Bill Etchells was interviewed on October 22, 1993 by Bill Schneider and David Krupa at his homestead near Kenny Lake, Alaska. Bill moved to Alaska in the early 1960's. There were pictures of his son adorning the cabin. There were some antique guns, a radio and TV, and a few books in the cabin. When the interviewers met with Bill, he was splitting his winter's wood. He says that a bad back gives him some trouble, but he seems to live a pretty rugged life: hunting, packing water for the horses, using the horses for farm work and for skidding logs out of the woods.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Wrangell-St.Elias National Park
Date of Interview: Oct 22, 1993
Narrator(s): Bill Etchells
Interviewer(s): Bill Schneider, David Krupa
Transcriber: Sue Beck
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His background, and how he got into farming
His guiding background in Alaska
Crossing the Copper River with horses
Description of guiding horses
Horse packing stories
The route taken to go guiding in the Wrangell Mountains
Description of the guiding camp and clients
Wolf stories, wolf control, and game management
The role of airplanes in Bill's guiding business, and specific hunting areas
Changes in game populations resulting from over-hunting and wolves
Airplanes and modifications to them
Attitudes towards clients, and fair-chase hunting
His wife's role in the guiding business, divorce, and raising his infant son
Raising of his son, and his son's present and future plans
Homesteading, hay farming, and horse boarding
Establishment of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, and the future of farming in Alaska
The future of farming around Kenny Lake, and changes seen in people since the Trans-Alaska Pipeline days
Fall and winter activities: logging, fence building, caring and feeding of horses
Spring and summer activities: fertilizing, equipment repairs, haying
Summer activities: haying
Summer activities: gardening, canning
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After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay, today is October 22, 1993. I’m Bill Schneider. Dave Krupa’s here, too. We’re interviewing Bill Etchells today and we’re at his place at about 8.5 Mile Edgerton Road.
And we’re gonna talk a little bit about farming and homesteading. So, Bill, let’s start with maybe talking a little bit about your background. Where you’re from and where you grew up.
BILL ETCHELLS: I was -- I was born in Massachusetts and raised most of my childhood in Connecticut, 'til I went in the Service -- went in the army when I was -- I was seventeen in 1956. And I was discharged in ‘59. (inaudible tape)
BILL SCHNEIDER: And what brought you to Alaska?
BILL ETCHELLS: Well, it was so settled up back in Connecticut, and I figured I -- I just wasn’t happy with anything back there.
Things were going from bad to worse from my outlook on it. And I thought I’d be happier in Alaska.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And how did you hear about farming? Was that something you had done back there?
BILL ETCHELLS: No. I was around -- some friends of mine were farmers, kids that I grew up with.
But how I got into it here was I got into the guiding industry, guiding business, and had to have horses.
And I had to have a home for the horses and I had to have grass for the horses, so that’s how I got into it, And then I eventually got out of the guiding.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Where were you guiding out of?
BILL ETCHELLS: Well, I operated out of here the last few years, and I was doing most of my hunting over in the Wrangell Mountains. Mostly on the south side.
BILL SCHNEIDER: So you needed horses for that. Were you going directly in with the horses? Or were you flying clients in or -- how did it work?
BILL ETCHELLS: I flew the clients into my base camp and we hunted out of there with horses.
BILL SCHNEIDER: But you, of course, had to haul the horses in there.
BILL ETCHELLS: Well, I took them in in the summer. We had to cross the Copper River at Chitina, and before they built the bridge across the river we had to swim them across.
That was the first part of the summer before the river got real high. But it was still -- still a lot of water for having to cross with the horses.
We’d have to -- have to lead ‘em across one at a time with a boat. I hired John Billum.
And it was kinda tricky because we had to pull ‘em a little bit upstream continuously, so we didn’t drift too far down the Copper. Because we were just above -- just above the mouth of the Chitina, and if we had drifted down as far as the Chitina, then we never would’ve got across. Would’ve ended up down in Wood Canyon.
So the -- once we -- once they got the bridge across the Copper at Chitina it was a lot easier getting the horses over there then.
