The Alberta Trapline Adventure
By John Conti
It was January 2005 and I was at Boston's Logan airport waiting for a plane to go on vacation. But unlike the vast majority of the people who were waiting to fly to someplace warm for a mid winter defrost. I was heading north to Alberta Canada where the colder and snowier it was would be the better. It was there that I was to meet Bill Abercrombie of Alberta Trapline Adventures.
I have been on numerous hunting and fishing trips before but going on a trapping trip was something new and totally different. My resume as far as trapping is concerned wasn't much. I've set lobster traps a few years ago and of coarse, mice. But this was the real thing. I was a total green horn to trapping and the opportunity to learn something new was very exciting to me.
Bill picked me up at the Edmonton airport then we drove a couple hours to Chip Lake where they run a 127 square mile trapline. He also has a much larger trapline about 5 hour's north. Bill is a full time trapper who lived in the Alaskan bush for a couple of years running his trapline with a team of sled dogs. I asked him if he ever got lost to which he said "I got turned around once for a couple of days but I was never far from camp as camp was on my back." I knew then that I was with a very competent woodsman.
We arrived at the trapper's camp, which was small with no electricity or running water, but was comfortable and warm. It was here that I met Ross Hinter who runs this trapline. Ross may be one of the most interesting people I've met in a long time. It almost seems that his purpose in life is to trap and teach trapping. Like Bill he traps full time and is the vice president of the Alberta Trappers Association. Ross, known as the trapper, is very emotionally and spiritually involved in trapping. " A trapper has an obligation to run his trapline no matter what the price of fur is to keep things in the proper balance," he said to me. Ross also teaches trapping education and I am convinced from the way he speaks of trapping from both knowledge and the heart, that given the opportunity, he may convince the antis to think differently. My first impression of these two men is that they were part of the old breed of trappers. They could have easily lived in the mountains with Jeremiah Johnson.
After a great breakfast on the first morning we hit the trap line on quads, as there was very little snowfall this year. The temperature was bitter cold at 20 below. Driving down the frozen creek to the woods was a test of endurance. I was dressed warm enough although the wind cut through my facemask and practically froze my lips. I looked over to see Bill without any face protection, only wearing a beaver fur hat. "After a while you get used to it" was his remark. These were hardy men. Whenever we stopped near a fresh track, Bill would show me how to identify the track and try to age it. It was very cold but the wildlife was everywhere. We saw lots of moose and mule deer, a large racked whitetail and one bald eagle. This brought back memories of snowmobileing the north woods of Maine with my Dad and brothers some 35 years ago.
Ross had some lynx cubbies set up and showed me how to set them up with hopes to attract and snare a lynx. I would learn that in order to lure an animal into a trap that I would need to rely on 4 basic animal behaviors, taking advantage of: food, sex, territory, and curiosity. Ross was very particular in the way he set these cubbies up, from the size of the sticks and position of the snare to the type of scent he used. Everything was kept neatly in a box attached to the back of his quad.
There was also a wolf pack in the area and we had some snares set up on 2 different moose kills and a site baited with a dead pig. With their being such little snow there was just too many trails to really pinpoint which to set up on. The first day of checking the pig site we caught a very large coyote and then on another trail about 100 yards away we had a wolf. He wasn't the biggest wolf of the pack, but we were very pleased. It was amazing on how little disturbance there was around this animal. He was caught perfectly in the snare and was killed quickly and humanely. He was a beautiful black wolf with light colored eyes and a nice set of choppers. After removing the snare from its neck Bill and Ross rolled it onto its side. Then while stepping on its stomach, they pumped its legs to remove any air from its body. Believe me, having a dead wolf burp the smell of pig meat in your face is an experience few have will want to know. Unfortunately it had mange and probably would not have survived the winter so we did this animal a big favor. We would catch another wolf near at another site that had mange also so this was very disappointing.
As we made our way through the boreal we would set more traps for various critters and then made our way onto the lake for beaver. The devastation on the shoreline was incredible in some areas from beaver. As we approached our first beaver lodge I would soon find out that now the work begins, as the ice is a lot thicker than usual from the lack of snow. In order to minimize excessive chopping, Bill & Ross would show me how to identify from looking at the lodge where the runs may be and where to set up the conibears. Then it is chip, chip and more chipping. Even at 20 below zero I was sweating.
We arrived back at camp before dark and had a nice dinner with moose steaks as the main coarse. The fire was roaring, the company was great, and the bed was comfortable. Tomorrow we would run a different section of the trap line with hopes of fisher, lynx or martin and even set up some snares for squirrels. As I lay there in bed I had a hard time falling to sleep, as I was too anxious thinking about the beaver sets. We set about a dozen traps on various lodges plus there were a lot more that Ross had set days prior so my anticipation was high.
The next day was extremely cold and windy as we rode down the frozen creek then into the forest where it was much warmer. We checked and set some traps without much luck and made our way up and down various hills. It was great just being in the woods. The scenery was beautiful, the wildlife was abundant and tracks were everywhere. We had some hot chocolate and snacks and continued on our way and caught our only animal of the day but it was a good one, a lynx. Its hide was perfect. An adult female that was going home with me to be respected and adored, full mounted in my trophy room. It is really amazing that this animal can be snared in a cubby. Attracted with a feather and lured in with scent. A specialized set up without the chance of catching anything else but lynx.
Day three we would check our trap line for what we set on day one. We got a few squirrels and the wolves were back at the pig site but according to Bill acting funny from what he could tell from their tracks. They knew we were around or that something just wasn't right. It was decided to give it a rest, so we wouldn't check it again for a few days. When we checked one of the other areas where the wolves had a moose calf kill; a cow moose came limping by. This was probably the mother of the dead calf and got injured in the attack. It was sad to see, as she couldn't seem to let go of her offspring.
