FAIRBANKS — The cover shot says it all.
There’s wild-eyed Marty Meierotto, his head of wavy hair corralled by a bandana just like it always is, standing in what looks to be the stark Alaska wilderness but which is really the field next to his house in Two Rivers that doubles as his runway.
He’s wearing his ratty green parka, of course, along with his ratty black and blue snowpants and his ratty bunny boots. He’s hoisting a .358-caliber rifle with the butt end resting on his hip in one hand, and there is a pile of lynx furs draped over his other arm.
In big bold letters, the main headline reads, “The Ultimate Survivor.” A smaller headline underneath the main head states, “Life in the Wild With Alaska’s Toughest Trapper.”
He isn’t quite sure how he landed on the cover of the February issue of Field and Stream Magazine, but the Fairbanks trapper knows what will happen now that he did.
“It’s flattering, but at the same time, it’s a little embarrassing,” Meierotto said. “I’m going to get a lot of ribbing over it.
“A lot of Alaska trappers will look at it and go, ‘Oh man, Marty, what did you do.’”
The picture is a teaser for a story by Field and Stream columnist Bill Heavey, who spent a week last February with Meierotto on his trapline in the wilderness 200 miles north of Fairbanks. The story is the centerpiece for the magazine’s annual survival issue that went on sale Tuesday.
It wasn’t until last week, when he flew back into town with some fur, that Meierotto found out he was going to be featured on the cover.
“I don’t want to sound like I don’t think it’s cool, but nobody said ‘We’ll put you on the cover,’” he said, somewhat taken aback by the whole thing. “Nobody said this was for the survival issue. The whole survival thing was new to me. It makes it sound like I’m a survivalist or something.”
Don’t get Meierotto wrong. He does think it’s cool, especially since the article by Heavey portrays trapping in what he feels is a positive light. But being billed as “Alaska’s toughest trapper” splashed on the cover of a leading national outdoor magazine with a circulation of 1.5 million was never part of the plan.
“Heck no,” Meierotto said. “I’m just a trapper like all the rest of the trappers.”
Truth be told, Meierotto is more than just any trapper. While he might not be Alaska’s toughest trapper, he ranks right up there, said Randy Zarnke, president of the Alaska Trappers Association.
It was Zarnke, of Fairbanks, who put Heavey in touch with Meierotto after the writer contacted him to inquire about accompanying a trapper on an Alaska trapline for a story.
After checking Heavey’s credentials — “I did check him out to make sure he wasn’t working for PETA” — Zarnke made a list of possible candidates, and Meierotto’s name was near the top.
“He didn’t jump off the stool at the chance to do it, but Marty was the first one that said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that,’” Zarnke said.
The 49-year-old Meierotto is the quintessential Alaska Bush trapper, Zarnke said, both in terms of attitude, appearance and application. Things that most people perceive as hardships, such as living in tiny cabins without electricity in the middle of the Alaska wilderness at 40 and 50 below, are things Meierotto relishes.
“He’s doing what he loves and is willing to extend the extra effort to do it,” Zarnke said. “The physical challenge of trapping in a remote location like that is something he looks forward to and is something most other people would run away from.”
A smoke jumper for the Alaska Fire Service in the summer, Meierotto spends his winters trapping on the Black River 200 miles north of Fairbanks. He commutes back and forth to town in his 1937 Supercub. He used to spend the whole winter living on the trapline, but that was before 3-year-old daughter Noah Jane came along. These days, he spends a week or two at a time on the trapline before coming back for a day or two.
The area in which he traps is some of the most remote country in Alaska.
“I’ve never seen another human being in there that I didn’t haul in there,” Meierotto said.
In addition to the trapping and outdoor savvy he has accumulated throughout the past 25 years, Meierotto is a bona fide, larger-than-life Alaska character with a quick wit and upbeat, down-home demeanor. Meierotto wasn’t born in Alaska, but he belongs here.
“That was the whole plan, to come up here and live in the woods,” said Meierotto, who drove to Alaska with his brother, Jeff, from Wisconsin in 1985. “I didn’t quite make it.”
Rough go of it
As the 54-year-old Heavey quickly found out, Meierotto spends more time in the woods than most people. The article chronicles Heavey’s tumultuous week with Meierotto on the trapline in a humorous, self-deprecating way.
To make a long story short — the magazine article covers 12 pages including pictures — Heavey had a rough go of it trying to keep up with Meierotto, whom he describes in the story as a “an unusually hardy member of the species.”
Meierotto, who runs about 120 miles of trapline with one main cabin and three smaller ones built at different points along the line, uses a snowmachine to travel his line. With Heavey along, he said he was trying to keep distances short.
“I’d cover 20 or 30 miles with him and get him to a cabin, and then I’d go run spur lines while he waited at the cabin,” Meierotto said.
On the third day, Heavey got lost when he took a wrong turn while following a map Meierotto had drawn for him.
