Canadian Adventure: Wilderness Trapline

By Verne Hollett

Bobcat and Otter


“The line covered 150 square miles of virgin forest with dozens of lakes, creeks and rivers interconnecting most of it.”

My excited friend Lance called to share some good news and also ask a favor. “I just caught my first bobcat!” he said. “Can you show me how to skin it?”

I laughed and said of course, thinking back to how unsure he had seemed a week before, when I had shown him how to make his first bobcat set.

He brought the cat over and couldn’t stop talking about what fun it was to be a successful trapper, and how he would gladly give up his day job as a veterinarian. I laughed and warned him, “Better catch a few more before you make that career decision.”

I secured the cat by a back leg in the No. 1 that I leave hanging in the garage just for that purpose. Then I used a fillet knife to start the skinning. I had caught many lynx in northwestern Ontario and knew the skinning would be similar, but this was my first bobcat, too. As I worked on the cat, my mind drifted back 30 years to when I was 19 and out on my first trapline.

I had been assisting on someone else’s line for several years, but when the friend whose line I was borrowing returned to Thunder Bay, I was left with no place to trap. I went down to the local Ministry of Natural Resources office and told them I wanted a vacant line of my own to trap.

Since a trapping license was only $5, all of the remotely close or accessible lines were taken already. This left one line in the extreme corner of their management area, 20 miles from the nearest logging road, 50 miles from the nearest itty bitty community, and another 100-plus miles from Thunder Bay where I lived. The line covered 150 square miles of virgin forest with dozens of lakes, creeks and rivers interconnecting most of it.

“Great,” I responded. “I’ll take it.”

Since it was too late in the season to start trapping, I instead started making preparations for the following year. Being a commercial pilot, I was able to fly over the area now and then during the summer. I contacted a fly-in outfitter who had outpost cabins scattered on the various remote lakes, and he gave me permission to use the cabins in the winter. The cabins were generally log with pole roofs covered with cardboard and then tar paper. Dimensions were anywhere from 12 by 12 to 20 by 24.

From previous winter trapping experience, I knew that a smaller cabin would be better. When you come in from a long day out on the trapline in 30-below cold, you want the wood stove to “git ’er done” and put some heat in the shack. On a cold day in a large cabin, that might take a while, and it might never get above freezing at floor level.

In addition to finding the right cabin, I also used the plane to scout out how to get in there, as it was a long haul from the nearest road.

That fall, when my flying season was over, I loaded my dog Russ, canoe and provisions for a week then headed up the long logging road to the first river crossing. I piled dog and gear into the canoe and headed up a river I figured would take me to the cabin I intended to use, but there were several portages to contend with along the way. The first proved to be a quarter-mile and all uphill. From there, the rocky stream was just navigable with the 5-horse motor going wide open. I arrived at the cabin just before dark and got set up.

Since this was mostly an exploratory trip, I just made a few beaver and mink sets while checking out the quality of the portages—where they even existed. All of the beaver looked to be located along the southern edge of the trapline, and this is where I decided to start making sets.

The forest to the north was all conifers right to the water’s edge, but in the south near my base of operations, there were pockets of poplar along some of the bays, and each bay had a “never been trapped” beaver colony.

I caught a dozen or so beavers before skim ice on the lake one morning reminded me that I was not yet ready for winter and needed to get out before the lake froze over. After getting home, I eagerly planned my return to spend the winter in a young trapper’s paradise.

Unfortunately, even that far north I needed another 6 weeks of cold for the ice to get solid enough for travel. And even after freeze-up, there still would be the ever-present risk of upwelling currents leaving open water or thin spots, especially on the river. So the longer I waited, the safer it would be.

While I was awaiting solid ice, I spent the time helping friends and getting ready for my big adventure. The first step was to build a sleigh that could hold a month’s worth of stuff. My friend, Doug, constructed a dandy out of 3/4-inch plywood, 8 feet long by 30 inches wide with 3-foot-deep sides and Teflon runners. We could have packed a moose in that sleigh and still had room to spare. Empty, it pushed around his driveway like a dream.

By mid-December, the nighttime lows were frequently 20 below, and I was confident I would find adequate ice for the trip. Doug and I loaded up his truck and mine with sleigh, two snow machines, my dog, traps, food, snowshoes, and other essentials. The plan was to go in on a weekend with Doug’s help. Then he would head back out for his regular job on Monday morning.

Friday Night found us staying with friends in the little town of Graham, 50 miles south of the logging road in.

Driving up that logging road at first light the next morning, in minus-30 cold, we already regretted that we had not left an hour earlier. By the time we got to our starting point it was 9:30, and that only left 7 hours of daylight to break trail up the river and across the various lakes to the cabin.

