The wily wraith that trappers hate

The wolverine robs their traps; he raids their caches; he befouls their cabins; he skulks in their shadows. But he isn’t smart enough to stop trying to fight with porcupines

HOWARD O’HAGAN December 1 1954

The wily wraith that trappers hate

The wolverine robs their traps; he raids their caches; he befouls their cabins; he skulks in their shadows. But he isn’t smart enough to stop trying to fight with porcupines

HOWARD O’HAGAN December 1 1954

The wily wraith that trappers hate

The wolverine robs their traps; he raids their caches; he befouls their cabins; he skulks in their shadows. But he isn’t smart enough to stop trying to fight with porcupines


ON A grey dawn thirty years ago—in early October, 1924—I had a strange mountain meeting. I was back-packing into town from Brazeau Lake in the southeast corner of Jasper Park. I had crossed Poboktan Pass and was sleeping in the ranger’s cabin by the head-waters of the Athabaska River. Since there was no bunk in the cabin I had spread my blankets on the floor and because of the smell of pack rats on whose residence I had intruded I left the door ajar and lay down with my feet towards it.

Men on the trail sleep lightly. My sleep followed the rule and towards morning I awakened, aware of a stir by the door and another’s breathing in the cabin. I lay still, my packsack at my head and hobnailed boots at my feet. My only weapon, a small axe, was out of reach behind the fiat tin stove.

I listened again for the sound that had awakened me. I heard nothing but the beat of my heart and the murmur of the river in the narrow valley. Yet I was certain that I was not alone.

My most likely visitor would be a porcupine. But the porcupine, an awkward brute, shambles. I would have heard him when he moved—and a porcupine would not stay still in a cabin where there were boots to chew and an axe handle, salty with sweat, to gnaw.

I carried no flashlight and, though light was showing against the one window above me and faintly through the door, the lower parts of the cabin remained in darkness. Now as I strained my

eyes and held my breath, the pine floor creaked and I knew that the body that shared the darkness with me was heavy. Vulnerable beneath the blankets, I waited for that darkness to reveal a form, conscious that what was there was waiting too.

Then I smelled a sudden rank and fetid odor as if I were enveloped in yellow fumes rising from the floor around me. It scorched my nostrils, burned my throat. I raised up on an elbow and coughed.

' In that instant, behind the stove and to the left of the door, the darkness yielded a shadow with four legs that detached itself and leaped over the threshold into the early-morning twilight. At first, from my glimpse of its size, I thought it might have been a coyote or even a mountain lynx. But neither of these would have been apt to enter a cabin, nor could either emit such a stench.

My one impulse was to escape from the polluted cabin. I threw back the blankets, opened the door and stepped outside to fill my lungs. The sun, just appearing over the pass above me and to my right, had not yet touched the cabin but had hit the valley thirty or forty yards beiow. I looked down the trail and saw what I now took to be a runtlike collie dog bounding along. It was blackish-brown in color and had a short bushy tail. Yet, somehow, it did not run like a collie and its shaggy coat seemed to hang loosely on its body.

I shouted. The creature stopped and slowly turned about. It stood up on its haunches and, lifting a forepaw to shield its eyes against the sun, stared back at me with a flat pointed head as if to

ask what manner of being disturbed the silence of an autumn morning. Then as I watched, my mouth open in amazement, the apparition suddenly vanished.

After breakfasting outdoors and leaving a night’8 firewood in the still foul-smelling cabin, I hoisted my pack and on my way down the trail paused to examine the tracks in the moist dark loam of the creek side. One stood out clearly. It was like the track of a wolf or large dog, except that it had a “thumbprint,” making five toe indentations rather than four. In this it resembled the track of the fisher. But it could not be a fisher’s track because the claw marks were plainly visible and the fisher family travels with its claws sheathed.

Here was a beast that smelled worse than a skunk and, though no larger than a half-grown collie dog, left a track as big as a grown wolf—a beast which did not trot nor run, but covered the ground in leaps and bounds. In this gait, had I known it— along with the remembered odor of his visit I had a clue to the identity of my early-morning caller.

Weasels travel in jumps. They, too, through two glands, give forth a musky odor when under stress or excitement. I had not been long back in town when the old-timers told me the intruder was the senior member of the weasel tribe, a wolverine—a prying, curious beast. It was a rare event, they assured me, merely to have seen a wolverine.

