Alaska Guides a part of Tustumena Lake's rich history

Posted: Friday, November 03, 2000

Many people have lived on the Kenai Peninsula for years and have never seen one of its most striking features -- Tustumena Lake. This huge lake -- 25 miles long and 5 miles wide -- is almost as big as Kachemak Bay, but it is off the road system and is usually accessed by boat from the Kasilof River. Historical log cabins are found occasionally along on the shores of Tustumena Lake, and the moose, bear, sheep and other game that roam the hills have long attracted the interest of outdoorsmen. Herein lies the story of one such outdoorsman Gus Gelles and his trophy hunt guide business -- the Alaska Guides Inc.

In the fall of 1925 Gelles, a salesman and entrepreneur from Anchorage, flew with pioneer aviator Russell Merrill over the Kenai Peninsula, checking out good hunting and fishing areas. Gelles had the idea of organizing the peninsula's hunting guides into one organization.

In 1926, he formed the Alaska Glacier Tours Association, with headquarters in Anchorage, and a base camp called "Birchwood" on the northeast shore of Tustumena Lake near the mouth of Bear Creek, formerly known as Birch Creek. In 1927, Gelles changed the Association's name to the Alaska Guides Inc., by which name the group is usually remembered today.

On Aug. 13, 1926, the association's first group of hunters arrived from Seattle. They made the trip from Anchorage to Kasilof on the association's new boat, AGTA, and continued up the Kasilof River by powerboat. The party was guided by Alex Liska, Fred Judd and Andrew Berg. After spending a month hunting in the Tustumena Lake area and taking many motion pictures of game, the hunters returned to Anchorage enthusiastic over the experiences they had enjoyed on their trip.

The hunting camps of the Alaska Guides were of the highest standards. At the Birchwood base camp, wall tents were equipped with chairs, dressing tables, rugs, spring beds, mattresses, sheets and pillow cases. Fires were laid each morning and evening. The hunters traveled from the base camp by horseback to moose camps and sheep camps. Packers were sent ahead to set up the camps with all the comforts, including a cook.

A sure sign of a good hunting camp is the quality of the food. For example, consider this dinner menu served at the Alaska Guides' base camp by chef Andy Leland: cream of oyster soup, coleslaw, sweet and sour pickles, brook trout, tenderloin of moose a la hamburg with onion dressing, served with wild cranberry sauce; boiled ham and cabbage, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, creamed peas, mushrooms fried in butter, Tustumena frijoles, white and raisin bread, hot baking powder biscuits, strawberries, coconut banana layer cake, sugar cookies, doughnuts, molasses drop cakes, creamed Swiss cheese, tea and coffee.

A typical hunt would cost about $1,324, which included the round-trip from Seattle to Seward via steamer, round-trip from Seward to Anchorage via railroad, and round-trip by plane or boat to Tustumena Lake, complete with guides, food and lodging.

Well-known personalities hunted with the Alaska Guides: Coloman Jonas, the president of the Denver taxidermy firm Jonas Brothers; Capt. Billy Fawcett, publisher of Whiz Bang magazine; and Van Campen Heilner, field representative of the American Museum of Natural History and associate editor of Field and Stream magazine, to name a few.

In 1930 the Alaska Guides was the largest organization of its kind in the world; it employed 45 men and had brought in $250,000 over the previous five-year period. They had $25,000 invested in 60 head of horses, saddles and camp equipment.

The Alaska Guides operated in the Tustumena Lake region into the late 1930s, when the company was finally disbanded due to financial difficulties.

Today all that remains of the Birchwood camp are a few logs and faded photographs of happy outdoorsmen. Tustumena Lake still attracts hunters from all over the world for moose, caribou, Dall sheep and bears. Hikers and horsemen continue to explore the vast wilderness. Fishers test their skills with the wide variety of fish, and all users enjoy the untrammeled beauty of Tustumena Lake, which many would consider the "crown jewel" of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

Gary Titus is the wilderness ranger and historian at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

Previous Refuge Notebook columns can be viewed on the Web at

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