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Charlie Wright
Charlie Wright 2009

Charlie Wright was interviewed on November 18, 2009 by William Schneider and Sidney Stephens at his home in Tanana, Alaska. In this interview, Charlie talks about environmental changes he has observed while hunting, trapping and fishing and traveling on the land, rivers, and lakes. Specifically, he notes lots of changes he has seen in the landscape over the years. He also talks about the weather getting warmer, the changes in water levels, the impact of fires in the area, and the effect these changes have on wildlife.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2009-11-12

Project: Stakeholders and Climate Change
Date of Interview: Nov 18, 2009
Narrator(s): Charlie Wright
Interviewer(s): Bill Schneider, Sidney Stephens
Transcriber: Carol McCue
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
National Science Foundation
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.
There is no slideshow for this person.

After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.


Impact of Lakes Drying

Changes in Temperature


Permafrost Melting

Water Level in Lakes and Rivers

2009 Spring Flood

Bog Vegetation

Seasonal Cycles

Impacts of Fire


Changes in Trapping Season

Water Level in Lakes and Rivers

Changes in Fish Populations

Water Level in Lakes and Rivers


Changes in Temperature


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After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.


BILL SCHNEIDER: I'm Bill Schneider, Sid Stephens is here, and we have the pleasure of doing an interview with Charlie Wright in Tanana, on a chilly 38 below day, but he's got a beautiful house here overlooking the river.

So I appreciate you taking the time to do this.

CHARLIE WRIGHT: You're welcome.

BILL SCHNEIDER: We were talking about some of your observations about changes you've seen in the environment and climate over time.

Let's -- let's go back to some of those, and some of your personal experience.

CHARLIE WRIGHT: For instance, the lakes going dry over a period of time, just slowly getting dry. Running out of water further and further away from the river every year.

I've also noticed a change in temperature, like the cold snaps in the winter don't -- don't last as long anymore like they used to.

It doesn't get as cold as it used to.

During the change of season, the wind used to blow for a long time. It don't happen no more.

The weather conditions seem to be getting calmer, and to some -- in some ways, and maybe stronger in other ways.

I notice vegetation dying around lakes, certain kind of vegetation, like willows.

I noticed permafrost is melting. Certain ridges and hills are gone that used to be there, gone flat, are going flat. And what else did we talk about?

BILL SCHNEIDER: That's good. That covers a lot of country. Let's -- let's turn the fan off for a second because I'm picking up that sound, then we'll move on.

CHARLIE WRIGHT: Do you want me to get rid of this, too, huh?

BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah, that's good.


BILL SCHNEIDER: Hot water. You need hot water in this country. Well, Charlie, you're in kind of a unique position because you've spent a lot of years fighting fire, so you've had a chance to look at a lot of the country,

and you also work here in the -- in the water plant, is it?

CHARLIE WRIGHT: Yes. The water and sewer utility here in Tanana. We've also noticed the ground water table has rose in the last couple of years;

well don't go dry no more.

Some other things like when the firefighting, we noticed some lakes have grown over, floating moss has grown them over, slowly taking them over,

they are not there no more, just grass and moss.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: Charlie, would you go back and explain a little more about the water table? I mean, we have kind of a rich description here, I think, if you wouldn't mind talking about what's been happening with the water level

and how it's -- how it's -- kind of watching it, how it's different.

CHARLIE WRIGHT: It has slowly came up. It was dry for years and years. Every year we had to find another water source. We'd normally pump river water into our water system in the spring because the well would go dry,

and it didn't happen last spring, and it seems that a flood happened, so it seems the water table is rising.

I don't know if it's going to keep going but we're going to keep our eye on it. But we've been keeping our eye on the water tables and the wells for a long time, since the early '90s.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: And so is it -- did it -- after the flood -- during the flood it was up and it's pretty much stayed up?

CHARLIE WRIGHT: Yeah, it's real high. It hasn't gone down as normal in the past. The drawdown doesn't happen as far anymore. It would normally draw down; it's not drawn down half the distance it used to.

