Kirk Ellis was interviewed on June 11, 1993 by Bill Schneider and David Krupa at his family's homestead, Devils Mountain Lodge, at the end of the Nabesna Road in Nabesna, Alaska. In this interview, Kirk talks about his early childhood experiences, describing a fascinating and unique life requiring self-reliance and awareness. His gift for storytelling becomes apparent as he tells us about: his mother driving off wolves who were killing dogs in the dogyard; his father teaching him how to handle crisis with calm and precision by giving Kirk the terrifying task of killing a charging grizzly; his mother's great strength in taking care of the entire homestead and homeschooling the children when Bill was away on guiding ventures upon which the family depended for money; and the day to day joys and dangers of living over one hundred miles from the nearest medical facility. Kirk also describes following his father into guiding and flying, and how he had to build a plane from used parts because he could not afford to buy one outright. Kirk provides great insight into the meaning of the guiding life for him and his family, especially its importance as a way of remaining tied to a magnificent, if fragile, environment. His testimony shows how his family's guiding business has been sustainable because they have paid careful attention to game populations and their health. The word respect came repeatedly to mind: respect for the awesome power of land, animals, mountains; respect for the skills and judgment needed by those who would make this place their home. Kirk discusses how the guiding business has changed, and how the National Park Service's management regime has negatively impacted their lives. He makes the point that the regulatory structure has the unintended effect of forcing guides into trying to carry more hunters and increase hunting pressure to overcome the spiraling costs of operating a guiding business in a political environment hostile to professional hunts. He concludes by reflecting on the future of guiding, and suggests some new directions--such as carrying more mountain climbers, tourists, and hikers--that he and his family are moving into to compensate for the closing window on big game guiding.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Wrangell-St.Elias National Park
Date of Interview: Jun 11, 1993
Narrator(s): Kirk Ellis
Interviewer(s): Bill Schneider, David Krupa
Transcriber: Sue Beck
After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.
How his family came to live at Nabesna
How his father chose Nabesna
Driving the Nabesna Road
Growing up in Nabesna and what his parents taught him
Learning to fly and his father's help
What his father taught him about hunting
His mother and her calm and capable style
Getting an education, and when he first started to look at guiding as a business
Children in area, and visiting Chistochina
How often they went out for supplies
Joining his father on guide trips
Getting his first plane
He and his brother, Cole, taking over the guiding business, and learning mountain flying and techniques
Changes seen in the guiding business
Changes in hunting and animal populations over the years
The cause of increasing numbers of hunters
Changes in the regulatory structure
Changes in clientele for guided hunts
How establishment of the national park has affected game populations
Feelings towards regulations and leaving the guide business
Feelings about being a guide and hunter
Plans for future businesses
Suggestions for improved regulation system
Click play, then use Sections or Transcript to navigate the interview.
After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay, today’s June 11, 1993. I’m Bill Schneider. I’m here with Kirk Ellis in his house, and we’re back here at the place called Devil’s Mountain Lodge. And it’s on the Nabesna Road in here. And this is a place that Kirk and his parents and brothers have been involved with for a long time.
And this is part of the interviews we’re doing -- Wrangell–Saint Elias National Park and Preserve. So, thanks for taking the time to do this.
KIRK ELLIS: Sure.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Talking a little bit about -- let’s start by talking about -- You were saying before we started the recording, that you were just a couple months old when your family moved here permanently?
KIRK ELLIS: Uh-huh. Yeah, I was just -- well, not permanently. We were -- I was just a baby when we came out here, and then my parents was huntin’ here and stayin’ here until, you know, until late fall -- like in October.
And then we’d go back into Anchorage and stay in Anchorage through the winters. And then they moved out here full time in 1960. That’s when we came here and we stayed here full time, in 1960.
BILL SCHNEIDER: When you say that your parents were hunting out here, were they guiding people in those early years or were they just coming out for their own hunting?
KIRK ELLIS: No, they were guidin’. Dad came out here, yeah. He came out here first and -- and that’s basically what he did.
He scouted a lot of Alaska, ‘cause that’s what he wanted to be was a huntin’ guide, when he came up here from Texas. And so he scouted pretty much the whole state from, you know, one end to the other, looking for a really good spot.
And when he came here, he found this spot here and he really liked it. So he started huntin’ here and really not thinking much about, you know, us -- you know, moving here or anything.
But he liked it so well, and then he seen this place here and everything like that. And then he thought maybe he should acquire a little bit of property for a base to operate out of here.
And then our -- we were living in Anchorage. We had a really nice home in Anchorage, and the whole thing burned down one night and we lost everything that we had.
And basically that’s why he moved here. ‘Cause he didn’t have any other place to go and anything. He thought, "Well, now’s the time to do it. No sense rebuilding in Anchorage, and trying to get another job and whatever."
So he just loaded us all in the truck and we came here. And just been here ever since.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, we should back up and say your dad’s name is Bill Ellis. KIRK ELLIS: Yeah. Bill Ellis. Yeah.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And that’s interesting that he wanted to become a guide, huh?
KIRK ELLIS: Yeah, he in Texas -- he was an ironworker in Texas. And he -- he learned to fly down there, and the instructor that taught him how to fly -- he told his instructor that he was coming to Alaska to be a bush pilot.
And so the instructor took, you know, extra time with him to teach him a lot of things about -- you know, flying in bad winds and stuff like that.
And then he -- he thought about it for a while, he said, and he decided it had to be Alaska or Australia. And so he said he took a coin out of his pocket and flipped it.
