Tim Mowry / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / January 23, 2005
Like a professor standing at the lectern in a college classroom, Jim Masek sat on the back of his Ski-Doo Skandic at the Alaska Trappers Association's annual wolf trapping school Saturday and addressed an attentive audience of 15 students.
The classroom in this case was a small, frozen, snow-covered pond at Twin Bears Campground, 30 miles east of Fairbanks on Chena Hot Springs Road.
The quintessential Alaska trapper, Masek wore insulated Carhartt pants, a Refrigwear parka, a fur hat, bunny boots and yellow, cotton work gloves. A short-handled shovel stuck up next to a wooden box built on the back of the snowmachine.
Would-be wolf trappers decked out in Carhartts, camouflage, bunny boots, mukluks and fur hats stood on both sides of a fresh snowmachine track on the pond. They were examining a spot in the trail where Masek had just buried a Manning No. 9 leg-hold wolf trap. In trapping lingo, it's called a trail set because it's placed in the middle of a trail. It's one of two ways to trap wolves in Alaska, the other being snares.
Masek had already shown trappers how to cut a hole in the snow using a large metal "cookie cutter" and use wax paper on the bottom and top of the trap to prevent the trap from freezing as a result of moisture or snow. He then used what looked like a giant ping-pong paddle to sprinkle snow over the trap to cover it. Finally, Masek drove his snowmachine over the trap to erase any sign of a disturbance.
"See that gray shadow there?" Masek asked, pointing at the still-set trap. "You want to cover that."
Using the paddle, he sprinkled some more snow on the spot and then used the handle on a small broom to draw snowmachine tracks into the fresh snow.
"A lot of wolves will come down the trail and see that smooth spot and it's enough to make them aware and at least stop and look at it," said Masek, who has almost 100 trail sets on his 300-mile trapline north of Fairbanks.
In trapping wolves, it's important to keep everything as natural as possible, he said. Masek goes so far as to place traps where wolves leave their tracks in the snow because if they come through the area again they will likely step in the same spot.
"If I see a single wolf's tracks coming down my trail, I'll pick a track, and that's where that No. 9 is going to go," Masek said. "Something along that trail has timed his gait to walk in that location each time.
"You probably don't see the structure," he said. "It might be a bump in the trail 50 yards back or it might be a bump right in front of you."
For the next hour, Masek revealed secrets that have taken him almost 30 years of trapping to learn.
Don't leave the snowmachine running when working on a set. Change gloves often so you don't leave any scent. If you're carrying marten bait in a sled with wolf traps, carry the traps in front and the bait in back so the smell of the bait doesn't infect the traps. Plan where you're going to set a trap and get it prepped before reaching the spot so you spend as little time as possible in a spot.
At one point, Jim Smith, another instructor who was clad in Carhartt coveralls, piped up to interrupt Masek.
"Hey, Jim," Smith said to Masek, "I hear Friends of Animals is going to start putting metal detectors on wolf collars."
"Good," Masek replied with a grin. "I could use a new metal detector."
Now in its 15th year, the ATA's annual wolf trapping school offers a chance for novice trappers to learn from the best wolf trappers in the state.
"These guys are legends," said Ken Walter, one of the dozen or so students who paid $160 to take the two-day class.
Masek, for example, is famous in trapping circles for catching 12 wolves in one set several years back. Paul Kirsteatter, now 82, has trapped wolves for more than 50 years and once caught 111 wolves in a season, a record that will almost surely never be broken. Mike Johnson is an expert wolfer who lives in Bettles, 200 miles north of Fairbanks in the Brooks Range. Smith spent the better part of 40 years pursuing canines in the Alaska Range.
Each instructor has their own specialty. Masek and Johnson specialize in trail sets. Kirsteatter is an expert on snares. Smith's forte is the use of urine posts to catch wolves.
"These four guys could cure any wolf problem in Alaska," boasted Jim Walters, one of the school's organizers.
Even though Alaska is embroiled in a controversy over its current wolf control programs, which allow hunters to shoot wolves from airplanes in selected areas, there wasn't much talk about the state's wolf control activities or the furor they have raised with animal rights groups around the country.
Instead, the focus was on catching wolves and the tricks that can be used to catch what trappers consider to be the ultimate trophy. Trappers catch approximately 1,500 wolves a year in Alaska, which has an estimated 10,000 wolves, give or take one or two thousand.
"It's like a hunter killing a 60-inch bull moose," said Walters.
Walter, a 25-year-old arctic survival instructor at Eielson Air Force Base, showed up hoping to learn "every trick of the trade" regarding wolf trapping. It was stories like Johnson's that Walter wanted to hear.
Johnson told a story that illustrated how cagey wolves can be. He recalled a time years ago that he decided to use blue ribbons tied to a willow branch stuck in the snow to mark his trail sets. As it turned out, Johnson caught a wolf in one of his sets.
"Those other five or six wolves milled around trying to figure out what was going on and you could see where one of them came over and sniffed that blue ribbon on the willow," said Johnson. "I went down the trail after that, and every set I came to with a blue ribbon, they went out 100 yards around the trap. Every one.
"It doesn't take wolves long to get tuned in," he said.
Walter came close to catching a wolf last year in a snare, but it got away.
"We made the (snare) loop too big, and it caught him around the waist, and he was able to chew it off," he said.
Walter was hoping what he learned in the school will prevent similar mistakes in the future.
"We want to try and get it right the first time," he said.
In particular, Walter was paying attention to the importance not leaving any human sign or scent in an area.
Instructors like Masek don't have any problem sharing their secrets with other trappers.
"We've got probably 15,000 wolves in 360 million acres," he said. "I guess there's probably enough space for a few extra wolf trappers."
Chuck Lamb traveled to Fairbanks from Dillingham hoping to use what he learns to trap wolves on his family's remote homestead, west of Cook Inlet in Southcentral Alaska. While he has caught just about every other furbearer there is in Alaska, Lamb has never trapped a wolf.
"I grew up trapping coyotes in Kansas and always figured if I could trap a coyote, I could trap a wolf," said Lamb. "That's not the case."
Using what he learned in the school two years ago, Dan Nelson caught his first wolf last winter on the Tanana flats. The wolf, a gray 105-pound male, was still alive when Nelson found it.
"I was pretty excited." said Nelson. "I wouldn't have caught him if it wasn't for what I learned here."
The 28-year-old Fairbanks pharmacist returned this year in hopes of picking up some more pointers.
"I think I've got the bug," Nelson confided with a gleam in his eye.
News-Miner staff writer Tim Mowry can be reached at email@example.com or 459-7587
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