This week I sit down with Assistant Guide Tyler Kuhn about his truly amazing story of becoming Alaska's youngest big game guide. Growing up impoverished in Western Pennsylvania, hunting was both an escape and a way to put food on his family's table. From a young age he had a singular focus to move to Alaska and become a big game guide. His journey of the last 6 years has been filled with harrowing encounters and bad actors, but through perseverance he achieved his dreams.
Tyler’s IG @BearSkinner907
One of Tyler's contributions to Fur-Fish-Game Magazine https://www.furfishgame.com/back_issues/2019/2019-01.php
Tyler is 23, he’s an Alaskan hunting guide, and hails from a small city in Western Penn called Newcastle. Hour north of Pittsburgh.
Interesting upbringing - kind of an inner city environment. Grew up hunting - he was very poor. Once the steel mills disappeared in the 1980s the economy never recovered and a lot of drugs moved into the area. Tyler grew up with no real income in the household - tons of family members did drugs and drank. His release was being in the outdoors and hunting, fishing and trapping.
It was both a way for his family to eat and for his own release. There were times where food was scarce because they were on food stamps and welfare. Hunting white-tailed deer was a means to provide for himself and the family.
Extended family would live in the house. There were times when they’d have 5-9 people in one household.
Tyler hunted and fished everything - deer, turkey, small game, fishing for trout and walleye. Anything Tyler could get his hands on he would.
School was interesting for Tyler. When you grow up in that environment getting an education was on the backburner. He wasn’t sure if he’d have something to eat when he got home, so it would weigh on him. Back when he was in school he got picked on and bullied a lot. He used to be a really scrawny, frail, emaciated kid. Now Tyler has changed a lot through the experiences of being a hunting guide. School at that time was really tough. Tyler was the first person in his family to graduate high school. He’s thought about getting further education.
Tyler, when he was 7 or 8, saw a documentary program about the western caribou migration and told his grandma he would live in Alaska. No one believed him. In high school Tyler thought about getting into a science feel like wildlife biology or zoology since he loved the outdoors so much. But when he was a teenager he discovered the Alaska guide industry - and that became his main focus when he was 14 or 15 years old.
He learned about it initially by studying Alaska. One day he was watching a hunting show on tv and saw a guy do a goat hunt in Alaska. Tyler admired the way the guide presented himself and how strong he was. At the time that really impacted Tyler. The mindset of the Alaskan guide is no matter what you must push through.
After that he started reading literature by the pioneer guides. And nowadays he’s worked for some of these guys and knows them.
Has the guiding industry changed much? There are timeless aspects to the job but there’s also a lot of industry change between the pioneers and now. With the growth of technology and expansion of humanity across the globe - Alaska has changed in a lot of ways. The fundamentals of guiding in the 1970s is the same as 2020, but the technology is obviously way different and the skills are different.
Back in the day those guys had to have very strong grasp of the local topography and land navigation. Nowadays Tyler can use his Garmin and it’s much easier, although they have to learn those land navigation skills. The overall fundamentals and the ethics and morals has never changed.
Tyler came to Alaska directly after high school. He graduated high school in Pennsylvania. Went down to visit them in Arkansas for a little bit. Then took his savings and went straight to Alaska. Didn’t know anybody. He had applied for a Packer position for 26 or 27 different outfits and got one callback.
A packer hauls meat and camp supplies around. It ultimately gets into the Alaskan assistant guide apprenticeship which lasts two years. He started here directly after high school.
For that position the job description is vague. These outfits will fly them up there, give them basic gear like rain gear and a tent for the most part, and put you to work. For some you pay your own way. A lot of the outfits won’t pay you - it’s your way to get your foot in the door in the industry. There is some variability in the different outfits whether they pay or don’t pay.
You come up here and pack meat and being a sherpa hauling supplies, cooking, and doing all the industry grunt work. That’s what he was tolda nd what he expected. This is an industry where you work your way from the ground up. You hope to rise through the ranks. Every master guide outfitter started being a packer.
He applies for the jobs mid-summer and they fly him up at the end of August. He started in the Brooks Range up above the arctic circle. He flew into Fairbanks commercially. They drove most of the way there up the Dalton Highway. Then they flew into camp. You can imagine coming up to Alaska and seeing it for the first time - that was a magical first experience for Tyler.
The thing that shocked him the most was the actual reality of the vastness of the wilderness. Growing up in Pennsylvania - you’re seeing human civiliazation everywhere, even deep in the country.
