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Paul Starr
Paul Starr

Paul Starr was interviewed on November 25, 2009 by William Schneider and Sidney Stephens at his daughter’s house in Fairbanks, Alaska when he was visiting from Tanana, Alaska. In this interview, Paul talks about his observations of environmental change in the Tanana area during his lifetime. Specifically, he mentions changes in lake and river water levels, the impact of warmer weather, the timing of freeze-up and break up, and the impact of climate change on the people in Tanana.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2009-11-14

Project: Stakeholders and Climate Change
Date of Interview: Nov 25, 2009
Narrator(s): Paul Starr
Interviewer(s): Bill Schneider, Sidney Stephens
Transcriber: Carol McCue
Location of Interview:
Location of Topic:
Funding Partners:
National Science Foundation
Alternate Transcripts
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There is no slideshow for this person.

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Impact of Lakes Drying

Changes in Muskrat Populations


Changes in Fish Populations


Accumulation of Silt from Lakes Drying

Changes in Water Level

Changes in Water Level and Silt



2009 Spring Flood and Driftwood

Changes in Fish Populations

Changes in Water Temperature

Timing of Fall Season

Timing of Moose Hunting Season

2009 Spring Flood


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BILL SCHNEIDER: Today is November 25th, 2009. I'm Bill Schneider, we have the pleasure of doing an interview with Paul Starr today.

And we tried to catch Paul in Tanana, but somehow we got -- we weren't able to connect, but awfully glad that we're able to catch you now here in Fairbanks.

So thanks for taking the time to do this. Appreciate it, Paul.

Paul is an old timer from Tanana, and spent a lot of years on the river, and so your information on climate change issues is going to be really valuable to us.

I think we should start with maybe backing up to when we talked to you last December, you were talking about some of the things you had observed at that time about changes in the environment.

PAUL STARR: Well, one of the biggest changes I've seen in the environment over near Lake Minchumina where we used to trap, there's a lake over there they call Fish Camp Lake which is up against a hill, 15 miles from our mouth of the Mud River.

And the changes in the last 20 years that the water is receding all the time, and where there is water, where there was a lake, there is land.

So you're looking at probably 120 acres of land versus a very small lake now.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: And why was the lake important?

PAUL STARR: Well, that was the gathering of food in the falltime for fish, whitefish, and in the spring for muskrat, and there were people that used to live out there.

It was a fairly big lake. I mean, you can travel that lake at night in springtime probably kill 75, 80 muskrats in one night there.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: And so are people able to -- are there muskrats there anymore? I mean, because of this shrinking?

PAUL STARR: I don't think there's any muskrats in there after the shrinking because you're having a silt from the river, from Foraker River that's near Lake Minchumina, and the channel has changed on that.

But when I was a kid, in 1945, we buried our grampa over there at Birch Creek in 1945, that's when he died.

And at that time, I remember when I was a kid, it was a fairly big lake.

I mean, you can travel all night long on that lake, and they had six big finger lakes on it, they were fairly big.

So, you know, as you look at it, I'd probably say there was probably 6 miles of land now, square.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: What are your ideas about why the lakes are shrinking?

PAUL STARR: I think it's climate -- climate warming. The -- the permafrost is down now, and water receded into the ground.

I mean, that's just the observation I made over the years, I don't see enough there.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Hang on a sec here.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: You're hurting my ears, Bill.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Sorry, I was just picking up his shoes. Is this in the picture?

SIDNEY STEPHENS: No, it's not. It's fine.

BILL SCHNEIDER: What other observations have you -- I guess, first we should -- the name of that lake again is?

PAUL STARR: We called it Fish Lake.



PAUL STARR: It's probably about 18 miles north of Lake Minchumina on the Mud River side.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: So if you've seen a decrease in the muskrat population, what's -- what's happened with the fish?

PAUL STARR: I think that the fish disappeared from that lake now because it's -- from the time I've seen it when I was a kid to today,

we flew over there in September of 2009, and I took some pictures, but it's not in this camera I have with me.

I was going to show you the pictures, but... I think the muskrats on that lake has -- has disappeared, too.

Because like I said earlier, about the -- about the silt from the Foraker River that comes out of Lake Minchumina, comes down the Mud River.

See, when my mother was living, she said when she was a girl that Mud River is clear, it was crystal clear water. And now you're looking at silt.

BILL SCHNEIDER: So quite a bit of change there.

PAUL STARR: Yeah, there was a lot of changes.

BILL SCHNEIDER: When we were talking last December, you were mentioning streams narrowing down and hard to navigate.