Oh well, it was only 20 miles, and even towing the sleigh, we thought we should have plenty of daylight left by the time we got to the cabin.

Yeah, right.

The first lake was just a short jaunt through the bush, but we struggled breaking trail for the heavy sleigh. We were glad to see the lake where the snow was not as deep. Immediately, though, we became stuck in slush, meaning that we had to unload the sleigh, get the machines out, push the sleigh back to good ice, rehook the sleigh, and follow the shoreline all of the way around to avoid anymore slushy conditions.

This worked out OK but chewed up a bunch of precious daylight.

When we got to the first portage, we were snookered again as we could not get the snow machines up the hill with the sleigh attached, even empty. So, once again, we unloaded and carried all of the freight over a quarter-mile portage. Then we had to push mightily to get the sleigh up the hill and finally to the top where we loaded it up again.

Now that we were on level ground, I optimistically told Doug, “It’s pretty much river travel from here, and no significant hills, so the fact that we have used up most of our daylight is not a big problem as I see it.”

Didn’t quite get that right, either.

Yes, the going was mostly level, but when we reached the river edge above the next portage, we were greeted by open water. We had to cut trail for another 500 feet along the bank before we found enough ice to get out on it again. At this point, the dog had disappeared, no doubt pursuing one of his favorite pastimes, chasing moose. I was not overly concerned, as he always reappeared when the game reached whatever conclusion it reached.

Now that we were back on flat (but thin) ice, we started to make some progress. However, as dusk turned to dark, it became apparent that the headlight on Doug’s snow machine was not working. After a brief consultation, we decided that Doug would lead and I would follow about 10 feet behind where my headlight would give him some light to see by. That worked OK until his sleigh shattered the ice and left a snowmobile-sized hole directly in front of me. I veered smartly up onto the rocky shoreline to avoid the hole, and this left Doug with no light. He stopped and peered back, saw where I was, and quickly deduced that he better hit the shore himself.

By then, it was pitch black, 30 below and falling. But the moon was rising, and the wind was calm. It was actually a lovely night. After another brief consultation, I took the lead and we continued to worm our way tight to the shoreline.

When we got to the next portage and rapids, we found the water open and the shoreline strewn with Volkswagen-sized boulders, and as far back as we could readily see, the bank was too steep to get a snow machine up and over. This time we were really stuck, and waiting out the night would make no difference. We decided that we should try an entirely different way the next day, which meant backtracking all of the way back to Graham to spend the night with friends again.

Going back was easy as we had trail broken, the slush had frozen, and the rest was downhill in the bush. Now, our only problem was the missing dog. When we got to where we last had seen Russ, we turned our engines off and called. He jumped out of a snow bank and came running. I don’t know what his plan would have been had we not turned back.

At the house late that night, we studied the map and decided that with an early start, we could cross the first lake, cut trail a mile through a spruce swamp to another tiny lake, break another 1/2-mile of trail to a larger lake, and from there, we should be able to use fisherman portages the rest of the way, as we would be near one of the fishing cabins I had spotted from the air during summer.

Everything pretty much went as planned the next day, but we were hacking our way through untracked and undiscovered bush, so, as usual, it took a little longer than expected. Finally, after hours of cutting trail, we made it to the larger lake just as the sun started dipping below the horizon. I was glad to be that far, but Doug informed me he had to go because he had to be at work the next morning. I understood. He faced a long snowmobile ride to his truck, followed by a 4-hour drive.

I, on the other hand, was in the middle of nowhere trying to get even farther into nowhere. However, I had a good idea where I was, and while I did not know where the portages might be, I was confident that there would be trails between the lakes.

We shook hands and wished each other luck as he departed. Then my dog and I headed into the fading twilight to find the 12-foot-by-12-foot cabin I had spotted 6 months before from the air.

Luck and perseverance were with us, and we rolled up to the log dock shortly after dark, none the worse for wear. The first mission was to crank up the chain saw, collect some firewood, and get the stove going.

As it turned out, beaver were non-existent in the northern portion of the line, but marten were as abundant as mice. They were worth good money in those years, too, so they became my primary target. I also caught a few otters.

But I was plagued by timber wolves that ate my fur and avoided capture with alarming ease. I stayed in there for the better part of two months with only a couple of forays out for more gasoline and supplies.

At the end of the season, Doug joined me for a sled-burning ceremony.

The following year, I was planning to go back, but before I got too far into the preparation stage, the old trapper who had the line right across the highway from my childhood home told me he wanted to retire.

I trapped that line for the next 20 years and never did check back on the wilderness trapline. But judging from my experiences, I suspect it was available the entire time.

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