Thursday, February 7, 2013

Steel and fur

An honest trade, wrought with worth

As I clamored down the reeded river bank, trudging through a snowdrift up to my thigh, clumsy thanks to a pack-basket filled with steel strung to my back and several layers of heavy wool clothing, I braced myself on a braided iron spike in my gloved left hand. Another step, another lift of the hefty, five-foot iron pole, the bottom of which was sharpened to a chisel point, the top of which was affixed with a ring as large as my head welded to the top. The chisel end was for chopping ice, the ring end for catching the tool before it fell through the hole. It was a gift from my great-grandfather to my father many years ago, and that day I carried it.

Lifting each leg was a chore, but I knew once I made it onto the river ice ahead the snow would be less than half as deep. The wind whipped and shortly I had an ice mustache below my nose. Not yet 70-yards from the truck, and already a few beads of sweat prickled at the line of the beaver-fur hat hugging my forehead. I didn't dare turn back or slow down though, not with my father and brother hot on my heels - Carlson's don't slow down once they're in motion.

Only a few more steps, and I made it onto the open river, gasping something unintelligible about being out of shape. Behind me came the other two, equally as burdened but with the advantage a trail broken before them. On the open ice in front of us the shallower snow of the frozen river was a highway of footprints.

"Coyote," pa declared, marching in front of me to inspect. "They use rivers and creeks and any other advantage they can during the winter."

"I can't imagine why…" I said, catching my breath. He pointed up and down the narrow avenue of hard water that carved through the brush and reeds. "It's like a highway for critters," he continued, mildly oblivious to the fact his sons had heard this lesson hundreds of times before. "See, there's fox tracks too." 

I leaned heavier on the ice chisel.


It was only the fourth or fifth stop of the day but I was already feeling fatigued. The constant struggle between the sharp winter wind and cross-country hikes to beaver ponds buried in the woods was a brutal combination in hip boots. The result of which was freezing sweat and sore legs. It was the price of trapping beaver through the ice though, and through the ice in the dead of winter is when their pelts are thickest and draw the best bids at the Canadian fur auctions, so our trio trudged on.

Moving on the snow-covered ice was much easier, and within another 40 or so yards the beaver house came into view. Pa had set a trio of 330 conibear traps around the beaver house two days prior, and today was our first check. Years of trudging dutifully along on other trap lines had taught me how to locate the steel under the ice, and soon enough I spotted two of the sets.

They were marked by busted up sapling trunks shooting straight out of the ice. A fresh dusting of snow had covered up most the activity from the scene a few days previous, but the twig trees I was looking at had no natural right to be impaled in the middle of a frozen creek. Behind them, next to a frozen feed bed of sticks and twigs, sat the lodge. Given the proximity of the impostor sticks to the lodge, I figured these two sets where channel sets. See, beaver swim up into the submerged entrance of their hovels by one or two routes, over and over again. This creates a waning in the river or lake bottom as repetition carves out a definitive channel. In this passage is where the conibear is set, and when the returning beaver trips the trigger, it's lights out rather quickly.

Pa angled straight for the first set and silently held out an arm that pointed to the second, never taking his eyes off the possibility of what lie below the ice in front of him. The anticipation in the air became tangible; the moment of truth had arrived.

"I've got it," brother Jed practically leapt over me while I tried to shimmy out from under the heavy basket on my back. He grabbed the ice chisel and strode to the second set. Soon the two of them were biting deep into the ice with steel spades. The sound of creaking and cracking ice rang out in unison with the sharper ping of steel. The staffs rose and fell like hammers from on high - wrought iron splitting thick ice, churning up chunks of crystal that glimmered in the late morning sun as they shot upwards before landing like hundreds of individual meteor strikes, rupturing craters in the snow upon impact.

I stood and searched with my eyes for the third set. Before long though, I realized I was unequipped to do anything about it should I have spotted it, and I abandoned the scan. Pa had bored a neat hole through the ice by now, and had adorned his signature black-rubber gauntlets. They were old, wretched, ragged things, with gnarly fingers from being patched and glued hundreds of times - a result of years handling pokey metal equipment in frigid environments.

He got to his knees in green boots that reached up to the hip. Then he lay flat on his stomach on the ice before plunging the entirety of his right arm down into the dark glacial water. Briefly a memory shot through my mind - a story from when I was a boy, and he had stuck his hand into the metal maw below. He had trapped himself on the ice, all alone, in the days before cellphones, the dusk approaching. No indication of him being suddenly doomed occurred, though, and instead he muttered a few grunts as he reached, saying nothing distinguishable until... "Ahh Ha!"

