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Fred Thomas
Fred Thomas

Fred Thomas was interviewed on July 11, 2009 by William Schneider and Sidney Stephens at his home in Fort Yukon, Alaska. In this interview, Fred talks about his lifetime of hunting and trapping in the Fork Yukon and Black River area, and his observations of environmental changes. Specifically, he mentions permafrost melting, changes in the weather, moose hunting, and the beaver population around the Fort Yukon and Chalkyitsik areas. He also talks about changes in the weather and temperature, salmon runs, fires, waterfowl hunting, and water level in rivers and lakes.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2009-11-03

Project: Stakeholders and Climate Change Project Jukebox
Date of Interview: Jul 11, 2009
Narrator(s): Fred Thomas
Interviewer(s): Bill Schneider, Sidney Stephens
Transcriber: Carol McCue
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
National Science Foundation
Alternate Transcripts
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Slideshow
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Sections

Introduction

Weather and Temperature Change

Changes in Bird Populations

Freeze-up and Break-up

Temperature Fluctuation

Changes in Fall Moose Hunting

Fire's Impact on Lakes, Vegetation and Permafrost

Changes in Muskrat Populations

Change in Precipitation and Fire

Wind

Moose Hunting and Meat Preservation

Changes in Water Level in Rivers and Lakes

Geese and Duck Hunting

Muskrat

Changes in Beaver Populations

Changes in Muskrat Populations

Changes in Salmon Populations

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Transcript

BILL SCHNEIDER: Let's see. Okay. Today is July 11th, 2007, (SIC- Actually July 11th, 2009) and we have the pleasure of doing an interview with Fred Thomas from Fort Yukon.

So thanks for taking the time to do this. Really appreciate it.

So, Sid, if you -- what you need to do is make sure that red light stays on and make sure that these be seconds keep moving, okay, and make sure that these keep showing up.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: Okay.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: It's 2009.

BILL SCHNEIDER: What did I say? SIDNEY STEPHENS: 2007.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Really? Senility...

FRED THOMAS: You're getting worse than me in remembering things, you know.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Holy crackers and cheese. Okay. So Fred, as we were saying, this is a series of interviews that we're doing with people in Fort Yukon,

and we're trying to find out what people's observations are of variability, changes that they are seeing, not necessarily one direction, but just changes they are seeing out in the environment, if any.

FRED THOMAS: Uh-hum.

BILL SCHNEIDER: So I'd ask you just generally if you -- what you're observing, and then I'll ask you some specific questions.

FRED THOMAS: Well, what, do you want me to tell you about what I've seen?

BILL SCHNEIDER: Yes.

FRED THOMAS: Well, I can remember years ago when it used to get colder than the dicken, then there would be a few years where it wouldn't be that cold.

And I know the last, oh, four or five years, it's been somewhat warmer. And not much snow.

Until this last year, we had pretty cold weather in December, in January, and the ice is much thicker this last year than it has been for a few years. That's about all I know.

BILL SCHNEIDER: How -- how has that affected your trapping and other activities?

FRED THOMAS: I like it. I can get out when it's warmer, I can get out more often, you know.

BILL SCHNEIDER: How about the snowfall level?

FRED THOMAS: Hmm?

BILL SCHNEIDER: How about the snowfall level?

FRED THOMAS: Well, for about three years, we got very little snowfall until this last year. We got better than normal, I think, this year.

You -- you probably heard about all the floods we had downriver, and up here. Fort Yukon, I think, is about the only place that didn't flood because they had this dike around.

Another 6, 7 inches and we -- we'd have had it.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah, I was actually thinking about you. I was here just before the flood and you were moving stuff.

FRED THOMAS: Well, everybody --

BILL SCHNEIDER: Everybody was.

FRED THOMAS: -- did -- did that, you know.

BILL SCHNEIDER: How about animals? Are you seeing any variability in animals?

FRED THOMAS: You know, when I was a kid, I remember in the spring, there would be lots of summer birds, you know, small birds.

And over the years they've been getting less and less and less.

And only -- there's only two or three different birds that are fairly common, is the robin, the jonquils, and -- these -- oh, that little red top birds,

what do they call them? Mimi not here, huh?

