Early Communication in the Bush
By: Mike Rogers
The trapper had been in the Bush for months now working his line. He’d not seen another human being since the pilot had unceremoniously dumped him and his gear on the sandbar back in September. He’d found his cabin in good shape and trapped the early season for beaver waiting for ice in. Once the rivers froze and snow had fallen, he’d switched to his taiga line targeting marten and lynx with a few wolf sets for an odd chance at one. It was now January with deep cold and short hours of daylight and the tiny cabin felt claustrophobic. He was also lonely.
While many would think a person with this profession would be an antisocial loner, the reverse was actually true. The trapper was married, and a father of two with friends and acquaintances alike back in town. He didn’t prefer to be alone but bringing his young family on the line was even less appealing. Plus, the money he was making was good and went a long way toward supporting his family in those “pre Pipeline” days of hardscrabble Alaska.
He glanced at his watch, a quarter past 9:00. It was almost time. He checked his antennae- just a piece of wire ran high into a spruce a great risk for a man alone in the backcountry and went into the warm cabin to tune in. He turned on the transistor radio after carefully placing the battery in it and heard the familiar voice crackle from across the miles of dark forest.
“Hello friends, it’s time for Trapline Chatter. We have many messages tonight so please be patient.”
The program was the brain child of Don Nelson. A missionary in Alaska, Nelson travelled extensively through the state. During a winter storm in the mid- 60’s, he was unable to travel back to his home in Stevens Village and appealed to a local gospel station in Fairbanks to broadcast a message to his friends back home that he’d be delayed. Back in those days, telecommunications were practically non-existent once you got outside the larger cities of Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau and communication to the Bush often meant waiting on the U.S. Mail to make a weekly or even biweekly run. The station broadcast Nelson’s message and his friends heard it.
In 1967, Nelson started KJNP, a gospel station in North Pole. Almost from the beginning, Trapline Chatter was a nightly feature. Family and friends could call the station and dictate a message, which would be read aloud on the air. Trappers and others living in the Bush could tune in and receive those messages. While it seems somewhat clunky to our 21st century mentality, this was pretty revolutionary for the day before satellite phones and ubiquitous internet. For that matter, the telephone was still pretty new to the 49th state. By harnessing the power of broadcast radio, remote people could receive news in, if not a speedy, at least a timely manner. At the height of the show’s popularity in the mid eighties, the number of messages read aloud averaged nearly a hundred a night with a record 167 messages in a single broadcast. While statistics are rare, it could have very well been the most popular radio program in Alaska during the 1970s and early 1980s.
While many of the messages were simple well wishes or affections from family, it wasn’t just personal material. Alaska State Troopers and Fish and Game used the popular program to broadcast news of hunting and trapping closures and emergency orders and severe weather warnings were frequently broadcast. In one dramatic instance, a surgeon in Fairbanks called the radio station and relayed life saving instructions over the air to a paramedic in a remote village on how to administer treatment to a critical patient in a storm that had planes and helicopters grounded.
Trapline Chatter is a uniquely Alaskan program that still airs nightly on KJNP 1170 AM and its repeaters that stretch from the Matanuska Valley all the way to Barrow. Even in this technologically advanced age, they still average 4 to 5 messages a night during the winter to trappers still pursuing fur from their remote cabins. While Nelson passed in 1997, I’d think even he’d be surprised at the reach and magnitude his program had over the last 52 years.