Wilson Justin was interviewed on April 23, 2015 by Leslie McCartney and Barbara Cellarius at the offices of the Cheesh’na Tribal Council in Chistochina, Alaska. In this first part of a two part interview, Wilson talks about how he and his family got into the sport hunting guiding business in the Wrangell Mountains. He also talks about changes in the guiding business, competition and cooperation between guides, and marketing the business to attract clients. Finally, Wilson talks about how his family supported establishment of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Wrangell-St.Elias National Park
Date of Interview: Apr 23, 2015
Narrator(s): Wilson Justin
Interviewer(s): Leslie McCartney, Barbara Cellarius
Transcriber: Joan O'Leary
After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.
His and his family's role in the sport hunting guiding business
Getting a guide license
Change in the guiding business from community-oriented to money-maker
Use of the meat from a hunt
Change in the lengths of the hunts and the types of clients
Types of clients and their hunting philosophy
Getting started with horse wrangling and guiding
Perceptions of guiding and being successful in the business
Lack of Native guides in Kodiak and the Alaska Peninsula, and perceptions of guides
Advertising the guiding business
Getting out of the guiding business
Relationship amongst competing guides
Importance of helping other people
Role of the Jonas Brothers in marketing guided trips to Alaska
Support for establishment of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
Changes in wildlife populations and the ability to live off the land
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After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: Office of Chena? BARBARA CELLARIUS: Cheesh’na Tribal Council. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Cheesh’na Tribal Council.
And thanks, Wilson, for talking to us again. This is the second time you've talked to us.
WILSON JUSTIN: I barely remember the first one, so --
BARBARA CELLARIUS: Well, the -- the first time we -- we spoke, we talked about your life more generally. And we were interested in -- in learning some more about your involvement in guided sport hunting.
And perhaps also Ahtna Athabascan involvement in guided sport hunting more generally.
WILSON JUSTIN: I was in the middle of a campaign the last time we talked, so it was kind of pretty hectic.
Well, which -- which part of the story do you want to start on?
BARBARA CELLARIUS: Which does it make the most sense to start with?
WILSON JUSTIN: Well, I suppose we can talk a bit about the guiding industry as a whole. The very uniquely personal view I have of it. It's -- I grew up --
My connection to the guiding business is direct and personal, and then there's also the issue of my being a second generation guide.
My Uncle Johnny and Uncle Paul, my Aunt Lena, my half-brother Jack John were all guides or wranglers in the guiding business.
My dad, Old John or Nabesna John, was a territorial game warden, but he spent quite a bit of time also guiding as a pastime.
Did it without license, of course. Nobody had license in those days.
If you needed to go guide, you go guide. If you need to go fish, you go fish. There's no big paperwork trail for you.
So my dad was not only a part-time guide and a territorial officer, but he was also a transporter.
He owned three horses, so he would move goods for whoever needed moving from Chisana down -- for instance, down to Slana and back.
Primarily mail. Most of his work seems to have been either U.S. postal mail or a specific order, like moving canned goods.
BARBARA CELLARIUS: Somebody asked him to do a particular job?
WILSON JUSTIN: From fishing over a bag.
On the other hand, Johnny, my uncle, Lena (Charley), they came into guiding in the '50’s, and unlike my dad and that generation they did get assistant guide's license.
My stepfather, Lee (Hancock), was pretty straight-laced about the issue of being licensed and all of that. So he always made sure that everybody who worked around the guiding business in his locality had assistant guide's license.
So my uncle and the rest of the family, the first generation of guides, were actually licensed guides.
BARBARA CELLARIUS: And what was the process to get that license back then?
WILSON JUSTIN: At that time in the territory days before statehood, basically all you needed was a statement from the registered guide, so be pretty simple. Kinda like having a sponsor. BARBARA CELLARIUS: Uh-huh.
WILSON JUSTIN: Straightforward. No big hassle. And not like today where most of the guiding activities in terms of permitting processes are driven by the question of what the regulating agencies need as opposed to what fits the business.
But anyways, I grew up in the guiding atmosphere (phone ringing) all the way from when I was born.
I always had a what you would call working familiarity with what the guiding business was about. So I knew what guiding did and I knew what we did for our own purposes.
And it never occurred to me that the guiding business was anything but what you would call a business.
The mutation or the change of the guiding industry from a community-orientated small business to a more of a sole proprietorship establishment type of business occurred between 1960 and 1970.
Before 1970, it was primarily horses. Or 1960, it was primarily horses or track vehicles.
And the old-time guide was very selective and cautious about the meat. It was a -- it was a question of integrity that you didn’t leave meat out in the wilds. You brought it all back, and irregardless of whether you could use it or not there was always people who could.
So my stepfather and the older guides, it was a part of their makeup in a community sense that when they were done with their guiding, there would be plenty of meat to be dispersed. Sheep, moose and whatever.