PAUL STARR: Yes. That's another subject on the Kantishna River, we were up there in '94, I think,

and we went 100 miles and couldn't go anymore because of the rock bottom, the water was low, so we have -- the only time you can go probably to Lake Minchumina is early in the spring when the water is up bank to bank, you know.

And when I mention bank to bank, I mean it's water that's almost level with the bank, with the spring runoff.

BILL SCHNEIDER: I do know that in the -- in the old days, when the CAA was -- had a station there at Lake Minchumina, that the Taku Chief used to go up and take supplies up.

PAUL STARR: Yes. I've seen the Taku Chief, I've seen the Hanson brothers going up the river, they had a couple of their tugboats travelling the river all summer long.

You know, they had 60 foot barges, 25 feet wide.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: And are you saying now, then, that the only time that there can be that kind of travel on the river is in the spring; that during the rest of the season, it's too hard?

PAUL STARR: I believe, you know, unless you had a jet boat, where you can travel in shallow waters, but I think the most convenient time would be the springtime when the runoffs are coming off from McKinley River and Birch Creek River and the Mud River,

the flats where all the water is gathering at the Kantishna.

BILL SCHNEIDER: It sounds like you see that as a change that's occurred.

PAUL STARR: Well, I see that as a change but I see that as a big change because of the glacier silt from the McKinley River, it's pouring into the Kantishna, and having a lot of effect on -- see, gravel moves constantly.

I mean, you have flood line stages where you have a lot of rain, then the floods come and then it moves the rocks on down the river.

I mean, you probably have 200 miles of that. I think the Kantishna itself is 190 miles of river just by itself. It's so windy, so --

BILL SCHNEIDER: I've tried to understand the change that you're describing.

PAUL STARR: Well, the changes that I'm trying to describe is that over years as the water recedes, you have less water that's running in the river.

When I was a kid, that was fairly -- to me, it was fairly deep because of the spring runoff, but in winter -- I mean, in falltime, you can go up there in September with an outboard.

So what you're looking at now is, I believe, the changes in the climate -- the climate weather.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: So -- so you're not seeing -- so the water levels are lower during the main summer and fall than they --


SIDNEY STEPHENS: -- than they used to be?


SIDNEY STEPHENS: And -- and the Kantishna is largely fed by glaciers, by glacial runoff?

PAUL STARR: Yeah, it's mostly fed by the McKinley River, or Foraker. Birch Creek River.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: So then -- I'm just trying to -- I'm trying to imagine the -- how this is working so the --

there's not as much glacial melt feeding the rivers, you think, now as there used to be keeping them high?

PAUL STARR: I think so because over the years, as I read through history, they talk about glaciers up in the McKinley, or that Denali Park, that so much of that has receded over the years.

We're talking, what, miles of it. Glaciers. It has been receding over the last -- well, I'm 70, so the last 70 years.

BILL SCHNEIDER: So less volume of water, huh?

PAUL STARR: Less volume of water, yes.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: And -- and so was the Kantishna, then, because it's glacier fed, was it always a silty river, because --


SIDNEY STEPHENS: -- because of that? Uh huh.


SIDNEY STEPHENS: So the siltiness is -- that's standard for that river?

PAUL STARR: It's standard, yeah. It's like on the Tanana River is the same.

And it's fed by glacier ice and it's -- as the ice recedes, you have less water, less volume of water moving it.

BILL SCHNEIDER: What about in the last few years, in the area around Tanana, in terms of your hunting, how has your hunting been impacted by water levels?

PAUL STARR: Well, hunting around Tanana is you have rain, spring runoffs, you know, you have beaver dams,

but a lot of that water during the summer is receding itself into the ground so much that where the creeks used to be real deep isn't deep anymore.

And you're talking -- you go up a creek, you go up Fish Creek, you probably go 15, 20 miles and you're -- you know, you might have 2 feet of water, you might have a foot of water.

Where back in the early days, you had 10 feet of water even at low water. You know.

And if you look at that, the background of that as you read through history, there's been a lot of mining up around Manley Hot Springs area, below Manley, when I say below Manley, it's below, down, coming down towards Tanana.

What they call Tofty, Woodchopper, in that area. You study maps and you can see all that, you know.

Yeah. I've heard people talk about Fish Lake where it was -- it was good fishing in the springtime and now you're looking at water that the ground is building up and up and up and up to the water level, and the water level is going down.

That's coming off Boulder Creek and American Creek because of the mining, industrial, in back of those -- in back of those creeks, which is filling up Fish Lake there in Tanana, above Tanana, and Fish Creek.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Filling in with mud and silt?