Now it was onto the lake to check for beaver. I was really looking forward to this. We went to the first house and I grabbed chisel and started hacking away. To my surprise we didn't catch a thing in any of the traps. We had plenty more to check so it was on to the next lodge. The next beaver lodge we got to had a beaver in one of our traps. It was great! To me trapping is something like Christmas as you never know what kind of surprise is waiting for you. We caught about six beavers and one muskrat that day and it was a blast. Ross would show me how to dry the pelts in the snow and carefully put them in sacks. It's a lot of work to trap under the ice, as a lot of trapper's wait until the water opens up, but the hides under the ice are second to none.
That night we left the trapline and spent the night at Ross's house. Bill would go home but would return on the last morning to take me to the airport. We would shower and get a home cooked meal, even though we were eating pretty well anyway. For dinner we had lynx. I thought it was great, as I always believe in eating whatever edible game you take. It had it's own unique flavor. When people ask what it tastes like I reply "It tastes like Iynx."
That night Ross showed me a lot of his art and hand made native crafts which he makes himself. Arrows, war clubs, talking sticks, necklaces, and all kinds of brain tanned hides. He has been offered a lot of money if he can mass-produce this stuff but he refuses. "This is art," he said. "You can't put a dollar value on something that is made from the heart. I spend a lot of time on this and I could never get back what I put into it. I'm not going to make something of lower standards just so it could be sold in a store. I couldn't charge somebody a lot of money for this anyway, I wouldn't feel right. I trap because I'm a trapper. It has nothing to do with money." Ross grew up looking up to native people. Learning their language and ancient ways. He told me of how the Indians would sometimes leave tobacco at the site of a trapped animal. I would guess that he knew as much about Indian culture and heritage than anybody.
The next morning we went to his skinning shack. That was a sight to see. Animals were everywhere. "I'm kind of behind on my skinning," he said "Think you can do it?" "Of course" I said as Ross looked at me with skepticism. "I cape out my own deer so why can't I skin a beaver." Ross showed me what to do then gave me the smallest beaver he could find so I wouldn't ruin the hard to find big beavers. To his surprise it came out perfect and jokingly asked me to stay another week just to skin.
On the floor was a coyote, or what was left of one. More than three-quarters of it were eaten after it was caught. A lot of trappers probably would have left it in the woods, but not Ross. He felt guilty that this happened so he was going to salvage whatever he could from it and incorporate it into some kind of art craft.
The next morning we hit the trail again following the same routine of splitting up the trapline into 2 sections. We caught another coyote and a bunch more beavers and while we were on the lake we would stop and talk to the local ice fisherman. This was enjoyable to me being an ice fisherman myself. Everybody was very friendly with none of the 'this is my secret spot' attitude some fisherman get. The fish being caught were northern pike or jacks as the locals referred to them as. There was one old timer jigging his hole who used venison to tip his jig. Now that was different. He was in his mid eighties and I commented he looked fit and happy doing what he was doing. "Every day I hunt or fish is another day added onto my life" he said. I would have to say that he might be right. It was so peaceful being on the trap line. There were no phones, no politics, and definitely no stress. It was so nice to just ride through the woods and check traps at your on leisure. Even being on the lake had a calming effect on me. As we rode from beaver lodge to beaver lodge there were animal tracks all over. Mostly fox and coyote tracks, as they would hunt muskrats. All over the lake were muskrat houses and mounds, hundreds of them. We decided to set a few muskrat traps and see what happened.
The last full day had finally arrived. We had caught at least one species of everything we had tried for except fisher. We hit the trail for the last time and right off the bat we had a fisher in a trap we set the day before. It was a big mature male with the best hide Ross had ever seen in all his years. It was almost unbelievable. I was especially happy since it was my idea to set this trap here to begin with.
We continued our way through the forest and we caught another lynx but this was different. It's hind leg was eaten off. The body was still not frozen and the snow on the ground was fresh so it probably had happened that night. After a look around we had found the culprit, another lynx. The tracks from a bigger male were all over the place. This last animal had now filled his lynx quota. As Ross was examining it's chewed up rear leg I said that it's head looked funny. A closer look revealed its ear was chewed off. You talk about adding insult to injury. This was now useless to sell so Ross said he would make himself a hat out of it.
We spent the rest of the day taking in lynx cubbies and checking other traps. We caught a bunch more beavers including one that went over 60 pounds and a couple muskrats in the traps we set the day before. That night I cooked dinner. It was the least I could do as Ross had a lot of skinning to do. After dinner we boiled out a lynx and beaver skull for me to take home. After that we sat around talking and reflected on the past weeks events. No matter how many trips that I've been on they most always start and end the same way. You start off as strangers with conversations mostly about outdoor activities, as this is why you are there. Then you end up as friends with conversations about family and the like.
That morning I packed up and loaded my gear onto Bill's truck. Bill had told me to take my choice of one hide of each species we caught for myself. We took some pictures-no animals were allowed in these as this trip is also about people, and we said our good byes. Bill drove me to the airport and we left the trapper at his cabin to do what he was born to do.
I left Alberta with some beautiful trophies. Some you can not get on a typical hunting trip. But I arrived home with much more. I arrived home with a great experience and knowledge. Trapping is more than just catching an animal and selling its fur. It's a way of life and a heritage that has been around for hundreds of years. It is something that must be protected.
When I got home I started a subscription to Trappers World and contacted my home state to take a trapper education coarse. I can't wait to start trapping next fall. I will never be in the same league as Bill or Ross, but I am now a trapper, and proud of it.