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The Northern Trapper



From the Fur Trade Journal of Canada, October, 1923.
The Northern Trapper - Seasons of trapping in the north
Returns to be expected - Getting Ready for the Season's Campaign
Conditions to Be Met in the North Country

Trapping in the north country today has a glamour about it that appeals strongly to the outdoor man and well it may for trapping has played a very important part in the past history of North America. When America was first discovered the Indians were at that time existing by hunting and trapping. To be sure they had no highly developed hunting or trapping implements as we have them today; nevertheless, they secured sufficient fur-bearing animals to furnish them with food and clothing and that was the main consideration. Trapper walking in the woods. With the coming of the white man the fur trade developed rapidly for it was the only resource which offered the newcomers a ready return, the animals so secured acting as food, clothing and currency. These days have long since passed away and the huge wildness which once hid any number of such fur-bearing animals have largely given way to towns and cities and farms; while the animals once to be found there have been taken or have been, driven back further into the heavy timber.

The spirit of the chase which has been so highly developed in our forefathers is no doubt largely responsible for the spirit of the present generation and as a result, we see in men that desire to get out closer to Nature, to hunt, and fish and trap. We cannot now get out within the confines of civilization and trap as was once possible and while the largest percentage of the furs taken today are taken by the farmer, this is partly because there are so many farmers engaged in it; the catch by any one individual of this class is not large, at least not a year's salary. Then too, the furs taken by the farmer, or in other words the trapper of civilization, are different from those taken by the trapper of the north for the most valuable part of the professional trappers catch is made up of such animals as marten, fisher; mink, otter, beaver, wolf, lynx, etc., animals that never remain long near human habitations.

To be sure, there are exceptions to this; say in the case of a farmer who lives along a good muskrat lake or marsh. In the season of 1919 - 20 many farmers made from $500 to $3000 during about two months in the spring when muskrats were running good and their pelts were bringing big prices. The professional trapper differs from the others mentioned, however, in that he makes trapping his entire business, for the time being at least and usually manages to make a good living from it. It is rather a gamble though as even the buying, of raw furs is for when one starts out in the season he does not know what furs are going to be worth later after he has secured his catch; the fur market may become panicky and prices drop to a level where there is barely a living in it. Perhaps that this element of chance is another reason why the trapping game is attractive to so many.

Professional trappers and their grounds vary in detail but are very much the same. The northern sections of Canada from Labrador to British Columbia and on north to Alaska and the Yukon. Territories supply much the same classes of fur-bearing animals; the degrees of coldness may vary somewhat but the conditions of living; of trapping, and actual methods are the same. Each province has what one might aptly term a "starting - out" point to the fur land of the north. For instance, we have in Ontario, North Bay, Cochrane, and one or two other places; in Manitoba, The Pas, Norway House; in Alberta, through the Peace River district and so it goes through the various provinces. These special starting - out places are because they !are comparatively easy of access by railroad or by canoe or other Water transportation and therefore the best gateway to the Great North Country.

It is now almost a universal policy for two trappers to go in together. It is more pleasant to have company, safer because should one partner get into difficulties through sickness or otherwise, which he could not get out of alone, the other is there to help him, and usually more lucrative for when men have the two advantageous conditions just outlined they can do better work and cover more territory than two men each working separately could accomplish. Another point worth considering is that men are apt to go insane living alone for months without company. Quite a number of fatalities do occur each year in the north country as the following clippings from newspapers will show:

"Surrounded by three small piles of unlit firewood and sitting in an upright position, the body, of Leo file. a trapper was found on Moose Lake (via Le Pas), Manitoba) by Indians. Hile's body was frozen stiff and there was evidence of his heroic attempts to light the wood to save himself from freezing. He left the portage on the far side of Moose Lake with his dog team and winter's catch of furs and got lost in a raging blizzard. His dogs forsook him and arrived at the Moose Lake settlement unattended. The dead man's home is in Sioux Falls, North Dakota.

He leaves a wife and two children. The Indians buried the body at the Hudson's Bay Trading Post. This is the second fatality from freezing reported here in the past week."

