June 10, 2010 |

Eagle foundation chief: Thowing knives, beheading rats

She took first prize in a knife- throwing contest, shoots a black-powder rifle, and is fairly handy with a javelin, too.

Despite this, Cheryl McRoberts cuts a studious profile behind her neat desk at the American Bald Eagle Foundation where she is director of operations, drawing on work as an accountant with H&R Block and the IRS to keep things in order.

McRoberts has owned mobile home parks and a bar and restaurant, worked with disabled children and managed a remote fishing and hunting camp. For her, cutting the heads off rats to feed to raptors is just one more challenge.

A self-professed "cruise-aholic," McRoberts first saw Haines from the deck of a cruise ship, en route from Skagway to Juneau, and she "fell in love" before she ever got the chance to visit. Her husband, William McRoberts, was retired after 23 years in the U.S. Army.

Before joining the Army, he had worked on the pipeline in Alaska. "The whole time he was in the Army, for 23 years, he kept saying, ‘I’d really like to, when I retire, move back to Alaska,’" she said.

The couple researched the entire state using the Internet and she fell for a cabin in Slana. Then she found out the temperature dipped to 70 below in winter, not counting wind chill. "I’d lived in Las Vegas for 26 years. I was not prepared to live at 70 below zero."

After arriving in Haines in June of 2008, McRoberts volunteered in the eagle foundation’s gift shop. She replaced an outgoing staff member as an administrator in December and by last July she was director of operations.

The best part of her new job is working with live birds and watching the organization grow. "This building just rose out of the parking lot. It seems like overnight that we went from zero birds to four. It is a whole different experience having an owl sitting in the office with me."

Before alighting in Haines, McRoberts owned and managed a bar and restaurant in Cactus Springs, 45 miles north of Las Vegas, population 3. "It was me and my husband and a witch." Her only neighbor, she said, practiced a bizarre religion and would host ceremonies filled with naked abandon in honor of the new moon each month.

"It was really, really, really strange." They were uneasy neighbors and their escalating disputes made the front page of the Wall Street Journal. "She didn’t believe in alcohol, yet she used to smoke these great big Cuban cigars... But I prevailed. I kept the restaurant and bar for seven years."

She bought the bar after spending years owning mobile home parks across the country, which she described as a management "nightmare."

"So I thought, ‘Well, let’s just get out of the mobile home park business and do something really fun." The bar, Cactus Springs Station, sat on 50 acres and offered a shooting range, karaoke, and slot machines.

McRoberts used her prowess as a knife thrower to keep her customers in line. "I would tell my unruly customers at the bar: ‘This knife is not for cutting up lemons and limes, so don’t start.’"

Cactus Springs Station also played host to a fur rendezvous every year, where the participants showed up in buckskin costumes with raccoon hats and black powder rifles.

A knife-throwing contest and javelin throw were part of the fun.

Sometimes the Silver City Shooting Club would come and build a stage town, a bit like Dalton City, for shooting competitions. McRoberts brought her moccasins and her black rifle with her to Haines, but hasn’t found anyone here who shoots black powder, yet. She is, however, seriously considering competing in the axe-throwing competition at the Southeast Alaska State Fair. "But I am not brave enough to get up there on those logs [for log rolling]."

McRoberts met her husband in Cactus Springs in 2000. Bill McRoberts had retired from the army and came to visit his son, who was working for Cheryl as a bartender. "Suddenly, the population went from two to three."

Afterward, Bill and Cheryl moved to Maine to manage a remote fly-fishing camp for the Appalachian Mountain Club: 11 cabins, an outhouse, no electricity and no running water. Access was by foot, ski, snowmachine or four-wheeler.

She remains an avid fly fisher, recognizable around Haines by her "adorable" pink fly-fishing vest and her burgundy rod with pink breast cancer ribbons. In 2006, they left Maine for Wyoming, where they managed a hunting lodge for more than a year.

Since then, Bill has traded his rifle for a camera. He recently sold four pages worth of pictures of Haines’ bald eagles to Porthole Magazine, a hardcover publication carried by the cruise ships.

McRoberts grew up on the East Coast, in Rhode Island. After graduating from Rhode Island Junior College, she took a job working at a school for mentally disabled children. The Ladd School for the Feeble Minded, as it was known, was one of the oldest institutions of its kind in America, when it closed in 1994. Now the Ladd School, according to various Internet reports, enjoys fame as one of the most haunted places in Rhode Island.

At 23, after the birth of her first daughter, McRoberts followed her parents, who had moved to Las Vegas. McRoberts has three children, and five grandchildren scattered from Michigan to Oregon to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

"I lived in Las Vegas for 26 years and now I live in Haines, Alaska where we don’t even have a stoplight. My family is having a hard time comprehending that... I’m the only one (of my brothers and sisters) who left." Her sister was shocked to hear McRoberts walks to work.

In Las Vegas her mother made a living as a waitress who was featured in casino advertising. "My mother has looked like Dolly Parton my entire life." So much so that McRoberts’ mom was featured in a season finale of the syndicated television show ‘Ambush Makeover.’ "Of course she hated it. She went right back to being Dolly."

McRoberts’ lifelong inspiration was her grandmother, who lived with her grandfather on a farm in Maine with goats, horses and fruit trees. McRoberts spent time with her while growing up and has internalized her grandmother’s adventurous can-do spirit. "She was an inspiration. She lived to be 97. At 93, she won a jackpot playing bingo and she bought a laptop and learned how to e-mail."

Recently, McRoberts and her husband purchased a cabin at 31.5 mile on the Haines Highway and they plan to make improvements on the property: her husband dreams of building a log cabin on the site. Meanwhile, they are going to keep their place in town so McRoberts can continue walking to work (although without making the mistake again of trying to walk across Tlingit Park after a deep snow without snowshoes).

"We’ve travelled enough...this is home. I couldn’t imagine going back and living in Las Vegas after living here."