The following appears in the May issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY CHRIS COCOLES
PHOTOS BY DISCOVERY CHANNEL
It took a tiny dot on the Alaska map – in one of the state’s most isolated communities – for Stan Zuray to escape his loneliness and despair.
Consider the irony dripping from his story when you learn Zuray’s first home is New England’s center of the universe – Boston and its five million or so metropolitan residents. Now 67, Zuray grew up with loving parents and a loyal circle of friends who he went to Red Sox baseball games with, partied with and, at times, raised hell with.
Yet he was miserable, lost and in danger of self-destructing there. So now you can understand a bit more why he’s spent the last 40 years living the rugged yet simple life in Tanana, home to the trappers and subsistence hunters who are featured on Discovery Channel’s series Yukon Men.
Unlike the chaos and buzz of Boston, Tanana’s population hovers around 200 or so, and even for Alaska it’s about as far off the beaten path as one could ask for. Boston seemed to unearth a path that Zuray feared treading down.
“People all over, but a lot of my friends were gone; people had died, others joined the service,” says Zuray, who spent his early and young adult years in the turbulent 1960s. “I had older friends in jail and friends getting jobs and starting careers while getting married.”
In a phone interview, he admitted that escaping the torture he seemed to be enduring was the only way to find peace.
“I found myself alone and with no future where I wanted to live,” Zuray says. “I just wanted something else for myself. I wanted something, something better. I was definitely lost.”
Finding his way took him way out of the way.
ZURAY’S SOUTH BOSTON HOME, Dorchester, is not only the city’s largest neighborhood, it’s also a big part of Beantown’s rich history. On March 4, 1776, George Washington-commanded Continental Army troops drove away the British from the Dorchester Heights area of Boston for good, helping pave the way
Dorchester eventually became one of the city’s most diverse areas. Its famous residents include a wide range of celebrity – from actor Mark Wahlberg and his brother Donnie’s boy band New Kids on the Block, to one of the country’s most infamous gangsters, Whitey Bulger.
Stan Zuray was just another son of Dorchester growing up. He didn’t lack a supportive family, so there was no broken home to shake free from.
“My parents were really good hard-working parents, and you know how it is when you’re a little kid: They took you to the beach and other places, and it was good,” Zuray says. “But when you get a little bit older and become a teenager, you start rebelling and doing things without your parents and getting in trouble.”
That was during the 1960s, when two of the Massachusetts Kennedy brothers – John’s and Robert’s parents Joseph and Rose have ties to Dorchester – were assassinated and the Vietnam War escalated. Zuray wasn’t a war protester, but he was nonetheless defiant during those days. His friends were just as mischievous and only got into more trouble as they aged.
Zuray’s inner circle included guys significantly older than he was, providing more opportunities and access to the wrong side of the tracks.
“There were times when I was in trouble with the law; it wasn’t anything major,” he says. “But the thing is, I always say the trouble that a teenager gets into and up to the age of 21 is one thing. But the 21 to 30 years of age, that’s the kind of stuff that puts people in jail. That’s where I was heading. That’s where my older buddies were. I had a lot of friends over 10 years older than me. And they had gotten into that type of trouble. You just saw that life ahead of you. And it wasn’t what I wanted.”
His parents had also changed young Stan’s life for the better. Just south of the urban sprawl of Dorchester is Blue Hills Reservation, a 7,000-acre outdoor playground of hiking trails and flora and fauna, a perfect place for a city kid to get away. Young Stan was mesmerized and preordained to bolt the concrete jungles of Boston.
One of many jobs he took as a teenager and into his early 20s was as a commercial fisherman.
“I did fish out of Scituate (a fishing community south of Boston) on a dragger (trawler). That was a job and it was outdoors and the kind of thing that I liked,” Zuray says. “But I don’t think there was anything I was doing like I’m doing up in Alaska. I just liked the outdoors.”
“I loved fishing; even as a little kid I’d always asked to go fishing. And you’d see things in magazines and read about people moving into the woods here or there. But you had no concept of what it is like. It wasn’t like I could put my mind on it and say, ‘Well, I’m going there.’ I didn’t know what ‘there’ was. I mean, I grew up in Dorchester. You had a one-track mind, but there was that thing. And in my mind, I gravitated to it.”
