For almost two decades, one Fort Smith trapper has passed on the traditional land-based lifestyle to high schoolers, taking them for week-long trips in the bush where they learn skills for wintertime survival.
This past winter marked Louie Beaulieu’s 19th annual PWK high school winter camp at his site on Piers Lake, a three-hour snowmobile ride out of town. While the students change year after year, the lessons they learn about connecting with the land stay the same.
The idea for the camp came about in 1996, when then-French teacher Claude Doucet and former natural resources officer Sholto Douglas – who used to run trapping workshops at the school – approached Beaulieu about taking the kids out on the land to learn.
“Claude wanted to do beaver trapping at the end of the year when it was warm and nice,” Beaulieu said. He was happy to make it happen. “We borrowed some beaver houses from a local trapper. It was late in the year so we couldn’t go far. We taught some kids how to set beaver traps and we made a camp where we hung around for a few days.”
After a successful trial run with about 12 students, Beaulieu and his crew decided to expand the camp the following year. Eventually, he started hosting the excursion on his own trapline.
Until the early 2000s, the camps ran every February, with anywhere between two to 17 students in attendance. In those first years, there was only one cabin on the property; kids and teachers lived in tents heated by wood stoves fueled by logs they had chopped. More recent pupils of the land get to enjoy a more luxurious experience by comparison, venturing out at the end of March when there is a chance of warmer weather, with cabins to sleep in and a kitchen to cook in.
In the camp’s 19 years there has only been one major incident when, about two years ago, one of the five cabins sitting on Beaulieu’s property went up in flames.
“I guess we didn’t teach them about wood stoves well enough,” Beaulieu said. A few years removed, he can now laugh about the incident.
Despite the fire, there have never been any serious injuries on his watch, the trapper said, an achievement he attributes to his survival lessons.
Lose a pair of mitts? Students are taught to sew their own. Don’t have a shelter for the night? The kids are expected to build their own from spruce bows, ropes and tarps. They test it out by sleeping there for the night, depending on the severity of the weather.
The teens also learn how to use a compass and how to make basic repairs to their sleds, in case of emergency.
Subsistence training is integral to the camp. Beaulieu teaches his brood the best ways to set up a fish net in the ice, how to set traps and how to skin and butcher the animals they harvest. Sometimes – like during this last trip – he goes out alone, leaving the group with other instructors so he can hunt for bigger game like caribou. Upon his return, he shares his harvest with the group, using the opportunity to make delicious drymeat.
Frequently, Environment and Natural Resource officers visit the winter camp. They use the students to help conduct seasonal ecological studies on snow density and the health of timber in the area.
Some parents were apprehensive about the idea initially, Beaulieu said, but now most are excited about the unique learning opportunity available to their children.
With the 20th trip coming up in 2016, Beaulieu doesn’t see the winter camp program stopping any time soon. It has turned into a tradition itself, a fun right of passage for Fort Smith youth.
“They keep asking me and it’s really hard to refuse,” Beaulieu said. “I get to meet a lot of different students from different cultures. Most of the students, once they’re out there, they’re really good. I don’t know if they still use the skills we show them when they come back, but again, a lot of times we’ll get repeats and when we get repeats, I try to make them help me out more to see if they still remember what they did last year.”