So you can tell the water table in the ground is rising.

And that's why the runoff had such an effect this year, the ground water was already there, the level was already high, so it's kind of an indicator of things to come. If the water table stays high, there will be more flooding.

It seems like to me that that's a good indicator, keep my eye on that.

BILL SCHNEIDER: I think there's one more thing. I'm picking up a buzz.

CHARLIE WRIGHT: Turn the light off if you want.


CHARLIE WRIGHT: There's another smaller one right behind you there on that hood, the range hood, right on the top of it. That's incandescent. Next one, yeah. Right there. There's a little -- yeah. That might --

BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah, that's better.

CHARLIE WRIGHT: That will shed a little light. It don't make noise.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. Let's see, how does it look now on the monitor? Does it look okay?

SIDNEY STEPHENS: Yeah, it's fine. Yeah.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. It's amazing how -- we don't spend a lot of time worrying about these details, but -- but it's good when we put these up on the -- on the web, we want -- we want you to look as good as the next guy.


BILL SCHNEIDER: Do you want to finish your comment and then I have a question about the floods.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: Well, it depends. I mean, my other question would be you talked -- you talked more about the moss lakes, but if yours is more connected to the water level...

BILL SCHNEIDER: No, go ahead.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: So that's the other question is, how, prior -- what's happened out in the country as a result of the floods in terms of --


SIDNEY STEPHENS: -- any kind of regional issues.

CHARLIE WRIGHT: Yeah, it has recharged the growth. The lakes that were dried up and turning to almost desert are now lush and green again, and all the willows have grown a lot,

so it seemed like it rejuvenated the country, really done a wonder for it.

All the lakes are full of fish again. You can smell them, there's so many in there when you're paddling in it. You smell the slime literally. And there's so many in there.

And the fish from the river get washed in there, too. So there's a little system going on in there. The bigger ones eating the little ones, for sure.

It's like a renewal, it seems like to me. The river being flooded kind of cleans the spawning grounds for the fish, and opens up streams that are plugged so the fish can get back to where they need to,

to spawn and come back in numbers again. It seems like the same thing with all the forest fires, it's just a renewal. And the animals do good after. The blueberries, the berries grow good, the moose eat good.

Seems like a big renewal going on in Alaska to me because of all the wildfires been so -- so much in the last few years.

And I seen the moose is flourishing in those areas. There's moose so thick now in the burn areas. Never been like that before in my life. You see moose everywhere now along those burns.

Brings them in like a magnet. Something -- we had a fire up here couple years ago, now the blueberries are as big as my thumb there. You can pick them by the buckets now just everywhere, just blue in the woods.

So I think it does wonders for the country.

BILL SCHNEIDER: But if we had done this interview before the flood --

CHARLIE WRIGHT: I would be talking about a drought. It was heading that way seriously for a long time. Like I said, the lakes were moving further and further away from the river, it was like the permafrost was melting and the water was just being sucked out.

That's what I thought. Everything that was close to the river was empty. There was no more water in them. Every year it just slowly got lower and lower. Now, I'm back to -- after the flood, I'm back to paddling,

just walking right through the bushes and getting in the canoe now. No more mile walk.


CHARLIE WRIGHT: And your floating moss, all I could say is it just grows over the lake. It just takes it over, like I don't know what it is, maybe the warming in the ground

because the permafrost melting is allowing the vegetation to grow in that whole -- over that whole ground, you know.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: So the moss is growing in lakes that are drying, the boggy areas?

CHARLIE WRIGHT: Uh hum. Yeah. It's just growing over stuff like that. Shallow water bogs, it's growing over with vegetation.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: And then with the recharge of the water, what happens?

CHARLIE WRIGHT: Well, they are all back wide open. All those lakes that grew over, they just get water over them and then it settles down after -- after the flood. They are still grown over. It doesn't change back once the vegetation gets there.

Because it's a thick blanket of vegetation, and it gets thicker every year. It don't go back. It stays gone. Willows will start growing and little trees, pretty soon all you've got is a flat of willows before you know it.