But, eventually the hunting went downhill because so many more people had access to it then because of the bridge.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Did you ever have any trouble with the horses there?
BILL ETCHELLS: Crossing the river? BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah.
BILL ETCHELLS: Well, we came close to drowning one or two. But most of them did real good.
The worst -- well, besides the deep water and fast water, the worst thing for crossing the horses there was when a strong wind would blow up the river.
It’d make big waves and the horse’s head would go down in a trough between the waves, and sometimes the head would go completely under.
And you couldn’t pull ‘em hard with the rope because that would tend to pull their heads under.
But, some of them were just like people. Some of ‘em were far better swimmers than others.
It was just one of the things we had to do. It wasn’t enjoyable. It was nerve-racking, but we had to do it to get ‘em across.
Then we’d come back in the fall. We could generally ride ‘em across someplace.
One year, we went upstream on the far side of the Copper and crossed at the airport, where the river was broken up into quite a few different channels. And there we didn’t have to swim them at all.
We had one horse that -- that fall -- that was in October. We had one horse, a loose horse that had to swim. He tried to cross downstream in one channel from where we crossed, and he got into swimming water there.
The water’s sure cold that time of year ‘cause there’s ice running in it. And your feet and legs get in the water and it just paralyzes them, so you can’t feel if your feet are in the stirrups then or not.
I got out of the -- I got out of the hunting business when the seasons were getting shorter and, like I say, the hunting was deteriorating over there because more people had access to it.
And that was prior to the Park -- Park Service getting the land. But I knew something was gonna happen to it where it wouldn’t be as good to hunt there anymore. So I just quit.
BILL SCHNEIDER: What made a good horse? What were you looking for when you were using horses for guiding?
BILL ETCHELLS: Well, the most important thing was their disposition. You wanted easy-going horses, not excitable, flighty-type horses.
And I liked horses that were kind of heavy boned with maybe about a quarter draft blood in them.
They just -- they took -- they took that rough country better and being used day after day in the rough country.
I did at times use smaller, lighter-boned horses, but they just never worked out as well.
BILL SCHNEIDER: What was the best horse you had?
BILL ETCHELLS: Probably the best horse I had was my own saddle horse. He was half Appaloosa and half Belgian. He was probably over seventeen hands. Took #4 shoes.
But I had a lot of -- lot of good horses. Some were better for one thing than another.
I had one horse that was real good for packin’ moose horns, and whenever we had a big moose rack to pack, we always tried to have him there.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Why was that?
BILL ETCHELLS: He was -- he was careful with the horns. He was good at squirming through trees and brush with ‘em.
And when we packed the moose horns, I’d put a pair of pack -- plywood pack boxes on the horse, which would be empty, just to make a platform for the moose rack.
And I put the rack on the top of the boxes across his back with the tines sticking up and the ends of the palms to the back of the horse, then lash ‘em on with a diamond hitch.
But like I say he was real careful with ‘em. And it was a top -- it wasn’t a heavy pack, but it was a top heavy pack.
And even when he’d jump a little creek, he was real -- a real athletic horse and he wouldn’t go floundering across or make a big, wild jump like some horses will. He would just give -- just make a nice little jump and land with all four feet under him.
And you could almost set a cup of coffee on top of his pack and it almost wouldn’t get spilled. He was just that careful with it.
And when I got out of the hunting business, I sold him to -- with a couple of others, to one of my friends who's still in the business.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Was there any horses that you liked because they could carry an extra heavy load?
BILL ETCHELLS: Yeah. The best -- the best pack horses were all the bigger horses, including two big mules I had.
And whenever we packed moose meat, I’d always try to have those bigger horses there.
Because the way we -- the way we’d cut up the moose -- like, we’d cut the two hind legs off at the ball joints, and in a big bull that’s about a hundred and fifty pounds each. It’s close to three hundred pounds for a load for the horse.
And you'd have to put the two hind legs on one horse and the two front legs on another horse, and the sides of ribs on another horse, and then the neck and the loin on another horse to keep the packs balanced.