And another: "Famine is ravaging Indian tribes in the far north, according to reports received by the head office of the Hudson Bay Company here. Stories sent in by trappers and prospectors state that in the tribes worst affected cannibalism has been practised. The Caribou Indians of the Northwest Territories are declared to be in the worst condition and the R.C.M.P. has sent a detachment of men from Fort Smith to investigate. The reckless slaughter of caribou and other animal food supplies on which the tribes are dependent is I said to be responsible for the famine.

"In 1920, the Indians destroyed large herds of caribou and practically drove out or exterminated all these animals. Hundreds of carcasses were left on the plains, only the choicest parts being eaten by the Indians. No pemmican (preserved meat) was made and this year the tribes found themselves without any food supply. When the time arrived for the annual trek of the caribou no animals appeared, the slaughter having reduced the size of the herds and driven them to other areas. The light snowfall permitted them to remain in more northern parts where the grass was not covered. Without this trek, the Indians were unable to obtain food and reports of wholesale starvation are coming into Hudson's Bay Posts."

Perhaps the worst death that can befall the trapper is scurvy, a disease which eats away the flesh and which is caused by eating too much of certain foods, often salt pork. Fortunately, it is not very often that we hear of such cases.

The northern trapper, of necessity goes in early in the season, usually the fore part of September, for there is much work to be done previous to the opening of the season of trapping, and he must have his grounds selected, his cabins up, etc., before winter arrives. As it often freezes up there about October the first, and as many trappers go in by canoe, they must arrive before the rivers are frozen and the only means of travel cut off. Of course, there are resident trappers but they are in the minority for trappers are a class of wanderers and are to be found here one season and many miles away the next. They are after all the money there is to be made from the trapping of animals and so go where they are the most plentiful and as animals are scarce in one locality and plentiful in another, the reason for continually moving around is easily apparent.

One will invariably find that the resident trapper is either part Indian or has married a squaw, but the most of the trappers have their homes many miles away from their trapping grounds and they return to them directly they have secured their catch of furs and the trapping season is over. I not long ago met a young fellow who had gone into the north some years previous and had there met and married a comely young squaw. He told me that he had not been out to civilization since his marriage as his wife would not go. His folks were well-to-do citizens in a thriving, Ontario town and did not know what had become of their son. He also informed me that he was happy and contented where he was and that he had never regretted his marriage with the Indian maiden, in fact he said, his wife was much better than any white girl he had ever met for she could do as much work as he could and knew as much, or more about it. I saw several instances of white husband and Indian wife, the husband invariably bullying, the wife shy, never saying a word and doing more work than her better half. During the summer months, the squaw would take her papoose, fasten it over her back Indian style and paddle a canoe all day long.

The Indian trapper will live in one place for years. trapping over the same ground each year and securing a good living. As his necessities of life are small his living expenses are low and he can live on much less than a white man. This not infrequently causes them to degenerate and become extremely lazy and we find them along the railroad eking out a living by trapping the few furs bearing animals there are to be found along the line during the winter months. They are too lazy to go into the wilderness and work and put up with the hardships necessary to a successful season trapping campaign.

As a rule, the trapper going into the north ships part of his outfit, the most important part such as the canoe, traps, guns, etc., to the last stop before entering into the wilds and there outfits properly with all supplies necessary for about a nine months stay in the wilderness. This saves a lot of freight and bother. The canoe, the usual method of transportation is then loaded and the trapper or trappers, as the case may be, strike out for their grounds perhaps travelling weeks before they arrive. They have a small tent under which they sleep nights and in which they stay when the weather is too rough to travel. Some trappers wait until the snow has arrived and then go in by dog team, while still others take dogs with them by canoe. The Indian trapper who is a permanent resident of the country usually has numerous, half-starved dogs which he uses as sleigh dogs for hauling him around on the traplines. Where the trapping grounds cannot be reached by water the trapper must pack his outfit in on his back. This is some chore and needless to say, no more do it than necessary.

Arrived at their destination, or what they had hoped would be their destination, they may find that there are not sufficient fur-bearing animals there to make it worth their while to stay, due to the grounds having been trapped over and the supply of animals depleted the previous season; or perhaps the animals have migrated or disease has struck them. Or it may be that there are trappers on the ground already and in such a case the last ones there have to move on and find other grounds.