PAUL STARR: Mud and silt, yes.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: So -- so if I'm understanding, you're saying that -- that you think what's going on at Fish Lake is more related to the impact of mines --


SIDNEY STEPHENS: -- upriver?


SIDNEY STEPHENS: Okay. And then -- and then the water decreasing is more related to climate change?


SIDNEY STEPHENS: And then the combination is making this very shallow situation?



BILL SCHNEIDER: Did you have some recent trips where you ran into shallow water?

PAUL STARR: Yes. We went up there berry picking last fall, we ran into shallow water, we could only go so far.

You know, like -- from, like, stories I've heard, what they told me is that creek is 50 miles long from the time it leaves the Tanana River until it hits the head of Fish Creek.

So you're looking at 50 miles of winding all through the meadows, and now all those lakes are drying up, too, so...

And you're looking at, you know, in these -- I've heard it so much about the climate changes, so that's -- you know, if the permafrost melts, water's going into the ground, and then you have lots of vegetation where there was no vegetation before.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Along the banks?

PAUL STARR: Along the banks and along the little lakes that you see.

BILL SCHNEIDER: What's the impact of this drying on moose?

PAUL STARR: I think the impact on moose is that it's -- you have less -- I mean you have more vegetation, yes, but you have less willows grown, you have less birch grown, and they feed on the three combinations.

On the tips of willows, the tips of young birch, as they are grown, and the vegetation itself.

I think the impact of that is, I've heard stories where there's a lot of mercury in there -- in the creeks, too, from mining, so...

BILL SCHNEIDER: What about the resources in the lake itself as the lake shrinks for moose?

PAUL STARR: As the lake shrinks, I think the vegetation on the lake is shrinking with that.

You have more silt and less feed in the -- in the lake itself for the moose population.

BILL SCHNEIDER: And how important is that feed in the lake for a moose?

PAUL STARR: It's very important that they have good vegetation in a lake where they can --

for an example, just gorge themselves during the summer, and get set up for the fall, their rutting season, and if there's less vegetation in the lake and more silt, that means there's less feed for them.

BILL SCHNEIDER: One of the questions we haven't asked too much of people in Tanana is the impact of fires.

PAUL STARR: I think the impact of fires is good for the country, it's good for the vegetation where animals are forced to move around.

And it regrows the willows and birch and cottonwood.

I'm trying to think of the other name for the tree, but those are grown in a new -- a fire area, then the animals will come back in.

So it's like going out and having a good lunch.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Back on this question of water levels, this past year's breakup aside, can you talk about the impact of water levels on people's ability to get wood in the June -- in June, the June rise?

PAUL STARR: This year it was -- this past year, there was a lot of good supply of wood because of the high water in the spring where we had floods, and the whole Yukon River is bringing wood down to us.

And then as the water receded, that wood was left in place along the banks, so there -- it was a fairly good summer for wood.

There's some summers that you can hardly see any wood because of low spring breakup on the Yukon River.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Do you burn wood in your house?



PAUL STARR: We use oil furnace. And that's on for 24/7.


PAUL STARR: We got a little break in oil price this year. We have -- we're buying it in Tanana for $4 a gallon, so it was 5.50 last year, and before that it was almost $6.

BILL SCHNEIDER: We were talking about fish resources earlier, and you were talking about the impact of this drying on whitefish.

I assume you mean whitefish's access in and out of the lake?


BILL SCHNEIDER: Could you say more how that works?

PAUL STARR: Well, from what I understand about whitefish, they go in in the spring and they stay there all summer, and then they come out in the fall.

And I -- the following spring they come back again. They have to go where there's deep water to -- in order for them to survive.

So you're looking at, say, for instance, Fish Lake, I've seen a lot of pike in there in the summertime, but never seen any whitefish, quote, unquote.

So, for sports fishing, there's a lot of good sports fishing and pike in there, in that area.

But you're looking at in Fish Creek itself, you're looking at some deep holes that you can navigate your boat into, and then throw a fish line out.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Are you saying that the pike can move easily where whitefish can't? Or the pike stay there? I don't know.

PAUL STARR: Well, I think my personal opinion, I think the pikes move out, too, because you go on Fish Lake in the wintertime and all you see is ice going up and down like this.

So you're looking at a high volume of silt and low volume of water, and you're looking at a low volume of water and the high volume of silt again, so it freezes according.

See, the lake usually freeze high and then it settles down after that.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Water temperature is something that people have talked about. Do you have any observations on that?