"Got something?!" Jed inquired as he stopped chiseling and looked over.

"Score!" Pa exclaimed. "I think we've got the big papa bear…" he trailed off with a grunt in the snow as he hefted again on the stiff rodent carcass under the ice. "Wheeeweee!" He stood, with a huge grin on his face, sucking in the cold air and snorting out steam while I shuffled over. “We’ve got the big one,” he stated with a nod at me; high fives ensued.

I took up the chisel and began chopping a wider opening for us to pull the beaver out of. Jed had broken through to the second set by then and since Pa's lucky gauntlets were already on, he went over to prospect the dark water. We worked as a team like this, streamlined for timeliness, and after a few more minutes we had the big bull beaver pulled from the depths, checked the empty second trap, and found a muskrat clamped in the third set, which had turned out to be right in front of me near the feed pile.

The operation was an all-hands-on deck ordeal, which was years in the making; the economy of which I'm sure would have impressed any industrious foreman should there have been one such present. Although, suppose to say you could call my father the foreman, as this beaver trapping regiment was one he had spent years assembling by schooling the two of us through countless hours of apprenticeship. Years that were spent spending Saturday mornings out in the grey and cold when mostly I hated leaving a warm bed.

Jed and I rolled the vermin in the snow to pull the water off the furs. This trick would prevent the hairs from freezing to anything metal they might encounter in the pack-baskets or the truck bed. The issue of course, is that an un-tattered hide is much more valuable than one with patches of fur yanked out.

Pa reset the traps, his hands so cold under the thin layer of the rubber gloves that his fingers were hardly operational by the time he switched his gauntlets back to giant, wooly chopper mittens. As we loaded up the catch into the baskets, he grabbed the muskrat by the tail and held it up in front of his face. "Fat and sassy," he said, satisfied. Jed and I laughed.

We'd expected more from the spot, but we did take the big beaver, and resetting the traps was a chance at catching the others that lived there. The different loops of the trap line would dictate another check in the next three or four days - another chance at a payoff, and all the sign indicated there was at least one more beaver living at the spot.

Plus, we couldn't discount the fact we'd collected the bonus muskrat, which as my dad always says, “pays for the gas.” The journey back down the ice to the dreaded river bank and beyond to the truck was much easier after being rewarded. Spirits were high after the catch and Jed and I had plenty of jokes about the whole fat and sassy phrase.

We caught seven beaver total that day, along with a handful of muskrats and a surprise mink. Of the beaver fur there was a great variety. One stark black pelt, a beautiful, almost crimson toned one, a pair that where sandy, almost blonde, and the rest varieties of brown.

The trade is one that has withered to near extinction due to a variety of factors in recent decades, and perhaps that causes me to cherish my family's roots in it even more. My great great grandfather made a living between trapping season in the winter and selling bait minnows in the summer. My great grandfather did the same, and was responsible for teaching my father how to catch and process fur. My grandpa too, is a trapper as well. Since then, it's been a trade of the family to be passed down, my brother and I being the fifth generation.

Now, I make no claims to be a professional trapper, but it is a tradition I'm proud to be a part of and a quality craft that few now know. Knowledge of the modern fur industry is not commonly taught in our educational systems, and I wholeheartedly appreciate it being handed down through the generations to my brothers and me via direct instruction. Especially in an ecosystem that is well versed in natural resources like wild fur, that occur naturally, are self-sustaining, and are monitored and protected by a department of government; surely it is folly to disregard a native asset.

Furthermore, if you've gathered anything about me, I hope it is that I believe in a deeper meaning, and I always strive to find it. To relish being in the outdoors is to acknowledge an alignment more true, strait, and archaic than my words do justice. Working in the elements for an honest product is often uncomfortable at best, deadly at worst. What we lose when we disregard or close that option to ourselves though, is simply not worth the sacrifice.

I believe it of the utmost importance to find ways in which to bind ourselves to our natural environment. Of course I love the comforts of domestic mankind as much as anyone, but as a woodsman in training, I vow my best to look past the promise of shiny distractions and shallow shortcuts. Give me the heavy steel ice chisel to carry and I'll carve out some ragged name for myself yet. There are few guarantees in life, but more often than not, we simply refuse to work for the ones right in front of us.

“The real man smiles in trouble, gathers strength from distress, and grows brave by reflection.”
- Thomas Paine

See you out there,
A woodsman in training.

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