Charlie Campbell was interviewed on November 18, 2009 by William Schneider and Sidney Stephens at his home in Tanana, Alaska. Charlie and his wife, Ruth, are active trappers, hunters, and fishermen, and also run a dog mushing guiding service. In this interview, Charlie talks about his observations of environmental change while living off of the land and traveling in the region. Specifically, he talks about the change in water levels in the lakes, flooding, freeze-up and break-up, fires, gathering driftwood for firewood, and the effect the warmer weather has on hunting.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Stakeholders and Climate Change Project Jukebox
Date of Interview: Nov 18, 2009
Narrator(s): Charlie Campbell
Interviewer(s): Bill Schneider, Sidney Stephens
Transcriber: Carol McCue
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Change in Timing of the Fall Season and Freeze-up
Change in Water Level in Lakes
Change in Moose Hunting Season and Impact on Meat Preservation
Moose Rutting Season
Changes in the Trapping Season
Goose Hunting and Spring Travel
Change in Timing of Spring Break-up
Development of River Ice, Ice Thickness, and Break-up
Collecting Driftwood for Firewood
Impact of Fire on Trails and Traplines
Impact of Fire on Plants and Animals
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BILL SCHNEIDER: We've been going now for two seconds or four seconds into the interview, so everything is rolling fine and you're looking good, Charlie.
Today's November 18th, 2007 (actually was 2009), Bill Schneider, Sidney Stephens, and Charlie Campbell. So Charlie, thanks for taking time to do this.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: No problem.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And I think what we want to start with is when we were here last, I guess it was December, a year ago, we went around and talked to a number of people, and then you and I talked extensively about the types of things that people were talking about and that you've observed yourself.
And you were kind enough to come up with a chart that we've been passing around and discussing with folks, and I'd kind of like to go over that chart with you because many of the people listening to this won't have any background into it at all.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Uh hum. Okay. Sure.
BILL SCHNEIDER: So let's take a look at that chart together and see what -- see what we can determine on it. One of the things you -- you noted was -- Sidney, you need to make sure that I'm not in it or that I'm in it enough so that people can see --
SIDNEY STEPHENS: You're not in it.
BILL SCHNEIDER: That's something that will get edited out. Okay. So one of the things you noticed was temperature in the fall, that freeze up is later.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Uh hum.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And -- and that the temperature is warmer. And in the winter, temperatures are generally warmer; and in the spring, breakup coming earlier; and in the summer, temperatures generally warmer. And you -- you noted in particular the Yukon River temperature being warmer.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Uh hum.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And that's -- that last one is a point, too, that you and both -- well, both you and Lester made when we interviewed you up at IARC (International Arctic Research Center on the UAF campus).
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Uh hum.
BILL SCHNEIDER: So would -- would you -- how do you think that this recent flood that came through has impacted any of that? Of course, you haven't been through a yearly cycle of it.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Right. Right. BILL SCHNEIDER: But you may have observed some things during the summer season.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Right. Well, I think -- I think to be honest, I -- I kind of regard the flood as sort of an anomaly. I don't -- I don't really see that much has changed. It was still a late fall, a very late fall, it was still a pretty dry summer, which is something that I -- I saw.
The springtime was -- the breakup was something that was a bit unusual, but it also had to do actually with an event that happened up in Eagle that was as a result of a later fall. At least what I've been told is that the river broke up up there -- excuse me, froze up, and then re broke because of warm temperatures, and then refroze, and because of that, the ice was exceptionally thick there the way it all jumbled together and kind of packed in.
And then we had a fast breakup, which I -- I wouldn't say is either highly unusual or -- or just the same, but in any case, that combination of the two caused the flooding.
The one thing I think that the flooding did was to recharge some of the local lakes in this area. But from what I could see walking around, it didn't recharge them much. You know, it kind of got it back up to a -- sort of a low level of -- of water, but not -- not like before.
And I think of all the things on this chart, you know, that we talked about, you know, kind of looking at it again here after a few months, I think the thing that most strikes me is -- is the fall, the changes in the fall, and then just kind of the lower level of water in general.
