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The First Winter


David O’Farrell


A natural optimist, I still felt a little sliver of doubt as I watched our truck head south down the rough mining road. That departure will forever be etched in my memory.  It was October 2nd1996, and a close friend had agreed to take our truck back to town, before the unmaintained mining road became impassable with winter snow. We wouldn’t see another soul until March. My wife and I, along with our three kids were about to spend our first winter on our new Yukon trapline, deep in the Yukon wilderness.

Both my wife and I are very independent people. We were married young, and moved to the Yukon Territory shortly afterward. With the closest family more than 1000-miles away, we learned to fend for ourselves early on. We had both been trapping since we were kids, but what we were about to do was on a completely different level.

We had spent the previous summer building a large two story frame cabin. The tiny structure that came with our new trapline was just too small. The old timer we had bought the Yukon trapline from was single, so he didn’t need a lot of room. In addition to building the new cabin the previous summer we had also taken some time and explored part of our new trapline.

Like most jurisdictions in Canada, registered traplines are standard in the Yukon Territory. A registered trapline is a geographical area officially drawn out on a map. Size varies greatly from trapline to trapline, but most are in excess of several hundred square miles. Some are much larger even than that. The Government calls them Registered Trapping Concessions, or RTCs. Registered traplines are routinely bought and sold among individuals. Owners have the sole right to trap on their concessions. Should they choose to do so, they can give an assistant trapper written permission to trap on their concession as well.

In recent years’ demand for traplines has gone through the roof, and prices have of course followed. A registered Yukon trapline will usually sell within a couple of months, and some have sold for well over one hundred thousand dollars. While this has made it harder for new trappers to get into trapping; registered traplines have one distinct advantage. Since no one else can trap your concession without permission, trappers have the ability to manage their furbearer populations.

Our first lesson on our new Yukon trapline was that there was a healthy population of both grizzly bears and caribou in the mountains around our new home. We saw both species almost daily.

Our first big job was to get in a good supply of firewood. Since our cabin sat above the tree line, this was no easy feat. The problem was we didn’t know how much firewood it would take to heat our new cabin throughout the winter, so we decided to err on the side of caution. The last thing we wanted to do was run low on wood mid-winter and have to waste valuable trapping time getting more. Wanting to get the job finished so we could move on to more enjoyable tasks, we put in some long days. Once we were satisfied that we had enough wood, it was time to set out some steel. Beaver were first on the list.

Even though our Yukon trapline sat above tree line, the Little Hyland river below our cabin was full of beaver. Ernie Leach, the trapper we bought the line from, had used a canoe to trap the river, and we planned to use the same tactic. He had advised us to start our water trapping as soon as the season opened on October 1st. He warned us that the river could freeze over by the middle of October. The nice fall weather had dulled his warning and we didn’t get started until October 10th.

Loaded with gear, my first run down the river was an eye opener. Ernie had told us there were a lot of beaver in the river, but I still didn’t expect to see so much activity. In about 5-miles of river, I counted over 40 active houses. My plan was to set every third house. By the time I got to our prearranged take out spot late that afternoon, I had 30 good sets out. That night the temperature plummeted.

I knew I was in for a long day when the thermometer read a frosty 10-degrees below zero the next morning. By the time the first rays of light were coming over the mountain we were loaded up and ready to go. My biggest concern was the river. I knew if it froze, retrieving my traps would be a real chore; if not impossible.

Although the river was still flowing when we reached our starting point, it was running heavy with ice. The canoe was extremely hard to handle with the ice constantly jostling it from all sides. By the time I got to my first set, I was already soaked to the skin. With the temperatures still well below freezing, I was forced to stop twice and build a warm up fire. I was one cold, tired trapper, when I maneuvered the heavily laden canoe into the pullout late that afternoon. Although I had managed to retrieve all my traps, and even caught 14-beaver on the overnight soak, I also learned a valuable lesson that day. Ernie Leach, had spent almost 25-years trapping this country, and he had given us advice for a reason. I vowed to take his advice more seriously from here on out.

By the end of October everything was frozen up good and we had a foot of snow on the ground. One morning after a heavy snowstorm I noticed fresh tracks all over the area behind our cabin. Upon closer inspection I realized a wolverine had paid us a visit during the night. I followed the tracks to a little shed where I was keeping my beaver carcasses stored.

The wolverine had been busy during the night. A hole the size of a basketball was chewed right through the door. The thief had made off with almost half of my winters supply of bait. Wolverines are famous for caching food so I knew it had stashed the beaver carcasses close by. Instead of trying to find them and possibly scaring the wolverine away, I decided to make a set and catch the wolverine before trying to retrieve my bait.

With all three kids helping, we quickly built a milk crate set in the brush not far from the shed. The milk crate set is simply a plastic milk crate, set on its side, with a piece of bait wired to the back. A 330 bodygrip fits perfectly inside the crate. Although it’s not my favorite wolverine set, it is fast and easy to make, and I’ve caught a lot of wolverine with it over the years.

