When you visit the headquarters of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and take a walk on the trails, you will notice an old cabin tucked under the trees next to the Environmental Education Center. Perhaps you will be startled by a disembodied voice speaking at you about hunting and action-movie-esque moose rescues.
The voice tells a story about Andrew Berg, who owned this cabin. All the information you’ll learn about Berg in this article can be found in “Alaska’s No. 1 Guide: The History and Journals of Andrew Berg, 1869-1939” by Catherine Cassidy and Gary Titus.
Andrew Berg was a Finnish immigrant who came to Alaska in 1888. He settled on the Kenai Peninsula and soon made a life for himself at hunting, mining and on various other endeavors.
He even worked for several years for the state of Alaska as a game warden. Said to be one of the strongest men on the Kenai, Berg’s claim to fame is that he was the first ever big game guide in Alaska.
He built 14 cabins throughout the peninsula. The cabin you can find near the refuge headquarters, which originally stood on the northeast shore of Tustumena Lake, he built himself in 1936 when he was 65.
Berg led a remarkable life, and he told some amazing stories about his life. The legendary tales of his exploits are sometimes hard to believe, but we will let you be the judge.
A larger than life personality and a reputation to match may have caused Berg’s stories to become embellished over the years, with some bordering on folklore.
But this is not Paul Bunyan we’re talking about.
Andrew Berg was a real person that lived on the Kenai Peninsula and left a legacy that we talk about to this day. The stories of Alaska’s first guide provide us insight as to what it was like for the first Europeans and Americans who tried their hand at life in this rugged place.
Some who knew him said that Berg had a unique way of hunting for bears. He would go out by himself, tie a rope around his waist, tie the other end to a chunk of bacon, and take a nap. Eventually a bear would smell the meat and bite into it, tugging on the rope and waking Berg.
He would then pull the rope toward him a little at a time to lure the bear in. Once it got close enough, he would shoot it. According to a friend of his, “He got some mighty big bears that way!”
There are also stories about how he stalked sleeping brown bears in the dark of night. Precautions taken on these outings? Leaving all the tobacco back at camp so the bear wouldn’t smell them coming.
Berg had an immense appreciation of wildlife and was active in protecting wildlife, particularly moose. While serving as a game warden, he wrote more than once about saving moose from being stranded on frozen lakes.
He would lead his dogs out onto the ice, load the moose onto the sled, and haul it back to shore. He writes matter-of-factly, “it is simple [enough] to get them on the sled,” as if this is a procedure he has done many times.
In one instance, he reported rescuing a 3-year-old cow from slipping helplessly on the ice by shoving his sled under its legs at just the right moment and jumping on top of it as it flailed frantically on its side. He held down the huge animal and called to his dogs, who pulled the whole strange spectacle back to solid ground.
Berg himself will tell you all about this incident, if you stop by his cabin at refuge headquarters.
In another tale that shows the risks of living in remote areas with limited medical care, Berg accidentally shot himself in the hand. He was in his 20s and living in Kenai at the time. The nearest doctor was believed to be on Kodiak Island!
Some of his friends got him in a little dory and rowed or sailed (accounts differ) the approximately 200 miles to Kodiak, through a terrible storm, in one night. When they got there, there was no doctor but just a “first aid man” who couldn’t help much. Berg’s hand was damaged for the rest of his life, but he did not slow down.
As a big game guide, Andrew Berg came into historical significance when he guided for Dall DeWeese. DeWeese was a wealthy and avid sportsman from Colorado who came across the skull and antlers of a huge moose Berg had taken and wanted one of his own.
He immediately journeyed northwest to Alaska in search of such a bounty. He found it, along with Berg himself, who led DeWeese on multiple hunting trips. On those trips DeWeese collected not only moose but Dall sheep, bears and other specimens to bring back to the Smithsonian.
(By the way, it is American naturalist William H. Dall, not DeWeese, who lends his name to the Dall sheep that populate the steep slopes of many mountain ranges in Alaska and Canada. Maybe you knew that — I just learned it while researching for this article.)
Over the course of several years, DeWeese became concerned about the dwindling numbers of moose present on the Kenai due to overhunting and wrote a letter to President Theodore Roosevelt urging him to put restrictions in place.
Game regulations for Alaska were enacted in 1902. Berg made a quantifiable contribution to conservation in Alaska by showing DeWeese the wonders of the Kenai, and thus why its magnificent wildlife needed to be protected.
I’ve been able to share a few of my favorite Andrew Berg stories, but every time I visit one of his cabins on Tustumena Lake or walk by his restored cabin next to our education center, I can’t help but wish those walls could talk.
We have been fortunate enough capture a few of the fantastic adventures and stories, but I imagine there are countless more that occurred in the years that this fearless man spent in a tremendously challenging environment that he called home.
To learn more about Andrew Berg, pick up a copy of “Alaska’s No. 1 Guide” and see for yourself how this man, and others like him, lived and prospered in this amazing place we now call the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
Jack Carroll is a park ranger at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Find more Refuge Notebook articles (1999–present) at https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Kenai/community/refuge_notebook.html.
By JACK CARROLL
Kenai National Wildlife Refuge