And the Blue Hills Reservation and a Massachusetts fishing boat gig was a good start to get out of the dark cloud hovering over him on the streets of Dorchester. Going west and north seemed like the most logical way out.
IT’S A LONG WAY from the troubles of New England to the junction of the Yukon and Tanana Rivers, where one of the storylines that Yukon Men has followed is the trappers’ vehement opposition to a road. While providing the villagers an easier opportunity to get to the outside world, it’s a treacherous path with limited parking because of surrounding private property, and the terminus on the Yukon just upstream of Tanana is described as only a “turnaround.”
While Zuray left all the necessities behind in Boston – the rest of those featured on the show like Charlie Wright, James Roberts and Courtney Agnes grew up in Alaska – he can understand the argument of why a road in and out of town is a reasonable idea.
“To get a snowmachine into Tanana, it’s about $800 by airplane, because they double freight them and charge you twice as much because it’s a big thing. And that’s a big deal. If the road was open, you can drive on in and get there in about four hours to the big city and get on back,” he says. “Just getting a vehicle into town can cost $1,500.”
But it’s the idea that anyone else with a sense of adventure can come into town that’s put Tananans at odds with each other. For Zuray, who prefers to take advantage of the salmon that run in Tanana’s confluence of rivers – the Yukon and Tanana – and the moose that congregate around the area, anyone else having access to the same fish and game decreases his harvesting odds.
(In one episode from this season, Wright and Roberts were hunting in the final hours of moose season when they regrettably stumbled upon the remains of a slaughtered bull. The animal’s horns were cut off and much of the meat left behind. “This is not the work of Tanana people,” a morose Wright said.)
“There are a lot of people in the village who do the trapping, hunting and fishing lifestyles, and others who don’t do it as much. But the ones who do, they’re the ones who are going to be impacted by people coming in and taking over fishing spots and traplines,” Zuray says. “There are other people who just want to use their trucks and go to town and aren’t as concerned about it.”
But despite their protests and pleas and the challenges that are portrayed on the show as critical to surviving the winter, this is the life Zuray and his cohorts have chosen. And while so many cable TV shows depict “life in Alaska,” many are questioned for their authenticity and honesty, so Zuray hopes his experiences provide a glimpse of “reality” about how difficult it is to fend for yourself in a place like Tanana.
“I do think the show showcases the lifestyle. Often hunting, trapping and fishing traditions get portrayed negatively, and I feel if given a chance to see some of the good sides of it, people would think better of it,” he says. “Yukon Men reached a nationwide audience with that message and I’m thankful for that.”
IF ZURAY WAS GOING to find his happy place, it was going to be through adventure and the challenges a homesteader would take on. So he left Boston for good in the early 1970s.
“It was a long process to go from Dorchester to the West Coast, and then to (British Columbia) in Canada and the progression into the woods, and then eventually to Alaska and the Tozitna River (his cabin there has been featured frequently on YukonMen) and where I started living,” he says.
“And now I’ve been living around there for the last 40-something years. When I got there I realized that’s what I wanted. Once I was there I thought, ‘This is it,’ and something I’ve wanted for a long time, from when I was a little kid in a vacant lot catching snakes at 8 years old.”
As you can imagine, it wasn’t easy at first. (“Those early years in Alaska were the toughest,” he recalls.) Even for someone as resourceful and in his element fishing, hunting and foraging for food, life in Alaska was full of challenges, setbacks and near misses.
But being in an area surrounded by Natives who knew a lot about the subsistence way was invaluable (Stan’s wife Kathleen is also an Alaskan Native).
“I didn’t know what I was doing, although I had some experiences and had been around some people and found myself trying to copy them,” Zuray says.
“You’re around Native people who made some stuff out of the woods: The drills they drilled the wood with; the moose hide and webbing. But when it came to doing it from scratch with no help at all, it was hard and you’d make mistakes. We made a lot of mistakes, which I really wouldn’t trade for anything. But it caused us a lot of difficulty and do a lot of things that were pretty crude.”
