Posts Tagged ‘trapline’
One of my favorite beaver flowages to trap was first found on a satellite map. It’s a two mile ride on a bicycle followed by a 1 mile walk through the woods to get there, and it takes about two hours to get in and out with gear. I enjoy the time spent in the woods and noticing all the subtle changes that occur from year to year as I make the annual trips in there. Free from competition from other trappers I can manage the flowage by only taking a couple of beavers and ensure that each year the area will have beaver to harvest. The flowage has produced some really big beavers over the years and should continue too as long as the aspen keeps growing…a true backwoods beaver.
Another backwoods flowage;
Here’s an example of the work involved once you get the beaver out of the woods;
The cool air hit my face and blew through my sweater as I took the bike off the back of the truck and started the long trek into the woods. With two weeks off of work I was running a trapline on a large tract of gated land near my house. The landowner allows access for recreational pursuits and I like getting away from any potential competition so I was looking at a 6 mile round trip, often times done with a very heavy load. My friend Peter this year suggested I try using a baby carrier towed behind the bike to help take the load off my back and it has worked out well despite probably looking a little funny. That was my thought at least this morning when I saw a truck come around the corner ahead of me – he’s seeing someone on a bike wearing hip boots and towing a baby carrier out in the middle of nowhere, and for me I wondering who he is since he obviously has a key to the gate. As is customary on a Maine woods road during the deer hunting season we stopped to talk it over and I was reminded about why I love Maine. Our conversation went like this;
Hows that rig working out for you?
No – fresh crossing just up the way though, but I’m not hunting – I’m trapping.
What are you trapping?
Beaver – just caught two up there where the road is washed out -might still be one more in there. Want to see them? One of them is huge…beaver in a baby carriage (laughing)
Sure!! (hops out of truck)
That’s awesome! Good for you coming out here getting some exercise – I’m the forester for this area and I’ve had to replace that culvert three times over the past few years – that’s awesome you’re in there catching them. You know, the landowner has this really funny rule about not allowing bicycles in here…
really? I had no idea – I thought everyone was bike friendly -
It’s fine, not something I agree with (pulls out a map) let me show you on here where there is some other beaver….
I believe that’s how things are supposed to work – In an increasingly black and white world we need more gray. I love that most people from Maine get that and embrace it. You can check out more stories like this in The Two Maines and PO Box 311.
I have now been forty-two years in this country. For twenty-four of those years I was a light canoeman. I required but little sleep, but sometimes got less than I required. No portage was too long for me; all portages were alike. My end of the canoe never touched the ground till I saw the end of it. Fifty songs a day were nothing to me. I could carry, paddle, walk and sing with any man I ever saw. I pushed on – over rapids, over cascades, over chutes; all were the same to me. No water, no weather ever stopped the paddle or the song. I was once possessed of five horses and six running dogs trimmed in the first style. I was then like a bourgeois, rich and happy. I wanted for nothing. Five hundred pounds twice told have passed through my hands, although now I have not a spare shirt to my back nor a penny to buy one. Yet, were I young I should glory in commencing the same career. I would spend another half-century in the same fields of enjoyment. There is no life so happy as a voyageur’s life; none so independent; no place where a man enjoys so much variety and freedom as in the Indian country. Huzza, huzza! Pour le pays sauvage!
(As told to a Hudson Bay interviewer)
Another one of my favorite Robert Service poems;
There was Claw-fingered Kitty and Windy Ike living the life of shame,
When unto them in the Long, Long Night came the man-who-had-no-name;
Bearing his prize of a black fox pelt, out of the Wild he came.
His cheeks were blanched as the flume-head foam when the brown spring freshets flow;
Deep in their dark, sin-calcined pits were his sombre eyes aglow;
They knew him far for the fitful man who spat forth blood on the snow.
“Did ever you see such a skin?” quoth he; “there’s nought in the world so fine–
Such fullness of fur as black as the night, such lustre, such size, such shine;
It’s life to a one-lunged man like me; it’s London, it’s women, it’s wine.
