Juneau guide retrenches to manage business; enjoy more time with family

Posted: Thursday, June 08, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- Ken Leghorn may be one of America's best guides, but he's too busy running Alaska Discovery Tours and being a father to his 3-year-old daughter to lead more than one trip a year.

''My time in the outdoors now, I actually enjoy it most with the family,'' said Leghorn, whose wife, Sue Warner, runs the Juneau-based ecotourism company with him.

Outdoor Explorer magazine features Leghorn as one of seven ''great guides'' in a recent issue, dedicating a glossy page to his photo and dossier.

''I've been on a couple of different Alaska Discovery trips and was just always blown away by the quality of the guides and the quality of the services,'' said Outdoor Explorer editor Steve Madden from New York. ''They were head and shoulders above the rest.''

Though Leghorn is the one featured, Madden admits the Juneau man wasn't the one who guided his trips.

Leghorn guides few trips anymore, and as co-owner he gets his pick. His favorite right now is the Noatak River through the Brooks Range, an area he explored for the company a few years ago to determine if it would make a good journey for adventure tourists.

''It was the year when north Alaska had the worst flood waters in 30 years, and then it snowed a foot and a half,'' Leghorn said.

Soon, everyone on the tour was wet. The temperature was below 40 degrees, and Leghorn began worrying about hypothermia.

Hypothermia happens to be something Leghorn knows about, having studied it in college by shutting friends in a 40-degree room for an hour at a time and recording their reactions as their body temperatures dropped.

As a guide, his job is to keep everyone safe and happy, so Leghorn interrupted the Noatak trip for an emergency midday stop. While the guests changed into dry clothes, he got hot drinks and food ready under a tarp.

''That's just going on sheer energy of keeping moving, 'cause the guide is always the last to get dry or get fed,'' Leghorn said.

Leghorn has a knack for making even rain and cold seem fun, said friends who have hiked and kayaked with him.

''You seldom see Ken when he doesn't have at least a grin. He's an enormously positive person and I think his approach to life is infectious,'' said Rob Bosworth, who has known Leghorn since he moved to Juneau in 1978. ''It's hard to be around him without feeling upbeat, and of course he has the fortune to be an extraordinary athlete.''

Though almost all the Alaska Discovery trips are by kayak, canoe or raft, Leghorn really considers himself more of a skier and mountaineer. Kayaking is just an easy way to get places, explore the shore closely and disembark easily. He uses kayaks to go salmon fishing and deer hunting, carrying back two bucks strapped to the middle of a double kayak.

In 1984, he was one of the first people to explore Icy Bay in Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park by kayak.

''That was like discovering Shangri-la,'' Leghorn said of the bay and newly opened fjords, which still are rebounding from recent glaciers. It is now a favorite destination for Alaska Discovery kayak trips.

Leghorn also extended Alaska Discovery's reach into Russia in 1990.

After meeting a Russian who was looking for support to recreate a historical boat journey, Leghorn arranged to trade a new 40-horsepower Suzuki engine for a guided tour of the Russian coast.

''That was our payment. No hard currency,'' Leghorn said.

That initial deal became a five-year partnership, taking tourists in traditional skin boats from village to village. Leghorn said it was one of the most amazing cultural experiences of his life, guiding alongside Russians and Siberian Yupiks. The tour group often ferried people, dogs or walrus heads between communities.

''We had entire villages coming out to meet us and literally crying that Americans were again coming by skin boats because it had been 40 years,'' Leghorn said. ''We actually were there in the window of the breakup of the Soviet Union.''

Since then, the area has become so cut off that Alaska Discovery had to stop offering the trip.

Though he's more a manager than guide now, Leghorn said some of the skills are the same.

''Instead of 10 people to keep happy with whatever Mother Nature sends your way, you've got a total of 60 people and a thousand guests to keep happy with whatever business throws your way.''

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