North to Alaska …

December 28, 2023

By Hilary Gietzen

The thought of going to Alaska to shear sheep didn’t come at once, rather one thought or idea led to another, particularly with the idea of going to Alaska on a motorcycle. While in my last year of high school, I bought a new motorcycle, and used every excuse to drive it. When the school year had finished, I took a big trip, crossing the United States from coast to coast. That was quite a trip, especially for an 18-year-old. The next year, I’d had enough of the motorcycle, and it sat in the garage. I sold the motorcycle later that year. I never drove a motorcycle again for about twenty years, until my wife bought a new Harley-Davidson Sportster. We drove the motorcycle on a few short trips the first year, and after that, it pretty much just sat in the garage. When the Covid scare came, things were a bit different. I ended up driving that motorcycle on a lot of day trips. I went to places within my state (North Dakota) that I had never had time to go to in the past. On one particular trip, I had the thought of driving that motorcycle to Alaska.

I had mentioned that idea to a gentleman at the Harley-Davidson dealership. He said, ‘Oh my gosh, that would be a very long trip on a Sportster.’ He said that I needed a better motorcycle. I mentioned the idea to my wife, of perhaps buying a better motorcycle. She said that if it was a Harley-Davidson, and it was red, that would be okay. The rest was up to me. I sought advice from some of my sheep shearer friends who have motorcycles, and others who had made long trips and the decision was made to buy a new, top of the line touring motorcycle. It came from Harley-Davidson, and it was indeed red. The Covid scare continued, and I was refused entry into Canada without a Covid vaccination. I absolutely refused to get the ‘clot shot’, and therefore I didn’t go to Alaska. I rather took other trips throughout the United States. After two more years passed, the Canadian government realized that they were losing too much revenue in sporting events, and they admitted that the clot shot didn’t really stop the spread of Covid, and they opened their borders.

At this point I had not yet found sheep to shear in Alaska, but I started to search more diligently for work. I had made many inquiries, all ending with dead ends. Finally I was referred to a sheep shearer from California who spends time in Alaska. I made numerous attempts to contact Arthur, but I couldn’t get a hold of him. And when I did, he didn’t have time to talk to me. Finally, we had a visit, but he didn’t really want me to shear his sheep since he is a sheep shearer. However, Arthur did invite me to spend time on his ranch. Arthur’s ranch is out on the Aleutian Islands, almost 1000 miles southwest of Anchorage, Alaska. There is civilization and public transportation as far as Dutch Harbor. From there, access is only available by private airplane or private boats. The ranch was started in 1918 by a corporation which owned a woollen mill. Of course, they were after the wool, not necessarily the lambs. It was later sold to another corporation. Sometime later the ranch was sold again. This time one of the hired men bought the ranch. He owned it for quite some time until he retired. Arthur was a hired man, and he took over management of the ranch.

I packed the motorcycle with a tent and sheep shearing gear. It was fully loaded. I departed North Dakota headed for the west coast to board a ferry, making numerous stops visiting friends and family. All was going as planned, and soon I was on a three-and-one-half day ferry ride. I disembarked the ferry at 1:00am in the rain at Haines, Alaska. It was a sleepless night, but when Canadian customs were open, I drove through a portion of the Yukon Territory and back into Alaska. I arrived at Anchorage in time to store the motorcycle at the Harley-Davidson dealership and catch a flight to Dutch Harbor.

Arthur had intended to be at the ranch by this time, but he wasn’t able to catch a ride for the last three weeks. So, he was able to meet me at the airport. When he arrived at the airport, he just stared at me, looking at me from top to bottom. He knew that we would be living in close quarters, something that I was not yet aware of. I was looking him over as well, but I hope that I was more discreet.
Since it was an ugly rainy day at Unalaska, the village near Dutch Harbor, we went to Arthur’s quarters. When in Unalaska, Arthur stays in a twenty-foot shipping container. There is no electricity or water. And the place is full of stuff, as Arthur lives the western lifestyle.

