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Confessions of a Wildlife Photography Guide – In Search of the Elusive Swizzle Hund

by Tom Walker | March 1, 2006

© Tom WalkerDon DeHart, the late Alaskan hunting guide, once wrote a book entitled, “Oh, For the Life of a Guide.” It took just a short immersion into the guiding profession for me to fully appreciate the irony. At first blush, professional guiding seems a great way to make a living. You do the things you love—hiking, camping, photography, fishing, hunting, whatever – and get paid for it. What a life! And it is, except for one thing—some of the customers, or clients, as guides call them. My dad used to say that if you really wanted to find out what a person was like, take them camping. He was right, of course, because out in the field, with all the social props removed, people are quickly reduced to their basic nature. Not surprisingly, many a friendship has waned after an extended outing. Now imagine taking a stranger, usually from an urban center and who hasn’t the foggiest notion of Alaska’s vagaries, into the wilderness and perhaps you’ve a glimmer of the potential.

Quite surprisingly, however, the bulk of guided trips I have led have turned out very well. Successful guides are not necessarily the best outdoorsmen or women but rather are often the best at dealing with people. The key ingredient is respect—respect for the client, the client’s desires, the wildlife, and the wilderness. The very best trips are the ones where both the client and the guide have fun and become genuine friends.

Every client holds specific, sometimes peculiar, priorities. A good guide always works hard to fulfill his client’s wish list. One of my all-time favorite trips was with a couple from Frankfurt. Hans spoke absolutely no English; Linda, his wife, was fluent. The first morning, after saddling and packing the horses, I gave Hans and Linda my standard safety-around-horses speech. I finished off with a recitation of the hazards to be encountered, such as river crossings and sudden encounters with grizzlies, and what to do about them.

“Any questions?” I asked. There were none.

“OK, then,” I said, “Anything else?”

“Hans vunts to zee and photograph vut you call a pork-cue-pine.”

“Uh, huh,” I said.

“Zis is important,” Linda replied, as if my response were not exactly reassuring. “He vunts to zee a pork-cue-pine number vun thing.”

“No problem,” I said emphatically. “They are all over the place. We’ll see lots.”

One thing you learn as a guide is to always project an air of confidence, of being in command. Even if you have doubts or anxieties, never let your clients know of them. You’re the leader; you’re the Daniel Boone. They are the Pilgrims. Answer quickly and decisively—even, I might add, if you haven’t a clue of what you’re talking about. I hadn’t seen six porcupines in three months, but I hadn’t been looking for them either.

“Now vee must teach you to zay pork-cue-pine in Deutsch,” Linda said. Here I gulped. I am hopelessly monoglot and barely handle English, let alone German.

“Ok, shoot,” I said with mock enthusiasm.

“Zay after me, stachel schwein!”

I dutifully offered what I thought was a good rendering of the name, which I took to mean something like ‘sticker pig.’ (Later I learned that “stachel” meant needles.)

“Nein! Nein!” Linda corrected, “Stachel schwein.

I tried again…then again…then again…and yet again. I could only imagine how ludicrous the scene must have looked. There on the tundra I stood repeating a rather bizarre name over and over, while a short woman waved her arms about like a conductor directing a symphony.

After about the twentieth go-around, Linda dropped her hands and looked back at Hans. “Yah, yah, das iss goot,” he said with a broad grin. “Das iss goot!” Linda turned back and gave me a smile, not unlike, I suspected, owners give a slow puppy who’s finally learned to sit.

Newly fluent in the German language, I finished loading the packhorse and soon we were under way, heading off for two weeks in the mountains. Far from highways, phones, email, or anything else of modern consternation. Over the first couple of hours I thought a lot about Hans’ number one priority. I can well understand spending time and money to travel halfway around the world to swat mosquitoes and shiver in the rain to photograph grizzlies, moose, caribou, or Dall sheep…but a porcupine? ‘Oh, well,’ I thought, ‘if that’s what they want, we’ll search for the wily porcupine.’

For the next twelve days we rode up one river drainage, then down another, crossed mountain passes and wandered over tundra flats. We camped in heavy timber, and in alpine meadows. We experienced rain, snow, wind, cold, and sun. We photographed two grizzlies, four very large bull moose, several bands of white rams, and a few dozen caribou. We even heard the howling of wolves. But nowhere did we see a single porcupine. Not one. Not a quill.

Throughout history guides have prided themselves on being able to find routes, places, or animals that mere mortals could never find on their own. (Kit Carson would be a fine example for a modern guide to emulate, except he didn’t have to carry a 40-pound pack of cameras and lenses and sneak right up on top of a bison and rip off several rolls of film to be considered successful.) Failure is a terrible blow to a guide’s ego. Fortunately guides seldom fail, and if you don’t believe that, just ask one.

On the 13th day of the 14-day trip we headed back up river toward camp and the airplane that would start Hans and Linda on their way back home to Frankfurt. I would miss them. They were great sports. Never complained, never demanded anything unreasonable or unsafe, and never complained about my cooking – even once. We had seen lots of wildlife and camped in genuine wilderness amid spectacular fall colors. If the number of rolls of film exposed can measure the success of a trip, ours had been a roaring success. Somehow, though, I was feeling defeated. It was the porcupine, or the lack thereof.

The trip’s next to last day was warm, calm, and sunny, with only a few white puffy clouds hanging over the snow-capped peaks. We rode along the riverbank on a trail that wound through spare golden-leaved aspen. We stopped often for pictures.

While waiting for Hans at one such stop I heard a slight rustle in the tree behind me. I turned, and there, not five feet away, was a porcupine. ‘Oh, my God,’ I thought, ‘What was that German word again…uh…uh…uh…’ My mind went blank. I panicked. My instinct was to turn and shout, “Porcupine!” much in the same manner as miners once shouted “Eureka!” but I thought that Hans would think me daft or warning of danger.

What was that danged word anyway? The last part of it was something vaguely familiar, but what was it? ‘Dog, that’s it,’ I thought. ‘That’s it. The last word was German for dog…which is…is…hund. That’s it! Now if I can only remember the first part. Got it! Got it! It sounds like sticks.’

Excited, and on the verge of the climactic moment of the trip, I turned around and with a sweeping gesture, pointed and announced, “Swizzle-hund! Swizzle-hund!

I beamed with pride.

“Vas? Vas?” they both said. I turned and repeated myself, this time louder, “Swizzle-HUND! Swizzle-hund!” Hans and Linda exchanged puzzled looks. Clearly they did not know what the hell I was saying.

“Swizzle-hund?” I tried again, but tentatively now. They shrugged their shoulders in confusion. “Vut is Swizzle-hund?” Linda finally asked.

‘Uh, oh,’ I thought, “Umm, it’s a…um…porcupine.”

“Ahhh! Pork-cue-pine…pork-cue-pine,” Hans repeated excitedly, dismounting from his horse in a clatter of camera gear.

I sat there with my mouth hanging open. All I could think of was that first day’s German lesson. Hans could say porcupine better than I would ever say, well, whatever that German word was.

Embarrassed I turned quickly around and sat there trying to look smug, as if I had said porcupine in the Latin.

Hans started shooting as soon as his feet touched the ground. Ten rolls of film later, with the porcupine having never moved more than an inch from the safety of its limb, we were underway again.

Porcupine © Tom Walker

About the Author

Alaskan nature photographer-writer Tom Walker is a 40-year resident of Alaska who enjoys traveling the state. He has authored numerous books. For more information, please visit his website, www.tomwalkerphotography.com.

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