Stan Zuray is a spry, white-haired man in his late sixties. He’s a fast talker with a thick accent picked up during his childhood in Adams Village in the 1950s and 1960s. When he speaks about the places he has been since leaving Boston 40 years ago— about “Canader” and the “Noth Woods” — the sounds of his hometown legacy inevitably filter through.
These days, Zuray’s home is a tiny village called Tanana on the Yukon River in Alaska, some 4,500 miles from Dot Ave, and 60 miles from the Arctic Circle. He’s the star of the Discovery Channel’s hit reality show, “Yukon Men,” which spotlights the struggles of an isolated town trying to make a living off the land.
Zuray’s neighbors and co-stars are a hardscrabble clan of mountain men and women, and even among them, he is something of a revered figure. He has trapped wolves, hunted moose, and survived more than one run-in with a grizzly. In addition, he held for years the record for the fastest time by an amateur in the famed Iditarod dog sled race. But unlike nearly everyone else in the village, Zuray wasn’t born into this world; he found it after seeking refuge from a completely different way of life.
Zuray, who is married with four adult children, settled into a chair at the Sugar Bowl coffee shop on Dot Ave recently and recalled the Dorchester of his childhood as a poor but tight-knit community. People tied clotheslines to telephone poles and chatted with friends on sidewalks.
“You knew everybody on the street… You can see that now, but not to the extent that it was back then when I was growing up,” he said. Despite the rich community-support system, the Zuray family struggled through the harsher realities of working-class life. As a kid he hoarded money, moving his mother to say, “You give Stanley a nickel, he’ll turn it into a quarter.”
But Zuray puts a different twist on his collecting: He had no interest in spending what he had saved. When those quarters piled up high enough, he would toss them all into the sewer.
“It took me a while to understand it,” he said. “My father worked with the fire department as a blacksmith... He would work at the tire shop in the evenings on Friday nights and Saturdays and then he would also work as a cab dispatcher and he’d sleep a lot so he was never [expletive] home... He was gone so much and I think I blamed it on money. On the quest for money.”
That hunger for financial security has left a deep impact on Zuray. Being poor in 1950s Dorchester meant constantly feeling the pressure to make ends meet — a pressure that often fractured families. He said he “always thought, ‘Boy wouldn’t it be nice if you lived on a farm or something and you could raise your kids and work with [them], and when they got old enough they could go get their own farm… But you’re with your kids in your work.”
As he got older, he saw crime creep into the neighborhood. Under-stimulated kids with nothing better to do, he said, started stealing cars or selling drugs to make cash on the side. Zuray wouldn’t say explicitly how he was involved but he conceded that he “did some things [he] wasn’t proud of” during this time.
And those who weren’t breaking the law were headed in what Zuray saw as an equally unappealing direction — into the workforce and the daily grind.
“This is why I left. I had some friends who were dying and anybody that held it together at all was getting married or got a job at the bank or an insurance company because now they’re young men, they’re expected to go to work… and it became to the point where I just described it as an extremely lonely place to be. Boston was very lonely. I used to wander around Downtown by myself — I wouldn’t even be with my friends.”
With no interest in taking up a 9-to-5 job, and weary of how pervasive drug abuse had become among his friends, Zuray set out for uncharted territory. His route to Alaska was a winding way, with stops in a hippie commune in Vermont, in a camp in Canyon California, and a community of Americans living illegally in British Columbia, Canada. After a near miss with Canadian immigration officers, Zuray moved back onto American soil and purchased some open federal homestead land in central Alaska.
Tanana was the X on Zuray’s map. The small town has a few families, their sled dogs, and the occasional rogue wolf. For almost its entire history, not a single road reached Tanana, which meant that locals maintained a subsistence lifestyle of hunting, trapping, and fishing without much competition from commercial industries or tourists. For Zuray, that isolation from outsiders, particularly those from down in the lower 48, was a huge draw.
“You don’t have to go far in the woods to be completely away from civilization... Somebody can go to Yellowstone Park, somebody can go to some valley… but you’d have to hide out and never see people,” he said, “I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be hiding. I want to be out somewhere where you’re free.”
For all that, Zuray’s need for separation from the outside hasn’t kept him from connecting with the show’s fan base. He’s got a book coming out soon, recounting in detail his journey from Adams Corner to the Yukon Valley. He’s done Youtube Q + A videos about his gun collection and the best technique for storing moose meat. He has answered questions for a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” special and just last week rung the NASDAQ opening bell in New York City.
When he stopped at a coffee shop on Dorchester Avenue recently, the owner asked Zuray what was so familiar about him.
“Well, actually you know me from the TV,” he replied with a chuckle.
Still, it’s sharing the Tanana way of life that makes the show — and all the publicity that comes with it — worth it for Zuray. His freedom from civilized society, not his growing celebrity, is what makes him content. When people ask him if he has ever considered leaving the village, Zuray says with a smile that he has thought about it once or twice.
“I have wondered what Siberia would be like.”