“The Moose-hides called it the devil-fox, and swore that no man could kill;
That he who hunted it, soon or late, must surely suffer some ill;
But I laughed at them and their old squaw-tales.
Ha! Ha! I’m laughing still.
“For look ye, the skin–it’s as smooth as sin, and black as the core of the Pit.
By gun or by trap, whatever the hap, I swore I would capture it;
By star and by star afield and afar, I hunted and would not quit.
“For the devil-fox, it was swift and sly, and it seemed to fleer at me;
I would wake in fright by the camp-fire light, hearing its evil glee;
Into my dream its eyes would gleam, and its shadow would I see.
“It sniffed and ran from the ptarmigan I had poisoned to excess;
Unharmed it sped from my wrathful lead (’twas as if I shot by guess);
Yet it came by night in the stark moonlight to mock at my weariness.
“I tracked it up where the mountains hunch like the vertebrae of the world;
I tracked it down to the death-still pits where the avalanche is hurled;
From the glooms to the sacerdotal snows, where the carded clouds are curled.
“From the vastitudes where the world protrudes through clouds like seas up-shoaled,
I held its track till it led me back to the land I had left of old–
The land I had looted many moons. I was weary and sick and cold.
“I was sick, soul-sick, of the futile chase, and there and then I swore
The foul fiend fox might scathless go, for I would hunt no more;
Then I rubbed mine eyes in a vast surprise–it stood by my cabin door.
“A rifle raised in the wraith-like gloom, and a vengeful shot that sped;
A howl that would thrill a cream-faced corpse–and the demon fox lay dead. . . .
Yet there was never a sign of wound, and never a drop he bled.
“So that was the end of the great black fox, and here is the prize I’ve won;
And now for a drink to cheer me up–I’ve mushed since the early sun;
We’ll drink a toast to the sorry ghost of the fox whose race is run.”
Now Claw-fingered Kitty and Windy Ike, bad as the worst were they;
In their road-house down by the river-trail they waited and watched for prey;
With wine and song they joyed night long, and they slept like swine by day.
For things were done in the Midnight Sun that no tongue will ever tell;
And men there be who walk earth-free, but whose names are writ in hell–
Are writ in flames with the guilty names of Fournier and Labelle.
Put not your trust in a poke of dust would ye sleep the sleep of sin;
For there be those who would rob your clothes ere yet the dawn comes in;
And a prize likewise in a woman’s eyes is a peerless black fox skin.
Put your faith in the mountain cat if you lie within his lair;
Trust the fangs of the mother-wolf, and the claws of the lead-ripped bear;
But oh, of the wiles and the gold-tooth smiles of a dance-hall wench beware!
Wherefore it was beyond all laws that lusts of man restrain,
A man drank deep and sank to sleep never to wake again;
And the Yukon swallowed through a hole the cold corpse of the slain.
The black fox skin a shadow cast from the roof nigh to the floor;
And sleek it seemed and soft it gleamed, and the woman stroked it o’er;
And the man stood by with a brooding eye, and gnashed his teeth and swore.
When thieves and thugs fall out and fight there’s fell arrears to pay;
And soon or late sin meets its fate, and so it fell one day
That Claw-fingered Kitty and Windy Ike fanged up like dogs at bay.
“The skin is mine, all mine,” she cried; “I did the deed alone.”
“It’s share and share with a guilt-yoked pair”, he hissed in a pregnant tone;
And so they snarled like malamutes over a mildewed bone.
And so they fought, by fear untaught, till haply it befell
One dawn of day she slipped away to Dawson town to sell
The fruit of sin, this black fox skin that had made their lives a hell.
She slipped away as still he lay, she clutched the wondrous fur;
Her pulses beat, her foot was fleet, her fear was as a spur;
She laughed with glee, she did not see him rise and follow her.
The bluffs uprear and grimly peer far over Dawson town;
They see its lights a blaze o’ nights and harshly they look down;
They mock the plan and plot of man with grim, ironic frown.
