Truths About Trapping
The man who finds the material for your fur coat is not quite the individual the movies picture
MELVILLE JACK RAE
YOU are always talkin’ about Dan, wonderin’ why he gets the most fur—I can tell you,” volunteered Pete Larose from behind the counter of his combined store and post office in a remote part of the Cariboo.
“Because he works,” he flung at the loungers about his oil-drum heater. The little Frenchman was a ‘rip snorter’ when aroused, but there was no escape for them.
“You spot-trappers,” he jeered, “cornin’ streakin’ back to me with two or three pelts for fear the price might drop; afraid to go more than ten miles from home for fear you’d get lost.”
“It’s always a poor season for you, but a good one for Dan,” he went on. “He brings me in prime fur, stretched right; you come along with rotten stuff left in the traps an’ spoiled by mice an’ owls—then whine about prices. You give me the pain.”
Dan, like thousands of others, is still on his job of providing milady’s fur coat. Does she appreciate his and their efforts?
Pete was right. The trapping game is not a merely glorified hunting expedition; it is an occupation that keeps a man employed seven or eight months each year if it is to be a paying proposition. It is filled with disappointments; more often than is commonly believed, the trapper visits empty traps and snares. It is, often, bristling with danger, and there are hardships to be endured. Every successful trapper that the writer—or any one else—has known, has preached and practised a gospel of hard work.
There are many who believe that the trapper passed out of the picture along with the beaver hat and the buffalo robe. Not so! In the gigantic shuffle that has made the wheat-grower, the rancher and the lumberman lords of the earth, he was moved back a bit —but he’s not in the discard.
Now, is the trapper’s chance to make some money. Think of the prices on Number One Canadian furs—which are the standard for many varieties.
Our beaver are quoted at $25.00; mink at $10.00; marten and lynx at $20.00; fisher at $80.00. Even the humble muskrat, that brought but thirty cents fifteen years ago, has advanced to $1.25.
The fur trade of to-day has surprising scope. The Hudson’s Bay Company has established a line of new posts across that part of northern Quebec which was Labrador; Fort McPherson,
Good Hope and Yukon, within the Arctic Circle, have the prestige that once belonged to Edmonton, Calgary and Fort William. Shy Eskimos now bring their white-fox pelts and musk-ox robes to the traders established at Point Barrow and Herschel Island along the shores of the Arctic itself.
Since 1915, Canada’s fur exports have increased from three to ten millions annually. We are using more furs than ever ourselves—another five millions in value, and enormous quantities which are never marketed. According to government statistics, there are fifteen thousand adult Indians engaged in trapping. There are at least an equal number of white and mixed blood (breeds) scattered over ‘the great, white, lone land’. Does that sound as if the trapper is passing out of the picture?
Trappers are found in the North, but the North is difficult to define. That term applies equally as well to the region north of Lake Superior as it does to the vicinity of Lake Athabaska. There is, in fact, surprisingly little difference between them. Though Athabaska is six hundred miles farther north, the climate is not strikingly more severe; both Superior and Athabaska are areas held to be unfitted for settlement.
What Does a Trapper Look Like?
IN THOSE frontier towns where trappers outfit, they are not easily distinguished from the loggers, prospectors and freighters. Like them, they go about in mackinaws and overalls, in store clothes perhaps. They leave their parkas and snowshoes in the bush where they are needed. You may rub elbows, in Cochrane, Ontario, or Fort George, British Columbia, with some of the best trappers and never recognize them as such. You may chat with them on the streets of The Pas or Prince Albert, in Edmonton or Hazelton, and fail to learn from their conversation the nature of their occupation. Trappers do not talk shop; when they have made an exceptional catch of fur or established themselves in promising territory, they are silent. Are they not wise?
Long ago, as most people do, I believed that all trappers were as handsome, as youthful and as stalwart as the heroes of the movies—but not now. Among the ranks of the trappers are tall men, short men; red beards, black beards and gray. Wide shoulders and barrel-like chests are not to be discounted where food and blankets, traps and shells, often must be packed for forty—fifty—one hundred miles, but brains and experience offset mere physical advantages.
As I think of my trapper friends, I am impressed with their contrasts. Einar was not more than five feet six; but so sturdy, so resolute, that he was able to pack one hundred pounds ten miles per day over mountain trails. I doubt If Big Jim, that great kindly fellow, six feet four
in his moccasins, could accomplish more. Jim was as famous among the trappers of the muskeg country in the northern part of Saskatchewan, as Einar in central British Columbia. Both were famous hunters and canoe men. Only from fur-buyers and their friends did you hear of their prowess. They let the other fellow ‘tell it.’ I could not choose between them.
