Monday, November 8, 2010

Snippet of Chapter Six From the Book in Progress

“Life is as dear to the mute creature as it is to a man. Just as one wants happiness and fears pain, just as one wants to live and not to die, so do other creatures.”

~His Holiness, The Dalai Lama~

Human body-sized bergs of ice floated gingerly down Salt Creek, occasionally coming up for air, as my brother and I waded carefully downstream donned in our heavy coats, rubber gloves and hip waders. Barren elm trees towered over our heads along opposing banks, disrobed by yet another brisk fall and frigid early winter.

My brother and I were winter fur trappers and traders. It fit in nicely with the fantasy I’d developed of being a mountain man. It also helped supplement my allowance and put gas in my car. During some seasons I pocketed as much as 400 dollars, which was a small fortune to a teenager.

It was like this most every winter before the hard freeze. Just before the creek froze solid, finally succumbing to sub-zero temperatures, chunks of ice would begin to form and drift along, bumping my brother and I in the back of the legs as we waded along checking our muskrat traps which lined both sides of a creek that varied in depth from ankle to chest. Although we were familiar with the layout of the river, a wrong step would mean filling your waders with icy fluid which at worst could pull you under and drown you. At best, the temperature of your entire lower torso would begin to plummet and the pain and discomfort of approaching frostbite made a usually peaceful outing excruciating. Stepping in a hole and filling our hip waders had happened to each of us at least once and it was NOT a feat we cared to repeat.

On this particular sunny, yet frosty Saturday morning, we were moving our traps downriver to a place where we hadn’t yet depleted the population of muskrat. Adding to the intrigue of the ice formations trying to drag us under was the small detail of reports a man had drowned upstream in Lincoln a few days before. No body had been recovered and the search spanned a portion of the river we explored. In other words, every time we were bumped by a chunk of ice, we were sure we had just been discovered by the ghost of Salt Creek. We were both pretty spooky in those days and watching us jump and gasp must have made a hilarious spectacle. In fact, hearing my brother and I share those tales back home was another thing that actually made my dad smile.

We had just completed checking our traps along “Old Salt Run”, a stagnate body of moss- layered filthy water which ran from the local cesspool westerly until in dumped into Salt Creek. It was rich with muskrat and we chose to leave those traps where they were for the time being and concentrate on moving the torturous metal objects that lined both sides of the larger creek.

Now would probably be a good time to offer a little background on the “art” of trapping muskrat. You may not like it, but at least it will offer a glimpse in to how we captured the furry prey on a shallow river. Our basic premise was to watch the creek banks for signs of activity in the form of muskrat tracks or dens that were dug into the side of the river. Once a suitable spot was chosen, we would place a steel trap just below water level right against the bank. The end or chain of the trap was then tied to a stake which we placed away from the bank in deeper water. Once the unsuspecting rodent found his leg embraced by the unforgiving steel, the current would pull him into deeper water where he would then drown. We knew we had a catch when there was no trap visible along the bank. A lone stake with no visible trap meant we had added one to our bag of goods. On rare occasions we would find empty traps where larger muskrat had chewed off a leg in order to escape. As gruesome and unforgiving as it sounds now, it was just normal fare back then. I seldom gave it a second thought.

During the previous week we had noticed that raccoon had burrowed a large den under a large tree directly across the river from one of our traps. Although raccoon pelts brought substantially more money than muskrat, we just weren’t rigged for trapping them so we stuck to larger numbers of pelts with lesser value. We had discussed trying to trap some of the raccoon family, but collectively decided it just wasn’t worth the retooling.

As we approached the trap directly across from the raccoon den, we made a discovery that caught us both by surprise. Although our intent was to merely check the trap and move it downstream, what we found stopped us knee-deep in frigid water. We looked at each other in amazement. An unsuspecting raccoon, while walking down the river bank looking for food, had stepped in our muskrat trap. Apparently the coon’s extra weight and size made it possible for him to step up higher on the bank rather than being pulled into the deeper water. There he stood, firmly grasped by the cold steel, glaring in amazement now at the two men responsible for his predicament.

I have to admit our first response was to count money since a raccoon pelt meant thirty-five dollars as opposed to just the four or five dollars we received for a good muskrat. The raccoon’s pitiful predicament quickly created a second response from both of us, which was that we should just release him to be reunited with his family across the river. We just stared at each other and shook our head. How on earth were we supposed to approach an angry, cornered raccoon and just let him go? There was no way on earth this bandit-faced rascal was going to let us anywhere near him. He hissed, and glared and pulled back on the trap, reminding us of the cruelty of his plight.

We discussed several options, all of which eventually led to one of us being face-to-face with the angry critter while we tried to loosen the trap. Try as we might to muster a solution that didn’t require such close quarters, neither of us could come up with a thing. And even if we could, we wondered, how would he fair in the wild with a broken leg? It seemed the raccoon’s fate was determined by a power higher than ours and we clearly couldn’t just leave him.