Featured in the Sept/Oct 2007 Issue of Mushing Magazine:Part of the mystique of the trapper is the lonely life—a strange draw to the North that defines the adventurer. A month or two or a winter on the trap line, removed from all communication, and bounded by the limitless expanse of the Alaska wilderness, is the ritual demanded by the far away looking adventurer. “There I was, the freight sled stuck in overflow, alone, and no moon at minus 40 below,” is the preface to an authentic coffee table narrative. Who would think to say, “There I was, the freight sled stuck in overflow, no moon, at minus forty below. I hollered over to Billy, Tommy, and Slim, hey would you guys start a fire and dig out my fresh long underwear, socks, and spare bunny boots. Grab a towel, too. I think I got my left moccasin wet.” Loneliness is the mark of authenticity. Nothing else is acceptable in the lexicon of the trapper. The lore surrounding the lone trapper also includes a body of knowledge, which is essential to the experience. Take for example, safety. The lone trapper is adventurous, but also pragmatically conservative about everything from axes to bears.The experienced lone trapper treasures his Hudson Bay axe, for example. From time to time, he takes a matchstick out of the end of the handle and fills a drilled cavity with linseed oil to keep the wood strong and resilient. When clearing trail, the lone trapper always takes care using the axe, and usually chooses to use a Swede saw—it’s safer. After setting traps all day, the trapper sets up a wall tent at the trail’s end. The last chore is chopping wood, a chore done by the prudent trapper on his knees—taking no chance to drive an axe into his foot. Prudence is always the best strategy for the lone trapper, and commonly accepted at a rendezvous of the few who spend time in the woods by themselves.An old Indian trapper on the Yukon told me he had made a misjudgment and chopped wood with his short handled Hudson Bay axe, standing up, and did just that—cut his foot. Luckily, he was carrying a large ball of spruce pitch, a customary practice, and heated some on the camp stove. He closed the wound with the pitch, which is also a terrific antiseptic, and avoided infection. My trapping partner, the redoubtable Freddie Jordan, always had a supply of spruce pitch on hand in his sled.The art of conversation, after an extended time, for the lone trapper is a conundrum. How shall it be conducted—a conversation with yourself? Most lone trappers maintain that they never said a word on the line—except to their dogs—savoring the thought of conversation for the darkest days at Christmas, when the fur quits moving, and the lone trapper returns to the village. The trapper who chats with himself out loud has been in the woods a little too long.There is little to fear on the trap line except for miscalculations, say the veteran lone trappers. Anecdotes about the voices heard at night can usually be explained by bizarre radio reception on the metal stovepipe, and omens—the hooting owl at night, is only a product of imagination.Normally, the trap line is quiet, tranquil, and benevolent—the winter landscape is peacefully at sleep. Occasionally, however, a natural oddity confronts the equanimity of the lone trapper.I was traveling on a tributary of the Yukon setting traps. I had reached the end of the line, set up a wall tent and tied the dogs out on a gang line, each dog resting on a bed of black spruce bows. It was my usual practice to take my axe, Swede saw and some traps, and snowshoe out some more trail on the following day. Going out, the new trail is two snowshoes wide. Coming back to tent camp, the thoughtful trapper adds one more snowshoe to the trail—now three and wide enough for the tandem dogs and freight sled.The next day I could drive the dogs on the new trail, hopefully catch a few marten, and set my camp further up the trail, continuing to lengthen the line until I was out of dog food. On the last day, I could travel back on my trail to a trap line cabin on the Yukon, where I had a good cache of additional split salmon for dog food.In good marten country, it’s worth your while to put out a set every quarter mile, or until you cut a marten track, whichever comes first. It’s predictable work, no different than a factory job, except for the overwhelming solitary consciousness of the lone trapper.On this sojourn I was surprised to see a strange disturbance in the snow. It was human footprints in the snow, or so I thought. The tracks were as if a human was walking without snowshoes and taking short steps, in a pair of soft moccasins, in three feet of snow. Genuinely caught off guard, and not suspecting that there would be a human within fifty miles, I really started to look at the tracks. I could step in the tracks and it was like my twin walking. Short deliberate tracks, like a desperate man heading cross-country. An old story, about a murder at night in a village, was solved a year later when it was discovered the perpetrator had walked overland to the village, and then departed undiscovered, leaving the villagers to suspect their neighbor. No one imagined that the village had been infiltrated by an outsider, and only looked inward, reviving old suspicions, putting neighbor and families against each other. I was full of questions: what could the tracks be, and what did they signify?I was baffled. Then I remembered the old stories. Sure as hell, it has to be an ice bear, the legendary story of the bear, maybe an old desperate toothless curmudgeon who could not pack on enough weight during the summer and was wandering, sleepless, looking for a meal entered my mind and my imagination. Many Indian trappers, educated by extensive story telling, would absolutely abandon a trap line if an ice bear was discovered. Furthermore, it was said that a bear in winter was encased in frost and ice hanging like a curtain on their coat. Someone had tried to shoot an ice bear with a 30-30, the stories go, although nobody can