Out of Season: The Johnny Luster Story
Mary E Adams
... is a biography of one of Alaska's greatest old-time guides. Johnny's insatiable appetite for outdoor adventure, his rejection of normal education and urban life, and his unstoppable courage in the face of incredible hardship and danger were more typical of men like Jim Bridger and Jedediah Smith. Johnny's life took him from guiding on the Wyoming frontier, to making movies with John Wayne, and then on to Alaska for fifty years of trapping and guiding. Experience the amazing adventures of the man who claimed to be the genuine Mad Trapper of Rat River-the trapper and guide who lived to tell his real life story. -224 pages, 57 photos, four original Alaska poems.
Table of Contents
A Tribute to Johnny Luster
1 Grandfather 29
2 The White Man’s Road 39
3 Johnny Two-Feathers 49
4 The Making of a Renegade 63
5 The Outlaw Years 73
6 The Dust Settles 83
7 A Wind from the North 95
8 The Magnet Moves 107
9 The Cheechako 119
10 New Beginnings 133
11 The Chickaloon Mountain Man 163
Poetry by John E. Luster 212
A TRIBUTE TO JOHNNY LUSTER
. . . . by his long-time friend and hunting partner Charles Elliott --Senior Editor, Outdoor Life
John Luster was the focal point of a dramatic and unforgettable adventure in my life. This was so long ago that now it seems to have occurred in another life.
We were youngsters then–by today’s measurements at least. Both of us, in our early forties, were camped in the high, rugged Talkeetna Mountains, more isolated and wild than they are now. From where we were camped in the lofty ranges, we could see big game animals any hour of the day. Almost always in sight were white Dall sheep filing along a precipice, or a mountain goat or two looking down from a towering pinnacle, or herds of caribou drifting past or big grizzlies feeding on the wealth of early fall blueberries–a hunter’s paradise!
As I remember, Johnny was relatively new to Alaska. He had brought up a string of saddle and pack horses from Wyoming, his home state, and was camp wrangler for Jim Simpson, our outfitter for this Alaska safari. Four hunters were in our party and Simpson had managed to round up a guide for each of us–men who were hunters on their own, but who had little or no experience in the guiding business. John Luster had more mountain savvy and woodsmanship than all of the others pooled together. But his job with the horses was more important because this was the first—or almost the first—packsaddle big game hunt in Alaska’s history.
As our horse wrangler, Johnny didn’t do any guiding, but I was quick to see how excellent a mountain man and woodsman he was, so when we were in camp, I spent as much time as possible with him. He was a quiet fellow, not much of a talker, and I didn’t know his real background until years later.
I got an impressive indication of it, however, after we had been in camp for a number of days.
Early in the hunt we had taken some good trophies—or at least what inexperienced tyros from Georgia considered "good"—but the weather was unusually warm for that time of year in the Alaska mountains.
We had many more days ahead of us on the hunt, did not want any spoiled meat on our hands, so the guides suggested that they take off a couple of days, pack the meat out to Chickaloon on the main road and truck it to cold storage in Palmer.
To this we agreed. It gave us at least a day or two to relax around camp.
I could not see two entire days of being parked on my can in a tent or on a log, so next morning after the guides pulled out with our meat, I climbed to the top of the rock cliff blocking one side of our campsite. I found a comfortable rock and parked my carcass there to glass the countryside for any unusual happenings.
The customary sight of sheep crossing a cliff or a rock slide, and caribou grazing on an open slope were a part of the landscape, but I saw no record trophies among them. Then my glasses picked up a large grizzly feeding in a patch of blueberries a couple of miles away on a mountain slope across the creek.
From the top of the bluff I yelled for John to saddle the horses. I scrambled back to camp, threw two or three loose shells in my pocket and John, I and another hunter rode to the foot of the ridge on which I had seen the grizzly.
The other hunter walked up a hollow paralleling the ridge in case we spooked the bear in that direction. Then, John and I climbed to where I had seen the foraging grizzly. It was still there facing at an angle toward us and I shot for the heart.
The bear went down, then bounced to its feet and ran over the side of the ridge. We sprinted to a nearby high point and a couple of hundred yards below us saw the grizzly stand up and look back.
I shot again for the heart and the bear went down, then stood up. It went down on my third shot and again stood up. At my next shot, it lurched a step forward and wrapped its arms around a small tree.
"He’s dead on his feet" John said, "but that’s not the bear we shot at first."
We picked up the blood trail of the first bear and found it lying under a bunch of brush, watching us. It wasn’t dead. I shot again and knocked the grizzly on its side. Its feet were waving in the air and it looked very much alive.
I checked my rifle. I didn’t remember loading, but had no more shells in my pocket and only one in my gun. We were standing less than 30 feet from the wounded animal.