It used to be that you really had to be on the jump in falltime as things were freezing up. I mean, there was a very limited time span. When ice started to run towards the end of September, although it even ran one year in the middle of September and caught all the hunters that go downriver off guard, and caused plenty of havoc there,
but it used to be that you could pretty much set your watch by -- by breakup -- excuse me, freeze up being, you know, around September 29th, somewhere in that area, at the very latest maybe 1st, 2nd, 3rd of October.
That -- that caused you to really mark that date on the calendar because you had to take the time to get the boat out of the water before it got frozen up, and the fish wheels had -- in town here had to be hauled out before too much ice ran. So, you know, you kind of got that date set in your mind.
Now, and I would say for the past 10 years, certainly, September, October, it's all the same. There's no rush. This year was to a ridiculous degree, we waited, we waited, as I believe Lester said, he was fishing until the 17th of October, which he said was a record for him.
In other words, the river was essentially ice free until then. That's -- that's unprecedented. That's never happened. But the trend has been definitely getting that way.
The other thing that relates to the hydrological cycle, and this kind of is what bears a little bit on what you were talking about, is that the -- when you go hunting in the fall, you're walking around these meadows, and for many, many years, it was always -- one was always struck by the difficulty of getting around something like -- like a big irregularly shaped meadow.
Now, it may have had grass in it and logs, you know, falling in on the sides, but in general, they were wet. I mean, it was -- you'd have to have hip waders, and even then you couldn't go through -- through the middle of them, you had to go around them and you were -- you were limited in your travel because of that.
And you -- you made your plans accordingly for moose hunting. You would rule out going to this particular spot because it meant a long, long walk around the side of the pond.
Whether or not it would gain you any advantages would be another question, but that's what you'd do, you'd say okay, I'm going to go this far, have a peek, look at the meadow, and then that's as far as I can go.
But you know, for the past, like I say, probably 10 years ago with the lake levels just declining and declining, you're able to go all kinds of places where you were never able to before.
You could walk right across the pond, which was now a grassy meadow, without getting your feet wet, and go all over the place.
On the other hand, the disadvantage of that, of course, was that places that were feed beds for moose, in other words, not -- not the oozneah (phonetic) grass that grows around the side, but some of the succulent grasses or sedges or whatever they are that they -- that they feed on in the water,
you know, they put their head underwater and they dredge up some of this good, green stuff, even after everything else is yellow, those patches are just getting smaller and smaller and smaller.
And what used to be a good feed bed 10 years ago is now this little circle of green and a long area of brown, essentially like grass that you'd find growing under woods, the susaneer (phonetic) grass, they can't eat that stuff.
So those are the things that really make me think that the -- that I really mark as changes.
And I think that this flood, as far as I could see, did help recharge the ponds a little bit,
and that was a good thing, I guess, in that sense, but it didn't seem to be enough to really make a long term difference, and also, you know, this recharge is just restricted to areas close to the river where the river could flood.
The places that were back in the woods that were too high for that, I don't think there's been really much of any change there.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. That's good.
SIDNEY STEPHENS: Bill, can I interrupt? Hands on the table make thumping. Sorry.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: They are gone. The hands are gone.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Very good. Very good. So in this -- we started off by saying that the temperature in the fall was -- that it wasn't getting cold as early.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Uh hum.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And then you started talking about moose, and you indicated on your chart here that -- that the moose hunting period for moose hunting was coming later.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Uh hum.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And what's the dynamic there? Why not hunt moose at the "usual," in quotation marks?
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Right. Right. That's an interesting thing. There's -- there's several elements to it. First of all, it's access or just pure time to get moose.
The second is preservation of meat, and I'm going to make two into three. The third is what stage of rut that they might be in.
On -- on the preservation of meat, I would say increasingly in villages, you know, people are getting freezers, but still, most people don't have enough freezer capacity to put a whole moose in, at least right away.
They might be able to farm some out to various friends and say, well, can you put this quarter in my freezer for me and take care of it. And you could have some meat or whatever. There's a lot of that that goes on.
But one -- one of the elements to taking care of meat well is to -- is what people do around here usually is they hang it out on a tripod, it's a tripod with a crossbar,
a beam of some kind, preferably out on the riverbank, and let the thing crust over on the outside.
