The week raced toward Friday, the finish line. My dad, Turk Turinsky, and I would be flying to our cabin at Lake Clark. Really, it’s more than a cabin; it’s really a small house. It’s on the west side of Lake Clark’s Port Alsworth peninsula. It’s been our second home for thirty years now and the summers of my youth always found us there. It was the stepping off place for all of our western Alaska adventures.
We would fly our Cessna 206 on floats from Anchorage Lake Hood Seaplane base to Lake Clark. Dad taxied to the west end of the lake and get close to the shoreline, turn into the wind, get takeoff clearance and hit it. With our typical load, we wanted all the lake we could get to get our ‘legal’ load in the air. We were always legally loaded; I don’t think there ever has been a float plane that left Lake Hood overloaded –yeah, and if you buy that, I’ll sell you a bridge over the Copper River. But, seriously, Dad always made an effort to properly load the airplane.
“2221U, you are cleared for take off west.” Dad thrilled me that day, “Kev, let’s get off this lake.” I slide the throttle in, pulling all of the three hundred horses to get us on step. On floats you go from standstill to plane, like a fast boat skimming the top of the water. At first we started out slow, we would need sixty knots to get the wings to bite the air and lift off. Today, it only took us the length of Spenard Lake, by the time we hit the canal that connects Lake Hood we were airborne.
We climbed north to the boat hull at Point McKinsey then west toward Lake Clark Pass. We followed the west coast line of Cook Inlet to Big River Lakes and the start of the pass. We had clear skies with the wind on our tail.
It was late August and we decided to look for Caribou. We weren’t hunting this trip, but it never hurts to keep an eyeball on the game for later trips when we would be about the business of gathering our winter sausage.
Normally, our route takes us through the pass. We are not always so lucky to have clear weather. Lake Clark Pass is a major airway for everyone going to western Alaska, Lake Clark and Lake Iliamna. Today, we skirted the north side of the pass and decided to go over Bend-a-Float and Telaquana Lakes looking for the Boo.
Coming up on Bend-a-Float Lake at 1500 feet, we spotted two people signaling from the beach. Hunting camps pop up like dandelions this time of the year. We throttled back, slowed and circled back. Another unwritten rule: when someone signals you and it is possible to help, you do.
We waggled our wings and headed down to see what the problem was. People don’t usually flag an airplane down unless there is some sort of emergency. We were heavy with our gear but had burned off at least an hour-and-a-half of gas. Dad said that if we needed to we could unload our stuff and come back for it later. It was hard to guess what they needed us for, but if someone was hurt, we would do whatever we needed to.
With a wind from the west we flew downwind and turned final to Bend-a-Float. The name tells the story about the size of this lake. We slid down on final, full flaps, throttle back, five hundred feet per minute. Water sprayed past the floats and we knew we were down. There was a light chop on the water from the breeze on our nose, thankfully. It can be difficult to land when the lake is really smooth. A light chop helps to gauge exactly where the surface of the lake is.
We step taxied to the camp on the beach. At about one hundred feet from shore we pulled full rich, cut the engine and drifted in. The crunch of the sand and small gravel told us we were beached. Switches off, we jumped out and were greeted by two very excited European hunters. I’d taken German in High School, and recognized some of what was been said.
One of them did speak English better than we spoke German. Dad asked why they’d flagged us down, and if someone was injured. They said no one was hurt but they had shot a large black wolf and wanted us to fly the hide back to Anchorage for them.
Dad, didn’t get mad because he doesn’t get mad. He did explain that we were heavily loaded and headed in the opposite direction. He also mentioned that you NEVER flag an airplane unless you have a true emergency.
It was hard to get them to understand the situation they had put us in. We were now on a very short lake with a heavily loaded float plane. We took them up on their offer of a cup of coffee and said we may as well have a look at the black wolf hide.
The hide was stretched out and they had boiled the skull free of flesh. It was a strange looking wolf. For one thing, wolves have long hair; this hair was short and totally black. We finished our coffee, and looked at each other and headed for the plane.
