It's been a sad and busy year in the Interior village of Tanana.
A controversial new road is in the works, unlocking access to the community of 250 people to the Alaska highway and beyond. A 19-year-old man sits in jail accused of shooting and killing two visiting Alaska State Troopers in May. The Tanana Tribal Council banished two others following the deaths, sparking a civil rights lawsuit.
How much of that heartache will make its way to TV screens when new episodes of "Yukon Men," a 3-year-old Discovery series about life along the riverbanks, premiers Tuesday night? We asked series regular and longtime Tanana trapper Stan Zuray to talk about the life as an Alaska reality TV star, welcoming an unlikely road to the Bush and whether neighbors roll their eyes when they watch the show.
Sometimes, he says, it all involves a little re-enacting.
Questions were emailed to Zuray, who said he had spotty cell phone coverage at fish camp. Answers are edited for length.
Q. How did you get involved in the show?
A. Friend of mine (Virgil Umphenour, a guide in Fairbanks) was contacted by Paper Route Productions looking for trapper/hunter people in Alaska and suggested me to them. I started sending pictures of what we do here and it all flowed from that.
Q. Why did you agree to participate? Are you glad you made that decision?
A. I’m glad I did agree to do it. It has been an opportunity for many townspeople, and the majority of people here like the show and what it’s done for the portrayal of the lifestyle. I personally did it to showcase what I viewed as a meaningful, hardworking, ethical, lifestyle and to let people not from Alaska see it for what it is and not all the misconceptions of us as poachers and cruel trappers, etc. I always felt that if people could see what we really do, while they may not like it they could at least understand the value of it as a lifestyle.
Q. What have Tanana residents told you about the series?
The majority by far enjoy and are glad about the series. That is hard to do in this place or any place, actually. The camera crew actually lives with us in the village and are real friends with many of the people. There are a few who do not like the show, did not like it when it was an idea and do not like it now.
Kids have been seen running around in town saying, “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. The kids love it.
I think it’s helped make kids in town look at their own culture as being more valuable. You can see that. I run this teen center in town. On Saturday night, I open up this old log cabin. There’s some computers in there, and there’s a TV in there. Usually the kids just play these music videos all night -- people in sunglasses doing gang signs. I let them do whatever they want. I don’t try to make them watch outdoor videos. They do what they want, and what they want is to watch music videos. Well, when “Yukon Men” came out I said, “Well, I got some episodes of ‘Yukon Men’ here and I put them on the computer.” It was the first night of the season. 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 all night they watched the episodes of “Yukon Men.” I just sat there and looked at them and thought, 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 cool.
Q. The road to Tanana, now under construction, is part of this season's storyline. Do you support the road?
A. I came to the Tanana area specifically because there was no road to it. I feel it is more up to the young people in town and those who were born here to decide the issue, so I voice no opinions at meetings, etc. I spent my life running from the city or better put running towards God's country and I’m good at it and will continue to do that.
I don’t support it but realize that as more people populate this planet it’s inevitable. Nature takes care of itself -- one day it will wipe the slate clean and start all over again. Maybe next time around the ruling species can be more humble and not destroy so much of the others.
Q. Do you watch any other Alaska-based reality shows?
“Deadliest Catch” and “Swamp People” -- probably ’cause they are like us trappers here. Put out sets and see what you catch. My idea of being a fan, however, is 10 minutes of any show and then I get bored.
Q. What is your opinion of those shows?
The shows are like ours. They dramatize them, but it’s also reenactments of what they really do. The drama is absolutely needed to hold the audience who has a remote ready to click at the slightest lack of excitement but you can get a good idea of the day-to-day life of these people on these shows -- it’s hard work and can be dangerous.
Q. From what I've seen of “Yukon Men,” the narrative is usually portrayed as a high-stakes struggles for subsistence. What do Tanana residents think about those storylines?
I think most of us realize that that level of excitement is for TV and we have fun kidding each other... There are no TV stars in Tanana -- everyone has each other’s number. But that said there is a level of respect for many in the town that follow this lifestyle and go out in the cold trapping and hunting and fish on the river, etc. And no one has to think long to remember all those that have proven over and over that it is dangerous and you can easily die if you screw up. It’s just that as opposed to the show we don’t dwell on it and talk about it.
Q. Do they feel it accurately represents life in the village or do they roll their eyes?
It’s a good-natured roll of the eyes but as I said before, everyone realizes all these dramas have played out over and over. All these storylines come from the town’s people and the cast. Some are impossible to get everything on camera as they happen so get re-created in parts and interviews added etc. But all these thing have happened. All the animals were really hunted and trapped. Charlie really runs a trapline each winter, cameras or not. I really got hauled out of a tree by a grizzly and fished each summer for 40-plus years. Often the cameras can’t come close to the actual extreme situations we have been in so they rely on narrator drama, which is hard pressed to relate, say, being cold and tired for days on end, etc.
Q. The upcoming season touches on the fatal shooting of two troopers that shocked the community earlier this year. What was your experience that day?
A. Total sadness for the families of the troopers and the affected families in Tanana. Also a feeling of having heard enough of the hatred that caused this tragedy being spread around town by some.
Q. How did you hear the news of the shootings?
A. Heard something bad happened in town so called the VPSO as I’m on the fire department and he’s in charge.
Q. Did you agree with the local tribal government's decision to banish two people following the deaths?
A. They are a tribal government and should not be beholden to any state or federal legal rules of correctness I feel. Tribes have made these decisions for thousands of years and I support them on it fully. They should not be held to the politically correct laws of the government.
Q. Where are you today, as you write this? In town, or in fish camp?
A. At the moment and for the last three months I’m at fish camp. It is 40 miles upriver of Tanana right on the banks of the Yukon River. I’m in my living/cook shack and on a laptop emailing these questions using a snail paced satellite dish Internet connection.
Q. What do you plan to do this weekend?
A. Same thing I do every day -- work on something. Today it’s cut the 120 salmon I have in the cold box on the beach into what will become dry dog food. Dogs get fed daily, fish wheel kept running, I count salmon that go through my fish wheel each day for a small job -- no end to work -- it’s more an issue of what gets put off each day.
NOTE: The third season of “Yukon Men” premieres 8 p.m. Tuesday on Discovery, Channel 56 on GCI cable in Anchorage.