Wrangell St. Elias: Sportsman's Paradise

Both of our nights in Nabesna we stopped for a couple of beers at Sportsman’s Paradise. It is the only bar on the road and they only accept cash, so hit up the ATM before making the drive. Sportsman’s Paradise used to be a guiding company. You could pay top dollar and get your pick of shooting moose, dall sheep, caribou, bear, or wolf. Now, it functions mostly as a bar and is run by Doug.

When you drive up there are still Sarah Palin signs hanging outside and as you enter, you realize that you have just walked into someone’s living room that just happens to have a bar with several seats and the necessary liquor and beer on the other side. Two dogs, an old yellow lab who requests to be belly rubbed and a little yipper who nervously barks whenever you approach guard the couches and the living room. Doug, the owner and bartender, sits behind the bar smoking and drinking Miller High Life. Doug was born in the country (that’s what Alaskans say, about how long they have been in Alaska) in 1949. Beers cost $5 and if you want anything to eat it will be a frozen pizza for $20, order early because you have to wait for the thing to cook.

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At first Doug seems very standoffish. There is usually a local in the bar and they are drinking and chatting away. He is attentive to your drinking needs, but is generally very terse. He will answer your questions, but it takes some time to really get him going. On the way to the bathroom I notice a newspaper article that has Doug’s picture and mentions how he had been in an altercation with the National Park Service. It says that he refused to pay a fine.

Now before we get into it, let me say that I realize that there are two sides to every story and I only did the research to get one perspective. That being said, I think you will enjoy this.

I use the bathroom, come back for a second round of drinks and ask Doug about the article. This is when Doug lights up and the storytelling begins. Several years back, there was a public meeting to discuss 4-wheeler usage in the area. Locals are allowed to use 4-wheelers for subsistence hunting purposes in the park. The National Park Service additionally uses 4-wheelers to patrol the area. The public meeting was being held because of the damage that the vehicles were doing to some of the habitat and they wanted to come up with ways to decrease this damage. After the meeting, Doug took it upon himself to create a solution. He took some wooden pallets, put them over the muddy sections and created a way for the 4-wheelers to pass without destroying the ground. He promptly and proudly took a photo of his work and sent it to the Park Service to see if they thought that his idea would work. The response that he gets is not a “Thank you,” or a “Let’s try something else.” The response he gets is a fine for building a semi-permanent structure on National Park land. At this point, Doug is done. 

Keep in mind that Wrangell St. Elias was not established until 1980, so Doug was in his 30s and had been living on Nabesna Road his entire life when the federal government came in and suddenly claimed that all the land surrounding him was now a National Park and that things would be operating quite differently. To say that there had been tensions between the Park Service and the local community is a huge understatement. Many people had hunting and guiding businesses that revolved around flying in clients and taking them out hunting. Suddenly, that all changed and the rules were all different. Doug couldn’t get access to the lake where he took his clients fishing for lake trout because he wasn’t allowed to drive his 4-wheelers on the well-established paths back there. The only option was to take a floatplane, which drastically increased costs. It got bad enough that one altercation ended with Doug standing on his porch with a shotgun telling some Rangers to leave his private property. I can’t give you all of the details of all of the stories, because I don’t know them, but I can tell you that Doug has little love for the park service. The new free campground, well it got put up ½ a mile from Doug’s property. It’s not easy to sell people on a cabin when they can camp for free just down the road. Doug has this poster hanging in Sportsman's Paradise and it helps explains his feelings for the park.



All of the stories and our two nights hanging out with Doug kind of blend together, but there are two that need retelling here. Keep in mind that throughout these stories, Doug is continuously smoking and drinking Miller High Life. Most of his stories start with the punchline, so I will try and tell them like he does.

Story #1:
“We shouldn’t have lived when that plane hit the ground.”

“Doug, what did you just say?!”

“Well, we were flying and one of the wings iced over, so I had to take her into the ground. I lost my right eye and my buddy broke some bones in his back. I still can’t believe I walked away from that one.”

“Wait, what—you are a pilot??”

“Oh yeah, I’ve been a pilot for years. If I still had my plane I would take you boys out for a real tour of this area. You ain’t seen nothing, you’ve gotta see the glaciers to really understand how massive this place is.”

This was our last night at the Sportsman, and at this point Doug took us back to his computer to show us some incredible photographs of his times in Alaska. He showed us pictures of the glaciers in Wrangell and the magnitude in the photos is stunning. They are miles long and hundreds of meters wide. Then there were the photos of the fish he had caught, and the animals he had seen. It was truly incredible.

As for the second story, we are in conversation talking about something less important when Doug chimes in...

“It’s the only thing that is better than sex.”

….

“Um, what?!”

“It’s the only sport that is better than sex.”

“What is the only sport that is better than sex!?”

“Shooting a wolf out of a plane.”

“WHAT?! Like with a gun, you shoot a wolf out of a moving plane?”

“Yeah, it’s one of the hardest things ever.”

And with that he launched into describing why he hates wolves and how he has tried to singlehandedly control their population by shooting them out of planes. He blames wolves for the decrease in moose populations in the area and really, really dislikes them.

Part of me was not sure if I should tell Doug that we were doing a 59-week trip to visit all 59 National Parks, but I tried to introduce it in a way that made sense. Trevor and I want to visit some of the most beautiful places in the United States and we want to do it while we can still travel around and hike and see the world. We also realize that in many cases the parks were created out of land that was being used and or owned by other people, and that there are stories to be told there too.

After all was said and done, Doug told us to stay in touch and that while he didn’t get along with the park service he thought that what we were doing was a good thing. He told us to call him if we ever needed anything because true Alaskans help people and don’t ask for anything in return.

As absurd as Doug’s stories were, it does make you think about things a bit differently.  These beautiful places, these National Parks, they were always something else first. We were not the first to find them, and in many cases they were someone’s home.  It’s absolutely wonderful that they are being saved and preserved for future generations, but we can’t forget that there is a history, even if only for 65 years, that happened in these places before we arrived.