Curly was tall, rawboned; about forty I judge. He had been guide, hunter and scowman in turn; he was wellknown throughout northern Alberta as an adept in handling a train of pack-ponies. Yet, with the background . of a life spent in the wilderness or along its fringe, he brought in no more fur than Jim, who was wearing up to sixty and who had spent his early years in a city.
Curly was of the hustling type; give him an axe, he would build a cabin or a boat with almost incredible speed. He fairly raced along his trapline—too fast, perhaps.
Jim was only of medium height, as slim and strong as a racehorse. Somehow, I always think of him that way, for he had the courage and the endurance of a thoroughbred. Unlike Curly, he went along at an even gait, watching every sign and taking infinite pains with his sets. It was noticeable how he had retained the habits of the city. His cabin was spotless; he took pride in a garden patch beside his home camp. He read books and played an old violin. He and his big dog, Darkey, were inseparable. Dogs become like their masters, and it seemed that Darkey had acquired something of Jim’s dignity, the same, quiet friendliness. I have not seen them for six' years. I fancy that Darkey will have changed most; an old dog, now, he must be white about the head and given to sleeping by day on the sunny side of the cabin by Slim Creek.
After all, the contrasts between these men were chiefly physical. They were, without exception, contented, cheerful and unruffled. They never failed to offer the best their camps afforded, and they were continually offering tokens of their friendship—a moosehide; the antlers of a caribou; a tobacco pouch made from the caul about a moose’s heart; a cribbage board carved from his horns.
It may be surprising to discover that trappers are dietitians. When I asked Sam: “What is the most necessary qualification for a trapper?” he gave me this unexpected answer: “He must be healthy. He can learn to walk a long way in a day; he can grow strong and learn to carry a big pack with practice, but there is no place in the woods for a sickly man. He should not go in alone an’ nobody wants him for a partner.”
“A man out here should cook himself good meals; not eat cold bannock because he is in a rush,” he went on. “All meat is not good; if a man eats nothing but moose or ca’bou or jumper (the small, red deer) his blood gets out of order. All bannock is bad for him, too; there is not enough strength in it. Fish is good, for a change, specially in summer. Eat biscuit and bannock with the meat, for they help to digest it.
“In summer, eat plenty of berries. They are good for the blood. For the same reason, dried fruit is good to take in for winter. I eat too much bannock, myself, because it’s easy to mix up flour with water and salt and bake in a frying pan over the coals. But, when I’m in my cabin, I take time to make biscuits, sometimes bread. It’s a nuisance, though, waiting for dough to rise in cold weather.” (I am always quoting Sam, who hails from the Churchill region, but his opinions are valuable, whether about dogs or canoes or fur or dieting in the wilderness.
And speaking of meals. One night after telling Fred, ‘ol’ timer’, how much I had enjoyed our supper of bannock with bacon, canned tomatoes and black coffee, he answered with a chuckle: “I had a better meal than that once—tasted better anyways.”
“Well, you see, I’d better go back a bit so’s you can get the hang of things. It was about fourteen years ago, now,
(the middle of June) that it happened. Five of us had started in the July before for the Pine Pass country. We’d got pretty stakey an’ decided we’d make our fortune all at once. Six thousand our outfit cost us; seven pack ponies, half a ton of flour, new rifles —that we didn’t really need —cases of shells and quite a bit of trade goods for the Nitchies (Indians). We had everything to last us for two years we figured.
"We had bad luck from the start. Crossing the first spur of mountains, the mare carryin’ biggest part of our shells fell into a canyon. Then another got drowned fordin’ a river—goodbye a lot of flour. We tried a shortcut that wasn’t short; two more ponies died from distemper, an’ the first thing we knowed, we was pack horses ourselves; with a lot of stuff cached to get rid of it.
“When we got in, it was too late to put up feed, so we shot the rest of the ponies rather’n let them starve or the wolves get them. That took the heart out of us for trappin’. Not much use in takin’ fur to be packed out four hundred miles, so we only went after high-priced stuff.
“We started back again at the end of March, By the middle of June, we was still goin’—me an’ Harry, all that was left. We let on to each other that our pals had died of sickness; but just plain starvation an’ scurvy was the truth. Pretty tough for them buried in their blankets; not very deep either. It’s funny how the frost keeps in up there.