By 1970, it was an economic question of whether or not anybody had the time or the money to gather up the meat. It cost a lot of money, especially with airplanes.
So between 1960 and 1970, the entire face of the guiding business changed from a community-orientated small business to one of "let’s make as much money as fast as we can."
And things like going back and retrieving meat was not a part of the economic picture.
So I saw that -- I came along just when I -- just in time to see that. And that was a big issue with me.
The fact that the guiding industry would turn into a "let’s just use these animals as a way of keeping track of how much money we need or make" as opposed to having a place in the community.
So my uncle and my aunt and the rest of the family were raised in the first environment.
Matter of fact, the primary reason for them becoming assistant guides is so that they could participate in the harvest, 'cause they kept the meat when the harvest was done. So it's just another way of adding to your nutritional stash for the winter.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: Wilson, was this because people were hunting just as trophy hunting? They weren’t hunt -- where they came up and you were guiding? Why didn’t they want the meat? Why do you suppose --
WILSON JUSTIN: Just, it's a cost -- cost containment issue. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Cost containment.
WILSON JUSTIN: With light airplanes you can only haul so much. And it take quite a bit to go back and get.
Now here's what you have to remember. It's numbers driven.
When the horse operators were operating, they took hunters out for 15 to 21 days, and it was a set cost. I think the typical sheep hunt was around $3,500, and it was about 20 or 21 days.
So you were completely self-contained. You went out and you came back when you were done.
With airplanes, you needed so many sheep a day or so many game a day in order to pay for the overhead. So you -- you had a minimum number of trophies you had to produce in order to make enough.
And there's nothing going to keep you from making that minimum number. So it's run, run, run, run, run, and run, constantly.
Whereas in the older more slower style, it was really a question of having four or five very good, high priced hunters who would look at getting a moose or caribou or sheep and a wolf.
And you took your entire horse train with you. So you didn’t have to produce four or five sheep a day or four or five moose a day or four or five bears a day.
You only needed to break the season into two pieces. The first piece you had four or five hunters. The second piece four or five hunters.
And you had enough horses and enough wranglers and enough cooks to take care of the whole thing. So it was economy of scale.
BARBARA CELLARIUS: Was there a change in the clientele between the two kinds of trips that you've described? The long trips with horses and then the much more -- much shorter trips using aircraft for access?
WILSON JUSTIN: There was. It, you know, I -- I can’t -- I cannot say it's the airplane guys’ fault. It was that specifically a specific type of clientele that came in that said we want short, fast hunts. We don’t want to spend -- they weren’t -- they weren’t woodsmen or wilderness people they were business people.
The airplane industry grew to accommodate that strain of thought. And the old rural American hunting that the horse -- horses were used to accommodate just kind of drifted off.
And there were certain things that I picked up along the way. For instance, when I was wrangling horses for my stepfather in 1967. In camp. My Aunt Lena was guiding and Jerry, her husband Jerry Charley, was the guide.
Every morning when I went out there to saddle up the horses, the hunters would tell me, "Ah, I don’t like that horse. Is too big, too tall. Any animal that I can’t look in the eye I don’t want to be on." And I started thinking about that.
Well, Lee used to have these 1,700 pound horses that were six -- six foot tall. Basically, you have to have a ladder to get up on top of them.
And the typical American hunters back then never spent much time around horses that size.
Well, there was a time and a place for horses like that were absolutely necessary. Swamps were bad. You needed big powerful animals.
You had to have them otherwise you're not going to be able to conduct the hunt that you want, for the time that you want, so these were very necessary.
But the hunt began to change in the '60’s to 10 day hunts.
And it was already becoming obvious to me by 19 -- 'cause I'd been spending a lot of time on flying.
It was already obvious to me that we had a different kind of terrain.
So the first adjustment that I started thinking about in 19 -- in the late '60’s, was getting smaller horses. Get away from these big huge draft animals.
Size the horse down to make the hunters more comfortable and shortening up the season.
Well, to shorten up the season, the first thing you have to do is look at the map and say, "Well, Lee used to go over Suslota to the Little Tok or the -- not the Little Tok but a different -- then hit the Little Tok and come back up." That's a -- that's an extra two and half days to get over to camp.
Or you would work over there in the other end of the range, and you would have these trails that made all of these big long loops and what have you because of swamps.
So in 1970, I set out, say, "There's got to be a way to shorten up these distances. You got to get from A to B without all of that other stuff."
And I was surprised there was. It didn’t take long for me with good horses to figure out good trails. And we put in trails that should -- Instead of four days of running around the countryside and having six days to hunt or basically out of a 10-day season in 1965 you would use five days of that 10 days getting to where you were supposed to go, taking up camp, putting it down.
