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In the fur boom years of the 1920’s and 30’s, trapping in the far north wilderness was one of the riskiest, but potentially most profitable occupations in society. Many who struggled to find jobs in and around civilization went north, trapped fur and came out in the spring with enough money for a fresh start on the outside.
Chick Ferguson first headed north to earn his stake in 1927. The newly married semipro boxer and owner of a failing photography studio in Montana, Chick followed a friend to run a trapline in Northwest Territories, Canada. They took the 600+ mile trip from Waterways, Alberta to Fort Providence, NWT, and then upriver in a canoe for days to get to the first of a series of trapline cabins in the Horn River watershed.
Back then the wilderness wasn’t considered a place for wives and children, but Chick’s wife Mary wasn’t your typical woman. When he headed north, Mary made it clear that she would be with him the following year, living in whatever cabin he was able to build, and helping him run traplines.
Chick and Mary’s first trip upriver to the trapline and winter home was a long, challenging journey, with numerous rapids and low water to navigate with a freighted canoe carrying an entire year’s supplies. For years, the travel between the Fort and the trapline would be one of the most difficult parts of living there, and it was probably the reason the area remained so isolated for so long.
The Fergusons planned to spend three or four years running the far north trapline, and sell enough fur to return to the outside world and start life anew. What they may not have realized at the time, though, is that those years in the north would be the most memorable and cherished times of their lives.
A trapper’s life in the north country is dictated by the seasons. In summer you purchase supplies from the traders at the Fort. You freight your supplies upriver to the trapline in late summer and store them in a cache to protect them from bears. Then it’s a mad dash to prepare for winter. You make all necessary repairs to cabins, build new trapline cabins that serve as outpost shelters during long trips, and rush to get food. That means shooting a moose or two for your consumption, and catching a pile of fish to feed the dogs if you’re running a dog team. Once prepared, you wait for freezeup and the start of trapping season.
When he started, Chick was running traplines on snowshoes, which was slow, hard work. He wasn’t an expert trapper either, and had to learn a great deal before making big catches of fur. But his lack of mobility and inexperience was made up for in hard work – he had a work ethic like nobody else. Over time he and Mary put together a dog team that allowed them to cover more miles in less time.
Winter was long, but having each other for companionship made it bearable, and Chick and Mary put together a decent catch of fur their first winter. They headed downriver when the ice broke up in the spring, sold their fur to the traders at the Fort, paid off debt, and resupplied for the next season.
The Great Depression set in when Chick and Mary were out in the bush. It didn’t help fur prices, but even more so, the lack of jobs made life in the outside world less attractive. They stayed in the woods. Over the years, they built up their cabins, traplines and supplies, and the duo were running around 800 traps during a winter when fur populations were at their peak. They had an absolute banner season, catching 166 fox, 161 mink, 115 lynx, 4 beaver and 2 otter. Fur prices were high in those days. It was enough money to get back to civilization, and they did. But the lure of the wilderness kept drawing them back.
A few years later, Chick, Mary and their four year old son Bill finally quit the north for good. They’d made a decent stake in the fur business, but more importantly, created memories to last a lifetime. It was time for Bill to go to school and for his parents to start a new life. They sold the trapline and moved on. It was someone else’s turn for adventure.
Chick Ferguson was an interesting character and a gifted writer, but Mink, Mary and Me was his only book. It’s quite rare and increasingly hard to find – usually selling for more than $100 – but it’s worth it.