The best situation is the sort of classic east wind that comes through here in the falltime, or that used to anyway, still does to a certain extent --
I couldn't say that that's over or anything like that, but it does seem like that's getting a little less -- and it would be cool, the temperature might be kind of in the low 40s, high 30s, and so in a day or so,
maybe under some sunny skies, partly sunny, you'd have a nice crust on the meat and the meat would be well cooled. Then you could put it in the boat and bring it up Tanana and put it in a smokehouse somewhere.
Chances are the smokehouse would be an even cooler place because maybe it frosted at night -- that's something it didn't seem to do so at all this fall -- it would -- but it would frost at night,
and then the smokehouse would be in the shade for most of the day, so the meat would be nicely cool, maybe, like I say, in the low --
in the middle 30s or something, on average, during the day, and you'd let it sit there for maybe a week, week and a half to let it season. And then you'd have some pretty good meat.
And with -- with a little bit of luck, you would have either lined up some freezer space, perhaps given away some of the quarters to people or eaten up some,
and you might also get even luckier, as it used to happen in the old days, and it would get cold, it would freeze. And then the meat was basically good.
It was good -- it was good -- I mean, it might not be completely frozen but it would be cold enough to really preserve it nicely. And then it would, of course, progressively get so it would freeze.
Boy, I wouldn't want to go out now and -- in -- on, say, the 15th of September and depend on any of that. That's -- I mean, that all seems like a thing of the past.
So that's -- that's one of my markers that -- that kind of with fall getting later is that you don't -- you can't depend on that so much anymore.
The thing about the rut is a little harder to pinpoint, but one of the pieces of local lore around here, and you'll hear people say this, too,
you'll hear them say I'm good to wait a little bit until it gets cold, and when it gets cold, it gets them moving.
That's what they -- that's what people say, it gets the bulls to come out from wherever they are lurking, and it perhaps acts as some kind of hormonal trigger or something. I don't --
I don't know enough about the biology of it, but that's kind of the local knowledge that people use. That and the fact that the leaves are off the trees.
But it seems like the -- the whole rut thing, that that has changed, too. There's -- there's no sort of emergence of all these bulls when it gets cold
because it isn't getting cold, and it's sort of the same thing. They are sort of back there but they are not coming out.
The third -- I'm sorry, go ahead.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Just the notion about that they are back there.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Yeah. Uh hum.
BILL SCHNEIDER: We've heard that so many times, people will say they are back in the woods, and when it gets cold they will come out to the river.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Yeah.
BILL SCHNEIDER: What is it there about the river?
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: You know, I don't know if it's so much they come out specifically to the river, or if it's more that they are coming out of cover,
and people tend to hunt along the river, or if not the river, fairly close by.
So I think of it more as they are -- they are getting further into rut, they're getting more aggressive, they are more willing to show themselves. You know, earlier in the season, they are -- especially an older bull that's smart
kind of stays back in the brush. It might keep tabs on the cows but it's not going to stand out there with its chest out -- and held out ready to be shot quite yet, so...
BILL SCHNEIDER: So there is this lore that the rut has occurred is somehow linked with cold weather.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Uh hum.
BILL SCHNEIDER: I don't think that's been biologically shown to be the case.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Right.
BILL SCHNEIDER: But it's -- it's certainly something that emerges in the interviews.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Right. Right. Yeah, I don't -- I don't pretend to be a moose biologist, but it just seems like there is that -- that progression. I don't know if -- is the rut thought to be temperature related or not?
I mean, have you heard anything like that? Or...
BILL SCHNEIDER: I -- I don't know myself.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Yeah.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Except that I do know that the biologists don't think that the rut has changed.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Uh hum. Okay.
BILL SCHNEIDER: That's the -- the -- the academic lore.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Right. Right. Yeah. Uh hum.
BILL SCHNEIDER: But, you know, who knows where they are looking, who knows where they are doing their studies, which is the reason why the local information is so important.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Uh hum.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Hearing what the locals experience.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Right.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. Okay. Well, that nails down the moose, I think, pretty well.
Moving into the trapping season, you had indicated here that it seems that trapping has to occur later because, I assume, fur prime.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Yeah, fur prime and access, too. I think maybe the access would be as important.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. The access.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Again, this is sort of local lore, but people -- people think that -- or at least a good number of trappers I've talked to around here think there has to be a certain amount of snow cover to get marten to come to a bait,
like to go up a -- to go up a pole, for example.