My job was to say we need to get in there in one day and out in one day and have eight days for hunting. That was the math that I needed to work with, and that's what I did.
So when we switched to 10 day hunting completely in 1970, by that time I had figured out how to put camps up and set things out so that we had one day in, one day out, eight days of hunting.
And that was the formula or that was the way we worked everything. Nabesna, Cooper Creek, downriver.
Lost Lakes, Suslota. Everything was predicated upon one day in, one day out, eight days of hunting. It served us well.
But to think like that you have to have a certain background. And that was always some of the issues with the guiding business in Alaska.
You cannot get the guiding business to accommodate the question of how do you deal with overhead. Overhead means you have to have a minimum number of animals in as short of period of time as possible.
Whereas in what we were doing, we established a minimum number of days that we needed to actually do what we had to do.
Two entire different philosophies. So the philosophy of a 10 day hunt over a 40 day period was actually more community and family derived.
It's good for the animals and good for everything else because you have a limited number of animals you're going to take.
The open-ended where you try to cram in three or four hunts a day means there's going to be a lot of waste and a lot of issues with overhead.
So we went for low overhead, maximum time in the field, and it worked well. That kind of thinking was not a part of the original guiding industry.
When my -- when my stepfather got into the business way back in the '30’s and the '40’s, the clientele back then were what you would call the Americans sportsperson as a super hero.
They were out to prove something. And one of the ways that they proved themselves was extended time in the field trophy hunting.
It'd be like today, if you were to go out and do trophy hunting, it got nothing to do with proving anything, except that you got money to spend or that you're a good shot.
But it was very important to the clientele that my stepfather grew up with that they could prove that they could spend 30, 40 days in the wilderness, as they call it.
With all the trials and tribulations that is necessary to obtain the game and come back. It would be like climbing Mt. Everest today.
The same exact thing that makes a person goes up to Mt. Everest today is the same exact thing that made a person go sheep hunting in Alaska in 1935.
So when you think it about like that, you can see that the guiding business before I was born and come along had a radical different kind of application. It really had nothing to do with guiding, you know.
It was all about ensuring that this guy who wanted to go out and prove himself didn’t kill himself.
Just like when you take somebody up on Mt. Everest the question is not whether you get up there or not. The question is whether you're going to die up there or not.
BARBARA CELLARIUS: Or come home. WILSON JUSTIN: Come home.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: And they didn’t have the skills, so they relied on the guides. WILSON JUSTIN: Oh, absolutely. LESLIE McCARTNEY: On their skills to -- to -- obv -- to keep them alive.
WILSON JUSTIN: So that was the kind of people that my stepfather grew up around. And he was pretty contemptuous of the kind of sportsmen that came into the business in the '50’s that wanted to shoot something right away.
No tramping through the woods, no battling the mosquitoes. Step out of the car and shoot and go home. He was very contemptuous of that.
But that's the only kind of people that I knew was these guys that just wanted to go there, shoot something, come back.
And my job in the horse business was to make sure that we did not go in there and ruin his day and our horses. 'Cause you can ruin a horse by putting a horse out there for two or three days on a 20-hour a day. Making the horse the transportation casualty.
So the kind of people that my stepfather was raised around was the kind of people I would've liked to spent my life around, but I hardly ever. I knew the old-timers who worked with him, but there wasn’t any of that kind of sportsmen when I was --
Well, I shouldn’t say that. I met a few people -- foreign -- foreign nationals really. Austrians, that were really in it for the testing themselves against the element things. Shooting something was kind of like secondary.
So there was a few that I met on -- in the late '60’s that were of that mindset.
But in the '70’s and the '80’s and all the way to the modern-day era, I haven’t met anybody in 30 years that was there to test to the elements. They just want to go shoot something.
So my experience in the guiding business was not on the monetary side. It was all about the people side. Learning about the people.
And most everybody after 1970 got into the guiding business mainly and only to make money. But to me, it was part of the background, the landscape, and part of the family so you got into it like a fisherman would in Kodiak or what have you and it would be second, third generation.
BARBARA CELLARIUS: How -- how old were you when you first started helping with the horses?
WILSON JUSTIN: Well, I never -- I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t around horses.
BARBARA CELLARIUS: Well, for the -- for your stepdad or for other guides?
WILSON JUSTIN: Oh, 17 when I actually started to learn how to shoe horses and wrangle horses. But like I said, before that I was always around. BARBARA CELLARIUS: You were around them?
WILSON JUSTIN: First time I was out in guided camp was 1962. Glenn Brewster, my stepfather, Nelson John, Johnny Nikolai and somebody else. Can’t really remember.
A youngster from -- I think he was from (phone ringing) Yukon Territory. Canadian wrangler. So 1962 -- I was 12 years old when I went out there and --
BARBARA CELLARIUS: And what was your job that time?
