Life on the line
Are fur trappers stuck in the past or a vital piece of Canada's living heritage?
A harsh wind howls across the frozen surface of Horseshoe Lake as two fast-moving dots appear from a break in the dense evergreen forest of the distant shoreline.
A crescendo of engine noise peaks as the blurry forms take shape on the ice.
Snowsuit-clad Ray Henschell, 77, and Al Kotowich, 61, kill the engines of their ATVs, hop off and walk up to a conical log beaver fortress held together by mud.
Ice chips fly as Kotowich plunges a metal spear down until a rectangular hole is chiselled through the ice on the eastern Manitoba lake.
Henschell scoops slush from the cold open water as Kotowich drops to his knees and edges up to the hole. He tugs on a chain weighted down by a trap that has something heavy clenched between its jaws.
"Here we go, success! I love a success story," Kotowich says, beaming.
"That's good, that's what we need," Henschell answers, as Kotowich heaves up a water-logged beaver that's been dead since the trap snapped shut. The pudgy creature thuds on the ice.
Like generations of fur-bearing animals before it, this buck-toothed symbol of Canadian sovereignty met its end in a trap.
With 100 years of experience between them, Henschell and Kotowich say they trap because they love the wilderness and its solitude.
They trap to connect with something powerful and elusive that they feel some smartphone-addicted young people are losing sight of in the internet age.
"It's like going home," says Henschell, who comes from a family of trappers and says he was conceived in a remote log cabin in the fall of 1938, not long after his parents married.
“Getting out there, seeing the lakes, Al always says, 'Oh, we're in God's country.' So that's the way it should be."
Life on the trapline has undergone some serious changes since the heyday of the fur trade.
Ray Henschell (left) stands by as Al Kotowich chips through the ice on Horseshoe Lake. (Jaison Empson/CBC)
Canada marks 150 years of nationhood on July 1, 2017. Much of what led to the country's birth revolved around the trapping and trading of furs, but while the commerce and conflicts of the trade are central to Canada's history, there is pressure to envision a future without fur.
Some argue there's no longer a need for the industry.
Lesley Fox, the B.C.-based executive director of the Association for the Protection of Fur-Bearing Animals, says Canada's historic connection to the fur trade makes it difficult to challenge the industry.
"There is a lot of nostalgia, a lot of Canadiana, and the media hypes that up," she says.
"The modern-day fur trade is very, very different than the fur trade I think we know from our history books."
The fur trade is inherently cruel and the range of affordable synthetic alternatives have rendered wild fur unnecessary, Fox says.
A mink looks out from its cage at a fur farm in Sheboygan Falls, Wis., in February 2013. (Carrie Antlfinger/Associated Press)
Sales by the global fur farm industry dwarf those of the wild fur trade year over year; Fox says that illustrates how trapping in 2017 is akin to a frivolous leisure activity like trophy hunting.
"There is a lot of talk about 'living off the land,' 'stewards of the land,' the word Indigenous gets thrown around a lot, 'people's livelihoods,' and in my opinion that's all rhetoric. It's actually not true," she says.
"The bulk of trappers, and I've been doing this for seven years, the bulk of trappers I meet are rich white guys who do it as a hobby, as a recreational activity. It's very difficult to maintain any type of livelihood."
But Kevin Brownlee says blanket views that amount to "fur is bad" have harmed Indigenous communities.
"From a First Nation perspective, this is livelihood," says Brownlee, the curator of archeology at the Manitoba Museum. Brownlee's family comes from Norway House Cree Nation, 460 kilometres north of Winnipeg, and he's studied Indigenous material culture of the boreal forest for more than two decades.
"It's tough to see people who have been proud and self-sufficient losing that ability."
A lot of histories place the beginning of Canada's fur trade around the time when French explorer Jacques Cartier landed in North America in the 16th century, which led to the continent becoming a source of beaver pelts for the European fashion industry. But colonialists plugged into and benefited greatly from an established trade network, Brownlee says.
