Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Where there’s a Will ... — Biologist had wild time in Alaska

By Clark Fair
Redoubt Reporter

The mystery of the naked boater guy — like many enigmas — began simply and innocently enough, and ended with a logical explanation.

As Cooper Landing’s Will Troyer relates in his latest book, “Bear Wrangler: Memoirs of an Alaska Pioneer Biologist,” the whole episode began with his desire to capture some images of Alaska wildlife with his 16 mm movie camera.

It was the early 1950s, and Troyer, fresh from Oregon State College with a bachelor’s degree in wildlife management, had recently been hired as a territorial enforcement agent in Southeast Alaska. Hoping to eventually parlay the enforcement position into a biologist job, he was based out of Wrangell and tried to spend his free time learning more about photographing his new environment. A target that intrigued him strongly was the wily mountain goat.

When a sunny summer day arrived, he started his “photographic safari” by climbing into his skiff and motoring up the Stikine River until he located a suitable access point to the high mountains. Tying off his boat to a spruce tree on the banks of Andrews Slough, he slid into his daypack and began working his way through thick alders toward a snow-filled draw that led up the mountain.

Digging the toes of his boots into the hard-packed snow, Troyer ascended steadily. Although it was “a bit slippery,” he said, “it beat fighting the alder brush and devil’s club thickets that covered most of the slope.”

Soon he was in goat country, but, much to his disappointment, he could find no goats. He searched and rested and searched some more. He placated himself somewhat by shooting pictures of alpine vistas and of slopes covered with wildflowers, and then in the middle of the afternoon, frustrated, he began his descent.

To avoid the brush and the thorns, he opted again for the snowy ravine.

“I whittled off a 6-foot alder pole with my pocketknife to aid in going down,” he said. “The snow was slick, but by sitting down, digging in my heels, and riding the alder stick, I managed to stay in control most of the time as I slid.”

Kicking up a spray of snow with his braking boots, he slid and spun downward, occasionally veering dangerously close to the alders lining the edges of the ravine. “Several times I caught myself saying, ‘Whew! That was a close one!’” he said.

“Finally, I really got out of control. I went spinning down (the ravine), and I just knew that I was going to fly into an alder and break a leg or something. But I glanced off of an alder and just got stopped before I hit a group of solid ones.”

Realizing that he was jeopardizing his health, he abandoned the ravine and beat his way through the brush to the slough. Before he reached his skiff, however, he was nearly driven crazy by swarms of mosquitoes, active and hungry now in the warming summer air.

“My shirt became covered with the dark demons that bit unmercifully,” Troyer wrote. “In desperation I ripped off all my sweaty clothes, threw them and my pack into the skiff, and dove underwater.”

The cool water soothed his itchy skin, but the mosquitoes were waiting each time he exposed any flesh to the open air. He couldn’t imagine trying to dress himself while the insects ravaged him, so he decided to get away first and then dress later. Hoisting himself over the side of the skiff, he jumped in, untied the rope, started the engine, and roared away in triumph, “naked as a jaybird.”

“I steered with one hand, batting and swatting mosquitoes with the other, until I lost most of the biting pests,” he said. Then he spotted another boat about 300 yards downriver that was moving his way.
Although the other boat was full of people, the vision of those passengers for a few moments more would be partially obscured by the high alder thickets along the banks of the slough. Troyer thought fast.

“I saw a narrow fork in the river that allowed me to veer to the right and disappear behind an island. I slowed down, quickly got dressed, and headed back to town.

“Several days later, rumors spread around Wrangell that a crazy naked guy was seen boating on the Stikine River. I smiled to myself but kept my mouth shut, and my secret was never revealed.”

This is just one short tale in one of 26 chapters of memories — some humorous, others dramatic or tragic, informative or action-packed — contained in Troyer’s third memoir, a 250-page follow-up to 2005’s “Into Brown Bear Country” and 2003’s “From Dawn to Dusk.”

Despite the “Bear Wrangler” in the title, however, this memoir only marginally concerns Troyer’s renowned work with Kodiak brown bears. One of the four bear-related chapters, “Wrangling Kodiak Bears,” is the source for the book title.

Other chapters concern more of his adventures with goats, including one time he nearly lost the sight in one of his eyes; learning how to be a game warden and a “fish cop”; the prank-filled environment between wildlife biologists and the fishery crew at Camp Island; the construction of the canoe system on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge; close encounters with birds and caribou; the “contest” between Dirty Yantzee and Dirty George; and a tribute to those who have lost their lives in the business of managing Alaska’s fish and game.

Troyer, who was raised as an “Amish/Mennonite farm boy” in Indiana, worked for 30 years for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service before retiring in 1981. He was named manager of the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge in 1955, at the age of 30, and became the head of the Kenai National Moose Range in 1963.

The cover of his new book, which should now be available in local bookstores, features Troyer in his early 30s in Kodiak, holding up the head of a tagged, unconscious brown bear along a salmon-heavy stream in the Karluk Lake drainage.

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