The smaller cabins along the line enable the trapper to cover his line and have a place to stop and rest and eat at the end of each day. Some trappers have only one cabin, others one or two, and still others as many as five Or even more. It all depends on the ground to be covered and the condition of the country. Not long ago we ran across an old trapper who had his grounds near the headwaters of the Peace River. He went up early in the fall, the first of September, and came back in June. He had five shanties or cabins on his ground, each cabin a day's journey from the other. He started out each Monday morning and managed to cover his grounds in a week, getting back to the home cabin on Saturday. He kept food, blankets and wood at each cabin.

It is usually necessary to blaze a trail along the trap line for once winter has set in, and obliterated all marks on land that formerly made the grounds familiar, one needs a guide to follow when travelling the great white wastes.

Once they have selected their grounds the first thing necessary is the cabin. The home cabin is built first, this being the main and largest building. Building these log cabins of logs is no cinch and it requires a great deal of hard work to accomplish it. Tools like saws, axes, adzes, etc., are packed in the outfit and with the aid of these, the trapper can construct quite an up-to-date home. One sees in the north some very fine buildings of this type, considering that the trappers can take in only those tools which are necessary. They even have windows in them now, using block mica for this purpose, which has been later cut into sheets.

In addition to the home cabin, then; is the fur shed to be built where all the furs are stored, and enough wood cut to last well on into the winter, or if they have the time right through the winter. It is then necessary to begin building the other cabins along the trap line. The length of the trap line varies with the locality, the trappers, etc., but quite often it is a hundred miles long. Along this line will be located several smaller cabins, each a days journey from the other. Food, as a rule, is kept in each cabin. These are known as caches. The honesty of the men of the north is well known and while there is a Free Masonry that permits of one trapper helping himself to another's supplies in case of dire need, they are seldom known to steal from each other. The Indians too, are very particular in this respect. The following news item will have a bearing on this subject:

Retrieving his tobacco in excellent condition after it had been cached for ten years is the experience of Charles Insley, a trapper who makes the wilds of Northern Manitoba his hunting ground. Illsley was recently at the Pas (pronounced Paw) and in the telling of his travels said that in 1913 he made a cache at Copper Lake, which is 72 miles north of the Pas. In the cache, he placed three pounds of tobacco in six half-pound tins. Returning to Copper Lake early in the present year, he found on going to his cache that the tobacco was as good as ever, although it had been there ten years.

You may say that the cache was untouched because no one had been able to find it and while this might be quite true in some cases, yet it does not hold good usually. Even with caches of food which are plainly visible to other trappers, they will seldom be touched unless driven by hunger to do so, when it is considered permissible in the north. Instances have been known where Indians almost starved to death rather than touch, the cached food of another trapper.

Perhaps the main despoiler in this direction, when he can reach it, is the wolverine, an animal found only in the cold, snowy north and one cordially hated by both white and Indian trapper. It is the possessor of a very gluttonous appetite and what its huge stomach will not hold, it spoils for future use by any creature excepting itself, by putting on it a horrible smelling secretion.

The smaller cabins along the line enable the trapper to cover his line and have a place to stop and rest and eat at the end of each day. Some trappers have only one cabin, others one or two, and still others as many as five or even more. It all depends on the ground to be covered and the condition of the country. Not long ago we ran across an old trapper, who had his grounds near the headwaters of the Peace River. He went up early in the fall, the first of September, and came back in. June. He had five shanties or cabins on his ground, each cabin a days journey from the other. He started out each Monday morning and managed to cover his grounds in a week, getting back to the home cabin on Saturday. He kept food, blankets and wood at each cabin.

It is usually necessary to blaze a trail along the trap line for once winter has set in, and obliterate all marks on land that formerly made the grounds familiar, one needs a guide to follow when travelling the great white wastes.

