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Hunter, trapper, guide and politician, Ken Fanning believes in Alaska’s wilderness

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Posted: Sunday, January 17, 2010 11:53 am | Updated: 1:17 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

FAIRBANKS - Ken Fanning was a “military brat,” moving repeatedly around the country. His Dad was an avid outdoorsman and fostered the same interest in his son. Ken got his first guide and outfitting job in Colorado right after high school.

“I started college at Colorado State in Fisheries and Wildlife Management. To get a degree, you had to have six months of related field work. I got a job with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. I was headed for the Kvichak River, to work on a sockeye weir.

“I didn’t have any money so I hitchhiked from Colorado to Seattle. I knew there were boats headed to Alaska, so I walked the wharfs looking for a ride. An old codger agreed to take me as far as Petersburg, if I’d help him paint his boat. Our cargo was 504 cases of beer for the Harbor Bar in Petersburg. A few bottles were lost to ‘breakage’ during the trip. We had ten days of the most incredibly beautiful weather on the Inside Passage.

“When we got to Petersburg he said, ‘There’s no sense in you going up to Bristol Bay when Fish and Game needs help here.’ Within a week, I was on a boat seeing and smelling and feeling and enjoying what Alaska had to offer. It became obvious to me that I didn’t need to go back to Colorado.”

Skipping school

Fanning transferred to the University of Alaska Fairbanks, but was not totally committed to academic life. He soon began working several jobs, all related to the outdoors.

“We started a sport fish guiding operation on the Gulkana River and I worked as an assistant for five different big game guides. Of course, I was hunting and fishing all I could, too.

“I eventually got my hunting guide’s license. I was already running the fishing operation in the summer and trapping in the winter. I figured that the price they paid for my furs wouldn’t be any higher with a degree or without a degree, so I never graduated. By then, I knew that the pay at Fish and Game wasn’t very good either.

I decided that my future was as a guide.

“I started as an assistant guide just after the “same day airborne” law had gone into effect. Prior to that, it was legal to spot game from a plane, then land and shoot it the same day. A lot of the guides who had worked under the old system had trouble getting out of that mold.

“One of the guides I worked for certainly fit in that category.

He was just an unbelievable pilot and felt obligated to get animals for every client. So he used an airplane to help get animals. I had been warned that he was a bandit, but I didn’t want to do anything illegal. For him, the challenge was NOT just to get the game. To him, the challenge was to violate the law without getting caught. He was very good at that. He out-flew and out-guessed and out-maneuvered every game warden and federal agent that tried to nab him.

“He wanted areas where nobody else was hunting. That meant inside national parks.

That first experience taught me a lot of valuable lessons about dealing with people and also about parts of the guiding industry that I really didn’t like.”

Trapping life

Ken was an avid trapper when he arrived in Alaska. The wilderness and exotic animals he found here further fueled that interest. He spent countless hours on the trail and in the skinning shed.

“I enjoyed trapping, but it sure as hell wasn’t a way to make a living. On the other hand, it was a good way to make a young wife very mad. I don’t regret any of those early memories. They were tough, but they were a wonderful way to see and feel Alaska in a way that few people in the world get to do any more.

“A few trappers got to know each other through the Tanana Valley Sportsman’s Association. We felt that there was a need for a group dedicated to trapping. We started the Interior Alaska Trappers Association in 1973. I served on the Board of Directors for several years.”

Real Alaska Coalition

Ken got pulled into the political arena to defend the outdoor activities that he loved. He observed the strengths and weaknesses of the political system. After getting pulled in even further, he eventually broke away.

“In 1978, Jimmy Carter signed that ‘monument’ declaration which closed millions of acres to hunting and trapping.

We rounded up all the outdoor groups in Alaska and formed the Real Alaska Coalition. Our goal was to slow down the federal takeover of our land. Somebody had to go to Washington, D.C. to fight this battle. That somebody was me.

“In March 1979, the Real Alaska Coalition hosted 11 members of congress at the TVSA Clubhouse in Fairbanks.

We tried to convince them that the traditional Alaskan lifestyle of traplines and log cabins and dog teams really belonged in all these areas that they were creating. We took them on dog sled rides and stayed in trappers’ cabins. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that you need a shelter in the winter. In addition, when you’ve got snow cover and frozen lakes and rivers, you’re not causing any kind of environmental damage.