It will just take a matter of time to grow over, just like anything else.

So it's kind of just growing over and taking over the water; where it used to be a lot of water, it's just grown -- grown over now.


CHARLIE WRIGHT: I see places where there's 8 foot willows now where there used to be a lake when I was a kid.

It's gone. You know. I think it's like a cycle. I don't know what it is or how to explain it.

It seems everything here goes in a cycle. The fur, the animals, one year there will be a lot of marten, and the next year there will be lynx. They can't exist together, they all rotate in a cycle.

And it appears that some of them are -- most of them are kind of like on a four year cycle, they will come back in about four years, if you pay attention.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: And so you're out -- you're out trapping, then, and fishing and hunting, then?


SIDNEY STEPHENS: You spend time all season; is that right?

CHARLIE WRIGHT: Yeah, every season there is something out in the woods, yeah, everything that comes by.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: And what are you trapping now?

CHARLIE WRIGHT: Marten, lynx, wolverine, wolf, beaver, mink, just about everything out there.


CHARLIE WRIGHT: Whatever's on the -- whatever's in sight at the time. Like two years ago it was marten was plentiful. Last year it was lynx and no -- hardly no marten.

I was out this year, and we might be in transition again because I haven't seen hardly any tracks now, right now. So in between sometimes there's kind of a drought of animals.

There's always the big -- the big ones around; the wolves and the wolverine are always around because they have their territory. Like rabbits and marten and lynx, they kind of go in a cycle and they come and go with the seasons.

A couple years they will be here strong and then there will be nothing for a couple years. Seems like they can't exist. They -- they all follow the rabbits, for sure, because the marten -- the marten and the lynx eat the same thing.

They can't exist -- they will eat each other, the lynx will eat the marten even.


CHARLIE WRIGHT: They eat everything when they come through: The rabbits, the squirrels, the birds. They need to clean the country out. They eat each other.

BILL SCHNEIDER: That's amazing.

CHARLIE WRIGHT: Yeah. There's lots going on out here.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. I was -- I wanted to go back to fire. What's -- in the Upper Yukon area, people talked a lot about fires and the impact of fires on the environment.

How about down here? What are you seeing in terms of impact of fires?

CHARLIE WRIGHT: Well, the only way it impacts, like, trapping because it chases or kills off all the fur in the country, but in long term,

I think it's nothing but good because, like I said, it rejuvenates and makes better eating grounds for the moose and stuff grow better. Cleans off and starts a renewal, I think.

I think it's nothing but good for the country.

BILL SCHNEIDER: What about your trails, your trapping trails?

CHARLIE WRIGHT: Well, it -- it ruins them. Because the trees fall over them and they -- after the fire opens up the area, the permafrost melts, you get big cave ins and sluffs, underground streams come out of the ground.

Like water that's run under the ground, it will cave in and they will start running underground, and it erodes the whole valley and can't go through no more.

You'll have to find a new way sometimes. After 10 years you can go in there and you'll have to cut -- cut another trail around a lot of bad places.

It does -- it does good and bad. But you ain't going to go trap there for a long time after burns. That's one thing it does, it takes down everything, all the fur moves on. Maybe in a few years they will be back.

The wolves will go right back in because the moose go right back in there, but that's the only thing I could say would be trapping.

BILL SCHNEIDER: That's good information.


BILL SCHNEIDER: I hadn't thought about the permafrost melting in the trail.

CHARLIE WRIGHT: Any time you open up the trees or cut the grass and the trees away, the sun hits it and just changes the whole scale of the ground. It moves everything around.

That's why when they clear off a lot and build a house and a couple of years later it has a bunch of cracks in it.


CHARLIE WRIGHT: Because it changes the whole structure of the ground and gets off level again. So...

BILL SCHNEIDER: And then do -- are the trees over the trail, too?

CHARLIE WRIGHT: Uh hum. Lots of times they burn gone, but a lot of places, like during -- where you go through a creek, it will cave all in, all the trees will be laying over, and you have to cut through them just like a jungle, you know.