“He had never ridden a snowmachine, and we were covering many, many miles,” Meierotto said. “He didn’t want to run a section of line with me and said, ‘How about you draw me a map back to the main cabin, and I’ll meet you there?’”
Meierotto wasn’t thrilled by that prospect, but he agreed, in part because he didn’t think there was any way Heavey could get lost.
“I told him to take the second left; that’s pretty straightforward,” Meierotto said. “He didn’t take it.”
Instead, Heavey took a trail that took him into higher, steeper country that was drifted with snow.
“He ended up balled up in the high country,” Meierotto said. “He got stuck and got stranded. He was there a few hours before I finally found him.”
While Heavey was well equipped with cold-weather gear and he had a small fire started when Meierotto found him, the writer acknowledged contemplating death as he waited for the trapper to find him.
He was scared of the dark, scared of the cold, scared that a moose might come along and stomp him and scared that a hungry bear might awaken from hibernation and find him. All those thoughts ran through his mind in the three hours it took Meierotto to find him.
“I find myself thinking of my daughter, Emma,” he wrote. “I want to see her again. I want to hear her laugh again.”
For Meierotto, though, the situation was more amusing than alarming.
“It wasn’t a life or death thing; I was going to find him regardless, but from his perspective it was,” Meierotto said. “He was pretty rattled about it. When I found him, he said, ‘I’m done. I’m done.’ I said, ‘Well, Bill, this is the boonies of Alaska, and you can be done but you’ve gotta keep going.’”
After digging Heavey’s snowmachine — an old Ski-Doo Tundra II — out of the snow and getting back on the trail, Meierotto herded Heavey back to the cabin.
The hour-long trip back to the main cabin was a grueling one for the writer. The exhausted Heavey repeatedly fell off the machine at the slightest bump or sidehill, getting it stuck several more times, each of which required Meierotto to right the sled and get it back on the trail.
“He was so tired he couldn’t stay on the machine,” Meierotto said. “He’d fall off and be a turtle on his back in the snow.”
Heavey acknowledges all this in his story.
“Even though the trail is almost flat, I keep falling off at the slightest bump,” he wrote. “I am a sack of potatoes. I am no longer in the running as an asset, as a somebody. I am cargo now — no more use than a dead lynx.”
At one point, Heavey, who is bald, lost his hat. When Meierotto noticed and asked him where it was, Heavey told him it fell off and he didn’t want to go back for it — neither did he want Meierotto to go back and get it.
“I told him if you ride without a hat for 10 minutes at 30 below your ears are going to fall off in a couple of days,” said Meierotto, who backtracked to get the hat. “It wasn’t a big deal, it was only a couple hundred yards back, but he did not want me to leave him.”
Wrote Heavey in the story addressing the incident, “I could be dropping hundred-dollar bills every 5 feet and I would not want to stop and have him go back to retrieve them. All I want is the cabin, warmth, a place to lie down.”
That is exactly what he did when they finally made it back to the cabin.
“He was just kind of shocked by the cold and the remoteness,” Meierotto said of Heavey’s impression of life on his trapline at 30 below. “He never, ever experienced anything like this.”
As Heavey was leaving Alaska, the last thing he mentioned to Meierotto was that the magazine might be sending a photographer up to get some pictures of him for the story, since Heavey didn’t have a camera with him.
Meierotto didn’t give it much thought until a photographer, Nathaniel Welch, called him a month later to line up a photo shoot for what would be the cover shot.
“We went out in the field by my house; he said he needed a backdrop that was pretty clean,” Meierotto recalled. “We just stood out in the field. He had all these lights set up and was snapping away.
“I felt like one those bikini models for a little while,” he said with a laugh, “but I didn’t have a powder guy.”
After reading the 12-page article, Meierotto has no complaints. A few things were taken out of context, he said, but for the most part, it was an accurate portrayal of life on a remote Alaska trapline from Heavey’s perspective. From Meierotto’s perspective, it was just another week on the trapline
“It shows trapping in a good light, I think,” Meierotto said. “We’re always getting bashed, so whenever we can get a national outfit that recognizes trappers as good guys, it was worth it just for that alone.”
The article also includes 20 survival tips from Alaska trappers, such as Pete Buist and Pat Valkenburg, from Fairbanks; Ken Deardorf, of McGrath; and Drew Matthews, of Ketchikan.
After spending a week on the trapline with Meierotto, Heavey left Alaska with profound respect and admiration for Meierotto, who after meeting him for the first time at Fairbanks International Airport wrote that Meierotto “could be the guy who fixes vending machines in a bowling alley in Dubuque.”
“When I first met Marty he seemed like an everyday Joe and by the time I left, I pretty much thought he was a god, that there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do once he’d decided on it,” Heavey wrote in an e-mail.
Contact outdoors editor Tim Mowry at 459-7587.