And the neck and the loin wouldn’t always balance exactly, so we’d have to weight one side with a rock or two.
‘Cause, you know, the pack has to be balanced on the horse, even for a short distance, because it’ll -- if it doesn’t do anything else, it’ll get their back sore if it’s not balanced.
And there’s -- some people cut up moose meat smaller, but the smaller you cut the chunks, the more waste you have. So I always like to -- always like to keep things in as big a chunks as I could.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Can you tell us a little bit about the -- the route in? What was the trail like in that you used?
BILL ETCHELLS: Well, I -- like I say, we -- we crossed the Copper where the bridge is now at Chitina. Then we went up the railroad.
We had to go down through the gorge at the Kuskulana Canyon, where the bridge goes across the Kuskulana, because the bridge wasn’t good enough to take horses across. At least, I never wanted to take ‘em across. So we went down in the gorge and across the river.
And had to beat our way up through the brush on the far side. And then we came out in a gravel pit on the far side of the river near the bridge.
Then we’d camp that night.
Well, I should back up a little. We -- the horses were soft and some of them we'd bring them over there, so we just made short trips each day.
Then we camped the first night at Strelna. Then at -- on the second day after we crossed the Kuskulana we’d camp at Chokosna.
And just up the road a half a mile from Chokosna is where we left the road, the railroad. And I had a trail going up the Gilahina Canyon and then into the Lakina Canyon where I had my camp.
And the horses stayed in there during the summer. We’d just keep a block of salt at the camp for them. And we had no problems with them running off or getting lost.
And we’d be using some of the horses during the summer, working on trails and all. We was in there quite a bit during the summer prior to hunting season, but not all the time.
One year -- one year the Kuskulana was too high to cross down at the bridge, so we went up the trail up the Kuskulana from Strelna. And we crossed right below the glacier early in the morning when there was the least water.
Then we had -- when we got across the Kuskulana, we went downstream a little bit to Trail Creek and went up Trail Creek and over the pass to the headwaters of the Chokosna River.
We camped -- camped there at the Chokosna River that day, that night. And in one more day we made it. A short day we made it over to the Lakina to my camp.
BILL SCHNEIDER: How long a trip was that? We’re talking three or four days?
BILL ETCHELLS: Well, from the Copper we’d camp for one night at Strelna and the next one at Chokosna, the next one at the head of the Gilahina.
And the next day we’d be into the Lakina. So that’s four days from the Copper River.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Did you have a camp in there? A cabin or -- ?
BILL ETCHELLS: Yeah, I built a -- built a little log cabin for a cook shack and we had a high cache that I stored the hunting gear in, camp gear, between seasons.
And we always had several wall tents set up there with heater stoves in for hunters and everybody else to sleep in while we were at that camp.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And whereabouts did your clients come from?
BILL ETCHELLS: Oh, they came from all over, mostly from the United States, but I -- I had two from Australia one time.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Pretty nice people in general?
BILL ETCHELLS: Yeah, most of ‘em were. But some of them were hard to get along with.
BILL SCHNEIDER: I guess that’s one of the drawbacks of that profession.
BILL ETCHELLS: Yeah, I suppose that’s one of the reasons I wanted to get out of it. I’m not -- I don’t have the best personality for dealing with people.
And guiding is different from most everything else, because you have to live with the people for ten days or two weeks, however long the hunt is.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Did you have trouble with wolves at all with the horses?
BILL ETCHELLS: No. No, I never had any trouble with the wolves. They -- once or twice the horses all came running into the camp and stood lookin’ down the valley like something had been after them. So I suppose something had, but I don’t -- I can’t say it was wolves. I just don’t know what it was.
And there was -- there was a lot of wolves in there in that country, too. There was one family that were there. They lived there steady. We’d hear them almost every evening.
Sometimes they’d sit right outside our camp after dark and yowl and sing to us. And we had horses all over the place, but they never bothered the horses.
And the horses never seemed very worried about the wolves either, being so close.