As I was visiting with Arthur, I was sensing that Arthur is a religious man with a big heart. I also figured out that Arthur likes a hearty meal, so I knew that I was in good company. However, I am also sensing that things don’t always go as planned for Arthur. He has been giving me reasons why he hasn’t yet made it to his ranch, and why he is not yet prepared to make the trip. Among his many stories, one particular story really caught my attention. He told me that a few years ago, he had some other shearers there, and they pulled the pin before they ever sheared the first sheep. Then he went on to say that he couldn’t blame them, as the rats had taken over the house, but if they would have stayed just one more day, everything would’ve been just fine. At that moment, I looked over where there were two beds, and sure enough, there was evidence of rats.

I didn’t know who these shearers were, as they were from the west coast of the USA, and I am from the north-central part of the country. It appeared that these shearers came to help them build some fences and shear his sheep. Arthur had made arrangements to ride on a fishing boat to the ranch. I helped Arthur prepare to go to the ranch. When he leaves Unalaska this time, he will not be back to civilization for several months. The boat was delayed on departing, but that has given Arthur more time to get prepared for the trip. After waiting in Unalaska for four days, I was heading to this legendary place.
I have never in my life spent much time on a boat, and when I have been on a boat, I didn’t really like it. Anyway, this boat took off into the open seas as darkness was approaching. We were intending this trip to take about thirteen hours, and it didn’t take much time for me to lose my lunch. For the experienced fishermen, it was rough seas. As for me, it couldn’t have been worse. It was impossible for me to get any more sick than I already was.

We were arriving at the ranch as the morning sun was giving me a view. The ranch is located in the area of an undeveloped harbor. We came through a small opening into an area of water protected on all sides from rough seas in times of bad weather. From the distance, I could see the ranch house and numerous other buildings. I noticed that all of these buildings were painted uniformly in a reddish-brown colour. It looked really nice. The captain anchored his boat and we went ashore on his skiff. We intended to get Arthur’s boat to load the supplies to bring ashore. 

Once ashore, I could see that these beautifully painted buildings were not painted at all, but rather severely rusted, giving them their colour. The rust was such that fasteners were coming loose and the steel siding and roofs were coming off. The buildings were in bad shape to the point that some of them were unusable. The shearing shed was very well designed for its time. It reminded me of some older shearing sheds in New Zealand. There was originally five stands with a line drive. The catch pens were very small with burlap wool sacks being used as a curtain. There was an old American-made motor and shaft hanging there. But at this time, it is not at all ready for shearing.

There were sections of the roof that were missing, and with the abundance of rain, there wasn’t a spot on the board that was fit for shearing. The wool from shearing last year was scattered throughout the entire area. The hinges on every gate were severely rusty, some beyond repair. Many of the wooden gates and pens were broken down. The curtains on the catch pens were rotten and unusable. So, to sum up what I was seeing, the elements of weather and time had taken the fun out of dysfunctional. So the first order of business was to get the supplies from the fishing boat to shore. Then move everything from the rocky shore up above the high tide line. We came to the house, and the door was boarded shut. After removing the outside boards, the inside door wouldn’t open because the ceiling was falling down. 

Once inside, if you could imagine, I was looking for rats and their evidence. The house was a mess with everything in it except what I had expected, rats and their evidence. As I was walking from room to room, I could hear a faint squealing sound. I was looking everywhere, trying to find the origin of the sounds. To my embarrassment, the sounds were coming from the high water boots that I was wearing. The weather was really nice for getting settled into the house and starting on the necessary maintenance for preparing to shear. The projects were endless, so they continued into the next day. It was another nice day. Not hot, not cold, and plenty of sunshine. However, that was soon to end. During the night, I could hear rain dripping into the many containers scattered throughout the house where the roof was leaking. Thoughts of gathering the sheep were no longer a possibility.