Once the cabins have been erected, fuel laid in and all necessary preparations made for the long cold spell, it is necessary to get cut and rustle some food for the trapper can take in only a small amount of the food actually required, the supplies brought in being flour and others a kind one cannot secure away from civilization; he must depend on Nature and the wilderness to supply the most of his food. To this end, the trapper usually tries to secure a moose, a deer, caribou or even a bear and failing one of these large animals must depend on ducks and geese early in the season, and later on, rabbits, fish, etc. Each trapper takes along full fishing equipment for taking fish through the ice and in this way he secures pike, whitefish and other of the finny tribe that prevents him from starving at least. The game so secured is hung up where it will freeze and it is eaten as required. It not infrequently happens that game is scarce and in such cases, the trapper has to get down to the hardpan and eat even the flesh of some very unpalatable animals, animals he catches in his traps. And when one is facing starvation he does not make any bones about tackling the rear leg of a wolf or a delicious lynx flank.

Rabbits are usually very plentiful in the north and these the trapper catches in large numbers using snares. The only time they are not plentiful is when the seven years plague strikes them and even though they are to be found in numbers then it is not safe to eat them for they are diseased. Many rabbits are also taken in traps set for other more valuable animals, for they are very curious and will almost break their necks trying to get into traps not intended for them. In many cases, where the sets are made for valuable furbearers such as marten or fisher the trapper must use precautions in setting his traps by placing a small twig under the pan so that it will require a heavier weight than that of a rabbit to spring the trap.

About the middle of October, or perhaps not until the first of November, the trapper will begin his trapping operations. His most valuable catch is usually made between November and Christmas, but it sometimes happens that conditions for taking the animals remain good right up through January and February. The mink, weasel, marten, fisher, lynx, wolves, foxes, otter, etc., are the animals taken at this time they being the chief valuable furbearers of the north country. After November the first these animals are all fully prime in the north and at their best, therefore the most valuable. As the season advances into January, what with the extreme cold weather and the deep snow, these animals become less active and are harder to trap; then, too, the trapper has a big-time keeping his traps above the snow and so there is always a period when the fur catch is very light. It is at this time that a special effort is made to poison wolves and to take lynx in snares.

The cold weather and the deep snows cause game on which these animals feed to become scarce and while wolves are very cautious animals at all times, they yield more readily to poison baits because they are very greedy animals. The lynx is not a very cunning animal at any time but the snares are specially adapted for use when the snows are deep for they set high above the ground and are never snowed under as traps would be.

Christmas Day and New Years Day are the two big days in the year for the trapper. For these days he has brought along some special delicacy - some wine, cigarettes or some special foods which he enjoys in remembrance of the season and the outside world where his friends are enjoying themselves many miles away. When one is not too far from civilization, the trapper will make a special effort to get out to someplace where he can send and receive some mail though as often as not it happens that mail is not seen until one comes out. Meeting people is much along the same line. Although it usually happens that the trapper will meet another trapper once or twice during the season, such is not always the case. Trappers have not the time to visit especially when they are miles apart and then, too, one never knows when a storm is going to blow up that will necessitate the trapper being home on his line.

Along in February and March, winter begins to show signs of relenting; the storms are not so severe; the weather moderates down somewhat and the trapper works hard on the line for he is now having his last run of the season on the fully prime, valuable animals. The fisher, marten, foxes and such other animals as I have mentioned, along about this time begin to show signs of un-primeness and once they begin to shed their fur the pelts rapidly lose their value. But with the coming of spring comes also the trapping of two other animals, the muskrat and the beaver. These animals are not fully prime until the spring months so the trapper generally does not bother much with them until along in March when they begin their "running" or breeding season, and are then more easily taken than at any other time in the whole year.

The traps that have all winter long been set for other animals are now pulled up and set for these aquatic, animals for the season is short and to get results the trapper must concentrate. The muskrats are systematically gone after, their signs found along lakes, ponds and streams or rivers and a hundred or perhaps two hundred traps are set out for them. These traps will be left on these grounds until the place shows signs of depletion. The catch the first night may be say, seventy - five muskrats, the second night fifty, the third thirty, the fourth from five to twenty. It is then time to move them to new grounds more productive of results. Beaver cannot be gone after on the same business-like scale for they are cunning as well as timid and one must use great care in making and visiting sets. If too many unnatural signs are left around their grounds they are apt to leave the neighbourhood. Considering that the pelt of one beaver is worth quite many muskrat pelts, it pays to use care in making the sets.

