The Doc Project

'It's in the blood' — How life for this modern-day trapper has very little to do with fur

​From the time he was just a boy in the 1940s, Ray Henschell's life has revolved around two things: family and trapping.

Ray Henschell, 78, hopes trapping tradition passed down from dad is carried on by son, younger generations

Manitoba trapper Ray Henschell says he makes barely enough money to cover the cost of the fuel he needs for his trapping trips. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

By Bryce Hoye

​From the time he was just a boy in the 1940s, Ray Henschell's life has revolved around two things: family and trapping.

"It's in the blood," says Henschell, who is pushing 80 but shows no signs of hanging up the traps anytime soon.

He's filled with anticipation and nostalgia every autumn when the leaves turn. Nostalgia for all of the times out on the trapline with his dad, mom, brothers, wife and sons.

Al Kotowich sits on his ATV with three beavers he Henschell caught and strapped to the front of the machine on Horseshoe Lake, Man. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

But the fall also signals snow is on the way, and winter brings long days of zooming around on a snowmobile or ATV with his friend and trapping partner, Al Kotowich, 62.

The pair set traps for fur-bearing creatures in the boreal forests of Whiteshell Provincial Park, near the Manitoba-Ontario border. That includes beaver, which Kotowich and Henschell trap beneath the ice on Horseshoe Lake in the park.

Henschell cares deeply about the health and well-being of that wild corner of the world. He is an outdoorsman, a fisher, a hunter. He's also been trapping since he could barely walk, and describes the majesty of the forests those wild animals inhabit as "God's country."

Alex Henschell hoists up his catches on the end of two guns outside one of his remote trapper cabins in Whiteshell Provincial Park in the 1930s. (Submitted by Ray Henschell)

Ray was born to dad Alex and mom Emma Henschell in the late 1930s, and still recalls many of the finer details of winter spent in his parent's log cabin, far off the beaten trail on Crow Duck Lake. Back then, getting to the cabin meant hopping into his dad's Model A Ford at the family homestead in River Hills, Man., and bumbling toward the treeline until the narrow gravel road hit a dead end. From there it was a pilgrimage that lasted hours — sometimes days — on foot or dog sled.

Ray Henschell looks on as Al Kotowich stretches out and hammers down a beaver pelt he skinned from one of the buck-toothed creatures they caught on Horseshoe Lake, Man. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Before Ray came along, his dad made a killing on the trapline. One prolific winter around the time he and Emma married, Alex caught enough otter, beavers, wolves and weasels that he was able to buy a quarter section of land and build a modest home to start a family.

Nowadays Ray and Al Kotowich barely make enough to cover their fuel costs, but that doesn't seem to matter to these two retirees.

"It's a great adventure," Kotowich says. "Every day you go out you don't know what you're going to run into, what you're going to see, what you're going to catch. As soon as you get back, you want to do it again. You can't wait to get back, because it's a great life."

Ray Henschell holds up a copy of his dad's book, Memoirs of a Whiteshell Trapper, in his home in River Hills, about 85 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

That adventure comes with risks. Ray's dad Alex nearly died trapping and had several close calls over the years. Once in the mid-1940s, Alex left Ray and wife Emma back at the cabin and went out to set some traps. He broke through the ice on Crow Duck, out of earshot from the family, and dangled in the frigid lake waters for 30-odd minutes before pulling himself up.

"I remember him walking down from the lake. It looked like a statue walking," Ray says, recalling the sight of his frozen-stiff father. Ray's mom heated up stones on the woodstove and crammed them in bed with her shivering husband to stave off hypothermia. "When he got to the cabin my job was to cut the laces from his skates with a knife."

Alex wrote down an account of this day, and other tales, in his hand-typed book Memoirs of a Whiteshell Trapper before he died in the mid-1990s.

Ray Henschell sits on the deck of his log cabin off Horseshoe Lake, one of several he and his dad built in Whiteshell Provincial Park. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Ray is keenly aware of the risks of being way out in the woods, which is why he carries a handheld location device called a SPOT. If something goes wrong, a push of a button sends an SOS signal out to family and local emergency crews, who can then fly out in a helicopter to save him.

Though he takes fewer risks than his dad did, Ray keeps heading out there, following in his dad's footsteps and creating new memories.

A young Alex Henschell in the late 1920s/early 1930s. (Submitted by Ray Henschell)

"Dad was … a special man," Ray says, sitting on the edge of a rickety deck that hangs off his rustic cabin on Horseshoe Lake. 

He knows Alex would be proud that he is still trapping. "Doing what he did. Doing what he loved. Just carrying it on."

Ray (left) and one of his three sons, Perry, don beaver fur hats in this photo from about 10 years ago. (Submitted by Ray Henschell)

As he looks toward the future, Ray is hopeful a new generation of young Canadians will keep the country's heritage industry alive, even if they can't make a living at it anymore.

His son Perry Henschell has two kids and is carrying on the family tradition in the Whiteshell.

The third-generation Henschell trapper inherited a trapline from his grandfather Alex, not far from Ray's traplines on Horseshoe and Crow Duck lakes.

"The longer I go out with my father and that, I look back and I said 'You know what, 'He's starting to look a little more like Gramps everyday,'" Perry says.

"Now looking back I go, 'Wow, I guess that's going to be me in about 30 years."

Listen to the documentary "It's in the Blood" by clicking the Listen link at the top of the page, or download and subscribe to our podcast.

About the producer

Bryce Hoye, reporter with CBC Manitoba. (CBC)
Bryce Hoye is a journalist and science writer with a background in wildlife biology.

Before joining CBC Manitoba, he worked for the Canadian Wildlife Service monitoring birds in Manitoba, the Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia and Alberta. 

This documentary was edited by Julia Pagel.