Lake Minchumina — With wild furs selling at record prices, we’re tempted to ship all our pelts off to the auction, but sometimes they’re even more valuable kept at home. The different furs simply have too many important uses in sewing projects, especially the warm fur clothing we need to fend off the piercing cold and snow-filled wind of winter.
Different furbearers carry signature pelts that reflect highly adaptive lifestyles, and these variables make each species ideal for different projects.
Marten, my favorite furbearer, has fluffy soft fur with an exquisite feel. The hide is thin but fairly strong, making the whole pelt featherweight. They spend their winters loping over the snow with their big snowshoe feet hunting for voles, squirrels and small birds; the larger males can also kill hares and grouse. Weighing just two or three pounds and being long and thin with no body fat, they need those lush coats for warmth.
Marten pelts make exceptionally fine fur hats — lightweight, soft, extremely warm and reasonably durable. The fur isn’t as heavy and lofty as bigger animals like fox, making the hat easy to stuff into a pocket. These qualities make marten hats highly prized in Bush Alaska, especially if you can find the really dark fur that most villagers admire. The sky-rocketing prices offered for these pelts makes it hard to justify holding any back for a hat, but we can usually scrounge up a few damaged ones that can be pieced together for a lovely hat but have less value on the world market.
Toward the other end of the fur spectrum, beavers have thicker skin with stiffer guard hairs that seal together to protect the downy brown undercoat from frigid water as they swim under the ice. The tough hides make them a better all-purpose fur. Unless a puppy grabs it, a well-made beaver hat won’t fall apart with rough handling. The durable pelts also make great overmitts, bulky but incredibly warm in wind and severe weather. Beaver mukluks, too, are warmer but not as tough as the popular caribou-leg mukluks.
A friend of mine had a beautiful pair of mitts made from the faces of wolves, but in my experience using the longer fur from the wolf’s back means sewing with a hide that is tough but softer and more flexible than heavier pelts. This makes it a little harder to slip a hand into the floppy mitt.
When my ancient beaver mitts finally wore out, I sewed up a pair from black bear fur that look nice and are super warm for my hands, but not as nice as beaver when I hold the fur to my cold face. The heavy, stiff hide holds each mitt partly open so my hand slides in easily, which I really like.
When our neighbor gave us a couple more bears, I made a bear fur parka ruff that I just love. Wolf makes a wonderful ruff, with long silky guard hairs that hang over the face and allow you to see out while breaking the wind nicely, but the soft hide can collapse too much if it doesn’t have a stiffener sewed onto the backing. The heavy black bear ruff I use forms a perfect tunnel of coarse black fur that doesn’t flop around at all.
Wolverine fur doesn’t garner much attention at fur auctions except from taxidermists, but in northern climates this fur is prized for its durability. The hairs don’t break and wear as some furs do, and the hide is tough without being as heavy as big-game hides. With its gorgeous colors and reputation for resisting frost, wolverine fur makes some of the nicest ruffs around. But wolverine tend to be widely scattered in our area and hard to catch, so we cherish every pelt we acquire.
On the other hand, otter fur doesn’t get the respect it deserves. The glossy brown fur is short and less eye-catching, but these pelts are incredibly durable and make great hats for hard-working outdoor people who don’t need the gaudy fox hats that are so popular at dog races and winter carnivals. One of the strongest trappers I ever knew wore his otter hat for years.
The water-loving mink also have short, glossy fur and a tough hide over lots of body fat to keep them warm. Their smaller size means you need to piece together several furs for a hat. Our smallest fur, weasel (ermine) is used mostly for trim. With their fine short white fur and delicate hide, they must live under the snow to stay warm.
While I wouldn’t wear a fox hat because they are too bulky and not as durable, they do make incredibly warm hats. Because of its dense, warm fur, fox mittens are also wonderful if you’re not working enough to wear them out. Foxes live out in the wind, and being small animals they really need that super-dense fur.
Lynx, while bigger than fox, spend much of their time sitting quietly or moving slowly so they need warm fur, and it has an owl-feather softness that allows the big cats to slip silently in dense brush. The fur isn’t as dense and heavy as fox, yet the hide is a little thicker, making it a good option for mittens as well as hats. Fox and lynx make pretty ruffs but the soft hair packs and freezes when breath condensation collects on it. The fur isn’t as long or as durable and wolf, wolverine or bear.
Miki has worn marten hats for many years. I used to have a marten hat but when it finally wore out I switched to lynx, mostly because we’d been catching so many when prices were low. The thicker fur makes my hat a bit more bulky, but I think it’s warmer and perhaps more durable.
Thank goodness we have so many different furbearers out there, so we can choose just the right fur for winter gear that will last and keep us warm.
Trappers and lifelong Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins have written three books, which are available at Gulliver’s Books in Fairbanks. They live in Lake Minchumina.