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Christmas on the trapline: doughnuts, sweetbreads and icy escapes

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Posted: Sunday, January 3, 2010 4:02 am | Updated: 1:17 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

BIG DELTA, Alaska - According to the November 2009 Alaska Raw Fur Company price list, marten prices ranged from $5-$50; lynx, $5-$100; fox, $5-$40; wolf, $50-$400; wolverine $100-$350; and beaver $4-$40. As contrasted with the higher prices on the 2008 fur list, this year’s overall prices were down $40-$100. While trapping is considerably easier for us now than it was in 1968, 41 years later, the prices have not much improved.

Many years ago when my husband Reb and I were newlyweds, we trapped by dogsled about 35 miles up the Salcha River. I was pregnant with our first child and determined to be with my husband as he plied his trade. In July 1968 before the season began, Reb boated our dog food and groceries up the Salcha to our farthest cabin.

In early November at our home cabin, we hitched our dogs up to our sleds. The muskeg was only dusted with white, but we had to work. As I sledded over Shaw Creek Flats, frozen, naked tussocks bounced me between the edges of the moose rut-trail. Five months pregnant, I huffed and puffed my way up the mountains. Pulled by only three dogs, my sled and I wobbled over the muskeg which threw me frequently into the soft muskeg. I got up and pushed my sled back onto the trail, but moments later, I’d hit another hummock, and land on the other side. On the downhill run, I had to look out for trees. Before descending to slow me down, we’d turn one dog loose and wrap the sled runners with chains that bit into the ground. I’d drag one leg behind me, acting like a rudder, while with my other foot, I rode the brake. I popped up and down, holding tightly to the handles, and dodged low-hanging branches. After 45 minutes of trees whizzing past us, we careened down the mountainside onto the valley floor. Seven days and six cabins later, we arrived at the Salcha River cabin. To our great dismay, we found a bear had trashed our 55-gallon cache drums of dog food and lantern, white gas.

Over the next two months, we mixed our own rice and macaroni with the remaining dog food, and as available, we added beaver carcasses. To preserve body heat in our two shorthaired, lead dogs, I sewed capes from our wool army blankets to cover them.

During the short daylight days, Reb wandered the Salcha hills setting traps for marten, lynx, wolf and wolverine. He followed the river to set steel for beaver, otter and mink. He chainsawed holes in the ice to make beaver sets. Into the holes, he lowered two spruce logs wired together at a 90-degree angle to hold a long vertical cottonwood log, the beaver bait. Later when he checked the iced-over sets, I walked with him sometimes. Using an ice chisel welded to a 4-foot metal handle, he tediously chiseled the holes open. Nearby, I kept a fire going to warm his fingers while he painstakingly chipped around the beaver’s snare wire. If he accidentally hit a wire, he could lose the beaver. Sometimes while he scooped ice from the holes, jets flew over our heads. We shook our heads as overhead, the people reclined in their soft seats, sipping coffee. As we returned to our cabin, the jet made a vapor trail in the sky while we made paths through the snow.

By this time, my army field pants were getting snug. I stitched an elastic maternity panel I’d brought along into the button-fly panel of my pants. A sweater covered the situation.

When Reb was gone, I knitted socks for his Christmas present. To conserve our limited lantern fuel, I sat on the bunk, leaning toward a stubby candle for light.

One night when he was late, he returned, covered with ice. He said that as he had crossed the spring-fed slough in front of our cabin, his feet had punched through a weak place in the ice to the bottom and he’d gone up to his waist into water. (He reminded me that a couple of nights before, he had dreamed he’d gone through the ice.) While he dried out, pinto beans seasoned with dried onions and beaver tail simmered on the barrel stove.

After dinner as he skinned the resistant hide off a beaver, I read him stories of northern explorers: Roald Amundsen and Ernest Schackleton. When he finished, he tacked the dark glossy, round pelt onto a large, drying board. As the lantern began to sputter, we climbed into bed and listened to the wolf chorus on the bluff behind our dog yard.

When Christmas neared, I daydreamed our trapper/pilot and friend, Charlie Boyd, might surprise us. On Christmas Eve, when a full, orange moon rose, I pictured Charlie bringing us gifts in his Super Cub airplane: our Bush Santa Claus. Charlie did not come, but we had our Christmas anyway. Using my 5-gallon gas can/oven on top of my barrel stove, I’d baked pies. On a one-burner gas stove, I had fried sweet dough and made trapline doughnuts. Before Christmas Day, I stowed the goodies on our snowy roof and covered them with pans to protect them from birds, mice and squirrels. On Dec. 25 we leaned against the cabin wall, sitting on our spruce pole bed and listened to KFAR’s Christmas Nostalgia shows, eating pie and doughnuts.

Before going to bed, I took one last look at the dark sky, wondering if Charlie might still stop in. In the starlight, our dogs merely wagged their tails. I threw them a few Christmas doughnuts, and then turned out the light.

Judy Ferguson is a publisher and freelance writer from Big Delta. Her most recent book is “Bridges to Statehood, the Alaska Yugoslav Connection.” 

dog team, Montechristo valley, 1969.

H03 Ferguson2:

Courtesy of Judy Ferguson

Reb Ferguson, iced up from sub-zero temps, McCoy Creek, 1969.

H03 Ferguson3:

Courtesy of Judy Ferguson

Judy Ferguson with her dog team, Montechristo valley, 1969.The Ferguson dog sled, loaded with a 55-gallon oil drum, ready to descend mountain into Flat Creek, 1969.

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