Perhaps not with cubby sets, which are put on the ground and are accessible easily, but the thought is that without that snow cover, it's easier for them to catch mice.
Blueberries are available to them. I know about that because in low snow years I've seen -- I've seen their lips stained blue.
And also I think just the idea that food is abundant, they can get at the mice easily, so why exert yourself to go up a pole.
Later on when there's a foot, maybe a little bit more of snow, they can't get at them that easily, and so they are getting hungrier, and they are certainly happy to put themselves out a little bit more.
So I think that's part of it. That's my opinion.
The other thing, too, is just access. I mean, most people's traplines go -- go through some fairly rough country.
It's kind of classic Alaskan tussocks and berm and stumps and deadfall and what have you.
And -- and with a dog team, you're -- you're a little bit more able to kind of go over that rough stuff without incurring big costs; but with a snow machine,
I mean, if there's not enough snow, you're just tearing your stuff to pieces, without -- without enough snow you're just going to bang it up for nothing.
So I think that's -- that's one reason since snowfall arrival, if my -- in my view of it seems to be coming later that pushes trapping later, too.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Uh hum. Uh hum.
SIDNEY STEPHENS: So please stop for a second. (Pause.)
BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. We're back on and we changed the lighting a little bit. I think it will give us a better picture here, but -- and we've also turned off the steaming pot.
So as we're moving through winter, fur is priming up, you've got snow, things are moving along, but springtime seems to be coming earlier is what you've said.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Uh hum.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. And how does that impact activities like geese hunting or getting wood and those things?
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Uh hum. Right. Well, I don't go geese hunt much myself, but I've seen my fellow townsmen doing it, and the impression I have is that it all has become more compressed.
It was always a -- a very close thing, you had a certain amount of time to get out to Fish Lake, for example, as one spot.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Are you -- pardon me. Are you going on snow? On ice?
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Yeah, you'd be going on snow. Yeah, with a snow machine or a dog team.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Uh hum.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: And you had a certain window to get out there, and then, you know, the geese would arrive and you'd have some time to hunt.
But then things would start to melt and you had to get out there at a certain point.
And I think that was part of the -- I think in a lot of ways that's part of the fun of it, particularly with snow machines, too, you know, you've got a little extra latitude because you can scoot them over water, at least limited puddles, depending on how daring you might feel.
But it seems like that whole process has just become compressed, you know, it used to be sort of over a period of several weeks, you'd hear about people,
I'm going to go out to such and such a spot and go goose hunting, and then another week would come by and they were still kind of at it.
Now it seems like that whole period has become compressed, and people go out and then it's over. The ice is too rotten, it's too dangerous, and they come back.
I don't necessarily think that the timing -- I'll put it this way. I'm a little -- I'm a little uncertain whether I -- I could say that springtime has been moved earlier.
It -- it may not or it may have been, but I -- I don't have that same kind of marker that I do in the fall set up in my mind.
But the one thing that I'm completely certain about is except, of course, for this notable flood of '09 is that breakup has just been getting milder and milder and gentler and gentler.
It used to be almost always a good show, sometimes a little too good of a show.
We've -- you know, I've seen camps get entirely destroyed by ice several times, and I've seen birch trees this big getting knocked down one after the other on a bank, just like dominoes as the ice comes scraping past.
And it's been a long, long time since we've had anything like that happen. We go out to the bank and the thing just kind of moves out. Whew, like that.
People have gotten, I think, a lot more slack about leaving stuff on the beach because they figure they can get away with it.
This -- this year, of course, was different. You know, we had -- we had some warning that this was going to be the case,
and the ice was also a lot thicker than it usually is, but that's a -- that's a change I really see is the mildness.
SIDNEY STEPHENS: And so is the ice thicker? Is that attributable to anything climate wise? I mean, was this winter different, as well, to make the ice thicker?
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Yeah. There's a -- the sort of classic ingredient, you know, for -- for thick ice, at least in this area, is low snowfall and a good, long cold snap.
And this year, the winter of '08, '09, we had -- we didn't have, like, a dramatic long stretch of 60 below or anything like that, but we had quite a bit of 40 below that went on for some pretty good periods.
And for the early part of the winter, we didn't have too much snow, too.