On the latitude depends the time of the arrival of spring of course, but about the middle of April the trapper knows he has gotten about all the catch it is worthwhile going after; he sees the geese and the other birds heading north and he too feels that he should be homeward bound. And once the ice is well gone and there is little danger from it on the big lakes he pulls his stakes, packs what is left of his supplies and with his precious cargo of furs, he strikes for civilization to realize on practically a whole year's work. It is a thrilling moment when he appears, within sight of the first outpost of civilization and arriving at the first stop he usually stays a day or so to compare notes with the other trappers who are passing through bound for home.

The returns vary greatly with the seasons, caused by the supply of animals, climatic conditions and by fluctuating fur prices. I know trappers who make as much as four and five thousand dollars in a season and it is considered a poor year when they cannot make at least twenty-five hundred dollars. When they happen to pick up a silver or black fox pelt the value of the catch is boosted immensely for the pelt of one of these animals is worth many times what the more common animals area In recent years, however, not many wild ones are taken for at the time of the silver fox boom when the pelts were selling for thousands of dollars each. these valuable animals were vigorously hunted and pretty well cleaned out. But the sums I have mentioned for eight or nine months work is pretty good pay for the average working man and a great deal for the Indian who apparently does not know how to use it. I have seen Indian trappers with diamond rings, gold watches costing $150, gramophones in their homes, motorboats and other articles that appealed to their fancy.

Truly there is much romance in trapping and Milady little realizes the experiences that go to secure for her the fine set of furs she may be wearing. Fur farms are now rapidly being established to meet the ever-increasing demand for furs but it will likely be years before certain furbearers can ever be raised successfully until that time comes and after, we until that time comes and after we shall still have the professional trapper. While the north country is becoming nearer as we advance into it, yet I believe that beyond parallel 52 there will be furs forever for it is truly a hunter's and trapper's country and not a land adapted to our otherwise domestic purposes.


From the Fur Trade Journal of Canada - March 1924.
Adventure of Trappers in North.

Skeletons of Two Men Lost Nearly a Year Ago Found by Lonely Lake, picked Clean by Wolves. Police Make Long Trip to Bury Gruesome Relics of Tragedy, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., Jan. 8.


Provincial Constables Harry Morren and F. A. Morrison returned today from a trip 60 miles in the bush back of Mile 60 on the Algoma Central Railway, where they located and buried the remains of two men, thought to be two trappers, Alex. Vasseau of Blind River, and Louis Lewis of Cutler, who have been missing since the spring of 1922.

The two constables had a very trying trip. It took them six days to make the trip in from the railway on snowshoes, following the line of the Goudreau River to Saymo Lake, near the headwaters of the Abinadong River, a tributary of the Mississauga River. They and their guide, Wilfred Barber, a trapper, who had first discovered the bodies, had no trail to follow and increasing some of the small lakes and streams encountered at times four and five inches of slush. On New Year's Day, they found and buried the bodies. It was very cold and stormy.

On December 4, 1923, while scouting around an unnamed lake in the Mississauga Forest Reserve, just north and east of Saymo Lake, Barber found the skeletons of two men on the shore. Coming out shortly after, he reported this to Provincial Constable Morren and agreed to accompany him at any time to show where the skeletons were. On December 26 Morren and Morrison, with Barber to guide them, set out.

On their way out they stopped at old fire rangers' shacks until they reached Barbers' camp. On January 1 they reached the lake, where the skeletons were lying. There was little left but the bones, for the wolves had eaten the skeletons bare. One was fifteen feet from the shoreline. With it were found a watch and an oil stove. Barber had previously found a hunting knife. A snowshoe was lying close at hand, and half-way between this body and the other was an Indian home-made paddle washed, up on the shore. The second body was 30 feet away. One snowshoe and the rubbers were still in the water just at the shore, but the skeleton had been dragged probably ten feet up the shore by the wolves. Only small remnants of clothing were found.

The search party buried the bodies and marked the site by a large cross blazed on a tree. They had to search over quite an area to find all the bones. There was still snow in the bush in April 1922, and it is thought their canoe upset, and that while they managed to reach shore they were so exhausted by the cold and wet they were unable to go further, and died in their tracks.

Dr A. S. McCaig, the Coroner, decided on hearing the constables story that an inquest was not necessary.


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