And I can’t remember whether it was heads or tails or whatever it was, it brought him to Alaska. That’s how he got here.
And he just started out lookin’, you know, to be a guide. Yeah, that was his -- his deal was to set up up here.
And he liked this spot. Of any of the places, he said that this was the best spot that he found, ‘cause it wasn’t real wet and the weather wasn’t real violent. And he -- he liked the mountains ‘cause they were close. You know, easy access and stuff, and so he picked a pretty good spot, really.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Did he know some of the people back here?
KIRK ELLIS: No, not really. He came up with another guy. They came up as partners, him and Ken Olden came up here together, and they were kind of hunting together.
And it was so far out here and everything that he pretty much -- they traveled, you know, a couple of ‘em together, so that in case something went wrong. But that’s how he kind of scouted around and stuff like that, and ---
BILL SCHNEIDER: Does your family tell stories about coming in the truck that time?
KIRK ELLIS: Oh, yeah. That -- See, the road wasn’t maintained past Jack Creek Bridge down here, which is -- you know the big bridge down there that’s five miles down the road?
Well, there’s no -- there was no maintenance on the road past there.
And so basically when we got to there, we had to make road all the way to here. You know, it was all hand-shoveling work and stuff like that all the way in.
BILL SCHNEIDER: How long did it take you to get in here?
KIRK ELLIS: I think the first time we came in we made it pretty -- I think about eighteen hours from where the road ended. But we spent a lot more time than that on the road over the years when we were going in and out and stuff.
We spent -- I think the longest it ever took us was about two and a half days to get out the road, those forty-two miles. And we had, you know, the creeks would wash out and we had to wait 'til the water went down. And just the trucks breaking down.
And, of course, there was no -- you had to walk, you know.
And especially, like Dad. He was the only one that flew, you know, so -- and we couldn’t all get in his airplane. So he’d have to take the truck, you know, so we could all go to town or whatever it was and everything.
So when he’d get halfway out the road, the truck would break down and we’d get stuck, well, then he’d have to either walk back to get his airplane or walk out to the highway to get somebody to pull -- or somebody to help us.
So, you know, it was -- it was quite interesting at times, you know. But, yeah, being a little kid it was just all fun. For us an adventure, you know. It was great -- kind of a deal.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Can you tell us a little bit about growing up out here and some of the things your dad taught you?
KIRK ELLIS: Basically, Dad was always pretty good at -- he’s a real nervous type of a guy, but he was real good on teaching you how to stay alive, you know. He was real -- you know, he didn’t take a whole lot of time with you, but what he taught you usually was real -- was real good.
And then Mom, of course, she played a real big role in that. She was really protective of us. She wouldn’t let us go very far. We had our little perimeter that we stayed at.
And then Mom being a hunter, you know, the way she is, she always was really good with a rifle. And so, you know, if we got bears or wolves or whatever that came in the yard or anything, she was able to take care of -- of that.
And then, of course, Dad taught us about, you know, crossing muddy water, you know, and streams, and, you know, weather. You know, what types of weather to watch out for. And basically, you know, little survival techniques, you know, that keep you alive, you know.
Especially like crossing muddy water. You know, you can’t just walk across muddy water. If it ever gets above your knees, you know, this glacier -- ‘cause I’m talking about glacier water -- it’ll knock you down. And so you gotta have a pole to hold yourself up and, of course, if a boulder rolls across your foot, you know, you gotta watch out for those type things too and everything.
But -- and that, and then Dad played a big role in keeping us -- teaching us to fly. He didn’t teach us to fly the airplane, ‘cause he always said he never had the patience for it. And so we had regular instructors that taught us, you know, to fly.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Did you go out for instruction or --?
KIRK ELLIS: Yeah. We went out for instruction and then we got -- ‘cause Dad never had an instructor’s license. And so we went out and got our licenses, you know, and then he taught us basically how to really -- to fly up here in the mountains.
And that, you know, there’s just so many things I take for granted now that I just do natural, you know, that he taught us, and different things like that.
You know, like altitudes and wind and, you know, just different things that a normal instructor never teaches. They just don’t know -- don’t know how to teach you that type of stuff, you know.
But, you know, like some of the things is knowing which way the wind’s blowin’ all the time, no matter what. That’s one thing that you’ve got to know all the time, is which way the wind’s blowin’ no matter what you’re doing.
And, you know, and then, you know, like depth perception is really important in flying. And -- like you’re supposed to -- you should be able to look ahead, if you see a ridge, know whether or not you can go over that ridge at what altitude you are.
And, you know, that takes some time to learn, but if you got somebody chewin’ on you like him, you know, telling you, you know, ”Well, you’re not going to make it.” “Well, how do you know you’re not going to make it?” “I know you’re not gonna make it,” you know. And stuff like that. And then after a while it starts to -- to come in pretty good.
And then, of course, huntin’. Dad taught us about huntin’. Dad’s always an excellent hunter and a shot. You know, extremely good shot. He taught us how to shoot rifles.
And, you know, just like when I was -- I think I was fourteen years old, he took me in on a grizzly bear that was on that he’d killed a moose. And it was a big grizzly bear.
And he wanted me to know how it was to be attacked by a bear, you know. I mean, that’s the type of person that he is, you know, because he said -- he told me -- he said, “Someday one of ‘em’s gonna come after ya.” And he said, “I want you to know this feeling.”
And, boy, I was -- I hated him for it at the time. But, no, we went in and sure enough the thing charged us, and just came just like a freight train. And he was nine feet, you know, from nose to tail. So he was a big bear. You know, he was about an eight-hundred-pound bear.
