RENDEZVOUS IN THE BUSH: TRAPPING & TOURING IN NORTHERN ONTARIO

“Borealis Kennel” The small sign reveals that we arrived at our destination. We had driven nearly 1000 miles in our dog bus to visit our mushing friend, Burton Penner, in Vermillion Bay, Ontario. But as it turns out, our journey isn’t over yet. Burton is not at home. All we find is a note pinned to his door and a map showing us the location of his trap line cabin where he spends the weekend with his kids, friends and – of course- the dogs. Tired, but excited to meet Burton we hook up our two small dog teams for the 12-mile run to Burton’s second home, a cozy log cabin in the midst of the rugged shield country of Northern Ontario. The route leads us across wind drifted lakes, follows a windy creek, and passes by high cliffs with ancient rock paintings. The trail Burton had traveled on just a few hours before us is blown over, so the dogs have to break their own trail, while I am trying my best to navigate them. It takes us about two hours, ploughing through the snow, before a concert of barking dogs announces our arrival. We pull our two teams up the steep trail and find Burton’s camp on a hilly peninsula overlooking Highstone Lake. Before we have our snow hooks stomped in the ground, Burton comes to greet us with a friendly smile. “You found it alright?” he asks. I nod quickly, thinking secretly about the little “side trip” we had made into one of the bays on Clearwater Lake in search of the last portage. “I am glad you could come out here. I always like to rendezvous in the bush. Come inside. There’s hot soup and tea.”While I am sipping my tea and meeting Burton’s children and friends, the words “rendezvous in the bush” keep coming back to my mind. It reminds me of the voyager stories from the “olden days.” But strangely enough it doesn’t feel out of place. Burton is leaning against the rustic cabin door wearing a hand-knitted pullover with traditional native designs and old fashioned wool pants that remind me painfully at the itchy times when I was forced to wear wool skirts as a little girl. A beaver pelt stretched in the traditional way on a round willow frame is hanging from the ceiling next to a wooden marten fur stretcher. When the dogs outside start one of their hauling sessions, I feel pleasantly set back in time. Leading a traditional life-style has been Burton’s dream as long as he can remember. When the teachers asked the 5-year old Burton, what he would like to be once he is grown-up, his answer always came without hesitation: “I’m just gonna be a trapper.” ‘He will grow out of it,’ they thought, and still believed it when Burton, now 10-years old, rushed home from school – not to do his homework, but to check his traps that he had set up all over the private land of his neighborhood. Nobody had expected that his childhood dream would once become his livelihood. At 21 years old he started running his own registered trap line. The first three winters he spent living in a small log cabin that now stands behind his main cabin. Every log was cut and hauled to the building site, where the young trapper peeled the logs, scribed the notches and fitted them tightly together by accurate chainsaw work. From the carved windowsill to the wooden door hinges, one can see Burton’s love to work with the wood that the land provides him with. The first year on the trap line Burton felt close to the life he had dreamed of as a young boy – close, but not close enough. Intrigued by his interest in traditional transportation, Burton had learned how to build snowshoes and made his own cedar strip and canvas canoe. What was missing was a dog team. In his first year on the trap line he had two dogs that kept him company, in his second year five were living with him – his first dog team. “When you go out by snowmobile it’s all about a destination. You just want to get somewhere. If you travel by dog team, it’s about the journey itself,” Burton explains. “You experience the trail, see your dogs travel through the land and see what pokes their interest. They might pick up on a fresh set of tracks or speed up going around a bend in the creek.” For Burton, it is the feeling of freedom that this life-style offers him. “It’s all about being out there. If you are trapping you are out there on your own, you depend on the land and on the weather and you are with the dogs that you really admire.” Burton had become what he had dreamed of: A full time trapper. But his dream was endangered. When the fur market crashed in 1988, making a livelihood as a trapper became unrealistic. With the same determination as the 5-year old boy, Burton fought for his dream. When he heard about adventure companies taking people on dog sledding trips, Burton saw a flame of hope to maintain his life-style. Burton’s admiration for the land, the wildlife, the traditional way of transportation, the dogs themselves and the joy to share his experience with others led to “Borealis Sled Dog Adventures,” which he has been running successfully for nearly 20 years. Burton takes people on trips along the ancient routes used by Ojibway hunters and trappers around Vermillion Bay, or as far as the Arctic Coast. The wilderness experience is the main focus of his trips. “When you are out on the trail, time stops. You live moment by moment. The only thing that is on your mind, is where your next camp is going to be and that your dogs are looked after. You are more sure about what you need to do and what you are about. Seems like, you get close to home and you are already thinking two, three days even weeks ahead.” And of course Burton wouldn’t be Burton if he didn’t offer a unique trap line experience by dog team to interested customers. Each year a group of students from the Pelican Falls First Nations High School come on a 3 day excursion to learn about setting and checking traps, skinning