CHARLIE WRIGHT: And it gets hard, the wood, after -- it's like cooked in a kiln, real hard to chop, real hard to saw, and it's dirty. A lot of work. Stumps. We just kind of stay away and go around.

Or learn the hard way.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Have you been impacted by that on your trapline?

CHARLIE WRIGHT: Yes. Last winter my whole -- half of my trapline burned between here and Rampart. We were just going to go there this year.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Tell us about that in some detail in terms of places along the way and conditions you saw.

CHARLIE WRIGHT: Well, what do you mean, about the fire?


CHARLIE WRIGHT: Oh, it burn -- yeah, in the summertime when we were going fishing we could see it, it burned a whole -- the whole area, 30 miles long and 15 miles wide all the way along the river.

It impacts a lot. I was sad to see it go because I was looking forward to going there this year. But now we have to go a different direction and while that grows back again.

Nothing we can do about it. Yeah, I don't know. I didn't see any impacts along the way, I just know that it's going to impact my trapping for sure.


CHARLIE WRIGHT: I couldn't really see any other than it's tearing up all the -- I mean, destroying all the animals that live there. All their homes and their -- yeah, all the -- most of them are dead now because the fire burned so fast,

all the small animals get it. Most of the birds.


CHARLIE WRIGHT: Yeah, a big impact on the wildlife, the smaller ones for sure, but like I said, it helps the bigger ones and the moose and such. And well, the berries, that has a lot to do with feeding --

all the small animals and birds eat the berries, the bears, so that's another thing, it's kind of an arena rule, again.

Boy, it's getting hot in here.

BILL SCHNEIDER: I just have a few more questions and we'll be done. Tell me about -- we're talking about whether the changes we're seeing are one directional in terms of climate warming,

or whether we're talking about cycles. You had talked about cycles.

CHARLIE WRIGHT: That's the way it seems to go. To me, every -- like the flood has a big influence on the -- the cycle of the water along the river,

but I don't -- I couldn't really speak for inland because I'm along -- I live along the river and on the river, so I'm -- I'm basically just telling you what I see along the river.


CHARLIE WRIGHT: And close to the river.


CHARLIE WRIGHT: We do go inland 20, 30 miles with a boat hunting, and we are seeing the grass growing over lakes there, too. But again, then again, as soon as the flood comes again,

it fills everything back up again, so it's kind of -- it is a cycle to me. Like I told you earlier, 10 years ago it flooded, but not as bad as last year, but it did fill up those lakes that time again.


CHARLIE WRIGHT: So every time it floods, it rejuvenates the water close to the river and all the lakes. So it's kind of hard for me to tell you if it is permafrost or -- I could see the permafrost melting, for sure, but it is kind of a cycle, I guess.


CHARLIE WRIGHT: As far as I can see.


CHARLIE WRIGHT: And whether it's going one directional or not, I don't think I'm old enough to tell you that.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, was it --

CHARLIE WRIGHT: When I was younger I didn't care about this stuff.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah, right.

CHARLIE WRIGHT: I'm just starting to pay attention to it now because I'm getting worried about the future and thinking what's going to happen to the country.

What my kids are going to have left when I'm gone.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: How about we were talking to some folks the other day and they said working harder for less seems to be the name of the game.


SIDNEY STEPHENS: What do you think about that comment?

CHARLIE WRIGHT: What do you mean? What's -- in what sense?

SIDNEY STEPHENS: Well, this person trapped and hunted and just seemed to think that it just took more energy, more time, more gas, more --

CHARLIE WRIGHT: That's true.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: -- whatever to get the amount of fur that you might usually do.

CHARLIE WRIGHT: Oh, the numbers are way down. And that's due to the more -- I don't know, there was more trappers way back when, there was more people around then.

When I first moved here there was almost 700 people; now there's only 250. So there's been a big change in people.

And it is true that I used to catch way more fur than I do now. That's a big change. And whether it's going to come back, I don't know. But in my life, I have seen it go down and come back up, the numbers.