WILSON JUSTIN: At that time, was basically to take -- take -- pick -- haul water wherever the water was and bring in wood. So --
BARBARA CELLARIUS: Keeping the camp running?
WILSON JUSTIN: We would camp on these banks of these creeks. You know, sometimes we were a mile away from the spring or the water.
None of the adults cared much to go get a bucket and walk down for 25 minutes, and -- But it was fun to me so --
And getting wood was fun. I could find wood where nobody could find wood 'cause I was raised around getting wood. So my job was to -- wood and water.
BARBARA CELLARIUS: And did you get paid for your work then?
WILSON JUSTIN: I don’t remember getting paid. Ate well. Had lots of candy.
BARBARA CELLARIUS: Okay. So you -- you were --you were compensated in a -- in a way?
WILSON JUSTIN: Oh, yeah, yeah. Camp life back (phone ringing) in guiding -- in the original guiding business was good. Three meals a day. Lots of -- lots of whatever it is, even if it's only beans.
But that's -- I think -- I think most people think about guiding as just a very narrow focused way of kind of -- kind of a economic exchange. They think there's some special skill sets to being a guide and there is not.
Being a guide in a modern day sense is really all about being a what you and I would refer to as a independent. A person that's simply not in the flow of things.
And that's true of ranchers, guides, and timber harvesters on a small-scale like in Oregon. They all share the same kind of thought processes.
Whereas, I came out of a situation where guiding was an extension of the kind of life that I lived. And it was not a means to an end. It was not something that was -- I depended on. It was something I liked to do and it was a way to participate in being out and getting game.
So the getting game was important to the older first generation guides. That's the reason they got into it.
Maintaining that contact with that kind of life and that backcountry stuff was important to me. That's why I got into it.
If it was for -- if I was greedy enough and I had enough of a sense of being a pirate, I would've been a really good businessman. And that's not just guiding, that's any business.
Any business that's anywhere, in terms of being successful, means you got to be able to beat somebody out of something in order to maintain that success. And in the business that we were in, it was simply sharing the resources of the land. And we were good at that.
We were really good at getting a dozen sheep, couple of moose, a couple of caribou, and have it in our cache for the winter.
So my memories of the guiding business is basically it began as something that I could really understand and relate to, and it ended up as something that was not very much interesting to me.
BARBARA CELLARIUS: With all the changes that had occurred? WILSON JUSTIN: With all the changes that happened.
BARBARA CELLARIUS: So you were first in camp when you were 12 workin' -- helping out with the camp. You were involved with the horses. You were involved with sort of thinking about how the trips were organized.
Are there other things that you did while you were working in the guiding industry?
WILSON JUSTIN: Well, I -- I spent time on Kodiak and I spent time in the Alaska Peninsula.
The -- I was really surprised when I first went to the Alaska Peninsula. Actually, I went to Kodiak, Old Harbor in 1970.
And most of those folks down there were fishermen. Almost none of the local Natives had any involvement with the guiding business. Strictly whites. It was all white people.
So I was really surprised that almost none of the people my age back then, I was 20 years old, had any knowledge of what guides were and what they were doing.
They just considered them as people who operated down in this remote site. There was always gunshots and they were always flying through or flying out.
They never really thought about guiding as a business or guiding as a what you would call a skill. They thought of guiding as something that somebody did to ruin their day or ruin their hunting.
I spent time in Old Harbor with a lot of the younger folks who always asked me what guiding did for me. How much money did I make? That's the first thing on their mind is you must make a lot of money to be able to fly down here and do this.
And they didn’t understand contracts. They didn’t understand the business end of it. They just thought that you had to be rich to do this, otherwise you couldn’t do it.
So the difference between not only regional and geographical areas of Alaska in terms of understanding the guiding business and what it is and what it does was enormous, but nobody noticed.
The Alaska Native population outside of the areas that grew up in the guiding business tended to look at the guiding business as just basically piracy. That's where my terminology came from.
I was sitting in a camp in Becharof Lake, late -- late fall. The first fall I was down there was October 1973. I believe it was ’73, might have been ’74. Cold, bitter.
We were done with our hunting and we were waiting for the planes and out -- My brother was fishing, fly fishing.
A couple of Natives from downriver came up. I was in my 20’s and they were in their 30’s and came up and saw us. Actually, they came up to see if we had some extra shells.
They had 30.06. I had 7-mm caliber and I had 300’s, so couldn’t help them.
Got up there and this guy said, "You're -- you're Indian or you're Eskimo?" I said, "I'm Indian." He said, "What are you doing with these pirates?"
So I say, "Well, that's our business." He said, "Really? You're a guide? I said, "Yeah." So we got to talking and that became a common frain -- refrain when the -- like when I went to the King Salmon Bar.
None of the Natives would go in the bars when the guides were there. They just didn’t mix.
