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Alaska Fish & Wildlife News
October 2003

Oral History Project Documents Trappers & Hunters
Lives Close to the Land

By Riley Woodford
caption follows
Trapping is a traditional lifestyle for many Alaskans.

Earl Callihan shot to the side of the big bear, not to kill it, but to discourage the impending charge. The bear charged anyway, running at the Southeast Alaska trapper like a racehorse.

Callihan's close encounter on a remote beach with a brown bear is one of a score of stories on the CD, "Alaska Tracks: Featuring Earl Callihan." The 42-minute recording, carefully edited from a much longer interview with the lifelong trapper and woodsman, is part of a series of recordings highlighting the lives of dozens of Alaska's most experienced outdoorsmen.

These oral history recordings are not merely dramas of big bears and cold winters. These skilled trappers, hunters and hunting guides share a wealth of insight into animal behavior and the natural world. Through their stories they offer time-tested trapping and hunting techniques and specific details of Alaska history. The outdoorsmen, all in their 70s, 80s and 90s, vividly recall events dating back as far as the 1920s.

Callihan clearly remembers the prices he was paid for marten and wolf pelts in the 1940s and the names of virtually every fur buyer, trapper and fisherman he encountered. He cites specific locations and credits every woodsmen who shared a trick or tip with him over decades of life outdoors.

The oral history project is a labor of love for Randy Zarnke of Fairbanks. Zarnke retired as an animal disease specialist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and is active in the Alaska Trappers Association. A few years ago, Zarnke was arranging guest speakers for the monthly meetings of Fairbanks Chapter of the trappers association, and one night he had an epiphany.

"Someone suggested I bring in an old timer so we could learn what it used to be like," he said. "Often at the meetings when there's a speaker there'll be chatting in the back of the room, but when this first trapper was talking, people were riveted. It was Paul Kirsteatter from Healy Lake, a fascinating storyteller who's trapped in the Eastern Interior since the '40s. A light went on with me when I saw that."

Zarnke has since interviewed 71 senior outdoorsmen in 45 Alaska communities. He's edited about 20 of the interviews - the first 12 are available on cassette, and the last eight are on CD, the format he's using from here on out. He hopes to release a new CD each month.

KUAC radio in Fairbanks has broadcast some of the features, and Zarnke said they established the standards he follows when he edits the interviews. He spends about 20 to 30 hours carefully editing each interview, trimming out pauses, tightening the dialogue and highlighting the best material.

"The most fun part is sitting across the table and hearing the guy, seeing him laugh, hearing him groan when he talks about the one that got away," Zarnke said. "At first some might say they're not real talkative, they might struggle a bit, but once they get going their eyes light up, they smile. When you ask who their favorite hunting partner was, about their biggest moose or their favorite place to trap - when you hit that one question the rest of interview just sails along."

Fish and Game biologists and wildlife managers recommended many of the outdoorsmen, old timers the professionals had learned to respect. Folks like John Nicholson, a 95-year-old trapper out of Dillingham who still traps.

The series includes an interview with Al Franzmann, an avid hunter and large animal veterinarian. Franzmann left veterinary medicine to become a wildlife researcher, earning a second advanced degree and coming to Alaska about 1970 to work for Fish and Game. After 15 years with the department he launched a third career as an international wildlife consultant and traveled the world, working with tigers, rhinos and other endangered species.

Franzmann talks about his work with the early telemetry equipment and immobilization drugs, tools that are cornerstones of research today. He also reflects on the value of hunting and outdoor recreation, and the social benefits of connecting to the land.

"I think this could be a tremendous resource for current Fish and Game employees," Zarnke said. "Folks like Franzmann remember what conditions were like, the status of populations, the politics and budgetary problems and the equipment that was used. I hope to provide (the series) to the regional offices, like a library."

Zarnke said recently the Hunter Heritage Foundation of Alaska joined with the trappers association in co-sponsoring the project. Even with that contribution of travel money, Zarnke said the project is a shoestring operation.

Zarnke said he hopes that hearing the accounts from these Alaska seniors can help increase tolerance and understanding.

"I just finished editing an interview today, and this fellow has such strong family values, he's so sincere about the benefits to his family about eating moose meat, butchering a moose as a family and working together to prepare for a hunt," he said. "I hope people who are against consumptive use could hear that and appreciate the validity of what he's said, how you can develop these values in a family setting by a shared activity in the outdoors.

"Trappers talk about learning to trap with their dad, how much they learned, and how important the money they made trapping helped the family through the winter. The extra $500 a family could get trapping marten could be the difference between getting decent food in the winter and eating snow soup."

Zarnke said he's been approached about creating a book based on the interviews, but he favors the format he's using.

"You get inflections, tone of voice, laughter - it's so much richer than cold black words on a page," he said. He may pursue some kind of print endeavor, but for now he wants to devote time to interviews.

"I've just got to get these guys while they're still around," he said.


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