Known as “scamp” by my loved ones, which depicts my character perfectly, I'm a rather rogue individual, I was born to humble beginnings & humble parents, Ernest L. & Mona M. Welker, to be exact, calling home to the Appalachian Mountains of Shiloh, PA in October of 1971.
My family tree wasn’t built on pencil pushing office workers, but instead was built on men who swung axes, as loggers, & also built on men who ran heavy equipment as bituminous coal miners. These men were bound to the land out of necessity. Take my dad for instance, Ernest L. Welker, he owned & operated a pit-mine with his older brother, James Welker, in the surrounding hills nearby in Shiloh. Nothing in the word pit-mine or coal strippings, lends to the idea of an easy job, bringing you home every evening by five, to kiss your wife on the cheek, and to sit down for an early supper. No sir, stripping coal for a living screams of back breaking work that will definitely land you at home late, with a pissed off wife, and a cold dinner. My dad & Uncle Jim paid their dues to the mines & then some, but it put food on the table, paid the bills somewhat, and gave myself a leg up at an early age, as I worked at the strippings early on. You name a piece of heavy equipment and I probably have worked it over - dozers, loaders, backhoes, excavators, skid-steers etc. You name it I could operate it or at least bull-shit my way through it.
My resume gets even more creative from here on out, as my grandfather ran a sawmill cutting logs from the timber-rich mountains for his full-time profession. Sick days or vacation days were never heard of at a sawmill and no leniency was given to me either while working there in the summers. No matter how big the splinter was in my hand, work was work, you just did it with no fuss. My grandfather did just that, sticking by his profession at the sawmill up into his 70's, even after a triple bypass. As if these two professions weren’t enough for a young boy, I took on another job helping that same uncle, this time handling the beautiful furs you see so many celebrities wearing to their parties & charity events. This was at the ripe age of eight, can’t say I wasn’t ambitious. My Uncle Jim began buying raw fur during the 80’s fur boom. Local trappers brought their catches to him to sell. As one of the top skinners of not only the wild fur, but also the more luxurious mink pelts, by age twelve, I had really hit a high note. The stage had been set for more adventures in the backcountry of N. America and with exposure to these strong personas at an early age the phrase “the skies the limit” comes to mind.
Travis Tritt’s single, Ten Foot Tall & Bulletproof, would grossly describe the next chapter of my life. Graduating from Clearfield High School in 1989 as a prickly 17-year-old, my feet didn’t stay planted in PA for very long. I was off to basic training for the Army National Guard & once graduated there was putting time in at the local armory, but soon came to the realization that military service wasn’t my calling, so to speak. After being home for a year or two, doing the same thing day in day out, there was still a yearning for “more” but what does a young man do when he feels restless? In this man’s case, I went from wanting “more” to rapidly feeling smothered, as if I were in the ring at a WWF Event, being held in a deathlok. If you haven’t guessed it, I got married to a high-school flame in the early 90’s, which catapulted me to the deep end of the swimming pool. As long as it takes you to backstroke to the shallow end of the pool, I was divorced and reverted to my skill set from childhood, as a heavy equipment operator in the year 1994. Traveling around the U.S. doing construction & running heavy equipment felt “normal” since graduating from basic training. Life was adding up & being in my youth then with free time at night, I suddenly found myself at the honky tonks more frequently. Not to say that honky tonk dancing isn’t fun, but mixed with alcohol & drugs, there’s no time for dancing, just the latter. I was leading a fast, turbulent life that landed me without my driver’s license five times. It was blindingly evident I was going to need not only someone to drive my ass around everywhere, but a life goal, other than graduating from DUI Classes.