But you always heard that. These -- these were just pirates. They just flew in, shot everything, and took off.
Well, those were the days when Lee Holen and those massively bad publicity about what they were doing was all over the place.
But it struck me that outside of my home country everywhere I went the stuff that I was doing as a guide was looked upon as nothing but piracy. There was no business acumen. There was no good to it. There was no skill. It was just sheer piracy.
So when I went down into King Salmon, I think it was second or third trip down there, I did get into a fight with another guide.
And I got into a fight with one of the locals over the same question of whether or not what I was doing was beneficial or humanistic. Yeah.
The local Natives thought I was just another one of those money grubbing pirates, and the guide thought I was one of those anti-white guys that hated everybody.
So I ended up getting into a fight. But that's the guiding business in a nutshell in Alaska.
Everywhere you go that suffered the issue of the guiding industry being the primary industry it was looked upon by the locals as kind of a piracy.
In my home area where I was raised in a part of the guiding business for two generations, it was looked upon as a way of meeting your daily or your yearly nutritional needs plus make a little money.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: Now, Wilson, this may sound like a silly question, but we have to remember a lot of people today don’t remember a time when there was no Internet, you know, when you would just goggle to find something.
So in the 1960’s and '70’s, how did you get clients? How did you advertise? Or was it word of mouth that people knew about your guiding business?
WILSON JUSTIN: Primarily word of mouth. You had -- you had the outlet national -- national magazines. And you had people who were, you know, the -- the -- the biggest friends that you had, most costly ones, were like Jonas Brothers and those who were the intermediaries.
But we were lucky in one sense. The North American hunting population was raised on this idea that the most skillful, the best hunters in the world were Indians.
So when word got around that our business was all Indian guides, the word of mouth was immediate. We hardly -- I don’t -- I booked in 19 -- before I went to work for Ahtna in 1977 and '78, in 1976 I booked all of the hunters for ’77 and all of the hunters for ’78 and part of ’79 before I left.
Just because, they said, "You're Indian, you gotta be good." But that's a unique function of the fact that it was a family business.
We were good. I mean we could produce. That's not necessarily true of every Indian family in every locality. We got to remember by the '70’s, drugs and alcohol was a predominant factor in life in villages.
And the issue of learning how to skillfully acquire or acquire the skills necessary to cape animals, shoot the right kind of ammunition, select the right kind of rifles and guns and binoculars had already vanished from the rural arena in favor of high flying jobs and other big paying stuff.
So the perception that all Indians were extraordinary hunters was not true in 1970, whereas it was very true in 1950.
But American sportsmen in 1970 did not know that. To them Alaska was still wild and full of all kinds of crazy stuff and that people were still not only a master woodsman, but master hunters and master trails men.
So in 1970, when we were -- in the 70’s into the 80’s, we just sold by being Indians.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: So you sold on the stereotypes a way, you know --
WILSON JUSTIN: Right. Just because people thought we couldn’t possibly be anything but the best.
And I was surprised by it myself. I'd talk to people on the phone. They'd say, "And how long have you been in the area?" I'd say, "I was born there. Grew up."
They’d say, "You grew up in the mountains where the sheep are?" I’d say, "Yeah, I can look out my door and see them on the mountains." And they'd go absolutely bonkers.
So it wasn’t a problem for us to sell hunts in the '70’s. It became a problem later on.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: How so?
WILSON JUSTIN: Number one, most people who came in the '80’s wanted a specific. They would say, "I want a 40 inch ram." And you'd say, "Really? Me, too. We'd love one if I could find one."
So the hunters changed in the late '70’s, early '80’s, to reflect what they were reading in magazines.
The only way the hunt can be considered successful in 1985 is if your ram was better than 38 or 40 inch. Or your moose scored an X number of points.
Or your caribou was in this range. Or your bear was ten-foot.
People would say, "I want a ten-foot bear." And I’d say, "Well, I saw -- I saw one in my stepfather’s picture. It was taken in 1934." Or eleven-foot bear.
But it was beginning to start to reflect on the guiding business in the '80’s that people began to look at not acquiring a guided hunt. What they wanted was a prepared trophy.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: So it became all about the trophy and my trophy is better than your trophy?
WILSON JUSTIN: Right. If they could walk into Jonas Brothers and get a 42 inch ram legally and not have to go to Alaska, they would do that, but they couldn’t do that.
So, they had to go through us. So we became a middleman. We didn’t become the -- like we were in the '60’s and the '70’s. We were the producers. But in the '80’s we were the middleman.
BARBARA CELLARIUS: Towards the -- It went from being the experience of the hunt, the whole experience, to what they could take home with them?
WILSON JUSTIN: Showing off what it is that you -- you wanted the bigger sheep than the next guy.
