Guiding for sheep is very much a seasonal endeavor. When the ice on Northern Lakes begins to melt in June, we round up horses, put shoes on them, cut trails, clean out cabins, stack firewood, fill food pantries with canned goods, scout for sheep, and generally get ready for the real work to come! Hunters arrive at base camp on August 1st and then the next two and a half months are just a blur of saddling horses, climbing mountains and chasing rams. By late October the geese are flying south along with our hunters and the lakes are again starting to freeze up. Now what does a sheep guide do?
In the fall of 1978, I realized that my off season academic life (university) was coming to an end. I needed another challenge, preferably something similar to sheep guiding. So I flew out to my Grandfathers trap line near Horse Ranch Lake and prepared to spend the winter trapping Lynx, Pine Marten, Wolverine, Wolf and Beaver….all by myself….no people, no towns, no roads, and no TV. Human contact was just an occasional conversation on the single side band radio or listening to the AM radio when atmospheric conditions were right.
Six months on snowshoes is not an exaggeration! As long as temperatures were warmer than minus 35 C, I was out on the trail looking for animal tracks, setting traps, and carrying the occasional Lynx or Marten back to the warmth of my log cabin. I used lightweight, Teslin snowshoes made from birch with raw hide webbing. My main trap line for Lynx was over 30 miles long. I would often snowshoe this distance in one day, leaving and arriving back at the cabin in darkness. A day off consisted of skinning & stretching hides, cutting firewood and resting my weary bones. When the snow finally began to melt in late March, I remember the sheer joy of taking off those snowshoes and walking on hard, bare ground!
Solitude is greatly underrated. This is especially so when experiencing a Yukon winter. You focus on the “here & now”, wolves howling at night, the cracking sound poplar trees make at -50, vivid northern lights, a spruce grouse flushing from its snow den, hoar frost twinkling like a million diamonds in the morning sunlight, and the welcome feel of a Chinook wind on your face as the temperature changes by twenty degrees in a matter of minutes. Solitude enhances self reliance. You quickly learn to manage risk. Is that log over the open creek too slippery to walk across…do those fresh grizzly tacks in the December snow mean you should head right back to the safety of your cabin….are you wearing enough clothes for a sudden blizzard or severe temperature drop? Trapping is hard work and the monetary rewards are small. One spring I harvested fifty beaver and earned a paltry sum of 12.00 per pelt (surely much less than minimum wage). My hands were swollen from hours of scraping fat from hides, but I was very fit, both physically and mentally (at least I thought so)!
Returning to civilization after a long, solitary winter out on the trap line was somewhat of a shock. A hot bath, a glass of beer, a cheeseburger, beautiful girls walking down the street, people asking too many questions, people making too many demands….this was almost a different universe. Within a few years this universe would become even more complicated, learning to fly, buying my own business, marriage, children, etc. Trapping, like guiding for sheep, is a wonderful lifestyle!
BONNIE on Six Months On Snowshoes cwidrig on LIFE OF A SHEEP GUIDE-PART… Ruby Johnny on LIFE OF A SHEEP GUIDE-PART… Martin Valles on LIFE OF A SHEEP GUIDE PART 9-… Mike Danielson on LIFE OF A SHEEP GUIDE PART 9-…