They killed the -- the wolves killed a lot of moose in that country, though. We found a lot of their kills and I’d see some from the air.
And they covered the whole country. They even got after the sheep, too. We’d see a lot of wolf tracks up high. And once we came across a ram that they’d killed just the night before, when we were sheep hunting.
BILL SCHNEIDER: That’s a big issue now, is wolf hunting, wolf control and --
BILL ETCHELLS: Yeah. The -- if you don’t control the wolves, they will -- a combination of the wolves and the bears will take the game population way downhill, but eventually -- eventually there'll be way fewer wolves because they’ll clean out the game, and then they either won’t breed or they’ll have real small litters.
But when you let nature balance it out like that, the fluctuations are awful great. They -- you’ll go from a lot of game down to almost nothing and the same with the wolf population.
So I think -- I think the best way to do it is to control the wolves somewhat, keep their numbers down somewhat, so we can have a fair amount of game.
And I think in the long run it’s better for the wolves, too.
The problem with the wolves or any -- anything pertaining to the game today is that most people in the United States, they’re so far removed from the game and the wilderness that they can’t see the situation like it actually is. They’re in some kind of a Walt Disney world.
And they have -- they’re more organized than other people, and I think they have too much influence on -- or try to have too much influence on managing the game.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, we’ve certainly seen that this past year. Tell me a little bit about the role of airplanes in your early operations with guiding.
BILL ETCHELLS: Well, I couldn’t have -- I couldn’t have got by without a plane. Well, for one thing when -- the caribou hunting I did was in a different area and I’d fly there and we’d hunt on foot.
If I hadn’t had a plane myself, I would’ve had to hire all the flying done. That would’ve cost a lot of money. Of course, it cost a lot of money having the plane, too.
But without the plane I couldn’t -- I would’ve had to had longer hunts, which the hunters wouldn’t have necessarily wanted. It would’ve been a lot of days just traveling in and out of the hunting country with horses.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Hm-mm. I guess in the old days that’s the way they did it though.
BILL ETCHELLS: Yeah. In the old days there was a lot of thirty-day and longer hunts. But people these days are so cramped for time it seems, they don’t want to spend the time at it.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah, that’s changed a lot. How did you work out your guiding area? Did you and other guides talk about that?
BILL ETCHELLS: No, it was just kind of dog-eat-dog back then. It wasn’t -- it wasn’t a good system.
I -- I’ve always admired the system that they have over in Canada and the Yukon Territory and British Columbia, where each guide has his own area to hunt.
And they can buy -- buy and sell those hunting areas. And if a guide is -- if a guide is stupid enough to overhunt his area, take out too much game, the government will take it away from him. He’ll lose it completely.
So I think managed -- managed that way you can have good hunting forever. But it’s varied -- the situation has varied over here over the years. But generally speaking it’s been a big mess compared to over in Canada.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. Did you notice changes in the game in the time that you spent over there?
BILL ETCHELLS: Yeah, I could see a difference once the bridge was across the Copper. I had to hunt in the most inaccessible parts of my country then -- more.
But the wolves were -- the wolves and the bears were thinning out the moose pretty bad. It got to the point where we would -- we would never see a calf. They were getting all the calves. And within a few years then we realized the herd was goin’ downhill bad. It hasn’t recovered yet.
And that was almost twenty years ago since I’ve been hunting over there. And there’s another guide hunting part of that area now, and from what he’s told me there’s not many moose there yet.
And I remember back then a lot of -- a lot of the country around here that was more accessible to aircraft, it was badly overhunted then. It hasn’t recovered yet.
And that was almost twenty years ago since I’ve been hunting over there. And there’s another guide hunting part of that area now, and from what he’s told me there’s not many moose there yet.
And I remember back then a lot of -- a lot of the country around here that was more accessible to aircraft, it was badly overhunted then.
Like up around the head of the Copper River and the Jacksina River, there was a lotta places you could land Super Cubs there and the guides took advantage of it and they virtually wiped out the sheep.
