of July. (STEVE MEYER)

Of course, as time has passed and folks seem to have less responsibility, a fair amount of disasters with fireworks occurred. Given that largely it seems we have become a nation that is willing to trade freedom for “safety and security,” the Fourth of July doesn’t seem to garner the celebration of why our country even exists anymore. Many places and more specifically, many places in Alaska, fireworks are prohibited.

Alaska being one of the last strongholds of personal freedom has a more specific reason for prohibiting fireworks than just wanting to take away the fun. Forest fires. With many forested areas of the state inundated with beetle-killed spruce trees the potential for easy ignition of wildfires is a clear and present danger. While there are still some places where fireworks can be used in Alaska, it seems folks here have taken a greater responsibility and generally are pretty careful with their use.

For Alaskans, fireworks are largely now a winter function when fire danger is minimal and it actually is dark enough to see them. Municipal entities around the state put on fireworks displays around Christmas and New Year’s Eve and some, Seward being one example, does have a Fourth of July fireworks display late in the day after the Mount Marathon run. The display is set off over Resurrection Bay, where there is no fire danger.

Alaskans being generally rather patriotic and a bit different breed than most can be rather inventive in ways to celebrate in the absence of fireworks. The proliferation of legal owned automatic weapons is never more evident than the evening of the Fourth. The staccato bursts of M16s, AK-47s, Uzis, Browning automatic rifles, Thompsons and even the occasional M2 Browning .50-caliber machine gun can be heard across the landscape. For those bent that direction the sound of automatic weapons is inspirational and pulse throbbing. And for some, that just doesn’t quite do it.

Fireworks are easier to watch in Alaska in the darker days around Christmas and New Year's Eve. (STEVE MEYER)

Fireworks are easier to watch in Alaska in the darker days around Christmas and New Year’s Eve. (STEVE MEYER)

In the American tradition of “bigger is better;” what could one do that is legal and yet better to celebrate our country’s founding?  For our friend Scott Hamann, a larger than life supporter of American freedoms, not the least being the Second Amendment, who’s work and generosity in the field are legendary, it was easy; artillery!  The ownership of modern artillery is somewhat problematic, the shooting of same even more so but black powder artillery is legal and so Scott obtained a replica Civil War cannon and parked it in his front yard, which overlooks Cook Inlet, the perfect place to lob artillery shells without endangering anyone.

Each firing of the canon requires a pound of black powder and a projectile that Scott makes himself, weighing three pounds. Observing the process is a step back in time and appears pretty much exactly like the old photos from Civil War encounters. The dumping of the powder in the bore, tamping it down, seating the ball with the ramrod and capping the firing mechanism are absolutely authentic and in itself a commemoration of our country’s storied history. In the wake of the smoke from the shot and the whistle of the canon ball over the water the carnage of distant battlefields are felt to the core of the soul.

A magnificent tribute to the men and women who have fought and won the freedoms we enjoy. It seems our freedoms are dwindling away but they don’t have to. It all comes down to “want to” and folks like Scott are an inspiration to where we come from and why we must preserve our way of life at any cost.

Happy Birthday to America.




Off the Grid in the Alaska Wilderness

A rare find awaits!

What a rare find!!! This property is totally surrounded by public land, plus you have the Wild and Scenic Talachulitna River right at your foot steps. There is literally no private property on the upper reaches of the Talachulitna River. And there are only just a few parcels at the mid river location.

This property is about a days float from the famous Judd Lake. If you are a fisherman, you probably have heard of the world wide reputation this river has for producing some of the finest angling you can find:

Rainbow Trout, Arctic Char and of course, the “Mighty” King Salmon, Silver Salmon, Reds, Pinks and Dog Salmon.

prop 1This parcel can only be reached by ski plane or snowmobile in the winter or by floating the river. “A very skilled Super Cub pilot may be able to land in the back of the property.” Many people ask for that one and only parcel, off the grid in the Alaska wilderness, so here you have it; a great parcel with a fantastic view of glacier capped mountains, the “Best” fishing and total solitude.

The small, old “Trapper Cabin” from the ancient past is still usable (no value assigned to cabin) and may just be perfect shelter while you build your own log cabin. The Price for the “VERY” rare find is only: $99,900.

Seller prefers cash
Remote Properties, LLC
Your Remote & Recreation Real Estate Broker – Specialist


Kachemak Bay’s Feeder Salmon Frenzy


Meyer king salmon 6

Photos by Steve Meyer 

The following story appears in the June issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:

By Steve Meyer 

Four minutes into the troll, my rod slammed down, releasing the 14-pound downrigger ball and signifying that the fight was on.

The fish made one decent run and came to hand in the bobbing seas typical of lower Cook Inlet. Shane Blakely, of Driftwood Charters and the captain of the day, looked at my fish with a bit of a jaundiced eye and asked, “Do you want to keep it?”

By king salmon standards the fish would impress no one, and clearly there were much bigger fish to be caught. “Hell, yeah, I want to keep it” was my not so subtle response.

Meyer king salmon 2


Months before, my partner, Christine Cunningham, had told me that Ruth and Louis Cusack and Emily and Matt Shock wanted to book a trip to fish for feeder kings out of Homer. Groaning to myself I thought, “Great, another day of mindless trolling for fish with someone who doesn’t know how to catch them.” So I replied, “I’ll go only if we book with Shane.”