The trail was steep; ’twas at the time when swiftly sinks the snow;
All honey-combed, the river ice was rotting down below;
The river chafed beneath its rind with many a mighty throe.
And up the swift and oozy drift a woman climbed in fear,
Clutching to her a black fox fur as if she held it dear;
And hard she pressed it to her breast–then Windy Ike drew near.
She made no moan–her heart was stone–she read his smiling face,
And like a dream flashed all her life’s dark horror and disgrace;
A moment only–with a snarl he hurled her into space.
She rolled for nigh an hundred feet; she bounded like a ball;
From crag to crag she carromed down through snow and timber fall; . . .
A hole gaped in the river ice; the spray flashed–that was all.
A bird sang for the joy of spring, so piercing sweet and frail;
And blinding bright the land was dight in gay and glittering mail;
And with a wondrous black fox skin a man slid down the trail.
A wedge-faced man there was who ran along the river bank,
Who stumbled through each drift and slough, and ever slipped and sank,
And ever cursed his Maker’s name, and ever “hooch” he drank.
He travelled like a hunted thing, hard harried, sore distrest;
The old grandmother moon crept out from her cloud-quilted nest;
The aged mountains mocked at him in their primeval rest.
Grim shadows diapered the snow; the air was strangely mild;
The valley’s girth was dumb with mirth, the laughter of the wild;
The still, sardonic laughter of an ogre o’er a child.
The river writhed beneath the ice; it groaned like one in pain,
And yawning chasms opened wide, and closed and yawned again;
And sheets of silver heaved on high until they split in twain.
From out the road-house by the trail they saw a man afar
Make for the narrow river-reach where the swift cross-currents are;
Where, frail and worn, the ice is torn and the angry waters jar.
But they did not see him crash and sink into the icy flow;
They did not see him clinging there, gripped by the undertow,
Clawing with bleeding finger-nails at the jagged ice and snow.
They found a note beside the hole where he had stumbled in:
“Here met his fate by evil luck a man who lived in sin,
And to the one who loves me least I leave this black fox skin.”
And strange it is; for, though they searched the river all around,
No trace or sign of black fox skin was ever after found;
Though one man said he saw the tread of HOOFS deep in the ground.
It was a wind chill advisory day in Maine and I was a mile from the truck standing in front of a beaver house with my friend Peter. Wind chill advisories are issued when the temperature with the wind chill is expected to fall between approximately -15 to -24 degrees farenheight. I’m not sure if the wind chill had frosted my brain a little that day, for I knew better than to be standing in front of an active beaver house. Beaver movement in and out of the entrance, creates weak ice or even worse, shell ice which does not have much strength, and as luck would have it I was standing directly over the channel of the entrance. The ice gave way with really little warning at all, and I looked down to see the black of the water coming at me. I reached out and caught myself with my hands leaving me very briefly waist deep in the frigid water, before I leaned back and rolled out of the hole, and rolled on the ice to Peter. We rubbed snow, which absorbs moisture, all over my legs and I stood up and brushed it off. It was so cold that the outer layer I was wearing quickly froze solid. So quickly in fact that the other three layers I was wearing never even got wet from the whole experience. I was able to finish out the day, and it wasn’t until I got into the truck with the heater on, that my pants began to melt and I got wet and cold for the ride home.