Now some of his best friends aren’t his cronies in Boston but of the four-legged variety. In the sixth season premiere episode, Zuray is preparing to leave his riverside salmon camp, 40 miles from Tanana. He chops up chunks of chum salmon, throws them into a pot for cooking so he can feed his dogs, not just companions but also a lifeline for transportation in an area where fuel for snowmachines can be scarce.
“Short of family, these dogs are the most important thing; they’ve been my life for 40-something years,” Zuray says on the show. “When I moved here, I recognized dogs are a pretty necessary part of surviving out here.”
Say what you want about his lifestyle choice so far away from the hustle and bustle of Boston and the plank walk he seemed to be taking there. But there was never a case of buyer’s remorse from Zuray betting on Alaska.
“Oh, there were times when you had to do things that you were sad about. But again, I can’t say that I would trade it because it might have changed the outcome. And it was never something where you said, ‘I may as well leave here and go back to the city,’ or something like that,” he says. “Because what I had gone through in the city, you never want to repeat that. Nothing that I did was ever worth giving up what I saw as potentially a good lifestyle. So you just kept working at going through the hard times with patience. You just keep trying again.” ASJ
Editor’s note: New episodes of Yukon Men appear on Friday nights on the Discovery Channel (check your local listings). For more, go to discovery.com/tv-shows/yukon–men. Like Stan Zuray at facebook.com/stanzuray and follow on Twitter (@stanzuray). Look for an exceprt of Stan’s new book, Carry On: Stan Zuray’s Journey From Boston Greaser To Alaska Homesteader, in the June issue
Q&A With Stan Zuray
Stan Zuray on …
Racing in the Iditarod in 1982 (it was Zuray’s only entry in the race, where he set a record finish by a rookie that wasn’t broken for 10 years):
“In those years I was just a trapper with a very limited amount of worn-out dogs out on the trapline, barely keeping them alive and feeding them. And I was out on the trapline when a plane landed close to me and it was a friend of mine. He lived about 40 miles away and his wife had landed and said, ‘Get into town sometime and talk to my husband. He wants to sponsor you in the Iditarod race,’ and that’s how it all started. It was a humble and meager start, but we ended up doing really fantastic and was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in my life.”
How hard the training was for he and his also inexperienced dogs:
“Most people at that point have one or two years of experience of training and assembling dogs just prior to the race. And even the professionals have been training all winter up until that point and had full kennels, at least 50-dog kennels and maybe 100-dog kennels. And I’ve got seven dogs on my trapline. So I had to gather up another seven dogs somewhere and get them in shape. It wasn’t like I had access to a lot of dogs, but the dogs that I had were so tough. And I guess it was the bush skills that I had were so hardened that I was able to get in the race and figure it out. I didn’t know about the Iditarod and it was a 16-day race. And at the end I found myself right up with the leaders. There was a time I was actually in the lead, then fell back and had a little bit of difficulty but finished in ninth place. That was the only time I’d ever raced it, and I’ve been out in the woods ever since.”
Why meeting his now wife, Kathleen, changed him:
“Kathleen brought stability to my life. The family we raised gave both of us a real purpose in life. We live healthy and bring up the kids in a subsistence lifestyle.”
When being creative to solve problems is a necessity:
“In the city, if you are not creative or mechanical, then money can solve your problems. But in a place like Tanana, there is usually no one to hire to do things for you, even if you could afford it. If one wants things in life, one better get figuring out how to make it work.”
The dwindling amount of big game available around Tanana for subsistence hunting:
“I think it has always been hard. Many parts of Interior Alaska have way less game per acre than more heavily populated states such as Vermont and Pennsylvania. The cold and barren areas make for hard hunting at times. Outsiders hunting in our traditional subsistence areas don’t make it easier.”
His love for Boston sports teams and reacting to the New England Patriots’ remarkable comeback win in Super Bowl LI over the Atlanta Falcons:
“All summer and in some of winter I am away from the village where there is TV (available). People usually tell me how the Boston teams are doing and my heart is always with them, of course. But I don’t get to watch as much as I’d like. I did watch the Patriots game and saw the whole thing; it was absolutely incredible. They made everyone proud to be from Boston that day. I know our executive producer at Paper Route Productions is a huge Red Sox and Bruins fan. He even went to a Red Sox game with my brother a couple years ago.” ASJ