Johnny did not have a gun
"If I could see his head well enough," I said, "I’d finish him off."
"John picked up a rock and threw it to where the bear lay. Instead of raising his head, as we expected, the big grizzly suddenly rolled to all fours and charged us, bawling with a roar that shook the earth. I knew I had to get the crosshairs on its head. If I didn’t shatter his skull, this was it.
The grizzly was within 25 feet. John thought I’d frozen at the controls and he acted quickly. He yelled and waived his arms. The shout and motion diverted the bear’s attention and it turned away from me and toward my partners, who took off up the mountain like timber wolves.
In its weakened condition the bear didn’t run more than a few yards, then turned and went back to its spot under the brush. I could see its head plainly now. Taking my time, I put the crosshairs between its eyes and carefully squeezed off a shot.
The grizzly flattened out and lay still. "Let’s let him die good and dead" I suggested, "while we go see what happened to the other grizzly."
Our other hunter had come up and was standing over the second bear, a very large silvertip that had made its last gasp. We skinned it out and packed it on my shoulders with a sort of diamond hitch to get it to the horses. I handed my rifle to the hunter.
"Better let Johnny carry it" he said.
He loaded a couple of shells into the rifle, handed it to Luster and made his way with me and my heavy load, down the drain to where we had tied our horses.
In the meantime, Luster climbed the mountain to where we had left our first supposedly dead grizzly. Within 20 feet of it, the big bear suddenly reared up, towering over the guide. John threw up the rifle and shot it point blank in the chest.
The 220 grain bullet seemed to have no effect whatsoever. The grizzly roared and lunged at Luster, but swatted only empty air where the guide had been a fraction of a second before.
Running down the mountain, the bear only shirttail distance behind and roaring with every swipe of his heavy claws, John frantically jacked the last shell into the chamber of the rifle. Holding it back over his shoulder, with the end of the barrel almost touching the grizzly’s head, he jerked the trigger and ran for his life.
Fortunately, that last chunk of lead broke the grizzly’s neck. When we arrived with the horses thirty minutes later, Luster was still sitting on the mountainside, thirty yards above the grizzly, throwing rocks at the dead bear, to be sure there was no sign of life left in it.
John Luster chose to stay and live in Alaska. Shortly after he drove down his permanent stakes, he became a registered guide and in the next few decades became Alaska’s most popular big game outfitter.
For years he spent his winters running a trapline far beyond the end of the trail, often in weather that howled around him at 60 below zero.
At this writing he is in his late eighties and apparently as tough as he was when the grizzly tried to get close enough to pat him on his behind. His eyesight remains as sharp as that of an eagle, no whisper of sound escapes his hearing and he can climb a vertical trail all day.
Not long ago a doctor friend persuaded John to take a physical examination.
"They put me on one of them machines" Johnny said, "where you walk and run and don’t go anywhere. So I walked and then ran and after I’d been doing that awhile, Doc stopped the machine and said ‘Get down. If a horse don’t fall on you or you don’t get buried in an avalanche, you’ll live for another hundred years. Then they’ll have to hit you with a pole ax when they get ready to bury you.’ "
If not the last, John Luster is one of the last of the real, old-time mountain men. Even in his lifetime he has become a legend in his adopted—but now his native—state. Mary Adams has written a glowing account of his life. It makes a fellow such as I wish I had been privileged to spend many more days with this old mountain man on the trail.
This is the story of Alaska’s last great mountainman, a man who was born two centuries too late.
Luster was born in the early 1900s on a Shoshone reservation in Wyoming. From an early age, he was more interested in hunting and trapping by himself out in the wilderness than in conventional things like school and getting a job. Something of a smart aleck, he was constantly in trouble with the authorities. A stint in prison convinced him that he never wanted to go back. There were several marriages along the way; they ended when she realized that Johnny would spend several months per year hunting and trapping in the wilderness. He gained a reputation as the person to hire for those looking for a guide into the hills of Wyoming.
After World War II, roads and airplanes opened up Wyoming to sportsmen and settlers. Isolated places became too full of people for Johnny, so he drove some pack horses north to the last great frontier, a place called Alaska. Getting a guide license was not an instant process, so Johnny had to start at the beginning in learning his way around Alaska. After becoming licensed, Johnny again became the person to see in the guide business. When the authorities need(ed) information on wildlife numbers or possible poaching, they talk(ed) to Johnny. He is still active today hunting and trapping in the brutal Alaskan winter (Johnny is now deceased).
This is a really interesting story. It provides a look at a different breed of person, more interested in nature than in cities and technology. This book is told as much as possible in Luster’s own words and is well worth reading.
Paul Lappen, Reviewer; The Midwest Book Review
Oregon, Wisconsin; February 2006