Subsistence-based trapping and trade between Indigenous groups already existed. Snares made from animal sinew, bone or plant products were used by Indigenous people before European leg-hold and metal traps became the norm, although the archeological record doesn't reflect this well, because the traps biodegraded and were lost, Brownlee says.
"I think that there is a real ... connection to the culture and to the land that trapping has, and I think that from that perspective, this is something that will continue on in the future," Brownlee says.
The relationship many First Nations have with trapping shouldn't be minimized, he says.
"The added advantage is that these people make a little bit of money off of selling some of the furs. But the fact is that this is transmission of, 'We're on the land, we use the land, we use the resources,' and that probably trumps any other reason why trapping is important."
German philosopher Tatjana Visak, author of Killing Happy Animals and The Ethics of Killing Animals, says losing a tradition isn't necessarily bad.
“If the tradition or job or hobby is based on needlessly killing and harming others, it is a good thing that this disappears," Visak says. "We do not need fur. There are other ways of having an enjoyable time in nature, without harming others.”
The Fur Institute of Canada, a government-funded organization that tracks the wildlife harvest and researches trap designs to ensure they are as humane as possible, says the number of registered trapping licences issued in Canada jumped 16.5 per cent from 2010 to 2015, to just over 39,000.
The number of trappers is higher, though, because Fur Institute statistics don't include all Indigenous trappers — they aren't obligated to obtain licences if they trap for traditional or cultural purposes — nor do they include numbers from B.C.
Five species — beaver, muskrat, marten, raccoon and squirrel — make up three-quarters of animals trapped in Canada. The coyote harvest has experienced a huge surge in recent years — 55,000 in 2010 compared to 108,000 in 2015 — driven by a growing demand for fur-trimmed parkas and winter wear, the Fur Institute says.
Almost 825,000 wild Canadian animal pelts went to market in 2015 and they brought in more than $25 million. That amount is down from a couple of historic highs over the past century, but has risen about 20 per cent since 2010.
"The bulk of that money went directly into rural and Indigenous communities in Canada, supporting traditional livelihoods," says Alan Herscovici, author of Second Nature: The Animal-Rights Controversy and a researcher with industry organization the Fur Council of Canada.
Despite recent growth, it’s become almost impossible to make a living solely on the trapline in the Canadian wilderness. That reality set in long ago for Henschell.
Gone are the days when someone like Ray's late father, Alex Henschell, could survive on fur sales.
Alex Henschell trapped into his 80s throughout the Whiteshell along the Manitoba-Ontario border, 120 kilometres east of Winnipeg, where Ray traps to this day. In one trapping season in the 1930s, Alex Henschell earned enough to buy a 65-hectare plot of land in River Hills, 100 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, where he built a home and started a family.
The going rate for an average beaver pelt in 1930 was about $25, which translates to roughly $350 with inflation in 2017. Alex trapped more than 100 beaver some years, among about two dozen other species.
Ray Henschell now makes barely enough to cover the cost of fuel he and Kotowich burn through on trapping trips. They trap marten, mink, muskrat and more, but the average beaver pelt went for less than $11 in Manitoba in 2015-16.
The younger Henschell recalls selling a single lynx fur for more than $800 (more than $3,000 today with inflation) in the 1970s. Lynx sold for an average $554 per pelt at the February 2017 North American Fur Auction, but Henschell didn't trap any lynx this year.
After subtracting the cost of gas for his snowmobile, ATV and truck, Henschell made $700 on furs in the 2016-17 trapping season.
The den in Ray's home in River Hills, called the "animal farm," is a monument to hunting and decades spent on the trapline with his family. About two dozen taxidermied animals in the room, including a wolverine and black bear, all come with colourful back stories.
“It has not been a boring 50-some years, I tell you,” says Erika Henschell, Ray's wife.
