Simon Francis was interviewed on July 11, 2009 by William Schneider and Sidney Stephens at his home in Fort Yukon, Alaska. At the time of the interview, Simon was the Traditional Chief of Fort Yukon. In this interview, Simon talks about his observations of environmental change in the region during his lifetime of living off of and traveling on the land. He discusses the effect of fire and wind on the land and the animals, the decrease in the moose, bird and fish populations, and suggests the decrease is related to the increase in fire and the lack of food or water for the animals. He also talks about how the weather has changed, that lakes have been drying up, changes in the beaver and muskrat populations, and the effects of these changes on his seasonal round of subsistence activities.
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Impact of Fire on Animals
Impact of Lakes Drying
Water Level in Rivers and Lakes
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BILL SCHNEIDER: July, 7th, no, July 11, 2009 and we have the pleasure of talking to Simon Francis. So thank you for taking time to do this today.
This is good. And I wanted to start by having to you talk a little bit about what you were saying before about forest fires
and what impact forest fires have.
SIMON FRANCIS: Well fire...smoke is strong you know. Animals can’t stand it, they got to move. So how many years, my place,
three or four years fire is going. No moose for three, four years ‘cause smoke is too strong for them, they got to move someplace.
So last four year I don't got no moose. Caribou way up, (...) they change, too. They go different ways.
Where is caribou country, all burnt. No feed. So they move different way. Way up Canada, and you know,
where there’s feed down to Arctic Village. That is where caribou go down winter time. Venetie...
SIMON FRANCIS: Every period green stuff that’s what animals eat like marten. Like marten,
marten got some kind of roots, he eat -- that’s why timber -- got timber always marten there.
No timbers and no martens. Only lynx down there now a days, but they just eat rabbits,
you know, birds, but not much marten, you know,
I think a lot of marten burn up. Climb up a tree, far away, a lot of young ones under the ground, too.
But a lot of (...) they don’t believe it. Because they’ve never seen animals burn.
They don’t know (...) the young ones they don’t know about animals. It’s hard, can’t move.
Up my place, a lot of the trails trapping every year. All burned down, can’t go up there yet. It’s a lot of work to cut trail.
That’s why nobody trapping now a days. They’re just trapping lynx, wolf on the river.
SIDNEY STEPHENS: So you think the lynx and the wolf are on the river because it’s hard to travel where the fire was? Is that what you’re saying?
SIMON FRANCIS: No, but moose are on the river winter time. That’s why wolf come down to river, stay there. Go on island,
go around it, kill it, all that, like no moose, no caribou, they’re hungry.
It’s like lots of things change now a days. That’s what old people say. Someday be like this
"how do they know?" but true.
BILL SCHNEIDER: What did they say would change?
SIMON FRANCIS: Well sometimes maybe be low water, all that you know, weather be change. All that.
Half the time, winter time warm, same time next year, cold. Last year really cold. We got to have very good wood.
SIDNEY STEPHENS: And what were you saying again about the fire and the lakes? And what happens to the animals there?
SIMON FRANCIS: Fire in the lakes, around the timber around the lakes all burned up. So no more ice under it.
Everything thaw out, and lakes dry up. In spring, lot of water go to lake, but dried up again.
Well there got to be water all the time, water stay there. That’s why from the mouth of Chalkyitsik all the lakes dried up.
Just like grass meadow. It’s a change. Lots of fish lakes all dried up, too.
Sometimes I go to depend on a fish lake, fish net or hook, or like that, to fish.
But you can’t do that now a days.
SIDNEY STEPHENS: And how about the beaver?
SIMON FRANCIS: Beaver is same thing. No willow. All burnt. They got to move to the river, but river is sometimes high at fall times,
has to get low. Cold water drop, freeze up,
alot of beaver freeze up.
I don’t know why American side all the burnt, in Canada it don’t burn.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Oh really
SIMON FRANCIS: Yeah, not much.
BILL SCHNEIDER: What about muskrat?
SIMON FRANCIS: No water, no muskrat.
Long time ago a lot of water lots of muskrat, but not now.
BILL SCHNEIDER: How does, how do the changes you see affect what you do during the year?
SIMON FRANCIS: Trapping and all like this? Can’t follow the trail, all burnt.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Jumbled up?
SIMON FRANCIS: All piled up.
SIDNEY STEPHENS: So it seems like fire is a big problem.
SIMON FRANCIS: A really big problem. Really hurts a lot of them.
BILL SCHNEIDER: But you’ve seen fire before up that way
SIMON FRANCIS: Yeah, my place every summer it burn below, out. But the mountain, you know, big hill there,
it behind wind, it just circle around, stay in one place. But ah, all last summer burnt, too. Stay in one place.
Burned in one place. Kinda wind.
BILL SCHNEIDER: So the wind last summer burned it in one place?
SIMON FRANCIS: Yeah. So...
BILL SCHNEIDER: How was that different?
SIMON FRANCIS: Well it depend the mountain, right behind the north wind. Don’t get that much wind down there.
So it just burned there and go out again.
SIDNEY STEPHENS: So the mountain blocked the wind?
SIMON FRANCIS: Yeah.
