A couple days after we finished the Lake Superior circle, I was at the Black Cat Coffeehouse with Maria. The Black Cat, I’ve mentioned obliquely, is the crossroads of interesting people on the Chequamegon; it’s rare to go there and not meet someone you know, if you’ve lived in town long enough. That day a couple friends of Maria’s showed up. One of them, Jeff, mentioned that he was going to be taking a trapping education course soon. Eh? I got interested.
The poster said it was put on by the Wisconsin DNR, in cooperation with the Bad River and Red Cliff Reservations nearby, and some other organizations too. I figured it was a class on how the Ojibwe trapped historically and still do today. Turned out it was a class on how people (Ojibwe and not) trap now, and it was a pretty big production. There was a trailer the DNR had bought at some point specifically to haul around trapper education supplies. There were about a dozen different teachers over the course of the week, people who’d been trapping since they were kids, people who’d trapped as a career for the state and tribal DNRs (relocating coyotes, trapping beavers from abundant areas to restore them where they’d disappeared, and such). All of it put together with volunteered time, volunteered materials, volunteered money. They even fed us.
Here’s what I learned. For one thing, I learned that even though you don’t hear about it, trapping is definitely still happening these days. It’s not being done by buckskin-clad Frenchmen with bushy mustaches and coonskin caps; these days you’re more likely to find people who just look like anyone you’d see in town—men and women, skewed a bit toward guys who look like well-preserved grandpas, but by no means only them. I think all the tribal DNR trappers there were women not much older than me, for instance. Since the fad for beaver felt hats seems to have pretty conclusively died down among the European gentry (a good beaver skin will get you somewhere in the range of $10, a far cry from the 1600s when you could get the meat of an entire moose in exchange for just three beaver pelts), people these days trap for smaller, less lucrative markets: mainly those of the European and Chinese rich who still like fur coats, but also for taxidermists, for schools looking for furs for educational purposes, et cetera. Trappers are mostly after the furs, not the meat, but they generally use as much of an animal as they have a way to use. If the animal’s meat isn’t something people generally eat (fancy some ’possum?), they’ll often use it for dog food or to bait more traps. Beavers, I discovered, weigh about forty pounds and have the texture of big bags of jelly, meaning good fatty meat, and a lot of trappers eat them. I can’t wait to eat some.
Another thing I learned: you don’t hear much about trappers, and that maybe works in their favor. Trappers would like you to hear about trapping from a trapper, because the popular image they have is as these sadistic animal haters who just like to make coyotes gnaw their own legs off. In fact all the trappers I met seemed pretty compassionate and not interested in causing an animal pointless pain. They check their traps every day—this is a law, in fact, and was put in place partly at the request of trappers, to ensure they’re all held to a high standard. They use traps that either kill pretty instantly or allow you to let the animal go without any harm to it. There are snare-like traps that, instead of asphyxiating a dog that wanders through, will just hold it there like it was on a leash, and when you get there it’ll just be wagging its tail and waiting for you.
And of course I learned how to set traps: which includes not just how to set the trigger, but also where to put it so a muskrat will wander through, or how to change that for a beaver or a mink. What kind of traps you use for different animals. The laws on how often to check traps and what kinds of sets are legal. (There are a lot of laws to keep dogs from getting trapped accidentally. No one likes when a dog gets trapped, not the owner nor the trapper nor the dog.)
I’m still legally a Minnesota resident, so I can’t trap in Wisconsin yet. But now that I know a little, I’m excited to learn more. One of the most interesting things about the class was that as we were learning how to make different sets, we learned something about the animals we’d be setting for. For instance, you set for an otter in a place where it’d be going from one body of water to another. For a beaver, you just set where it would be going ashore. Coyotes are really paranoid and you have to be positively obsessive about keeping the wrong scents off their traps, or they’ll just sniff them and dig a little and leave. They like to stay in the forest as long as they can, so you’d put your trap at the narrowest part of a field, where they’d cross it. And insights like those—gained over the course of long hours spent in the wilderness, reading animal tracks, reading the land itself, getting into animals’ minds and seeing the wilderness through their eyes, as a home, as a hunting ground. That draws me. That closer connection. You have to know an animal to trap it. In that way perhaps trapping is a deeper sign of respect for wildlife than simply leaving it alone.
Where To Now?
I’m writing from St Paul, where I’ve stayed a few nights visiting old friends and doing this-and-that errands. Tonight I’m heading out toward Camp Turtle Island, a pipeline resistance camp in northwestern Minnesota on White Earth Reservation. Since I haven’t gotten there, I can’t tell you much about it—what kind of place it is, what I’ll find to do for them, what I’ll learn. I can tell you that I’m not going to count on having any internet access while I’m there, or possibly cell phone service either, and that I plan to be there till mid-November. I’ll keep you posted as I can.