remember when or who, and the bullets were deflected harmlessly—increasing the myth and invincibility of the ice bear.Contemplating this discovery, I walked back to camp to be near my 30-06. My dogs had spent summers on a fish camp and were veterans in the woods. They would know how to sound a bear alarm in the dark night. Determined to put out a few more traps before heading back to the Yukon, I went out the next day on my new trail and in an hour crossed the intersection of the ice bear tracks. It was one of those motionless 30 below days when your breath froze into the air like a still picture and the quiet was overwhelmed by the background buzzing of your ears—a silence so silent, you weren’t biologically set up to hear nothing.My 30-06 had been thoroughly cleaned with diesel to remove any oil, for a rifle will not function in the cold with remnant oil. The dirty firing pin, which should sharply click, hangs up and slowly “ker tunks” and the shell does not fire at thirty below. I had cleaned my rifle, but when you are alone on the trail, you double check it, dry fire the rifle, and listen for the “click.”A couple of hours later, in a stand of big white spruce, I heard a noise above the cacophony of my snowshoes breaking the crust of snow. I stopped and listened, trying to ignore my own breathing. Then, there it was, a kind of bark, followed by a short peculiar growl—both sounds I had never heard.Sure as heck, I was thinking, it’s that damn ice bear, and I really don’t want to see him. I wasn’t bird watching looking for a rare find for my life book. I was not on a safari to see big carnivores. Figuring I still had the advantage, I moved against a big spruce tree and tried to get a good view of the landscape. Again, a sharp bark resounded in the cold silence of the woods. I accepted inevitability, the bear was moving in my direction. Here followed an extended period of intense listening, silence, and expansive searching. What I thought was the distant sound of footfalls gradually became more distinct and I prepared for a sighting.Emerging from a patch of willows into the clearing of white spruce was a cow moose and her calf. She must have sensed my presence but could never figure out where I was in the dead silence. She would stop, the calf behind her, trying to wind in dead danger, and cough another bark. The two walked by, twenty yards from me, and I never let them know that a lone trapper was leaning against a spruce tree with a 30-06.Later, I learned that a cow will give a warning, almost like a cough, but I had never heard it until that time. I haven’t spent a record amount of time in the woods, but have put some time in, and I have never heard that sound a second time. My trapping partner, Freddie, was immeasurably moved by this story, and mulled it over in his mind, probably wishing he was there, because he had actually found bear dens. Usually, a bear will cleverly hole up just before a big snowstorm, which effectively camouflages their hideaway. Possibly, he thought, this bear eventually did go in and hibernate for the winter. Freddie, who always liked to attach meaning to events, usually outrageously humorous, catalogued this event in his mind and told me about his Grandmother. Her advice, to women at fish camp, who encountered the mischievous black bear, was to lift your skirt and say, “Shame on you bear, there’s only women and children here.” I don’t know if it worked, but Freddie’s mind and his considerable fascination with bears was contemplating all the angles.Later that winter I learned that others had seen the tracks of what was probably the same ice bear. I stayed on my trap line the rest of the winter, and never crossed his tracks again, although I thought about it.Meanwhile, I knew that Tom Fogg, a dedicated lone trapper, was up on the headwaters of the Tozi River marten trapping. Certainly, in a chance encounter, or a quick trip to the village for supplies, the story of the ice bear entered the consciousness of Tom. We’ll never know for sure, since the mind of the lone trapper is safely guarded.However, in early spring, on one of these supply trips to the village, his main trapping cabin was left empty. Tom was fairly predictable: One day travel in with an empty sled. One day to drink coffee and BS with the locals and other lone trappers who might be off the trap line. One day to concentrate on a re-supply mission at the Northern Commercial store, check the mail, and pack the sled. The following day, usually late in the morning, is a scheduled departure. Arrival back in camp is predictably in the dark. After bedding the dogs down, Tom would go in and start a fire. Next, Tom would probably go over to his neatly stacked pile of firewood, using only the twilight and the light of the cabin lamp, and bring in some more fuel for the night.This provided his neighbors living ten miles downriver, a minimum window of three full days to further promote the myth of the ice bear. Conveniently, a recently harvested bear carcass was available for transport to Tom’s cabin. The bears head and torso was draped over the wood pile in a menacing posture, maintained by a durable rigor mortis.Only the imagination can safely determine the outcome when Tom went to the woodpile. Tom would not reveal, under intense interrogation that persisted for years, what actually occurred on that evening return to his cabin. My trapping partner, Freddie, who always saw meaning in events, observed that Tom probably didn’t have time to think about lifting his skirt when he went out to the woodpile that night.Joe Runyan lives in Cliff, New Mexico and guides and outfits in the Gila Wilderness. He has officiated sled dog races in Europe, S. and N. America. Winner of Iditarod, Yukon Quest, and Alpirod, he now provides commentary and writes mushing, outdoor, and hunting articles. Runyan’s Winning Strategies for Distance Mushers (1997) is available from the author. Contact Joe at email@example.com.
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