Of course, they couldn’t wipe ‘em out, because you could just take the three-quarter curl or larger rams, but they wiped them out to a point where there was no hunting left there.
BILL SCHNEIDER: What kind of aircraft did you use?
BILL ETCHELLS: I used a Piper Super Cub.
BILL SCHNEIDER: A Super Cub. BILL ETCHELLS: Hm-mm.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Boy, that sure has been a versatile aircraft for this country, huh?
BILL ETCHELLS: Yeah. But, you had to make some modifications on the plane to make it as good as it could be. But, when it’s all said and done it was still just an airplane. And they -- a lot of people got killed in ‘em.
BILL SCHNEIDER: What were some of the modifications?
BILL ETCHELLS: I put larger -- larger tires on the main gear. And when you add the larger tires that made the standard brakes less effective. So then you had to put on larger, better brakes, and you --
you would reinforce the landing gear in certain places and put a set of safety cables on it in case certain parts broke. It would hopefully keep the gear from collapsing completely.
And you’d use a longer, flatter-pitched prop to get the best takeoff performance. It would cut down on your cruising speed, but you could get off the ground a little faster.
And you’d always have to have a -- have a stronger tail spring, too, or you’d keep breaking the tail springs.
In fact, you’d use a certain -- a certain tail-wheel assembly, too, that
was stronger than another kind.
And on my planes, I -- some people didn’t like ‘em, but I liked to put a kit on the wings that made the end of the wings droop down. I don’t know what the name of ‘em were. I just called them droopy wingtips.
But they -- they made the plane a little more stable at low airspeed. And when I absolutely had to, I could horse the plane off the ground a little -- a little faster, you know, little lower airspeed than I could with a standard wing.
And when the plane stalled, it didn’t stall as violently as with a standard wing. The nose would just dip down a little bit until it recovered airspeed and keep flying again.
And with a standard wing when it would stall, one wingtip would snap under and it’d go into a violent stall and it’d take you longer to recover.
But the main thing is you had to -- you just had to be completely familiar with the plane.
There’s even differences between Super Cubs. You’d be used to one and if you had to fly another one, you’d have to get used to that plane. I mean, they were just all individuals.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Did you make any modifications to the engine to -- BILL ETCHELLS: No. BILL SCHNEIDER: -- to beef up the power?
BILL ETCHELLS: No, it was just a standard hundred-and-fifty-horse Lycoming engine.
There were a few around that had a larger engine put in ‘em. But from what I’d heard back then, it wasn’t really worth it. It made the plane a little more nose heavy.
And sometimes landing on rough strips you’d load the plane so it was tail heavy to try to overcome a tendency to want to go up on its nose when you had to use the brakes hard.
So I think probably the best engine was the standard one-hundred-fifty-horse Lycoming.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Just a little more on the clients. Were there any that you remember as being particularly good? Any stand out in your mind? Any memorable folks?
BILL ETCHELLS: Oh yeah, there was a lot of ’em. But it’s been so many years ago it’s all kind of blurring in my memory now. I did meet an awful lot of awful nice people.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And then you probably met some you’d just as soon not remember.
BILL ETCHELLS: Yeah. Yeah. I met -- there was a lot that came up here. I suppose it’s still that same way.
Well, anyway, there was a lot that came up here to hunt that -- they didn’t come up here for the experience. They just came up here to go home with a big set of horns.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Some of the people we’ve talked to have talked about fair chase and their feelings about that.
BILL ETCHELLS: Well, you want to know how I feel about it? BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah.
BILL ETCHELLS: Well, I’m all for -- I’m all for fair chase. I guess that’s part of the reason I got out of the business, because of the attitude of some of the hunters. They were willing to do anything -- anything it took to go home with a big set of horns.
They didn’t come up here to hunt. They came up here to go home with a big set of horns.
And there were a lot of guides back then that encouraged that. So -- and a lot of ‘em were always in trouble with the things they did, too.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah, I guess some of that’s still -- still going on. How about your family. Were they -- were they involved in the operation, too?