So as a consequence, we had a pretty good -- pretty thick ice was -- I think they figured it was 6 feet or something here, and of past years, it's been more like 4 feet.
And then as the -- as the weather warms up in springtime, usually what will happen is that ice will start to thin little by little, you know, it melts from the top, but it also thins from the bottom, as well.
And the way we might know this is by hearing that so and so has a fishing hole out in the ice, and he only had to chisel 4 feet or something like that, or we have to chisel a whole 6 feet.
So that's how that -- I kind of hear about that thing. But in this case, it stayed cold until pretty late, and so the ice stayed thick, and then when breakup came and came quickly,
but it was not able to keep up with -- the thawing of the ice was not able to keep up with air temperatures and the water that was coming down from above.
BILL SCHNEIDER: So after -- after -- after breakup, we're talking about getting the drift.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Uh hum.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Getting the wood. And that seems to be something that's really important to you.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Right. Right. It's far and away the easiest way to get wood.
BILL SCHNEIDER: But you had, I think, indicated that that window for getting wood had narrowed.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Uh hum. Right. Yeah. This -- this is another thing that I would -- I would rate, or I would rank a lot higher on -- on the sort of level of confidence or whatever that this is one of those things that I feel quite confident about because you have to -- you have to kind of have your ducks in a row when you're going to catch driftwood.
You have to have the boat in, you have to have the rope and so forth that you need, you have to have some kind of place set up on the beach where -- you know,
where you can tie off a long rope and then as you go out and get the logs, you tie a piece of rope to it, tie it to the transom, try to get it into shore, and tie it off to the -- to this single big heavy duty rope.
And so pretty soon you build a raft that way of just a bunch of logs all kind of laid in against the beach held in by the current.
It's sort of a derby style thing, and actually, a lot of fun because you go out there and there's the excitement of catching a big log and you get it in and get it tied up and then here comes another beauty.
So anyway, it used to be that -- that the time for that was -- was in early June, and people talk about the June rise here.
You could pretty much set your watch by it. Every year there would be -- there would be wood come through about that time.
And it was melt water coming through from Canada and also melt water from some of the tributary streams, but it all sort of came through at once and it was a pretty -- a pretty dramatic rise.
And whether there would be a lot of wood or a little wood, it usually always ran for a while. You had -- you had some time to operate.
Occasionally, there would be some wood that came out right with the ice, and people might go out and get that, although a lot of times if the ice just went out,
you're still kind of scrambling to get your boat in the water and maybe you're not completely ready, but it was okay.
There was -- there was always the June rise. That would -- and that was where -- when most people got their wood.
But over the past, again, I would say probably 10 or 12 years, the situation has been that -- more and more that if you want to get wood, you better get the wood that comes right after the ice.
And I mean -- and I mean right after, too. It might be -- it might be four -- four days after the ice actually comes through the main Yukon ice.
And so you're out there in the ice cakes, you know, trying to move quickly because, again, the window, in addition to being earlier, the window has gotten a lot shorter.
It might be only five days when that drift is running with a sort of a peak of three good days in the middle of that five.
So you're out there trying to get wood just as quickly as you can, but now you're having to negotiate around all this ice.
And that ice is pretty hard at that time of year. This isn't like little slushy stuff, this is what's left in the river are the heavy -- the heavy stuff
that doesn't have a lot of air bubbles in it that's really solid, and it would really hurt if you hit it, and would certainly wreck a lower unit.
So anyway, it's made the whole thing a lot more complicated and a bit more nerve racking, too, because the water temperature, of course, is not much above 32 at that point. So earlier and shorter.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. Good. One of the things that you talked about a little bit, and other people have talked about, is wind.
And wind is one of the hardest things for us to really get a handle on. What are the changes you've seen in wind, if you have seen changes?
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Uh hum. Well, I would think a little less, kind of just in general, a little less of it. But again, I couldn't -- I couldn't really hang my hat on this.
I couldn't say -- I don't -- I don't have the same degree of certainty that I would about, say, the -- the wood gathering or whatever.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Uh hum.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: But it does seem like we're getting summers -- I mean, sometimes up at our fish camp, you would have a situation where there's a wind blowing from the west,
what people call an upriver wind around here, and so it's going against the current, and it can set up some pretty -- some pretty good standing waves.
