Calvin Fair skins out a black bear he shot in the Tustumena Glacier area in 1963.

Calvin Fair skins out a black bear he shot in the Tustumena Glacier area in 1963.

A Sheepish Tale

In August 1963, my long-time neighbor and my father flew into the Tustumena benchlands.

  • Saturday, April 18, 2020 7:51pm
  • Life

Sometimes people are so sure they’re right that they’re blind to evidence right in front of them. And other people who actually know the truth are sometimes willing to sustain another person’s ignorance just for fun. Such was the case in 1963 when a young state game warden’s aide learned not to jump to conclusions.

In August 1963, my long-time neighbor, Dan France, and my father, Calvin Fair, flew in Dan’s red-and-cream Super Cub into the Tustumena benchlands a day before the opening of the Dall sheep season. Dan landed on a reasonably flat hillside about four air miles west of the Harding Ice Field. They set up camp just north of Tustumena Glacier, east of Green Lake, and south of the south fork of Indian Creek, and then they headed further uphill to scout for black bear because Dad was hoping to bring one home and smoke the hams. Bear or no bear, however, their plans called for a sheep hunt the following day.

Some distance away they spotted the spike camp of another sheep hunter, who informed them that a black bear had been appearing regularly to feed on berries just around the hill from where they were camped. Dan and Dad headed in that direction and soon sighted their prey. Dad’s first shot connected but didn’t drop the bear, which bolted downhill and disappeared. They gave chase.

Dan, who came to Alaska in 1954 to serve as a federal game warden and became a state game warden in 1964, said they tracked blood spatters over the scant vegetation until at last they came upon the bear lying dead. As the afternoon waned, they got to work. “We skinned it, and it was little,” Dan told me many years later. “It was an old bear because its teeth were all worn off.” They needed only their two packs and one trip to haul the hide, head and meat back to camp.

At the kill site, they left only some blood on the ground, a small gut pile, and a tuft of coarse black hair from where they had cut off the hide from around the bear’s anus.

Back at camp, they were surprised to see another tent nearby. It was the shelter of a temporary officer named McDonnough who had been flown into Green Lake and had hiked the four or five miles into the hills, presumably to monitor sheep-hunting activity. Probably he had heard my dad’s rifle shot. Definitely he scrutinized the men as they approached with packs laden with bloody game bags.

Since it was the day before sheep season, he likely believed he was about to nail his first violators. He came to their tent to question them, and his very first line of inquiry got him in trouble. “He wanted to see the horns,” recalled Dan, who knew this area was closed to the taking of ewes. “And I said, ‘She didn’t have any horns.’” McDonnough surely believed he had them on a double-violation, and Dan didn’t enlighten him otherwise.

McDonnough asked who’d done the shooting. Dan pointed to my dad, and Dad admitted to the killing. After examining Dad’s hunting license, McDonnough said, “Come on. I want to go down to the kill.” Dad asked him if he might be interested in examining the hide first, but the officer insisted he was interested only in the horns. So they donned their jackets and ventured back outside.

At the kill site, while McDonnough looked around for damning evidence, Dan picked up the patch of black hair and held it out for the officer. “Here, will this do?” he said. “No,” said McDonnough. “I want the horns.”

“Well, she didn’t have any horns,” Dan insisted. “Oh, yes she did,” McDonnough replied.

Trying to keep their composure, Dan and Dad ambled a short ways uphill and sat down. “We watched him as he made circles around and around and around, and finally he went over to the guts,” Dan said. “And the stomach was stained from eating blueberries. And he give that gut pile a kick and sent it rolling down the hill. Then he come up and he sat down beside us on the hill.”

He sat there with them for a couple of long minutes and then said, “You son of a bitches are having a good time, aren’t you?” He paused. “That damn thing was a bear, wasn’t it?” And Dan and Dad exploded with laughter.

After a while, McDonnough said, “That was sure a good one.”

The next morning, Dad and Dan rose early and hunted the upper south fork of Indian Creek. By nightfall, they returned to camp with packs containing the horns, hide and meat of a full-curl ram. McDonnough did not come out to check on them. But when morning broke and Dan fired up the Super Cub, the officer hurriedly exited his tent, and yelled, “Did you get one?” Dan opened his window and yelled, “Yeah!” McDonnough said he wanted to see it, but Dan merely waved, closed his window and flew away.

And then, about a month later, Dad, Dan and a couple of their friends drove a pair of vans north of Palmer to hunt caribou in a remote location near the Susitna River. A few days later, when they were flown from their remote camp back to their vehicles, they carried meat bags containing four caribou and one Dall sheep. As they drove south, they encountered a check station, manned mostly by state game biologists trying to keep tabs on the annual harvest. When they stopped, a biologist hurried out with a clipboard to collect data. The hunters opened up the vans obligingly.

The biologist began by counting meat bags, and he determined the hunters had killed five caribou. Dan disagreed. “We only got four caribou,” he said. The biologist counted again and insisted that there had to have been five. The numbers were batted back and forth until the hunters themselves began pretending to argue over who had shot what. “He had a hell of a time with us,” Dan said.

Eventually, the biologist demanded to see Dan’s license, and, even though Dan knew precisely where it was, he feigned confusion, burrowing through bags of dirty, bloody clothing and stacking filthy pants and shirts atop the biologist’s clipboard as he looked. Finally, the frustrated official stalked inside to fetch a protection officer to help him. Dan and Dad quickly recognized McDonnough, who took one look at them and said, “Not you again.”

To show that he had learned his lesson, McDonnough sent them immediately on their way.

Dan France cleans up the horns of a full-curl Dall sheep in the upper drainage of the south fork of Indian Creek, near Tustumena Glacier, 1963. (Photo courtesy Fair Family Photo Collection)

Dan France cleans up the horns of a full-curl Dall sheep in the upper drainage of the south fork of Indian Creek, near Tustumena Glacier, 1963. (Photo courtesy Fair Family Photo Collection)

Laden with a game bag full of black bear meat, Dan France heads for camp near the Tustumena Glacier, 1963. Zebra Mountain and the glacier can be seen in the background. (Photo courtesy Fair Family Photo Collection)

Laden with a game bag full of black bear meat, Dan France heads for camp near the Tustumena Glacier, 1963. Zebra Mountain and the glacier can be seen in the background. (Photo courtesy Fair Family Photo Collection)

Dan France (in distance) heads for his Super Cub, which is warming up prior to final packing and departure from Tustumena Glacier area, 1963. (Photo courtesy Fair Family Photo Collection)

Dan France (in distance) heads for his Super Cub, which is warming up prior to final packing and departure from Tustumena Glacier area, 1963. (Photo courtesy Fair Family Photo Collection)

The Fair family van stands open with its load of caribou and sheep meat, north of Palmer, 1963. A lightly bearded Dan France can be seen through the central side window. (Photo courtesy Fair Family Photo Collection)

The Fair family van stands open with its load of caribou and sheep meat, north of Palmer, 1963. A lightly bearded Dan France can be seen through the central side window. (Photo courtesy Fair Family Photo Collection)

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A Sheepish Tale

In August 1963, my long-time neighbor and my father flew into the Tustumena benchlands.