Randy Zarnke / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / June 21, 2009
Editor's note: This is the first column of a new feature that will appear every other week in the Sundays feature section. It includes transcribed interviews with trappers and hunters of Alaska.
Glenn Despain was born in Alberta, Canada and grew up in Oregon. He moved to Alaska in the 1940's. He worked in the building trades and eventually started his own plumbing business. DeSpain was an avid outdoorsman from an early age: Hunting, fishing and trapping would define the best moments of his life. DeSpain was keenly interested in local politics. He got involved in the regulatory side of wildlife, when he served a term on the Fish & Game Board under Gov. Walter Hickel.
In his youth, DeSpain used trapping as a means to put a few dollars in his pocket. In addition, the reader can tell that he enjoyed the challenge and adventure, especially after moving to Alaska. In this first section, DeSpain describes a variety of experiences related to trapping:
DeSpain: Nobody in my family was interested in trapping, but I found a trap somewhere and I went down in the woods and found an old windfall. Some animal was going in and out of a den underneath this windfall, so I set a trap there. I went back one day and here I had a civet cat. As I recall, I got 20 cents for the skin.That was my first experience trapping. I got $11 for the first mink I ever caught. I put $3 with it and bought a .22 rifle, Model 0 Winchester.
Then I started trapping seriously. It was in the 1930's. I was a little better than 10 years old and there were lots of skunks in the country and muskrat and once in a while a mink or an otter and a lot of beaver, of course. One time I traded a beaver and $6 to a neighbor for an old 30-30. That 30-30 wasn't worth $5.
I used to catch a lot of skunks. I'd get up in the morning and run part of my 'line with a flashlight, come back home and eat breakfast, go to school, run another part of my trapline going to school. I changed clothes in a little shack where we waited for the bus. At night, I'd come off the bus and change back to my trapping clothes and run another part of my trapline. I used to get anywhere from 65-80 cents apiece for skunk skins. I skinned hundreds of skunks. People who were trapping skunks would bring them to me to skin.They'd give me 25 cents apiece to skin. I remember the biggest batch I ever had was 17 skunks in one sack. I worked until two or three in the morning getting them skinned out.
I used tomato juice on my hands to kind of knock the smell down. I shot lots of skunks on the way to school and wouldn't touch them. I'd just leave them and come back that night and get them. The only time I got sent home from school from skunk scent was when the wind apparently whirled around and the spray got me a little bit. The teacher sent me home that day cause I was a little "fresh."
I'd catch a few muskrats and they were worth 35-40 cents apiece, but in those days that was a lot. I was buying my own clothes and working for 10 cents an hour in the summertime in the fields. They finally raised the wages from 10 cents an hour to 12 and a half cents an hour. By golly, I just never knew there was that much money in the world. But I managed to spend it, of course.
After I moved to Alaska, I bought out an old trapper's place across the Tanana, over on Clear Creek. George Nelson was the guy's name. He had homesteaded over there way back when. One morning my trapping partner and I were going down the creek. It was about 10 or 20 below, I guess. I was breaking trail on snowshoes ahead of the dogs. All of a sudden, I'm standing in water up to my waist. I got out and stripped to the hide and drained my mukluks and wrung out my underwear and socks and wool pants. The pants froze brittle, of course, but I got 'em on. I was out until six o'clock that night and never even got a sniffle out of it.
I've caught a lot of wolverine. I have one place where I've caught at least eight wolverine. I had one that really gave me a hard time. She got in a marten trap, but pulled out. Two years later, I caught her and she had one toe missing.
Beatrice (Bea) Davis was running the trading post at Rampart. She didn't know anything about fur. She wrote me a letter and asked me to bring the furbuyer over. So I arranged a day and I let Bea know when we were going to be there. We fly over there in a T-Craft, which is a small airplane. The trappers start bringing fur out of everywhere and he buys all the fur in Rampart. We crammed that T-Craft full of fur. We even had two big rolls of beaver across our laps.
Almost from the moment he arrived in Alaska, DeSpain was an avid Dall sheep hunter. In this next segment, he describes two of his more memorable sheep hunts.
DeSpain: I've killed several sheep. There's one with 41 and a half inch horns hanging on the wall right over there. I shot that out of Chitina. Frank Griffin was a guide at the time. They had walked in and cleaned out a strip on some little creek out of Chitina and it was a real "bush" strip. You chopped willows with the prop every time you'd take off or land there. We climbed the hill the first day and saw all kinds of sheep. There were some huge ones but they were miles away. As we were heading back, we saw nine rams going up the hillside. When we finally caught up to them, the sheep were laying on a little grassy knoll at the foot of this glacier. They weren't moving, so I said, "Let's shoot over them." The sheep got up and they milled around and headed right back towards us. When they came past, we weren't 50 feet from them. There was no question of hitting them. It was a job getting them back to the strip because we had to fly out the following morning. We slept on the hillside that night. The next morning we woke up about 3:30 or 4 and it was coming daylight. We didn't have any trouble waking up because there was a sow grizzly and a cub climbing the hill across the creek from us. We eventually made it down in time, but it was an adventure.