I really wasn’t disappointed because the adverse weather gave me the opportunity to do more maintenance without wishing that I was doing something else. I was removing hinges and other materials from every place possible in the attempt of getting the shearing shed prepared with one good stand. Keep in mind, there were no more resources or tools available than what was already there. With another day’s time, things were looking much better, but the weather wasn’t looking good at all. There was no need to wake up early, although there were projects to do. Once Arthur realized that I had the ability to do such things as overhaul a carburettor without parts and minimal tools, the projects just kept coming. By the end of the day, I had a lot of maintenance completed. Arthur mentioned that the shearing shed hadn’t been in such good shape for many years. The weather was looking like it might improve.

Arthur and I loaded the two four-wheelers with extra gasoline and a midday lunch, and we set out for gathering the sheep. The beautiful landscape of the Aleutian Islands was becoming more evident that, although beautiful, is not always accessible. The ground was rough with endless amounts of gullies that were impassable with the four-wheelers. After several hours of searching the island, we located the sheep. It was a nice sight, seeing the feral sheep grazing so peacefully.

Arthur and myself had been around sheep all of our lives, so we have an idea of how to handle them. However, I can’t really say that I have experience with feral sheep. These sheep didn’t really want to flock together as I expected. They would break off in a group of a dozen or so, then later break off into groups of three or four sheep. It seemed best to take what we could get and leave the rest behind for another gathering.

All in all, things went very well. We ended up with more sheep than we had expected. When we had them confined to a small holding pasture, Arthur came to me and shook my hand. He said that he had never had a gathering go so well. Although it wasn’t late in the day, we quit working and grabbed fishing poles with an evening meal in mind. What a relaxing feeling. The shed and equipment were all maintained and prepared, the sheep were confined, the weather was looking good, and there was fresh salmon on the dinner table.

The next morning arrived with beautiful weather and a lovely sunrise. The sheep were not yet dry enough to shear, so we decided to go for another gathering. It was much easier to locate the remaining sheep, but the renegades were left behind. When we saw the sheep, we drove around the mountain to head them in the best direction. Within a short time of driving around the mountain, the sheep had disappeared. After a considerable amount of time spent on searching, we found them hidden in a gully. I have never known sheep to do such a thing. After a couple of attempts of gathering and them scattering, Arthur suggested that we go home and try for another day. I agreed with him and suggested that we start shearing the sheep that we had already gathered.

After lunch, we started shearing. I didn’t feel that I was shearing very fast, but it was hard for Arthur to keep up with the wrangling. He told me that he had never seen his sheep sheared so very clean with so little commotion going on. There were very few nicks on the sheep, and there were very few second cuts. When Arthur told me that, it made me wonder what goes on when Arthur shears, and what goes on when Arthur works with the other shearers in his traveling.

We finished shearing the remaining sheep that were gathered on the next day. There were more sheep than we expected, which of course made Arthur happy. We were sorting out the lambs and any sheep with long tails. It is also a good opportunity to sort out any other sheep that Arthur intends to butcher.
I helped Arthur cut the tails off of the replacement ewe lambs and put the butcher lambs and any other butcher sheep in a separate spot. The weather continued to be reasonably good, and we were intending on gathering the remaining sheep tomorrow. 

We set out with the four-wheelers with more determination in mind. Once again, it was relatively easy to locate these sheep. But this time, the sheep seemed to have their batteries charged up. They would scatter in every direction with every opportunity that they had. They would run to the ocean, going down embankments that were impossible for the four-wheeler. I would climb down to the ocean and chase them by foot. That in itself was dangerous, as one slip of my footing would have made for a bad fall. However, at one point, Arthur had a group of sheep near the holding area at the same time that I did. It looked good as the sheep were about to converge and mingle.