Erika says Ray's outdoorsy mother, Emma Henschell, did her best to turn her into a trapper. It didn’t stick because Erika didn’t like killing animals, but she does appreciate a warm fur.
Erika inherited her mother-in-law's fur coat, which was made from about 100 beavers Alex trapped. It took that many to get just the right set of matching browns.
"It was very precious to her," Erika says. "I was very excited when she gave it to me, just because it was one of her favourite things."
Erika used to wear it more often but only pulls it out a couple of times a year these days.
“You just don’t hardly see [anyone] around here wearing [fur]," Erika says.
"You feel a little like you’re showing off or something, you know?”
Earning a living isn't what keeps Ray Henschell and Al Kotowich trapping, but it certainly was top of mind for trappers centuries ago.
Well-off Europeans were once so infatuated with felted beaver-skin hats and fur that the species was almost wiped off the face of that continent by the mid-17th century, which helped spur colonization and the search for furs in North America.
Entrepreneurial French woodsmen, the coureurs des bois, lived among and traded goods with Indigenous people in exchange for furs and an education in surviving Canada's often unforgiving environments. The Métis emerged as a new people from that mixing of cultures.
A licensing framework later imposed on the trade edged out the independent coureurs and led to the creation of the voyageur, contracted to trade for fur and get pelts to market via canoe.
A series of territorial and trading battles between the French and Iroquois, dubbed the Beaver Wars, ensued in the 17th century.
The Hudson's Bay Company, which still fosters its image as an integral part of Canada's history, was formed in 1670 to facilitate and profit off the trade. It built a network of remote outposts from the late 1600s to early 1700s where Indigenous and European trappers sold pelts destined for Europe.
Montreal-based North West Company became a Hudson's Bay rival in the 1770s, setting off years of territorial disputes culminating in the deadly Battle of Seven Oaks in what's now Manitoba, before the companies eventually merged in the early 1800s.
The European hunger for fur almost brought Canada's industrious beaver to the same fate as its European cousin. By some accounts, there were 60 million to 400 million beavers in North America before Europeans arrived. The Canadian government estimates a more conservative six million beaver roamed Canadian wetlands before the fur trade.
At the height of the fur trade, more than 100,000 pelts were shipped to Europe annually, and by the mid-19th century, the species was almost extinct.
"Luckily … Europeans took a liking to silk hats and the demand for beaver pelts all but disappeared," the government of Canada website says.
The Fur Institute of Canada estimates the Canadian beaver population is now around 45 million.
Fur prices wax and wane based on demand largely determined by the whims of the fashion world.
A stock market crash in the 1980s, combined with pressure from anti-fur activism, took a bite out of international fur markets into the early 1990s.
In 1987, the Hudson's Bay Co. pulled out of the fur trade. Citing weakening commercial appetite, the company stopped selling furs completely in 1991, after more than three centuries in the business.
Some animal rights groups claimed responsibility, saying it showed Canadians were done supporting the harvest of fur-bearing animals.
In a 1994 ad campaign by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), nude celebrities, including supermodel Naomi Campbell, said they would “rather go naked than wear fur."
Fur fell out of fashion. The soft and glossy pelts that once lured Europeans to Canada sunk in value.
But tastes changed again, and Hudson's Bay stores resumed selling furs in 1997.
Years later, Naomi Campbell had a change of heart and publicly donned the same fur she once shunned in glossy print.
The fur industry has waged its own public relations campaign. The Fur Council of Canada — a trade organization that represents trappers, furriers, wholesalers and other entities in the fur business — created the Truth About Fur website to offer examples of what the industry says is humane, sustainable fur trapping and farming.
Fur is green, it argues, because it biodegrades and isn’t made of ecologically harmful petroleum-based plastics sometimes found in faux fur and synthetic materials. Fur clothing also lasts a long time; a fur coat can be passed down by families or altered as style preferences change.
