The season finale of Discovery Channel’s reality show “Yukon Men” will air tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern. The show follows families in Tanana, Alaska, a small town located along the Yukon River, as they hunt, trap, fish and perform other duties to survive in the harsh environment of central Alaska. One of the main characters is Stan Zuray, a Boston native who moved to the area more than 40 years ago.
Trapper & Predator Caller was able to catch up with Zuray Friday before the “Yukon Men” finale to talk about the show and what it means to him and the tight-knit community he lives in. Zuray touched on everything from the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the show both inside and outside of Tanana and the way trapping is portrayed in the nationally televised program to how producers handled a tragedy and the future of “Yukon Men”
You were born and raised in Boston, right?
Yes, right in the inner city there in a section called Dorchester.
OK, can you talk about how you decided to make the move from there all the way up to Alaska? That’s a pretty big change.
Yeah, I think the move to Alaska would probably have to be looked at as sort of a gradual thing. I remember moving out of the city and moving to kind of a farm-type thing in New Hampshire. Then I went to the West Coast, all around California, southern, northern, and up into Oregon, and then across the border into Canada. Then I went into the northwoods of Canada. That’s probably the first time I really did something like I’m doing here. Way up in northern British Columbia and around a lot of people who hunted and trapped and all that stuff. That was the first time I was really around a lot of that stuff.
After a year and a half in Canada, I decided to go to Alaska because it was my country, instead of Canada, and I ended up in this area north of Tanana here where I’m living right now.
So, as you made your way West over the years, is that when you got into hunting, fishing and trapping, or was that always a part of your life?
No, actually I had never hunted before in my life, certainly never trapped, coming from a Boston neighborhood. Yeah, there was maybe an opportunity or two to go hunting. I remember one time going with some people that went hunting in New Hampshire. Even to this day, it’s not something that I feel I do as a sport or something. I mean I might drive dogs for the hell of it or something like that, but hunting isn’t something that I really do for the enjoyment. It’s more something I just do to get through, you know?
When you made the transition up to Alaska, were you on your own then?
I was. Yeah, I was traveling by myself. I was pretty much a loner and stuff like that. I didn’t have anybody to go with for almost all the travels up to New Hampshire and the West Coast and then up to northern British Columbia. The only time I wasn’t alone is when I came up to Alaska, I was with a partner at that time.
And with the type of lifestyle that you have up there, it’s hard even now that you know what you’re doing. What were those first few years like as you were figuring out how to survive in that type of an environment?
Yeah, the first few years, there were a lot of mistakes or just inefficiencies. I look back at them and they weren’t like really bad mistakes, but they were the difference between getting a moose and not getting a moose in the fall or something like that. And being able to put up fish for the dogs and not being able to put up that many, you know, that’s what it was. It wasn’t like I didn’t know the concept or something like that. I really wasn’t efficient at it and, of course, up here when you’re living like this, it can cause big differences in the amount of food you end up with and stuff like that.
So, there were some rough years in the beginning, particularly the first year. I burned up everything I owned in a little tent because of a spark. And I ended up basically eating up the majority of my dogs and puppies come fall time because I couldn’t get enough food for them and us. Yeah, there were some pretty crazy, crazy times there.
You know, like maybe in a city, there isn’t much of a difference between a successful insurance salesman and an unsuccessful one. It’s just little inefficiencies. And that’s the way it is up here. You’re totally dependent on the food you get, and if you’re a dummy, you’re up a creek.
Did the locals help you in your early years to learn some of the successful ways to hunt and trap and survive there?
Yes and no. I lived quite a ways from the town back in those days. I lived 40 miles out of town. Basically, in the summer, I never saw the town once, and in the winter, you know, you’d come in once a month, and maybe in the spring, once every two weeks or something.
Like, I knew people dried fish for dogs on racks. In the beginning, I remember I built an incredible, beautiful, laborious smokehouse to dry fish. I thought you dried it in a smokehouse, you know? But you don’t. You dry them in an open rack. You dry people food in a smokehouse. There are all of these stupid little things that I did even for a couple of years before somebody said, “No, no, no. You don’t do that.” People helped. I mean, I can think of a number of things — people gave me dogs, people gave me food, sleds. I remember my first real dog sled was given to me by a fella. There were three dogs with it and that made my team of six dogs because I had three dogs myself.
People helped me and were willing to. Certainly the knowledge was here. It’s just, sometimes, you don’t know the right questions to ask. And when you do think of a question, you’re 40 miles away from the nearest people.
One thing that’s pretty clear from watching the show is it seems like Tanana is a pretty tight-knit community. It seems like everyone pretty much relies on one another and is pretty close. Did the town embrace you right away as an East Coast guy with no roots there, or did you have to earn their trust and friendship?