BILL SCHNEIDER: I think part of that conversation was around the June rise and the lack of the June rise, or diminished June rise, and difficulty of getting firewood.

CHARLIE WRIGHT: Yeah. Well, that -- that changes with the -- the way the melt goes. Like I told you with the flood, all the snow melted at once. It waited, it stayed cold so long that when the snow didn't melt, it took the June raise snow with it.


CHARLIE WRIGHT: So it all came at one time.


CHARLIE WRIGHT: So you've to get wood -- I got a big pile of wood because I jumped right on it and I didn't -- I didn't -- I wasn't -- I wasn't going to take the risk of waiting to see if June raise came or not. So I got on it and everybody else could have, too.

So it just -- you've got to get it while it's there. That's the only way I could say.

BILL SCHNEIDER: You've got to get it while it's there.


SIDNEY STEPHENS: That seems to be a theme. Yeah.

BILL SCHNEIDER: That's a theme.

CHARLIE WRIGHT: Yeah. Get it while it's there. I -- I started pulling wood out of the river when there's still ice out there with my boat, pulling logs.

It doesn't take but, what, two days to get a good pile of wood for the winter when it's going by thick.

A lot of people thought June raise would come and it didn't. So they are buying wood, they are looking for it now.

BILL SCHNEIDER: And people don't have good sources on land to get wood?

CHARLIE WRIGHT: Well, there's good sources, but it's farther and farther away every year because people are cutting -- and now we have a wood boiler in town and there's going to be another one in town,

so that's going to push it further away. So the river going by is real important. I can get my winter's wood with 10 gallons of gas out here floating by, but if I have to do it -- if I have to go 20 miles round trip on my snow machine,

I'm going to -- I'm going to burn that one trip what I did to get all my winter supply out of the river. It will take me the same amount of gas to go 20 miles to get a load of wood to -- that it took to get my whole winter's supply.

So there's the difference right there. And it's almost $6 a gallon, so you have to get it while it's there, like I said. That's basically the way it is.

BILL SCHNEIDER: That's good.


SIDNEY STEPHENS: What -- and so do you -- do you fish, then?

CHARLIE WRIGHT: Uh hum. We subsistence fish for our winter supply every year.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: So do you have any comments on fish or impacts on fishing that you think might be attributable to change, to climate change or otherwise?

CHARLIE WRIGHT: Well, like I say, the flood to me is a renewal of all that. In the near future we'll see what's -- what's with that. I think they keep trying to regulate those numbers or figure them out,

but it seems like they just keep coming back and they are still there every year. And I think -- I think they are going to get better. But after this flood, I think it will change things in a couple years

because of the renewal, like I said, and the cleansing of the riverbed and the -- and the better opportunity for fish to spawn.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: So all the side streams and things that the fish migrate up, those all got yarded out, too, they got cleaned up --


SIDNEY STEPHENS: -- substantially --


SIDNEY STEPHENS: -- with this flood.

CHARLIE WRIGHT: And in the past 10 years, like I told you, every year was drier and drier, that stops fish from getting to where they are supposed to spawn. So they're dying shy of their spawning grounds and not spawning,

or spawning in a bad area where their eggs get washed away or crushed. So that had a big impact on the fish, that being the drought season, you know, the years that were dry.

I go over, when I'm hunting up towards -- for instance, up towards Rampart in the fall, the mouth of the tributaries coming into the river are clear. They are generally this -- this deep, and then they run into the river and have a little pool,

and you can see the dog salmon swimming there, hovering there like this, trying to get up that stream to spawn, and it's too shallow. So you can see the impact right there that would have on fisheries

and the amount of fish coming back in the river. But --

SIDNEY STEPHENS: So it's -- it's both -- both less water in the streams and blocked streams, then?

CHARLIE WRIGHT: Uh hum. Yeah. Well, the low amount of water is just like being blocked because sometimes the creek will run down to the end of the trees and then go under the ground and filter through the rocks and come out in the river.

