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Trapping: A Way of Life

For centuries, fur trade has helped shaped the history of the Gunflint Trail region. Were it not for fashionable beaver pelt hats in Europe who knows how this region in the heart of the North American continent would have been developed. From 1650 until the early 1800s, French and English voyageurs paddled their mighty canoes into Minnesota’s Arrowhead region to trade a variety of goods like beads and kettles with the Ojibwe people for beaver pelts. The trapping of mink, fisher, beavers,  and pine martens continued to be an important source income for Gunflint Trail residents well into the 20th century.

Early Gunflint Trail pioneer Charley Boostrom of Clearwater Lodge fame, spent many winter months on trapline when he came to the area in the 1910s. Lloyd K. Johnson recalls that Charley would come into Grand Marais at winter’s end to trade his furs at the trading post owned by Lloyd’s father, Charlie. Both Charlies would inspect the fur, determining the furs’ worth based on the quality of each fur, a process known as grading. Charlies were alike in more than just name. The price the two men each individually figured the furs to be worth “came in within 25 cents of each other,” Lloyd said in a 2002 interview with the Cook County Historical Society.

Trapping was cold work that kept trappers out in the winter elements for weeks on end. North of Saganaga Lake in Canada, trappers like the Powells and Plummers spent two-three weeks out on the trapline at a time, traveling from one trapping shack to another. The shacks were small log structures that often provided few amenities other than a roof over the trappers’ heads.

But not all nights were spent in the relative comfort of these trapper shacks. In 1979 interview, Gunflint Trail entrepreneur Russell Blankenburg described the trapping practices of  Pete LaPlante in the 1920s and 30s.According to Russell, Pete would head out on the trapline on bitterly cold winter days.

“On those days Pete would head right out into the woods for week with just a light pack sack and a light blanket while I’d freeze to death in the meantime. Way below zero you know, 40 below or so and he didn’t mind it at all,” said Russell. “But one thing, his technique of how to build his fire and the way he’d commonly do it if you were with him any time, you’d see how he does it, he’d get one of these cliffs with the wind at the back, not the front, see the wind’s going over the top. A cliff would be fifteen, twenty, thirty feet high for that matter. But he’d make his fire then, he’d cut dry wood, standing dry wood, in six foot lengths. Not little pieces like we build a fire. He’d cut them six foot lengths and lay that on the reserve pile at the foot of the cliff. So that the heat would be a reflector. And then he would get in there next to the cliff.”

Modern technology and equipment have changed the nature of trapping, but on a much smaller scale than years ago, trapping continues to this day. Just as before, trapping still generates supplemental income to help make ends meet during the long winter months.

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