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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

fur trapping and it's etiquette

i don't see as many people out trapping as i use to. it's much hard work and some are just not good or lucky with it. times have changed to be able to make a living trapping but there's still a need for local material to make the winter gear essential in the north.

seems the few i meet who are trapping are white newcomers. maybe wanting to try this lifestyle. part of the Alaskan experience. i don't know their motivations. nevertheless, having fur stretched and drying in your home is a very attractive activity for those making a life in village Alaska.
because of the need for fur sewing materials i think there will always be a place for trapping in Alaska.

when i was a young man  in my 20's it was one way to make a winter living, feed my family, and keep in tune with the country around me. there was never a dull moment on the homestead.

it wasn't uncommon to have the living room filled with stretchers and skins in various states of care. some with skin side out to dry, others turned with the fur side out to finish. some skins my wife at the time and mother would pick out to keep but most are generally graded, strung together, stored hanging in the porch or cache.

trapping starts in the first part of November and ends last week of February. after which it's time to snare beaver all march. some trap longer but risk rubbed fur, which has lost it's guard hairs. conversely trying to stretch the season by getting an early start has little advantage. it brings you fur that have not developed guard hairs. a good trapper needs a cold fall and winter to have quality fur. an early start might involve breaking the needed trail, setting up a canvas wall tent and stove at the end of your line, and a serious examination of the country intended for harvest. other preparation work may be in order depending on the trapper.

after a 4 month season working a line of 100 martin pole sets, 3 or 4 dozen fox, wolf, wolverine, and lynx house sets. it's time to snare beaver.

the first thing i would do when coming upon a beaver house is to count the number of blankets, medium & super blankets, and little ones in there. important to know so that one can pull the set and avoid over trapping. counting comes mostly from experience and a good understanding of the beaver family. size of the house and feed pile are the only clues needed to get a fairly good count, but if there's any doubt and your luck seems to drop off, then pull the set and leave the house for a year or two. a beaver line could be made up of as few as 2-3 houses close to home for food. or a dozen houses along a 40-50 mile line for fur. it is alot of work spearing good straight holes in the ice, skinning and stretching beaver pelts round and clean. a trapper can spend the entire evening skinning and stretching the prior day's catch.

when traveling and setting a line an active trapper may come upon the trail of another trapper. the proper protocol is to turn around  and go another direction. to the next valley, ridge, or lake. never ever cross another trapper's trail. even if it's just to turn around. crossing another's trail is like standing in someone's face saying "i'm here. whatcha going to do about it?" i'd always know which families trapped what areas, but even if i didn't know who is in the area, i would sometimes stop make a fire and wait if there's enough daylight to get my own work done. try to have a little lunch of tea and salmon strips ready. if no one comes i cut a little more wood to leave  for my neighbor trapper to come along see all my movement, and make his own tea on his next ride through. that way there's no mistake i respected his country and he will not cross my trail. the white people who don't know these things just run over everything, stomp on toes and then go home and complain that someone is in their country, having no clue who's country they were in to begin with. nothing more to say on this matter.

trapping areas are kept by families for many years. i trapped the area around mosquito dome, swinging dome, saddle mountain, american creek, and the head of the iditarod river. all east of holy cross and south of flat. a good area on the divide between the yukon and kuskokwim rivers. an area trapped by my father, his father and grandfather. ocasionally i would come across an old house set for lynx. i would then stop have tea, chew a salmon strip. then make my own house set all the while looking around carefully for old sign on just what my grandpa was doing there exactly. was always happy to find old cuttings and maybe a fire site. good place to pray and be thankful, ask for luck.

twice a year i'd sell my fur. either in aniak or holy cross as the buyer came through on his rounds. several times he landed at my home on reindeer lake on skis. i would have already graded my fur and was ready with all the separate piles on a blanket on the living room floor. he would go through with his own grading. small, medium, large, dark, light, rubbed. eventually piles of fur would move back and forth as we agreed on a price. i knew what i wanted long before the buyer arrived. knowing from others the average market price. he landed his airplane, and now couldn't leave without fur.  i knew i had him as soon as the skis touched down.  he's loosing money if he takes off without fur. years later he told me he stopped for the food.
pushing notes across the table we eventually arrived at a price, might take a beaver or moose roast from mom. during my time a large dark martin would average $45-$60 each. a beaver super blanket might average $80, small $50. on a good season the total take might be $5,000. not much after paying for gas and supplies. but enough to raise a family. bring home food. and occasionally there's enough to fly one of us to aniak, bethel, or anchorage for a modest shopping spree for fresh vegetables and other treats.

i don't do these things anymore, primarily due to my brain injury. but also because fashions and prices have changed. people don't seem to know how to trap on a large scale anymore.  if i could, i would today be satisfied with a few dozen sets stretched across the lakes and countryside from my home to the head of the wood river, a 100 mile round trip is all i would need now. take an easy day to check and work. times have changed and this is good.  i'm positive  my old trapping country near reindeerlake is now restocked and as vibrant as it was during the time of my dad and his grandpa.
my traps still hang in bundles there today waiting for my return at key points in valleys and on ridges. now to be found by future trappers..maybe. some day i will talk with my kids and grandson with a map and show them exactly where the trail is and how to find the bundles hanging in the spruce. my blazes and marks were laid down to confuse any outsiders. but i'll tell the family how it works when the time is right. a little treasure map of sorts.

while working the line it's not uncommon to catch an occasional camp robber (grey jay) or squirrel. this is not good, except for bait. some times a weasel with a black tip tail is caught. although it causes your set to stop working for other larger animals, it is a sign of good luck and mom loved  keeping these.  eventually saving enough to make a hat or mittens for a child.  i'd come around the corner and there would sometimes be a weasel hanging from my pole set.  oh' i'd say, another one for mom!  rest of the line will be good.  more often than not, that day was always a good run.

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