Anyway, the rest of the birds is almost not common around here, you know. You see one or two, but I can remember years ago when there was lots.

And from what I understand is most of Florida is run over -- overrun with house cats, and I think that that's what I -- I blame it on.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: So you think that -- that changes in their -- in their habitat where they migrate is what's causing the problems, -- FRED THOMAS: That's what I think, yeah. SIDNEY STEPHENS: -- why they are not returning here? Uh-hum.

FRED THOMAS: Because a house cat hunts, down there it's warm, and Florida, and well, I guess California, all them, you know,

and it's warm enough so the house cats can survive out in the woods, you see. And once -- as far as I know, they hunt all the time, whether they want it for eating or not.

I've seen a few around here, you know. They are always hunting.

BILL SCHNEIDER: What about the timing of freeze-up and break-up? Have you noticed any changes?

FRED THOMAS: Not -- not that much. It's about the same. For instance, all you have to look at the Tanana ice pool, when it breaks up, it's been in April 20th, I think, is the earliest, and that's quite a few years ago.

BILL SCHNEIDER: You mean the Nenana Ice --

FRED THOMAS: Ice pool, yeah. That -- that -- then you can find out when, you know. This year, I forgot, 6 or 7, I guess it was, it went out.

BILL SCHNEIDER: What about freeze-up?

FRED THOMAS: Not -- don't seem to be much different. I can remember a few years ago I got froze in around the 19 -- '23, I think,

Black River froze over. I got caught up at Chalkyitsik. And that's a few years ago.

BILL SCHNEIDER: How do you --

SIDNEY STEPHENS: So when Bill was -- when Bill was setting up and you were saying that sometimes, you know, the temperature's up and sometimes maybe it's down, and so you --

FRED THOMAS: It goes up and down. You know. Well, I -- I don't take too much interest in this, they say it's warming, it's warming.

BILL SCHNEIDER: In the course of the many, many years that you've been out in this country, have you seen variability continued throughout that period or did things used to be more consistent or more variable or hard to say?

FRED THOMAS: I don't know. Years ago it used to be just about the same, you know.

I can remember in 1937 when we had an average of 3 to 5 feet of snow in the spring of the year.

We had a flood almost all summer. It snowed and it snowed and it snowed.

This year we had what I would consider a normal -- a normal snow. About that far, I guess, you know.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Maybe about 3 feet?

FRED THOMAS: Yeah, something like that. Sometime you get a little more and -- but I would think maybe last three, four years, we didn't get nowhere near that much snow, you know.

BILL SCHNEIDER: And what about moose hunting in the fall? Have you seen any changes in that? Any moose -- changes in moose behavior, or --

FRED THOMAS: Well, I can remember years ago when it was much less, and then other times, first year we moved up -- up on the Black River, there was all kinds of moose, you know.

And then it went down to almost nothing, and then it -- it -- I wouldn't say it's really plentiful, but there was some -- much more moose than I've seen at other times.

And the thing is, there's much more people going after moose, you see. You know.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: What -- what about with the -- kind of going back to the snow and all, do you notice -- do you notice any changes in -- in the rivers or creeks or in marshy areas at all that --

FRED THOMAS: I'll tell you something. This -- years ago, when there was a fire, they used to go right there and stop it if they could.

And since the Fish & Wildlife said to let it burn, you've got no more cover left, and your permafrost has been thawing out, so that after awhile you ain't got no banks around the lakes.

So no matter how much water you get, it don't hold. It doesn't hold up the water.

I remember when I was a kid, in August, September, me and the old man go below the house and cut wood, you see.

And if I walked, moss among the trees, you do like that and there's ice there, right underneath the moss, you see. Well, there's no more timber.

Everything is burnt down. All the covering, and of course, your permafrost is way -- you know, is hardly any, it just keep thawing out.

So after awhile you -- on the -- around the edge of the lakes, you have no more banks.

Chalkyitsik years ago, all the Black River, they trapped rats and they shot rats, too, in the spring of the year, and around Chalkyitsik, everybody used to get 4- or 500 rats apiece, you know.

