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Walters was an Old-Time Alaska Trapper in the Making

Tim Mowry / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / September 30, 2005

It was usually at about this time of year, that Jim Walters and Steve Potter started their trash talking.

Even though the opening of the trapping season was still more than a month away, the two trappers couldn't help themselves.

"He'd start phoning me and we'd start b-s-ing, making plans," said Potter. "We kind of had a competitive thing going."

This was also when Walters and Potter spent much of their spare time organizing the Alaska Trappers Association's annual trapping school at Twin Bears Camp on Chena Hot Springs Road, a task they handled for more than a decade before turning the reins to the school over this year in hopes of getting some new blood involved.

"We hung around a lot together, especially at this time of year," said Potter.

Sadly, that won't be the case this year.

The 43-year-old Walters was killed Sunday night in a multi-car, hit-and-run collision on the Steese Highway just north of Farmers Loop.

"It just don't seem real that he's gone," Potter said of his trapping pal.

Ask anyone in the trappers association about Jim Walters and they will all tell you the same thing.

"He was a very hard worker," said ATA meeting coordinator Randy Zarnke, who is forever seeking volunteers to help out with ATA activities. "He was always willing to help out and pitch in."

Past ATA president Pete Buist echoed Zarnke.

"He was always volunteering for stuff--setting and policing trails for the Open North American, the fur auction, The Fling, all sorts of stuff," said Buist. "He always pitched in."

The accolades continued with Mark Knapp, who served with Walters for several years on the ATA board of directors.

"He was always willing to lend a hand when we needed to do something," said Knapp.

And finally this from Potter, his best friend.

"He was one of the hardest-working trappers I've seen," said Potter. "He was always working on his trapline. He cut trail every year he was there. He'd spend one day running his trapline and one day cutting trail. He was a trail-cuttin' fool."

Walters, famous for a goofy grin and his ability to operate an Alpine snowmachine, ran a 150-mile trapline in the White Mountains north of Fairbanks. He built three cabins on his line and for years maintained his line with his trusty Alpine, a huge, double-track snowmachine.

"He was an outdoorsman," said Potter.

Walters, who came to Alaska in 1982 courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, was a mainstay in the ATA's education program. He and Potter organized both the general trapping and wolf trapping schools for the past 14 years, helping to preserve an Alaskan tradition he loved dearly.

By all accounts, Walters was a fair trapper. He trapped everything from marten to wolves and everything in between. He took care not to overtrap his area, too.

"He was always scared he was going to overtrap his marten," said Potter. "He probably could have caught a lot more but he was afraid to."

Walters was one of the first trappers in Alaska to start using breakaway snares, which allow moose and caribou, but not wolves, to escape, a practice that is commonplace among responsible trappers these days. Walters was also one of the first trappers to employ 7/64-inch cable for wolf trapping, Potter said.

"Now everybody is using it," he said.

But Walters will be remembered more for a personality that Potter described as "half loopy" rather than his trapping prowess.

Potter recalled an incident several years ago that sums up Walters' personality. He and Walters were at Twin Bears Camp helping out with a youth group and the talk in the bunkhouse they were supervising one night turned to trapping.

"One little girl, she was in about the sixth grade, you could tell she was an activist," Potter recalled. "She was saying things like, 'How can you go out and kill all those animals?'

"I was trying to be tactful and politically correct by saying that they were a renewable resource and all that kind of stuff and Jim just pipes up and says, 'For the money.'"

Potter still laughs at the memory.

"He had no tact," Potter said with a chuckle. "Whatever he thought would come out of his mouth right now; sometimes that got him in trouble,"

Walters' garage was like a trapping museum, Potter said.

"He had so much stuff in there, dead stuff, trapping stuff," said Potter. "I was in there one time and I seen this fur laying there with about a half-inch of dirt on it. I grabbed it and said what's this and a cat jumped up and just about scared the hell out of me."

It was Walters who put the ATA on the charity list for roadkilled moose, in part to collect wolf bait for himself and other trappers.

"He had a rope-along and he would rope-along a whole dead moose onto a trailer," said Potter. "He'd take it home and cut it up with a chainsaw and when guys needed wolf bait they'd go to Fish and Game and get a permit and he'd give them moose."

Over the years, Walters developed close friendships with some of Alaska's old-time trapping legends like Paul Kirsteatter and Dean Wilson. There was nothing he liked more than sitting around a fire listening to the old-timers spin yarns about the early days of trapping in Alaska.

Ironically, Walters was well on his way to becoming one of those old-timers when his life was cut short. There's no doubt he would have had plenty of stories to pass on down the trail.

"We're going to miss that buzzard," said Potter.

At the time of his death, Walters was in the process of putting a roof on a new house he was building in North Pole.

Fittingly, a bunch of Walters' trapping buddies have decided to get together and finish the job for him so his family has a roof over their heads this winter.

If anyone wants to help out, they can call Mark Knapp at 452-7477 to volunteer.

We all know Jim Walters would have been the first to do so.

There will be a memorial service for Jim Walters on Wednesday at Chapel of Chimes at 1 p.m., followed by a celebration of life at Two Rivers Lodge at 16 Mile Chena Hot Springs Road.

News-Miner outdoors editor Tim Mowry can be reached at 459-7587 or tmowry@newsminer.com .

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