Yeah, I would say there were people who were willing to help me right away in the beginning, but there is a tight-knit, closed aspect to the town too where, you know, they watch you and see who you are and stuff like that. And, yeah, I can recall both happening. But I think living out where we were, it wasn’t like we showed up on an airplane and wanted to be a part of the town. I came in from the backcountry, and that surprised a lot of people. People would say, “Where or you coming from? Fairbanks?” And I’d say, “No, I’m coming from the Tozitna River, 40 miles back.” And so I think that helped a lot. People respected that stuff.
How has the show gone over in the community? Do you think people enjoy the publicity or that they feel that it shows the town in a good light?
You know, maybe it’s like this in every community, but if you can get like 60 percent of the people for a certain thing, like if you can votes in the town on whether the town wants to put a road in here or whatever … sometimes if you can get even 60 to 40 percent or something like that, you consider yourself good. But this, I am really totally amazed that the vast majority of people in town are behind the show.
I think the production company that came in here, we’re really lucky from what I understand because not every company is like this. But the guy is a generally good guy I think, and he’s been working with the people. They go a long way to try to be really culturally sensitive while they’re here. And the other thing too is they don’t just come in for a three-week time or a month-and-a-half time and then leave and get all of their episodes in a short period of time and tell everybody what to do. Now, they’ve been living with us for almost a year. They don’t leave. They just live with us. That’s the way it goes. So, people are getting to know them as people that live here. They just work with us and follow us and they’re not hindering us. One of the guys who works with me has been to Everest, to the top of Everest twice. And another guy has been to some of the worst seas you’ve ever seen on the Bering Sea and stuff like that, a world-renowned photographer out there. So, these guys, when they go with us, we’re all taking care of each other when we’re out there. It’s like we’re all in it together. We’re all just making sure everybody is OK and all that. It’s not like we have to take care of these guys, like they slow us down. It’s pretty cool being around them, just being around people that are world-class camera outdoorsmen. So, it’s pretty cool.
And the town, I can literally, on one hand, think of the people in town here that don’t like the show. And they didn’t like the show before the show even started. They didn’t like the idea of it and they’re just bull-headed people. The majority of the people in town really like it. There are kids running around in town right now that say, “Hey, you be Charlie (Wright), and I’ll be Courtney (Agnes), and you can be Stan.” And they play “Yukon Men” and stuff like that. You know, it’s pretty cool.
I think it’s actually made kids in town look at their own culture as being valuable. You can see that amongst the young kids. I run this teen center in town. Every Saturday night, I open up this old log cabin. There’s some computers in there, and there’s a big TV in there. Usually the kids just want to play these music videos all night long — people in sunglasses doing gang signs. You know, I just let them do whatever they want. I don’t try to make them watch trapping videos. They do what they want, and what they want is to watch music videos. Well, the other night, I said, “Well, I got some episodes of ‘Yukon Men’ here and I put them on the computer. If you guys want to watch that or watch the music videos, do whatever you want.” It was the first night of the season. I only run it during the wintertime. And they said, “Let’s watch ‘Yukon Men.’” The next thing I know, you’ve got 15, 20 kids watching “Yukon Men.” And when the episode was over, they wanted to watch another “Yukon Men.” So for three quarters of the whole evening, they watched the episodes of “Yukon Men.” I just sat there and watched them and said, “You know, this is something, wanting to watch somebody of their own culture do traditional things instead of wanting to watch somebody from L.A. with sunglasses on be cool and strut around on stage.” I thought that was really cool.
Yeah, that’s a unique perspective from inside Tanana. Did you have reservations at all before you decided to be a part of the show, when they first contacted you?
Yeah, definitely. I thought it could be offensive to people, depending on how they did the show. A lot of reality shows, they purposely try to make people look stupid. And then some of them are just, in order to get good stuff on TV, you have to put up with so much unrealness. I was worried about that. I didn’t worry about it too much, but I had all of those things on my mind.
I must say the drama thing, that gets a little heavy. More so, I worry about it for other people than myself, like how other people would react to it. The drama stuff, everybody just kind of looks at it and we look at each other and smile. I mean, something like “You could die if you do this or that.” We all smile at each other, and then we realize, “Yeah, you could die.” But you could die in the city too, driving down the highway. You know, it’s OK because the stuff they’re showing is real. All of the animals and the trapping, that’s what we do anyway. They came in in the middle of winter. We were in the middle of doing that. And everybody seems to enjoy seeing that.
