Few things stay the same over the course of 500 years, but fur trapping hasn’t strayed too far from its roots. That’s apart from the fact that people now wear fur for high fashion rather than the basic necessity of staying warm.
And while trapping equipment has evolved a little, the actual act of trapping a wild animal hasn’t. Figuring out a good location, setting the trap and applying a scent to make it attractive to a particular animal is knowledge that gets passed down from father to son or trapper to trapper and because of that, the story has stayed pretty much the same.
So, over the course of two winters, I learnt to become a fur trapper. A bad one. A trapper that showed enthusiasm and a passion to get out into the great outdoors but who couldn’t catch anything himself. To the trappers I was useless, an oddity and a bit of a laughing stock but while I couldn’t capture animals, I could capture the activity of the trappers and I was good at that.
I’d prepared for this assignment in the same way I do each time when I go into the field. I serviced my camera kit, sourced extra batteries and bought external hard drives, which I can copy and safely store hours of footage on. I’d also done my research on the industry; joined trapping forums, subscribed to relevant journals and publications and created my cover story. I was as ready as I could be.
There are a number of different types of trap used to capture wild animals in North America. One of these is the leg-hold trap. This trap - also known as a foot-hold trap - has hefty springs, a metal foot plate and powerful steel jaws, which slam shut onto an animal’s leg once it's been triggered. They can easily break a leg and have been banned in the UK since 1958, a little later across the whole of Europe and across the world in over 100 countries. However, they remain a fur trapper’s favourite this side of the Atlantic.
I used the fact that they had been banned in many countries as the foundation for my cover story. I started hanging out at the trapping supply stores, waiting for trappers to arrive with both pelts and a shopping list of what they needed to keep their trapping lines active. While I waited, I would make small talk with the owners. I’d tell them about how I always had a fascination for the world of the fur trapper. First as a child when I read books about legendary frontiersmen like Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett or Jedediah Smith and now in later life when I wanted to experience it for myself. Given it was frowned upon in Europe I told them I had to travel here, to the birthplace of fur trapping, if my dream to trap was to become a reality.
The owners liked what they were hearing and, because their clientele were regulars, offered to hook me up. When a trapper came in they would ask them to take ‘the Brit’ out on a trapping excursion. This was definitely a good tactic and one I repeated across a few supply stores in different states and provinces to help build and then maintain these unusual relationships.
But my first ‘placement’ didn’t start out well. The first group of trappers I met were part-timers who worked the night shift at a maximum security prison. They then trapped together in daylight hours. Hunting as a pack, they rode quad bikes through deep snow in camo-clothing most days so they could check a long line of traps they had buried across field and forest.
They were loud and they were mean. I felt sorry for the prison inmates whose care they were under, let alone the animals they hunted. In fact, I wouldn’t want them as my worst enemy. They were a tight-knit group; constantly suspicious and maybe a bit too savvy as a starting point for me on this project. While they were supposedly on the right side of the law, I sensed they were dangerous and early on deemed the risk too high to stay on to document them.
Instead, I ended up with Brad and Joe or ‘America’s worst trappers’ as I remember them. It was through trapping with them that I learnt how to make a hash of everything. These guys couldn’t catch a cold let alone a wild animal, so while in one sense they were perfect for me to learn how to make a trap look good but fail to operate, they weren’t much good from an evidence gathering-perspective. Brad had recently been released from prison. He had shot a man and was still under some jurisdiction, which meant his firearms were locked away at the local police station. I was happy about that, but it was also a reminder that trappers can be violent to people, as well as animals, and that I should keep my wits about me. Joe wasn’t particularly bright and followed Brad about like a little puppy, even though he happened to hate little puppies or anything furry for that matter.
I’d meet them each morning in a Walmart car park. It was my suggestion so I could keep them off the scent of where I was staying; a dirty, flea-infested motel which had more wildlife inside it than I saw in an entire week trapping with these two.
From Walmart, we’d head out to the various locations where the traps were set. Parking Brad’s supersized truck on gravel tracks, we’d march in unison across boggy marshes to inspect beaver traps. Each time we returned to the traps we would find them as we left them the day before - empty. Gnawed down sticks littered the immediate area, a sure sign the beavers were close but not close enough to earn Brad and Joe fifteen dollars for a pelt. They could easily outsmart Brad and Joe. I admired everything about them. (The beavers, not America’s worst.) They built incredible lodges, created environmentally sensitive waterways and kept nature in check - in a good way.
The closest we got to a capture was a little bundle of squirrel fur that was hanging by a thread between the closed jaws of the leg hold. A lucky escape. Brad and Joe weren’t too bothered as they’d get very little money for the time needed to skin such a small animal.
After a week of this I moved on. I kept the contact with Brad and Joe open, just in case I needed to return but I headed back east a few hundred miles to a set-up that was far more professional.