SIDNEY STEPHENS: So the fire wasn’t, it sort of stayed in one place because the wind was blocked.
SIMON FRANCIS: Well, yeah, that south wind, everything burned.
SIDNEY STEPHENS: Ah.
SIMON FRANCIS: But the north wind lots of places big mountain in the way. So it help.
BILL SCHNEIDER: When did you get south wind and fire?
SIMON FRANCIS: A lot of time.
BILL SCHNEIDER: A lot of time.
SIMON FRANCIS: Oh gee, Lots of time I fight fire, when it start. Wind, like bomb. Fire, fire 100 acre in one day.
It can go a long ways one day. Hard to stop when its windy.
But now days they use back fire it’s not good, unless you make back fire and the wind blows south, it start to take off everything.
SIDNEY STEPHENS: So Simon, um how do, when you were young. Could you compare when you were younger and now?
About were there, are there the same amount of fires now as when you were young? Or is it different? Or? What do you remember about that?
SIMON FRANCIS: Ah. When I was young, not much fire. Maybe two times. But because not much of trees long time ago, you know.
Now everything is growing up. Like that, long time ago travel around I can go anywhere.
Now I have a hard time with (...).
BILL SCHNEIDER: Have you seen any changes in moose?
SIMON FRANCIS: Well the moose lots. I see change, ever since moose up by Arctic, cause there a lot of moose move away.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Moving up, away from the fire.
SIMON FRANCIS: Yeah.
SIDNEY STEPHENS: But what, so what do they eat. So if they move with the fire, then do they eat the same things up north where it’s not the same plants up there for them to eat is it?
SIMON FRANCIS: well, fire went through it but a couple of years no grass growing up where they eat. But
it burns again every two years some of it burn. So
even Porcupine River is a wide river, but sometimes, fire jump.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Can jump over that.
SIMON FRANCIS: Jump over the river.
SIMON FRANCIS: So now a days, lots of lightning. I don’t know why, but that’s why fires start.
SIDNEY STEPHENS: Do you remember much lightning when you were young?
SIMON FRANCIS: Yeah, but no fires.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Have you seen changes in the river level?
SIMON FRANCIS: Well, what do you mean deep water?
BILL SCHNEIDER: Deep or shallow?
SIMON FRANCIS: Yeah, when lots of fires, hot, no rain. The water is low.
One time the water is low, about this deep (shows with hands, 8 inches). Me and my son, we haul our stuff up to my place.
My place, can’t make it, going back and forth. But the fish going up, they followed that.
SIDNEY STEPHENS: They followed you?
SIMON FRANCIS: We followed the fish.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Oh they followed the fish.
SIDNEY STEPHENS: Oh.
SIMON FRANCIS: So led us the way, you know -- fish (...) trouble
BILL SCHNEIDER Have you noticed changes in birds?
SIMON FRANCIS: Not much of birds now a days, not many. I mean ...
the fires burned up many.
SIDNEY STEPHENS: So what do you think about this idea of global warming?
SIMON FRANCIS I don’t know.
SIDNEY STEPHENS: Does it feel like Fort Yukon is warming?
SIMON FRANCIS: Uh, about the same I think. But I hear Canada is a warm,
it warms up water. So that’s why farther down (...)
BILL SCHNEIDER:Could be.
BILL SCHNEIDER: But you were talking about fish before. And you were saying that the King Salmon were changing where it’s going. Where’s it going now?
SIMON FRANCIS. Now it Porcupine, King Salmon going. Last year Venetie River, never saw salmon before.
But this year no King Salmon in the Yukon but a lot of King Salmon up Porcupine River.
But animals know what they are doing .They know the country you know.
Moose burned down there, no feed, can’t go back there.
Caribou the same thing.
A long time ago, fire, when that fire, bunch of guys got two crews there put it out quick when it started.
Another one started., they go out and put that one out, too. But now a days they don’t put fire out -- they let them go.
In California, never seen California, but how big the tree? You know, that’s a big tree.
The California town surrounded by big trees, they all cut them down. But they say,
but they leave a tree there, but like this (points out tress in yard), all big and thick.
The fire catch this one and they burn quick.
SIDNEY STEPHENS: yeah.
SIMON FRANCIS: But a lot of people they take over ... then another one. So really hard to say.
Like BLM, they know how to fight fire. But no BLM and State fight fire now.
Now I don’t who they fight -- all that -- now a days, lots of young boys.
They don’t know how to fight fire. They are (...)
BILL SCHNEIDER: I guess that, I guess those agencies are debating whether they should fight the fires or let them burn.
SIMON FRANCIS: It’s a long time ago like that I guess. I see some old, some country burnt. Long time ago,
I don’t know how many years ago.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Have you had to change any of your hunting or trapping or fishing activities because of changes in weather?
SIMON FRANCIS: Well, I don’t trap much now. Getting old, maybe one trip up my place.
But I don’t trap all winter, I just stop doing it. Set trap.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Set trap for Junior.
SIMON FRANCIS: Yeah.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Well. Good work. Let me stop for a minute here. (Break in video)
SIMON FRANCIS: Sometimes not much of snow. Light snow only. Not too much snow, now with warm weather.
Now more like summertime.