I remember as a small child the excitement my sister Joanna and I shared while we waited for our father to return from checking traps.
Romping back and forth on the river bank, we keep a close eye for dad’s head lamp. Though gone for four days, the tired dogs will strain mightily against their harnesses, excited to get home.
When the team finally pulls into the yard, my sister and I pelt our dad with questions, while pulling our fingers through the dogs’ luxurious fur. They tolerate us, but the tired animals are more keen on a warm meal of fish than two excited kids. Dad sweeps the canvas cover off his toboggan, and we excitedly look over his catch. If we find a prized wolverine bundled at the bottom of the toboggan, we yammer, “Where did you catch it?” “Did it raid the line?” “Did it eat any marten?”
After unhooking the dogs, Joanna feeds them while I carry dad’s catch up the bank to the cabin. I unwrap the burlap sacks from the frozen marten and place the catch in an empty 55gallon drum, safe from mice and squirrels. I bring half-a-dozen marten into the house to skin the next day, while mom scolds me for hanging them above the drying dishes. Not much room in our 16 by 16 cabin, but I always find another corner. With all our chores done, we come inside, shed our parkas and winter gear. Dad looks haggard and tired, the scent of caribou hair and spruce drifts from his wool long johns. Sitting around our plywood table, we gorge on moose steaks and bannock. Dad hashes over the highlights of the run, “Lots of overflow at the Hilton.” “Marten moving out of King’s Kup to higher terrain.” “Hard to believe, but Ray quit pulling on the way home”. I sit there stuffing my mouth, but shoot more questions whenever there’s a lull. My fascination for adventures on the trail was limitless; my young imagination created Grand Epics from my father’s tired words. Later in the night, I lie in bed burning with desire, “When will I be old enough to run the long line?”
Back in those days we didn’t have a snowmachine, but ran our lines by dog. The country I grew up in is rough, making for slow travel. Even today when using a snowmachine in the backcountry, I can’t travel much faster than we did by dog. Because of this and the short winter days, we’ve always utilized camp sites along our trails. While we did cut some short lines that could be checked in one day, most took several days to cover. Naturally, the best marten country lies far from base camp. As a youngster, my sister and I helped mom tend the lines close to home. I was a teenager before I began trapping from tent camps. These camps were rustic. Hell, my camps still are! I remember wood stoves so drafty they only held a fire for an hour. Built from old-style Pearl kerosene cans, these leaking wood-eaters always let the fire die out just as we drifted off to sleep. By morning, the inside of the tent would be as cold as outside; frost would cling to the surface of my sleeping bag. If not awakened by the chilly air, I was pulled from sleep by the “slap, slap, slap” of dad smacking the tent’s canvas roof from outside with a willow switch. This was his morning ritual, pounding frost and snow off the tent before starting a fire, to ensure no drips as the tent warmed up. I groaned and rolled over. Dad and his damn dry-tent fetish!
Uninsulated wall tents don’t hold heat well. Although light and fast to set up, they’re not much more than a thin blanket against the Arctic cold. They heat up fast because of their small size, but you need to cut a lot of firewood. Armed with nothing but a bow saw in the land of the spindly black spruce, I’d spend an hour or two every night cutting firewood for the hungry stove. Almost as demanding as our heat source, the dogs required attention after their day on the trail. First, we’d melt snow and cook a broth of ground liver for the team. After they drank, we’d throw them “split fish.” During the fall salmon run, we’d split the first two hundred fish we caught and dry them on our fishrack. Dried fish are light and do not require cooking. Before turning in for the night, I’d repack my sled for the next day’s run. I made sure the marten bait was stowed at the top of the load, ready for action.
The tent camps I use today are not much different from the ones my father used in the late ’70s. I’ve allowed a few modern amenities to slip in, but a combination of nostalgia and that stubborn “they don’t make stuff the way they used to” bush mentality has kept things much the same. The largest upgrade has been a small chainsaw for cutting firewood. The other has been the use of quick-setup ice fishing shanties as tents. Rigged with a stove jack, I’ve found these shelters make a better shelter, especially when moving camp every few days. We used to set up a tent and work out of the same site all winter; then pick a different spot for the next season .Today, with lighter camp gear and a snowmachine, I can change campsites throughout the winter to cover more country.
Lying here in my sleeping bag today, I look over my tent and see nearly the same things a trapper saw seventy-five years ago. The floorless tent is nestled on a cozy bed of spruce boughs, filling the air with a sweet aroma. The caribou mats I sleep on are relics from the past, but still warmer than modern synthetic mats. A kerosene lamp burns bright, giving the tent an amber glow I’ve always loved.
Today, I rely heavily on tent camps when working my lines. Although a snowmachine makes travel somewhat faster, it still takes several days to check the long lines. There’s something inexplicably exciting about leaving a cabin with a fully loaded sled at twenty-five below and knowing that I’ll sleep wherever I happen to land when it gets dark. The ability to slide along the frozen trails without knowing where you’ll spend the night is a freedom that has been stripped away by modern life. After a long day of fighting snow drifts and rough trails, I may erect my camp on the edge of a meadow. A stand of dead trees nearby makes the nightly wood-cutting routine a breeze. I search out a hedge of bushy black spruce that offers me an abundance of boughs for my floor. A small overflow creek behind the camp produces slush that will quickly melt on the hot stove. With all my needs met, I turn in for the night. Sitting on a caribou mat and enjoying a hot bowl of chili, I can’t help but think that the trials of today’s hard travel have made this little piece of ground the most luxurious spot on earth.