Love and Trapping in the Yukon

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trapping in the Yukon with Vanessa and George
George and I want a strong future for trapping in the Yukon. Photo: Erik Pinkerton Photography.

Let me tell you first that a life of trapping in the Yukon was never something I’d intended. In fact, when my future mother-in-law wagged her finger at me, scolding me for my lack of skinning skills, I assured her that they wouldn’t be needed as I had no intention of becoming a trapper. Famous last words.

It all started out with me trying to be a supportive and interested girlfriend. At first, I would join George on weeknights in the skinning garage. We’d both put on matching blue gloves, and I’d help a little by clipping lynx claws and keeping body parts stable while he carefully skinned out whichever fur needed processing. Turns out it’s much faster to process a fur when you have four hands! After three years of working together on those cold, dark, late winter evenings in the garage, we’ve established a fairly efficient method of skinning together – and we’ve learned a lot about each other too.

In 2018, I opened a store in Whitehorse to sell the jewelry, accessories, and home decor items that I make with the furs from George’s trapline. After receiving questions about the trapline location and methods, I realized that I needed to be able to speak from first-hand experience, especially when it came to my customers’ objections or just curiosity.

It’s magical out there, especially on the nights when the moon is full and the sky is clear.

So the same winter that I opened the store, I took my first trip out on the trapline, and I quickly discovered that I’d be put to work and not just watching. Before long, I had managed to inadvertently become George’s trapping assistant. I think this was his plan all along.

SEE ALSO: Fur jeweller wants to support First Nations trappers. Truth About Fur.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike being out on the land in the winter, but I didn’t wake up one morning and think to myself, “I want to be a trapper!” Also, I hate driving a snowmobile. I’m little. I’m 5’ 4” and 140 lbs. Me vs. the Skandic 600ACE usually goes one way. We get stuck. I get mad. George has to rescue us.

Despite knowing this, I go out with him almost every weekend after the Christmas shopping season wraps up. In January and February, I’m the caboose to our two-sled convoy through often-drifted-in mountain passes in the dark. My anxiety can be a little high if we have to break trail, or if he gets so far ahead of me that I can’t see his tail light, but I will admit, it’s magical out there, especially on the nights when the moon is full and the sky is clear. Shooting stars are so frequent they almost stop being exciting.

Reading Tracks, Stolen Bait, and Roasted Smokies

fur hood trim keeps trappers warm
Trapping in the Yukon means fur-trimmed hoods. They really work!

Trapping is some of the most physically challenging work I’ve ever done, but I can’t overstate how much value I get from it as an artist, a resident of this incredible place, as a spouse, and as a business person. My personal and professional ethics are cemented in this work, specifically in the context of sustainability, renewability, and traceability.

SEE ALSO: The sustainability of fur. Truth About Fur.

Living in the North is an absolute gift, and seeing it in the winter, when you’re the only humans around for miles upon miles, is humbling and awe-inspiring. For my relationship with George, well, let’s just say we got engaged at the trapping cabin because of how much that place means to us.

In the three winters that I’ve joined my now-husband on the trapline, I have learned so much about reading tracks, solving the puzzle of stolen bait, what makes a good lynx or marten site, and so much more. I learned that if you snare a lynx but collect the dead animal before it freezes, the air in its lungs may be squeezed out with an alarming groan when you lift it. I scream every time!

I give George many reasons to laugh, though I don’t always know whether he’s laughing with me or at me. I’ve learned that smokies (sausage-like wieners) roasted over a fire make the best trail lunches, and how to consistently build quick lunch fires with the available tinder. Also, my ability to find the perfect stick to roast my smokie on is pretty fantastic. So is my ability to whittle that stick to an impressive point, ideal for impaling smokies. I’ve learned that handle bar warmers on snowmobiles give me life, and I wish that I had something similar in my seat. I’ve learned that when I do get my sled stuck and I’m super mad about it, I’m a very strong and powerful shoveler.

Design and Innovation Award

fur jewelry in Whitehorse, Yukon
An award from the Craft Council of BC has created many opportunities to speak about wild fur.

In February of this year, I attended the five-day trapper training course organised by the Yukon Department of Environment. This was a great experience for me – except maybe for the practical trap-setting bit that took place at -40°, but I digress.

In the skinning portion of the course, I was able to process my own lynx from our trapline. Additionally, I was able to lead a portion of the course by contributing insights into the business of selling furs and fur goods.

This upcoming October 2020 marks the second anniversary of our store in Whitehorse. In May, I was awarded the Design and Innovation award from the Craft Council of BC for three of my designs. I was competing against 60 other earring designers and nearly 200 styles. My earrings were the only ones using fur.

This news came at a great time considering the challenges and uncertainty of the current economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. The award has created numerous opportunities in both print media and on social media for us to speak about the ethical and sustainable use of wild furs.

We know that we’ve got our work cut out for us in having created a product that people often feel very strongly about, but we understand our responsibility to use this polarizing issue as a springboard into meaningful conversations on a public, global stage. We often direct curious minds to the Truth About Fur website for information about furs, harvesting practices, and other ethical and moral matters. The content is a valuable part of how we educate and inform consumers.

SEE ALSO: The ethics of fur. Truth About Fur.

Importance of Education

Yukon trappers George and Vanessa
I love everything about my new life, except snowmobiles. I HATE driving snowmobiles! Photo: Alistair Maitland.

Going forward, we have every intention of continuing to promote the use of wild furs, and to educate the public on the benefits of fur. We are especially committed to emphasizing our promise to source our furs from Indigenous trappers. We are working to build a strong fur industry in the Yukon that is self-sufficient and sustainable for future generations.

Our hope is that the work we do now, and the stories that we share, can serve to benefit the local trappers and communities, consumer behaviour, and the fur and fashion industries over the long term. We have a responsibility to work together to integrate traditional teachings into our practices, and to maintain a spirit of humility and gratitude all the while.

SEE ALSO: Sustainability of fur: Bringing the story to schools. Truth About Fur.

Having this life and generating my livelihood from the bounty of the land is a tremendous honour and privilege. As I learn more about my place in this big world, I am reminded that while I am one small individual, my role as an educator is very important, and I have a responsibility to help shift attitudes towards using wild fur, particularly in the context of supporting Indigenous trappers.

If I can change a few minds about trapping in the Yukon and even open a few more, then I think I’m doing exactly what I’ve set out to do. Judging by the occasions where laughter, tears, and hugging (pre-Covid) have been central to the interactions in my store, I’d say I’m accomplishing my goals.

Yukon trapping lodge

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