It will make an underground stream. And then there's no way the fish can even get up there. Or the river is just too low. Like I said, probably in the last 10 years, like 8 years ago,

it just went down, down, down, down, down to almost nothing in the river. The springtime, the water wouldn't even get up to the edge of the willows because of the way the -- it was just the way the weather was, I guess.

Like I said, in the spring, how fast the snow melts is how high our water's going to get when the ice goes out. So it's all up to the weather, like it is. It all -- it all pertains to the weather.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: And when -- and when you talk about the drought, like, for the past 10 years ago or so, are you talking summertime drought? Winter drought?

CHARLIE WRIGHT: Kind of year -- kind of year around and lack of snow. The lack of snow in the past few years, there's been hardly no snow around the Interior here. Like a certain -- like in certain areas,

they might get a couple feet, but there's been years when snow hasn't got deep as my knee, and two or three years in a row. And that all evaporates and blows away and compacts to nothing.

So when it goes to -- has barely enough water to wash the ice away, it has to half rot away, you know.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: And what was -- just for reference, what was the snow like when you were a kid growing up?

CHARLIE WRIGHT: Up to my neck. Yeah.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: You were little!

CHARLIE WRIGHT: Yeah. Well, it was deep. We could jump off houses and land in the snow and don't touch bottom. Now you -- now you don't see that no more.

There is snow -- it used to get 70 below when I was a kid in Rampart. 60 below was common in the winter for at least a couple days, you know, or a week, 50 below for two weeks.

Now you get 50 below once or twice. Last winter I think it barely got to 50 below here for a week. And that's just maybe November and January, used to get a couple good, long spells,

I remember when I was a kid, and it don't happen that way no more. Some years it don't get below 45 anymore.

BILL SCHNEIDER: One final thing we should talk about is wind.


BILL SCHNEIDER: Have you seen changes in wind?

CHARLIE WRIGHT: Yeah. It kind of -- it would be -- like I said, it used to blow in -- like in moose season, we'd be stuck sometime for a week because the wind would blow steady for a week, 10 days.

You don't see that anymore. Springtime it used to do the same thing. It does blow with some storms, when a storm goes through, but I say, like,

it's changing, it doesn't change -- it doesn't blow that way in the change of season no more like it used to. I see it blows harder now with the storms, the storms seem to be getting a little more intense to me, with like a big windstorm, a snowstorm comes through,

that seems to be more intense now.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Is there a change in prevailing wind?

CHARLIE WRIGHT: No. No. The wind is still blowing the same way all the time. When we -- we get snow and rain from the south and cold weather from the north, that's the way it always is. But a little -- a little different with the storms,

it's getting more intense, it seems to me, windstorms and snowstorms. But some things have changed.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: The wind is a hard one for me to get my head around trying to understand what prevailing -- sort of what the prevailing pattern is, and -- and how -- you know, how it's different. It's just hard for me to --

CHARLIE WRIGHT: Yeah. It's hard for me to kind of explain it. That's why I went silent here. I was trying to figure a way to put it into words. Yeah.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: So that when you were saying you got -- you got a lot of wind in your moose -- moose hunting, was that it?


SIDNEY STEPHENS: And so how is that not what you'd expect, I guess?

CHARLIE WRIGHT: Well, we don't get the wind no more in our moose season is what I'm saying.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: Oh, you used to.

CHARLIE WRIGHT: We used to get it. Now it was just beautiful. Like this fall was beautiful until, when, in the middle of October we were still running around outside with our T shirts on.

And that happens, and then let's see if the spring goes on colder, further along, and then warms up real fast again. We'll see what the pattern is turning into. See if the water table stays as high again.

And there's proof of a cycle maybe. I don't know. We're going to have to pay attention.

BILL SCHNEIDER: We just don't know.

CHARLIE WRIGHT: No. Anything can happen.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah, right.


BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. Well, I think this has been good.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: Yeah. It's been great.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Thank you so much.

CHARLIE WRIGHT: Uh hum. No problem.

BILL SCHNEIDER: We really appreciate you taking the time to do this.