Beavers flourish in Maine for a a number of reasons, foremost being because there is a lot of habitat for them here – in fact there are 37,000 linear miles of beaver habitat here in the state which has the capacity to support 45,000 to 68,000 beavers, of which annually about 10,000 are harvested. A few years ago due to an increased number of landowner complaints, the state made the season more liberal in hopes that more beavers would be harvested. A fair amount of Maine is covered by dirt roads, and they are easily washed out by beaver activity on the myriad of streams and rivers that criss cross the state. Maine at least gets it – I find it hard to fathom other states that have reduced or severely restricted methods of trapping, or trapping altogether. For example, in the years since Massachusetts banned almost all trapping in ’05, their budget for beaver problems has grown to $1,208,000 which is paid for by taxpayer dollars. Why on earth would you do that when there are people that will do it for free? I did some damage control trapping for a while and I always asked if the client could wait until the fur was marketable (about late October thru April) for me to do the job, and I would do it for free. When they would profusely thank me for fixing their problem I would tell them to remember it if there was ever a vote here to ban trapping. There is an in depth Beaver Assessment of Maine paper which you can see here. There is a really interesting chart in the paper showing the average price per pelt, number harvested, and number of license holders. Trapping and the beaver used to be so tied to our society and way of life it is amazing to me. Beaver pelts or plews, were as good as currency, Manhatten Island is what it is today because it used to be the place where furs were traded, bought, and sold, and the canoe races here in Maine I believe had there start with the fur trade – the faster you could get your fur to market, the more you got paid. Beaver trapping here in the state is quite regulated and the Commissioner can and does close areas to the taking of beaver. Each pelt has to be tagged by a Game Warden, who sends the information of where and when it was caught to the State, so that populations can be monitored.
Over the years I’ve noticed that bobcats love to stand on beaver houses, and I’ve often imagined what a beaver must feel like hearing the cat walk on the house, and hearing it sniff at the top. Beaver do have a distinctive smell from their castor which was used for earaches, deafness, headaches, and loss of memory back in the day and the beavers use it for territorial purposes using castor mounds, which are large globs of mud deposited on the stream bank with castor deposited on it. Apparently it all smells uniquely different for them , as it’s an effective method to use castor from another colony to illicit a territorial response in the beaver. It’s often possible to smell a well established colony on a stream long before you get there. One year walking down the fragile ice of a stream, Peter and I came across blood on the ice, followed by a blood smear on the snow into some evergreens. After poking around some, we found where a patient cat had laid in wait overlooking a patch of open water, melting the snow some where it waited. It appeared that a beaver had came up into the open water and the cat had killed him, dragging him across the ice and into some privacy to enjoy his meal. ‘Cats seem to love beaver meat, and we had one following us one year – investigating all of the sets, and getting a free meal when we had a catch. One time after it had snowed just enough to show a print, I realized when I got back to the truck that I had forgotten something on the beaver flowage, we had been gone maybe 15 minutes, and when we got back to the ice the cat had been there, and visited all the places we did. It was a bit eerie to know that he had likely been in a position to be watching us while we were there.
During one winter there was a railroad line I had to walk several miles on, and along the way a red squirrel had dug a hole under the tracks and I would stop and talk to him, which of course he wasn’t very happy with and would scold me from inside his hole. Then one day it had snowed just a dusting, and as I walked by the squirrel hole, he was no longer scolding me, and there were no tracks on the snow like there always were previous. I then noticed the track on the rail itself. It was a bobcat track, and it extended as far as I could see – just on the rail – ending at the squirrel hole. He must have stood waiting for the squirrel to come out and grabbed a quick meal. I followed his track on the rail for just over a mile, where they came from, and went back to, a dense thicket of fur and spruce. On the way back through later that day, all the evidence had disappeared – the sun had melted the snow off the tracks.
We had discovered a small flowage near an abandoned bridge which had an old culvert running underneath of it. The beavers had plugged both ends of the culvert and created a pond for themselves behind it, with a decent size house, and we decided to come back the following weekend. It rained for the next few days, and then turned off cold again, and upon returning to the house, the ice had collapsed. The large amount of rain had pushed through the stuff in the culvert, and the beavers would be unable to fix it from under the ice, the water drained from the pond, and the ice collapsed, leaving the beavers without water or access to their food supply. I returned that spring to look things over, and it didn’t appear they made it through the winter.
