19th September 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Notes from 60° north

A trapper’s life

For Christmas, I got a new pair of winter mitts. Handmade from a timber wolf pelt, they look like bear paws on my hands when I walk the snow-covered streets.

In Fort Smith no one blinks an eye to see an animal made into clothing. It’s sort of a badge of honour to have at least some of your winter gear made from the skins and fur of animals, like in days of yore. When I wore them in Toronto over the holidays though, people looked at me like I’d just climbed from a cave. It was another reason I was glad to get out of the cities and back into the North.

Animal rights activists are few and far between in a place where everyone hunts and people still make a living trapping beavers, muskrats, lynx and wolves for fur. In fact, the government of the Northwest Territories has programmes encouraging young people to go back to the bush and take up trapping, like their ancestors did.

At one time beaver pelts formed the backbone of the northern Canadian economy. English and French fur traders had traditional Aboriginal hunters working for them, trapping over huge swaths of the boreal forest that stretches across northern North America. Forts and trading posts were set up on the main riverways, and entrepreneurial Europeans made small fortunes swapping furs for bullets, food and whiskey.

Many of the descendants of those Dene and Cree hunters who were so skilled in the ways of the northern bush still roam their traditional lands today.
Take Pi Kennedy, the NWT’s oldest trapper, a Metis man (half Dene, half white) born and raised in Fort Smith.

In October I spent a day following him around as he purchased supplies and packed to leave Fort Smith for his cabin in the bush for another winter. Though he was 84 years old, Kennedy bounded through town like a young boy at Christmas, thrilled by the prospect of another winter alone with his dog team on his trap-line. His dogs were equally excited – 15 massive huskies, just starting to grow their winter coats, howling at the early morning sun because, as Kennedy said, they know it’s time to go.

Every October since he was seven years old Kennedy has left Fort Smith for the bush – in the early days before World War II canoeing out of town and later flying out on bush planes. For seven months a year it is just him and his dogs, the silence interrupted only by the odd bear wandering into camp.

All winter long he checks the traps along his line, travelling the land by sled dog team and skinning any animal he finds. The pelts are hung on a clothesline outside his cabin, until the spring thaws come in April or May and the bush plane returns to fly him, his dogs and the furs back into town.

Today Kennedy’s type is a dying breed. Young people are rarely interested in learning the skills needed to survive alone in the bush all winter. It takes years of study – years most children in school do not have the time to commit. Besides, trapping is a life of hard work and little glamour, and you never know from one year to the next how much money you stand to make.

Kennedy remembered a year in the 1950s where he walked through town with over $16,000 in his pocket all summer long. He also recalled many lean summers when he needed a loan just to get back to the bush. The NWT’s oldest trapper laughed that the only reason he has been able to live this life is that he never got married or had any kids.

Meanwhile, despite the government’s efforts to get more young people into trapping and build up an industry that still brings millions into the Northwest Territories’ economy each year, the pressure on each trapper to settle down in towns and cities gets stronger.

Parents rarely encourage their children to learn to trap, knowing full well the danger inherent in living seven months a year deep in the bush in -40°c temperatures. For Dene children today, exposed to hip hop life on MTV and harbouring dreams of being doctors or hockey players or business people, the bush life fades more into history with each passing generation.

As for Pi Kennedy, a stroke cut his trapping season short this year. An emergency evacuation was needed to pull him from his camp and take him to hospital, where, over two months later, he is still recovering.

For Kennedy, age got in the way of the bush life he loves so much.

Despite the warmth of my new wolf-pelt mitts, and the romantic nostalgia of bush men surviving alone off the land, the age of the trapper is passing too.

Shawn Bell is a reporter for the Slave River Journal, in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories.