We went to one of the most remote parts of Canada to visit one of the Northwest Territories most traditional settlements, a community of 150 who rely almost solely on fishing and trapping.
You’d think snowmobiling to the Arctic Circle solely to pick up a few bags of dead animals sounds like a frigid Hell on Earth, but it’s actually quite enjoyable. Every year, wildlife officers in Canada's Northwest Territories—the province that abuts Alaska, do just that, and this year I was lucky enough to tag along. It’s called a “Fur-Run,” and it’s a time of year when trappers from Colville Lake—the most remote community in the Northwest Terroitories—sell marten, fox, lynx, wolverine, and wolf pelts to the territorial government. The pelts are then resold at auction to buyers in Seattle and North Bay, Ontario, and then re-resold to fashion designers around the world and anyone else who simply likes to put animal hides on their walls and floors. For some reason the Chinese, in particular, have a hard-on for fur these days.
But before you tweet Ellen Degeneres or start a Facebook page for the civil rights of muskrats, do me a kindness and read on.
Colville Lake is a village of about 150 people smack dab in the middle of absolute nowhere. You’ve never been there and you never will. It is so far removed from any place you’ve ever heard of that even people living in Yellowknife—a city you already think is in the middle of nowhere—think Colville Lake is even more in the middle of nowhere.
As remote as it is, there are three ways to get there: by airplane year-round, by winter-road, or, when the winter road isn’t open yet, you can do what we did. Freeze your face off on a snowmobile for 12 hours, driving from the historic oil town of Norman Wells over an ass-splitting bumpy trail past the Arctic Circle, until you reach the Lake. Along the way, you stop at a few shacks to melt your snotsicles, have a sip of tea, and carry on.
Colville Lake is a beautiful community when you finally get to it. Lined with cute little log cabins and homes with teepees scattered around—a trend started by the hamlet’s founder, Bern Will Brown. Brown is a loveable 93-year-old ex-missionary from Rochester, New York, who smokes a pipe and watches Notre Dame football in his underoos. He also looks and sounds identical to Grampa Simpson. And his yarns stretch on forever.
“When I came here in ’58—or was it ’61? Maybe ’60?—aw hell, whenever it was, I rounded up a bunch of Hareskin injuns and some eskimos to help build those cabins out back,” he said. The cabins he referred to includes a beautiful church called Our Lady of the Snows, an RCMP detachment, and a museum filled with books, paintings, journals, Inuit carvings, dogsleds, and of course, furs. There’s even a white statue of Brown’s head sitting on a table upstairs, which is funny. Anyway, either the area was too beautiful to leave or there was no way to get back home because when Brown’s winter wonderland was completed in 1962, his workers dropped their hammers, said ‘fuck it,’ and stayed there too.
With the fish being plentiful and enough caribou in the area to eat, a few more Dene families moved to the area. To this day it is one of the most traditional settlements in Northern Canada, whose economy relies almost entirely on fishing and trapping. Without it, men and women would be forced to work at mines and oilrigs elsewhere in the territory. And if they didn’t do that, they would be screwed. This place is the first rung on the massive Fur Industry Ladder, and nobody has the time or money to philosophize about the stupidity of Chinese rappers wearing fox hoodies. The only thing on a trapper’s mind is buying groceries and paying for gas.
Wildlife officer Marti Lys, and the manager of fur marketing and traditional economy for the territorial government Francois Rossouw, showed me around the community. We stopped and chatted with Modeste Eddibar, a trapper cleaning a wolf pelt outside of his cabin. Rossouw is a wiry little South African with an eagle eye for technique. “You’re doing it all wrong, you don’t want to mess it up," he said to Eddibar. Rossouw grabbed a knife from Eddibar and pointed at the hide. “You want to clean the claws properly or else nobody is going to buy this,” he continued. Initially, I found this conversation awkward: a hyperactive South African telling a full-on Dene man how to properly clean a wolf pelt. But Eddibar listened carefully because Rossouw was to completely right. Rossouw’s job is not only to subsidize trappers for quality furs, but also to educate them on what fur-buyers want and how to trap responsibly, using legal quick-kill traps and proper cleaning techniques. “If nobody buys it, it will be a waste of a beautiful animal,” he said. Trapping is kept sustainable but it’s monitored closely as well.
Lys retreated to the wildlife officer’s cabin to do paper work. Her job is to collect the furs, inspect, tag, record, and pay the trappers an advance—more is paid after the auctions. Depending on the species and the quality of the pelts they bring in, the top trappers can earn anywhere from 20 to 40 thousand dollars a season. This money goes back into paying the ridiculous costs of living here, like $10 cartons of milk and $7 loaves of Wonderbread. The rate at the local B&B (a portable trailer) is the cool price of $260 a night—per person. Needless to say, I slept in the wildlife officer’s cabin surrounded by potentially flea infested marten pelts that smell like wet cat. “If you see the fur move like ripples in the ocean, that means they’re full of lice,” Rossouw told me. And with that thought, I snuggled my stale pillow and drifted soundly to sleep.
The next day more trappers dropped off their furs, everything from marten to wolverine to wolf. A wolf can net $400 per pelt and Modeste Eddibar hauls in eight. Robert Kochon, one of the grand poobahs of trapping, brought in a few hockey bags full of fox and marten. Pelts were packaged, cheques were signed and more trappers lined up outside the cabin. It’s payday in Colville Lake and Marti and Francois are the bank-tellers.
I headed over to the Colville Lake School, a one-room building where literally every kid in town goes for an education. Sheldon Snow is one of the teachers and he was collecting pelts that his students have trapped as part of the Young Trapper Program. The money they receive will go back to help pay for field trips and other perks, like maybe a toilet that actually flushes.
“The older kids teach the younger kids and we all learn together,” Snow said. “Without this program the kids would get bored, maybe start mischief, but most importantly, they wouldn’t be on the land or learning their traditions.”
While precocious preteen twerps across the country get pissed of at their parents for distracting them from their epic Call of Duty sesh, kids in Colville Lake are outside setting snares with their parents and grandparents, engaging with their culture, learning biology, chopping wood, making bannock, and generally being part of the beautifully remote landscape they call home. Don’t get me wrong, they are probably being shitheads too, but they are definitely not being pussies.
The last day of my visit, Marti and Francois packed the furs tight and I helpped get the sleds ready for departure. It’s been a good Fur-Run: the trappers in Colville Lake can support their families for a few more months, maybe even go on vacation and hit the beach at the West Edmonton Mall. We said our goodbyes and mahsi cho (thank you) to our new friends. I hate giving a place the old in and out but we needed to get going. And just like that, we bounce our chilly white asses back to the big town with a bunch of fur in tow.