1 Through the Mackenzie Basin, notes on mammals by Roderick MacFarlane.
The handsome Cross Fox has many variations of colour, brought about by a greater or lesser amount of greys and a corresponding variance of the extent of red. However, a typical Cross Fox has the entire back and hindquarters thick-speckled stone-grey, and the forehead and sides of head the same colour ; the rear of the hindquarters and the root of the tail, underneath, show pale whitish buff; the tail is black on the upper side, excepting the white tip, and paler buffish black below; the under-jaw, throat, breast, belly, and all limbs are black; the sides behind the foreshoulders, and the neck behind the ears, are reddish buff; the back of the neck is reddish-tinged grey with more black showing than on the back; the back of the ears is velvet black; the nose to the eyes is black with a few silver hairs.
Lastly, a typical Red Fox has a general body colour of medium yellowish-red buff, with the belly and legs and the back of the ears black. But it must be borne in mind that the Red Fox has degrees of variation from this colour leading out toward the most reddish-grey varieties of the Cross Fox. . . .
By night Gullfoot and I had exhausted our fox-talk, which had been sustained by my interest in his collection of freshly trapped pelts; which he took some trouble to show me.
As full night came on, accompanied by inevitable increase in low temperature, and Arctic array of Northern Lights, we turned in to sleep with thoughts of an early start on the morrow.
Two hours before daybreak next morning we were astir in the cabin, and, aided by a glimmering, fitful light from a vessel containing liquid grease rendered from wolf fat, which fed a piece of twisted rag to which light had been applied, we robed in our outdoor clothing of Eskimo Caribou suits, and prepared and partook of food.
An hour before daylight, out in the bitter cold, our dogs were harnessed and ready to start.
All day we travelled on Gullfoot's trap-line through forest and over lakes and rivers. By night we must have covered some thirty to forty miles, and had visited forty traps, from which had been taken one Cross Fox, one Red Fox, one Wolf, four Marten, and three Mink: which Gullfoot assured me was a successful and gratifying result.
From this it may be gathered that trapping is not a simple task, and animals not to be picked up in any abundance even on a wide range. Broadly speaking, Gullfoot had one trap set to every mile, and those sets resulted in one animal captured to every four miles. If one assumes that Gullfoot trapped with equal vigour during the best three months for fur, viz. November, December, and January, and visited his trap-line every week with equal success, his total catch (thirteen weeks x ten animals) taken in a season would represent practically three animals to every mile of territory. One hundred and thirty animals, the total thus arrived at, is, however, a much larger catch than is common, and would in all probability, on an average, be much reduced by spells of bad trapping weather lasting over a week or two, and consequent less productive days than the one I write of, which was in any case, apparently, a particularly successful one. Then, too, traps are sometimes changed to fresh localities, often as far afield as three days from the trapper's cabin, which vastly increases the area covered ; so that, all things considered, it may even be doubtful if one mile can produce to the trapper one fur-bearing animal in a season in the Far North country immediately south of the Barren Grounds.
All fur-bearing animals, whose kind have been hunted and trapped for generations, are exceedingly wary, and it is a revelation to a novice to watch an Indian gravely make his sets with superb cunning, sufficient, in some instances, to outwit the most wily of quarry.
I will endeavour to describe how Gullfoot's traps were set, which are the usual Indian methods.
His fox-traps, without exception, were always set in the open snow on the ice near some prominent shore point of an expansive lake, or near an island; or in the narrows which sometimes connect two or more lakes. He had twelve traps set in such locations, strong double-spring traps of the size known as No. 2. Those traps were chained to a pole about six feet long and of calculated weight to prevent an animal from travelling far, while at the same time it would give if severe strain was put upon it; this latter to prevent the fox from obtaining sufficient direct purchase on the trap in endeavour to break its foot clear when caught. When a favourable spot had been chosen, the log was carefully buried beneath the surface of the snow, and the trap set, with a fine sheet of tissue paper-carried for the purpose, and obtained at the Fur Post- laid over the pan and jaws to prevent snow filling below, where it would choke the drop, and the whole then covered with a light powdering of snow until every sign of human disturbance was erased. A few morsels of meat or frozen fish were then spread near, but not necessarily directly at, the trap, for it often allays suspicion of a trap's actual presence to allow the animal to find food in safety during its first timid approach, when it naturally then becomes more bold. The situation of the trap was usually near the top of a small mound of snow, natural, or made up with snow, and somewhat resembling a buried stone, for it is known that foxes are prone to investigate such objects, probably in the hope that it is a snowed-over carcass of some kind, or retains the scent of a comrade who has passed before.
Twice Gullfoot's fox-traps were set in the neighbourhood of a Caribou carcass, and one of the foxes taken was there caught. In those cases the traps were not set at the carcass, but some distance away, where the foxes would circle suspiciously before daring to approach this quarry.
Traps for Marten were set in the forest at the foot of dark spruce and pine trees. Gullfoot's method was to make there a tiny enclosure which in plan was like a U lying on its side, the bottom of the U being the tree trunk, and two little palisades forming the sides made with closely set upright stakes stuck into the snow. As in the top of a U, there then remained an opening : and there the trap-a single-spring No. 0-was set just within the entrance, while beyond the trap, inside, next the tree trunk, was placed a fish head pegged down with a stick : to reach this bait any animal desiring it must pass over the trap. Over the top of the palisade; to shelter the trap from snow, and the bait from the eyes of the thieving Canada Jay, a number of spruce boughs were laid, and covered with snow to resemble the surroundings. Footprints were then carefully obliterated for some distance as we retraced our steps, and the set was then complete.
Mink-traps were often set in much the same manner, but in very different surroundings; the chosen situations being about the overhanging banks of narrows between lakes, or of frozen streams, for those animals frequent the neighbourhood of water. In some cases Mink-traps were set in naturally formed narrow runways at the bottom of a bank, along which a small animal was almost sure to pass if it came that way. Such sets were unbaited.
At one point in the forest Gullfoot had a cache of Caribou meat, and below this he had set two powerful traps on the chance of the store attracting a Wolverine. The cache was constructed with three triangularly placed upright poles of length a little more than man-height; the tops of those uprights carried horizontal poles, which formed a V, and across this was laid a platform of branches, upon which the frozen meat was stored. The three upright poles were dressed free of bark, and thus smoothed to prevent Wolverine from securing claw-hold, if any should endeavour to climb to the platform overhead ; and there, on the snow below the cache, the traps were placed, so as to ensnare any such thief at his foul work-two traps required to hold this gluttonous animal, which has a tremendous reputation among the Indians for strength and capacity to break free after being caught.
By late afternoon we had reached the far end of Gullfoot's trap-line, and there encamped for a few hours to rest the dogs before resuming on our way back to the cabin on a wide detour so as not to further disturb the neighbourhood.
"About 6 p.m. we started back through the bleak silent land of snow, lit on the way by the whiteness underfoot and a clear sky overhead, sparkling, in the crystal-clear atmosphere, with more stars than one will see anywhere else in the world, unless it be at the North Pole. Gullfoot and his dogs leading, with unerring intuition finding their way through this land of awful greatness and sameness without apparent trouble, as I might at home travel a road familiar to me.
At midnight we reached his cabin.
There was Nokum sitting by the fire, and the pot, filled with Caribou meat, simmering slowly, awaiting our return.
Frozen sticks of fish were brought in from outside, and set before the blaze to thaw out for food for the tired dogs . . . the teams were unharnessed and fed . . . and their snarling ceased while we gathered indoors to our well-earned repast and repose.