Windy Wagner: Breath of fresh air or just a blowhard? (Part 1)

Most folks seemed to enjoy Charles A. Wagner. They appreciated his hospitality and generosity, his stories and good humor, and his thorough knowledge of the varied and challenging terrain that comprises the Kenai Peninsula.

Other folks were decidedly less enamored. They found his stories tedious, his exaggerations ridiculous, his outdoor skills tainted by a willingness to shirk his responsibilities for the right “incentive.”

When he became a licensed hunting guide on the Kenai Peninsula in August 1909, he took an oath to obey and enforce all laws designed to protect Alaskan game. Head game warden Christopher Shea touted Wagner’s qualifications in a letter to Territorial Gov. Walter E. Clark: “This man is very well posted on the game of the country, and knows the country thoroughly, he was one of the packers for the Guest Party last season, and gave entire satisfaction while so employed.”

When he reapplied to the governor for the same position in August 1912, Wagner listed a number of Seward merchants and other local authorities who could vouch for his character. Among those he listed was game warden John Crittenden Tolman, who sent the governor an official cablegram supporting Wagner’s application.

In a separate letter to the governor in mid-September, however, Tolman expressed a much more derisive view of Wagner’s qualifications:

“It is my idea,” Tolman wrote, “that in appointing new guides that the standard should be raised and in (Wagner’s) case it would certainly not be, his personal character and associates are not good, he is ignorant and exceedingly vulgar and I do not think he could be depended upon to enforce the game laws with any party he should be out with, as I have no doubt that a few dollars extra would be sufficient for him to overlook any infringement.”

If those words weren’t damning enough, he concluded with these: “He should be chuck full of truth, for it is only by accident that he lets any out of him. He is known here as ‘Windy Wagner.’”

Cloudy Origins

According to both his brief obituary and his death certificate, Charles Wagner was born in Whatcom County, Washington, on Jan. 10, 1877. No documents have yet come to light that name his parents, but Wagner stated in the 1930 U.S. Census that his father had been born in Ohio and his mother in Illinois.

The obituary states that Wagner came to Alaska in 1898 and “lived at various parts of the territory for ten years” before settling down on the Kenai Peninsula. The location of those “various parts” is unclear, but it appears that the first place he resided for any extended period of time was Seward, starting in about 1908.

When he reapplied for his guiding license in 1912, he informed the governor, “I have been a resident of this peninsula for the past seven years, and know the entire country thoroughly.” If this assertion was true, he must have moved to the Kenai in about 1905 and must have spent much of the intervening years in the peninsula’s woods, mountains and valleys—hunting, trapping, perhaps even guiding before state licensing became a requirement.

Former Soldotna-area homesteader Lorraine “Rusty” Lancashire wrote in 1950 that Wagner had also been a “musher for the railroad,” a bartender and a fisherman. Other documentation illustrates his trapping experiences, as well as construction and cannery work.

But his nearly 30 years of life prior to his arrival in Alaska remains, for now, mostly a mystery.

At least two census enumerations state that Wagner’s public education did not extend beyond fifth grade. If so, he was out of school from the time he was 11 or 12 years old, in the late 1880s. Did he begin working for pay at this time? Did he labor for his parents? Were his parents still alive? The answers to these questions and related ones have thus far not been forthcoming.

In 1918, while a resident of Seward, Wagner signed and provided information for his military draft-registration card. On it he claimed to be a self-employed trapper whose nearest relative was George Washington Wagner, of Los Angeles. The card contained no indication how Charles and George were related. Was George his father? A brother? An uncle? Something else entirely?

At the time of his death, at the age of 81, it was believed that Wagner had no surviving relatives. He had never been married and had no known children. His Social Security Number had been issued in Alaska. He had never served in the U.S. military. No document yet unearthed has revealed what his middle initial stood for—if, in fact, it stood for anything at all.

Even his final resting spot in the Evergreen Cemetery in Juneau provides no clues. Although the grave appears on the digital cemetery map provided by the City of Juneau’s website, no physical marker actually denotes Wagner’s final resting place. Only green grass marks the spot.

Consummate Windbag

The record is also unclear concerning who first applied the nickname “Windy” to Charles Wagner, but few who knew the man could doubt why it had been applied.

In the Jan. 24, 1927, entry in his personal journal, renowned Tustumena hunting guide Andrew Berg said that he had stopped at Windy’s place on Bear Creek and had spent hours “listening to Wagner set off som pent up hot air” to the handful of men gathered there.

In what was probably the 1930s, according to the history compilation “Once upon the Kenai,” Lyle Cole and his uncle, with rifles slung over their shoulders, trudged one day along the winter ice on the Kenai River to Wagner’s place near the river flats. Wagner’s friend Jimmy Minano and another man were already there, and, inspired by a growing audience, Windy began telling tales:

He related a story about a visit from an Army colonel at a time he had been out target practicing in front of his house. “Windy asked the colonel if he could see a certain mud chunk across the river (a distance of over 300 yards),” wrote Cole. “The colonel acknowledged that he did. Windy took aim and fired.” Wagner claimed that his shot cleft the chunk of mud right down the middle, and then, with one more shot, he proceeded to split one of the halves in half.

“I wish I had sharpshooters like you in my regiment!” exclaimed the colonel. (Cole found this story, and others, “embarrassing” because they seemed to him like such obvious lies, so he was delighted by what happened next.)

Just as Wagner was finishing his sharpshooting tale, Minano yelled, “There’s a coyote coming down the other side of the river!” Minano and Cole’s uncle then began shooting at it, but neither man could hit it. Windy, meanwhile, had hurried into his house. He then came racing back out with a small pair of binoculars, yelling “Where is it? Where is it?”

“He never saw it,” Cole wrote, “which led me to believe he couldn’t see across the river, let alone shoot across it with accuracy.”

In the fall of 1913, an out-of-state hunter named Gilpin Lovering had met up with Wagner by chance near the sprawling Funny River headwaters as evening was approaching. Lovering—recalling the incident in the E. Marshall Scull hunting memoir “Hunting in the Arctic and Alaska”—had been alone and was “surprised” to see another human being anywhere in the vicinity.

The man was “walking more or less in my direction on the other side of the stream,” Lovering wrote. “In a few minutes I heard three shots in rapid succession and saw a bunch of moose come up out of the canyon, going as though they were late for an appointment in the next county. The man who did the shooting proved to be one ‘Windy,’ a trapper. He said … that he had been shooting at a wolverine, but … I rather think the wolverine story was told on account of some very bad shooting (at the moose).”

Lovering had been looking for a nearby sheep camp, and Wagner informed him of a cabin in which he could hole up for the night. Lovering then paid Wagner to hike back to the camp from which he’d begun his jaunt across the tundra and to tell his comrades there (including John C. Tolman) where he’d gone.

Wagner, Tolman and Lovering were all reunited a couple days later.


In this undated photo from the Dolly Christl Collection, Charles “Windy” Wagner stands near the Libby, McNeil & Libby’s cannery in Kenai.

In this undated photo from the Dolly Christl Collection, Charles “Windy” Wagner stands near the Libby, McNeil & Libby’s cannery in Kenai.

Windy Wagner poses in front of his cabin at Mile 6 of the Kenai River in this undated photo from the Knackstedt Collection.

Windy Wagner poses in front of his cabin at Mile 6 of the Kenai River in this undated photo from the Knackstedt Collection.