The Free Trapper

It’s tough to put a price on freedom. That goes for a lot of things, but we outdoors folks seem particularly fond of living life on our own terms. That means making a living doing something we’re excited to wake up to each morning, being our own boss, and living or dying by our own work, skills and merit. It’s tough to be in that place in today’s world, which makes that kind of freedom that much more attractive.

When it comes to an independent outdoor lifestyle, the free trappers had it pegged. Not trappers, but free trappers – more specifically, the free trappers of the American mountain man era. In a day when much of the country was still frontier only known to Indians and white trappers seeking valuable fur pelts, there was good money in trapping. Many went out in the country seeking fur, primarily in the form of beaver pelts, but the pursuit of a trapping living took multiple forms.

In his 2010 book “Fur, Fortune, and Empire”, Eric Jay Dolin described it like this: “Mountain men were either hired by one of the many fur companies operating in the Rockies, or they were free trappers. Akin to an indentured servant, the hired trapper was paid a set wage and outfitted by the company. In return he performed the chores required to maintain the trappers’ camp, and was obliged to bring his employer as many beaver pelts as possible.

There were also free trappers who received their outfit from the company but no wages, and were required to sell their pelts to the company at a predetermined price. But the most storied characters in the trapper’s fraternity were the truly free trappers who set their own course, answering to nobody.”

It’s hard not to admire the true free trapper. He lived on his own terms, worked when he chose to and sold furs to his preferred buyer at a price he negotiated. The risks were great and he lived only on what he could produce. There was no safety net. He was in control of his own destiny.

There aren’t that many free trappers in today’s society. Frankly, there are no actual trappers who make a full time living trapping fur. A few folks in Alaska and Canada come close, and others make a living by combining trapping furs with animal damage control fees, or sell lure, books and instructional videos to other trappers.

Though free trappers are gone, the concept of the free trapper is still alive and well in many places today. Freelancers – those who live and work on their own terms – are prevalent throughout the outdoor community. They guide hunters and anglers, write outdoor articles and books, build seasonal cabins, run sporting camps, blaze property lines, harvest timber, run cattle, grow crops and perform myriad other tasks. The risk is lower and the glory and sense of adventure aren’t quite what they were in the mountain man days, but the spirit of the free trapper lives in many of us, and we just can’t seem to shake it.

Heimo Korth, The Final Frontiersman

He left Wisconsin as a young man in 1975 and moved to Alaska, not to be famous or well known, but to live self sufficiently and get away from it all. But over time, Heimo Korth became a legend. Today, Heimo and his wife Edna live more remotely than anyone else in Alaska. They are the only permanent residents of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, having settled there just prior to its designation, and will almost certainly be the last.

Human settlement is no longer permitted in the refuge, and the Korths’ permit to live there expires with the death of their last daughter. A total of seven cabin permits exist in the Refuge, an area the size of the state of South Carolina, but the others only allow seasonal use for fur trapping.

Living 150 miles above the Arctic Circle, more than 100 miles from any sign of civilization, and 250 miles from the nearest road, some might think of Heimo as a crazy hermit. But not if you knew him. Heimo and Edna are friendly and inviting, social and fun. They just choose to live differently than most.

Life in the Arctic wilderness is the ultimate challenge. Every waking hour is spent preparing for winter, or surviving it. Food is scarce in this country, and the Korths must go far and wide to gather it. They hunt caribou, moose and small game, and gather plants, berries and roots. They catch fish in the nearby river. They cut mountains of firewood and haul water daily. To prevent overharvest of the scarce resources, they rotate between multiple cabins each year.

To supply the items they can’t get from the land, Heimo runs a trapline through the winter and sells fur pelts for cash. The main furbearers he targets are marten, lynx, wolverine and beaver. Between trapping and keeping warm, there’s no rest of the Korths, even in the dark days of the Alaskan winter.

Heimo is now in his 60’s, but has no plans of leaving his Arctic home. He hopes to die there. Living in a place where survival is a constant struggle, and work almost never stops, you’d think one might be tired and unhappy. But Heimo and Edna seem to be the some of the most truly satisfied people in the world. There’s something about hard work and living with a purpose that keeps one both physically and mentally satisfied, and the freedom of living on your own terms seems, at least to folks like Heimo, much more valuable than a good job and a retirement account.