It is common practice not catch all the beavers out of a particular house to leave some for the following year, and trappers generally leave subtle clues for others that the particular flowage has been trapped. Maine law says that you have to be a certain distance from the house, and generally the further away you are is the best way to just take the older and bigger ones. I missed my opportunity to take a great picture one year, I was checking sets one cold night, about 10 degrees or so and the air was very still. Coming over the rise to look onto the flowage the moon was hanging in the air behind the house and the conditions were just right to see the steam from the house rising across the moon into the cold night air, and I didn’t have the camera. Maybe someday I’ll be able to paint a picture of what it was like, which was beautiful, as are all the sights and memories of the times I spent in the woods of Maine on the trapline.
Buried in the annals of American history is the amazing survival story of Hugh Glass. For me, it ranks up in the top ten alongside stories like that of Ernest Shackleton,Touching the Void,and Beck Weathers. Interestingly though is that it doesn’t seem to be as famous as the other death defying against all odds survival stories out there.
Not much is known about the early life of Hugh and is awash in lots of speculation. Most accounts of his early life agree that he was born in Pennsylvania, sometime around 1783. As a young man working as a seaman he was captured by the pirate Jean Lafitte and was forced into piracy, escaping by swimming to shore in 1818 near Galveston Texas. He managed to avoid the hostile Karankawa Indians, but was finally captured by the Pawnee. They “adopted” him and taught him about living in the wilderness.
William Ashley of the newly formed Rocky Mountain Fur Company placed an ad looking for mountain men to journey up the Missouri River in the hope of establishing fur trade routes, and Hugh was one of the party in that venture . One morning as Hugh was picking berries away from the main party he surprised a female grizzly bear with cubs, and was severely attacked. He managed to fire point blank with his Hawken rifle, but the shot did not kill the bear and he had to repeatedly stab it with his knife as it continued to attack him. Having finally killed the bear, Hugh lay there dying himself. He had massive wounds and was bleeding profusely. Some accounts have his ribs exposed in places, and his scalp mostly removed by the vicious attack. The men sewed him up as best they could, but were convinced that he would succumb to his wounds within a day or two. Jim Bridger and John Fitzgerald were assigned to stay with him until he died so they could give him a decent burial. There was one problem however – Hugh wouldn’t die. Fitzgerald became increasing stressed that hostile Indians would find them and after five days of waiting by the comatose Hugh, convinced Bridger that they had to leave immediately. Convinced Hugh would die they took all of his possessions – rifle, powder, knife, and supplies. Everything a man would need to survive. Then, they left him beside a shallow dug grave. Hugh continued to lie in a coma for an unknown time period – but eventually he came to and upon realizing he had been abandoned for dead, he got really angry – and vowed to kill the two men that had left him. He set his own broken leg, and began crawling to Fort Kiowa which was some 200 miles distant. 200 MILES. He crawled near water as much as possible so that he could drink – ate berries, roots, and at one point feasted on fresh buffalo calf that had been killed by wolves. Eventually regaining some of his strength he was able to with the aid of a crutch, get up to a standing position. Maggots ate the diseased flesh off of his back, and he could feel them crawling there.
Accounts at this point differ and are various – but I believe this one is the true one, and the one that makes the most rational sense.
A party of traveling Sioux found him, and nursed him back to health, and with their assistance, he was able to return to Fort Kiowa on Oct 8 1823 and re-outfit himself on credit. Bridger and Fitzgerald were not at the Fort at that time, he heard they were at Fort Henry. Hugh departed on foot for Fort Henry, a month long journey, with the intention of killing Bridger and Fitzgerald. He arrived at the end of December in the evening – walked into the Fort announcing himself as Hugh Glass and that he was there to kill Bridger and Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was not there at the time, but Bridger was, and the color drained from his face as he realized that it was indeed Hugh Glass, a man he had left for dead, standing before him. He began apologizing profusely and explained that it was Fitzgerald that had convinced him to leave Hugh. Hugh believed the account and forgave him.
After leaving Fort Henry Hugh learned that Fitzgerald had joined the Army and was stationed at Fort Atkinson. Upon his arrival and announcing that he was there to kill Fitzgerald, the Captain at the Fort that he would see Hugh arrested and hanged if that happened. After being assured that Hugh would not kill Fitzgerald, the Captain arranged a meeting between the two men, where purportedly Hugh demanded his gun back and warned Fitzgerald never to leave the Army.
