Traps came with the fur traders. Steel jaws are held open by a mechanism, and are shut by a spring, when a trigger is disturbed, as when an animal steps on the trigger, or eats the bait that has been carefully placed. These traps come in sizes for catching the tiny weasel to the huge bear. To keep the animal from getting away, a chain is fastened either to a stake, sapling, or even a huge log.
The trap must be boiled, smoked or smeared with fresh blood to disguise the man-smell. This is a job that must be done before the trapper sets out to make all the “sets” on his trap-line at the beginning of the season. Many trappers carry a dual-purpose concoction to help disguise the man-scent and/or to lure an animal to investigate the scent. Most of the experienced trappers had their own secret formula for various animals, based on their own observations, often on superstition, or on Indians’ “dreams.” Almost anything can go into them – oil of cinnamon, nutmeg or anise, rotten fish, animal urine, blood, and often the castoreum of the beaver – the musky, penetrating oil from a pair of scent glands near the tail, akin to those of the skunk.
The trap is never set with the bare hand. After setting the trap, the man covers it lightly with snow as carefully as possible, and brushes his tracks lightly with a branch.
After the animals are caught they are skinned, usually in the trapper’s cabin or night camp. The smaller animals are “cased.” The skin is cut from hind paw to hind paw up the leg, below the tail. Then the skin is taken off like a glove. The trapper must have prepared flat pieces of wood of the appropriate size and shape on which to dry the skin. Larger skins are opened out flat and stretched by sewing them to a rectangular frame of wood. Beavers are usually stretched on a circular frame of some pliable green wood.
There was a great deal to do when a man first started his trap line, besides building himself a series of shelters a day’s hike apart on the route he chose to follow on his walks, to inspect his sets.
Obviously, in freezing weather he had to carry the carcasses home for skinning – no easy job when floundering on snowshoes in deep snow. It was necessary to inspect the traps frequently, before scavengers found the victims, and also to free the trap for another catch. The last job, as spring approached, was to pick up the traps or hang them up on trees. Trap robbing by an intruder was almost equal to murder in the Indian trapper’s book of crime.
The Indians were not all good trappers, although Mackenzie spoke very highly of the Indians around Fort Fork during his stay there, in the late 1700’s. He said that “their exercise in that capacity is so violent as to reduce them in general to a very meager appearance.” In other words, they wore themselves out trapping. One wonders how he motivated them to work for him, whereas Simpson could only call them “miserable,” “wretched bad,” and unable to “benefit the company” (the Hudson’s Bay) to which he was utterly devoted. Probably it simply notes the deterioration in the Indians’ culture after a few years of the Nor’westers’ more potent rum. More likely, the Indian’s natural aversion for possessing “things” gave him little incentive to carry on the incredibly hard winter work after he obtained his gun, steel knife and the hand-me-down clothes sent out from England. The woman, on the other hand, wanted blankets, thread, beads and cloth, after she obtained her cooking pot. Perhaps Simpson’s trappers lacked incentive.
After forty to fifty years of contact with the traders, the Indians were shrewd enough to know that the Company was obliged to keep them alive if they were to get any furs at all.
An example of the Indians’ honesty and respect for property on the trap line was told by Mr. George Hunter, one of the earliest white trappers around Fort Nelson in the late 1920’s. At that time there were no registered trap lines in that area. Men’s “lines” were arranged by mutual agreement. The Slavey Indians were then almost untouched by white influence.
Mr. Hunter reported that on many occasions he found that Indians had crossed his line, found an animal in a trap, taken it out and hung it out of the way of wolverines or other carnivores, and reset his trap for him. By unwritten law, they respected the white man as they did their own people.