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Part Two of Four: Old Man Fred and Muskrats 6/15/2004

Spring is a time of celebration. Every village in the Yukon Flats has their own Spring Carnival sometime in March. The Spring Carnival is a big deal. People talk about it and plan for it from January on. Kids abandon school and parents abandon work for Spring Carnival events. There are various events such as dog sled races for men and women, a three dog race for kids, and a one-dog race for kids as young as two! Other events included a women’s tea making contest. It is a race to gather wood and build a fire to boil water for tea. There are nail driving contests, candy scrambles for kids, unauthorized beer scrambles for the adults, snowshoe races, and even a chili cook-off. This last one Stephanie decided to enter. We have observed that the local cuisine is somewhat bland, and Stephanie’s daily cooking has been judged a little too hot for the local palate. So when it came to chili, she wasn’t sure how much bite to give it. I told her to go easy. As she was setting up, some of the local competitors were bragging about how hot their chili was going to be. We were assured that everyone was going to cook “some hot shit chili.” So Stephanie made what she would have made at home. Stephanie won the chili cook off, along with 50 bucks for first place. She was told by many that hers was so good, hot chili. I entered the nail driving contest, but didn’t do nearly as well.

Our neighbor, Heimo, is one of the few who consistently traps beaver houses within 10 or 15 miles of Fort Yukon. He goes out on his small Elan snow machine to check his traps every day. He runs two beaver snare lines at a time and checks one on odd days and the other on even days. Heimo invited me to go along with him one Saturday morning to check his beaver snares. I was glad to go along and see such a thing done. He hooked up a sled for me to sit in behind his snow machine. It was a wood-frame sled with an old caribou skin wrapped around the frame. We set out from the boat landing on the Yukon River. Of course the river was frozen solid and covered in deep snow. He navigated a path of his own making straight across the nearly mile-wide Yukon River. It was a white world, and the snow sparkled like millions of fine diamonds in the high sun as we slipped across the river. On the other side of the river, we turned up one of the branching sloughs, or feeder channels of the river. We crossed over a beaver dam and Heimo pointed out wolf tracks paralleling the trail we were on. He said this particular wolf had been nosing around his beaver set and that Heimo was trying to catch the wolf. We pulled up to the beaver set, and I couldn’t see a thing. Heimo got his shovel and started digging in the snow. He uncovered a 6 by 3 foot sheet of card board. He pulled up the cardboard and uncovered a 1 foot by 4 foot rectangular hole in the ice. Heimo had cut this hole in the ice with a chainsaw days before. The ice around the hole he had cut was nearly three feet thick. There were three slender spruce poles in the water, and to each one of these was tied six wire loops. When the snares are set, the wire loops are in the water underneath the ice. The object was for the beaver to entangle itself in these wire loops. We checked four of those sets up and down the river, but had no luck. I didn’t mind. I enjoyed being out on the frozen river. Each time we stopped at a different set, we both shoveled snow and talked as we uncovered the hole and the covered it over again. We each told stories about our own histories and got to know each other. When I travel even a mile out of town here, it feels like it’s a thousand miles away from anything, and for those few hours it was nice to be a thousand miles away.

Heimo could only take one person at a time, so the following Saturday, he invited Stephanie to along with him to check his other beaver line. She must be good luck, because they brought back a snared beaver. Each beaver caught is worth about $45 for Heimo. As soon as the animal is pulled out of the water it is wet of course. The animal must be dried off immediately before it freezes. Oddly enough, the best way to dry an animal like that it to throw it in the snow and rub snow all over it. Heimo brought the beaver back, skinned and gutted it and brought the carcass back to us so that we could prepare it for dinner. Once again, Stephanie dove in to the task with enthusiasm. She baked it like she might have baked a turkey. And the taste? Well, not awful but close, and I think she liked it a little better that I did.

Muskrat, however, it a tasty little varmit. We have another neighbor who lives on the other side of us from Heimo and Edna. His name is Fred and he is a shy and wiry little old man of 85 years. His continued physical activity is remarkable for anyone. His age makes it incredible. He cuts and splits probably ten or more cords of winter firewood each year. He ranges on trap lines easily a hundred miles in length. He goes on the river by himself and travels to his fall cabin to hunt moose. He stays there for months at a time, all by himself. He is somewhat legendary for being the best trapper of lynx around. Every day this past winter he has gone out on his snow machine to check his trap line, consisting mostly of muskrat traps. Old man Fred and Heimo are good friends and have been for the thirty years that Heimo has been in the area. When Fred heard that Heimo had invited me out to check his beaver lines, Fred decided to invite me out to check his muskrat lines, too. His shyness made his invitation sound more like a directive as he told me, “We’ll go out about seven Sunday morning.” I guessed he meant me. Fred had actually given us three muskrats before that day I went with him. Stephanie, ever the adventurous, was good natured about cooking them up. Shake’n’Bake, we were told by many, was the only way to eat muskrat. I told her we couldn’t just throw away a gift like that; we had to at least cook it and try it. Well, unlike the beaver, Stephanie was disgusted and didn’t eat more than a few nibbles, but I really liked the flavor. It was surprisingly good. And I’m glad I tried it before I actually went out with Fred to check his traps. At the first trap set, Fred bent over and reached deep in to the muskrat house, built on the frozen surface of the lake. He pulled out the trap with the a large muskrat attached. His pride and excitement showed as he held the critter up towards me by the tail and with his wry, old man smile announced, “Marsh rabbits!” We collected more than a dozen muskrats that morning, and they really did kinda look like big rats. They look like a mid-point in size and description between a rat and a beaver. It wasn’t enough to deter me from eating them again.

Posted on Tuesday, June 15, 2004 at 09:03PM by Registered CommenterBrian Rozell | CommentsPost a Comment

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