By Clark Fair
Sometimes people can be so certain they are right that they can refuse to notice evidence to the contrary, even when it is placed squarely in front of them. And sometimes, other people, who actually know the truth, can help sustain another’s ignorance simply by playing dumb.
Such was the case in the early 1960s when a young state game warden’s aide learned the hard way not to jump to conclusions — after a pair of Kenai Peninsula hunting pals allowed him to “jump” to his heart’s content.
The pals in this story were Soldotna’s Dan France and Calvin Fair, who flew in France’s red-and-yellow Super Cub into the Tustumena benchlands a day before the opening of the Dall sheep season. France landed his plane on a reasonably flat hillside bordering a pond about four air miles west of the Harding Ice Field.
There, they set up camp, just north of Tustumena Glacier, east of Green Lake and south of the south fork of Indian Creek. After pitching their tent and arranging their packs, they headed further up the hillside to scout for black bear because Fair was hoping to bring one home and smoke the hams. But, bear or no bear, their plans called for a sheep hunt the following day.
Some distance away, they spotted the spike camp of another hunter. They wandered on in for a visit, and they learned that the other man, who had been flown in by Kenai pilot Bud Lofstedt, was also preparing to hunt sheep the next day. He had also spotted a black bear, which he said had been making regular nightly appearances to feed on berries just around the hill from where they were camped.
France and Fair headed south toward the glacier and, sure enough, the bear made an appearance. Fair, a local dentist, took aim with his high-powered rifle, and fired. His shot struck the bear, but the bear didn’t drop. Instead, it bolted farther downhill and disappeared. The two men gave chase.
“We could see blood here and there because the vegetation’s pretty scant,” said France, who had come to Alaska to serve as a federal game warden in 1954 and would become a state game warden in 1964. “So we got down there, and here’s this bear lying there, dead.”
As the afternoon wound down, they got to work.
“We skinned it, and it was little,” France said. “It was an old bear because its teeth were all worn off.”
Consequently, after the butchering was complete, they needed only their two packs and one trip to haul everything back to camp. One pack held all the meat, while the other held the hide and head, which Fair planned to have made into a rug.
As they trudged uphill, they left behind 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.
When they arrived at their camp, they were surprised to see another tent nearby. It was the shelter of a temporary officer — France called him a warden’s aide — who had been flown into Green Lake and had hiked the four or five miles into the hills, presumably to monitor sheep-hunting activity.
He may have heard Fair’s rifle shot, but he definitely watched as the men approached with their heavy packs. Very likely he had already decided that he was about to nail his first violators. He came to their tent to question them. His first question got him in trouble.
“He wanted to see the horns,” France recalled. “And I said, ‘She didn’t have any horns.’ And, see, this area was closed to ewes. You could only kill rams, so that means it’s illegal, right there.”
At this point, the warden surely believed that he had them dead to rights on a double violation.
He wanted to know who’d done the shooting. France pointed to Fair and said, “He did.” The warden asked Fair, “You shot it?” and Fair admitted that, indeed, he had. Then the warden, according to France, said, “Come on. I want to go down to the kill.”
Fair asked him if he might be interested in examining the hide first, but the warden insisted that he was interested only in the horns. So they donned their jackets and ventured back outside into the lightly falling rain.
Fair and France escorted the warden down the hillside to the kill site. As the warden looked around for damning evidence, France wandered over to the patch of black hair, picked it up, and held it out for the officer.
“Here, will this do?” he said.
“No,” said the warden. “I want the horns.”
“Well, she didn’t have any horns,” insisted France.
“Oh, yes she did,” the warden replied.
“So he started making circles around and around the kill, maybe 30 feet away, looking in all the little bushes,” said France.
Again, he held up the black hair and offered his assistance. Again, he was rebuffed.
Amused but trying to keep their composure, France and Fair walked a short ways uphill and found a spot to sit.
“We watched him as he made circles around and around and around, and finally he went over to the guts. And he looked at the guts, 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. And we laughed and laughed and laughed. And he said, ‘That was sure a good one.’”
But that is not the end of the story.
The next morning, Fair and France were up early and climbing into the headwaters of Indian Creek for sheep. By nightfall, they were returning to camp with two packs containing the horns, hide and meat of a full-curl ram. They arrived in the dark and loaded France’s plane with all of the meat and hides and heads so they could get an early start the next day. The game warden did not come out to check on them.
But when morning broke and France fired up the engine on the Super Cub, the warden hurriedly exited his tent, and yelled, “Did you get one?”
France opened his window and yelled, “Yeah!”
When the warden said that he wanted to see it, however, France merely waved, closed his window and flew away.
But even that is not the end of the story.
A month or so later, in two Volkswagen vans, France, Fair and a couple of their friends drove north of Palmer to go caribou hunting in a remote mountain area near the Susitna River. They were flown to a remote camp by pilot/guide Denny Thompson. When they returned a few days later to their vehicles, they carried meat bags containing four caribou and one Dall sheep.
As they drove south in the pouring rain, 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 aloud that the hunters had killed five caribou. France refuted that estimate.
“We only got four caribou,” he said.
So the biologist counted again, and then he insisted that there had to be 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,” France said.
Eventually, the biologist demanded to see France’s license, and, even though France 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.
Even in the pouring rain, France and Fair recognized the officer as the temporary warden from the Tustumena benchlands.
He took one look at France and said, “Not you again.”
And, to show that he learned his lesson, he sent them immediately on their way.