By Clark Fair, for the Redoubt Reporter
What I recall most were his energetic, rollicking stories and his booming, hearty laugh. I also recall his alpine hat, often canted slightly backward, his love of fruit pie and a good after-dinner nap, and, primarily, the hunting trips he took with my father.
Almost as far back as I can remember, Will Troyer, who died Sept. 21, less than two weeks shy of his 89th birthday, was part of my father’s life. For more than four decades Dad and Will were devoted friends.
Although they hadn’t known each other back when they were boys, both had been Hoosiers, raised in the same part of the state, and they reminisced fondly about growing up in Indiana. In their early days together in Alaska — between hiking, hunting and fishing together — they strategized in tandem for the preservation of Alaska wilderness through the Kenai Conservation Society. They also united our families in a bond of friendship that has stretched across the years.
Our family met Will’s (wife, LuRue, and three children, Janice, Eric and Teresa) through the Kenai Methodist Church in about 1963, when the Troyers moved from Kodiak so Will could become the manager of the Kenai National Moose Range. A self-proclaimed “Amish/Mennonite farm boy,” Will spent 30 years working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service before retiring in 1981. Unlike many refuge managers today, Will continued to work in the field, flying aerial moose surveys and performing numerous other duties outside of the office.
He is largely responsible for the names of perhaps 200 lowland lakes on today’s Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, and he personally hand-cut many of the original portages on the refuge’s extensive canoe system. For the Park Service, he traveled widely across the state. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, he assisted in damage assessment on Cook Inlet beaches, and in recent years he published three memoirs about his life.
Will had the resonating kind of voice that even my hard-of-hearing father could easily discern. Dad often found it unnecessary to turn up the volume on the telephone when Will would call about another outing. He didn’t need his hearing aids when Will was regaling us with stories around the dinner table.
With fond hearts for the out-of-doors, Dad and Will planned adventures together, continuing even after the Troyers moved away from the Kenai Peninsula. Their outings increased in the 1980s when Will and LuRue moved back, establishing their retirement home off Bean Creek Road in Cooper Landing.
For years, even when Dad was in his 60s and Will was in his 70s, they tromped down woodsy trails along Swanson River Road to stalk tasty grouse and took annual trips together to the rolling wheat fields of North Dakota to flush pheasants from the grain.
They also made frequent pilgrimages to Kodiak Island to bust through alders after nimble deer, and they climbed with their English setters into the upper drainages of Shaft Creek, East Creek and Devil’s Creek to blast at ptarmigan bolting from scattered copses of willow.
During the 1960s and ’70s, they hunted together on nearly every opening day of moose season, frequently returning home sweaty and successful to rouse me and Eric, still groggy in our beds, into service as pack mules.
And each summer, when the mosquitoes and trout were hungriest, they loaded Teresa, my sister, Janeice, and armloads of supplies into a pair of canoes to spend several days plying the waters of the Swanson River lakes, battling the bugs, and breathing the smoke of small campfires.
My father often expressed consternation concerning Will’s near-invulnerability to mosquitoes. For some reason Dad could never fathom, the flying pests appeared uninterested in Will, who often wore no repellent or head net, even as my father slathered himself in DEET and still suffered their barbs.
Like many good friends, Dad and Will had other differences that kept life interesting, such as the way the two friends cleaned their game birds. My father, a medical professional for nearly 40 years, was fastidious, methodically cleaning and cutting his game, even in the field, as Will practiced a more practical and rapid form of field dressing.
To clean a pheasant, for instance, Will would make a few quick cuts on the bird’s lower legs and then peel away, in a single piece, feathers and skin from feet to head. He would then insert a single index finger into the bird’s anus, curl the digit around the intestines and pull, thus removing all viscera in one slurpy-sounding motion, as Dad surgically sliced open bird bellies and meticulously excised the entrails.
Dad liked to keep his hands clean. Will thought nothing of munching a sandwich along a stream with bird blood on his knuckles.
Dad quietly complained that Will didn’t really get his game meat clean. Will, on the other hand, rarely seemed to notice an extra hair here or there, and he never seemed to get sick.
Dad and Will passed through adulthood together, shotguns slung over shoulders, hunting bags stuffed with birds or backpacks weighted with big game. But even as they harvested meat for the table, they practiced a conservation ethic, never catching or shooting any more than they planned to eat, and always delighting in the natural wonders around them. Will could identify most birds of the wild simply by hearing their calls. Both men had a keen eye for detail and kept records of where they traveled, what they saw, the weather they encountered and the results of their many hunts.
Thus it was fitting that the last hunting trip of my father’s life, in 2006, was spent with Will, chasing deer on Kodiak Island. Dad died on New Year’s Day, 2007. The deer were elusive and not especially plentiful. Dad and Will also endured a frightening standoff with a brown bear, but they had each other’s companionship one final time. And they returned home safely, two old men with new stories and a love of life among mountains and water.
Clark Fair, a resident of the Kenai Peninsula for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan now living in Dillingham.