So it no longer was -- it wasn’t even fun by the time the '80’s were done. People wanted to tell you, "I want a nine and a half-foot bear or better." And I would tell these hunters we didn’t even get into the eight-foot bear size until late '70’s.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: So would they come and then be very disappointed that, you know, their hunt didn’t live up to what they wanted? As opposed to just being an enjoyable experience like it had been before?
WILSON JUSTIN: Well, you knew you were not going to have an enjoyable experience when they got there, 'cause they would be always grumpy.
They would start to get panicky. They would say -- what they wanted to do was basically hunt 24 hours a day which, you know, was not hunting. You can’t hunt half an hour before sunset or half an hour after.
Well, none of that mattered to the hunters. They just wanted to get out there and shoot something big.
So it became a progressively more of a teeth pulling issue.
A lot of the hunters would say -- they would like -- they would say, "If I don’t get a 40-inch ram, how much of a deduction will you give me on a hunt?" And I would say, "I wouldn’t give you a single dime back. It costs a lot of time and money to get you out there. And I don’t want you as a hunter if that's your -- going to be the way you're going do business."
I'd get a lot of those exchanges where people would say, "If I got a 10-foot bear, I'll double the pay. But if I don’t get one, I want to pay a third or a quarter."
That's the '80’s and the '90’s. Entirely, completely, radically different kind of clientele.
So you get to the question really of whether or not today guiding is guiding in the sense that anybody like me would be able to react.
And since I've been around to the old territorial days and people who lived that, guiding today is not guiding to me. But that's just anything that happens in terms of time.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: So what would you say guiding is today then, Wilson?
WILSON JUSTIN: Well, guiding is really all about the issue of tapping what I would call the regulatory structure for access to game.
It got very little to do with guiding. It's all about navigate -- getting friendly with the agencies and kowtowing with the agencies and getting permits and stuff like that.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: Navigating the bureaucracy?
WILSON JUSTIN: Right. That's not guiding. That's any -- any -- anything that has to do with dealing with the regulatory -- meeting the regulatory needs is not guiding.
So, if you were to ask me would I go back into business today, I would say. "Well, you'd have to really change the way that business is done."
LESLIE McCARTNEY: When did you close that business, Wilson?
WILSON JUSTIN: I -- I never did. I got out of the business about 1983. I was really beginning to feel the sense of what is it these people are turning into. The clients were starting to turn into monsters.
I was beginning to get a sense of the change getting too big and too fast and too different for me to really --
I really enjoyed guiding. Really, really enjoyed it, but what it was turning into was really making me feel like I didn’t like that business.
So about ’83, I told my stepfather I am going to be doing something else. So the last time I guided was 1988.
My stepfather was diagnosed with cancer that year so I came back in to kind of bridge the gap between one season and another season, and do a little bit of booking and what have you.
But ’83 -- spring of -- or ’83 was the year I decided I was not going to continue that business, ’85 was when I stepped away from it completely.
But if you ask me would I go back into it, if this was 1970, oh, absolutely.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: Has your family -- your extended family as a whole is it involved in guiding any more today?
WILSON JUSTIN: No, no, not at all. There was all kinds of -- a whole different story on how they came to an end in the guiding business that played out in the legal arena.
There's a lot of bad feelings there. There's a lot of things that I could put on record that was done to the family, but the family should be speaking to that, not me.
I was blamed for it, of course, but then the heck I get blamed for everything in the country.
BARBARA CELLARIUS: I wanted to ask about you and your family were involved with a particular guiding business. What was -- what were relations like between the different guides who were in the different parts of the Wrangell’s?
WILSON JUSTIN: For the most part, there was a lot of cordial relationship. There was a lot of respect and there was a lot of what you would call backbiting and -- Typical of any business anywhere.
The ones who came in from a distance were the most likely to be the ones who were the backbiters and the people who talked you down and kind of treated you like you were lesser than those.
The ones who lived in the area year around acted like neighbors, tended to be neighbors.
Then you had this middle set of people who were like from Eagle River or Palmer or -- and they were hot and cold. One year they were your best friends. The next year they weren’t. You never knew with them.
So you had basically three kinds of guiding groups. The ones who were in the locality lived year-round knew that you needed to be neighborly.
Maybe you weren’t always the best of neighbors, but you knew the rule of being a good neighbor. You're sharing a fence.
The ones who came in from other places in Alaska like Palmer or what have you, they didn’t have to be good neighbors. What they needed to do was to get in and get out without riling up people.
So they had a tendency to do things more underhandedly, but further away from everybody else so that they didn’t have to worry about ruining your day, which they knew would create issues.
Then you had the people who didn’t give a hoot about anybody or anything. Small minority. Their job was to come in and get 20 sheep or 15 sheep, five bears or 10 moose and get out.