PAUL STARR: Well, back in September of '91, I think, one of the guys I was working with took water temperatures from the first of September until the end of September,

and each day you watch your water temperature changes goes down 1 or 2 degrees each day, until it passes the freezing point, and then it stays there, which the freezing point, I think, is 32 degrees.

So... So if you're looking at 28 degrees in Farenheits in the water, that means the less volume of water is coming out of the lakes, out of the river.

And you see it in falltime because the water gets lower and lower and lower.

I've seen a lot of changes on the Yukon River, you know, like permafrost receding into the bank and just -- you know, channels gets wider.

I've been a pilot for some 20 years on the Yukon River, so I understand a little bit.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: So -- so what parts of the Yukon, then, seem to be undergoing changes? Is there -- is there --

PAUL STARR: Well, the changes starts, from what I've seen, from Circle City all the way down to the mouth of the Yukon.

I know it takes five years for a channel to change on the Yukon River, where on the Tanana River it changes every six hours because of the moon and silt.

But you get into a bigger river and that slowly changes, but it takes time to change.

But as you go further down the Yukon River, it gets wider.

We took some measurements through instruments in the Yukon River, Lower Yukon River where there was 150 foot deep holes, and some of them run a half mile long and some of them run a quarter of a mile.

In the Upper Yukon, up around Fort Yukon, it changes so much that -- channel changes with the river movement, with the volume of water movement.

BILL SCHNEIDER: I want to go back to something you said a minute ago.

You said that -- that the water temperature in the fall is decreasing at a slower rate than it used to in the old days, and that's influencing the volume of those lakes and those sloughs.

Did I understand that correctly?

PAUL STARR: I think it is. I mean -- I mean, that's -- that's my personal observation of the river. I've taken the temperature of one month.

Because you're looking at the clim -- climate changes in the earth's atmosphere where its water used to turn colder and colder and faster back in the earlier days, and now it's -- it's the volume of --

I mean, the volume of water plus the temperature is slowing down. It takes more time for the water to get cooler.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: Hence, later freeze ups?

PAUL STARR: Yeah. I mean, like this year on the Yukon River, on the Tanana you're looking at the ice finally stopped moving on the 11th or the 12th of November.

So you're looking at a flood stage in the springtime, then in falltime changes.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: And so falltime has -- has always been a time of low water; is that true -- is that true?

PAUL STARR: That's very true.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: Uh hum. Except now you think it's lower in the fall than it has been traditionally?


SIDNEY STEPHENS: The volume is --


SIDNEY STEPHENS: Uh hum. And then the air temperature's warmer so things are freezing later.


SIDNEY STEPHENS: Uh hum. Yeah. Charlie Campbell had quite a lot to say about fall. He -- he felt that -- that the extension of fall, you know, deeper into October and November is --

is a change that he -- he felt quite certain about, that of the different -- the different observations he might have, that was one of the ones that he felt was sort of most backed up by observation that --

that things were just getting later and later and that fall was lasting longer and longer.

PAUL STARR: Yeah. That's one of the observations that I've made over my lifetime. You know, I would agree with Charlie.

BILL SCHNEIDER: That brings up the question of moose, and moose hunting. Have you seen changes in moose hunting?

PAUL STARR: Well, I've seen -- the changes I've seen in moose hunting is in September, normally that's a cold month, the latter -- latter half of September, from the 15th on to the -- or 10th of September until end of September.

But this year, you had 60, 65 degrees almost all through the month of September.

And I don't know, I mean, you're looking at -- you read books and look at the scientists and see what they have to say, you're always referring back to the climate warmth.

BILL SCHNEIDER: How does that affect moose hunting?

PAUL STARR: They don't -- they normally won't run if it's warm weather.

So you have less traffic of moose moving all the time. That's one of the observations I've made.

BILL SCHNEIDER: And why are moose moving important to the hunter?

PAUL STARR: It's a -- to a hunter, it's a volume of game that's moving that tells you, you know, it's -- because of the weather, it gets a little colder in September,

that you have less chance of spoilage of the meat when you kill one, a moose, that nature will take better care of the meat, as you're airing it out and letting it bleed itself out.

I remember just last week I read horror stories of the volume of moose that they were taking to the meat processor here in town.

You know, you probably read the same thing, so to me, it's just a lack of not take care of your meat right. And I believe that it's -- it's the hunter's responsibility.

BILL SCHNEIDER: So if it's warmer in the fall, the -- it's harder to take good care of the meat because the meat will spoil?

PAUL STARR: Yes. That means that you would have to -- as an individual person, you would have to process the meat a lot faster than you normally would, you know.