“Unfortunately, we got our butts whupped. The D2 bill locked up parts of Alaska and put areas off-limit to hunting and trapping. That’s where I learned the lesson that you don’t have much influence on political decisions from the Outside. After that experience, I decided to run for office. In 1980, I got elected to the Alaska Legislature. That is what taught me that you don’t have much influence on politics from the inside, either. I left the political arena after 4-5 years.”

A return to guiding

Fanning guided hunters in several areas of Alaska. Many clients wanted to hunt large coastal brown bears. Ken followed up on a friend’s suggestion that he investigate the Yakutat area for this purpose.

“I took one look and concluded it was the most adrenaline- pumping, spine-tingling, thrilling hunting I had ever been involved in. This area is a jungle. Most places you can’t see more than 10-15 feet in the woods.

The streams are teaming with fish and they attract bears.

“We’ve developed ways to float streams very quietly, and we get very close to bears. We’ve been charged 500-600 times, but never been chomped. We’ve had bears in the raft, pushing on your shoulder with their nose.

We’ve been standing on log jams with bears walking five to six inches under our feet. Our average shot is 10-15 yards. You’re eating, sleeping, drinking and thinking brown bear all the time. It’s an exciting type of hunt and has given me a lot of respect for a bear’s intelligence.” Guides spend so much time in the woods that it’s almost inevitable to have a few dramatic experiences. Ken shares a couple of his favorites.

“I’ve got fairly long legs. One time I had a hunter with a short ‘wheel base.’ When we came to a downed log, I’d step over it but he would have to scoot around the end. He got upset and started thinking that I was doing this on purpose. We came to another log. I stepped over and landed right on the back of a brown bear sleeping in the trail. Business picks up when you do that!!

If you step on a bear, by God the world just comes unglued. The bear took off in the direction of the hunter. So not only am I wearing this guy out, I’m also ‘flushing’ bears to chase him. Of course the poor bear was more scared than either of us.

“On another hunt, it was raining cats and dogs, like it frequently does down here. We were sitting on a ledge partway up a chute where there had been a landslide. The weather was so bad that I sent the hunters back to camp. Eventually, I decided to head back to camp, too. I started walking up the hill and the mountain decides it’s time for another landslide.

Now, I’m headed down a chute towards this raging river with mud up to my knees. The slide lost its momentum and I stopped about eight feet from the edge of the river. I was buried chest deep. My arms were free, so I just started digging out. I finally wiggled out of my backpack, got some tools and dug myself free. When I got back to camp, I looked like I had been through a train wreck.”

Hunting ethics

Fanning has a strong commitment to doing things the “right way.” In this concluding segment, Ken shares his ethical views and love for the State he now calls home.

“One of the great things about hunting and fishing and trapping, particularly in Alaska, is that you are frequently in areas that are beyond the reach of the law. There’s a moral judgment to be made between you and the animal and God. If you want to violate the law in a place where you know nobody is watching, you certainly have that option. You have the unique opportunity to develop a moral responsibility. I’d always held a pretty strict moral code. I believe in fish and wildlife management and I always respected the critters that we were pursuing. I always believed in fair chase hunting.

“Alaska has been really, really good to me. I’m glad that I got here when I did, and wish I had gotten here a little earlier. The wilderness experiences I’ve had are worth more than anything money can buy. I’m just grateful every day I wake up and see what is around me.”

Randy Zarnke is president of the Alaska Trappers Association and a freelancer for the News-Miner. His project chronicling the lives of Alaska trappers is supported by the Outdoor Heritage Foundation of Alaska, Alaska Furbearer Management Council and ConocoPhillips.

“In 1978, Jimmy Carter signed that ‘monument’ declaration which closed millions of acres to hunting and trapping. We rounded up all the outdoor groups in Alaska and formed the Real Alaska Coalition. Our goal was to slow down the federal takeover of our land. Somebody had to go to Washington, D.C. to fight this battle. That somebody was me.”

— Ken Fanning

“One of the great things about hunting and fishing and trapping, particularly in Alaska, is that you are frequently in areas that are beyond the reach of the law.

There’s a moral judgment to be made between you and the animal and God.”

— Ken Fanning

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