So they were the complete pirates and they didn’t -- they wouldn’t care if it was in the middle of a park or what. Their job was to get that game and get out.
I’d say if you had 50 guides in a room, five of them were like that.
And then you would have the next biggest bunch of people who would be -- if they could cut corners get away with it they would, but they were very (phone ringing) cognizant of the fact they didn’t want to ruin your hunt.
And these were the people who would be flying planes over. They would find out where your camps are. We try to avoid where they think you would be hunting or guiding, so they wouldn’t spook sheep.
But they wouldn't -- they would give you the fence room, but if they found a valley that you hunted that you weren’t in, they would go in and land and get a sheep. Or a moose or a bear.
So they watch your camps. Those are the three kinds of people I ran into in general.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: So was there ever a situation where if a guide was in trouble for some reason that another guide would come and help them? Was there enough of that in the community? WILSON JUSTIN: Oh, that -- that was automatic.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: That was automatic? It didn’t matter what three categories you would kind of be in?
WILSON JUSTIN: That's a given. It wouldn’t matter whether you're a guide or not. When I was growing up, if you had the means to go help somebody -- that is something that's completely separate from guiding. It was all about the issue of being an Alaskan.
So you didn’t need to be a guide to wonder or not whether or not you're going to go help somebody.
LESLIE McCARTNEY: It was just a given that that would happen?
WILSON JUSTIN: It would happen whether your horses, planes, weasels, ATV’s or whatever.
I don’t think you're going to find that today. True, in general, I think of the population where liability issues rule the day.
I don’t think you're going find a guide that willing to go commit to a rescue in 2015 as you would have in 1985.
But that's not a function of the guide. That's a function of laws and society.
BARBARA CELLARIUS: And I wanted to ask I've heard several references not just talking to you, but other people we've talked to this last couple of days, to the Jonas Brothers.
You described them as an intermediary. Could you talk a little bit about their role in sort of the whole big game arena?
WILSON JUSTIN: Well, they were master craftsmen at weaving stories about the glories of trophy hunting in Alaska. Most of it wasn’t true, of course, but that's besides the point.
So the Jonas Brother group, which includes all Klineburger’s and all the rest of the folks who were in the business of converting animals into trophy to put on the wall, it was in their own best interest to sell -- to sell trophy hunting in Alaska.
They had -- they had specifically developed an expertise in telling stories.
So they gathered up stories from people like my stepfather and everybody else. Put a little spin on it. They'd say, "Well, I can talk about Andy Runyan and his run in with a bear in 1954 in Chickaloon."
The bear ended up being nine and a half-foot square. Well, never mind the fact that the bear might have been five foot. That's all besides the point.
The -- the point is Andy Runyan, master guide, had a run in in Chickaloon in 19 -- the monster bear. So these Jonas Brothers and these people could do that.
Had lots of good stories, and they acted as marketing a specific -- to a specific segment of the American sportsmen population the idea that people like Lehan Falk (phonetic) and Bill Ellis and all of those had these massively successful hunting operation in these tremendously producing arenas.
So they worked on the basis of giving us good press, and we worked on the basis of giving them lots of business.
What happened there was, in the '70’s, the continuous pressure of more and more taxidermists coming in produced a un -- an insatiable demand in the field.
Meaning that if you had five taxidermists serving 50 guides things worked really well, but if you had 50 taxidermists for 50 guides things didn’t work well.
So you had a lot of what you would call business practices mixed in with the question of resource extraction that was questionable.
A large underground economy began to develop. Meaning that a lot of taxidermists were simply producing underground trophies off the record kills and selling them to make ends meet.
They became what you would call basically art thieves.
So that was in the '80’s and the '90’s, and it went very fast.
Just a matter of a decade and a half, you went from a very marketing, professionally spin-telling story way of meeting business needs among users and consumers to one where the field was crowded with questionable activities by questionable people.
And I got out of it long before it happened, but I already knew by the early '80’s that there were people out there doing things that I would consider extraordinarily criminal.
So that's what happened in the nutshell with the whole taxidermy field.
Not to say that there wasn’t excellent and honorable taxidermists around, but the field mutated into one where there were a lot of them that got into it couldn’t make ends meet and had to go underground.
I have no idea what they're doing now, but that was then.
BARBARA CELLARIUS: But for the number of times I've heard Jonas Brothers, it sounds like they had a really big role at -- at least a point in time?
WILSON JUSTIN: Well, Jonas Brothers was really a big presence in sportsmen shows all over the North American continent. They contributed to the guiding business by all kinds of ways. All kinds of different ways.
They put trophies out in airports. They made sure the public saw these huge, wonderful trophies everywhere you went.
So they had a real good role in marketing Alaska game. The only problem is they came along 20 years too late.
Most people think that the worse thing that happened in Alaska was the National Park Service and the federal agency.