Now, I don't think there's that many -- I know they -- this last year, I bet there wasn't 500 rats killed.

BILL SCHNEIDER: So less muskrat?

FRED THOMAS: Muskrats. Yeah. And that, years ago, was -- was the main -- main fur back then, you know.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Are you making a connection between the lakes and the muskrats in terms of lakes being lower?

FRED THOMAS: Yeah. Well, the -- if there is a lake there, the water is much lower, and of course, they freeze out, you see.

And I -- your warming weather might have something to do with it, but -- but the fire, there's no more cover.

And I noticed something, this last fire -- year ago, when the fire go -- go through, it would just burn the cover a little bit, and the trees would still be standing up. And later on, of course, they fall down.

Not this time. It burnt the ground so that big trees, all of them are down. And the ground even burned.

Big holes just like. Yeah, I -- I figure it's because of the dry -- dry ground, of course, you know.

We haven't got nowhere near as much rain as we used to get.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: How about some people have talked a little bit about maybe wind patterns. Have you noticed anything with wind patterns that seems like a pattern change to you?

FRED THOMAS: You mean if there's more wind?

SIDNEY STEPHENS: And the direction, the steady -- the consistent direction.

FRED THOMAS: Oh, I haven't paid much attention to it.

I remember here, oh, 20 -- maybe 25 years ago, and I was working up at the base,

I was down on the riverbank and I could see that just black, not a cloud, the whole place was black coming, and you could hear it coming.

Now, I come back to the house and took several things, I know it's going to wind blow in.

When it hit, about 5 minutes, that's all, I guess. There wasn't a boat floating. All swamp. And there was trees busted all over.

BILL SCHNEIDER: That's an unusual event.

FRED THOMAS: Well, that's the first time I ever seen anything like it, you know. I mean, it was just a strong wind came by and just knocked everything down.

BILL SCHNEIDER: I want to finish up that question about the moose. Are the moose changing their -- their time when they start moving around in the fall, or are they staying pretty much --

FRED THOMAS: No, I -- I have always considered 8th of September, you can keep meat.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Yes.

FRED THOMAS: You have to take care of it so that it's not wet, but 8th of September, I always start to get my fall meat.

When there's no refrigerator or nothing, see. And I did that all the time.

BILL SCHNEIDER: So no change there?

FRED THOMAS: You have to take care of it so they don't get wet or like that.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Right.

FRED THOMAS: You see. You know. But I've never had no trouble. 8th of September.

BILL SCHNEIDER: And the moose are moving around at that time?

FRED THOMAS: Well, they -- they start running.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Uh-hum.

FRED THOMAS: You see. Yeah.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: I think Bill maybe understands this better than I do, so could you explain what makes that time a good time to hunt moose in terms of how the moose are acting and weather?

Could you put it all together because I don't have any idea what it takes.

FRED THOMAS: Well, I -- I've seen -- if you kill it much earlier than that, you have to rush it back to town and put it in the freezer.

And it's cold -- it's getting cold enough at that time, if you took care of it, that it would -- you don't have to put it in the freezer.

You have more -- I might say more trimming, you know, because it will dry in the outside a little, but the meat will not spoil.

They were -- actually, around the 10th would be a little better, but I always start hunting on the 8th, because give it a few more days.

And if it's raining, you've got to get it and hang it up underneath the shelter and have a fire so the outside kind of dries a little.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: Yeah, I don't -- I guess what I don't understand is the part about moose moving. So are they --

FRED THOMAS: What?

SIDNEY STEPHENS: About moose moving. So is there something about moose are --

FRED THOMAS: Well, that's when they are mating.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: And so they are coming down onto sandbars or they are coming down into lake areas?

FRED THOMAS: They are travelling, more or less.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: Uh-hum.

FRED THOMAS: The bulls are looking for cows. And that starts, I would say, maybe around the 5th or so.

And around the 15th, they are really -- they don't eat or nothing, they are just travelling until they catch a cow. And then, of course, they stay there.

BILL SCHNEIDER: And when do they get stinky? When would you not want to hunt them?

FRED THOMAS: After the 20th. Around the 25th, all you have is red meat, no more fat.

