FAIRBANKS -- For newcomers and tourists, the most surprising scene at the Alaska Trappers Association auction earlier this month might have been the full-length wolf hats with snouts protruding out of a local trapper's forehead.
But for the trappers and buyers at the auction, the big surprise was the high demand of a certain webbed-footed furry carnivore found in Alaska's coastal regions and throughout the Minto and Yukon Flats areas.
"A few years ago, I couldn't sell an otter," said Jim Masek, vice president of the trappers association.
Otter prices have exploded on the national market thanks to increased demand in Asia. According to North American Fur Auctions in Toronto, otter prices hit new highs this season, a trend that reached to the yearly auction on Second Avenue. Otter pelts on the auction weekend were steadily pulling in about $125 to $150, up from about $50 just a few years ago, said Masek.
"(Asia) is just driving the market hard," Masek said.
The auction, in its 30th year, is the state's largest after the Fur Rendezvous auctions in Anchorage. The furs and antlers come mostly from individual trappers who give the association a commission to auction their wares.
The event also includes items from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game collection of confiscated furs from animals killed in defense of life or property or those that die of natural causes or illegal hunting. The association also gets to keep a commission from those sales, making the auction one of Alaska Trapper's Association's largest fundraisers.
The auction crowd is usually a mix of the practical buyer and the curious onlooker, many stopping at the auction stage as they watch the Open North American Sled Dog Race nearby.
Milling around the stage strewn with furs, pelts and antlers, sewers and carvers carefully picked through materials for their crafts. Masek said the otter has also found a new following among local sewers who are giving the durable, mid-length fur a second look.
Carvers were perusing the antlers and horns lined up in front of the stage, collecting a light dusting of snow. Masek said they were going at a steady rate, some at as much as $10 a pound. The staple of any fur auction, the wolf pelts were hanging by the dozen in a spectrum of browns, blonds and creamy colors.
They were fetching average prices, Masek said, starting around $250 to $300 with the occasional high-demand variety getting as much as $800.
Other customers were enjoying the novelty of the event. The Callahan family, recent transplants from Virginia, had purchased two wolves, a beaver and a caribou hide.
Brian Callahan said he trapped in Virginia for nearly 35 years, trapping "anything that moved." His purchases March 18 would be put to a few different uses; he might make something out of the beaver for his wife, Elizabeth, he said. The caribou was for his sons Cyrus or Alex to sleep under. And the wolves were his own guilty pleasure.
"The two wolves are just mine to tell lies about," he said.