And it sort of -- it doesn't shut you down exactly, but it certainly curtails activity out in the river on that particular day.
You might go up to the fish wheel, but you're probably not going to do anything like -- that involves, let's say, gathering firewood for fish camp along the bank. It's -- it's too rough.
The boat's going to bang up and down on the waves. And I think that that probably is less than it used to be.
Then come falltime, it used to be up in the area where we fish, which is they called the rapids, it's kind of in a canyon, and so the wind really howls through there in the wintertime,
and it makes sort of a seasonal change, probably around maybe the 10th or 15th of September. That was kind of the classic time when it would begin.
And it would start to blow out of the east and it would blow 20, 25, 30 miles an hour. And it could go for -- it could go for days that way.
And it would set up a -- just a really nasty sort of a short chop. And if you had to come up against that from town, it was -- it was pretty unpleasant.
And also in the Yukon Canyon, up by the rapids, it's getting kind of dark and shady at that time of year, and so you just begin to feel pretty sort of beaten down by the wind.
And everybody used to say get out of there by the 20th.
That's what the old folks used to say. Get out of -- get out of the rapids by the 20th.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Of September.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Of September. And -- but that's what they kind of meant by that is be sure to get out by the 20th, better is to get out by the 15th.
Well, now, 15th seems to be still comfortable, still pleasant, the wind isn't really too bad.
And that's kind of been my memories of the last several years. Wintertime, I don't think I could really say that I -- I see a change.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Yeah.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. And fire. Fire is something I didn't ask about when I was here last time.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Uh hum.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And it didn't come up naturally. It did come up in the Fort Yukon and Chalkyitsik interviews, and since being back here,
I have been asking people about fire, and so what -- what have you observed in the way of fire over the years?
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Uh hum. Well, I'm -- the information that I'm going on in fire in general is anything that's available from the -- you know, the weather service of the fire, and I know that there were two recent record years.
I think -- I think it was 2006, was that -- was that the big one?
Well, it's on record anyway, and that -- that was the year that most of Interior Alaska got burnt.
And I -- I do remember a picture in the newspaper that was pretty dramatic that just showed -- it had the state of Alaska as a satellite picture,
and then there had been a steady east wind for weeks, and there was a little point here with sort of a plume,
a triangular plume of smoke coming from it, and then just a little down -- down from that, another point with a plume.
And so by the time -- I think the -- the apex of this triangle which faced east was maybe up by Chalkyitsik or something like that, but by the time you got to our area in the middle of the state,
the triangle had widened out to the point where it was bumping up against the Brooks Range and the Alaska Range.
That was -- that was a big year all over, and we got quite some burns in -- in our local area.
This year was also a big burn year, I understand, and I'm not sure if it was the second after that year, like in recent years, as far as severity,
but we -- we suffered plenty during the summer from -- from smoke from some nearby fires.
Where the -- where the fires happen, where the fires happen seems to be -- have a lot to do with geography.
They say, for example, that the Ray Mountains are a fire strike, one of the fire strike capitals, or excuse me, lightning strike capitals of the Interior.
I think the White Mountains and the Ray Mountains are both big spots.
And there are places kind of surrounding the Ray Mountains that seem to have gotten hit again and again and again.
I mean, the fire may not be in the same exact location but they just keep blanketing this one sort of area.
There's another place where there was a big fire this year that -- that's kind of east of the rapids, the Stevens Creek area, that's gotten burnt three times in the past probably 12 years.
So you know, whether that's -- you know, how much that affects people, of course, would have to do with what kind of activity goes out -- goes on in that country, do people have traplines there and how would that affect it. So...
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. And I guess that's an area that has come up is impact of fires on traplines and travel, particularly in winter. So have you had personal experience with that?
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: I have. The two experiences that I have have to do with trails or routes, you know, going through these various fires.
There was a big fire out on the Tozi River flats, which is kind of a big area of -- if it's not very low trees,
it's essentially tundra, almost like a little sort of a lobe of the Arctic that comes down south into the Interior and probably has to do with the Ray Mountains.
It's a colder place climatically. And that's also one of the places that gets hit, seemingly, again and again by fire.