And Dad never shot or anything. He stood right alongside of me until that bear was like, you know, twenty feet away. And he kept telling me, you know, “Shoot him. Shoot him. He’s gonna kill you.” You know.
And I shot him, you know. It was -- you know, it was just really scary. And I had, you know, I never thought about it walking around out here in the woods with a twenty-two pistol and just doing -- well, you know, that’s been with me ever since.
And I always, you know, always know and always know that sound. When I hear that sound of those breaking -- of a bear coming after you. And they make a certain sound that they do.
And I’ll always know that sound if ever one ever starts to come after me, you know. I’ll be way ahead of the game, because I’ll know that he’s out there.
But, yeah, he taught us a lot of things. And, of course, Mom taught us a lot, too, you know, how to cookin' and things like that.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, let me ask you about your mom, Lorene. How did she learn to handle herself out in the woods?
KIRK ELLIS: Well, basically Mom’s the type of person that -- she learns real fast. And, of course, she hunted with Dad, you know, quite a bit.
And, you know, when they first came up here they were down, like, towards Homer and in that area near -- in that area. And they did a lot of salmon fishing and stuff like that. So she kind of got accustomed, you know, out there a little bit, and where she had a little bit of people around.
And then we came out here. Then she basically -- I don’t know, I guess I could say that she’s the type of person that when she wants to do something she does it.
And she wanted to be out here, and she wanted us to be raised out here, and she just, you know, took the bull by the horn type of a deal.
And as far as hunting, she always has liked to hunt and trap, and she still -- she still does. You know, even now she traps during the wintertime. She doesn’t go too far. It’s mainly her exercise now, gettin’ out and doing her exercise and things like that.
But she -- I guess she’s contributed probably more to us than anything by being just totally sound, you know. I mean, like we had -- we always had sled dogs, you know. And, of course, with the sled dogs, like when the wolves’d come by that always brought in the wolves closer, because they always come in for the dogs.
And I remember one night for some reason the wolves decided just to kill all the dogs. And they came in, you know, and they were just, you know, they were attacking the dogs. Just tearin’ them all to pieces and everything. And it was the middle of the night, you know, and all this -- I remember as a little kid all the, you know, the dogs screaming and everything like that.
But I remember her most being real, you know, solid. She was at the door and she had her gun and everything and couldn’t see to shoot. And some of the dogs were loose, and she was able to get out the door a little ways. She didn’t go out too far, but she got some of the dogs that were all ripped up and drug ‘em in the house, you know.
And took care of ‘em and stuff like that, you know. And then the next morning she shot one of the wolves, just breaking daylight. And one of them was still there. A big old white one. And she shot it.
And so it’s just kind of a -- it’s amazing. Mom can take a, you know, just a handful of food and make a meal out of it, you know. She’s one of those type of people that’s gifted in that area, too.
And I guess maybe it might come from she worked in a restaurant for a while, you know, when she was real young and stuff. But she just learned how to cope with it,
And then, of course, she’s -- Mom’s always really easy to get along with and she got real good friends with a lot of the Natives and the Native women.
A lot -- all these Native women around here really like Mom, and so they were always giving her information or something like that, you know, and always telling her different things. So that helped, you know, that helped out a lot on her type of deals.
And, of course, Mom took care of us a lot when Dad was gone. Like Dad’d be gone when he went polar bear hunting for two-and-a-half months. And that was in February, March, and April.
So we were basically here alone in that time, and she just -- I don’t know. I just -- I was -- you know, being a little kid like that you just don’t think about, you know, things like that.
I look at some of the other women nowadays, you know, and I think just how strong she must’ve been, you know, just to do that kind of stuff and --
But she definitely needs a book wrote about her and all the things she does. She’s shot everything -- everything in Alaska that I know of. Polar bear and grizzly bears and, you know, all the stuff she’s hunted all over and things.
BILL SCHNEIDER: So, as you were growing up, you developed an interest in the same sort of things as your dad and your mom, and you chose -- do you remember when you consciously said, “This is the life I want to continue to lead”?
KIRK ELLIS: Basically, just being here all the time. I guess you could say that I was like, you know, this is home. And, you know, like people would say -- there was a big fuss raised over our educations because we didn’t -- back then there was a little bit of correspondence school, but we had no mail service, basically, to speak of. And so there was a big row over our -- our educations.
And, you know, people wanted to send us out to schools. And it was, like, to me -- I mean, man, you woulda had to handcuff me and, you know, and tie me up and drag me out of here. I mean I just wasn’t going. Just forget it. This was home.
And when I got -- oh, I guess consciously, probably fifteen or sixteen years old, I guess, you know, was when I started thinking about the business end of it, you know.
I’d worked with Dad and, you know, guiding and everything, you know, younger than that and stuff. I guess in that -- in that time was when I wanted to get my own airplane and get, you know, my own stuff and try to get going at about that age.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Before we get to that, tell us a little bit about that education. Did your mom work with you on reading and writing every day, or how did you get your education?
KIRK ELLIS: Basically, we ordered the books from Juneau to come -- and it was called Calvert’s Course. And then we used those books and stuff, and she worked with us, yeah, basically you know, every day trying to get us, you know, to readin' and writin'.
And then, of course, we had a lot of other good excuses, you know, like we had to haul snow or we had to do this or we -- you know, you always played on those things, you know, like “Boy, I gotta do my chores, Mom, you know. I can’t -- I can’t be doing this,” you know, and everything.
