by Rick Anderson
I guess that everything has a starting point, just as every story has a beginning. For me, the start of this journey began in March of 1976. I was trying to be a police officer in my hometown and was informed by friends of my family that the Anchorage Police Department was hiring lots of officers to expand their department. So in March, I flew off to Alaska, the land of the midnight sun, timber wolves, caribou, moose, and snow to pursue my dream of becoming a policeman.
I arrived in Anchorage and was picked up by my friends. They took me to their house and treated me like family. Pat and Vi were members of the Police Department and they showed me a bit of the town and how to begin my testing. As the spring progressed, I went through the testing until I was 12th on the hiring list of 350 people. All I was waiting for was the final call to come in for the last interview, and then I would become a policeman. Isn’t it strange that God has other plans than the ones we attempt to make for ourselves?
While testing, I was looking for work and found a job at the Anchorage airport with a catering company. I didn’t start for a couple of days and since I had some time to kill, I thought about getting back on a horse again and riding for a while. I looked up ranches and horse stables in the phone book and found one out of Palmer, Alaska, that offered hour rides and lessons. So on a whim or a nudge from God, I went to Palmer to ride.
I found the ranch and met the owner. She was a nice lady about 40 years old. After she found out that I could get on a horse from the correct side, and I knew which end was the front of the horse, she let me ride in the arena without her presence. I was just about finished with my hour when I noticed an old Ford panel wagon come up the drive and a man get out of the car. He was in his 50’s or so and looked like he came out of a western novel, complete with cowboy hat. The owner called me over to chat with him, and I found out that his name was Doug Vaden.
Doug operated a guide ranch in the backwoods of Alaska. He was looking for some summer help. He told me that he saw me riding the horse and that I looked like I could stay on a horse okay. He asked me if I would like to be a wrangler for him at his ranch for the summer. Without any hesitation, I said yes, I would. He said that is good, we leave tomorrow. Whoa, talk about quick. I didn’t even know where his ranch was and now, I was off on an adventure of a lifetime. I never thought that I would miss out on my interview with the Anchorage police department, but I later found out that the mail took 2 weeks to where I would be.
The next morning, Doug picked me up at my house and off we went. We were going to a town called Glen Allen, Alaska. Doug had his plane parked at a tiny landing strip in that town. During the ride to the plane, Doug told me about the valley where we were heading.
Having come to Alaska in the mid-1950’s, Doug bought 16 acres int he White River valley. The White River is located in the southeast corner of the main part of Alaska about 30 miles from the Canadian border, in the northern part of the Wrangle Mountain range. The White River is one of the main tributaries to the Yukon River, and it is formed by three separate glacier formations. On the North is a receding glacier, in the middle is a stagnant glacier, and to the South is an advancing glacier formation. They all feed into the headwaters of the White River and after the three sections meet, the White forms a vast delta almost a mile wide with streams that might be ten to twenty feet across, to rivulets one to two feet wide. The river runs due East so it is very hard for even a man to get lost. Besides, there are no gas stations to ask for directions.
The river has no fish in it, due to the fact that the sediment from the receding and advancing glacier make the water the color of chocolate milk most of the time. Some of the small brooks and offshoots of the river show clear, but for the most part, until the river gets farther downstream, it is very murky.
As we flew over the advancing glacier on our way to the valley, I was able to look out over miles and miles of ice. The ice was cut by stripes of darkness that appeared to be zebra stripes. Those stripes were crevasses, so deep that even the midnight sun could not brighten. I was really praying about that time that Doug had kept the plane in good repair. I didn’t want the engine to quit or sputter. I mean, we were in the middle of nowhere and if we ever had to ditch the plane, it would be a very long wait for help to come, that is, if anyone could find us.
But, we made it to the valley at last. We popped over the last crevasse of the glacier and boom, the valley appeared! The land opened up, and I could see the river delta. Heavy stands of Spruce trees were on the southern side of the valley with small pockets of meadows plopped down inside them.
Doug tipped the plane on its wing and I looked out over the wing tip to see a huge silver tip Grizzly waving at the plane. I thought at first he was trying to say hello, but I wager he was trying to swat the big fly buzzing over his head. The bear looked gigantic and about 14 feet tall. Doug said that he had been trying to bag that bear for the last two years, but he was smart and kept out of Doug’s reach. After we dive-bombed the bear, Doug showed me his horses. All 43 of them in all sorts of colors and shapes. We flew over the herd and he backfired the engine to make banging noises to get the horses running. Man, they were beautiful.
Doug owned land on the south side of the river. In the 50’s when Doug came into the valley, he found an old lodge on one big island at the southern shore of the river delta. The big island had a spring near the lodge and was about 16 acres long and 2 acres wide. He bought the land and started building a landing strip so he could bring in customers for his guiding business. Doug then built another lodge, a barn, the main house and several cabins that were used by guests and the “chumps” or helpers he hired to work the ranch over the summer months.
I found out the routine fairly quickly. Doug told me that because of my size, I would be able to ride only horses three years and older. He had three-year-olds that needed to be broken and it was my job to get them so they could be ridden as my night horses as soon as possible. But until I got that chore done, he set me up with some older horses until I was able to use the younger ones.
During the next few weeks before customers began to come, ranch life settled into a nice routine. In the morning which was about 3:30 AM, with the sun still shining, we crawled out of bed and got on horseback to retrieve the horses that were out grazing in the pastures of the valley. Of the 43 head of horses that Doug had on the ranch, about half of them went up the river to graze and the other half went down the river.
Upriver we called it “the bench.” About three miles from the ranch, “the bench” was right at the receding glacier. The forest ended in a plateau that jutted out into the valley and appeared from the downriver view to be a small seat that a giant would sit down upon. The same horses went there to feed every night, so it was not too long until we knew every horses’ name and location where they wanted to graze. Doug wanted the horses run to the ranch when we found them, so from the bench, it was a very fun 3-mile ride with about 15-20 head of horses at full speed over small creeks, deadfalls and splashing into brooks.
Downriver, the horses went to a place called the “mud meadows”. Located nine miles from the ranch, the meadows were glades and oases of green inside stands of thick spruce forests. The meadows could be as small as a school parking lot, or as huge as several football fields. Oval in shape the meadows were spongy tundra grass, thick as a carpet. Towering over the forests and meadows of the downriver section were the Wrangle Mountains. Towering snowcapped peaks 14 thousand feet tall, they watched over the valley like lonely sentinels guarding their belongings.
The horses stuck together for the most part. The hard job in the meadows was figuring out which one the horses were in.
Sometimes I could find them right off. Other times, it took a while to locate them. And the longer it took to find the horses, the longer it took them to get back. Doug had a rule you see, no one had breakfast until all the horses were in the corrals and your night horse was taken care of and let loose to graze. So, the ones who went to the meadows knew they had better get back in a hurry so the rest of the crew could have some chow.
Pain took on a whole new meaning for me that summer. I learned why riding a horse is so much fun. And I also found out why sitting on a horse for five to six hours a day can make you walk funny. Those first few weeks getting horse-climates were very painful indeed. I dropped almost 30 pounds in two weeks riding, shoeing, and breaking horses, and any other chore that Doug devised to get his money’s worth out of the crew he had that summer. Oh yeah, did I mention I wasn’t getting paid for this? I volunteered.