I’m glad spring is almost here. It was a tough winter. I almost got lost in a blizzard trying to find my car in the Walmart parking lot.
In the delta, March meant one thing—muskrat trapping season was open. And trapped muskrat pelts fetched damned near $2.50 apiece back in 1976. There was good money to be made. Since my older brother had joined the RCMP and moved away, I had to fill in his shoes as my dad’s right-hand man. I couldn’t wait for March 1 cause he’d take me out of school for two weeks to help him trap.
The beginning of March was the best time to trap muskrats because their pelts were in prime shape. “Prime rats” brought the best prices. We would trap for two weeks straight, often sleeping overnight in a tent, and only back to the main cabin every few days to skin and stretch our muskrats. After two weeks of non-stop trapping, we would trap from town on the weekends until the third week in April, when the muskrat houses would “drop.” Muskrats live in what we call “push-ups.” They dot the lakes throughout the delta. And that’s how you trap a muskrat, by setting the trap inside his “push-up.” You could tell a good lake by how many push-ups it had. And when the weather got hotter, the houses would “drop” into the lake.
At the end of April, we’d shop around town for the best prices. Slim Semmler ran a trading post and had at least 50 per cent of the fur business. Slim used to grubstake the local trappers and, by doing so, gained their loyalty. He was also married to my mother’s aunt and we were raised with his grandchildren. He’d also been in the country since the ‘30’s and everyone knew Slim as a fair man. There were other independent fur buyers, plus the local Hudson’s Bay Store. We usually ended up selling to Slim out of loyalty and family history.
My dad would then stock up on more gas and grub to get ready for “shooting season,” when we would shoot muskrats after the ice left mid-May. “Shot rats” didn’t fetch as much as trapped ones, but when you got 2,500 of them, at $1.50 apiece, it adds up.
Since muskrats live in lakes, all our hunting was done in and around the hundreds of lakes in our traditional trapping area. And in the spring, the entire delta would flood. What used to be “dry” lakes, and “dry” creeks suddenly became links to one another. You could actually drive your boat over areas that were usually dry land. There were endless possibilities to travel throughout the water system. My dad knew every shortcut, portage, and dry creek within 30 miles of our hunting cabin. After a while, I got pretty good at learning the land.
Every family had their own “country” and there was an unwritten rule that you didn’t hunt in other people’s “country,” even if they weren’t hunting that spring. That allowed the muskrat population to grow for the next season. But over time, if a guy abandoned his “country,” then it was open country. If you didn’t “clean out” a country every few years, the muskrats would overpopulate and die from disease or would eat themselves out of willow shoots. There were only so many to go around.
When my cousins and I got older, we’d go hunting on our own. By then, families had moved off the land and there was lots of “open country” that we liked to explore. And explore we did, sometimes going so deep into the lake systems that we’d actually get lost and would take several hours, and gallons of precious gasoline, to get out. But our parents never worried about us. Nowadays if your kid misses the bus, there’s an amber alert.
I remember one spring we left on a hunting trip after school on Friday with nothing more than a teapot, some bannock and a couple of cans of Klik. We shot fat ducks and roasted them over the fire for supper. We hunted all night and slept out in the open the next day. Then more hunting around the clock. We were deep into the lake systems when the river ice broke and the river began to “run,” which meant the river was a flowing stream of broken jumble ice. It was Sunday night and we had to go back to school the next day. The only way to cross the river was to pull our boat over the broken chunks of ice, falling through every few minutes and clinging to the side of the boat till you could pull yourself back in. It was actually a game for us. We had no fear.
I remember walking into the house carrying five gunny sacks with a hundred shot rats and just looking like hell. My mom yelled at me to jump in the shower and quit slopping my wet socks and pants all over the place. She knew we were safer out in the delta than some of our friends who’d spent the weekend in town all night drinking parties.
So enjoy spring and don’t forget about all the old trappers who used to make a living trapping “rats” for a living during this time.