There is obviously some real drama in the show too. During the filming, one of your town members (George Roberts) went missing and was found dead after a search-and-rescue operation. It must have been really difficult having the cameras there for all of that, especially as family members and friends were morning the loss. Can you talk a little bit about that situation and how it unfolded?
Any time you have an emergency in the town, like somebody is missing or something like that, most missing persons or whatever, they’re found. I remember the morning that our friend was missing, it was like, “Oh, OK, well, we’ll look around. We’ll just stop what we’re doing and we’ll get this nailed down. And then when he’s found, we’ll go back to business.” Anytime this happens, you just go into a mode of figuring it out. But there was no feeling like there was going to be a problem.
The film crews had talked with us about search and rescues and stuff, and they said, “Well, if you ever go on a search and rescue, we’d really love to go with you.” And like everything else, we just try to let them know what we’re doing, and so they were involved in filming it — us going around town, talking to other people, looking for where the guy might be.
At some point, it became obvious that we had a really bad problem and that he probably was gone. A little while after that, it became more serious. At that point, the film crew just backed out themselves. They just said, “Well, this is way too heavy of a deal. This is getting personal. The family is really worried now.” They backed out. They stopped filming. Up until then, that’s how they got all the film stuff of the before, just because they were filming, and everybody figured it was going to be this drama thing and then he’d be found.
The film crew knows everybody in town. When it was realized that he was found and it was a terrible thing, at that point, the family asked that the film crew record it. If nothing else, it would be a warning to the young kids in town and up and down the Yukon too. This is a tight community, but the whole river is like a community. Families in one village are related to families in another. And so, the parents wanted it to be filmed. It was announced that they would be filming during the preparation of the meat, at the potlatches, at the burial site. If you didn’t want to talk to them, that was fine, but they were not to be harassed or anything like that. There wasn’t any problem like that anyway, but they were told that this was a family request. And the film crews started filming again.
It was a pretty powerful thing. The film crew worked with the family a lot in keeping it very culturally sensitive and all that sort of stuff. Because obviously people from the outside don’t know how things are here.
Another topic that doesn’t get portrayed on television very often is trapping, especially in the detail that you get into at times on the show. And many trappers kind of worry about bad publicity for trapping on TV. Did you have any concerns about that going into the show? And how do you think the producers have handled that aspect?
Well, I did, but I’ve had a bit of experience. I’m really involved in a lot of fish issues, fisheries issues, because of all the fishing we do. And my experience with that is that if you try to hide your lifestyle and not rock the boat … I have friends who say, “Just let it go. Don’t go arguing with people over regulations that get made. Just try to live your life and don’t get into all that.” And it just seems like we just get bit in the ass over and over again when we stick our head in the sand like that.
There are times when somebody will say, “It’s terrible, and they need to stop those people” and stuff like that. But on the other side, you need to stand up for what you do. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s ethical. For God’s sakes, it’s renewable. It’s all sorts of things. There’s nothing wrong with it. My attitude is you just need to let people see it. If it’s graphic, maybe people don’t want to watch it. I mean, I don’t like to watch an animal in a trap. But it’s what I do. I don’t enjoy that aspect of trapping, but people need to see it for what it is. It’s no different than anything anybody else does in their lives every day in the city. They impact nature in ways that are often kind of crude. We do it by letting somebody else do it for the food we eat or by living in big houses and burning lots of fuel oil. This is no different. We’re just taking care of business ourselves. I think we need to show it and try to explain it and let people judge it on the open market, instead of trying to hide it. That’s just kind of the way I am.
The film crew, they have their limits of course on what they’ll show. They could be more graphic. They have their limits. Of course, it seems to many that there are no limits, but there’s only so much they’ll show too. But basically, they just show the way we do it. I know a fair amount of people have problems with some of our methods. You know, some of it is kind of ridiculous like, “I use a 7-foot pole when I strangle lynx, not a 10-foot pole.” I mean, some of it is really ridiculous. But some of it is like, “You should shoot it instead of stunning it,” little differences like that. But the film crew, they don’t get into that. They just film what we do. They don’t tell us they want this or they want that. They just follow us and they just film us. We say, “We do it this way,” and that’s how they film it. Sometimes you screw up and, well, it ends up on TV. And I don’t know about it until the night it airs. That’s just the way TV is. The people who are on it, like me, we don’t even know what scenes are going to be on it. We’re not even told that, let alone how it’s portrayed. We don’t even know if it’s going to be on there.
You talked a little bit before about the reaction from inside the community. Have you heard much feedback from the outside yet on the show, positive or negative?