Glass returned to the Rocky Mountains to trap and was once again wounded in 1825 by a Shoshone arrow, and transported 700 miles via river to get the arrowhead removed. He was presumed killed in 1833 by the Arikara – Johnson Gardner captured several of the Arikara that were in possession of Hugh’s equipment, and he was never heard from again.
There is a monument for Hugh Glass in South Dakota, which you can see here.
An amazing story of life and survival, fit for the legends of history. I find it ironic that Jim Bridger went on to be famous and the story of Hugh Glass is seemingly buried in history. He was, in all senses of the phrase, a true American Bad Ass.
Tu es mon compagnon de voyage!
Je veux mourir dans mon canot
Sur le tombeau, près du rivage,
Vous renverserez mon canot!
When I must leave the great river
O bury me close to its wave
And let my canoe and my paddle
Be the only mark over my grave.
Translated by Oliver Call.
I can’t recall for sure where I first came across the book Tales of an Empty Cabin, written by Grey Owl. It was possibly just a random book search. I’m glad I did though, because it is a remarkable book, and extremely well written. Grey Owl’s entire life was a bit of an enigma. The world first heard of him through his writing, and then eventually speeches that he was asked to give. To the world he presented himself as a Native American who had an Apache mother and moved to Canada to join the Ojibwa and first was a wilderness fur trapper, who then turned conservationist. His writing is very pervasive, romantic, and tugs at the heartstrings. For me the pendulum swung the other way – I started out as a conservationist, swung to a trapper, and now things are evening out between the two. Time will tell where that ends up for me. If you choose to read the book, keep in mind the time frame that it was written. In the early 1900’s beaver populations were drastically reduced due to exploitation. With the benefit of conservation laws, seasons, and limits, the beaver population is back with a vengeance. Here in Maine current laws are very liberal for the taking of beaver as the state has a large population. I believe that the ambivalence lies within all who take to the woods to some degree, and the pendulum can swing fast or slow in the process. Certainly reading Grey Owls account of listening to the mate of the beaver they had shot calling out through the night for its mate is very emotional. In the story one of the people in the traveling party kills a beaver, and during the night they hear it’s mate calling out for it. The member of the party sleeping next to Grey Owl asks what that noise is, and Grey Owl dismisses it to him as nothing. But he knows what it is.
Trappers understand animals and their habits more than anybody, and it’s often hard to explain the conundrum of being able to empathize and befriend a creature of the wild whilst running a trapline for another. I guess I can empathize somewhat more with the coyote with mange, or the beaver with mallocclusion. Beaver, like other rodents have teeth that continuously grow, and they need to gnaw to keep them sharp, and the correct length. Mallocclusion is when one becomes out of alignment, or grows past the point where the beaver can gnaw it back, and the creature is left unable to eat, and sometimes the teeth grow long enough to puncture the skull. I’ve seen it.
My favorite story in the book is The Tree. The author describes in great detail the very long life of a tree, from when a squirrel accidentally dropped a nut on the ground, to the deer browsing it’s neighbors, the rabbit eating its bark, and the moose using it for sparring practice. It goes on to describe the native American that visited it, the white man that explored it, and the road coming through that killed it. It is a fantastic story that puts a lot of life and time into perspective for me.
Grey Owl is most famous for his cabin at Ajaawan Lake, where a beaver house was incorporated into the cabin, and he was made Honorary Warden for the protection of the beaver colony. The story is in the book, and is a well regaled account of the daily activities of the beaver, who were allowed to roam the cabin. It is also probably the first case study of its kind on beaver behavior. I love the stories of the beaver tetter-tottering around the cabin on their rear legs carrying mud for the lodge, of how the male would become aggressive and jealous of the author when the female would come into heat, and the stories of chairs and other woodwork being eaten and chewed in the authors absence. It must have been some interesting times, and it is great to be able to share them in the book.
