Thursday, May 15, 2014

Spring beaver

Considering traditions and resources


My dad tossing a beaver onto the marsh bank
after pulling it up from the depths of a drowning set in late April. 
Trapping beaver in the spring is far easier than in the winter. In the winter a trapper has to chop his way through pond ice with chisels. And that’s after trudging through the snow (oftentimes including tag alders, slopes, banks, and frozen marsh structures) for a half mile or more. Think about doing that while you’re bundled up against the sub-zero wind, hauling a basket or sled full of steel and stakes. That’s not to mention the return trip out, when you’re wringing wet with sweat, which will soon be freezing to your skin in all sorts of places, slowly encapsulating your entire body in a suit of extreme uncomfort.

Oh, and if you do catch your beaver, back there, in the far reaches of the woods, have fun hauling the 45-pound carcass of the largest North American rodent out of those woods on your own two legs. Heaven forbid you double up in there.

Then you have to consider that trapping a single beaver pond is going to severely limit your catch. If you want to make any money with your endeavor, you’ll need to visit at least a half dozen ponds, if not more. In addition, you’ll have to add up your own time and investment in traps, clothing, and other tools such as knives, wire, stretching boards, etc.

And remember, that’s trapping just one pond, way back in the woods. Now, imagine doing that on a large scale and tell me why trapping isn’t profitable...

My uncle carrying a beaver through the brush.
I’m not describing this to press some macho-man rhetoric in your face. Believe me when I say I have a limited interest in doing much of this myself. I only share because I have done it before, and I have tagged along to see it done many more times than I can count. What’s amazing to me about trapping beaver in the winter is that it can be done, that harvesting these very raw materials, utilizing natural local resources, in the harshest of weather conditions, is possible.

Trapping season for beaver in Wisconsin runs until the last day in April. That means there is what we call a “spring season,” which is when the ice lifts off the ponds and streams. Beaver are much more mobile in the Spring than during the snowy months. After the ice out, they’re hungry and searching for food. They are also inclined to start swimming new waters in search of mates, and while their fur retains its thick, wooly quality for awhile, the big males will begin to fight for females and territory, biting each other ruthlessly and degrading their hides. That means there are drawbacks to waiting until Spring, but I think the benefits out way the drawbacks.

Consider this: The woods you were tramping through the winter before - the ones with the four-foot snow drifts - with the beaver pond way in the back - well, those woods are open now and much easier to get through. Also, take into account that many waterways are accessible where they intersect roads, and you’ve got a better shot at catching a traveling beaver right outside your vehicle.

The drawback here? Well that’s as simple as timing. If other trappers braved the winter conditions, those beaver you’re looking to catch are long dead come Springtime. It’s a gamble to wait, but there’s always a chance it will pay off by saving you the extra exertion during December or January.

What I can tell you, though, is that you will not learn this work in any classroom in America. You cannot pay a teacher if you wanted to learn how to trap beaver (or any other species for that matter). It simply has to be passed on from mentor to apprentice. Often, this teaching happens over generations of families, but sometimes not. Sometimes a person simply wants to experience or learn something first hand that they’ve only read about in books or heard about through vocal traditions.
My dad and uncle pause for a photo with the day's catch.
Thirty six beaver were taken in one day here.
Overall, the count was 160 in six days.
In the last instance, what are you left to do? If you lack a mentor to teach you one of these outdoor traditions, how do you find someone who knows not only how to trap or fish or hunt, but who is also a good teacher, and beyond that, willing to teach you?

I don’t have an answer for that. Perhaps someone out there can enlighten me. What I do know is simply the fact that these opportunities are still alive and well in our neck of the woods. Here, we are surrounded by high-quality natural resources and generations worth of knowledge as to how best to benefit from them. Isn’t that something worth being proud of? Whether it be logging, farming, hunting, fishing, or trapping - there are still experts we can learn from, and learning is the basis for success. How else would we weigh trapping beaver in the spring versus the winter?

See you out there,
A woodsman in training.

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