March 4, 2010

Maine native's Alaskan career takes off


— Second in a monthly series

click image to enlarge

Photo by Heather Bryant Scott Quist's duties as an Alaska State Trooper including flying throughout the state.



Kennebec Journal

FAIRBANKS, Alaska — A large bearskin rug dominates the wall behind Scott Quist's desk.

Walrus tusks are mounted on the wall to his right. A wolf skin hangs in a corner across the room.

Quist, an Alaska state trooper, has a job in some ways like a game warden in Maine.

He is a combination police officer, game warden and pilot. His primary role is comparable to the wardens of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. He is also a fully trained and credentialed state trooper -- a sergeant -- who investigate crimes, writes speeding tickets and enforces laws having nothing to do with hunting or fishing.

But the outdoors -- hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, snow machines, search and rescue -- is his primary focus.

Doing the job in the nation's largest state requires more than a squad car.

Quist flies state airplanes to remote villages, usually landing on dirt airstrips to enforce game laws, supervise hunters, fishermen and guides and -- when necessary -- coordinate search-and-rescue activities.

It's an interesting career for a man who moved from Maine to Alaska fresh out of high school in 1981 with no idea what he was going to do for a job.

The move from Maine to Alaska after graduation was not a teenager's spur-of-the-moment lark. Quist had been intrigued by Alaska for years.

''I knew I was coming here ever since I was a little kid,'' he said.

Quist is from Stockholm, a town of about 300 people near Caribou. He still has relatives spread across Maine. His parents are in Sanford. An uncle, David Quist of Manchester, lived in Alaska for 10 years. His stories about the state may have planted an idea in his nephew. David Quist is married to Genie Gannett , part of the family that formerly owned the Kennebec Journal, the Morning Sentinel and the Portland Press-Herald.

Scott Quist arrived in Cordova, Alaska -- a small town on Prince William Sound -- with $37 in his pocket, no job, no contacts and few prospects. He camped out and looked for work.

His timing was terrible. Fishermen were on strike, canneries were closed and no one seemed to have any money.

''I was too proud to call home and ask for help,'' he said. He was also hungry -- so hungry that even though he does not like clams, he dug them up and ate them. He didn't have a license, so taking the clams was poaching.

The future game warden/state trooper was not caught, but years later when he applied to be a trooper, he had to admit the violation when he took a polygraph exam.

Fortunately, the statute of limitations had expired and he was hired.

Eventually he got work from the city.

Later he worked in construction, on a fishing boat, and guided visiting hunters and fishermen in the fall and winter. Doing that involved training and testing similar to that required to become a Registered Maine Guide.

That was his life for several years -- commercial fishing in the summer, guiding in the fall, winter and spring.

Quist said that early in his career as a guide it became obvious that he needed to learn to fly.

''Here, it's almost a necessity,'' he said. He quickly discovered he loved flying.

He bought his first plane on his 21st birthday. He is now licensed to fly both helicopters and airplanes but no longer owns his own plane.

''Now I have teenagers; you can't afford both,'' he said.

His routine can take him from two-person Cubs to 14-passenger turbine Cessnas and other aircraft.

The larger plane comes in handy for search-and-rescue work, Quist said. It can carry ATVs or snowmobiles.

''Some days, I'll fly three different types of planes,'' he said. ''It just depends on the mission It's just how we get around,'' he said. ''A good portion of our days are in airplanes.''

The Cub is ''our workhorse,'' he said.

The plane has big soft tires so it can land -- and bounce a bit -- on dirt strips in remote areas. It's Alaska, so cold and snow don't keep him out of the air, although, he said, ''we try not to fly with it's colder than 25 below unless it's an emergency.''

A small plane figures into the story of how he shot the bear whose skin is on the wall of his office.

That happened before Quist became a trooper. He was guiding a hunting trip and although the party had properly stored food and garbage to keep bears away, that proved no deterrent to a large black bear that ransacked the camp on three nights.

Finally, Quist had enough. He was worried about the camp and even more worried that the bear would be attracted to the plane, which has a very thin fabric skin.

''They can tear that up and then you're done,'' he said.

On the fourth night, Quist was ready. When he heard the bear come into camp he got his rifle and crawled out of the tent.

''I saw him lift his head,'' Quist said. He shot.

Quist said he is not sure how much the bear weighed.

''In Maine they weigh bears. Here we measure them.'' The bear was just under 7 feet. ''In the black bear world that is a big bear,'' he said. ''And it tasted good.''

Bears eat lots of blueberries and that flavors the meat, he said.

He also shot the wolf whose skin is on the office wall, but not the walrus. The tusks were evidence in a case.

Quist said that when he travels, either on the road or in the air, he is always equipped with cold-weather gear, not just in case he has problems but to be prepared to help others. ''Anything can turn into a survival situation,'' he said.

Troopers based in Fairbanks are responsible for covering the northern two-thirds of Alaska, and sometimes the travel takes him away from home for several days, he said.

Later this month, he plans to fly to Cold Bay at the very end of the Alaskan peninsula for the opening of bear season, a major event for hunters and guides. He will be in the field to offer assistance, handle any search-and-rescue operations and to deal with people who violate game laws.

Or any kind of laws, for that matter.

While Quist's primary duties involve hunting and fishing, he and others in his department shift back and forth to general law enforcement.

His law enforcement training is the same as all troopers; he graduated from the same academy and took the same tests.

''My badge says state trooper,'' he said. ''We are state troopers first, wildlife officers second.''

That's important, in part because in the remote villages he patrols need both.

Quist says it's not unusual for him to make traffic stops, especially when he's driving an unmarked car.

Quist met his wife, Karen, when she came to Alaska to work for the summer. The two lived in different cities -- he in Wasilla, she in Anchorage -- about a 90-minute drive.

But a short flight.

''I'd jump in my airplane and zip to Anchorage.''

It worked. They were married in 1991. She is also a licensed pilot.

Quist tries to return to Maine to visit family every two or three years.

His last trip was a special one.

It was the 50th anniversary of the family's camp on Madawaska Lake. Quist had not been back for deer hunting season in about 20 years, he said.

Knowing that many family members were planning to go to the camp to celebrate the anniversary, Quist's wife secretly bought him an airplane ticket and arranged with his boss for her husband to have the time off to come to Maine where he joined his father and his brother at the camp.

''It was the highlight of my year,'' he said.

David B. Offer is the retired executive editor of the Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel. He is spending a year as a journalism professor at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. Heather Bryant is a journalism student at the school.

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