For a man to see a wolverine remains a rare event up to this day. Last Aug. 31 newspapers carried a story that W. Mair, chief of the Canadian Wildlife Service for the federal Department of Northern Affairs, while traveling the northwest boundary cd' Jasper Park had come upon two of these animals one evening on the headwaters of the Snake Indian. They were playing in the snow of an alpine pass and were compared by Mair to “young puppies.” The story, establishing its news value, went on to say that the wolverine is “among the shyest and rarest animals in Canada and is seldom seen alive.” Mair doubtless saw two of the season’s cubs, which are thought to be born in late June or early July.

As for the statement about the wolverine’s shyness, most trappers would argue that in boldness and impudence he has no four-footed rival. Though a man may spend a lifetime in the mountains and on the barrens without ever having seen a live wolverine, he will know him only too well by his works. Robbing traps, befouling cabins, raiding the most ingeniously protected food caches, he pursues the trapper like the wrath of conscience.

Aptly enough, the wolverine’s qualities have insured for him a place in the imagination. Among trappers his

exploits have become a legend and the mere trapping of the animal confers a distinction comparable to that of a PhD in the field of scholars. Nor has the wolverine been quite disregarded in the academic world: Michigan University’s football team is known as the Wolverines and their state as the Wolverine State. Though it is doubtful if any wolverines remain there today, Michigan at the beginning of the century was one of the most southerly limits of the animal’s range.

Native to the primitive timber areas of the northern U. S., Canada, Alaska and Siberia, the giant weasel is so seldom seen because he shuns the light and prefers to travel at night. It is a preference shared by most predators, but one imposed upon the wolverine. His classical name is gulo luscus gulo referring to throat and hence to his gluttony and luscus meaning halfblind. It is his weak vision that persuades him on occasion to rear up and shade his eyes with a paw when facing into the sun, an idiosyncrasy peculiar to his kind. According to Ernest Thompson Seton, the first Hudson Bay wolverine reported in 1766 was said to have only one eye. This reputation for poor eyesight—an incapacity the wolverine shares with the bear—has endured through the years.

Gulo luscus has other points in common with the bear, though they are in no way related. In size and appearance, he resembles a yearling cub. He has a chunky build, his coat is coarse and shaggy, his ears are stubby and his claws are long. The bear cub of course has only the stub of a tail. The wolverine’s is about six inches long. Another difference is that while the wolverine is almost black two rusty skunklike strips run along his sides to meet on his rump, giving him the name in some localities of skunk-bear. Also,

the bear is plantigrade, putting the whole sole of his foot to the ground as a man does. The wolverine walks on his toes like a dog.

A good-sized specimen measures about three feet overall, is a foot high at the shoulder and weighs from twenty to thirty pounds. The animal’s ferocity and strength deny these modest proportions for, dropping on its back from above, he has bisen known to pull down a full-grown moose.

Ernest Thompson Seton asserts that wolverines have frequently been seen to chase wolves away from the carcasses of deer killed by the wolves and cites the instance of two wolverines in northern Idaho that successfully disputed the body of an elk with a cinnamon bear. He tells of another that stood its ground on a piece of carrion, let a man approach within twenty feet and, rather than relinquish his stinking meal, let himself be shot. This is hardly the attribute of a shy animal.

Webster’s dictionary states that the word “wolverine” is the diminutive of wolf. The wolverine, however he also goes by the title of le carcajou or the glutton—except for an insatiable appetite, has little in common with the wolf. The wolf is primarily an animal of the open country. The wolverine does not go far from timber. The wolf travels in company when he can but the wolverine is generally thought to be a loner. Nevertheless, George Hargreaves of Mount Robson, B.C., a great guide and hunter of the Rockies, held that this was only apparently so. On his trap line, he had seen tracks that convinced him the wolverine often traveled paired, male and female, twenty-four hours apart.

In his forty-odd years of tramping through the Rockies, Hargreaves told me he had seen only two live wolverines and had trapped not much more than twenty. As well as a defensive measure, to protect a trap line, wolverines are trapped for their fur. Though not a fine fur by any means, it was used, until the recent popularity of the slim silhouette, for women’s coat collars. Its chief use through the years has been for lining parkas because it will not frost.

In 1951, the last year for which figures are available, the Canada Year Book (1952-53) states that 780 wolverine pelts were marketed in Canada with an average value of $24.17. Fifty years ago, the records of the Hudson’s Bay Company show that the average annual harvest was about the same, the figure of 736 being given. The value of the fur on the Winnipeg market was from two to six dollars.