My stepfather and I supported national parks. And we did so knowing it was going to be mutating on and on, more and more into what you would call a regulatory structure.
But to us, if that didn’t happen, by the time 2000 came along there would be no sheep, no moose, no bears, no wolf, no nothing left in the Wrangell’s. Every single living four-legged animal would be shot.
That was our thought in 1978, 'cause we'd already began to see the immense pressure that was being put on. And I still think that's true.
But the only thing is, if there were no national park, I think all the game would be shot out by 1990.
Because by the time I went out for the last time -- I think it was 1997 when I did the Mentasta Mountains from Twin Lakes to Suslota and Little Tok to Tetlin to Totschundra down Cooper to Nabesna -- to Nabesna and back 10 days. Maybe ’97. Three horses.
And I still, when I got home, I felt like somebody had ripped out my heart and thrown it in the river.
There was no sheep in the Trail Creek Pass area. There was no caribou. There was no sheep in Suslota. There was no bear. There was no moose.
There was one, possibly the same moose. I saw the second track in the Little Tok. There was no bear tracks. There were no caribou. There were no --
I went up to the head of the Little Tok. There was about three -- three or four young rams.
There was nothing in the Tetlin. I went into the Tetlin and spent two days there.
I went over into the Middle Fork, they call it Soda Creek. Nothing there.
And I found about fifteen rams in the back of Totschundra towards Nabesna River. This is 1997.
I never saw one caribou track. I never saw one bear track. I saw two moose track. No wolverine track. Lots of wolves tracks. I seen about a dozen wolf tracks.
I was out for actually -- actually nine days. Covered a big of a chunk of country as you can with three horses. And the game that I saw you could count on my two hands.
So when I got back to Twin Lakes from Nabesna in 1997 in that fall, I just thought man, oh man, I never dreamed I could take that kind of a ride and not see anything.
So when I say I think by 1990 if the park hadn’t been -- and nobody dislikes the regulatory structure more than me.
You've heard me talk very disparagingly about regulators and biologists and people that I think are kind of like they shouldn’t even be allowed into the --
Well, the basic bottom line with me is that you had a choice. In 1980, shoot all the game out. Shoot everything in sight and wait 50 years for things to come back or have a park and start rebuilding your stuff.
In 25 years, you'll have something of the original. Never back to what you were, but you'll have something.
So my stepfather and a few other more visionary people thought along the lines of it's better -- far better of the two evils to have a lesser evil like the park in the backyard than no game. And I've maintained that since then.
And it's really to me a misnomer when people talk about game.
There's simply is a massive difference from when I was 15 and when I was 25, when I was 45, 55, to where I am today.
Today, we have more moose, but you still don’t see what -- what it is is when I was growing up we could live off the land back there. You couldn’t do that today.
We'd have to make a moose last from September until May.
You could not live off the land like we did -- could when I was 15.
When I was 15, we never thought about grocery stores and things like that. There was an abundance of small game, spruce hen, porcupine, rabbits, gophers, caribou.
There was an abundance of waterfowl, ducks, geese. There was an abundance of what you would call intermediary animals.
So I could go out -- Paul Sinyon could go out in 1965 and in about three week period of time on trapping get his whole entire year’s of -- of money.
A $250 wolverine in 1965 would be the same as a $1,000 -- $1,500 cash check today.
Even when I was doing the last of the trapping in the '80’s, wolverine was still $250, but it was only worth in 1980’s money about $50. So I would catch two or three wolverine and it would pay for my entire winter’s supply of gas.
If I went out there and tried to catch a wolverine right now, it might be three winters before I caught one. So what are you going to do about gas money and all that stuff when you can’t catch anything, you don’t see nothing, nothing out there?
And you got moose, but, you know, you eat moose you can’t convert moose into cash for -- BARBARA CELLARIUS: To buy your gas.
WILSON JUSTIN: Uh-huh. Snowmachines. You can’t repair anything with money from moose like you could with lynx.
I use lynx to fix things. You get three lynx, that's like about $240.
Well, back in the '70’s and the '80’s, $240 you could basically buy a new engine for your snowmachine or buy a new track.
And I don’t know that you can -- I haven’t had a snowmachine in decades, but I suspect if you broke a snowmachine down now, you couldn’t replace the engine. You'd have to go buy a new one.
That's like eight thousand bucks. Now how in the blue blazes are you going to find $8,000 worth of extractions from the resources out there now? You can’t.
So that's -- that's the difference. And I don’t know that you can ever change it, but people really need to understand that you cannot make a living out there unless you have a specific tie to something.
In my family’s case, everything's paid for. The land is all -- the land isn’t taxed. It's there.
So if everything collapse and crashes, we can actually do a subsistence lifestyle, but you cannot go in there and maintain machines and maintain stuff like you could when I was growing up.