By Dave Mance III
My partner’s a teacher, and she put me in
touch with a 13-year-old student who wanted
to learn how to trap a beaver. You’re picturing
a husky teenage boy in a camo ball cap with
a fishhook in the brim – I was, too – but this
kid was a slight, soft-spoken teenage girl, the
daughter of a single-mom artist who lived in a
suburban row house on a noisy highway in Massachusetts.
I grew up trapping, like a lot of kids in the rural Northeast.
Even 50, 60 years ago, families did it for money and sustenance;
when that’s the context, these skills get passed down as craft.
When it stopped being necessary for my family, it became
more soulful – the process and the take more sacramental than
I didn’t know where the interest came from for this kid, with
her background. Her mother didn’t either – she told my partner
that she didn’t know what to make of the whole thing. When I
met the mother for the first time, her eyes bore right into mine
– skeptical. It was fair. She went along with the plan, though,
and I give her great credit for that. Not every mother would
accommodate a daughter’s politically incorrect atavisms.
This all happened two years ago – remember how brutally cold
that winter was. The kid, my partner, and I drove into the mountains on a sunken Jeep trail, the snow so deep and the banks
so steep that in places we were entombed in white. There were
camps for the first half-mile or so, rusted out trailers and tar-paper shacks. Smoke blossoms rising from stovepipes that jutted
at odd angles out of the walls. I told the kid about these half-feral
people – the houndsmen who coursed the spruce-fir woods
while their bay dogs ran white rabbits; the logger in the red stick
frame whose family history of working this land stretched back
to when the Lombards, those great iron steeds that belched steam
and fire, used this trail; the Mahicans who used this mountain as
a trapping ground before any of them, when beaver was the survival food that got them through winters like this.
When we’d driven as far as we could go, we donned snowshoes and dragged gear into the forest. The high that day was
in the teens with a hard north wind. It was about an hour’s slog
into a chain of beaver ponds that a mentor-type figure had
introduced me to when I was 13. When we got there, my partner
set up a rough base camp and started a fire while the kid and I
scouted the flowage for an active lodge.
We found one with little trouble – the day was cold enough
that you could see heat rise through the rime ice around the
chimney. We talked a lot about beavers, Castor canadensis
– from the Greek kastor: “he who excels.” How they’re a keystone species that creates whole ecosystems. I told her that if you
target two-year-olds who are dispersing in the spring, you don’t
have to worry about your trapping affecting individual ponds.
Because we were trapping a pond, we talked about the consequences of our actions. (Homo sapiens: the discerning ape.) In
the big picture, removing a member of the colony would make
the food go that much further for the rest. Still, we’d be affecting a family unit. We decided to target the adult male by setting
traps away from the food cache, near the outlet of the pond.
With luck, the adult female was bred, and the male would be
replaced by a dispersing bachelor come spring or summer. We
discussed which tree species beavers prefer, and I helped her
sort the saplings and pick the bait.
We drilled and chopped through 20 inches of ice with an
auger and axe, the kid attacking the task with inordinate focus.
Plunging bare, red hands and arms into icy water to scoop out
ice chips. Groping blindly in the murky water to feel for the
stream’s channel. Afterwards we hurried back to the fire to singe
our arm hair and shiver like characters in a Jack London novel,
taking an extended break at one point for a hot lunch.
It took us the rest of the day to chop four holes, set the traps,
and snowshoe out. It was about an hour’s ride back to her house,
and the kid was fast asleep for most of it, sitting between my
partner and me on the bench seat of an old Silverado pickup, the
heater on full bore.
A few days later we stole some time after school for the first
check, walking up to the pond as the sun set behind us, the
wind tracks from the previous weekend etched in dune-like
snowdrifts. We rechopped the holes and peered into the dark
water to confirm the traps were empty, then walked back by
light from the stars and a rind-shaped moon. The cold held all
week, and our next check went the same way. Hear the thud
of the axe as we chopped the holes clean, the snow around us
reflecting the wine-drenched western sky. Then footfalls over
Styrofoam-sounding snow on the walk back, the trail winding
through zebra-stripe tree shadows.
The kid had commitments and couldn’t make the third
check, so I went alone and, of course, found a 50-pound beaver
in the last trap. Shook my head and wished she’d been with me.
Said a prayer for the beaver and told him that in another life he’d
have eyes on the front of his head and I’d have eyes on the sides
of mine. Pulled the traps and loaded them in a pack, then, with
the beaver on my shoulder, started walking back, dropping the
dead weight with every misstep off the packed trail.
She came over on a Sunday afternoon a few days later, her
eyes shining. I’d learned that a big part of her interest in trapping
was survivalist in nature (what kid doesn’t crave control in a
culture that affords them very little?), so the processing part was
what she’d been waiting for. I started the first cut along the belly
but didn’t get half-way before she’d elbowed in and taken over.
Stop there above the vent. Feel the bulge – those are the castor
glands. You’ve got to cut around them, but first use this other