Wildlife notebook: 'Alaska Tracks': A lifetime of outdoor wisdom

Posted: Sunday, September 28, 2003

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

The bear pulled up short and after a tense, close-range stare down, the encounter on a remote Southeast beach ended peacefully. Callihan's experience 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.

The oral history recordings are not merely dramas of big bears and hunting exploits. 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 details of Alaska history. The outdoorsmen, in their 70s, 80s and 90s, vividly recall events dating back as far as the 1920s.

Callihan, who now lives in Petersburg, remembers the value of marten pelts in the 1940s and the names of virtually every fur buyer, trapper and fisherman he encountered over decades of life outdoors. He cites specific locations where he trapped and hunted, and credits every woodsmen who shared a trick or tip with him.

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 speakers for the association's monthly meetings, 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. A light went on with me when I saw that."

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

Zarnke spends about 20 to 30 hours carefully editing each interview, trimming out pauses, tightening the dialogue and highlighting the best material. The best part of the process is the interview, he said.

"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 the interview just sails along."

The series includes an interview with John Nicholson, a 95-year-old trapper out of Dillingham who still traps beaver, and the speaker who inspired the series, Paul Kirsteatter of Healy Lake, who has trapped in the Eastern Interior since the 1940s.

"Alaska Tracks" also features Al Franzmann, an avid Alaska hunter, large animal veterinarian and wildlife researcher. Franzmann talks about his pioneering work with early telemetry equipment and immobilization drugs, tools that are cornerstones of wildlife research today.

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."

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.

Eventually 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.

"Alaska Tracks" are available through the Alaska Trappers Association, and is co-sponsored by the Hunter Heritage Foundation of Alaska. For more information, call (907) 457-1774, write P.O. Box 82177, Fairbanks, AK, 99708, or see www.alaskatrappers.org.

• Riley Woodford works for the Division of Wildlife Conservation at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He can be reached by e-mail at riley_woodford@fishgame.state.ak.us

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