Many of you know Terry Palm as a watercolor artist, born and raised in Billings. He now lives in Minnesota and his annual art show in Billings draws hundreds of admirers, but it is less known that for several years Terry has been writing short stories based on his early adventures along the Yellowstone River in what is now Josephine Park.  Today’s installment, The Trapline, is the fourth of six short stories in a series he’s titled, “Always a River”

The Trapline

In junior high, we had to read two books. I picked Traplines North and Starbuck Valley Winter. Both were about running traplines in the wilderness and fueled my imagination and dreams of doing just that. My wilderness was the Chub Ditch and the nearby river bottoms. Although I had thoughts of bigger critters like beavers and badgers, my #2 traps were only big enough for muskrats and mink. While fishing the Chub Ditch, I had seen some muskrats so l figured I could trap some.

Trapping season opened on a Saturday in late September and I was anxious to load my bike with my 15 traps and stakes, hatchet and lunch and head for what would be a long day on the ditch. I waded with hip boots, setting traps along the way and the trapline was about a mile long.

There was a lot of fresh muskrat sign and although I had no experience, I was confident that I would catch some rats. Most sets were in the entryways of dens which were dug into the ditch banks. Other sets were where there were tracks in the mud showing frequent muskrat traffic. The first is the hardest day of having a trapline and I worked at it all day, with the last trap being set just as the sun went down. Whew. Back on my bike and home with high expectations of what tomorrow would be as I checked my traps. To me, trapping was the best way to really be close to the natural.

To make the sets, you have to be right down in the mud and crud to do it right. You are out in the elements whether raining or snowing, freezing or thawing and the sets have to be made without gloves. No hurrying, no shortcuts. There is some pride in making a good set.

Morning couldn’t come fast enough and my bike wouldn’t go fast enough as I peddled to the trapline. I checked the traps from the ditch bank, looking down at the set from a safe distance of a foot or two. Wading in thigh-deep water would put your face too close to whatever may be in the trap. A lesson learned was on my very first trapline.

I flopped down and parted the grass right above the set, putting my face about 12” from the trap which I was guessing might produce a muskrat. Instead, a hissing, snarling mink exploded out of the grass. Thankfully, the chain stopped the big male a fraction of an inch from my nose. Memories stay with you, and from then on, I took a little more care in checking traps.

It took about two hours to check the 15 traps and it was a good day: 5 big muskrats, 1 small and 1 front foot. Sometimes when caught by a front foot, the animal will chew through the lower leg to be set free. Most traps have live animals that have to be clubbed and then removed from the trap. I reset all the traps that needed resetting and peddled home with the six rats to begin the unappealing part of running a trapline.

To sell the pelts, they had to be skinned and stretched. Since we didn’t have a garage, I set up in the dank basement of our house to do the dirty work, with my parents’ permission. Each one took about 20 minutes to skin and stretch.

The fresh rats weren’t too bad but the ones that had drowned and had been in the trap for a few days had a stench that I still haven’t forgotten. To do the skinning, the rat is hung upside-down and, after cutting down one back leg, across the rearend and up the other leg, the hide could usually be pulled down and off the carcass.

In doing the drowned or ‘seasoned’ rat, quite often the entire abdominal cavity would be green and blue with rot. The force of pulling the skin down would often break the guts loose and right back at you. The smell of the rotten guts wasn’t easily ignored and seemed to soak into my hands for a smell that you couldn’t disguise. In those days, there was a liquid called Germtrol which could be purchased by the gallon. The mixture of rotten rat insides and Germtrol left the basement with an odor of its own. Large rats brought about $1.50, mediums $1 and smalls about 50 cents. So, the first day’s take was about $8 which was a lot in those days, but good grief, the work.

The season lasted for about two months each year and I trapped for several seasons. I invited different outdoors types to run the trapline with me but each one lasted only a day or so. Can’t imagine why!?

The all-time worst episode was when I had made 15 really good sets and a blizzard hit overnight which prevented me from checking the traps for about a week. Snow had drifted in over the ditch making it impossible to find the sets. This was a very troubling situation.

My belief was that if I set traps, I was responsible for checking them every day, without exception. The thought of animals suffering in traps for days was a thought I couldn’t think. This crippling, sudden snowstorm was the only such event in all the years I trapped but it was enough to make me think seriously about what I was doing. Imagining the plight of the caught animals, I couldn’t take it and that was my last trapline.


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