You see, we had been feeder king fishing on numerous occasions with several different boats and captains and, frankly, it sucked. True, the scenery in lower Cook Inlet is magnificent and, depending on weather, always a bit different. But after about four hours of listening to the throb of the engines cruising at 2½ mph, the scenery ceases to be all that interesting, and could we please catch a damn fish now?

We had come to know Shane by way of a duck hunting buddy when Shane towed our boat across Kachemak Bay for sea duck hunting in December a couple years ago. Shane hunted with us for a while and then said he probably should go catch a couple kings and would be back for the return across the bay. Yeah, sure, whatever, we thought – until he came back an hour later with two very nice feeder kings.

The next week, the process was repeated, eliminating the chances it was a fluke. Since then, we have sort of kept track of Shane; inevitably, no matter the time of year, he was knocking them out.

Meyer king salmon 4


The feeder king fishery in Kachemak Bay (often referred to as winter kings, or blackmouth in the Pacific Northwest) was at one time primarily a winter event, with the Homer Winter King derby in March being the highlight. But the kings that come from California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia are there year-round.

They feed and then leave when they are ready to make their spawning run.

Some of the kings caught in Kachemak are hatchery fish, as evidenced by their lack of an adipose fin. Some have tags (Shane caught some hundred or so of these last year) that can be sent in to various government agencies, which will return information about the fish. On our trip we caught several hatchery fish and two with tags.

A question that comes to mind is what effect our targeting these fish has on the other end where they spawn; it seems like none. The runs these fish come from continue to increase, as do the numbers of feeder kings in Kachemak Bay. Of course, there are no hard and fast scientific numbers to support that, as no studies of the population in Kachemak Bay have been done. That is simply from observations of anglers who have fished them for a long time, and if anyone knows, it is them.

So with that in mind, we had no qualms about keeping them. One thing that has kept these kings targeted primarily in late winter and early spring is that anglers are not required to record them on the license until April 1. In years past, when kings were rather prolific and fishermen didn’t want to waste the precious slots available on a small king, it was understandable. Now that one is lucky to catch any returning king of any size, these smaller fish are gaining attention throughout the season.

Meyer king salmon 5


With the first fish barely in the fish box, it was Ruth’s turn, as her rod slammed down and she quickly had it to hand. “Throw that little guy back,” Ruth said. Ruth and Louis are consummate game and fish cooks and generously share with others, including the local homeless shelter in Anchorage, and they look for fish that will feed a family, not just themselves. “When the tide turns, the fish will get bigger,” said Shane, who is the most unobtrusive captain one could imagine.

They did. Looking for the secret formula for catching these kings, it quickly became evident there was no “secret.” Using the standard set-up for trolling – a small bait herring that had been toughened with salt brine – there seemed to be no magic involved. During the course of the day there were other boats near our boat, and each time a fish would come to hand the radio would announce some good-natured ribbing about catching all the fish.

As the sun rose over the Southeastern peaks, the fish continued to snatch the preferred herring presented, and all on board had fought at least one of these dime-bright spirited kings back to the boat.

Even the best of times on the water have lulls in the action. Being prepared to enjoy yourself during the breaks in action is critical to having a good day that will include around 12 hours on the water. There were no worries when you were with this group.

The midmorning entrée included Ruth’s delicious salmon dip, mountain goat summer sausage, waterfowl pepperoni and various Cajun concoctions that Louis dreams up, which never disappoint. Well-fed anglers are happy anglers.


Saltwater fishing always comes accompanied with weather – good, bad, and sometimes ugly. No matter how good the weather is, there are always ground swells that may get to those who are prone to succumb to seasickness. Preparing for the worst is a constant in Alaska. Raingear, warm layers of clothing, rubber boots, a knit cap of some sort and wool gloves or ones that equally stay warm when wet should be the bare minimum. Typically, charter boats have some sort of heated cabin, but if you are going to catch a fish sooner or later, you have to get out in the elements.

There are never any guarantees in fishing, but it is a near mortal certainty that you’ll be coming home with fish, assuming you keep them with the intent to eat. The fish will be filleted and placed in plastic bags for you.

To preserve the fish in the best possible way until they are processed, you’ll want to have a decent-sized cooler for the trip from the dock to where will be processed.

You don’t want to have the good fortune of a really nice summer day and have to throw your fish in the back of a hot vehicle. Your charter operator can direct you to local fish processors who will often accommodate vacationers and those in a time crunch.

Nearing the end of the day, we had a boatload of kings, small halibut and some other odds and ends in the fish box. I still hadn’t figured out what Shane does that makes him so successful, but we had brought some 20-odd kings to hand during the course of the day, a remarkable achievement by anyone’s measure in the feeder king arena.

Matt was the holdout of the group; he had one king and was saving his remaining tag for a chance at a bigger fish. Shane took us to a spot just off the Homer Spit, where our lovely deckhand would fillet the fish while Matt continued to troll for his big kings.

Patience rewards, it seems, as Matt finally hooked the king he was hoping for and finished off the day in the best possible way. ASJ


Editor’s note: For more information on Shane Blakely’s Driftwood Charters, call (907) 235-8019 or go to driftwoodcharters.com.