BILL ETCHELLS: Joe! Shut up, dog.
BILL SCHNEIDER: That’s the dog in the background.
BILL ETCHELLS: Yeah, I was married then. My wife -- my wife cooked at the base camp.
And then we -- we had a little boy, and the last year we were married she stayed home with him.
BILL SCHNEIDER: So your wife was involved in the cooking at the base camp? BILL ETCHELLS: Yeah.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Until your son was born?
BILL ETCHELLS: Yeah. That's his picture there. Now he's off in the Service now.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Oh, he's in the Service now. What's his name? BILL ETCHELLS: Bill.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And is that your only child?
BILL ETCHELLS: Yeah. Yeah, my wife -- actually how it happened is she left me. She fell in love with one of my guides. BILL SCHNEIDER: Oh, God.
BILL ETCHELLS: So it was kind of a mess. But she took the baby with her. She didn’t -- well, she fell out of love with me and she got to feeling the same way about the baby.
But I eventually got the baby back. In fact, I drug my feet on the divorce until she gave me custody of him.
BILL SCHNEIDER: So you raised Bill?
BILL ETCHELLS: Yeah. Yeah, since he was about a year and a half old. BILL SCHNEIDER: I’ll be darned.
BILL ETCHELLS: Yeah, this old house here is not much of a place. You know, when I bought the land years ago, I planned on building another place, a good place, as soon as I got the land paid for but just haven’t had the money.
As soon as I got the land paid off, I had to pay her off. And I haven’t had enough money since.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Would you share a little bit about raising your son here and how you worked that out? Did he do chores with you around the place?
BILL ETCHELLS: Yeah, he -- I always had him help however he could. I remember, he was still a little guy. It was at Christmas one time. I bought him his own small-sized double bit axe so he could start helping me split firewood, which is what I was doing today when you fellas showed up.
I always tried to let him help as much as he could without overworking him. But there were certain things he didn’t like to do. Probably his least favorite was helping in the garden.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Where is he stationed now?
BILL ETCHELLS: He’s at Fort Riley, Kansas, now. He’s in an armored outfit. He’s a tank driver.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Does he get home periodically?
BILL ETCHELLS: Yeah, he’s been home every fall. Every fall since he went in, including -- including the two years he was over in Germany.
It’s cost him a lot of money, though, for plane fare. But he’ll be out next August. He will have been in four years then.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Does he -- What does he plan to do?
BILL ETCHELLS: Oh, he wanted to get into law enforcement. Since he was a little guy, he wanted to be a state trooper.
But now he’s kind of disillusioned with that, getting’ into law enforcement, because he’s heard so much about different law enforcement outfits, how corrupt they are and the way they -- they’ve been treating people in various parts of the country. Not our troopers here, but all over the country.
So now he’s thinking he won’t be getting into that, but he doesn’t know what he wants to do.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, tell us about the change to homesteading.
BILL ETCHELLS: Well, I bought this -- I bought this old homestead here because of the horses. Had to have a home for them.
And then when I quit guiding, I started doing log building and some farming here. Clearing more land and planting more grass and sellin’ hay.
But it hasn’t -- financially it hasn’t worked out very good because I’ve just barely -- just barely survived here.
Well, we always have a problem with the right weather for harvesting, but I think my land, it averages too dry to really be good for farming here.
I just -- and there’s absolutely no way we can irrigate. Well, we could get water from, say, the Tonsina River behind here, but you’d have to be -- the problem is you’d have to go over Native land.
And it’s so far -- it’s -- it’s so lower -- so much lower than the farm here, it’d take too big of a pump probably to be economical.
BILL SCHNEIDER: So you’re raising mostly hay?
BILL ETCHELLS: Yeah. Yeah, it's the -- I hate being dependent just on one -- one crop, but that’s the best we’ve got here for makin’ money so I’m -- that’s what I’m stickin’ with.
I sell -- sell some hay to individuals and sometimes towards spring I sell some to the feed store in Palmer.