The wolverine is admirably equipped for survival, being omnivorous, possessing astonishing physical endurance and having only two enemies. His usual diet is mice but when pressed by hunger he will attack even the largest ruminants. In lesser moments he will run down fox and other small flesh eaters. He will rob a trapper’s cache and befoul with his musk what is beyond his gluttony.

The wolverine mates late in March and has his two to five young in a den under a rock or windfall. He has only two creatures to fear as he roams the forest: man, with his traps and snares, and the porcupine. Probably in any one year more wolverines die from festering quills in their gullets than are caught in traps set by man.

That, at any rate, was the opinion of “Old MacNamara,” a trapper I knew who had his trap line up the Grant Brook, one of the headwaters of the Fraser just west of Yellowhead pass in British Columbia.

I went to his cabin with him one fall in the Twenties. We reached it in the twilight. MacNamara pulled open the door and, stepping over the high threshold, felt for the candle he had left on a shelf six weeks earlier. The candle was gone. The shelf was gone. We had candles in our packs and got them out.

In their dim light we saw that the cabin was a litter of destruction. Behind the bunk we heard a slight rustle and the chatter of teeth. MacNamara pulled it aside and revealed a porcupine, head buried in the corner, bristling tail ready to lash.

I stepped back to get my axe to hit it on the head. When MacNamara saw what I was about to do, he held

out his arm. “Boy,” he said, “never kill a porcupine.”

I was surprised. A porcupine is a prime nuisance on the trail. Gear has to be carefully piled and watched against its busy teeth which will destroy saddles, bridles, boots, axe handles—anything the salty hand of man has touched.

Since MacNamara refused to kill the porcupine, we had to prod him over the threshold, which was about eighteen inches high. The job took most of an hour. At its end, the sticks we used were studded with quills. Quills were in the walls, on the floor and were working through our trouser legs.

The porcupine waddled across the clearing, his back totally bereft of quills. He climbed a tree with much fuss and chirping. MacNamara stood under it and shook his fist. Stay up there!” he shouted. “Stay up there, grow quills and come down and get me another wolverine!” To me he said, “That’s why you should never kill a

porcupine.” .

The reference was made explicit during the next three or four days while we tidied up the cabin and sat on a leg by the moss-fringed pools. MacNamara had not always been tender towards porcupines. Until the previous December he bad brained them without, compunction. His change of heart followed a three-week hunt after a wolverine—the most demanding and the most frustrating hunt of his life.

That December when he had snowshoed up from town to begin his winter’s trapping he had found his cabin gutted—on this occasion not by a porcupine, but by a wolverine.

He had another smaller cabin and a cache over the Arctic divide on Miette Pass. But when he tramped over the divide he found that the wolverine had been there before him, as the tracks he had seen in the snow had warned. The Miette cabin too had been invaded and despoiled.

The cache a few yards away was a platform between four spruce, whose trunks had been limbed and ringed with stovepipe. It was a good dozen feet above the snow. The wolverine somehow had got to it. The old trapper’s winter grubstake, toted up there on his back, had been tossed down into the snow and befouled.

MacNamara knew from experience that no ordinary trap would be likely to take the crafty despoiler. The wolverine would merely put his paw beneath the trap, spring it and gobble up the bait. On the other hand, unless he were caught, he would follow the trap line throughout the winter, eating the marten or whatever other fur was in the traps.

For three weeks MacNamara tried every trick he knew to capture the wolverine, but the wily animal sprang his traps without harm or disregarded them entirely. When he put out pellets of frozen fat, some containing strychnine, the wolverine swallowed the harmless pellets and spat the poisoned ones out. This went on day after day.

He was about to pack up and pull out when one morning on the B. C. side of the divide he came upon the wolverine’s tracks. They were fresh. He had seen tracks often before. They formed a maze and, as a rule, were impossible to follow for any distance.

However, these new tracks held his attention. Rather than leading from willow bush to willow bush after mice, or haunting the trap line, they were haphazard and more than once ran in a complete circle. What made them easily distinguishable was that frequently the wolverine had stopped to cough up blood.

After an hour or so the tracks led MacNamara to a clump of balsam near tree line above the Grant Brook. The balsam were less than man-high, and, looking over them toward the alp lands, he saw that the tracks did not extend beyond. He had come to the end of the trail.