And this -- this area of flats is -- is all tussocks and pretty miserable going, but there used to be a nice route right across the middle, nice being a relative term,
but you could go along this bluff that went alongside a creek and the animals had all kind of discovered the same thing
because there was some nice game trails and you could walk on these gravel benches.
They are sort of kind of like birch parks, I would guess, because the east wind really pulverizes that place in the wintertime.
It just really blasts, it's a -- it's sort of a dry bench with some birch right on kind of the curve, maybe a 50 foot high bluff, just sort of gently rounded,
and then further back, spruce trees, and then you'd be back into this -- this tussock, tundra, heath, whatever you want to call it.
And of course, the tundra -- the tussocks were absolutely miserable to terrible walking, just about as bad as it can get in Alaska, which is pretty bad.
But the bluff was a nice route, and there was game trails going through there, and little distinct paths that sort of wove through, and you got a satisfying sense of progress walking out there.
I had reason to walk out there after the fire, and boy, what a mess it was. All the -- the little potholes and so forth that I was accustomed to using for water had all dried up.
And in their place, a nice sort of a clear little mini pond that was pretty good drinking water, you could maybe run it through a filter or something, was this little 1 inch oil, essentially looked like an oil slick on top of it. It was just scummy, nastiest looking thing; you'd never drink it.
Some of the little feeder creeks that went through there had all disappeared probably because of the moss that, you know, acted as their water reservoir had burned off.
And the walking was just awful. All -- all of the spruce trees and the birch trees had fallen over and the thing was just a jigsaw puzzle of deadfall and just misery.
And actually what ended up being the better walking was -- was out in the tussocks. The tussocks were -- the sides had burned off.
You can't -- I learned from that experience that you can't kill those things. They were blackened stumps, maybe 8 inches in diameter, that came to a little slightly bigger head.
And so you could -- you could see what was going on, and there was flat ground in between, so although the passage was narrow, maybe less than 10 inches in between these tussocks,
you could at least see where you were going and you could kind of weave your way through.
But on top of each of these blackened, dead looking stumps was a lovely little tuft of fresh greenery coming out, so that -- so that -- it may be, too, the fire cycle has to do why those things grow so tall.
So that was -- that country was pretty much ruined, and I can't help but think that all the animals that used that route to cross would have to find someplace else, someplace else probably without cover,
too, because the nice thing about this is, you know, you could -- an animal could kind of work its way down these trails but still be kind of half in cover.
The other experience I had in the wintertime was we were working on the Tanana Allakaket trail, and after that fire came through that same year, we did some sort of reconstruction work on that trail.
Some of it was this sort of predictable, the fire burns through, it's hot, it burns the roots out from under the trees, the trees all come down and make a mess.
That was kind of expected, at least in the area with bigger timber.
The little -- the little jack spruce, the little black spruce this big around tend to stay put.
But the big ones, you know, you're getting up to this size, probably they are more exposed to the wind or they've got more weight
or more height compared to the ratio, their roots spread, and those are all over.
So you know, when you got into some bigger timber, you expected that problem. And we -- we got around that by simply, you know, getting there with a chainsaw and just chopping a way through.
And most of the stuff is still kind of halfway up in the air so it wasn't such bad cutting.
A problem, though, that we didn't anticipate, one of the spots where the trail went through black spruce, little ones, was always the nicest part of the trail.
And this -- and this was a trail that was put in probably about 1910, 1915 as far as we could tell.
And that was always one of the nicest spots because that stuff grows so slowly and is so stable that it provided a little bit of shelter, it provided some good, clear definition to the trail.
Sometimes it's hard to find the trail places where it's more kind of trees spaced here and there.
And you could almost bank on it not being a place where you were going to run into deadfall, you know, trees across that you'd have to cut your way through.
Well, that was still the same about the -- about the trees. None of these had tipped over, but what had happened was apparently that trail was the lowest spot, and you know, over the years,
it had made sort of a dent, sort of a groove, again probably being used as a game trail in the summertime.
So there would be -- there -- there was actually like a little wet, kind of a ditch through there. And as a consequence, when the fire came through, it didn't burn that -- that vegetation.
However, apparently it was hot and dry enough that it burned the vegetation on either side of the trail right down to dirt, basically.