Yeah, and that’s another thing. On the feedback from outside, it’s sort of like the stuff from inside the village. I’m absolutely, totally surprised by the comments that we get from the common people in urban America, even from people who are slightly anti-hunting or anti-trapping, people that would never do that themselves and don’t like watching it. (I’m surprised) at the level that those people have tried to understand the show. They will at least say things like, “I guess if these people are using it for food, I can accept it” or something like that. And a lot of people just love it. You know, you’re always going to find people that are ready to get a gun and remove you from the planet. But, yeah, I’m really surprised …
I think it’s just the fact that we eat the meat. You know, the last bear I killed, I fed the hide to the dogs to warm them and I kept all of the meat off the grizzly bear. A lot of people would think, “Oh, I thought grizzly bear was inedible.” And here I’m feeding the hide to the dogs to warm them and making sausage out of the meat. People kind of respect that, you know? So, it’s making them see it in a different light.
A large part of the show also deals with sort of the coming of age of your boy, Joey (Zuray), and Charlie’s boy, Robert (Wright), and the relationship that those young men have with their fathers. It has to be interesting to see that dynamic between you and Joey unfold on TV.
Yeah, we smile back and forth at each other on that stuff. You know, they’ll catch him at some moments telling me off or something like that and me getting a little irritated at him. It’s pretty funny. You know, it’s there. It’s true. I think I have a really good relationship with him considering the fact that he’s 22 years old. When I was that age, I could barely talk to my father. We have our moments, but it’s really something on TV. We get a kick out of it.
And I think the season finale is tonight, right?
Yeah. Then we’ll have to see depending on ratings and all that stuff, they’ll see how it goes for another one, which, I don’t know, we’re doing pretty good on ratings so a lot of us are hoping it still goes here.
And you said earlier that they’re still in the community filming?
Yeah. There’s been a number of times where the production company doesn’t know what’s going to happen and they just keep filming. That’s what they’re doing right now. They’re here filming. Ten days from now, Nov. 1, they’ll be with guys heading out trapping. Right now, they’re filming us getting our dogs ready and everything and training them and getting wood. Like I say, whatever they do, they’re out there filming.
And you’re looking forward to a second season if it happens?
I am. Yeah, I am. I know one real common thing that I get a lot of times is, “You’re used to being free and traveling out there with your dogs and stuff, how can you stand a bunch of people hanging around you and having you do all this stuff and slowing you down?” And, boy, for one thing, there’s a lot of time I’ll be by myself and I’ll be with one other person, just my son or one of my friends, and there will be a single camera with us. At most, there will be two cameras. And they’re both, like I say, world-class outdoorsmen. They have no trouble keeping up with us or staying ahead of us or whatever. It’s not like that. If I’m up at my fish camp, there will be one guy there. Once in a while, if they have something special, if you’re doing a major thing, putting in a fish wheel or something like that, there will be a couple. It’s just not like that. They don’t slow us down. Once in a while, you have to stop and explain to the camera what you’re doing, and then you’re back to work.
For 40 years, I ran the trapline all by myself and, once in a while, you get together with a friend and you go on a hunt or you go on a trail-breaking trip somewhere, you know, you do something with somebody and it’s like, “Wow, this is really fun doing it with a friend.” You know how trapping is. It’s kind of solitary. The way I look at it is, “Heck, I did it for 40 years all by myself. This is kind of fun being with some guys. All these guys have skinned elk, hunted this or that. I mean, these guys aren’t a bunch of city people with cameras that we’ve got to take care of. Some of them probably know how to skin a moose cleaner than I do.
We also publish Deer & Deer Hunting here in this office. On your travels across the country as you headed west and north, were you a deer hunter at all?
No. The first time I was around any hunting at all was when I was in northern Canada and I lived around the Indians in northern B.C. That’s where I started learning about how to hunt. I watched people skin. I watched people make snowshoes. I watched people live in cabins with moose ribs hanging on all of the walls instead of pictures. That’s where I learned the whole hunting thing in northern Canada, which was just before I came here. Those guys shot so many moose and stuff. Even in northern Canada, I never shot a large animal. I never shot a moose or a bear or anything until I came to Alaska and was living out in the backwoods. I got dropped off in the backwoods on a ski-plane on a little river and waved goodbye to it. Soon after that, I shot my first moose and shot my first bear and all that stuff. No, not a hunter at all then.
Is there anything else you’d like to add? Any insights for fans of the show or things to watch for as the season wraps up here?
Well, you know, it seems like what’s been working really well with the show is just as much realism as we can make. And people seem to want to learn about the town, not just a couple of guys that run around in the woods. Everybody is just working toward the things that seem to be working. We’re just talking about that all of the time, and trying to keep the show as real as we can and still make good TV.
For more on the show, visit the “Yukon Men” page on Discovery Channel’s website.