Largest trapping course in years hosted by Gwekwaadziwin

AUNDECK OMNI KANING – The scent of Swedish Berries candy hangs in the air of the prospector tents (but more on that later) while a hefty number of beavers lie on tables next to knives, waiting for the cohort of Gwekwaadziwin Miikan participants to return from lunch and learn how to skin the afternoon’s animal of choice.

It might seem a strange scene for those who are distant from the remote Northern way of life, but the ages-old art of trapping and skinning fur-bearing animals is a unique and important skill that survives today in certain parts of the country. Gwek recently organized a trapping and hide preparation course for its clients, taught by expert instructors Rob Mellan and George Hagen, president of the Manitoulin Trappers Council.

“I’ve been doing this my whole life. My grandfather trapped, my father trapped, I have uncles, sons and nephews who have all trapped, it’s become kind of a family thing,” said Mr. Hagen, 68, who has had a trapline since 1976 on the North Shore from Agnew Lake to Armstrong Lake. 

Mr. Mellan took the course in 1993 and has been trapping ever since.

They were brought in for this program as a way of teaching Gwek clients land-based skills, knowledge and useful techniques that they could apply to their own lives.

“We’re always looking for ways to expand our land-based knowledge for our participants and our staff. We’ve been working with Rob with the canoe builds and with timber frame building,” said Sam Gilchrist, executive director of Gwek.

“This is really unique because it’s a skill that’s dying away. With lower prices for pelts, there’s less motivation to trap these days. It’s become more of a passion activity,” he said.

Trapping has been regulated in Ontario since the late 1970s. In 1978, Mr. Hagen was among the first people to take the course to become a certified instructor before licencing requirements came into effect in 1979. In addition to learning how to trap, the Gwek participants got to try an examination at the end of the program to become certified.

“It’s a certification like a hunting licence. You do a 40-hour course with a written and practical exam,” said Mr. Mellan.

Steven Hill and Gagwih Jacobs, both from Six Nations of the Grand River, set to work on their beavers while instructor Rob Mellan passes behind. Mr. Jacobs told The Expositor that he was excited to take these newfound skills back home and help his community.

The course teaches students about sustainable, humane and ethical harvesting techniques, survival skills and offers pelt preparation advice. The final practical test involves setting traps in various environments, with the students being graded on their appearance, appropriateness and humaneness. Students must achieve a minimum grade of 80 percent to pass.

“This fits into our cultural programming as well since we’re using as much of the animal as possible,” said Mr. Gilchrist. “One of our broader goals here is cultural knowledge and experiential learning. With that in mind, this fits well. There’s therapeutic benefits as well; it’s an exercise in mindfulness and has components of biology and ethical harvesting. It teaches not only how to be good stewards of the land but how to be healthy people ourselves.”

The process of preparing a hide begins with brushing away any foreign materials in the fur and making sure it’s clean. The preparer will then make incisions in the proper places and remove the hide. Once all the flesh is separated from the pelt, it is affixed to a board to dry, which is the last step before it’s ready for sale. The carcasses go back to the forest to be eaten by animals.

Prices vary from year to year but an average beaver pelt will sell for $20 to $25—a far cry from the high prices of decades past.

As for that Swedish Berry smell mentioned at the start of this story, there was a time when many raspberry-flavoured candies got their aroma from castoreum, a natural substance created by scent glands of beavers.

By all accounts, the program was a hit. Program participants said they enjoyed the new skills and it doubled as a team-building exercise for Gwek staff members as well.

“I come from a big hunting family, so we’d skin deer and rabbits, but I’ve never skinned a beaver. It’s a handy thing to know and I’m pretty excited to learn new skills,” said program participant Gagwih Jacobs from Six Nations of the Grand River. He said he never expected to get the opportunity to learn these skills.

“I was talking with one of the instructors and this is one of the largest courses they’ve done in years. It’s very much a dying work,” said Anne-Marie Thibault, clinical director of Gwek. “Our group is absolutely loving it; it’s something we’re going to be moving forward with, putting some traplines on our property when we’re able to do that in certain times of the year. I think this is great for Manitoulin.”

Mr. Mellan runs courses on the Island twice a year in conjunction with Laurentian University. This licence covers all fur bearers in Ontario, which ranges from minks and weasels to lynx, bobcats, coyotes and wolves. During this course, the participants worked on otter, muskrat, mink, weasel, marten, fisher, raccoon and fox hides.

Mr. Hagen estimated he has probably skinned 5,000 beavers in his life, about 100 per year. Most of the beavers from today were caught in the last two-and-a-half weeks.

“The group is doing really well. There’s interest there, they’re engaged, and they’re working well,” said Mr. Hagen.

A first-time trapper might spend four hours on their pelt while an expert can process a hide in an hour and a half, possibly faster.

While Mr. Jacobs was beginning to work on his beaver, the participant said back home in Six Nations there is a considerable coyote problem. He was hoping to return home and start trapping to help out his community.

“This program pairs important teachings with exciting learning. That’s what Gwek is all about,” said Mr. Gilchrist.