After spending a month in the bush collecting hundreds of beaver and muskrat pelts, one couple in Fort Smith has returned home to share stories of the adventure with their family.
For Mary and Ken Schaefer, 45 and 47, the hunting trip was not only a way to reconnect with life on the land, but a way to practice what they preach. The thought of their grandchildren was never far from their minds, they shared with The Journal.
“We have grandkids now, so it’s something for them to see us doing. When we come back, they hear how we spent our days there going about the hunt. They’re always interested and they love to hear the stories,” Mary said.
The Schaefers have been meaning to go on a month-long hunt since their last lengthy outing in 2006, but it wasn’t until this year that they had the opportunity to go.
“It all depends on when the river opens,” Ken said.
The Schaefers began the excursion in late April, crossing the Slave River with two friends on snowmobiles – and a sled dog team in tow – before heading northeast to Hanging Ice River where they have a cabin. Their friends dropped them off and returned to Fort Smith on the sleds.
At their home off the grid, the Schaefers spent a grueling, yet peaceful 29 days collecting furs at an average of 20 per day. Each morning they woke up around 7:00 a.m. to begin fleshing the animals they had hunted the day before. Muskrats are relatively easy, they said, but the beavers are a tedious process.
“We always make sure we wash all the beaver hides, hang them up and dry them and when we start fleshing them, that takes a long time. They’re so fat, it’s like a seal skin,” Ken said. “It’s lot of work.”
After the pelts are fit for freezing and transport, the two would grab their guns and head back onto the river to hunt more beavers and muskrat.
An important lesson, learned over years of hunting, is not to shoot too many animals in one day because that means too much work the next day, Ken said.
“She’s got an itchy trigger finger,” he said with a chuckle, referring to his wife. “She did the shooting, I did the swearing.”
One day while they were on the boat hunting, Mary shot a large beaver and when Ken went to haul it into the boat, grabbing it by the hind leg, the animal fought back. Quick thinking and speedy reflexes allowed Ken to reach his axe and finish the kill, just barely avoiding a nasty bite.
The couple shared another story of when they lucked out and stumbled upon a nest of fresh goose eggs.
“I cooked Mary a Mother’s Day breakfast of eggs. One each fed us; they’re huge,” Ken said.
Once they were satisfied with their fur haul, the Schaefers returned to Fort Smith on May 24 and 25 by float plane, which required multiple trips to transport the pelts and the dog team.
In total, the Schaefers brought home pelts from 121 beavers, 270 muskrats, one otter and a bear. The money they will receive from the pelt sales will only just break even with the cost of the trip and the time off work, they said. But the experience is priceless.
“It’s a way of life. We’ve grown up doing this kind of thing. I’ve been out trapping for 35 years and I’m not going to stop now. It’s always nice to be in the bush,” Ken said while Mary nodded in agreement.
Reaching young ears
For one of the Schaefers’ daughters, Farrah Freund – a mother herself to two little ones – having parents that practice a traditional lifestyle is an important part of raising her children.
“That’s how my parents raised my brother, sister and I. They raised and fed us on a hunter’s and trapper’s income,” she said. “They’re just trying to keep the tradition alive.”
Freund said her children love to hear the stories from their grandparents and, in the future, she hopes their interest will grow and eventually encourage them to go into the bush themselves.
According to the Schaefers, setting the example for their grandchildren and the community youth is one of their main motivations to continue going out on the land.
“If we don’t, if we stop, our kids will probably go out but there will be gaps in the teachings. It’s quite important for our kids, our grandkids and other young people,” Mary said.
She said many youth in the community are no longer seeking out knowledge of traditional lifestyles from elders or practitioners, preferring to stay indoors on the computer or phone, or watching TV.
“Something that’s always in the back of my mind is our youth. They need help,” Mary said. “It’s not just Ken and I. There are a lot of people out there with a lot of knowledge for these young people, but nobody is saying anything.”
It’s up to the community to bridge the gap between the youth and the knowledge keepers, she said. One idea is to hold short camps, even just for the day, led by elders and knowledge holders that would be close to town but still in the bush, to introduce the youth to a traditional lifestyle and open communication between generations.
“I’m sure we would all be a lot stronger and a lot more open around a campfire,” Mary said.