May 25, 2018
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Tales of a trapper wannabe

By Julia Bayly, BDN Staff

FORT KENT, Maine — Not that I’m really looking for a career change, but yet again events at Rusty Metal Farm have necessitated exploration of a new skills set.

This time however, there is at least some family tradition upon which to fall back.

See, my great-great uncle George Simpson McTavish Jr. was a chief trader and trapper for the Hudson’s Bay Company in the far Canadian north.

I know of his life because the man kept a meticulous journal and those writings were published in 1963 under the title “Behind the Palisades.”

In it McTavish writes of working as a clerk at HBC posts where he inventoried furs and other trade goods in unheated rooms so cold a pencil absently placed against his tongue froze there.

McTavish spent several seasons assigned to remote posts, living in total solitude in small cabins as he tended trap lines and traded with the local native population.

“I remember having a single geranium and during the long, cold severe winter I put it to bed on the shelf below the table with a good Hudson Bay blanket wrapped all around to protect it from freezing so I would have some green object to look at and care for,” he wrote of one winter assignment spent in a 10-foot-by-16-foot cabin.

He also wrote of traveling by dog sled with his team through horrific cold and blizzard conditions to deliver mail and other goods between posts along Hudson Bay.

Fast forward about 150 years where I, his great-great-niece, at times find my own path following that of McTavish, albeit in far less extreme circumstances.

Take the sled dogs, for example.

The dogs of Rusty Metal Kennel have truer hearts and more dedication than most people I know, but I’m not exactly sure they would be up to the task of hauling a 500- to 600-pound freight sled over the shifting sea ice of Hudson Bay.

I know for a fact this fairy princess is not.

But the dogs of my great-great uncle were massive, powerful brutes capable of handling the rugged conditions of the north.

I have a pretty good idea of what they looked like because among the items passed down in my family were photographs of the dog teams and — I am not making this up — the actual tanned hide of McTavish’s favorite lead dog Centaur.

According to family lore, the natives so admired and respected my great-great uncle that, when Centaur died, they took it upon themselves to create a lasting and somewhat furry memorial to the dog’s life.

This pelt was stored for years in a special container until the day — for reasons which remain unclear — my grandfather decided I should become keeper of the dog skin.

Lucky me.

While it was in my care it was at times displayed above the stairway, hung on a railing or laid flat on the guest bed.

The day I found one of my cats curled up asleep on the Centaur rug, I knew it was time for it to go to a new home.

Luckily around that same time the Hudson Bay Company’s gallery at the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature was reopening after a major renovation and, it turned out, George Simpson McTavish Jr. was among the featured characters on display.

As such, they were more than happy to accept my donation of several of his possessions including his brandy flask, binoculars, some original minted coins and a Cree-French dictionary, all on the condition they took the dog fur, as well.

I am happy to report Centaur remains on display, free from cats, and a favorite artifact for the school children who visit the gallery.

Above all else, McTavish was a trapper which brings me to the most recent example of our somewhat parallel lives in which I attempt to channel his skills.

Now, I’ve never been too keen on the trapping of fur-bearing animals, but recent events have convinced me otherwise.

Specifically, a morning earlier this week when house dog Corky-the-Shusky decided that the cute little black critter with the white stripe down its back would make a super new BFF.

Before I could even call her back, Corky had run up to the skunk to introduce herself.

The skunk, in turn, introduced itself in the manner totally in keeping with its species — back-facing, tail raised.

As Corky bolted back to the house I swear I could see the odor coming off her in waves as the skunk ambled off in the direction of the pond.

An aside — if you were to look up the word “nonchalant” in the dictionary, I’m pretty sure you’d see a picture of a skunk next to it. They are the very personification (skunk-ification?) of unhurried casualness.

Albeit brief, the dog-skunk interaction certainly altered the plans for my day which at that point came to include a hurried drive to the vets so I could use their washtub in which to bathe a very, very smelly pooch.

A second aside — if you were to look up the word “insulted” in the dictionary don’t be surprised to see a photograph of a Shusky who has been forced to ride into town in a dog kennel secured to the bed of a pickup.

Once Corky was deskunked, it was time to deskunk the area around the house.

Now, I’m pretty sure those Havahart traps — the ones that allow you to trap, and then release, an animal unharmed — were not around in my great-great uncle’s day, but thankfully the vet had one I could use.

So, channeling my trapping ancestor, I proceeded to place the trap in a likely location, bait it with a can of cat food and hope for the best.

Of course, “the best” meant actually trapping the skunk which meant a whole new set of problems.

My first thought was to throw a blanket over the entire trap if a skunk was found therein to prevent it from spraying.

But according to former Game Warden Chuck Richards who lives down the road, “The word ‘throw’ is never something you want to use or do in connection with a skunk.”

Point taken.

So, acting on Chuck’s advice, I instead placed the blanket over the trap ahead of time.

The next morning I carefully walked up to the trap and was delighted to see the door was closed, meaning something was imprisoned inside.

My sense of victory was cut short, however, the moment I heard the pathetic “meows” coming from inside the trap.

Instead of a skunk, I’d trapped Boris my cat, who while no doubt had enjoyed that can of cat food, was more than ready to be set free.

The last aside: His photo now appears with Corky’s next to the definition of “insulted.”

But I’m not ready to give up and admit defeat. Boris will doubtless stay away from the trap, having learned his lesson and I’ve only got two other cats who will need to learn the same lesson.

Then I’m back in skunk-trapping business.

I think my great-great uncle would be proud.

Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer who frequently submits articles to the Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by email at

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