And she -- it was hard for her because she had all this other stuff to do, you know, to try and keep everything going around here and then try and teach us.
And so, basically, we didn’t end up with, you know, really super educations, you know. I mean we got enough to kind of get by and -- But, yeah, she basically, you know, taught us, yeah, what we know. That type of deal.
DAVE KRUPA: How about other kids? Were there many? Besides your brothers were there other kids around?
KIRK ELLIS: No. The only other two was -- there was two Indian kids that lived twelve miles down here in the summertime. And that was Calvin and Wilson.
And Calvin was basically about -- about our age and Wilson was quite a bit older.
But there wasn’t a lot. In the summertime or in the fall, different people would come out, you know, once in a while. But, no, basically, we were basically the only -- the only kids here.
And at one time I remember we were here for I think it was about three years before any of us went anywhere. Us kids, yeah. At one time., you know.
Because really, there wasn’t a whole lot of places to go. We really liked to go to Chistochina. That’s where Sy Neeley -- you know, he owned Chistochina at that time. Him and Carol.
And that was our highlight, was to go to Chistochina to eat a hamburger. You know, because it was, you know, round and all this stuff, you know. But that was our highlight, yeah, was to go there.
And that’s basically about as far as we -- we’d really go, you know, was out to there. And then there was another -- There was a little store, Posties. It's kind of a (inaudible) and stuff like that, but that’s where Mom got all the groceries. It was there.
DAVE KRUPA: And how often would they need to get -- go out for supplies?
KIRK ELLIS: What they did back then was Dad would usually use a big truck. And he’d usually bring in a year’s supply of the staples and everything like that.
And so all we had to get then was, you know, any little stuff that you could possibly, you know, run out of.
And it’s like we grew up here with, you know, we didn’t -- no fruit or any kind of stuff like that. Basically, no fresh -- you know -- no bananas, no apples, no oranges, you know, until later on in years.
And even candy was a big thing for us. Like a candy bar would last us a week. You know, you’d just cut sections off of it. You know.
And different things like that, you know. And a lot of -- and like nowadays, you know, it’s so -- like my kids, you know, I mean it’s like -- Shoot, I mean they have everything, you know.
I mean our toys consisted of -- you know, we had homemade toys or -- And then later on, we ended up we got these what they call, you know, G.I. Joes, the twelve-inch tall G.I. Joes. We each had one of those. And I mean, those were just treasures. I mean, shoot, nobody even got close to them.
But, you know, I noticed that my kids, you know, I mean I don’t think you can put their toys in a pickup truck, you know. And stuff like that. But it was different, a little bit different.
DAVE KRUPA: Did you -- did the kids ever get to go out with your dad on guiding ventures in the backcountry?
KIRK ELLIS: When we were younger? DAVE KRUPA: Mm-hm.
KIRK ELLIS: Yeah. We went out with him off and on.
When he was first guiding, most everything you know -- they didn’t have the airborne law then. So they hunted the same day as they flew out. And so a lot of his hunting was pretty quick. They’d go out and they’d come right back and stuff.
But we went out with him -- like he’d go out and, like, get a moose. Okay, well then he’d come back and get maybe some of us to go pack the moose out or to go butcher the moose or --
And we were involved in a lot of building -- you know, new airports and the cabins, you know, that we built and stuff like that.
BILL SCHNEIDER: You said that when you were about fifteen or sixteen you started to think about going into a business like your dad’s, the guiding and -- what happened at that point? Did you start building towards that? Did you start saving money for a Super Cub?
KIRK ELLIS: What I did was -- Yeah, I saved up some money and I went and I bought a wrecked airplane. Because I didn’t have enough money to buy a whole one.
And so I bought a bunch of pieces, and it was a J-3 is what it was. And it was a ninety-horse, you know, power. It wasn’t a -- And then that took me about a year, I guess, to build it, you know, from the deals.
And then I guess I should say my dad, he’s an ANI. So he’s an inspector. An AME (Aircraft Maintenance Engineer). That’s an aircraft inspector. And so I got that also, you know.
Through the years he’s taught me how to work on airplanes and stuff, and so that was, you know, a bonus right there as far as the aircraft goes.
So when I bought these parts I was able to put ‘em together, and then he could help -- help me get, you know, get an airplane together. And that was the first one that I did. And I had that for quite a long time that I flew.
And, of course, it was low powered and I needed -- I needed bigger. You know how it always is. You always want more -- bigger and better. And so I started working towards another one.
And what I did is, I sold that one and I got some -- some more money and I built another one, that I had built up.
And then basically what we did as far as, like, the business type of a deal is -- is, like, me and Cole basically just kind of came together as a -- as a group, you know, partners or whatever you’d want to say.
And then Dad, like he said, he said, “Oh, I don’t -- I’m not really interested in, you know, keeping going on the guiding deal.”
And so what -- basically what happened, me and Cole basically began to take over the guiding and started doing it.
And then Cole -- at that time Cole did the same thing I did. He saved up and he bought himself a Super Cub. And he just saved better than I did. He bought one altogether.
But -- and then that -- then that put us both in the air and then we started working.
And then there was another guy that was working with us, a guy by the name of Gordon Wendell. And "Wendy" was an excellent hunter and a pilot. Just, I mean, great.
And he taught us a lot. A lot about hunting and a lot about flying, also.
So basically we had two guys, you know, that were excellent pilots and excellent hunters and -- You know, to base off of. And one thing that really helped us on that was you could look and you could see what he did and you knew it was possible, you know.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Can you give us an example of that?