And most of the time we want the moose when they are at their best, you see.

And that's around the 10th. Some of them, they might be running for a week, then, you know, but they are still good, you know.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: And are you hunting mostly from a boat, then, looking -- looking for them from a boat from the river?

FRED THOMAS: Well, now we mostly hunt from boats, but then there's certain places, lakes and like that.

Years ago we used to, well, gas -- gas was hard to come by that -- years ago, you know, and you -- we go to a certain place, and then we hunt with canoe up and downriver, and then through the lakes.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, that's pretty -- it's pretty interesting to see that you think that that's been fairly consistent through the years, in terms of those times when the moose are --

FRED THOMAS: Well, the moose, just like I said, the 8th, I'll start the hunt. Before that, I considered a little -- little early, not -- not because of the moose, but because of the weather, you see.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Uh-hum.

FRED THOMAS: You know. I've been able to get my moose almost every year. One year I didn't.

You couldn't go -- it was so dry, you couldn't go no place. That's about five, six years -- six, seven years ago.

BILL SCHNEIDER: You mean the river level was low?

FRED THOMAS: Yeah.

BILL SCHNEIDER: How has the river level been in the last couple years?

FRED THOMAS: Hmm?

BILL SCHNEIDER: How has the river level been in the last couple of years?

FRED THOMAS: Oh, last fall was good. The year before was not bad.

About four or five years ago, after the big fire up there, we went back up there, of course, we had quite a bit of stuff, you know.

Those are -- my cabin burnt down up there and we had to take more stuff up.

But I had a jet on my boat and we'd go -- go as far as we can, and then we had to pull it a little further until we couldn't pull it no more,

then we'd get behind and use a gang plank and winch, you know, shove it ahead.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Oh, God.

FRED THOMAS: Took us six days to get up there, most of the time it took us three days. Last fall, we went up there in two days.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Uh-hum.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: Had it ever been that low before that you remember?

FRED THOMAS: Years ago, when they used to use inboards, of course, it draws much more water than outboard motor, and you can't pull it, you know.

It was over a month going up there.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Oh.

FRED THOMAS: To camp. Camp at a place because you can't get over the riffles. Waiting for the water to come up, you see.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. Well, this has been a -- this has been a good --

SIDNEY STEPHENS: I have more questions.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Go ahead.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: What about, you mentioned fewer -- fewer birds that there used to be. But what about has -- has geese hunting in the spring, has that -- what's that been like?

And is it different than you remember when you were --

FRED THOMAS: No, SIDNEY STEPHENS: -- younger?

FRED THOMAS: Geese is practically the same, as far as I know. I know ducks seem somewhat less. You know. Certain ducks, you know. But geese seem to be about the same.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: And -- and so how do you hunt -- how do you do spring hunting for geese, then? What -- what is the timing?

FRED THOMAS: Actually, I don't -- I don't go out anymore, but my son -- grandkids, they -- they go out and they give me a few geese.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: And is the timing that you -- that it's as soon as it -- as soon as the river breaks up, you head out in boats to -- to find geese on shore?

FRED THOMAS: Yeah.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: That's the strategy?

FRED THOMAS: Yeah.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. Well, what's good about a lot of what you've said is that it -- it kind of gives us a longer range perspective -- than some of the younger people that haven't spent as much time in the country.

So it's helpful. And the comments about the muskrat are something we -- we'll follow up with other people.

FRED THOMAS: This -- this year has been the lowest I've ever seen it.

Practically -- even some of the lakes that had water in it, there was no muskrat.

They -- they here awhile back, they contact -- when they gets lots, they get some kind of a disease and practically go down to nothing, you know. Yeah.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: And actually, we didn't ask about beaver.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Go ahead.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: Do you have any comments on beaver? Any -- any observations to changes?

FRED THOMAS: Well, here, I'd say four, five years ago, out there is lots of beaver. Seems like they are getting a little less now.

Because at that time when we set out trap beaver, every house, sometime we would clean them out. You know,

sometime there would be only two, maybe four or five, and you catch them all and the next year there was houses that would be full again, from -- from other one.

Now, you go around and you see quite a few empty houses. So they are, I think, on the decline.

