Lost Land of the Caribou

On the Trapline

Trapping territory. Trapping territory. It took me seven years of trial and error to find the best trapping country, and once I had found a trapline I liked, I thought it was best to stay with it instead of moving around in search of something that might be better. The best place to trap is along rivers and creeks. In the North, as you follow the main river, you find creeks coming into it all along your route. Unless the country is over-trapped, fur comes from the small creeks and streams every year in plentiful supply, and there is not even any need to replenish it by letting the territory rest for a year now and again. We had an unwritten code in the North that kept us from ever using another man's trapline. If in my travels to find a new trapping ground, I came upon another man's line, I always veered off in a new direction, and other trappers did the same if they came upon mine. You might cross a man's line or even follow it a short way but you left him, master of the area, he had set out. There was plenty of room for everyone. In spite of this, though, the part of the North where I travelled and lived had been a favourite trapping ground for many, many years. No matter where I went, no matter how rough and inhospitable the land, I always came upon signs that told of the activities of bygone trappers. There might be a tree stump bearing marks of the axe that had felled the tree long ago -- or an old deadfall trap once used as a marten set -- or an abandoned birch bark canoe -- or marks where a tepee stood. No matter how difficult the going, there was always something there that spoke of earlier human life.

When my partner and I first came into the country, many new trappers came in to replace the many Chipewyans who died in the 1918 influenza epidemic. At that time (1924) fur was a good price. Many natives came in from Lac La Ronge and set up their lines around Wollaston Lake, working west from there. Others sought out other untrapped districts. These men were skilled canoeists, excellent where portages were necessary or where rapids needed to be run. Most of the white trappers went up the river to Cree Lake. Two Trappers When a man is setting out a new trapline, the work is much simplified if he has a partner with him. Traplines have to be long because there is so much waste territory where no fur can be found. With partners, one man can go ahead on the portages, chopping a straight trail through the trees, and the other can follow with the dogs. If a man works alone, he must leave his dogs. To save time, he will drive the dogs as far as he can before starting his chopping, and the result is a crooked, wandering trail which is a nuisance ever after. Once, working alone with my dogs, I followed a river that emptied into Russell Lake. There were many portages where I left my dogs to chop trail, and then returned for them. Fortunately, none of these were very long. There were many signs of fur, and I was setting out traps, highly pleased. The river was getting smaller and smaller as I went on, and my supply of traps was running low, though I still had enough for a few more days. Finally, I came to the head of the creek I was following. There was a big lake there. Continuing over another portage, I found another big lake. From it, water flowed north to the MacKenzie River. I followed that little creek until I came to what was called Little Cree Lake. There I ran into another man's trapline, so I turned east, made another few portages and came to a creek running north-east. This was a good fox country.

Next I came to a long lake, then to rapids and a series of small lakes. All these rapids were good for mink and otter. Everyone knew that Little Cree Lake country was good lynx country. Many of these rivers, where they came out of the lakes, stayed open the year-round, and that is what the fur likes, especially mink and otter and fox. The fox comes around to eat the fish left by the otters. A few more portages brought me to a large lake that I later learned was called Unknown Lake. A big river ran through it. Unknown Lake This turned out to be an excellent trapline, one hundred and fifty miles long. Many creeks came into my river that was not trapped by anyone else, and so from them, the fur kept coming into the main river where I had my trapline. That year I saw a great improvement in my yield of fur. It was a fine country to trap in. Winter trips after a trapline was laid could be very difficult for man and dogs. I remember many an exhausting journey up Beads River when a foot of fresh snow had fallen. The dogs would break trail and I would follow on snowshoes, walking behind them all day. One good thing was that the caribou were so plentiful in the country that there was no need to carry along food for either myself or the dogs. The last ten years that I was in the North -- after I learned enough to travel with a tent and a stove -- life was really good. It was always necessary, after a big blizzard, to fix over all my traps, and so the first trip after a snowstorm would take about three weeks. If I was tired enough to need a rest, or if I thought the dogs needed one, I would camp for a day. With the tent and stove, I was reasonably comfortable and could fix over some fur while the dogs stored up energy for the next day's journey. They always made better time after a days rest.

Getting to the end of the line, I would turn and start back again. With a long line, such as I used, it was possible to get fur both going and coming -- even to get as much on the return trip as I had got going out. When I returned to my home base at Russell Lake, I would have a few short lines to look at. Then I would dry up the fur I had caught. Usually, I would stay in my cabin for two or three days, but never longer.

When I was ready to start out, I paid no attention to the weather. Bitter cold, heavy snowstorms -- nothing kept me from setting out after the third day in camp. I knew well from what I saw of other white men, that if a man let the weather be his excuse to stay in camp, he would be there far too much of his time. Before long he would be afraid to set out at all. But if a man is on the go all the time and has his dogs for company, he never gets lonesome and he is not afraid of cold or blizzards. He simply gets to them as part of the life.

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