It's just after 6 a.m., barely light, when fur trapper Bob Groves steps out of his cabin deep in the Ontario woods with a steaming bucket of beaver stew for his team of malamutes. "Going to be a beautiful day for trapping," he says. The skies are clear, eight inches of fresh snow are on the ground, and the thermometer is well below zero.
Back inside the two-story cabin he uses as his base of operations during the winter trapping season, Groves whips up a breakfast of pancakes, coffee, and sliced beaver meat. Then he packs a lunch, a thermos of hot chocolate, and a few survival supplies into the front compartment of his dogsled, hitches up the malamutes, and takes off.
Groves is one of a dwindling number of hearty men and women who still eke out a living in Canada's oldest industry. They are enduring perhaps the harshest depression ever in the highly cyclical fur business. But even before this slump, wild fur had been largely supplanted by mink and fox raised on ranches in North America and Scandinavia. Trappers now supply only about 20% of the fur used by the industry. And the trade is under assault from animal rights groups, who argue that trapping is cruel.
DROPPING OUT. A huge oversupply of ranched mink has helped send the price of mink, the industry's bellwether, plummeting about 50% from the peak of $45 in 1987. In turn, that has caused the prices for many furs trapped in the wild to fall even more sharply. In January, this forced North America's only trapper-owned auction house, Northbay Fur Sales in North Bay, Ont., into receivership. This year's sales were estimated at only $5 million, compared with $33 million in 1987.
Many trappers have concluded it's no longer worthwhile to pursue their trade, at least for the time being. In the U. S., the number of active trappers has fallen from 500,000 to 100,000 since 1986, estimates Tom Krause, editor of American Trapper magazine. And most of those trap only part-time. In Canada, with about one-tenth of the U. S. population, fur industry officials say some 85,000 trappers are still active. But many of them are scrambling for other work.
For the first time since he took up full-time trapping in 1982, Groves, who has a university horticulture degree, has been forced to take another job this winter. He's working at the local office of Ontario's Natural Resources Ministry, helping on map work and other research. But Groves still traps every weekend, and he hopes to be back in the bush full-time next winter, if prices recover as predicted.
He never expects to get rich. During the fur boom of the mid-1980s, he cleared only about $10,000 a season. With this and his summer income from patrolling remote canoe routes as a warden, Groves and his wife, Kathy, have acquired a car and, not far from the cabin, a modest home south of the small town of Timagami, which is about 300 miles north of Toronto. It isn't much by city standards. But Groves, who grew up in an upper-middle-class home in southern Ontario, has no regrets. Now 38, he came to Timagami 13 years ago. "I never envisioned becoming a trapper," he says, "but I wanted to live in the North." At first, he worked in an iron ore mine while learning trapping from local Indians. By 1982, he was ready to quit the mine. "We had a dream life we wanted to live," he says, "and we have pursued it."
CLOSE CALL. It's not the dream you might imagine. "I have to work a lot more hours than I would at any other job," says Groves. He often puts in 8 to 10 hours a day tending traps on his trails, which run for dozens of miles. As darkness falls, he must pitch a tent or return to his cabin. Although he's often exhausted, there's no letup. He must cook supper--often a rabbit that he has snared--and feed his dogs. Then, he usually works late into the evening, skinning the animals by lantern and preparing their pelts for market. It adds up to a 16- to 18-hour day.
Trapping can also be hazardous. Once, Groves fell through thin ice in subzero temperatures, miles from the nearest road. Shivering violently, he frantically cut wood and built a bonfire. He stripped down to his underwear and hung his clothes in the trees to dry. It was two days before he had recovered from the shock of nearly losing his feet and had rested up enough to move on. "If someone had come by and seen me standing by that fire in my underwear," Groves laughs, "they would have thought I had lost my mind. But it was that or death."
For Groves, such drawbacks are easily outweighed by the chance to spend the winter in the woods. His love of the serene wilds also explains why, like a growing number of trappers, he works with the traditional dog team and snowshoes rather than by snowmobile. The dogs are also far more reliable, and by now, they know where virtually every trap is placed. That's no mean feat: Groves has sole rights granted by the government to trap in a 100-square-mile area running east of Timagami almost to the Quebec border.
The tract is covered with dense forests and large lakes. There are a few fishing cabins and two ghost towns, but during the winter, Groves has gone for days without seeing anyone other than his wife and their two high-school-age children. Kathy is an integral part of the business: She has a trapping license, does much of the pelt preparation, and makes beautiful mukluk boots out of sealskin and moose hide she buys. For the two winters that the entire family lived in the cabin--which lacks running water and electricity--she also ran the kids to the school bus, five miles out an old logging trail, on a snowmobile.
'CRUEL HARVESTER.' Trapping requires an intimate knowledge of animal life. Working with government biologists, Groves helps set the quota on the number of beaver, mink, and other animals that the government allows him to take in a season, which runs from mid-October through March. The aim is to maintain healthy populations. To establish the beaver quota, for instance, Groves charters a small plane each fall to map the location of each beaver colony. He also keeps careful records of where he has trapped animals, so he won't take too many from one area.
Groves, who now teaches the courses trappers must pass before gaining a license, uses "humane" trapping methods developed by researchers in Canada. Cutting through the ice near a beaver colony to check a trap, Groves defends these methods. "Death is never easy," he says. "But my job is to make that death as quick and as easy as I can." Pulling a dead beaver up from the lake, he explains that the animal was rendered instantly unconscious when it swam into the trap, causing the steel jaws to snap shut around its neck. "This is as humane a death as a beaver can hope for," he argues.
"Nature is a very cruel harvester," he adds. When a wolf catches a beaver, "first, he cuts its tendons so it can't run away. Then, he slits open its belly and guts it alive."
Groves realizes that many people in our highly urban society know little about nature. The city dweller's image of nature, he suspects, has been distorted by anthropomorphic cartoons that would have them them believe the animals sit around at night telling stories to one another. He worries that such ignorance will help the antifur movement put an end to his trade. "It would be a shame if we lost all these skills," he says. "I would like to trap for the rest of my life," he adds, citing men he knows who have done so into their 70s and even 80s. His son Brian, 14 and already a skilled trapper, feels the same way. "I want to be a trapper when I grow up," he says--adding, "if there's still an industry."