And I feed a lot of it to horses that I board here. Boarding horses has worked out pretty good, because there’s always -- there's always some grades of hay that I can’t sell and I can feed it to the horses.
And I’ve got fences anyway because having horses of my own. If I had to build -- build fences to board horses and all, it probably wouldn’t be worth it. But the way my situation is here it’s been an alright deal.
Of course, there I am again havin’ to deal with more people, which I don’t like to do. There’s always -- always somebody that’s got some reason why they can’t pay you what they owe you for boardin’ the horses, and you’ve got the time and the feed into ‘em, you know. You can’t take it back.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, any thoughts about the Park Service and the new park? You made the move, I guess, before the park was established.
BILL ETCHELLS: Yeah, because I -- I could see the handwriting on the wall. Somethin’ bad was gonna happen.
And I -- I hate the idea of the government grabbin’ all that land for the park. ‘Cause all our -- the way I see it, all our problems here have been caused by the federal government. They grabbed all that land for the park and they gave -- they gave the Natives millions of other acres.
Well, the Kenny Lake Plateau here, there’s one little piece of state land on it. A little bitty piece. And the rest of it, all the land surrounding our farms and homesteads here, it’s all been gobbled up by the Natives.
Which means there’s no way -- there’s no way we can expand the farms or other people start farming here.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Do you think farming is a going occupation for the future here?
BILL ETCHELLS: Well, I think in Alaska the time will come when there can be a lot more people farming and maybe making a good living at it. But we’re gonna have to have a market out of the state for a lot of stuff.
And that means that the grain or whatever has got to sell for more than it’s selling for now in relation to what it costs you to raise it.
I -- I don’t think I’ll live to see the day, but I think the day will come when people will be makin’ a living farming here.
The one problem right now here at Kenny Lake with the farming is if you want to expand a little the land is really too high priced, because there’s so little land in private hands it keeps the price up to where it’s not economical to buy it for farming.
My neighbor down the road, Bill Sutton, he’s bought some. But he’s had more money coming in, too, than I have. Like he worked on the pipeline construction.
And myself, if I could ever buy any more land, it’d be just a very little bit.
And that situation would be completely different if the land hadn’t been given to the Natives, and if they had kept -- the federal government had kept the Homestead Act going.
You know, where other people could’ve homesteaded land here. There’s all kinds of young people in the country here now that would love to have a piece of land, just enough -- maybe a lot of cases just enough so they could have one or two horses and have some pasture for them. And they can’t afford to buy enough land.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, it’ll be interesting to see, you know, with the new park and more people coming in and the Chitina fishery, this has become an area, I guess, that attracts some folks. Or that’s what I would think.
BILL ETCHELLS: Yeah, well, I can tell you since I’ve been here -- well, say, since the end of the pipeline construction (Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline), or since they started building the pipeline actually, it’s attracted a lot of the wrong kind of people.
A lot of people that came up here to work on the pipeline have been the wrong kind of people. There was a lot of awful good people, too, but a lot of the wrong kind.
And a lot of ‘em stayed here, and now a lot of ‘em are living on welfare and food stamps. They’re not contributing anything.
And one -- another program that’s keeping ‘em up here is this dividend program. With those -- especially those with several kids, I’m sure a lot of ‘em will stay here and a lot of people even come up here because of that.
With the welfare situation and those dividend payments on top of it, they can do better here than anywhere else.
BILL SCHNEIDER: For some of the folks that’ll be listening to this, visitors to the state, can you give them a sense of what your year is like?
What your activities are in the fall and the winter and the spring and the summer to make a go of it?
BILL ETCHELLS: Well, this is the middle of October now, and about two weeks ago or a week and a half ago I got done getting my year’s supply of firewood. Hauled one of my horses down to Ernestine. I have friends that live there.
And I used the horse to skid the logs out of the woods to the trucks. And I skidded out his wood and mine, too.
Because of my bad back, I -- I cut the wood in stove-length chunks right there in the woods. Right where the truck is, because it’s easier to handle it with my bad back.