“Now, I’m gettin’ closer to the meal. We was two scarecrows—anyway Harry was, I couldn’t see myself —in rawhide moccasins, with scraps of blankets for socks. Few days before, we’d lost most everything we’d left offn’ a raft, crossin’ a little spit of a crick in high water.
“We was starvin’ like fools. We’d got so crazy ’bout gettin’ out that we’d never do the right thing—stop to put out some snares, rest an’ feed up a bit.
“Harry had hung on to his old .44 side-arm, because he had it strapped around him an’ one shell that he had wrapped up like a baby an’ carried in his shirt pocket.
First Aid on the Frozen Trail
Our shells was gone an’ rifles threw away long before that. We didn’t see anything, that time of year, for everything had vamoosed for the high lands away from the flies.
“But this day, we’d finished cornin’ through a pass an’ was gettin’ well down into the foothills. We’d seen some sheep but they was too far away. We hadn’t had anything like a meal for three days an’ was gettin’ a bit looney, I guess.
“Cornin’ over aridge, wespied an old Silvertip grubbin’ among some windfalls below us—forty or fifty yards away. He never noticed us, for we was cornin’ up dead against the wind. We ducked down and watched him for a while.
“Then Harry says, ‘By—, I’m a-goin’t’ shoot’.
“You’re crazy,” I tells him. Then it strikes me as kinda funny, an’ I says: ‘Well, he can’t do anything more’n kill us; we’ll soon be dead, anyways, I guess—let her flicker.’
“After fussin’ around for a long time, he hands me the old six. ‘You’d better shoot, you’re the best shot,’ he says.
“But I told him: ‘Go ahead yourself.’
“I was holdin’ my breath while he leaned the gun on a rock and cut down on him.
“At last BANG she went. Then things begun to happen.
“Old Grizzly was the maddest bear I ever see. He lets a roar out of him as if hell was bustin’ loose. He stood up on his hind legs and spinned round a few times. He looked as big as a horse. When he see how white he was around the head, we knew he was an old cuss. Then we noticed the blood pourin’ down his neck.
“ ‘I’ve cut his juggler,’ says Harry.
“Then Mr. Grizzly flops down an’ clawed up the ground some more. Then he lay quiet.
“After waitin’ half a day, it seemed, we started down cautious. When we was about fifteen yards away, we chunked him with rocks, but he never moved.
“ ‘He’s dead,’ yells Harry, ‘light a fire.’
“By the time that he had some of his mangy, old hide peeled back, I had a nice blaze of dry cottonwood goin’ an’ we was soon eatin’ steaks just warmed through. It was so tough that we couldn’t eat fast— good thing for us, too, I guess. After a while, we had some more, boilin’ new grass to eat with it in our tin cup, to take the place of salt.
“Best meal I ever had,” Fred concluded. Tasted best; saved our lives too.”
HPHERE is much talk about living off the country with a rifle. Perhaps some can, but it is difficult, as Fred hinted, in some seasons. It is always difficult when a man is traveling and eager to keep going. Sickness, accidents and lack of grub strike terror in the heart of the trapper. In the wilderness, any of them may spell death. Despite constant vigilance, he may find himself floundering in icy water or crumpled up with a broken limb, miles from shelter, in forty-below weather. Or he may gash his leg with a camp axe, his best friend.
Accidents happen when a man is in a hurry or a bit excited. One morning, Einar, most cautious of men,
spied a fox along the shore where he and his partner were having dinner. He ran to the canoe and grabbed his rifle. Trying to keep his eye on the fox, he pulled the gun by the barrel, but it caught on the handle of an old skillet braced against a thwart and plugged him in the shoulder.
His youthful partner was stricken with some form of ‘buck fever’ and jumped into the canoe to begin a fifty mile dash for a doctor.
“The kid meant alright,” said Einar, “but, after that, if I have to save my own life, by Yinks I go in alone.”
A toothache, always unpleasant, may be a tragedy in the woods. One afternoon, not so long ago, after watching how deftly Bill was bandaging a dog’s foot, I suggested: “You should have been a doctor, Bill.”
“You never knew I was a dentist, hey?” he inquired with a grin.
“Last winter, Shorty’s partner brought him over to my camp on the Little Pine. ‘Bill, can’t you do something for us? Shorty’s crazy an’ I’m sick,’ he asks me.
“ ‘What do you mean?’ I asks him. I could see they was both lookin’ wild.
