J.R. Pederson was 19 years old and fresh out of school at Dakota College in Bottineau, North Dakota, when the call of adventure led him away from the prairie and north to the rugged wilderness of Alaska.
It was May 31, 1991, Pederson recalls.
“I knew when I left I wasn’t coming back,” said Pederson, 50, who grew up on a farm near Michigan, North Dakota, and now lives in Fairbanks, Alaska. “My parents didn’t know that, but I did.”
Pederson will be back in North Dakota for Thanksgiving. He plans to share stories and photos of his Alaska outdoors life during a presentation set for 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 27, at the Horseshoe Saloon & Grill in Michigan.
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With some 900 photos in his collection and 30 years of experience in the Alaskan wilderness as a trapper, hunting guide and fisherman, Pederson could probably tell stories until last call and beyond.
Alaska, he says, is about as “close to heaven as you can get.”
“For an outdoorsman, I just don’t think there’s any place better,” Pederson said in a recent phone interview from his home in Fairbanks. “It's expensive to live here. People say how hard it is to get a job, (but) I think anywhere in the world you go, if you want to work, you can find work.”
Making the move
A union ironworker by trade, Pederson says he grew up trapping and hunting on the prairie, but Alaska presented a bigger, more challenging stage for his outdoors pursuits.
“When I was 19 and moved up here, I brought a bag of traps with me, and as soon as I got up here, I realized they trap in snow up here,” Pederson said. “Well, in North Dakota, we were done trapping before it snowed, and so it was just a totally new environment for trapping.
“The logistics up here for hunting, trapping and fishing is just – everything’s more remote.”
Being from North Dakota, a state known for its work ethic, Pederson says finding work has never been a problem for him in Alaska, whether it’s constructing steel frame buildings or rebar foundations as an ironworker or working in the wilderness.
There have been years, Pederson says, when he’s headed south for the summer to the Lower 48 to work and experience the country. He worked on high-rise buildings in Las Vegas and power plants in southern Minnesota.
“I don’t work much (construction) in the wintertime anymore,” Pederson said. “I spend most of my time (on the trapline) throughout the winter. It’s not that fun being on that iron in the cold anymore.
“And then, I’ve got a girlfriend now, too, so she’s new to trapping and she really enjoys being out there so I come back on the weekends to pick her up. I spend a lot of time out there.”
Learning the ropes
Pederson was fortunate, he says, to meet “one of the best trappers in the state,” during his first year in Alaska; they also worked construction together.
“I worked with him for the first, probably, I’m guessing, five years,” Pederson said. “And then I got to hunt and go (spend time) on his trapline with him. So, he taught me a lot.”
Joining the Alaska Trappers Association also helped lessen the learning curve, he says.
“I was pretty lucky to meet some really good old-timers, and then when I joined the Alaska Trappers Association, (I got) some really good mentoring through them,” Pederson said. “You go help these old-timers and you learn for labor. And so you go out and run traplines and help them and just do whatever they ask and pick up knowledge for free.”
Pederson also owns Alaskan No. 9 Trap Co., making a popular line of traps developed in Alaska in the 1970s. He received his first No. 9 Alaska trap from Dean Wilson, a renowned Alaskan trapper, author and fur buyer, shortly after moving to Alaska in 1991 and bought the company “in 2013 or ’14.”
Wilson, a member of both the Alaska Trappers Hall of Fame and National Trappers Hall of Fame, died in 2010.
“Probably one of the most honest men I’ve ever met in my life,” Pederson said of Wilson. “I got to meet him within the first month I was in Alaska, and he gave me my first No. 9. That kind of got me intrigued, and then I wanted to buy (the company) as I got a little older but I didn’t have a shop.
“Then, finally, I got the opportunity.”
Pederson runs a trapline during the winter in the north-central Alaska Range about 80 miles south of Fairbanks, living in a remote cabin and running a 130-mile trapline by snowmobile in temperatures that can dip below -40F.
He also offers guided trapline expeditions for adventure-seekers who want a glimpse of the trapper’s life. Clients come from as far away as Florida and Texas, Pederson says, and trapline expeditions vary with the client, typically lasting from three days to a week.
“If they want to come out and learn how to trap, or just want to experience an Alaskan trapline or come out and just see wildlife, it’s pretty much customized to whatever they want,” he said.
“It’s absolutely beautiful where I trap,” he said. “I carry a big camera with me all the time, and I take a lot of wildlife and scenery pictures.”
Pederson bought the cabin and trapline in 2007 from a longtime trapper who had to quit for health reasons. Despite its remote location, the cabin has such creature comforts as solar electricity, TV and some 100 movies for clients to watch.
Sometimes, he says, clients aren’t ready for the rigors of the trapline or even the 40-mile snowmobile ride to the cabin from where he parks his truck.
“Every year, that catches me off guard, because I've done it for so long, and I'm only 50,” Pederson said. “To me, it just seems like a walk in the park for most of the time, and for some people, just the ride to the cabin is enough for them for the day.
“But then, I'll get the cabin going and get the fire going and go check some (of the trapline) and get water. And they’re like, “what?” And it's pitch black out so I'll be gone for another two hours.”
A registered hunting guide, Pederson works for another guide, guiding hunters on spring bear hunts and then, from August through late fall, guiding hunters in pursuit of moose, caribou, black bears, grizzly bears and Dall sheep. He also finds time to fish for northern pike, Arctic grayling and Arctic char all summer.
There’ve been some close calls over the years, Pederson says, adding “you can really get in a pickle up here.”
Being prepared is crucial.
“Through guiding, I spent four nights in a snow cave with a hunter from Texas one time when we got snowed in one year in October,” he said. “And then we've had quite a few close bear calls. I'm an archer, and I've shot a lot of grizzly bears with a bow and arrow up here and taken a lot of pictures.
“So, I’ve pushed my luck more than I should have.”
Breaking through hollow ice of the creek on his trapline also is part of the routine. Pederson carries a bag of “extraction gear” – including 150 feet of rope, a "rope-a-long," ice anchors, pulleys and flares – and a survival bag with dry clothes and other necessities in case the snowmobile breaks through the ice.
“I fall through the ice quite a bit on the creek,” he said. “It looks really bad, but it's not, and it's just one of those things. I've done it so many times you just get used to it and depending on how bad it is, start a fire. … Just get your extraction gear out, get that machine on top of the ice again and go.”
It’s been quite the outdoor life, Pederson says.
“When I came up here, I knew I wasn’t leaving,” he said. “I mean, since I was old enough to read Fur, Fish and Game and Outdoor Life, I’d been dreaming of coming here.”
It’s not for everyone, Pederson says, but the lifestyle suits him – even if it means an occasional brush with disaster.
It’s all part of the adventure.
“When I show people pictures of it, they’re just like, ‘Why do you even do this?’” Pederson added. “And I say, ‘well, it keeps everybody else out, you know?’
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”