Above: Bill Durand (right) with friends showing off the results of their trapping efforts.

A Christmas on the traplines

Earning a living off the land meant Christmases away from home in Revelstoke. A historical short by Craig Spence

  • Sat Dec 24th, 2011 5:00pm
  • Life

Earning a living off the land meant Christmases away from home in Revelstoke.  A historical short by Craig Spence

Most of us associate Christmas with glittering trees, stockings ‘hung from the mantle with care’ and sumptuous feasts. But for Fred Durrand three of his most memorable yuletides were spent in primitive cabins, huddled around a cedar plank table, picking hair out of a concoction called caribou stew.

When he was 15 Fred went on his first trip into the wilderness south of Revelstoke to work the traplines maintained by his father Bill Durrand. For the next two seasons his Christmas breaks would be transitions from school, books and teacher’s dirty looks to an education that can only be earned breaking trail in the dead of winter with a loaded pack on your back.

Bill Durrand was a journeyman carpenter, a veteran of the Boer War and the First World War, and one of the pioneer citizens of Revelstoke. In the summer months he was warden of Mount Revelstoke National Park; in winter his love of the outdoors would find him trapping in the remote Bear Creek and Dog Creek valleys to the south.

“He trapped mink, weasel, lynx and even squirrel,” Fred recollects. Mink brought in the most money, but to get the prized pelts required feats of skill and endurance that seem inconceivable to inhabitants of the 21st Century, accustomed as we are to central heating, door to door transportation and grocery store shopping.

Fred’s first year trapping, 1939, started out okay. He and his father caught a train heading south along Canadian Pacific track to Wigwan and the farm of Clarence McLeod. They would overnight there and wake up to a hearty breakfast of bacon, eggs, pancakes and toast. It was the last ‘greasy spoon’ meal Fred would enjoy for quite a while.

From that day on their fare would consist of dry food packed in through waist deep snow. “Everything had to be backpacked in, so we carried only dry food: rice, flour, oats, sugar, powdered milk and beans.” The Spartan diet would be supplemented with meat “when a caribou could be shot.”

They set out from the McLeods’ with Fred struggling to learn the snowshoer’s gait. He had often watched his father make snowshoes by hand, steam bending the wooden frames and stretching the hide webbing. But Fred had never strapped on a pair of the unwieldy rackets himself and would get lots of practice falling before he mastered the snowshoer’s stride.

Bill Durrand wasn’t one to mollycoddle a greenhorn. “He’d just keep on going, and I’d have to catch up every time I fell.” After hours of breaking trail they finally passed a shack, which Fred asked his Dad about. Bill Durrand informed him that it was called Halfway House.

PHOTO: Fred Durrand pictured in summer next to one of the cabins on his father Bill’s trapline.

“I thought, God if this is only half way how am I ever going to make it all the way,” a hint of trepidation in Fred’s voice more than seven decades later.

By trapper’s standards the first cabin on Bill Durrand’s trapline was a resort. It had plank wood floors and a stove – all the conveniences. Fred recalls his father stopping in a snowy clearing and saying they had arrived. But there was no cabin in sight. It was buried. To get in they had to tunnel down through the snowpack.

At the family home in Revelstoke Fred would occasionally slather a slab of his mother’s home made bread with molasses then, for good measure, top it off with a couple of heaping spoons of sugar. When he tried to make his wilderness tea a bit more palatable by adding a second spoon of sugar his father admonished, “When you pack in your own supplies you can use as many spoonfuls as you like, until then, one will do.”

The deficiencies of a trapper’s cuisine became painfully obvious when Fred and his father sat down for a Christmas meal out on the line. Bill reached into his pack and pulled out a bannock cake. It was frozen solid.

Says Fred, “Yeah, so here I was up in the mountains chewing on this frozen bannock, when all my friends back home were sitting down to turkey dinner with all the trimmings.”

Each day Fred and his father would walk the trap lines that radiated out into the valleys of Bear Creek and its tributaries. ‘Trap houses’ were cut into hollowed out cedar trees, one atop the other. As the snowpack accumulated the traps were moved into higher and higher sets.

Cold as it was, the two of them built up a sweat, and by the second week of his tour Fred remembers feeling more than a bit grubby. By the trapper’s code you lived in the same long johns the whole time you were in the bush. “You worked in them, slept in them and ate in them,” Fred says. And if you were particular about such things, you might wash them when you came out of the woods to get supplies.

Moving through mountainous terrain during avalanche season requires a bit of luck and a lot of knowledge. Bill Durrand would delay trips from the first cabin to the second based on his read of the snow.

Crossing an avalanche path even when the snowpack was stable presented risks, though. During his second trapping season Fred and a companion Uno were traversing a crusted over snow field with Bill in the lead, chopping through the ice with a hatchet and warning the boys to be sure to step into the footholds.

No sooner had he cautioned him than Bill slipped, sledding down the steep slope on his backpack like an overturned crab. Fortunately a cedar tree part way down the mountain stopped his descent and the boys were just able to contain their laughter.

In 1941 Fred joined his father and older brother Tyke for his third season on the trapline. Fred remembers one day spent recovering the carcass of a caribou Tyke had shot. Tyke and Bill were dragging the carcass through the snow, Fred following with the head. Suddenly from behind he heard the shriek of a cougar.

“I’d heard it sounded just like the cry of a baby, and that’s just what it sounded like,” he remembers.

On another occasion Tyke and Bill were out on the trapline, Fred’s assignment was to make supper. The rule was one cup of rice in a five-pound margarine container. Fred, thinking two was better than one, added a second cup. To his horror the rice expanded until it overflowed the makeshift pot. Durrand Senior didn’t say much about it, but by then Fred knew he had broken one of the trapper’s golden rules.

They had a shortwave radio with them, and tuned in periodically to the news from outside. Fred remembers the three of them listening to reports of the ongoing German invasion of Russia.

The crackly reports were coming from a distant continent in a faraway world. But soon enough the war would be a grueling new reality for both boys. Tyke was already enlisted and would soon be in training to be a tank commander in the Canadian army. The following September Fred would sign up too and head for Europe as a dispatch rider with the troops that eventually liberated Holland.

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Craig Spence is a writer, journalist and communications professional based in Langley. He is currently the President of the Federation of B.C. Writers. Find him at www.craigspencewriter.ca