I wrote the following column in the late 1980s about a friend I’d met who was one of the last of his breed, Herman Peterson. The lines still remind me of this kind of life that is disappearing from the North Country.
The Old Trapper, the last season
Written in memory of Herman Peterson-Pine River, Minn.
The old trapper sliced his way through the thick hazel brush and diamond willow swale. Breathing heavily from dragging his traps and beaver hides, he found an old, half decayed white pine stump and sat down to catch his 82-year-old breath. The traps were heavy and carrying three full size beaver pelts added to his burden.
Sleet could be heard pelting its way through the overhead canopy of birch and jackpine branches and a raw northeast wind was foretelling a coming storm. The old trapper squinted into the wind and listened as the wind moved from one beaver pond to the next.
He packed a new supply of tobacco into his worn black pipe. A flock of late-staying mallards whistled their way into the flooded forest behind him and he could hear the hens quacking their approval of the nightly resting site. The drakes were quiet this time of year.
Beaver trapping had always been a way of life for the old man. Modern days didn’t demand that he keep at it, but welfare wasn’t his cup of tea. Standing in line, waiting for some uncaring person to give him a check went against his grain.
Beaver trapping, though it was no longer as lucrative as in the past, still gave him his self-respect and maintained his dignity. That was important to him.
A pileated woodpecker came bouncing through the woods and stopped to knock holes in a dead poplar tree near the swamp. The old trapper never tired of watching the wildlife that frequented the same territory as he. He had watched otter, fisher and even timber wolves playing and hunting in their natural environment.
He wondered why people would even consider visiting a zoo when they could see the real thing right here.
He stared at his traps, as he sat there. He knew that now many people were expressing their objections to his occupation. He wondered why. He had never wasted an animal and his knowledge of animals and trapping made him avoid making an animal suffer, if at all possible. He always left some for seed, and, in fact, there were many more beaver now than when he was a boy.
It angered him to think that some so-called trappers had made a bad name for him. Had those who opposed his trade ever been in the woods? He wondered.
The wind was becoming stronger now and the sweat that had accumulated under his red, wool mackinaw jacket was sending a chill down the old trapper’s back. As he stood to throw the traps over his shoulder, he felt a sharp pain in his chest and he had to rest a bit before it subsided.
It was late fall and going into winter and he wondered if he would be back here again. He breathed in a deep gusher of the heavy, fall-scented northern air and moved on toward the logging trail to the south.
It would be his last catch. There would be no more like him coming down this trail. An era was about to end. The forest was quiet, almost reverent as he walked the narrow trail out and away from the beaver pond.
See you next time. Okay?