For an excellent description of the work involved, the book Hunters of the Northern Forest by Richard K. Nelson is a thoroughly researched and scientifically studied source in a very readable form. The author learned the techniques himself from the Athapaskan Kutchins. He summed up his apprenticeship saying; “One never realizes how little he knows until someone says, “Now you try it.” Or in quoting an old trapper who said that all of this life he had been studying the beavers. “Finally when I know enough about them”, he says, “I am too old to trap!” The underwater animals were too unreliable to rely on for food. Two or three days waiting to catch something as small as a beaver to be shared with a whole band was reasonable only in time of starvation, or when the rabbit cycle was low.
In fact, only an extremely eccentric Indian would voluntarily trap when he could hunt bigger game. It was much more reasonable, if necessary, to dig a bear out of a den than to take small underwater game for his own food.
The Northern Athapaskans outside of the caribou limits and beyond the buffalo still make use of beaver, muskrat and lynx.
Beaver trapping (or snaring, in the old way) required an extraordinary amount of effort for an Indian who was not particularly interested in the meat. Beaver houses are not always out in the open and easy to see, often being built against a steep bank. In any case the Indian would have seen most of them during open water time. The problem, after freeze up, was to locate the feed pile of sticks stored under water and ice, together with whatever snow had fallen on it. The under-ice tunnels from the lodge to the feed pile often angled out from one side or the other of the lodge, or took a somewhat indirect route to the storage pile. The pile itself might be twenty feet long and almost as wide, thus requiring a considerable distance to be probed or sounded. All tunnels had to be found to prevent the animals’ escape down a free one. Snow had to be shoveled off a large area, and the ice examined for tiny air bubbles which gave it a whitish look. Striking the ice with a pole might cause a barely perceptible difference in sound over a runway. Ice over a runway tended to be not more than twelve inches thick and even less if snow covered. If the Indian found ice over twelve inches thick, he knew he must go on probing. On the other hand if the ice broke and a whoosh of air came out he knew he had found a runway. With a long curved stick he had to probe it to ascertain direction, width, and any impediments to snare or trap. Now a hole was chopped over the runway. In the old days before they used snares, they would block the runway with poles stuck into the mud to prevent the animals’ escape. Then they would use a stone hammer to chop a hole through snow, ice and logs in the top of the lodge to spear the animals inside.
Later the white men taught them to use snares, placed in the runways, still later to use steel traps. After setting all runways, the trapper shoveled snow onto the water in the opening. On foot, an Indian could set only two or at most three lodges in a day, often with long walks between them.
On the first setting the lodge was generally visited on the evening of the same day. The snow was removed, ice chiseled out, slush cleaned away and the snare or trap lifted. If a thirty to fifty pound beaver had been caught, it must be pulled up and “dried” in the powder snow a foot or so below the surface. The snare or trap must be reset, the hole covered again, and the dead beaver shouldered or sledged back to the Indian’s camp. If he were lucky enough to get two or more beaver, so much the more to carry.
If, after blocking the runways, he decided to chop through the top of the lodge, he might have several animals to haul out and carry away before scavengers got at them. The Indian was “luckier” than the average white trapper was, since his wife skinned out and stretched the hide after the carcass thawed out in the tipi.
When other pelts became as valuable as “made beaver,” the animal was usually frozen when found in the snare or trap. Carrying a number of these rigid bodies was awkward and difficult.
One suspects that the women drove the men out to the traps and snares, to trade pelts with the white men for things she wanted, especially after the Hudson’s Bay Company’s rationing of their rum replaced the Northwester’s potent – and sometimes semi-lethal regale. In weather when the temperature often dropped to minus forty or more degrees, and the wind blew sharp in the long winter nights, it is amazing that the Indian exerted himself at all. This is especially true when he considered the animals to be his brothers, and, like him, the children of the Great Spirit who must be told why he needed to take their lives.
Thus trapping, in the beginning, was alien to a human being not conditioned to the “work ethic”. As well, it must have had disturbing psychological effects. As late as the early 1900’s Dr. Pliny Earle Goddard quoted a sick Indian who attributed his suffering to his having needlessly burned to death some wolf cubs in their den.