Most -- most of the moss. So what was left was kind of a stencil of the trail, instead of the trail being sunken, it was now raised up.
So to go -- to go through there with a snow machine got pretty tricky. You were kind of -- you were kind of up on this really narrow burn -- excuse me, berm, and it was quite a balancing act to keep that thing from going off to the side.
And of course, if you did go off to the side, you were into a mess, you know, because with a snow machine, you know, once you auger down into a hole like that, unless you have someplace to run, which you wouldn't,
because of all this black spruce, you were kind of stuck. So that -- that was -- that was fairly dramatic.
The last one was the summer, there was a fresh burn out kind of north of the Yukon River, and the year before and the year before that, my wife and I used it as a route, as a walking route to -- to get back kind of in the country further back.
And it was a pretty nice -- it was a pretty nice route. And we -- we had blazed some trees to kind of make our way through there.
And according to a guy I talked to at BLM, this -- well, one thing that was exceptional about this fire here was it had a really low, I think they call it a soil moisture index.
I'm not sure if that's the right expression for it but it has to do with -- with how dry all the -- the moss and the leaves and the duff and so forth are.
Apparently this year the conditions were really dry, so because of that, the -- it was an extremely hot fire, and we -- we saw everything from hillsides where big white spruce about as big around as a 5 gallon bucket were all laid down, each with their crowns all green and completely intact.
We saw places that were black spruce with moss that was literally 2 foot thick that had been completely burned down to dirt.
I mean, just bare dirt with -- with spruce trees, the remains of spruce trees laid here and there just as neat as could be, the root stock burned, all the little roots burned away,
and it was just like the whole tree had been neatly torched and then quickly doused and just laying here and there.
And then even some places, too, where big stands of white spruce that -- that had rooted on rocks, you know, it was -- it was better conditions, they were deep, more deeply rooted,
that had burned all the way up to the crown, nothing but just this 80 or 90 foot tall blackened stock with maybe one little stick sticking off to the side that somehow it escaped burning.
So it was really interesting to see all those changes. And of course, the polygonal ground was all exposed, beautifully exposed, you could see every polygon,
the low places, the high places and where the swamps were, where the moist places were, were now sort of like little mud puddles. So...
BILL SCHNEIDER: I -- I hadn't totally realized that the roots of these big trees were burning, and then the tree itself couldn't support itself and so fell over.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Uh hum.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Yeah. Yeah. Some -- yeah. Sometime -- we first looked at it with binoculars and we had a hard time trying to figure out what we were seeing because the ground was all white,
and the reason it was white was because of this fine white ash, it had just completely turned it to powder. But here were all these -- these green trees all lay down.
But apparently what happened is the fire came through so quickly, and it -- and this was usually on steep -- steep slopes, too, that it just burned the support right out from under the trees, but before --
but the fire was moving so quickly that it didn't really have a chance to get up into the crowns, and so over they went. And it seemed -- it seemed like once they were down on the ground, they didn't burn either.
I mean, it might be a little brown, kind of like it had gotten some heat, but you wouldn't see that -- that blackened crispy appearance. So...
SIDNEY STEPHENS: That's pretty amazing.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Yeah. It was. It was really neat. And of course, I mean, you could imagine stuff like this, had we a trapline through there, it would just wreak havoc.
I mean, whether or not it affects how animals re -- you know, reoccupy that area is something I don't know much about.
I have heard that, you know, 10, 15 years after a burn is -- is a pretty good time because you're starting to get grass and stuff that mice like is kind of coming to a nice peak, and so the animals follow that.
But I haven't heard anybody say that right after a burn is good.
And if you had a trapline there, you'd be looking at a major cutting job. If you left traps hanging in trees,
like most people do who have -- who have pole sets, you'd be looking at traps that had -- the springs had lost their temper. So it would be -- it would be kind of a disaster.
Any trapping cabins you had, too, unless they are on a major tributary that, you know, is wet enough to keep the fire at bay, that there probably would be cooked, too, so it would be a mess.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. Wow. Great job, Charlie.
SIDNEY STEPHENS: Lots of good pictures. We'll edit that out.
BILL SCHNEIDER: I think we're -- I think that does it. Great.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Okay.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Thank you very much.
CHARLIE CAMPBELL: Sure.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Want to hit the red button?