Meanwhile, the European Union passed a bill in 1991 that would have put trade restrictions on wild fur imports from countries, including Canada, that permitted the use of steel jaw leg-hold traps, which are viewed by many as inhumane. That served as a catalyst for Canada's 1997 signing of the Agreement on International Humane Trapping Standards, which set out a list of rules meant to reduce the suffering of trapped animals. By 2007, Canadian trappers were required by law to use traps certified humane under the agreement.
Lethal traps must reliably kill an animal within a certain time frame (which varies by species) before they can be sold to trappers in Canada. For marten, a rotating jaw trap has to kill the animal in less than two minutes to meet Canadian standards, says Pierre Canac-Marqui, trap research co-ordinator with the government-funded Fur Institute of Canada.
Rotating jaw traps are the industry standard for small mammals in 2017. Their steel pieces quickly snap shut like a mouse trap.
"They kill instantly. You don't have to worry about them sitting there suffering," Ray Henschell says.
Other certified traps include the power snare, which is a lethal wire noose used for bigger game such as coyote and wolf, and the modified leg-hold trap, which captures the animals alive.
Pierre Canac-Marqui says 83 per cent of Canadian modified leg-hold traps tested under the Agreement on International Humane Trapping Standards have failed to meet requirements and therefore not been certified for use. Most that have passed have done so with a score of over 90 per cent.
The Canadian Federation of Humane Societies' website says "the traps permitted are not as humane as they could be."
And anti-fur trade activist Fox says the Agreement on International Humane Trapping Standards is flawed and allows people in the industry to operate under the guise of a seal of approval.
"I think the first concern ... is the industry monitors itself. The industry makes its own rules and follows its own rules," she says.
Most commercial fur now comes from ranchers who farm species such as mink and fox, neither of which are protected under the international trapping agreement. The International Fur Federation estimates wild trapped furs account for about 15 per cent of global sales annually.
Canac-Marqui believes growth in the fur farm industry won’t slow anytime soon.
"When you ask me what's the future for trapping … it's going to change for sure," says Canac-Marqui, who has trapped for 45 years and is a former fur-bearer management official for the Quebec government.
He predicts more people interested in trapping will find careers in wildlife management, like him.
"It's not like if you go back 25 years ago," he says. "It was a major seasonal income for most of the people in those years. It's not the case anymore; people are really doing it by passion. And when you look right behind those guys who are 50 or 60, you don't see many people behind."
Dean Berezanski, Manitoba's chief fur-bearer biologist in charge of regulating trapping, says trappers will always have a place dealing with wildlife-human conflicts.
"Trappers will always be needed to get rid of problem beaver, to help cattle ranchers with coyotes and wolves that are killing off their stock," he says.
Most people don't realize they benefit from trapping, he says.
"The ability to drive around in rural areas on roads that are still open comes as a given, but a lot of it is because trappers were able to take out the beavers that were taking out those roads."
Decreased demand for beaver pelts and associated lower prices have led to less trapping and a healthy beaver population that can cause problems, Berezanski says.
"If you talk to someone from a [rural] municipality, they would probably say there's too many beavers."
Beaver dams can threaten agricultural land with flooding or other problems. Dams in ditches can plug culverts, and the excess water can erode or wash away roads and rail lines.
In Manitoba, 5,657 beavers were killed and 221 dams were removed during last year at a cost of more than $161,000.
The province also helped pay for eight "beaver deceivers" — one of several non-lethal flow devices to prevent beaver damming — last year. Animal rights activist Fox says the non-lethal methods are more effective long-term solutions, and trappers should start using their skills to deploy beaver deceivers and other flow devices instead of killing the creatures.
As the prospect of earning a big paycheque continues to fade, the purpose of trapping is perhaps simpler.
"The pleasure," Henschell says. "It's in the blood here."
His 110-kilometre trapline around Crow Duck Lake, about five kilometres east of Horseshoe Lake, is where he spent his formative years, learning the trade on his father’s trapline.