We spun the plane around and taxied back to the very far end of the lake. This was our second heavy takeoff for the day, but now we were at a higher altitude and we had a much shorter lake. A stream flowing out of the lake helped, we would not have to climb as high to get clear of the trees. We turned as close to the shore as we could and poured the coals to it. We got up on step and headed toward the creek and lower terrain, clearing comfortably.
Dad and I talked about what we’d seen. “Kev”, he said, “We’d better stop at Stews”. Steward Ramstad grew up with my dad, and is a well-known Alaska guide. We’d see his clients on the big movie screens or hear their familiar political names in the news.
Stewart’s lodge was only five minutes by air from the German’s camp. We barely got into the air before we were making the descent into his lake. We talked about what we had just seen as we were landing.
Another crunch of sand, then switches off. We were there. Stewart and his troupe of dogs tumbled out of his lodge. He greeted us with a huge smile and hearty hello. Dad told him what we’d just seen, and said that Stewart should probably go over and see their wolf and talk to them. Stewart had a complete litter of shiny, black Labradors. Most folks keep the pick of the litter, Stewart kept the whole litter. Only four of his five dogs had poured out of the lodge with him. He said Bruno was off running as usual.
It took Stewart only minutes to load the boys in the Beaver and head out.
Once airborne and flying over the camp Turk and Kevin had described to me, I spotted them. They were on the beach flagging me down just as they had done to Turk and Kevin. Obviously, they missed the point of Turk’s lesson about aircraft flagging etiquette. I wagged the wings briefly, chopped power, dropped flaps and touched down. At the beach, the boys immediately charged up the beach toward the wolf hide. I followed them up, and introduced myself, letting them know I was a professional guide and had experience with local game.
The dogs were worrying about the hide something awful. One look, you guessed it, skinned and stretched, but unmistakably their brother, Bruno. The hunters were excited and trying to tell me that they needed someone to fly their black wolf pelt back to Anchorage. I tried to maintain some sense of professional decorum. I fought to restrain my anger: these people had shot, skinned and boiled the skull of my dog.
They said they’d been hunting when they saw the black wolf harassing a herd of caribou, so they shot it and brought it back to camp. I brushed passed them, and gathered up what was left of Bruno. They did not understand. I told them they’d shot one of my dogs. They became upset that I was taking their trophy. I told them again that they’d shot my dog. I told them look at my dogs, do the math, “You shot my DOG not a WOLF.”
I loaded Bruno and the boys into the Beaver, and told the hunters I would have to report this to the local Game Warden. They got a bit hostile and nasty, and started to argue their case again. I just backed away and jumped into the Beaver.
Taxiing away, I figured that while he was out adventuring Bruno must have heard the air taxi’s Beaver drop the hunters off. He figured it was me and went to investigate. I was hot; I was furious, but did feel somewhat responsible. I did let my dogs run loose, but with this entire wilderness surrounding us, who’d have thought there’d be a problem.
I did tell the game warden about the hunters and their ‘wolf’. I also told him I’d seen hair around their packs that looked more like brown bear than caribou. He told me later that he had flown into the camp to talk to them and had a look around. He said he’d been alone and they made veiled threats regarding their ways of handling authority in the wilderness. Without back up, he decided that leaving was the better part of valor.
Later that fall, I went back to the camp to look around. I happened to have some trash in airplane that, not wanting to litter, I buried in the fire pit. It was just a plastic bag with some leftover 4th of July firecrackers.
In November, I was on my snow machine in the area when I found a number of fully skinned caribou hanging in some trees. I thought this was odd and later reported it to the Department of Fish & Game.
They investigated. It turned out this group of hunters along with a second group, who were operating near Fairbanks, have been kicked out of Chad, Africa for shooting anything and everything with complete disregard. The caribou that I’d found hanging were left by them. They’d planned to claim them as winter kills the next year when they returned to hunt ‘wolf’. Fish & Game stayed on the investigation and now Africa is not the only place they’re banned from hunting in. Alaska was added to their list.
I know that over the years things change and new regulations are enacted. Sometimes we grumble and complain. But, there are good reasons for the regulations. Today, all non-resident hunters are required to have a guide. Same day flying and hunting is no longer allowed. Maybe Bruno didn’t die in vain.
Sometimes, they name mountains after people when they die. I have a hill behind the lodge named “Bruno”.