The Korths first came into the spotlight when featured in a 1993 National Geographic documentary, “Braving Alaska”. A decade later, Heimo’s cousin, James Campbell, wrote “The Final Frontiersman”, a book about Korth’s unique life and journey. More recently, Vice Magazine spent some time with the Korths and put together a documentary, “Heimo’s Arctic Refuge”. And finally, the new television show “The Last Alaskans” features Heimo and the other cabin permit holders in the refuge. All are well worth discovering; they paint a picture of a lifestyle most can only dream of.

Dyeing and Bleaching Natural Fly Tying Materials

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You know you’ve gone deep down the fly tying rabbit hole if you’re considering dyeing your own materials. First off, you have to tie a heck of a lot of flies and need a lot of materials, and second, you must be extremely discerning when it comes to color. Most of us don’t go even close to that far, but a few have gone all the way. A.K. Best might be the best of the latter camp, as he’s become an expert on selecting, dyeing and otherwise modifying fly tying materials over the years.

Best’s book, “Dyeing and Bleaching Natural Fly Tying Materials”, is a reflection of decades worth of experimenting to get just the right shade or hue to match the natural bugs on the many streams he’s fished. Best makes the salient point that insect body color can vary significantly based on stream type, time of year, and even the makeup of the substrate.

Now personally, I like throwing bugs at dumb, hungry trout, but we don’t always have that luxury. Sometimes the fish are keyed in on just one particular fly, and they won’t vary from it for anything. That’s when a little tweak in shade can make a difference.

In this book, you’re taken through the entire process of dyeing and bleaching hair, feathers and fur, and while methodical, the process really isn’t that complicated. Best lays it out step by step, with excellent color photos to guide you along the way. You can dye materials using a kit put together with simple household items and supplies you can easily find at the local hardware store. The process entails degreasing, dyeing in a hot water bath, and drying, with variations based on material type. The process is broken down for body feathers, bucktail, deer and elk hair, calf and squirrel tails, furs and other items.

How do you get the color you’re looking for? It takes some practice and tweaking for sure. There’s an entire chapter of dye mixes and recipes to start with. And with material like dubbing, you can further blend dyed materials for better results. Make a mistake? Best describes color removal that can save that expensive rooster neck that didn’t come out quite right.

A.K. Best is one of the most respected names in the fly fishing world, and not just because of his fly tying and materials dyeing work. He’s an accomplished angler and the oft mentioned fishing partner of famous angling writer John Gierach. In fact, that’s how I found out about the book in the first place. Gierach writes the book’s introduction.

I’ve had Best’s dyeing book for years, and I still haven’t gone head first into dyeing my own materials, but I pick it up off the shelf every so often and consider starting. It can open up an entirely new world of fly tying opportunities for those who dare to venture down the path, as if fly tying wasn’t a rabbit hole in itself!

A Land Gone Lonesome

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It’s been occupied by humans for thousands of years. Nomadic tribes of natives roamed the upper Yukon River country in search of sustentance – fishing and hunting for food and trapping for fur to clothe them and provide currency for goods. White explorers found the country and pioneers established trading posts. Soon after, gold was discovered, and thousands flocked to the area. Vast mining camps were established near rich finds, each abandoned for the next potentially rich discovery.
The country became much quieter with the decline of the gold rush era, but a few tough, independent trappers held on, and occupied small remote cabins along the Yukon and its major tributaries. They caught fish in the summer to feed their sled dogs, hunted moose in the fall for winter meat, and trapped through the long, brutal winters.
Around the early 1970’s, an influx of people entered the upper Yukon River valley. In his book, “Coming into the Country”, John McPhee describes these modern day pioneers as folks who were fed up with modern society and wanted to live an alternative lifestyle, be one with nature, minimize consumption and basically live a simpler life. They were the ‘back-to-the-landers’, and they built their cabins and toughed the elements in what was virtually the last frontier available for Americans to do such a thing.
McPhee’s book painted a brilliant picture of the lives of these ‘river people’, and captivated the imaginations of millions. But McPhee’s story ended somewhat abruptly, when the people of the Yukon and their way of life was under grave threat. With the passing of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, this part of the river was destined to be deemed a “National Preserve”, managed by the National Park Service. The fate of the river people, those who had stuck it out and were too stubborn (or content) to move back to town, was in question.
That was 1976. What about today? Well the short answer, sadly, is that the river people are gone. In his 2006 book, “A Land Gone Lonesome”, Dan O’Neill travels the Yukon River by canoe, from Dawson City to Circle, and tells the stories of the past settlers, miners, trappers and river people along the way. He describes the history of each trapper cabin, shack, roadhouse and rusted piece of machinery along the great river’s banks. And most importantly, he expands on the human element behind the marks that were left on the land.
Somewhere along the development of the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, O’Neill was hired by the National Park Service to produce an oral history of life up and down the river. He interviewed the river people, both those remaining on the river and those who had moved away. He dug deep into the area’s cultural history and produced a story that otherwise would have been lost in time.
After reading “Coming into the Country”, some of the most captivating parts of this new book were O’Neill’s culmination of the characters’ stories from McPhee’s book 30 years later. The characters are all but gone from the landscape, for varying reasons, but the heavy hand of the National Park Service is a common theme among all of them.