“ ‘Shorty’s crazy with an illustrated tooth; I’m sick with listenin’ to him yowlin’—says he’s goin’ to kill hisself.’
“Then I gets the pliers. I hated to tackle it, for his face was all swole up terrible. Shorty was game, but they slipped off every time.
“Then I takes a piece of fine wire, twists it tight on the tooth an’ puts a stick through a loop on the other end. Ed. was to hold him by the shoulders while I yanked the tooth. But one pull was enough. Poor Shorty let a howl out of him that you could have heard clear across the lake.
“ ‘Guess we’ll have to hitch the dogs an’ take him outside,’ I says, but Ed motions for me to come over to one corner. While we was havin’ a confab, poor Shorty was havin’ a fit, moanin’ somethin’ terrible.
“Then I pretends to be goin’ to take the contraption off. ‘Shut your eyes, Shorty—so as I can see,’ I tells him.
“Then Ed lands our patient one on the jaw an’ Shorty goes down like a log. I had plenty of time to pull the tooth before he came to life. Say, do you know, I believe I could have pulled them all.”
Those who pity the trapper as a frost-bitten figure, who dreads each fresh snowfall, have wasted their sympathy. Extreme cold and deep snow are the trapper’s friends. Frosty weather causes thicker and more valuable fur. Deep snow provides for better tracking and is an aid in making sets. Under such conditions, the furbearers do not range so widely; and when they travel, it is along well-defined trails. A spell of mild weather makes for sticky traveling with snowshoes, and the thawing by day combines with the freezing by night to bed the traps in ice.
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The trapper does not suffer unduly from cold, even when the thermometer registers at forty and fifty below. He is exposed to the weather eight or nine hours daily and becomes inured to low temperatures. He is moving about continually, often with a considerable burden of traps, new pelts and food; his blood keeps in circulation. Besides, he has the shelter of the forest from searching winds. He dresses for the weather.
Trappers and their kin do not bundle up as much as might be expected. Woollen underwear is best; for, aside from its superior warmth, it dries out quickly and does not feel clammy after a man has become overheated. A flannel shirt or sweater with mackinaw trousers are best worn as the next layer. It is a good scheme to chop the trousers off below the knee; then there is not too much bulk under the socks that are worn outside. Braces are preferable to a belt, for they put the weight on a man’s shoulders where it belongs. A wide belt or a knitted scarf worn outside of the coat is an aid to warmth.
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For the coat, mackinaw is good. But there is nothing better than the unromar.tic sheepskin jacket; it has the fleece close to the body and is the correct length to provide freedom in walking. Short fur-coats are worn by some, but they would be better if they had the fur next to the body. They are really too expensive to wear in the woods, and they are difficult to keep in repair.
There are occasions when the parka type of garment is invaluable. When the trapper is obliged to be out in a storm or must cross some wide, windswept lake, a roomy, canvas parka affords great protection. Canvas is light, yet it breaks the wind. The fur-fringed capote protects the face and prevents snow from sifting down the neck. Such a garment can be slipped over coat and cap at a nloment’s notice.
Sun glasses are imperative equipment to guard against snow blindness. A beard which thrives in cold weather is a genuine protection for face and throat. When a trapper comes in with a formidable beard and long hair, driving a good dog-train, depend upon it he’s been taking some furs worth while.
Trappers scoff at danger from wild animals. A she-bear with cubs following her is always dangerous; otherwise, bears, largest of so-called, fierce animals, are harmless enough unless wounded. The trapper adopts a live and let live policy in going through the woods and rarely has trouble.
Wolves will follow a man; sometimes in daylight. How often do they attack? They are bolder at night, but a fire will ward off danger. The tang of wood smoke and a flickering flame—unknown quantities to them—will keep them at bay. When wolves howl about a cabin, in all probability they are howling for the meat cache.
Lynx are nasty to kill with a club; but again, it is difficult to get close enough to find that out. What else are there to fear? Cougars? They are seldom seen nowadays. A cougar is large enough to be formidable and cowardly enough to attack a child. But his reputation is that of a great, slinking cat who will trail a woodsman for hours and never attack.
Trappers must be hunters, too. When they set out to make a kill of meat, their danger from animals begins.