Grey Owl never made it to his 50th birthday. For someone that passed so young, he had an incredible life. After his death, the enigma of his life was discovered. He was born in England in 1888, and had no Native American ties at all, a fraud that dented the conservation movement he had created, but certainly did not change what he did, or his experiences. It’s just who he wanted to be, and what he became.
Here is a video of Grey Owl, his cabin, and the beavers – I wish I could hear the real sounds in the video, the narration is a little cheesy, but the video makes up for it -
And a short video of his cabin and the lake;
And apparently I missed the memo when the movie came out – but one did – I’ll be watching it soon – here is the trailer:
“This book is the story of the Nahanni country in the Northwest Territories of Canada and of an attempt to find the lost gold of that little-known land. The attempt failed, so this must also be the story of a failure – but it was a failure that succeeded in so many other ways that, if life could be entirely filled with such defeats, I for one would never ask for any victory.”
If ever there was a book written about self-reliance, exploration and survival, it is Dangerous River by RM Patterson. In the mid 1920’s Mr. Patterson left a comfortable career as a banker in England to explore the Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories of Canada prospecting for gold, and to explore a vast untouched wilderness. Today the river is part of a Canadian National Park, and they run guided raft trips down the amazing river.
What a sight, and life it must have been for RMP. His exploration and description of river life is recanted in very well written detail. He was there for adventure and gold prospecting, and although he didn’t find any gold, he did find lots of adventure exploring, cabin building, wintering over, hunting and trapping. He also was interested in the legends and mysteries of the region. Tales of lost gold and haunted valleys emerged after two headless corpses of prospectors (Willie and Frank McLeod) were found in the region and the legend was bolstered by the mysterious deaths of other prospectors. The McLeod brothers had gone up the river in 1906 in search of gold with a third partner, Bobby Weir whom they had convinced to break his contract with the Hudson Bay company to join them in a search for gold. The trio never came back in the fall, and relatives assumed they were wintering over, and would be back in the spring. When they again did not return, a search party was sent out, and the headless skeletons of the two brothers were discovered. Rumors soon circulated that they had found the mother lode of gold, and had been killed by the other member. No one knows whatever happened to Bobby, but a Native hunting party found a decomposed body a year later about a half a mile away from the brothers bodies. In neither case did the Royal Mounted Police conduct an investigation. Other mysterious deaths followed bolstering the legend of the area. A prospector by the name of Martin Jorgensen was found a few years later beside the burnt remains of his cabin along the Flat River. John O’Brien, a trapper, was found with matches still held in an icy grip next to an unlit campfire, frozen to death, and several others.
Testament to the legends can be found in the names of the regions along the river; Headless Range, Deadmen Valley, Headless Creek, and Funeral Range.
There are three stories within the book that I find fascinating – the first being Hells gate rapid, also known as the figure eight rapid, and the original native translation – the rapid that runs both ways.
As described by RMP;
“The mass of water was hurled clean across the river in a ridge of foaming six foot waves, to split on this point of rock on the right bank, thus forming two whirlpools, the upper and the lower. It would be equally difficult, one could see, to run this rapid either upstream or downstream.”
The author contemplates for a while, puts his gear on shore for fear of losing it in an upset, and then tries to run the rapid that goes both ways. He fails, and tries twice more before coming to terms with the fact that he is not going to make it. So, what does our intrepid banker do next? He takes out his ax, and cuts a portage trail around the rapid, finishes and portages everything by nightfall. I consider myself to be rather persistent about exploring, and finding a way to get where I want to go, but I’ll be damned if I’ve ever hacked out a portage trail with an ax to get around a rapid. RM Patterson is a person of an ilk that isn’t made anymore. He was tough, and I admire that greatly.
Here’s a helmet cam video of fourth canyon rapid on the Nahanni. Remember that RMP would have been in a wood and canvas “freighter”, not the composites of today that can take the punishment this type of water can dish out.