And since then I’ve been doing things around home here. I just went to Delta to get a dump-truck load of grain a couple days ago for -- to feed to the horses all winter.
And I’m still working on fences. I start -- I start working on fences in the spring once I’m done spreading fertilizer. The moose -- I’ve got four-strand -- mostly four-strand barbed-wire fences with steel posts.
And the moose, they gather around here. Depends how much snow, but from maybe the end of December 'til spring, and they do quite a bit of damage on the fences. Some of them have learned to jump the fences and others seems like they don’t learn.
So I have to do some fence work then, and then -- like I say, I’m still doing some now. I’m replacing some rotted off wood gate posts now, which I have to get done pretty soon, because the ground’s startin’ to freeze now.
And during the -- during the winter, I’m tied down here just feeding horses hay twice a day and grain once a day. And I have a stallion in the shed that I have to water him twice a day, too.
And I have to -- have to haul water from the community well. That’s what those buckets there are for, is water for the stallion.
Then in spring I have to -- I have to haul fertilizer in my old dump truck from Delta. And I get it spread as early as I can.
And then I’m workin’ on equipment between the time I get done spreading fertilizer and the time I start makin’ hay.
And makin’ hay all depends on the weather. You may -- I like to try to start haying between the fifteenth and the twentieth of June. But quite often it starts raining here between the twentieth of June and the first of July. And sometimes it doesn’t stop for weeks and weeks.
So that’s really -- you can’t even predict when you’re gonna be makin’ hay.
We had a drought here this summer, and we had beautiful weather for puttin’ up hay. A big long stretch. Can’t remember exactly when it was, but for weeks and weeks it didn’t rain.
And I got a lot of hay put up in good shape, but I didn’t get much per acre. Yield was awful low because of the drought.
And I had another problem this year. I always pick up hay with a team of horses and a wagon. And I was busy myself every day, either mowing grass or stirrin’ up the hay with a tedder or raking or bailing, which I did with the tractor.
So I was tied up with the tractor every day. And I didn’t have anyone on the haying crew that could handle the horses, so they had to use the flatbed truck.
And the flatbed truck, the bed’s an awful lot higher than the wagon bed, so it was awful tiring for the crew. Havin’ to throw the bales up on that high bed of the truck.
So next year I -- that could happen again. And in the future -- I think by next year I’m gonna get a -- oh, I don’t know what they call ‘em. I call it a hay loader. It hitches onto the side of the bed of the truck and it’s ground powered, and it’s got a chain on it and it scoops the bales up off the ground as it goes movin’ with the truck.
And brings it up to the level of the truck, throws it on the bed, and they can stack it. That would cut down on labor a lot.
BILL SCHNEIDER: How many guys did you have working working when you were haying?
BILL ETCHELLS: It varied from two to four. I always like to have as big of a crew as I can get, but never know from day-to-day how many I can get.
There’s a lot of people here that you could hire to do work like, say, driving a truck or something, but it comes to hard work buckin’ bales, they’re not interested.
And I can only -- I can only pay six dollars an hour, too. If I could pay twice that it would be easier to get somebody to work, too.
BILL SCHNEIDER: You mentioned you had a garden. Do you -- is that still something you have going?
BILL ETCHELLS: No, it’s too cold now. Everything’s dead.
But that’s another problem livin’ by myself. I can’t take the time to can vegetables. I had a neighbor woman can carrots for me. She took part of them for herself.
But I put quite a bit of broccoli in the freezer. Blanch it and put it in the freezer.
BILL SCHNEIDER: But you still keep a garden in the summer?
BILL ETCHELLS: Mm-hm. Yeah. It really -- it really helps me. Helps, you know, my diet during the summer months, havin’ a garden.
Of course, it helps me year-round, too. Just the broccoli in the freezer, you know. I can have broccoli as many times per week as I want.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. Well, thanks. I think -- I think what you’ve done has given people a real sense of how hard it is to make a go of it out here. Farming.
And that early information about guiding, I think that’s real valuable for people, too. Thanks for taking the time.
BILL ETCHELLS: Okay.