Another time, we went sheep hunting up Jarvis Creek. We saw hundreds of sheep, but there weren't any rams. The second or the third day, we saw three rams. I'm in the middle and Johnson is on the left and Drake is on the right. We agreed to shoot the sheep as we stood - left, middle, right. It wasn't a long shot or nothing. It wasn't over 150 yards. After we shot those three sheep, we hear a rattle up above us. We look up and there is a really big sheep. Johnson said, "Should I take him?" I said, "No. We got our three." The next year the world's record ram was shot over on Johnson River. I'm sure that it was the same sheep.
Moose hunting put meat on the table for the DeSpain family. However, that didn't prevent DeSpain from sharing a humorous incident.
DeSpain: I told this story in town and it got around quite a little bit. There was a new announcer at the radio station. He had been over at the sporting goods store and wanted to know how to call a moose. They said, "Have Despain come up and give you a demonstration." He called me up and asked me to come on the radio. I said, "I'll talk about it but I don't think you want to do a demonstration on the radio." He said, "What do you mean?"
George Nelson taught me how to call moose. It's a real simple call. You just cup your hand over your mouth, with your fingers over your nose and bawl like a cow in the pen.
We were hunting over on the Flats. We had heard a bull with a cow up the creek the night before. I climbed up our spotting tree and glassed all around. I was getting ready to call, when out of nowhere, I farted. This bull responded to my "call" and crashed his antlers against a tree right down below me. I finally spotted him and shot.
That was the first moose I killed over there. I call that my "Farting Tree Moose." That story was going all around town. The radio announcer laughed so hard that he just about did something in his pants when I told him that story. I didn't go on the radio with it.
Randy Zarnke is the president of the Alaska Trappers Association. This column was made possible by the ATA and ConocoPhillips.
In this next section, DeSpain explains how he made adjustments in his career to accommodate his love of hunting.
DeSpain: When I first came up here after Betty and I got married, it seemed like during hunting season I was so busy I didn't have time to go hunting. I told Betty, "That's crazy. I live here 'cause I like to hunt and fish and then when it is time to hunt and fish I'm busy doing something else. From now on I'm going hunting on the 14th of September." From then on, it didn't make any difference if I had two hours of work left to finish a job, it got finished when I got back or they got somebody else to finish it. I told people in July, "I go hunting on the 14th of September." After that, hunting and fishing has been the base philosophy of my life.
I'd go moose hunting on the 14th and come back usually about the 21st or 22nd depending upon how soon I killed my moose. I never got skunked over there but one time. In the early days maybe two boats would go by on the creek. The last few years I was over there, there would be sometimes one boat a hour going by. The pressure was really severe.
DeSpain served four years on the Fish & Game Board during the late 1960s. In this segment, he describes some of the important issues and people he encountered during his tenure.
DeSpain: I was appointed to the Fish & Game Board in 1966 and I served until '70. The Fish & Wildlife Service had conducted an experiment in Unit 13 prior to statehood. They had poisoned off all but two packs of wolves. They wanted the area closed to wolf hunting after that, so they could see how fast the wolves could reproduce. It was an experiment. After statehood, every year the Fish & Wildlife Service put out a report of how the wolves were doing.
When I got on the Fish & Game Board, the season was still closed. I asked what the state had done with this Fish & Wildlife report on Unit 13. They hadn't done anything with it. I said, "I'll give you a year and if I don't have some report on that experiment, I'll push to get that opened up to wolf trapping."
The next year I asked for a report and they didn't have one, so I started pushing the Board to get Unit 13 open. Lowell Thomas, Jr. made a speech in the Senate that Despain was trying to wipe out the wolves in Unit 13. Then, the Anchorage newspaper had a big red headline - 'Despain Going to Wipe Out Wolves in Unit 13.' We finally got it opened up for aerial wolf control. Lowell Thomas, Jr. thought that he was going to become governor on the publicity he got from that issue.
Another time, a local guy told me there was a weir in the Gakona River. The feds were catching rainbows and taking them over across the range to some lakes over there. They had only taken one or two fish, because there weren't many fish coming up the river. I called Clarence Rhodes. He was the head of the Fish & Wildlife Service in Alaska.
I said, "Clarence, what are your guys doing with the weir in the Gakona River?"
He said, "Well, we're moving some of those fish over to the Lake Louise area. What's the matter?"
I said, "There aren't many fish in there to start with; certainly not enough to be moving them. You should get your weir out of there."
He said, "I think you're wrong, man."
I said, "You check. If they have only taken two fish out of there in a week there shouldn't be a weir in there to catch them."
He called me back a day or two later and said, "You're right. We took the weir out."
Being on a good footing with people like that, they listen to you. Not because I was on the Fish & Game Board but because he knew I fished that river and knew what was best. He did a good job.
Pete Nelson was another good one. He had retired from the Fish & Wildlife Service and Pete Nelson knew more about fish and game in Alaska than any other man alive at that time. He had walked pretty near every mile of the state. He knew every stream. He had retired and moved Outside. When Hickel got to be governor, he called Pete up here to be the Commissioner of Fish and Game. He was absolutely the best Commissioner we ever had.
Now retired and in his late eighties, DeSpain prefers to spend most of his time in the tiny remote community of Chisana, which is located in the Alaska Range south of Tok.
DeSpain: Now, I spend most of my time at Chisana in a two-room log cabin that was built prior to 1920. I've got a little portable sawmill. I saw lumber for everybody who lives there. I don't charge them anything. They do a lot of things for me and I like to work with wood.
Randy Zarnke is the president of the Alaska Trappers Association. This column was made possible by the ATA and ConocoPhillips.