When you’re a packer you answer to every single person above you. The outfitter is the guy who runs everything - he’s the boss. He’s giving tours to everyone, but he’ll assign you to an assistant guide or camp manager for the day. The idea of being a packer before being an apprentice is they’re trying to break you down physically, mentally, and emotionally. When you’re out in the field as a guide and performing that duty you’re in charge of your camp, your hunter, other guides under you, and all the packers. You’re in charge of keeping them safe and alive in dangerous situations. Tyler compares it to a special operations attitude in the military - they want to break you down and build you up to do your duty.
There’s a lot of humbling that’s necessary and it’s also an educational experience. They’re destroying the toughness you think you have and are testing how tough you really are. The unpredictability of the training surprised Tyler. Not even the guides know what’s going to happen. When that super cub drops you off and flies away no one knows what’s going to happen after that. When you’re packing they’re putting you in situations to see how you react to things.
Every guide remembers his first pack because it’s the worst experience in his life. Tyler’s first pack - they killed a big bull that was probably 4-5 miles from base camp. They were glassing from this ridge. As a packer you also help hunt and learn the basics. They see a monster bull moose. The guide Tyler was with told him it was very nice - over 60”. It was actually 66”. They saw two bulls fighting - one was a 58” the other was that 66” bull. For a big bull like that their hindquarters can be 150-160 lb and that’s a long way to pack that meat. They made the decision like this is a very far pack, Tyler is new, is he capable of it?
The guide asked Tyler if he was up to the task and Tyler said absolutely. They put on a successful stalk, shot the bull, and butchered it. They called in a second packer to help. It was shocking to Tyler how difficult it was. You’re in hip waders going through swamps.
In certain game management units you have to leave the meat “bone-in” and in some areas you can “bone out” the quarter. In that area you had to leave bone-in. In some places where you can bone-out it’s still highly recommended you leave bone-in so you don’t have as much surface area for bacteria to grow and it takes longer to pack and bears are more likely to come after it.
So they’re packing the quarters back. They didn’t even make it a mile when the other packer took a nasty fall and did something bad to his foot like twisted it. The second packer had to keep stopping and Tyler took his pack on and off like 20 times. It’s the worst to take it off because it’s so heavy, you can’t even do it on flat tundra. They finally get back to base camp after probably 5 hours. That second packer quits. He couldn’t even get his boot off because his ankle was swollen so bad. They call in a second packer.
That bull took 5 trips. Now Tyler and the new packer go out and do another two loads like that when another bull moose gets shot. The pilot comes in and takes the other packer to the other moose. Tyler’s legs are destroyed at this point. It’s about 4 miles total walking each direction for this pack. In this distance there are several swamps and rolling hills you have to go up and down. You climb the hill, go down in the swamp, and trudge through the swamp. You have to do that 5-6 times throughout the 4 mile walk.
He packs back tenderloin and some loose meet. He has one more load - the antlers - by law the “trophy” comes back last after the meat’s been preserved. He goes back and ties up the antlers and he sees this massive wall of cloud and rain coming down the valley. Tyler has no real survival gear. The thing about Alaska is one minute it’s sunny and 70 and the next it’s 38 degrees.
The pack back to camp was so bad with the swamps. They’d tried multiple routes back to camp to make it easier. When it’s as foggy as it was during that storm you can get lost very easily. The guide had marked off certain places on game trails with orange ribbon. Those ribbons would give him decent orientation to get back. The guide had the foresight to do that and Tyler doesn’t know if he would’ve gotten back. Hypothermia was a definite risk. Tyler couldn’t stop moving.
Eventually he loses the ribbon trail and gets on the ridge where you should be able to see the camp from. As soon as Tyler got back to camp - the guide Tyler was working for happened to be leaving the camp to look for him in the fog. The guide thought Tyler was dead. He’d fired the rifle for Tyler but he couldn’t hear it because the wind was so loud. He fired off rounds when Tyler was only a half mile from the camp but it was so loud.
Tyler calls that sleep the “victory sleep.” After you get that last pack in and get those boots off you’re fast asleep in three minutes. When you’re a packer or a guide helping pack - the next day there’s something you have to do after you get that bull done. When you’re in the field your job never ends. Tyler knew that going in, but when you get some quality sleep that’s the best.
Tyler got a lot of respect from guys in the camp after doing things like that.