"That was dad's life. The whole thing was he just always wanted to go out," Henschell says.
"If you walk from Seven Sisters out to Crow Duck — which it takes you an hour to drive with a truck, and you're pulling a sleigh — I mean, come on, it's got to be something you love."
Alex Henschell sits on the running board of his Model A Ford in the 1930s.
Henschell, his son, his brother and his father have logged more than 150 years on the trapline, and his tally continues to climb.
A few years before he died, Alex Henschell wrote his stories from the trapline, which are published in Memoirs of a Whiteshell Trapper.
“My education was very limited as a young boy, so I had to use the practical skills I had gained helping my dad,” the opening page says. “The homestead was all bush and wilderness, which made me think the whole Whiteshell region belonged to us.”
Alex grew up with seven siblings — Bill, Fred, Harry, John, Lawrence, Louis and Hanna — on the family homestead in the early 1900s.
The only way to get deep into the Whiteshell back then was on horse and sleigh trails used by the lumber industry.
Alex didn’t much like the “back-breaking work” of clearing land on the farm, but trapping captured his interest at an early age.
“Trapping was exciting and a lot easier on the old body,” Alex writes.
His grandfather taught him how to build toboggans and train the sled dogs they used to get into the woods to trap.
“The best part was the money.… Money was really good from the fur trade in those days gone by.”
As a young man, Alex would strap a canoe on the narrow roof of his Model A Ford and drive, then hike or use his companion “workhorse” sled dogs to get the rest of the way to Crow Duck Lake.
After they married in 1937, Alex took his wife, Emma, on a romantic getaway. The newlyweds paddled to a quiet spot by the water near Otter Falls and camped for their honeymoon.
The Henschells spent one of their first autumns together at Crow Duck Lake in the log cabin where Ray says he was conceived during the fall of 1938.
Alex and Emma Henschell had kids but never really settled down, spending the fall months out at the cabin trapping every year.
Ray says his parents came from big families, loved the outdoors and were tough as nails.
Emma was a hunter; she trapped and skinned and cooked their kills. She helped keep her husband from freezing to death on at least one occasion.
When Ray was just a boy, his father strapped on ice skates, loaded about 100 pounds of traps and tools on his shoulders and glided away on the unusually snow-free Crow Duck Lake ice.
He fell through the ice, out of earshot from Emma and Ray at the cabin, and nearly drowned, but somehow pulled himself out after 30 minutes in the water and walked back to the cabin, he recounts in his book.
Ray remembers his father moving toward the cabin “like a stick man,” chilled to the bone with his skates frozen to his ankles.
Ray helped cut the laces off to free his dad's feet. Emma stuck her husband in bed with big stones she warmed on the wood-burning stove. The next day, Alex was back at it: “No cold, no nothing,” Ray says.
“He was a special guy … I miss him a lot," Ray says, choking back tears.
"[I'm] doing what he did, doing what he loved, just carrying it on. It's a good life."
Al Kotowich doesn't think Ray will hang up his traps any time soon.
"The only way you'll stop trapping is when you're dead."
Back out on the ice on Horseshoe Lake, Al Kotowich says he's confident younger generations will continue trapping.
He’s been shadowing Henschell for a few years. When it comes to beaver, he cuts the holes in the ice, does much of the grunt work and skinning. He hopes to take over Henschell’s traplines once he’s gone.
Kotowich says trapping isn't just about indulging an urge to outwit wild things and hang them on a wall.
Ultimately it's rooted in a deep respect for nature, he says, and taking part in the rich history of trapping.
"Trapping gets you close to the animals," Kotowich says. "You can learn their habits. And nobody knows a beaver like a trapper knows a beaver."
Story editing by Lara Schroeder
Videography, 360 video by Jaison Empson
Graphics, 360 video editing by Steven Silcox
Watch the TV documentary below:
Videography, 360 video by Jaison Empson
Graphics, 360 video editing by Steven Silcox
Watch the TV documentary below: