Fur Trapping—Past and Present
By “Awake!” correspondent in Canada
ANIMAL furs have played a significant part in most cultures down through history, supplying one or more of mankind’s basic needs. The first book of the Bible tells about God making “garments of skin” for Adam and Eve after their disobedience and at the time of their expulsion from their paradise home. (Gen. 3:21) Also, furs of animals have long served for covering or shelter. For example, the cover of the portable sacred tabernacle constructed by the Israelites after their departure from Egypt in 1513 B.C.E. was made of sealskins.—Ex. 26:14.
Here in Canada, as in some other countries, the trapper and fur trader were the men that explored, mapped and opened up the country. Later they were followed by the rancher and farmer.
When Europeans first visited North America this continent was more profusely populated with wild game and fur-bearing animals than any other part of the earth. The open plains were teeming with herds of buffalo, the forests were alive with moose, deer, elk and bear. And the northern tundra area had vast herds of caribou and musk-ox.
The wealth in furs, in fact, was the main attraction to the white man in this newfound land. The demand for furs was tremendous because of the hungry European market. Thus, because of greed, there was wanton slaughter of the mighty herds of buffalo and caribou for just the fur and tongues. A number of kinds of animals were pushed to the brink of extinction.
But this was not the case before the arrival of the white man. The Indians and Eskimos trapped animals because they needed them. Animals often supplied their three basic needs—food, clothing and shelter. So these original North American trappers became extremely adept at their art.
The Indian trapper was successful because of his intimate knowledge of the game he sought. From early childhood he would study the ways of the wildlife around him. He learned their every habit and peculiarity. Some may think of these early trappers as primitive, but the facts are, the first white trappers learned the many tricks of the trade from the Indians.
The Indian was very adept at using the materials available to him. The rawhide snare served him well on land, in water and in the air. The snare, either a spring pole, weighted lever, tension or a deadfall type, was set so as to release when disturbed. At times even signaling devices were used, such as a bunch of dried deer hooves that rattled when the game had been caught. The largest bear could be taken with a snare.
When the white man arrived, he soon realized the fortune to be made in the fur trade. In 1670 the Hudson’s Bay Company was granted a charter, its name at first being “Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson’s Bay.” The company built forts and bartered with the Indians, trading colorful beads and woolen cloth for beautiful, soft animal pelts. Thus, at first the white man was principally the trader, while the Indians were the trappers.
The success of the Indian trapper can be seen in a report by the early historian Perrot, who tells that the “Ojibwa Indians snared no fewer than 2,400 moose on the island of Manitoulin during the single winter of 1670-71.” This island, which is situated in Lake Huron, consists of about 1,300 square miles.
Trapping in Early Days
In early days the Indian birchbark canoe was utilized in the summer to transport supplies to the trapping area and to bring the furs out in the spring. However, dog teams pulling large sleighs were also used for transporting during the winter. These dogs were a special breed.
The Indian trapper found that breeding sleigh dogs with wolves gave added stamina. A dog’s feet were usually its most vulnerable part. Icicles would form on the long hairs between the toes, causing them to swell, crack and bleed. Often the trapper of the north would carry little moccasins to tie on the dog’s feet should this happen. But since the wolf was practically immune to this problem, a dog with wolf blood in it made a much better sleigh dog.
The early trapper, whether Indian or white, would take just a minimum of supplies in to the trapping area for the winter. The staples were flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, lard and tea. The rest of his food came from the land.
Originally there were no legal boundaries for a trap line, although others usually respected one’s trapping area. When the trapper found a territory that he felt would yield plenty of game, he would usually put up a log cabin in the center from which to work. However, often he was away from this cabin for four or five days at a time. Then he would live in lean-tos made of brush, sometimes in temperatures of 50 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The Indian trapper would take his wife and family along, as the wife did much of the work in dressing and looking after the furs.
Trapping in Modern Times
Today the trapper’s way of life has changed. This is due particularly to modern means of transportation. Where it once may have taken the trapper weeks or even months to get his supplies in or his furs out, now by use of a plane and bush pilot this can be accomplished in just a few hours.
The modern trapper usually goes into the bush for a month or two and then comes out. Many others, however, have trap lines within twenty or thirty miles of their home. Thus, with the motorized snow toboggan, a trapper can be home every three or four days. And where it used to take possibly a full week to make a trip around the trap line, now, using the motorized toboggan, it can be checked in a day. This permits the trapper to branch out into a larger region. Seldom is the dog team used any longer.
Recently trappers have given more attention to the humane aspect of trapping so that there is often little suffering on the part of the animal. A new type of trap called the “Conibar” is now employed extensively. It kills instantly by catching the body. Also, traps that are placed for animals in or around the water have the “set” made in such a way that the animal drowns immediately.
Preparing the Furs for Market
Once the animal is caught, there is still much work to be done in preparing the fur for market. Great care is necessary by the skillful hands of the trapper if he is to get the top price for the fur. Take a beaver pelt, for example.
After the skin is removed from the animal, all the fat and flesh must be carefully cut off. The trapper may tack the pelt out on a wide smooth surface and start with his fleshing knife to lift the flesh and fat off the belly. Here it lifts easily. He then works toward the top in a half-moon fashion. The same procedure is repeated on the opposite half. It is just a matter of hard work to complete the job by rolling the flesh off the rest of the pelt.
The fleshing takes about an hour. Every precaution is taken by the trapper to keep the fur clean and free from grease and holes that would reduce its value considerably.
Next the fur is spread out and tacked onto a drying board or hoop. The leg holes are either sewn or tacked shut. Again care is of utmost importance. Each fur should be a uniform shape and must not be overly stretched in width, since this would reduce the density of the fur on the back. It is then allowed to dry slowly in a cool, well-ventilated place. The drying process takes about five days in 45- to 50-degree Fahrenheit temperature.
The fur is then sent off to market. The graders check the quality and appearance, placing the furs into four categories. Now come the sharp eyes of the buyers from many countries. Prices are determined by the grade of the furs, as well as by supply and demand.
Controls for Conservation
In many districts in Canada the government Department of Lands and Forests sets up boundaries for each area to be trapped. Yearly limits are placed on certain kinds of animals caught on each trap line. This assures a continued population of animals. Thus the beaver, which some years ago was in danger of extinction, once again abounds through the northern bushlands. Such controls also make the trapper conscious of and more concerned with conservation, as it means his livelihood.
It is true that some men in the past as well as today have abused their dominion over the animals, even to the extent of bringing about the extinction or near extinction of certain kinds. Yet with proper control the harvest of furs can serve man’s needs without endangering the existence of the animals.