KIRK ELLIS: Oh, examples like there’s a place on the hillside, and you look at it and you say it looks fairly smooth and it’s at a pretty good angle and everything. Can I land there?
And like a normal guy that’s just a normal pilot and everything, he’ll fly by and look at it and “Ehh.” Well, with these guys, you know, they say, “Okay, I’ll show you how to land there.”
And then they’d just turn right around and they just land on it like it’s nothing, you know.
And so then you’ve got it in your mind. You’ve rode through it, you felt the airplane, you know the angle at which he hit the side of the hill and how much speed he was carrying.
And then they’ll go through it with you again and say, “Look, if you ever get below sixty-five miles an hour on approach, you’re dead.” You know, and little hints like that.
And, you know, if they say, “If you’re too fast, well, then you’re going to overshoot the thing and you’re really gonna be in trouble." So, you know, the type of deals like that.
And so when you have the first-hand experience, you know, riding through and doing it, that helps out a lot.
But, yeah, as far as in building the business -- and so then what we did is we just -- Basically, we’ve always been a real close family. And so we just kind of stay together.
And that’s kind of what we plan on doing. We just plan on just keeping the -- all the business as a family together here.
And we feel we got more -- I don’t know -- I don’t know what you’d call it, power or clout or whatever it is, as a unit instead of, like, trying to branch out each one of us.
And, we all work together anyway. And it works so much better because, you know, when I’m going somewhere, Cole knows where I’m at and I know where he’s at and I know how long he’s gonna be gone. I know exactly where he’s going, you know.
And so we all work together. And then when Dad’s working here, well, then there’s three of of us.
BILL SCHNEIDER: How long has that been going on? That partnership?
KIRK ELLIS: Oh, ever since, you know, we were old enough to get going, yeah, basically. Or we got our airplanes and, you know, we got kinda going together and everything, yeah.
So I’d say, oh, I guess real strong the ‘70s, I guess. In there is when we really got to going on that.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. Let’s turn to some of the changes you’ve seen in the business of guiding. In the course of your lifetime, let’s trace it back that far.
KIRK ELLIS: Basically, some of the things that I’ve seen -- I guess the biggest thing I’ve seen is the change in game. That’s -- that’s the main thing that I’ve seen in -- in my life as far as from the beginning to --
There’s areas right now that you could hunt for a weekend and never see anything or never get anything. And when I was real young, those were just real prime spots, you know.
But then again they were easy access, you know. That’s -- that’s one of the things that I’ve seen that bother me.
And then, of course, if you’ll take a -- like a rulebook, you know, a game regulation book, say an old one, and you look at it, you’ll see the seasons in there. Like thirty days for moose and, you know, forty days or sixty days for sheep and stuff like that in different areas.
And now you take one today and you’re looking at a lot of five-day seasons, a lot of fifteen-day seasons. Everything is just slowly but surely squenchin’ down.
And if you just take -- and what I try to do is I try to look at it in the future. You take an old game book, you take this game book, and then you try to go another ten years. There’s no way. It won’t fit in there.
There won’t be no seasons, you know. I mean, you know. And that’s -- that’s some of the real big changes.
BILL SCHNEIDER: So you were saying that you’ve seen a lot of changes in the length of time of the game season and a decrease in the amount of game out in certain places.
KIRK ELLIS: In certain places, yeah. I’ve seen the decrease.
And then another thing that you see a decrease in is the size of animals. Like we took, like, sixty-inch moose. You know that’s a nice moose, you know. Nowadays, a fifty-five-inch moose is, you know, a real trophy, you know.
And same thing with the sheep. I mean, you’re looking at sheep that are full curl but pretty thin, you know, nowadays. You know, like thirty-three-, thirty-four-inch rams. To where, a long time ago, it was nothing to get -- it may not have the length, but they had the mass because they were old, you know what I mean.
So most all your sheep you took were real heavy and just really dark-horned, really nice rams. Where nowadays you’re starting to see mostly just -- just legal, just, you know, just right there, right at the edge, you know. And that’s what’s -- what’s happened.
That’s what’s been disturbing me as far as, you know, like the guiding continuing to run a really good operation.
Because a lot of people, they come, they want -- they want to take home some -- they’re only gonna get to do it once, you know, so they want to take home something that’s really good.
And so, you know, you have a hard time. If you have a hard time finding that out there, well, then your business, you know, begins to deteriorate.
And -- and then like I was saying earlier, too, I have a hard time like finding a group of rams. Say you got five rams and you go in there and there’s a nice ram, and you shoot the big ram out of the bunch and then you come out.
And then you look all over the place, and your next hunter you have to take him back in there again and find the next biggest one and shoot him. And then you keep redoing that until you’re down to where, "Oh, well, there’s none legal in there anymore."
That’s really hard for me to do. Because, you know, I -- I don’t know. I’m just used to, like, you go in, you hunt one drainage and you take one out. And then you come out, and then you go someplace else, you know. And those are the -- that’s the changes that I’m seeing.
The other changes I’m seeing is that you hunt -- like I say, you hunt that group of rams and then there’s somebody else going in to hunt ‘em. Or you’re in there huntin’ and there’s somebody just ahead of you huntin’.
Or you’re walking along up the creek and you meet somebody coming down the creek. You know, that’s -- that’s another change for me that's -- it’s real shellshock for me, you know, is to be hunting the same valley with other people. And -- I’m tryin’ to think of some of the other ---
BILL SCHNEIDER: What causes that? What causes the increased number of people hunting?
