What Makes Alaskan Guides Hardcore

By Zack Shrum
6/17/2013 12:14:20 PM

"You got the drive for this son?"

I grinned, remembering the first words out of Ralph Miller's old grizzled mug when he'd hired me as a packer almost a decade ago. On just a couple cups of coffee, the morning's outlook was still a tad muddled as I rummaged through the cook tote for a meal for my client and me.

I was mid way through my fall guiding season in remote western Alaska, and while only feeling slightly overworked, I was pretty sure I'd broken my tailbone on the last hunt. A week prior, while bear hunting, I'd taken a spill on the edge of a big lake while carrying a heavy pack. A basketball-sized rock with a sharp wedge in it connected squarely with my tailbone. It got worse before it got better, hurting like crazy in the meantime.

"Well Ralphie, I said I did then, and I guess I still do now," I told myself, throwing back a few Advil and sucking it up for an honest day's work, which would be the beginning of a 12-day combination brown bear/moose hunt with a Southern gent from the state of Texas.

Fourteen days later, I was sitting on a low mountain ridge my boss likes to pretend is an airstrip (quite successfully). Tired, sore and in desperate need of some R&R, I patiently waited for the faint drone of his Super Cub in the distance, which was my ticket to a steamy shower and two nights in a real bed.

The Texan was already headed south, full of tales to share and a renewed spirit after two weeks in Alaska's embrace. He left with a brown bear rug and a fine set of moose antlers for his den. It was late September and I had been guiding in the mountains and on a wild Alaskan river since early July.

Credit: Petersen's Hunting

Going on over a month straight in the field without a break, I was not only tired, but my tailbone injury hurt a great deal. I desperately needed a couple days of rest in town before my next hunt, but I had two more 10-day hunts to go, and missing them wasn't an option. It had been about 20 days since I'd cracked my tailbone, and it still wasn't healed.

In those 20 days, I'd successfully guided two hunts, packed out two brown bear hides and the better part of a big bull moose, and walked well over 70 miles while hunting. It's safe to say I averaged not more than five hours of sleep per night, and barely managed to find time to cook warm meals in between.

Despite the normal challenges and the added test of dealing with an injury, I managed to keep a positive attitude and remained confident. This, in turn, allowed my clients to have confidence in my decisions, and-most importantly-concentrate on their role in the hunt and not mine.

In addition to my normal workload, there was the ever-constant requirement to keep my camps dry and attached to the mountain. Our western Alaskan winds can make that last part interesting at times-sometimes far exceeding gale force-and sometimes nearly doubling a gale force wind. This lends new challenges to the tent camping experience. Paired with earning very modest daily wages, abusing my body, getting very little sleep and being absent from my wife for months at a time, guiding a full season in Alaska is not for everyone.

My current boss and close friend, Wade Renfro, always says guides have to love it because, in his words, "There's a hell of a lot easier ways to make a living." I can't say it any better. But ask me if I would trade any of the 170 to 200 days I spend guiding per year and I'll tell you the same thing every time: I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Alaska is perhaps the last great place for the adventurous spirit. Guiding in the Last Frontier was a boyhood dream of mine, the realization of which has proven fulfilling in ways I never thought possible. My dream job also happens to be a bit unique when it comes to requirements of the work. Here's a little insight into some standard challenges we deal with and what's expected of a guide in the far north.

Inclement Weather

Always the largest and most critical obstacle, weather potentially dictates nearly every single aspect of remote wilderness hunts, from logistics to success in hunting. Wind driven rain, snow, sleet and hail often fall horizontally. Sun, moon, daylight and the lack thereof can all affect a hunter's comfort, transportation, success and morale during wilderness hunting. For the guide, the mental toughness to deal with not only days, but literally months of inclement weather of nearly every kind imaginable, is absolutely mandatory.

By Zack Shrum

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