It is 4:10 p.m., on December 9th, and it’s pitch dark and
-35° C in Dawson City, Yukon. With the busy hunting season behind me
now, I’ve just finished a month of paperwork, and I’m both pleased and
surprised as I realize that I’m actually running out of things to do in
the office – time to get back in the field! I start to pack my gear for
a trap line inspection patrol. I’ll leave in the morning.
From Dawson, it’s a 100-kilometre run by snow machine up
the Yukon River to Stewart Island at the mouth of the Stewart River.
The trip has become an annual patrol for Dawson COs and can take
anywhere from 4 to 12 hours depending on the ice conditions, with
overflow and jumbled ice forming the most significant obstacles. Today,
I hit the trail at 9:30 a.m., and it’s still dark. You have to get used
to operating by headlamp (and carry lots of batteries!) this time of
year. This year an early freeze-up has allowed people to get out on
snow machines so the trail has been broken and looks good – at least
for now. The trip takes officers through seven different trapping
concessions, although not all are very active. Some of the lines closer
to town are operated by weekend trappers who set out traps and run back
and forth from town once or twice a week to check them.
The trapping industry is managed differently amongst the
various western Canadian provinces and territories. Here in the Yukon,
trap lines are allocated on a concession basis. Concessions are granted
to both First Nation and non-native trappers alike. Commercial trapping
is not recognized as a subsistence harvesting right in the Yukon.
Generally speaking, a trapping concession is held by one person,
although in some cases, partnerships or community group memberships
have been granted. There are 365 trapping concessions in the Yukon and
the average concession size(excluding community group concessions) is
810 square kilometres. Within a concession, only the concession holder,
or any assistant trappers who they have signed on, have the exclusive
right to commercially harvest furbearers.
qualify for a trapping concession, one must be a Canadian citizen, at
least 16 years of age, live in the Yukon, and be eligible for a Yukon
resident hunting licence. In addition, Yukon trappers must have
graduated from a recognized trapper education workshop (trappers over
65 who have previously held a trapper’s licence are exempt). The Yukon
Trapper Education Workshop is a hands-on, five-day course that provides
instruction relating to trapping methods, skinning and fur handling,
furbearer biology and diseases, as well trap line management. The
workshop has its own instructor/coordinator, but the conservation
officers often assist in the delivery of the courses. It’s a chance for
COs to discuss the regulations, and also to meet
with the new prospective trappers.
Traper education workshop
At 11:00 a.m., it is light enough to see clearly. Dawn
will gradually transition to dusk, but I will not be seeing the sun
directly today. I stop for a cup of tea, turn off the machine, and
admire the silent, frozen world around me. I see a piece of pink
flagging tape hanging from a tree ahead and although it has warmed
up to -25° C now, I welcome the opportunity to stretch my legs and
circulate some blood while I walk over to the flagging. I find a foot
trail that leads into the forest, so I follow it a short ways and find
a marten box set in a tree. Nothing has been caught, but I inspect the
trap to ensure it is certified for marten trapping. I also check the
bait – edible portions of big game ungulates cannot be used in the
Yukon. In this case, the bait looks (and smells) like beaver meat which
is fine to use.
Compliance is generally
quite high amongst Yukon trappers, and for the most part, they are
happy to see us out on their lines instead of in our offices. Most
traps used now must be certified according to the Agreement on
International Humane Trapping Standards (AIHTS). Trap check periods in
the Yukon are five days for restraining traps and seven days for
killing traps. Of course, trapping seasons and quotas (where they
apply) are monitored as well.
Shortly after my break, I see skidoo headlights in the
distance. As they approach, I recognize the machine of a young local
trapper from Dawson who stops for a brief visit with me. He explains
that he hasn’t caught a lot of fur yet this season, but he was not
discouraged and he was clearly loving his time in the bush. He was
heading into Dawson to get some fresh groceries. His wife and one-year
old daughter were still out at the trapping cabin. They will spend a
couple of weeks there before returning to Dawson. There are two or
three trappers on this run who usually stay out on their lines for the
majority of the season. For them, trapping is still an important source
of income, but more importantly, it’s a lifestyle choice. The trapper I
will stay with tonight lives on his trap line year-round. He
captains a barge on the Yukon River during the summer for additional
income, but eagerly returns to his home in the bush as soon as he can.
He lives alone, but by choice.
market tends to be fairly volatile at the best of times. Fur prices are
up and down from one year to the next as they are influenced by a
number of complex factors including foreign economies, politics, and
winter temperatures in the primary consumer countries
such as China, Greece,and Russia. In 2013, the prices were at almost
record highs – for marten in particular. Trappers were averaging around
$180 to $200 per skin that winter, but the following year, prices
dropped to half of that and they haven’t recovered much.
The reason for the crash seems complicated, but is at
least partly due to a reduced market in China and Russia. Marten are
the bread and butter species or Yukon trappers. They are easy to catch,
easy to skin, and Yukon trap lines can sustain a relatively large
harvest. Keen trappers will regularly harvest over 100 marten per year.
Lynx are also valuable, bringing $125 to $225 each. Wolverine and wolf
are sold largely as taxidermy species and are generally worth $250 to
$500 each. Mink, otter, beaver, and muskrat are common aquatic fur
bearers, but they generally don’t contribute a lot financially.
The trapping industry may be struggling in much of Canada,
and parts of the Yukon included. We often hear that nobody is trapping
anymore, the fur prices are too low, the gas prices are too high, and
the kids are too addicted to screen time to get into the bush anymore
etc., etc. And for a while, that might have been the case around Dawson
City too, but I’m happy to say that there has been a definite
resurgence of trapping around here lately. There is currently a
waitlist of young people who are eager to acquire a trap line. Some
central Yukon lines have recently sold for twice as much money as they
were worth ten years ago.
fur-handling workshop was held in Dawson last week and it was sold out
as soon as it was advertised. A
bi-annual fur show is hosted here
that has been jam-packed in recent years. And what is most encouraging
is the number of 20 to 35 year olds who are getting involved and
investing a lot of time, money, and energy in trapping. I think Dawson
is starting to get recognised in the north as a bit of a “trapping
capital” now and has even caught the eye of the History Channel as
demonstrated by the new TV show “Klondike Trappers” … but, that’s a
whole other article.
Seven hours after
leaving town, I arrive at Stewart Island, a historic landmark from the
Klondike gold rush era. Robin Burian, a 68-year old trapper, greets
me at the door with a nod and a gruff sideways grunt, but a firm
handshake to go with it. He has lived there his entire life and has
trapped since he was a boy – never missing a season. He’s the real
deal. I admire the substantial collection of this season’s fur
hanging from his front porch before I enter the log cabin. Hot tea and
stew followed by a few nightcaps are interspersed with sporadic casual
conversation with the old timer that invariably reverts back to one
topic – trapping.
Stewart Island and home to long-time trapper Robin Burian
The next morning Robin serves up a big breakfast before I
seal his fur and he loads my toboggan up with bundles of pelts to be
shipped off to auction. He eagerly opens the mail and groceries that I
have brought from town.
A couple years
before, one of the officers even delivered his Christmas turkey! By
10:30 I’m fueled and loaded up again and
begin to make the trip back
home. It is easy going now with my fresh trail to follow from the day
before. Part way back, I encounter another trapper out checking his
line. He proudly displays a wolverine that he had just picked up. He
asks how his “neighbours” are making out this season and we talk shop
for a while before parting ways.
A few hours
later, I see the glow of town in the distance and I’m excited to get
home to see my family. Although it was only a two-day trip, it has been
enough to rekindle my spirit and remind me that I have one of the best
jobs in the world and the best district on earth.