You cut the meal sections and then you freeze it.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Are there other considerations about moose hunting in warmer weather in the fall?

PAUL STARR: There's a consideration I -- I believe that's very valuable is that the warmer the temperature is, you don't want to go hunt -- hunt and kill a moose because you have the time it takes to process the meat,

to bleed it out, it takes anywhere from three to four days, and but in the meantime, you're having spoilage in that meat because of the warm weather.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. Yeah. Well, this year you had the massive flood, and what was -- what's been the impact of the flood on the country?

PAUL STARR: The impact of the flood on the country around Tanana, as I -- as we observed it, is you go across the river from Tanana and the pilots have said as far as you can see, south of Tanana, that there was water. I mean, you're looking at 5, 6 feet of water that stretches inland for miles.

BILL SCHNEIDER: And what does that water -- does that water stay or what does it do?

PAUL STARR: I think a lot of that water stays because of the lakes that were dry, filled up, and as the water receded, it filled the lake up, there was nowhere where water -- for that particular water to go since there was no outlets.

You look around Tanana, you see a lot of dried up lakes, where there used to be a lake, and there's grass and vegetation, trees grown where there was water at one time.

BILL SCHNEIDER: So when the flood came this past spring, it filled up some of the those places, but did the water stay or did it drain out or --

PAUL STARR: It stayed.



BILL SCHNEIDER: So those lakes are holding?

PAUL STARR: Those lakes are holding, but for how long?

BILL SCHNEIDER: We don't know.

PAUL STARR: We don't know. I think -- I think that water that's in those lakes will recede into the ground, too.

BILL SCHNEIDER: And is that because of the permafrost issue?


BILL SCHNEIDER: One of the questions that we -- we ask in these interviews is if we're seeing climate change, is it cyclical or is it one directional?

And I guess either way you answer that question, how are people preparing for the changes that they are seeing in their life?

PAUL STARR: That's a good question. Kind of hard to answer. You must have gone to school.

I think the -- my personal opinion is that -- as you watch your climate change, you have to change with it until the sciences figure out something that they can -- or we can do or cannot do to -- from what I understand, to help the atmosphere to --

to um -- trying to think of the name of -- what's the name you call that, out in the atmosphere you were saying?

SIDNEY STEPHENS: Are you thinking of greenhouse gasses or --

PAUL STARR: Well, yeah, probably that.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: Or are you thinking of ozone holes?

PAUL STARR: Ozone, yeah.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Do you see any evidence of people are changing what they are doing?

PAUL STARR: I really can't answer that because I don't know much about people changing, actually.


PAUL STARR: I mean, you look around Tanana itself and you read about the -- because Tanana's a small village and Fairbanks is a big town within itself, that you have less wood burning here than you do in Tanana.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: You mean, relative to the population


SIDNEY STEPHENS: -- kind of per capita?

PAUL STARR: Yeah. Like in Tanana, you have 200 versus, like, 40,000 people here. And you're just talking, you know, a small area.

BILL SCHNEIDER: I guess a final question I would have is what do you see as the biggest impact of this supposed climate change or climate variability on people in Tanana?

PAUL STARR: I think the biggest impact for me in my observation is as the climate changes, that if you don't keep up on current issues of the climate changes all the time, you are less prepared for the year ahead.

That's just my personal opinion. You know like the old saying goes, you know, you don't do today because tomorrow's another day, well...

You know, when we left Tanana on the 15th or 16th, I think, it was almost 30 degrees above or 15 degrees above.

And when you were there, it was down to 40 below, or 38 below, and we got home on 17th or 19th, and it was 42 below.

So within that one week, seen a lot of changes.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. Well, one of the things that people have talked about in terms of changes in their lives is that with this June rise and collecting driftwood that people have to be on it right away.


BILL SCHNEIDER: Because the amount of time that the water is going to be high is much less.


BILL SCHNEIDER: And so that's one way in which people are adapting and working harder for less, in some respects.


BILL SCHNEIDER: In the Upper Yukon we see transportation issues is a big one in terms of being able to get up rivers to supply places.


BILL SCHNEIDER: That sort of thing.

PAUL STARR: And in that, you know, you're looking at the volume of gas, what the prices are.

And I rationalize in my mind. We were in the tourist business for three years we spent probably 8 , $10,000 on gas itself.

And today, if I was in the tourist business, you'd probably spend $30,000 for the same volume of people that came to us. In gas itself.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. Okay. Well, thank you for taking time to do this, Paul.

PAUL STARR: Well, thank you for -- for lunch.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Our pleasure. It's the least we could do. Okay.