A change in scenery always helps one’s soul and what better change than Alaska! Recapturing the boyhood dream that was planted early on by my father, was now reachable, as a grown man. The reality was in the deck of cards this time and so I started outfitting my Ford F-100 with a camper shell & loading it with necessary gear for a northernmost road trip, which ended up being a two month undertaking. Destination - Deadhorse - located at the end of the Dalton Highway, a 500 mile gravel haul road from Fairbanks to the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay on the coast of the Arctic Ocean. The journey was epic to the top of the world & I found myself at Alaska’s Summer on the banks of the legendary Yukon River, 300 miles South of Deadhorse. Like a kid in a candy store, all my senses were alive & awakened. Alaska at last, the last true frontier, the adrenaline in my veins was pumping baby! No time was wasted in my new surroundings at Steven’s Village. The local indians grabbed at my strong work ethic once getting to know me; this led to us running on the river together. What next you ask, well like everything in life, money is always involved. Needing the mighty green, I found myself working at the local garage of the Yukon River Bridge, which coincidentally led to a room. My basic needs were being fulfilled, Praise God! A good man was needed practically around the clock at the garage to keep up with the never ending tire repair due to heavy hauling on the gravel road along the Alaskan Pipeline Route. The garage was full of surprises & hard work, neither of which I was a stranger.
Not knowing who I was going to meet on this journey, I happened upon a nearby fisherman from the Athabaskan Tribe one day. He was erecting a fish-wheel to harvest the famous King Salmon run of the Yukon River. This river is Alaska’s greatest waterway & well known for immense salmon with unsurpassed quality. The oil content of Yukon Fish creates their rich flavor. It takes uncommon fat reserves for these fish to reach their spawning beds of Western Canada. Most local fisherman's fish wheels will consist of a log raft with two giant scoops rotating on a wooden axle, made from local forest materials, except for the hardware of course, rope & wire. The Alaska Salmon runs are so thick that fish can be literally scooped from the waters if your wheel is in strategic water. Life at an indigenous fish camp can be replete with wonder:
1. Cutting fish 2. Gillnets 3. Fish Wheel 4. Midnight Sun 5. Bear Guard 6. Smokehouse.
How much more action could a youngen want, this was non-stop, and most agreeable for someone afflicted with an itch to hunt. Checking my surroundings again, this all seemed too perfect, should I pinch myself to wake up from this dream. My reality was never ending daylight, summer solstice at the Arctic Circle with a job providing a room to boot. Hell, even the giant mosquitoes were a part of the adventure I was currently engulfed in.
The main event was at my fingertips, August, the Alaska fall hunt kick-off for sheep & caribou with the moose rut of September as the kingpin. For a hot blooded rebel from the East Coast, this was a big game mixed bag. The planets felt like they were “finally” aligning, and the smile on my face could be compared to The Joker! The professional pursuit of the mega animals of the north just came so naturally to me, like getting on a bike again after being absent from the seat. Pursuing & now being hired as a packer, getting ready to set out with my first outfitter where I would be fielding hunters in the game rich interior area of Western Alaska, this proved to be a key-stone move in my turbulent life thus far. The blood was pumping, not only in my veins, but in the hunt out in the wilderness, it was pumping in the animals. The adrenaline rush was the perfect medicine to wean myself from the party life that used to fuel my veins.
Talking of blood pumping, the heart of Western Alaska beats on the Kuskokwim River, the second largest stream in a state full of big rivers. The hills & mountains are 250 air miles due west from Anchorage, keeping in mind this is across the formidable Alaskan Range, no roads cross this barrier, it is fly in only. A few adventurous souls cross over in winter on a dog team or snow machine via the Iditarod Trail. Words spoken or even written, cannot describe the endless wilderness of this country, only the experience of flying into such a remote area could make a connection in one’s brain of this magnitude. Now slip yourself in my shoes, your very first fall in Alaska, inbound on a small aircraft, Cessna 206, heavily loaded with gear & one other “green” packer like myself. The destination is unknown & to make it even more of a white knuckle situation the weather is being as mean as a bear competing for fresh meat. My job tasks as “first boots on the ground” consist of getting the initial wall tents up/dried in, firewood cut, provisions stowed, gear stowed, and ultimately a landing strip cleared for the next load, which will be a big plane, nothing like the Cessna we’re currently in. A tall order for a green horn and as we passed over Merrill’s Pass the pilot pointed down towards the “dead planes” that had pushed the weather from seasons gone by. An eerie quiet took hold of the Cessna at that point, like it was paying tribute to the other fallen planes. Looking down from my seat in the Cessna, at the wreckage from last year's bushman who had previously been in my seat, I thought to myself “shit just got real.”
To read more about my adventurous lifestyle, please go to the blog section of my web page, www.rolandwelker.com