KIRK ELLIS: I -- the only thing I can just figure is there's just more people coming to Alaska, moving to Alaska. Some of the (military) bases, you know, a lot of the people on the bases want to hunt.
And then, we’ve gotten a new -- sort of a change in the air taxi business is what has changed. A lot of the air taxi businesses are advertising trophy sheep hunts.
And what they’re doing is they’re getting a lot of money for it. You know, they’re saying, “All right. If you’ll come with me and you pay me a whole lot of money, I’ll take you in and I’ll find you a really good ram.”
And so basically what they’re doing is they’re kinda-guidin’-sorta. You know what I mean. And so that -- that changes.
And then, of course, another thing, a lot of people that try to walk back in, it’s too far for them to walk in, and so what they do is they just call -- call around. And they start callin’ air taxi operators and stuff like that.
And if there was just not a lot of people in Alaska, well, you could see where, you know, that would, you know, be all right. But you get a lot of ‘em. Like a lot of the people are carrying forty and fifty sheep hunters that they’re booking. They’re booking a lot of people, you know.
And that’s -- that’s one of the -- I guess the biggest changes that I’ve seen is that. Is that kind of a shift over to that.
Because it was always the guides. Everybody was always afraid of the guides. Said, “Boy, he’s in there and he’s really knocking out the game and he’s really doing this.”
Well, if you really study most of the guides around the state, a lot of them are not taking a whole -- they’re not harvesting a whole lot anymore like they used to.
You know, Dad used to harvest a lot of game. But there’s a little bit of a shift there that I could note.
And, of course, the other things like ATVs. Now that’s all new. You know, that’s all different.
That’s opened up a lotta country for a lot of people is the ATVs. Some here -- you know they got the new, fancy jet-boats now, and different things like that that open up a lot more country to a lot of people. And -- I’m tryin’ to think of something else.
BILL SCHNEIDER: How has the regulatory structure changed big game hunting? KIRK ELLIS: As far as -- you mean the laws or the --? BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah.
KIRK ELLIS: Basically, the laws have -- Well, the laws have just shortened the seasons basically is all that has, you know, really changed on that.
And regulations from, like the Park Service, like us being in the Park here, those regulations have gone berserk basically as far as your insurances.
You have to have ground insurance. You have to have liability insurance on your aircraft, which was never, you know, required before.
And then you have different fees that you pay to the Park Service for permits. And then you have a $300 guide license that you have to buy, and you have to have a $100 -- I forget the name of the permit, but it’s a permit for carrying meat and stuff like that.
And then the paperwork has just doubled and tripled in the last couple of years. It’s just -- and you almost have to have someone that just does paperwork in order to keep your business going. Because you’ll forget things, you know.
Like you have to have -- like pretty quick now we have to have all of our numbers -- our hunters, the names and the numbers and where they’re from and how much they’re paying, and then we have to send that to the Park Service before we can get started.
We’re not allowed to start until they know exactly what we’re doing. And so I -- really -- it’ll really work you trying to stay ahead of the paperwork.
And it’s like we have this area in the Park, and then right over here we have another area that’s a real small area in the National Wildlife Refuge. Well, they have basically all the same rules the Park does.
So now we have two sets of paperwork that we have to keep up with, and -- you know.
And then, of course, now, this next October, they’ll be issuing more permits and more leases for the Park here, and that’s going to -- they claim -- they’ve already told us that we can look at maybe that much more paperwork that we have to do.
And so it’s -- it’s gettin’ to be -- Well, it’s not real fun anymore is what it’s, you know, boiling down to.
DAVE KRUPA: How about changes in the clientele? Have you noticed any changes in the types of people that come through or the philosophy that they -- ?
KIRK ELLIS: Yeah. Yeah. The clients have changed over the years. Because, you know, you had the regular hunter that was a guy that was a farmer or whatever he was that hunted on the weekends, and then he saved up his money and he went to Alaska to hunt. And he was just a regular ol' good old guy.
And nowadays what we’ll end up with is that we have so many rules and so much overhead, that we have to -- that our prices are so high that now we’re ended up with extremely wealthy -- I guess you know the word you call for them, a lot of them brats. And they’re hard to deal with, you know.
They’re -- and then some of them are good people, but they worked all their life to get enough money to come hunting and now they’re too old.
And so now you’ve got a person that’s sixty-five years old that wants to kill sheep. And that’s when you really get hard.
I had a guy last year that was -- he was about sixty years old, plus he had cancer. And he wanted to kill a sheep. I mean that’s just the main thing he wanted to do. And he couldn’t walk over half a mile.
And so when you start getting into competition with all the other people out there, and you have this old guy that you’re trying to get a game for, it really gets tough in a real big hurry.
And I finally -- we finally got him one, you know, and everything. But those are the type of changes in the clientele that you’re starting to see. Those type of people.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Returning to the establishment of the Park, how did that affect game? How has that affected game? It’s been established just a little over twelve years, I guess? KIRK ELLIS: Mm-hm.
BILL SCHNEIDER: How has that affected the game populations here?
KIRK ELLIS: I don’t -- the Park hasn’t really -- just the last year or so have they really started getting interested in knowing what’s happening out there.
And I think the one reason is because everybody’s trying to tell them, you know, to look out there and to do something.
And there’s the part that is not hunted, okay? That area in there, it was real strange. There’s a big section in the middle of this park that -- what they call hard park. You know, which is just that.
