AD Main Menu

Legendary Alaska guide's fall from grace

Craig Medred
Hendricks with clients during one of his Alaska grizzly bear hunts. Courtesy Joe Hendricks

Alaska big-game guide Joe Hendricks lived the life of legends. For four decades, he roamed the wilds of the 49th state like some sort of northern, real-life version of Robert Wilson, the professional hunter in one of Ernest Hemingway's most famous short stories -- "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber."

Hendricks' game was big bears and Dall sheep, not the lions and buffalo of Wilson, but his life was much the same. Over the years, he estimates, his clients killed more than 100 grizzly bears, often known in Alaska simply as brown bears, and more than 300 sheep.

"We risked our lives," Hendricks told Alaska Dispatch News videographer Tara Young in an interview earlier this year. "I risked my life, not just for the clients, on several occasions. I risked my life in order to recover big game."

Fall from grace

By the time the interview was conducted, Hendricks was discredited and dying of cancer, though with his shock of long white hair and salt-and-pepper beard, he still looks debonair and significantly younger than his 78 years. Hendricks spent hours meeting with Young to talk about his fall from grace in one of the darker hours of Alaska big-game hunting.

Shortly before Christmas 2011, Hendricks found himself caught up in a federal sting and charged with 34 felonies related to illegal hunting in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Then one of Alaska's oldest and most respected big-game guides, Hendricks was a victim, in large part, of letting other guides use his exclusive hunting area in the Brooks Range, but as he admits in the video, he wasn't totally innocent either.

"I'm not perfect," he says. "I hardly know too many people who are."

Hendricks admits in the video that he was involved in some nefarious activities. He broke the horns of a Dall sheep a client had already shot to make the undersized horns appear legal. He left some meat of a caribou in the field when it is required by law to be salvaged.

"We did have one or two things we were involved in," conceded the one-time owner of Fair Chase Hunts. "(But) 90 percent of the accusations against me were that I allowed someone else to use my permits."

Now nearing his end of days, he seems to want nothing more than do what he can to salvage what remains of his reputation as one of the largely honest hard men who worked as guides in the heyday of Alaska big-game hunting.

"These were all tough hunts, hiking around the mountains," he said. "This is nobody flying around and dropping down on anything. We went out there and did what I called 'hunt 'em fair and square.' People who hunted with me could be proud of the experience they had out there, and proud of the effort they put in there."

No airplane in camp

Unlike the state's most infamous outlaw guides -- men like Ron Hayes and John Graybill -- Hendricks is not a pilot and did not keep an airplane in his hunting camp. And there is no doubt an airplane expands a guide’s kill zone. 

With the use of an airplane, it is easy to spot trophy-size Dall sheep, grizzly bears and moose in many parts of Alaska, then land and kill them. It is the reason same-day airborne hunting was made illegal.

Hendricks was long a critic of the use of airplanes for hunting. He once advocated that all machine-powered equipment be restricted solely to use for delivering hunters to camps from which they'd hunt on foot. Still, history is unlikely to treat him quite as kindly as he might wish.

Plea deal

In August 2012, with his health failing and his enthusiasm for battle waning, he struck a deal with the U.S. Department of Justice to plead guilty to wanton waste of that caribou, altering Dall sheep horns, 13 counts of "subletting his assigned guide use area in ANWR to another guide for compensation." 

In exchange for that plea, his sentence was limited to a $125,000 fine and five years probation. He barely escaped being convicted of a felony.

"Get the dictionary out," he told Young in an animated exchange. "A felon is a murderer, a child molester, a really bad person. Not somebody who lets someone take a sheep out of that area, and I didn't even do that."

No, what Hendricks did in the end was play loose with the rules in Alaska at a time when it was no longer acceptable to play loose with the rules. He did things a fair number of other guides got away with on a regular basis in the last millennium.

But now is not then, and because of it, Hendricks' hard-won reputation paid the price. He yearns to get it back. It's hard to watch the video and not feel a little sorry for him.

Contact Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com.​