He slipped off his right mitt and released the safety catch on his rifle. Cautiously he moved forward, trying to see through the mist of branches, and he saw a wisp of vapor above the balsam. Inside there something breathed. MacNamara was too prudent to enter. Thirty pounds of weasel are not to be trifled with.

He had not long to wait. The wolverine’s snakelike head appeared through the branches. It was a bristling thing of horror. Its eyes were rimmed with porcupine quills. Its mouth was held half-open by quills which studded its tongue and lower lip.

Before MacNamara could lift his rifle to his shoulder, it sprang for his throat. He clubbed it in mid-air with his rifle butt and brought, it down and shot it through the head. Death by starvation would have come soon in any case, for with tongue and throat festering with quills, the wolverine could no longer feed.

Since that morning MacNamara had never lifted a hand against a porcupine. But a mystery remains: why was it that the wolverine, too wise to be caught by all a trapper’s cunning, should fall victim to the porcupine, the stupidest animal in the hush? MacNamara’s wolverine was not unique. Other examples are on record. The bear and fisher know enough to flip a porcupine over and expose its vulnerable belly. The wolverine goes for him with open mouth. Yet he has had long centuries to learn about the porcupine and relatively few to learn about man’s snares and wiles.

Man scent along the trap line will cause the wolverine to shy away, or approach with caution. However, he will break into a trapper’s cabin where that same scent is often strong enough to overpower anyone but the owner. 11 seems that it is not man, nor his scent, that he fears, but man’s contraptions. In spite of that fear, or in contempt of it, a wit beyond mere instinct enables him more often than not to prove himself a better tactician than the trapper who sets one of those contraptions in his path. Nevertheless, on occasion, he does get caught.

The wolverine seems to have inherited a long distrust of man. Records going back almost three hundred years attest that he was as wily then as he is today.

He Steals Grizzly Bait

One spring I was up Cache Creek, another tributary of the Canoe on the western slope of the Rockies, on a grizzly hunt with Benny Fournier, a French-Canadian trapper, and a man from Lapland. The grizzlies—we saw a lot of signs about—smelling the smoke of our fire, cleared out of the valley before we had a shot at them.

However, the Laplander had not given up, though Benny and I did not know it. On our last midnight in the valley we were awakened by the roar of a .303. While the echoes rolled around us, the Laplander jumped out of his blankets and began to beat his chest. While Benny and I were making supper he had made a rifle set half a mile up the valley. He had secured his rifle in a willow bush, tied a rind of bacon fat to the muzzle, tied a fish line to the bacon and run the fish line around a willow behind the rifle’s butt, run the line forward and looped it about the trigger. This was on the chance that there might still be a laggard grizzly in the valley and that, as usual, he would be hungry.

At sunup we approached the rifle set, Benny and I dreading that we would find a grizzly with the back of his head blown off. We found nothing but the rifle and some shreds of bacon. The Laplander said that a rabbit had tripped the trigger in jumping over the fish line. Benny shook his head. He walked over to a patch of snow about ten feet away and pointed. “Wolverine,” he said and added that maybe the wolverine had been trying to gnaw through the fish line and had thus pulled the trigger. I doubted that any nimal would have the sagacity to void the business end of a rifle, >aited with bacon fat, and go around behind in an attempt to disarm it.

However, Benny’s view finds support in the works of Ernest ThompsonSeton. There a wolverine, near Fort Simpson, N.W.T., is reported not only to have attempted to gnaw through the fish line of a rifle set, a delicate operation on a light trigger, but to have succeeded in the effort twice against the same man on the same spot. The rifle was not discharged either time and the bait had been so carefully removed

from its muzzle that the set was undisturbed.

But now when I consider the wolverine, I am apt to forget the animal and remember a man—Ollie the Swede. I met him a few days before Christmas in the hungry Thirties in a cabin on Starvation Flats, which lie below Mount Robson between the Fraser and McLellan Rivers. George Hargreaves, Benny Fournier and others were there, but Ollie, short and with a driven, haggard face, held the floor, walking up and down. “That wolverine!” he repeated endlessly, “he yust go

fort’ and back and fort’ and back.” Like Old MacNamara, Ollie had lost his winter’s grubstake and a pack of furs to the wolverine.

Two hundred years and more ago, man tramped the floor and cursed the Canadian wolverine who just goes “fort’ and back” along a trap line. A hundred years from now it is safe to say that if any trappers are left and the forest remains the situation will not be much changed. The wolverine, the shadow-haunter, will still be with us, using against man, man’s own weapons of persistence, wiliness and cunning, if