And you’re not supposed to sport hunt in there at all. And so that was kind of like -- I thought, "Well, okay. That’ll be good. A lot of game will grow up in there and branch out into the other park and everything."
But they opened it for the subsistence hunting. And like on the sheep, they just opened it. For sheep, you could shoot any sheep. Just one sheep. It didn’t matter -- ewe, lamb, whatever it was.
Well, and then there was a -- right into the middle of it there’s a trail, and so they issued permits for four-wheelers. And so, I mean, the people could go in there with four-wheelers or boats and go back in there.
And, of course, people that aren’t real skillful hunters, they go up the mountain and the rams spook off and the lambs and ewes stay behind. What do they shoot? They shoot the ewes and lambs.
You know, so it’s like, you know, come on. You know, so I mean, some of the things like that have, you know, really -- you’ll wonder why, you know, that they’ve done.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Has there been an increase in population? Have some of those --- Have you seen increases at all, though?
KIRK ELLIS: There’s an increase in rams in the back side of the Park. I’ve seen a little bit. And I don’t know whether they’re breeding and building there or they’re coming -- getting spooked in there from other -- other parts.
But not -- not a huge -- not like I expected in this eleven years. I expected, you know, groups of forty or fifty rams, but nothing like that.
And mostly all small rams, just mature, with three-quarter curl, half curl. Quite large groups of them, you know, ten or fifteen, twenty in a bunch here or there, scattered out across.
But nothing, nothing that’s really -- like I figured I could go back there and look around and see some, you know, big forty-inch rams, but -- but I haven’t.
And so I don’t know, you know, I don’t know whether the -- there’s not a lotta wolves in there. But there’s a pretty big pack. There’s sixteen or seventeen in the one pack, you know.
So I don’t, you know, I don't know the deal. But like I say, they’re just now starting to do sheep counts and they’re just now starting to get active in the game as far as it goes.
So I don’t know, you know. I would imagine the next year or so they’ll start, you know, trying to do something.
DAVE KRUPA: How have you personally reacted to these changes and decreases in game populations and stuff? What’s been your way of adapting to that?
KIRK ELLIS: Oh, with great bitterness. And -- but, yeah, basically, is just go somewhere else to hunt. Go to different areas to hunt.
And try to, you know, try to talk to people and tell 'em, “Well, you know, no sense going over there because there’s, you know, basically just all little stuff."
And then try to talk to the biologists and different people, you know, saying, “Look, you know, I see an area over here where it’s gettin’ real sparse on sheep. You know, you might ought to take a close look at it and see if, you know, there’s a -- it needs to be put on permit or something like that."
And, basically, what it really boils down to is getting into the tourist business. I mean, that’s the way you’re gonna cope with it eventually.
Is that guiding is not going to be something that you can do on a full-time scale, like make a real living off of. At least, that’s my feelings from what I see coming down. And you’re going to have to supplement it with something else.
BILL SCNEIDER: How do you feel about that?
KIRK ELLIS: Leaving that behind? Well, it’s really hard just to drop out of something that you’ve been in for your entire life. You know what I mean?
And that’s what’s been really hard on us. That’s why you see all these wrinkles on our faces.
It’s almost impossible for a person that has done it all of his life. Every morning he gets up and he knows what he’s gonna do, and he’s doing -- just like a guy working on a job, you know what I mean?
And you know you’re going to be doing this, and then all of a sudden it’s like I’ve got to change.
And so you start trying to change and -- like, I’ve been trying to change and trying to -- like, you know we were talking earlier, maybe haul skiers or try to do something like this, but it’s really difficult.
I don’t know what it is. It’s some kind of a mental block or what it is, but you have to change everything.
You know, you have to give up your old lifestyle, and that’s -- it’s really -- it’s something that I don’t want to do, you know. But ---
BILL SCHNEIDER: Some of the people listening to this recording are going to wonder in their mind how somebody could be into big game hunting all their lives and value that.
From a real personal standpoint, how would you speak to them? How would you tell them? What are they -- What are the joys and rewards of that way of life?
KIRK ELLIS: Uh-huh. Yeah, I’ve had people ask me questions like that. And the way I look at it is, is that if the game is abundant, okay, and you can see that it’s harvested and it’s growing, doing good, and that you can take animals and that they’re replenished the next year, okay, I feel -- I feel okay about it.
And then another thing is, is you take people -- that you bring them up. They come up to Alaska and they want to have an experience. And a lot of people think, "Well, you know all they want to --" a lot of people want to do is just kill, you know, and get blood and all this stuff on them and everything.
But there are those people that come up here that are really sportsmen. You know, I mean they’re real avid hunters and stuff like that and they respect the game. There are those that do.
And that is a reward for me. It’s like when I got the old man that was -- matter of fact he’s supposed to be dead here pretty soon. You know, I got him his sheep, you know what I mean. And he was real happy about it and excited about it.
And, you know, he -- that was -- that was real fulfilling for me and everything.
And, of course, there’s always that in me. I always -- I’m not a brutal killer, you know what I mean. I always feel for the animal.
And I’m not like one of these guys that gut-shoot an animal and leave it lay and everything like that, you know. I mean, you kill the animal right away and everything. But there is a reward of that.
And then the other thing is, is like a lot of game is really hard to get. And, you know, you get out there and you just don’t walk up to it and get it. You have to use every trick and everything imaginable, you know, fair chase, to get the game.
Especially sheep, you know. I mean, you’ve got to plan out your stalk and you’ve got to get in there, and if he sees you, well, he’s gone, you know.