The story of building the cabin with woods partner Gordon Mathews, and the adventures there and on the winter trapline make you feel like you are there with them on the adventure. As does the other story I was impressed with – RMP’s winter exploration of the Meilleur river. Camping in temperatures of -40 and -60 he explored the canyon. His description of the cold can make you shiver as you sit next to a hot woodstove at night.
The third adventure whose story I am fascinated with is the trip from the cabin to Fort Simpson. After celebrating Christmas early in the cabin, Gordon was to go to Fort Simpson for the year’s mail and some trapping supplies. Sounds like an easy trip – except that Fort Simpson was 200 MILES away. Can you imagine? When was the last time you strapped on a pair of snowshoes or a dogsled team in the Northwest Territories winter, and went 200 miles one way to get the mail? After a false start, Gordon final gets going on the trip, and RMP plans to spend a month alone. Time passes, and Gordon is overdue to return. RMP waits it out for a few days, and then becomes more worried about his friend, and finally decides to strike out for Fort Simpson to hopefully find him, or at least get news of him. Our intrepid banker goes on foot with snowshoes. The trip is hellacious and full of trial and misery. As RMP describes in part; “The stretch of trail from Ram Creek past the little Butte and down onto the cache riffles was the nearest thing to hell on snowshoes that I have ever struck. There was a three inch crust on top of the drifts, but it was not strong enough to hold a man on a five foot shoe, still less to take the pull and heave of a man with a heavy pack climbing out of a hole in the snow. For it was into a hole in the snow that you fell when you broke through that crust-you were in up to your waist and your next step was on a level with your belt.” 200 MILES! I would have keeled over after 10 of this kind of travel. Blizzards, heavy winds, and -40 temperatures.
After all, as RMP says, At this time the Nahanni legend was in full flower: this was Deadmen Valley, from which no traveler was confidently expected to return, and men said good-bye to you at Fort Liard or Fort Simpson and wished you the best of luck, much as one might shake the hand of a man about to mount the scaffold, wishing him a pleasant visit and a speedy return.
After much trial and tribulation RMP makes it to Fort Simpson in one piece. Shortly after he arrives an unrelated Royal Canadian Mounted Police patrol arrives at the Fort as well, and Gordon was part of the patrol. RMP recounts the ensuing conversation between them;
“Gordon here tells me that you’ve just broken trail for us all the way from South Nahanni, and you traveled alone?” “Yes”. “Well, shake hands again! And let me tell you this – if you’re ever overdue or in any trouble up in those mountains of yours, don’t count on the police sending a patrol to look for you. After this solo trip of yours we’ll just figure that you’re alright where-ever you are and that you will show up sometime!”
I can imagine the swell of pride that I would feel receiving such a comment from a dyed in the wool man of the woods. RMP describes it as “One of the greatest compliments I’ve ever had paid to me.” Indeed.
Here are some nice shots of the Nahanni;
Our voices are now hushed
Snow muffles our steps creaking beneath our feet
The world has become surreal
And here we are now but guests
Silently we pass through the eerie shadows cast
From the moon hanging in the frigid night
There is no sound but our breath to break the cold
Stillness its vapor hanging around our heads like
A shroud before rising in the cold stillness.
I feel so ALIVE the cold coloring my cheeks
Cleans my nose
Reaches for my lungs
My senses become acute
I could see a shadow move
Hear a small twig break
notice the mouse tunneling under the snow
If I saw someone I think I would hide
Melt into the shadows of the night world
I have become a part of
The fresh ice settles under our feet
I feel with all of my senses
Is it safe?
A white patch of snow midstream is out of place
I can feel timeless history move my hands as
The catch is removed
I can hear those that came before. Whispering
In the cold night air.
Block it here
Put a stick there
Nothing breaks the solitude
We shoulder our packs
The miles pass beneath our feet
I want it to go on forever
I want another set to check
But all too soon my eyes are adjusting to the streetlights
And I am learning to drive again
It seems so foreign so wrong
So opposite of where we just were
Running a trapline on a mid -winters night.