animals, looking after the fur and traveling by dog team. A weekend in the bush is not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea, and of the thirteen students planned only five show up with their two teachers and school elder. Burton’s trapper friend Jim and former musher Dwight follow the train of 8 dog teams by snowmobile in case some one would lose a team. When we get to the windy creek it is not a question of ‘in case’ someone loses a team, but more who loses it next. I always had the suspicion dogs make a sport of speeding up before the corner, running flat out around the corner and then turning to look back if the musher is still on the runners. This trip was the proof. While I am following the rookie teams, I can see many smiling dog faces taking off once they got rid of the extra load. Luckily, they are all safely recovered. Towards the mouth of the creek Burton had previously set up a beaver trap and now stops to check the traps. The dog teams are all strung out nice and resting, knowing the routine of stopping, checking traps and going again. All but ours. Piranha thinks it is social time. Even though she hadn’t worked all that hard while we were running, now she is trying to pull to the team ahead, happily barking. Bear, who never minds a good barking, although he barely seems to know what he is barking about, joins in, while Pompey marks the creek grass until he runs out of pee. While we try to teach our dogs to behave like trap line dogs, Burton, Jim and Dwight pull out the traps from under the ice. I can see there is a beaver in two of the traps, although I have no clue how they got in there in the first place. The next morning I get an idea of how to set a beaver trap. Burton and the elder, Patty, take a small group of us to set up a beaver house, while Jim shows the other half of the group how to set up lynx snares. The dogs rest until the afternoon, before they are hooked up to carry firewood with the sleds. “This is a messy beaver house.” Burton shakes his head. He had chiseled two holes in the ice where he suspects the two entrances, one to the feeding bed, the other one to the ‘garbage dump.’ Sticks stick out everywhere and he finally gets the chainsaw to open up a channel where he will set his traps. “If it wasn’t for the group I am showing this to, I wouldn’t bother with this house,” he says and laughs. “Too much work.” The two girls in our group probably couldn’t agree more. Both are lying in the snow, eyes closed and resting from the hardship of dragging a spruce tree about the size of a Christmas tree the few hundred yards across the bay. When the traps are set, the boughs of the tree will be used for closing up the open channel and then covered with snow. “Do you ever catch anything else in the beaver traps?” asks one of the teachers. “Sometimes a muskrat,” answers Burton. “Some muskrats live with beavers in the same house. In the Ojibwa legend the muskrat is the old brother of the beaver, right Patty?” – “That’s right,” the elder nods. “The beaver is just the young punk.” When the traps are set and chores in the camp are attended to, Patty invites everyone to fresh bannock fried over the fire. He has found a nice fire spot, close by a rock face and everyone gathers around the fire. While Patty mixes the dough, he tells campfire stories about the time when he himself went out trapping with his dogs. He would snowshoe ahead while his two dogs pulled a small toboggan with his gear and traps on the way out and the furs on the way back. The students warm up by the fire and everyone seems to enjoy this part of a trapper’s life. In fact, Jeremy, the only male student, already dreads that he will have to leave tomorrow. He enjoyed spending time with the dogs and became attached to his two wheel dogs. He would have liked to learn more about trapping and continue to listen to the many stories that Patty, Jim and Burton told him about their adventures and experiences of being out in the wilderness. “What does your wife say about you spending so much time in the bush?” someone asks Burton. “She always asks what time I will be home. But, ‘A promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code,’” Burton recites the lines of Robert Service. And his kids? When we arrive back at his home, one thing is quite obvious: All three of them love having puppies around. Burton’s 8-year old daughter Arielle greets him with a, “Dad, was it okay to bring the puppies inside the house?” His 13-year old son Forrest likes to take his dad’s trap line dogs to local sprint races, and his 12-year old son Rainier enjoys spending time with his dad on the trail riding in the basket. And although his wife Carlyn hasn’t been out with the dogs for quite a while, she will never forget her first trip by dog team, since that trip was one of her very first dates with Burton. After the school group left, Burton shows us around his shop. A steamer is standing in the middle of the room, handlebars and brush bows are clamped on jigs, and wood is stored under the ceiling. But there is one thing that catches my eye immediately: along side the walls Burton’s paintings are stored. He has captured on canvas what I had seen flashing by my inner eye in quick visions this last week out in the bush with him – the life of the past brought back into existence through his deep admiration of the relationship between men and creation in the olden days. To find out more about “Borealis Sled Dog Adventures,” or to visit Burton Penner’s online gallery see www.canada-dogsled.comMiriam Körner is a freelance writer and photographer. She lives with her sled dogs at Potato Lake, Saskatchewan and guides dog sledding and canoeing adventures for “Paws’n’Paddles Wilderness Tours.” She ran the Hudson Bay Quest in 2006 and followed this year’s Quest by bombardier as a photographer.

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