Even up Black River is same way.

There would be a few houses. Now, I remember years ago going up there and they would be -- every house would be beaver in it, you know.

Now, once in awhile you see beaver out, you know there was beaver a few years ago, but there's nothing there. So in other words, they are not -- not as many as they used to be.

Or something here, oh, quite a few years ago, I remember one year I got froze in at Chalkyitsik, just barely got there, and that's around the twenty -- 25th of September.

And water was high. And all the beaver houses on the river, no feed pile because the high water took it.

And the next year, I remember I was going to go up there and trap -- I worked at the base at that time, I was --

I was going to take off three weeks and go up there and trap a little bit, and then come back down, you see.

And we moved, we moved -- there was a little cabin below, we moved some of the stuff there.

And next -- we couldn't go up there because of too much water on the lakes in November. So I didn't go up there.

Next year, I went up there and one stretch there was nine beaver houses.

There was only three, and two of them were new houses. That they built.

And there was two big beaver houses along there, had big hole on the top where the beaver chewed out because there was no food.

And oh, they -- they either froze up, I suppose animals, wolf, lynx, and wolverine, probably, they killed them, you know,

because they had no -- they had no -- no place to stay. They had to come out to eat.

But only three beaver house where there was nine beaver house the year before.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Why do you think there are less beaver now?

FRED THOMAS: I don't know. I -- well, there's much less rats and could be that the beaver get the same disease the rest get.

You see. I know -- I know the rats, when they get lots, they get the little spots on the liver.

And I understand it's kind of a cycle between the mink, otter, and the rats.

The mink eats infected -- infected the rats, and then the rats walk over the stuff and then they get infected. It's kind of a cycle.

And they get -- mostly they do that when there's lots of rats.

They start dying off, and then the next year, there won't hardly be anything, go down to nothing. Rabbits do the same thing.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: And do you fish?

FRED THOMAS: Hmm?

SIDNEY STEPHENS: Do you fish for the salmon?

FRED THOMAS: Salmon? Yeah. I didn't get too many this year because they closed down. You know. And then the -- where it's good for fish one year, sometime the -- the water changes the eddies, you know.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: Some of the people that we talked to in Tanana, they fish there in the rapids, and one of those got one of those cameras set up in his fish wheel as a fish counting thing and so on, so they are very into the salmon and they --

they talk about, you know, not only the problems with fewer numbers and the regulations, but with fish, kings being smaller, it seems to them, and --

FRED THOMAS: Well, I'll tell you something, just as they are picking up, the big ones are -- start a-coming.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: This year you mean?

FRED THOMAS: Well, what's his name, Earl Cadzow said it's some of the biggest fish he's caught this year was the day he picked up, on the 9th.

The main -- the main run, I think is -- is getting here at that time, you see, before just a few scattering fish, you know.

BILL SCHNEIDER: I guess there's real concern about the -- the kings, though.

FRED THOMAS: Yeah. Well, I have no -- no argument with what they are doing by closing it down, you know.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah.

FRED THOMAS: I understand that there's going to be a fair run of what they call chums. We call them silvers, the first ones get here, you know.

And they are -- they are good fish until first couple weeks anyway, you know, and then afterwards they start to get run down, and then they call them dog salmon.

And they were -- they are not quite as rich as the kings, but they are good eating.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, I don't -- I don't have more questions. Do you, Sid?

SIDNEY STEPHENS: Not this minute.

FRED THOMAS: You have to think, huh?

SIDNEY STEPHENS: I'm sure some will come to me, but...

BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: Do you want to give me a hand up?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You didn't say anything about mosquitoes. BILL SCHNEIDER: Oh, mosquitoes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Are there more mosquitoes now that there's --

FRED THOMAS: Oh, this year --

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: -- there's more permafrost and --

FRED THOMAS: Because of the flood, there's all kinds of mosquitoes.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah, we ought to talk about mosquitoes. We emphasize the big guys and forget the mosquitoes.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: Does it seem like more than you remember?

FRED THOMAS: Well, see, her and her kids came to -- to share the mosquitoes with us, you see.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Oh, that was nice.

FRED THOMAS: Yeah.