In the interest of preservation, the National Park Service informed all occupants in the Preserve that they were residing illegally, and ordered them to leave. Through the work of Alaska congressmen, the subsistence lifestyle was recognized by the Service in its internal documents, and some were able to apply for a permit to stay, under certain (often unacceptable) circumstances. It proved too much for most folks to contend with though, and instead they went elsewhere.
Steve Ulvi moved off the river and went to work for the National Park Service. Seymour Able pulled stakes and built a cabin just outside of the park boundary. His family’s belongings were destroyed along with the original cabin. Terry McMullin was deeded land by the local Native corporation and built a cabin there. Randy Brown moved to Fairbanks and became a fisheries biologist. Ed Gelvin has since passed away, and his cabin was burned by the Park Service, just one among a long list. Since the 1970’s, the year-round population in the Preserve went from about 80 to zero.
Some of the other characters met unique fates. Dick Cook was McPhee’s most notable river character, and known as the ‘high swami of the river people”. He was one of the first to settle along the river in the modern era. He also stayed the longest. Cook’s cabin site happened to be in an area claimed by the Native corporation under ANILCA, and he was able to stay on. He continued to live a primitive lifestyle until he drowned in the river in 2001, at age 70. O’Neill tells the captivating back story. He also finishes McPhee’s profile of Joe Vogler, the explosive character, miner, and leader of the Alaska Independence Movement, whose life ended under very strange circumstances.
Dan O’Neill’s portrait of the upper Yukon River truly describes a land gone lonesome. Sure, it’s alive with recreational paddlers and National Park Service jet boats, airplanes and helicopters, but the trappers, miners and subsistence dwellers are gone. And they may never be replaced. That’s something we should all ponder, as a small part of us as Americans still seeks the opportunity to live wild, and may never get the chance to.

Coming into the Country

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It takes a special type of writer to truly understand the human condition in a particular place, and explain it in a meaningful way. There is less demand for such writers these days, especially when it comes to the outdoors. The problem is, as I’m discovering over time, few of us under 50 actually read anymore.

A while back I wrote about John McPhee, who covered the legendary northern Maine pilot and guide Jack McPhee in a well crafted story decades ago. As it turns out, the writer’s outdoor experiences extended far beyond the Maine woods, and he spent months living in and researching frontier Alaska in the 1970’s, resulting in a book that tells the story of a special place at a critical time in its history.

“Coming into the Country” is actually three books about Alaska and its people shortly after statehood, during the oil boom, and amidst the unfolding of the infamous Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). McPhee saw the country firsthand with those looking to preserve it, learned the motivations of politicians steering the state’s progress, and lived with the folks on the ground – natives, pioneering settlers and those in between – who were affected by it all.

“The Encircled River”, first of the three part book, follows McPhee and employees of the state and federal government on a long float trip down the Kobuk River, much of which was soon to be designated National Park or Preserve by impending acts of Congress. They were there to assess the value of the river, its wild and scenic characteristics, and make recommendations. For his part, McPhee gave a pretty good account of the canoe and kayak trip, the perspectives of the different agencies involved, natural history of the river and its importance to the local Eskimo population.