However, without any reason or notice, both groups scattered, and went in the wrong direction. I wasn’t about to let a small group of sheep win, and I was in hot pursuit after them. I didn’t think it was possible for a sheep to outrun a four-wheeler, but with the rough terrain, they were able to. I was driving in a determined but reckless fashion, as I didn’t want to lose all my efforts for the day. I was climbing and descending steep portions of the mountains. At one point I had the four-wheeler stuck, setting on its nose. I was able to get it out of that situation, only to get stuck in a ravine later on. I didn’t have the necessary energy remaining in me to get the four-wheeler out of the gully. I had few options, so I set off on foot towards the quarters.

I may not have used my best judgment getting into the situation, but at least I was smart enough to take plenty of photos marking my location. I climbed up the mountain behind me and noted in my mind the landmarks to head towards as I hiked towards the quarters, going up the mountains, and down the valleys. It was a several-hour hike. I wasn’t concerned of any danger with the exception of the feral bulls that I had spotted earlier. Upon arriving in the area of the quarters, I found Arthur. The group of sheep that he had escaped him as well. It was discouraging for both of us, and with both of us being exhausted, we called it a day. The next day, we set out retrieving the four-wheeler. Although I had numerous pictures to help me find the location, it was hard to find it. Once there and full of energy, it was easy to get it out of the ravine.

Arthur told me that I shouldn’t take such chances, and I agreed with him. I decided that it wasn’t worth the risk to get hurt in gathering the sheep. This was the end of the shearing, and from now on, Arthur and I focused on butchering whatever he intended to butcher. I was looking for every opportunity possible to head back to Dutch Harbor, and later Anchorage, but there weren’t any fishing boats coming into that harbor. And the weather wasn’t fit for getting a private airplane in to pick me up. There was plenty to do while I was there. There was never a dull moment, but I was certainly anxious to be on my way. And although I am not a fisherman, it was nice to go fishing on a daily basis and enjoy the catch. I was able to see the sights of some abandoned World War II ruins. I always kept myself ready to leave on short notice if a boat would arrive in the area.

Five days had passed and early one morning I spotted a boat in the harbor area. I was out there at a moment’s notice, and in a short while I was sailing on the Bering Sea. Upon arriving at Dutch Harbor, it was easy to book a flight back to Anchorage because most of the fishing traffic was going from Anchorage. It was nice to arrive at Anchorage and be back to civilization and telephone and internet service. I picked up the motorcycle and continued touring inner Alaska, eventually arriving at Fairbanks. From there I set out on the famous but lightly-traveled Alcan Highway.
I was pleasantly surprised by the beauty of the famous highway.

However, I was not able to travel nearly as far as I thought I could, due to the rough conditions and the winding roads. The villages are very far apart, and it was necessary for me to plan my fuel stops. At one point I arrived at my planned fuel stop in the late afternoon. It was too early in the day to stop for the night, but the next village was about 350 miles (560 km) away. I found a fuel stop and a campground near the midpoint. As I was approaching at a perfect time of the evening, I saw some bears near the driveway.

The campground was not fenced as I expected it to be. When I asked the gentleman about that situation, he told me that they were black bears, and if they approached, I should just clap my hands, and they would run away. I was the only person in the tent area, but I saw numerous campers in a different area.
I looked over the situation more closely and eyed up some of the people in the campground. I decided that if I encountered a bear, I would run into that campground. I was confident that I was able to run faster than some of the others in the campground. With that assurance in my mind, I had a good night’s rest.

Along the way, I contacted some of my sheep shearing friends and acquaintances. We had a wonderful social gathering in the Calgary, Alberta area. It really added to my trip. I continued along my way, passing numerous farms and towns that I remembered from shearing in Saskatchewan in the past. It brought back many pleasant memories.

Upon arrival at my home in Minot, North Dakota, I took a picture and contacted my family. At that point, they admitted to me that when I left on that motorcycle, they thought they would never see or hear from me again. That put the missing piece of the puzzle together when my daughter wanted me to update my will and purchase life insurance before I departed.

If the opportunity to do the same ever came to me again, I would take the opportunity in the time of a heartbeat.

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