Nice Job!

How to Make It as a Fur Trapper in Northern Alberta

This is what it's like making a living at something that many people don't believe still exists.
June 8, 2016, 6:05pm

All photos courtesy of Bill Abercrombie

VICE: What was the first animal that you ever trapped?
Abercrombie: It was a beaver… It's crazy. I don't know, it's not that great a story, I don't know if I want to tell it.

Please do.
Well, at Cooking Lake my grandfather had a kind of retired cowboy living there. When I was eight, there was beaver sign up there. And I said, "Well we should catch this beaver." I was just a little kid. And he told me to make a deadfall. I said, "I can't do that. But maybe I can dig a pit with some spikes in it?"

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He was just humouring me, but he showed me how it might be done, and I dug this great big pit along the beaver trail and put sharpened saplings in the bottom. I came back the next morning and there the beaver was, deader than a doornail. It was just a total fluke, it was crazy. He couldn't believe it. He showed me how to skin it, and I was just… [long pause]. I mean this is not really… trappers don't go around digging pits with spikes in it. That would be illegal. But I got away with it one time, and that hooked me. I never really let it go after that.

How did it feel to see a dead animal lying there, as an eight-year-old?
It never really did bother me at all. It's really hard to explain. If you're a trapper and you're living in the bush, and you're trapping animals and utilizing them, not just the fur, but the meat, the bones, everything. If you do that you're like every other animal that's there.

My whole thing is that there's nothing wrong with killing animals for use, so long as you treat them with dignity and respect. And so when I kill something I want to make sure I do everything I possibly can so that there's no suffering, so that the animal dies quickly and cleanly. And you realize how important that is when you spend so much time in the bush, and you realize what a struggle it is out there for an animal. They're not all bouncing around smelling the flowers together like in Bambi. They starve to death, they die of disease, they're pursued and torn to pieces by other animals. It's a horrendous death. To my mind, trapping and killing an animal humanely is a gift to that animal. It lives wild and free and then dies quickly without suffering and without its dignity compromised.

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What's the life of a trapper? What do you actually do?
I get up in the morning and light the stove in the cabin. I get on my snowmachine and it's 35 or 40 below, and I check traps.

How many traps do you have?
I probably have about 60. The trap line I have now isn't very big. When I trapped up in the Birch Mountains in Northern Alberta with my partner, we trapped almost 2,500 square miles. We'd be out for days at a time. You've gotta have gear with you; you're not going back to a warm cabin every day. You've gotta be prepared to stay out on the trail.

What animals have you trapped?
Lynx, martin, fisher, wolf, wolverine, beaver, muskrat, otter, mink, sable, erim, squirrels, raccoons, coyote, fox, you name it. Every fur bear in Canada.

Do you remember a specific instance where things got hairy?
Yeah! I can think of a few. Once my snow machine broke down in the Birch Mountains. It was 35 below, and it was in the worst spot—the farthest from any one of the cabins we had up there. It took me two and a half days walking to get back to the cabin. That means if you're going to survive a night, you can only walk a certain amount of time, and then you've got to start gathering your wood and building your shelter. It worked out OK. Not great, but alright.

I've had some pretty close run-ins with grizzly bears and cougars and wolves. Last year I just about got nailed by a cougar. I just sensed him behind me, and I kind of fell back off my snow machine. He was right on me, and I managed to shoot and catch him under the chin with my pistol, which was lucky because it was a pretty big cat.

But this is part of the deal. I feel alive when I'm doing this. Sometimes you'll make a great catch on an animal you don't get often, like a wolverine. There's an adrenaline rush, and there's a little a bit of sadness too. Then you get the animal back, and you skin it really good and flesh it and get it tanned and make something fantastic out of it. That's a great feeling.

Do you ever talk to people who are surprised that trappers still exist?
All the time. Mostly they're from big cities. Trappers by nature don't do an awful lot of talking about what they do.

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