Part two, “What They Were Searching For” is an interesting divergence into Alaskan politics as the young state struggled to find its identity and unite its people. As trivial as it may seem, the entire section focused on the discussions around selecting a proper location for Alaska’s capital, as the voters had determined Juneau was too far and isolated from the people. As you might have guessed, nothing came of it, but the story highlights some interesting Alaskans from diverse backgrounds.

Finally, “Coming into the Country” tells the tale of the country around Eagle, Alaska, a tiny village on the Yukon River near the Canadian border. Long visited by nomadic native tribes, the area became famous during the Gold Rush in the late 1800’s, when more than 10,000 people occupied the village and surrounding hills in search of treasure. It was perhaps the richest gold district in all of Alaska.

Fearing instability and lawlessness among the mining camps, the U.S. Government set up a fort in the region, at a site which eventually became the town of Eagle. But over the years the gold boom died away, the fort was dissembled and like many mining towns, Eagle became mostly deserted.

Some prospectors stayed on and continued to work their claims in the creeks and mountains. New people moved into town, some looking for opportunity, some to get away from the outside of world, many looking for both.

Perhaps more notably, a wave of people from the Lower 48 began moving ‘into the country’ around the time McPhee visited during the 1970’s. By most accounts they were considered hippies, part of the ‘back to the land’ movement. Most were from cities or suburbs and wanted to get away from the ‘rat race’. Many were well educated, but couldn’t stand the idea of the ‘bright future’ that society offered them. They moved to the bush to live life as their ancestors did, shunning most of modern technology and seeking to relearn bushcraft, survival and a pioneering lifestyle. They purchased supplies and went off into the woods, some alone, some as couples. They built small cabins, grew gardens in the summer, harvested game and trapped fur during the winter. They made no more from the land than they needed to purchase minimal supplies and live as they pleased. They were an interesting bunch and settled up and down the Yukon River from Eagle. Most did not last more than a year or two.

During his time with the people around Eagle, McPhee gained a true understanding of the effects of the government and ANILCA. In essence, the Act was Congress’s way to split the vast Alaskan lands into various pieces so that it could be both utilized and protected. When it became a state, Alaska had the option to select a portion of the territory’s area as state-owned land, but it took longer than the Feds and the oil interests could tolerate. The push for development of oil on the North Slope necessitated the settlement of land claims.

In the end, Alaska Natives were given land and required to form corporations to manage it, the state was given land, and the rest was designated for what the Federal government saw fit as its proper use and/or protection. In short, it meant that much of the north was open to oil exploration, while most of the interior became National Park, Wildlife Refuge, Wilderness Area or National Preserve. With the signing of a bill, the government became owner of land that Alaskan natives and pioneers had until then enjoyed unimpeded use of.

If the cold, rough country didn’t drive pioneers away, their new landlords did. The hippies were told they were trespassing, miners were in violation of environmental laws. Natives struggled with the concept of private property, while outsiders struggled to understand why one couldn’t buy land in a place where it was so abundant. The country was changing, and its independent minded rugged individualists were struggling to adapt. McPhee was there for it all, and told the story well.

Comments on Corey Ford

A great number of authors have contributed to the archives of outdoor sporting literature, and here at Outdoor Sporting Library, we’ve hardly scratched the surface of what’s out there. A reader recently pointed out that I had failed write anything on Corey Ford, an iconic writer who penned a column for Field & Stream for almost 20 years, and wrote numerous books. Reader Henry Hegeman shares his thoughts on Ford below.

I was born in 1948 and grew up in the 50’s and 60’s reading the “Big Three” outdoor magazines.  Field & Stream was my favorite because of Corey Ford’s monthly column “The Lower Forty”.  Through these monthly shenanigans (and other pieces by Corey) I learned about sporting ethics, sporting etiquette, fair chase and what being a sportsman was all about.  The thing is, I never realized I was being taught these things until later in life.  I believe that was the true genius of Corey Ford…………he had the ability to entertain while at the same time delivering a message without being preachy.  He is without doubt my favorite outdoor writer.

Henry isn’t alone in his fond memories of Corey Ford’s writing, and its impact is still being felt.  Stay tuned for an OSL piece on Corey Ford sometime in the near future.


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