You have to be a packer for two years before you can become an assistant guide. Tyler’s story of becoming a guide is a serious up and down story. That outfitter Tyler worked for never even paid Tyler. He was supposed to get $75-$125 a day plus tips. The outfitter said he’d pay Tyler at the end. At the end of the season the outfitter doesn’t want to pay him. Long story short he had to hitchhike back to Fairbanks at the end of the season. They’re in that transition period in the Brooks Range - a nurse from Anchorage visiting the arctic picks him and his 90 lb of gear up. Tyler had nowhere to go. He didn’t want to go to Pennsylvania because he’d be ridiculed. He ended up in two homeless shelters in Fairbanks for the first half of the winter.
One of the other packers in the camp lived in Cantwell and gave him his phone number. They were catching up and that other packer took him to Cantwell to live with him and help him. That packer was inexperienced at running trapline. He was really nice, originally from California, and wanted to live in the bush. He was kind of reckless when it came to what he’d do. The guy would want to do dangerous stuff.
One story - they were out running line and they were on this high mountain lake. There was still water overflow on the ice. His friend insisted he could take the snow machine across that lake. Tyler said it was a bad idea. Tyler let him cross and Tyler walked around the lake. Then he saw the back end of the snow machine dump below the water. Tyler ran out there with a long spruce pole. He was able to winch the snow machine out. They’re hauling back to camp - this guy was literally a popsicle when they got back. There were non-stop situations like that. Tyler knew something bad was going to happen and returned to Pennsylvania.
He was really down in the dumps then. Certain people were laughing at Tyler saying “I told you so” that he couldn’t do it. He’d heard about a guy named Scott Hoover in his teenage years who was a successful Alaskan guide. Scott grew up in the same area - they knew similar people - and his landlords knew Scott. They connected Tyler to Scott. Tyler called him in the early spring - spring bear season is just around the corner. After two to three months of interviews Scott brought Tyler on.
He would quiz Tyler on things like Alaskan hunting laws or regulations or identifying a legal Dall sheep or testing him in certain situations. He was asking Tyler about certain experiences. He would ask Tyler the same questions over and over to see if he would maintain consistency in his story to see if he was lying. Then he gives Tyler a phone number to the outfitter Scott was working for and before he knew it he was back up in Alaska. The second time he was up in the Talkeetna mountains.
That was a full-fledged lodge at that point. Different landscape, scenery and mountain range. Different ecosystems. It was similar to Cantwell - that greater Denali ecosystem. It was a full-fledged hunting operation. It was nice because Tyler was with Scott and they had that connection. Tyler has someone who is working with him daily to train him to become a guide. Scott had a reputation for being very hard on packers and people under him. He was one of the toughest of the tough in the industry. The outfitters he worked for would have him train the packers. He never had a packer made it all the way through the program. He would cause his own friends to quit.
Tyler was back to square one because that former outfitter wiped all evidence of Tyler even working for him the first time, so he has to do another two years of packing. In order to get to his assistant guide level. They’re doing the whole training process and Scott is testing Tyler to see what he can do. As the months go on Tyler is getting in-tune with the job. The first year you have as a packer you’re on a tight leash. It’s important you get one-on-one training. Some camps won’t train you at all. This was great to get one-on-one training and experience from Scott.
Tyler had to follow him around and absorb the information on tracking, spotting, judging, stalking, and butchering game. Of the 11 packers who came through the sheep and moose hunting season he was the only one who made it through. Starting the second year Tyler was the “senior packer” and he had a longer leash. The guide would have Tyler lead the group once in a while and incorporate his decision-making. Or they’d drop him in the middle of the woods and have him hike 10-12 miles and spend 2-3 days to recon an area to find moose or to find a place for the super cub to land.
When they pick you up and you go back they ask what you learned and how you could judge the moose. You’re constantly learning and experiencing new things. They want to see how you’ll adapt and overcome.
After your second season as a packer you’re eligible to become assistant guide. But you still need an endorsement from the outfitter to become an assistant guide. The outfit has the right not to give you the license. There’s a scorecard of all the skills - can he skin, track, spot, etc. Based on that they send that off to the state with their signature and they have to sign off on that.
Getting his guiding license was the greatest moment of Tyler’s life. It was a life-changing moment for him because he could say he was an Alaskan guide. He had a new title to his name.
This year will be Tyler’s third year as an assistant guide. In the off-season as a packer he had to work secondary jobs to make ends meet. Now he makes enough money as a guide to explore Alaska and run trapline and ice fish. This winter Tyler did a lot of ice fishing and exploring. He was trying to find a piece of land somewhere he could buy and start building a home. He now owns property in Glen Ellyn. The airstrip is right across the street. He’s trying to get his pilot’s license in the next two years here.
He and Scott are starting their own outfit. Scott got his outfitter’s license in December. It’s called Lost Coast Outfitting.