And, you know, you got ten, fifteen hours of climbing a mountain out of it for nothing, you know. And so it’s -- there’s a lot of rewards in it, you know, and different things like that.
And makin’, you know, making people happy. And then, of course, being out there in the woods trying to, like I said, outsmart the game. That’s, you know, one of the things.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Looking to the future, what plans are you making now for your family and for your kids, and for your own well-being given the regulations and given decreasing game?
KIRK ELLIS: Basically, what I’m looking at is -- I’m looking at getting, like I said earlier, a little bit more of the tourist business going.
And so what I’m looking at is, is we’re looking at like having a small RV park here and scenic rides, you know, in the airplanes up over the glaciers, and skiers.
And then people that like to backpack. Like we were talking about earlier, if we can rent our cabins. People that can go out there and enjoy the wilderness.
And as far as the kids are going, what I’m looking at for them eventually is -- is I know we’re gonna need a small store and, you know, they’ll be able to sell things down there.
And then, eventually, you know, if we have our bed-and-breakfast gets better, and, you know, they can work there and do that.
And I think that we can still, all of us even together, I think we can make -- make it pretty good, you know.
And that’s one of the -- the things is like, you know, we was talking about a minute ago that I might have left out, is like the game. It’s like I just -- I can’t feel good about harvesting game that’s getting low, like you said.
So I mean, I don’t want to be the guy that shoots the last animal. I mean that’s -- you know, you just can’t. Can’t do that.
And so I think if you supplement with other things, that we can make do. And I mean guiding is, you know, something that’s been here forever, and it’s part of Alaska. I mean that’s just -- it’s part of it just like the dog sled and just like gold panning and gold mining and all that.
I mean that’s what Alaska was founded on, was that kind of stuff. And that’s what brought the people here. If you had enough money, you know, to bring the people here.
And like a lot of this country out here would not be developed without the guiding. Like we wouldn’t be here, you know, without having to come here and then the hunters pay us to take them out and stuff like that.
Same thing with the miners. There wouldn’t be any -- there wouldn’t be a lot of (air)strips and there wouldn’t be a lot of places. There wouldn’t be no Nabesna Road. A lot of people forget about that stuff.
You know, they think, well, the miners there and it’s bad. It's ruined the country. But yet he did a lot of work as far as opening up the country.
Like dogsledding. You know, the Iditarod’s a big thing. But it was all -- they used those dogs for prospecting and stuff like that, you know. I mean, you have to all consider all that type a deal.
BILL SCHNEIDER: I keep wondering as you were talking whether life will be as satisfying with those new endeavors.
KIRK ELLIS: Oh, I -- I think it will. I know what you’re saying, you know.
Like I guess I shouldn’t say that real quick like, because I haven’t done it yet, you know.
I think for me to completely drop out of the guiding business and going into grocery store or something like that -- clerk or something, I couldn’t handle that at all. You know what I mean.
I mean, I love to fly out there in the mountains and different things like that. And it -- it will be a change. You know, if I do -- do change.
Now, you don’t know. Like we were saying earlier about the Park Service. You know, they can’t give you a yes or no answer, so it’s really difficult to know whether we’re gonna be guiding.
Now, we may -- we may get our area and we may -- they may make some really nice rules, and everything may just be really great, you know, for a long time.
So, you know, it’s just like we’re just on pins and needles waiting to see what’s gonna happen, you know.
DAVE KRUPA: If you were able to offer a piece of advice to people who are trying very hard to come up with reasonable regulatory structure and to manage the new reality of increased numbers of people and decreased game populations, do you have any advice?
KIRK ELLIS: One thing is, is they talk about permit systems, and a lot of the permit systems don’t work.
And what they basically need to do, is they just need to count the sheep and they need to just block out areas and just say so many people can go in there and hunt.
And a lot of people get all bent out of shape about it and everything like that.
And what they need to do is with the guides they need to say -- like, take us, and they say, ”Okay, we’ve got so many sheep in your guide area. Okay, here’s your four permits or your six permits. I mean, for your sheep, that’s all you can take.”
You see, then we could base our living off of those and we could say, ”Okay, we’ve got six permits or eight permits”, however many they gave us, and we can call our hunters and say, “Look, this is all the permits we’re allowed.” Okay?
“And you guys can come hunting with us. And you’re going to have to pay more money for ‘em, but we’re really going to hunt and we’re really going to get some big sheep,” you know.
And then that would give you that foundation. And Canada does that in some of their area.
And, like for the residents, they need to do the same thing for the residents. They just need to take the area, they need to count the sheep, find out how many there are and how many they can harvest. And then just say only so many people can go in the area.
And that’s always been a big conflict, because they say they can’t stop access. You know, it’s against the Constitution to keep somebody from going here or going there, but you know that’s my only way.
It’s just like if you've got a sixpack of Coke, you know, and you drank all six Cokes, they’re gone. You know, you got to have some kind of a deal, and it’s gonna hurt some people and some people it ain’t, but I mean that’s just the way it’s got to be.
You know, that’s my, you know, thinking on it. And, of course, a lot of people will come back to me and say, “Well, what happens if, you know, they just took you out of business?”
Well, if the game’s gonna be gone, then why be in business? You know, I mean it won’t hurt us. You know if -- you know, to go out of business like that because the game, you know, the game’s gone we can’t be in business is what I’m trying to say. That type of a deal. But --
BILL SCHNEIDER: Thank you very much. KIRK ELLIS: Okay. BILL SCHNEIDER: I think that’s going to be real helpful to folks. KIRK ELLIS: Okay, well, I hope so.