“Only been real scared once in my life,” a veteran trapper told me. “A young bull car’bou jumped me. I was half expectin’ it, too. I went to step in behind a tree, but my snowshoe caught under a deadfall. Down I went, with that bull, just wounded enough to make him crazy, right on top of me. I could see he meant business. His eyes would make you shiver; all I could see was his stubby horns wavin’ and his big hoofs stompin’ for me. And his hair all standin’ up along his neck like a mane. He landed me one poke in the ribs and jammed me over against a big spruce. I’d have been a gone goose only for my old dog. He’d been runnin’ something. I guess he heard my yellin’ and come in. Anyhow he just climbed right on that bull’s neck an kep’ him busy till I got my old thirty-thirty and plugged him. I used up all the five shells I had left in the magazine. Must have been pretty badly excited when you catch me wastin’ shells.”
The De-Movied Trapper
'T'RAPPERS are not such cave-men as is commonly believed. They are more intent upon the pursuit of mink and fox and marten than rescuing the trader’s daughter. In fact, the trader’s daughter requires precious little rescuing—poor orphan, though she always is. There are a dozen reasons why trappers are inclined toward the single life. Trappers are inclined to be shy of women., because they see so little of them, and shy, stammering men are not popular with ‘wimmin’. How many girls would wish to become a trapper’s bride? Those who have been raised in the North long to live outside. It would be folly—sheer madness—for girls not accustomed to isolation to attempt the experiment. In a few weeks, the glamor would fade, and the cabin beside the lake would become a prison; the disillusioned trapper-husband would seem to be a grim gaoler to his equally disillusioned bride. The saying, ‘He travels fastest who travels alone’, applies particularly to the trapper; for travel he must. And so, generally speaking, most trappers are unmarried. When they marry they give up trapping.
The spot trapper who makes camp beside some lake close to the settlements and sets out a few traps, visiting them daily, is not of the true type. He may secure excellent results, occasionally, when he stumbles on a ‘fur pocket’, some small area that has been overlooked or neglected for a few years, but he is only playing at trapping.
The true type of trapper goes farther hack, one hundred miles, perhaps, from the last, little town to poke its nose into the wilderness—as a rule, only roving Indians trap in the interior and the far north. Whenever the trapper is willing to go back a hundred miles or so, he wil} have room to expand his lines and find good territory. Then he sets about blazing the trees along his lines, building warm cabins and establishing himself for years to come.
The spot-trapper may be content to make out-door camps, but not the line trapper. The latter is on the march from daylight to the early darkness that prevails in the sub-arctic. When night comes he needs sleep, not to be gained when poking at a camp fire half the night. A cabin he needs, for there are pelts to be taken off, placed on stretchers and stored away. No denying the fact that line trappers are compelled at times to camp in the woods when they are out scouting and traveling to and from fur-post or settlement, but they are not enthusiastic about such experiences.
Trap lines vary, of course, in length and arrangement. Often, they follow some river or the shore of a lake, with branches along the creeks or they may be laid out directly across country or in the form of a circle. It’s a matter of choice. The law of the wilderness allows a man to cross his neighbor’s lines at right angles, but not to run closely parallel. Obviously, then, the circular line is the best. All within it is sacred to the man who has bounded it; he can develop it at his leisure.
Does Trapping Pay?
HOW much does the trapper make? is a natural question, and difficult to answer. The Indians, who spend much of their time hunting, are allowed a credit of five or six hundred dollars with the fur companies. There are those among them who in exceptional seasons make twice the amount.
The white trapper who is willing to supply himself with plenty of ‘store grub’ and is not niggardly about equipment will do much better. He finds that it pays to use the best bait, the best traps. Allowing three hundred dollars as average season’s expense, he does well if he sells fifteen hundred dollars’ worth of furs. If he clears sixteen or seventeen hundred dollars, he has done exceptionally well. Individual character, location of territory, the season itself and an element of sheer good-luck are all factors affecting the cash returns to the trapper.
As a general statement, and only that, a net profit of one thousand dollars, averaging over a five year period is a good return for an experienced trapper who is energetic and has initiative.
“Pshaw, not worth starving and freezing and living like a hermit for!” you exclaim. Perhaps not; but the trapper’s life has its compensations. It is an independent life and there is the lure of outdoors behind it all.
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Of the life—his life—Sam had this to say: "It suits me. I am doing well because I’ve stuck at it. I guess it’s the same with any other line of business, if your heart’s init, you’re bound to get along.
“I’ve had an even break, I think,” he continued. "I may have missed some of the gay times that folks outside have, but I like the woods and the hunting that goes with the trapping. I’ve never really missed the city’s amusement, either, you know what I mean—I was never used to them. No, I’m never lonesome—except when there’s a lot of people around. Then I want to get back here,” he ended with a laugh.
And Sam should know.