The next morning the kids were up bright and early, eager to go see if our trap had connected during the night. I knew something was wrong immediately. The crate was upside down, and the area around the set was all torn up. Closer inspection revealed I had made a big mistake. In my haste to get the set made without spooking the wolverine I knew was close by, I had forgotten to wire the safeties back out of the way. When the trap fired, one of the safety clips caught the spring. With only one spring working, the wolverine easily escaped. I ended up catching that wolverine a few weeks later. It wouldn’t go near a trap, but walked right into a blind snare I had set in the trail.

By the middle of November, we had most of the established trails opened and set up. I was pleasantly surprised to see quite a bit of fur sign on our new Yukon trapline. Marten and lynx are the bread and butter furbearer for northern trappers. Our altitude was too high for lynx, but there seemed to be a lot of marten, wolverine, and wolves, in the area. With only 30-miles of trail out, I was picking up two or three marten on every check. Then in early December, cold weather hit.

We could tell a high pressure system was moving in a few days before it actually hit. The first thing we noticed was an increase in animal activity. It seemed as though the animals were feeding almost nonstop. I caught 9 martens in one run the day before the temperatures plummeted.

Living in the north, you soon realize that cold snaps are just part of the deal. We usually get two or three each winter. Their normal pattern is to settle in slowly over several days; not this time. Overnight the temperatures went into freefall. One night our thermometer read a balmy -12, and by the next morning it had dove to 46-degrees below zero. Anyone who has ever experienced those temperatures, knows it’s a tough neighborhood. The land becomes quiet when the mercury drops; the silence is noticeable. The animals hole up and don’t move, even the birds. Steel becomes brittle and breaks easily, especially on mechanized equipment.

We kept busy during the cold weather. I had lots of fur to deal with and equipment to repair; and my wife took advantage of the kid’s reluctance to go outside by catching up on their homeschooling. The high pressure system lasted for nine days. Then it started snowing.

Our new Yukon trapline was deep snow country. By Christmas we had six feet of snow on the ground. Some of the higher passes were plugged with eight feet or more of drifting powder. This made getting around a lot harder. Our snowmobiles would quickly get mired down anytime we went off the main trails. I quickly learned to pack the steeper hills with snowshoes before trying to climb them with a load of traps and fur.

Although the snowpack made opening up new areas a lot harder, we were still picking up a lot of fur. Part of managing a marten population on a northern trapline, is keeping track of your catch. It’s important to watch your ratio of males/females and young of the year. Your adult female catch should be less than one third of your total catch. This is pretty easy to do since the adult females don’t travel as much as the big males and young of the year.

By the middle of February, we started pulling traps. Our plan was to leave in early March. We didn’t realize it at the time, but getting out was going to be an adventure none of us would soon forget.

To reach civilization we would have to take our snowmobiles down the old mining road. The distance we would have to travel was about 80-miles. The plan was for a friend to drive our truck up to the junction where the old mining road met up with a paved highway. We would meet him there, late in the afternoon if all went well. It didn’t.

We left early on the morning of March 5th, with three snowmobiles. The two smaller machines pulled toboggans loaded with gear, and I took the bigger machine out front breaking trail. It was tough going right from the beginning. The snow was so deep that the smaller snowmobiles were getting stuck continuously. We finally decided the best approach was for me to break trail a few miles down the road, then turn around and come back. We hoped this tactic would make it easier for the smaller machines, but we also realized it would take twice as much fuel.

By late afternoon it was apparent that we were not going to make it. Going over the trail twice, had indeed made it easier for the smaller machines, but my big snowmobile was now almost out of fuel, and we had another 15-miles to go. We knew there was an old cabin a few miles away so we decided our best bet was to use the gas we had, to get everyone to it before dark. Then we would at least have some shelter during the night.

The cabin sat up in the top of a high pass, and the conditions got worse as we started the climb. I lost count of how many times we struggled to dig a snowmobile out of the deep powder in those last couple of miles. The sun was well below the horizon by the time we finally got there. We were all exhausted. A warm fire and a hot meal felt like a general anesthesia that night.

The next morning, I siphoned some gas out of the two smaller snowmobiles and we were quickly on our way. When we finally reached the highway, two Conservation Officers were in the process of unloading their snowmobiles. Our friend had called them when we didn’t show up the night before, and they were getting ready to start up the old mining road looking for us. They were happy to see that we were OK and wanted to hear all about our winter in the bush.

As I look back on that first winter we spent on the Yukon trapline, I realize it had a positive effect on us all. Away from the distractions of the modern world, we got to spend a lot of quality time with our children, and they learned to value the land and the animals that live there.

That first winter was just the beginning. We ended up spending many winters out on the Yukon trapline, and to this day, it’s not uncommon for my wife and I to spend four to six months in the bush each year. Two, of our three children, now own remote traplines of their own, and enjoy their time on the land.

That sliver of doubt I felt that first winter is long gone now. Our confidence has grown over the years, and each season we still look forward to putting up a good catch of fur, and maybe even opening up some new country. I can’t imagine living any other way.

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