Trapper interviews oldtimers to preserve a bit of history

Posted: Tuesday, May 14, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- When Randy Zarnke would go to family gatherings as a little boy growing up in Wausau, Wis., the men would gravitate to one side of the room and the women would gravitate to the other.

''There'd be a little bit of talk about politics and a little talk about jobs, but the rest was hunting and fishing,'' Zarnke recalled.

Usually, Zarnke could be found sitting at the feet of his grandfather, listening to the old man regale him and other children with tales of his prowess in the woods.

''He'd lean over and say, 'Did I ever tell you kids about that big buck I shot 15 years ago?''' Zarnke said, pretending to be his grandfather. ''Of course, we'd heard it before, but we couldn't wait to hear it again.''

Now 51, Zarnke hasn't strayed from that side of the room, which is the reason he decided a few years ago to start interviewing some of Alaska's old-time trappers, hunters and fishermen. He wanted to get their thoughts on tape before it was too late, so future generations of outdoorsmen can hear what it was like when Alaska was still a wild, untamed country.

So far, Zarnke has interviewed about 35 trappers and hunters, most of whom are over 60 and whose time in Alaska is measured in decades. Recently he interviewed John Nicholson, a 96-year-old Native in Dillingham who still hunts ptarmigan and traps beaver.

Clips of Zarnke's interviews are aired on Fairbanks-based KUAC-FM 89.9 each Monday at 8:15 a.m. as part of a segment called ''Alaska Tracks.'' It was Theresa Bakker, host of the station's popular Alaska Edition, who suggested Zarnke go public. Alaska Edition is an hour-long news and information program broadcast by a number of public radio stations in Alaska, including KUAC, which is licensed to the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Zarnke has contemplated compiling his interviews with old-time trappers and hunters into a book, but he's reluctant because he doesn't feel a book can convey the same message as the spoken word.

''Listening to Paul Kirkstedter talk about wolf trapping in the Fortymile country in his own words, in that gravely voice, in his own emotions, with his own laughter, nothing can be richer than that,'' Zarnke said, referring to one of Alaska's most-renowned wolf trappers. ''It's magic.''

He doesn't get paid for doing the interviews. But Zarnke gets immense satisfaction from talking to the old-timers and hearing what they have to say, just as he did listening to his grandfather years ago.

Zarnke retired on April 30 after more than two decades as the disease wildlife coordinator at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks.

During his tenure, Zarnke accumulated what is perhaps the world's most impressive wild animal blood collection. He estimates that he studied some 19,000 blood samples and ran more than 100,000 tests on those samples, which include everything from bison to wolverine.

It was a bacteriology class at the University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse that sparked Zarnke's interest in studying disease and parasites in animals.

''They handed us a test tube with a culture in it and we had to identify it,'' Zarnke said. ''I'd always liked puzzles and it was kind of like a puzzle. Sometimes you'd have to run two or three tests and other times you'd have to run 25.''

It was from his father, Marty, that Zarnke inherited his love for the outdoors. He grew up prowling the woods for squirrels, deer, rabbits and birds while trolling lakes and rivers for crappies, musky, walleye and pike. But it wasn't until he moved to Alaska that he developed his passion for trapping.

Wildlife biologist Pat Valkenburg and two other biologists, John Burns and Jim Davis, were responsible for infecting Zarnke with the trapping bug just after he started working at Fish and Game. At the time, Valkenburg and Davis were running a long trapline in the Minto Flats, using two airplanes and two snowmachines.

''They'd come in on Monday and start talking about everything that happened over the weekend,'' Zarnke said.

Burns took him out and showed him how to set traps and how to read tracks. It was another puzzle for Zarnke to solve. He was hooked.

''Every time I'd go out on a weekend I'd encounter things I didn't understand,'' Zarnke said. ''Every Monday I'd go to John or Jim or Pat and ask them about it.''

Zarnke still remembers the day Burns looked at him and shook his head.

''You got it,'' Burns told Zarnke.

''Got what?'' replied Zarnke.

''You got it bad,'' Burns said.

''Got what?'' repeated a stumped Zarnke.

''Trapping is a disease,'' Burns told him.

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