This article first appeared in my monthly column in the Northwoods Sporting Journal – Jeremiah Wood.
It’s tough to put a price on freedom. That goes for a lot of things, but we outdoors folks seem particularly fond of living life on our own terms. That means making a living doing something we’re excited to wake up to each morning, being our own boss, and living or dying by our own work, skills and merit. It’s tough to be in that place in today’s world, which makes that kind of freedom that much more attractive.
When it comes to an independent outdoor lifestyle, the free trappers had it pegged. Not trappers, but free trappers – more specifically, the free trappers of the American mountain man era. In a day when much of the country was still frontier only known to Indians and white trappers seeking valuable fur pelts, there was good money in trapping. Many went out in the country seeking fur, primarily in the form of beaver pelts, but the pursuit of a trapping living took multiple forms.
In his 2010 book “Fur, Fortune, and Empire”, Eric Jay Dolin described it like this: “Mountain men were either hired by one of the many fur companies operating in the Rockies, or they were free trappers. Akin to an indentured servant, the hired trapper was paid a set wage and outfitted by the company. In return he performed the chores required to maintain the trappers’ camp, and was obliged to bring his employer as many beaver pelts as possible.
There were also free trappers who received their outfit from the company but no wages, and were required to sell their pelts to the company at a predetermined price. But the most storied characters in the trapper’s fraternity were the truly free trappers who set their own course, answering to nobody.”
It’s hard not to admire the true free trapper. He lived on his own terms, worked when he chose to and sold furs to his preferred buyer at a price he negotiated. The risks were great and he lived only on what he could produce. There was no safety net. He was in control of his own destiny.
There aren’t that many free trappers in today’s society. Frankly, there are no actual trappers who make a full time living trapping fur. A few folks in Alaska and Canada come close, and others make a living by combining trapping furs with animal damage control fees, or sell lure, books and instructional videos to other trappers.
Though free trappers are gone, the concept of the free trapper is still alive and well in many places today. Freelancers – those who live and work on their own terms – are prevalent throughout the outdoor community. They guide hunters and anglers, write outdoor articles and books, build seasonal cabins, run sporting camps, blaze property lines, harvest timber, run cattle, grow crops and perform myriad other tasks. The risk is lower and the glory and sense of adventure aren’t quite what they were in the mountain man days, but the spirit of the free trapper lives in many of us, and we just can’t seem to shake it.