I left the dark, quiet house at 4:30 a.m., my usual departure time. The glow from the yard light cast shadows on the snow ahead of me until I crossed through the stand of trees that rimmed our farmyard. Into the darkness beyond, the low clouds shut out moonlight or starlight.
My eyes adjusted as I followed my well-worn path, and by the time I arrived at the edge of the big cattail slough, I could see fairly well. Winding my way through the tall cattails growing out of the ice, I approached the big mound of mud, bulbs, sticks and stalks that erupted from the frozen water. I was working my way around to the back side when the surface gave way under my feet.
In a stroke of good fortune, the thin spot, where the muskrats enter and leave under the ice, was narrow and I was close enough to the muskrat house that I could hang on to the rough, frozen surface and claw my way out. Wet from the waist down with the temperature around 25 degrees, I was cold, but that wasn't the worst of my problems.
I still had a dozen muskrat traps to check before the half-mile walk home. Even more important, I needed to sneak into the house and hide my wet clothes before getting ready for school.
We lived a rural life on our farm in North Dakota, and dad ran a trapline during the winter to supplement the meager income the farm produced.
He would take me to check the traps sometimes, and when I turned 9, I convinced him I could run a small line of my own. There was the nearby cattail slough as well as a creek that ran along the northwest side of our property. I convinced him I could make the round trip to the slough before school and check the longer run along the creek after school.
When Dad agreed to front me some traps, he had some rules beyond what the regulations required. The most important one was that no matter what, the traps had to be checked every day. There were no days off, not for bad weather, sleeping in or even sickness.
My mother thought it was crazy for a kid to do what I was doing. I knew if she found out I had fallen through the ice, she would put an end to my trapping.
I got away with it, but my brief trapping career was cut short when we moved to Alaska the following year. The logistics for trapping where we lived just didn't pencil out, so I didn't pursue it. But I didn't forget it.
Memories from those early days of trapping are among my fondest. Trapping was the first time in my life where I made my own way. Things that happened along the way were mine to deal with, alone. The responsibility helped mold me into the person I am today.
I thought of trapping often and I missed it, but I could never find the time to do it right until later in life when things slowed way down.
When time allowed, I decided to run a small trapline and catch enough otter, beaver and mink to make hats and mittens for our forays in the winter. Nothing keeps you warm better than fur.
I ran a small line and had some success, but more than anything, I enjoyed the walks along the waterways in the twilight, seeing all the things you never see in the daytime.
Early one mornings I decided to make another water set and had chopped through the ice of the creek and had a 330 Conibear trap — a large trap designed to kill quickly — attached to the pole for the set.
I was bent over the trap, compressing the heavy springs to set the trigger, and the next thing I remember is picking myself up off the wet ice. Blood was spurting out of my mouth as I spit out teeth, and I was dizzy and disoriented. It felt like my lower jaw was broken.
The pain wasn't awful (that would come later) as I made my way along the rest of my line, springing the sets as I went, because I knew I wouldn't be back for a day or two.
It took almost a year of reconstruction before my smile resembled anything but an individual with a bad meth habit. It drained my bank account by $14,000.
I'll save those who will comment that I had it coming, this trouble. I had those exact thoughts as I followed the blood trail I had left when I came back along my path.
I was never able to determine what went wrong. I set the trap several times successfully trying to figure it out, and nothing seemed amiss.
I think folks who are compelled to the hunting, fishing or trapping lifestyle, or those who make their living raising and slaughtering the beef, pork and poultry that make their way to tables around the world, develop a hard shell. The paradox of first-hand completion of the life cycle is the gratitude, even joy, at success and the sadness that follows. Most folks in the modern world can choose to live without ever having to know that sadness, without ever having to think about the way it goes.
Without a better way to say it, my shell got cracked that morning on the ice. I haven't run a trapline since.
I know I still could, if I had to, and I feel fortunate that I don't have to. Trapping remains an honorable and tough choice to make one's way, and I don't know of a better way for youngsters to learn the responsibilities and realities of life.
On occasion I still go out in the darkness and walk those lines from the past. These days, that's enough for me.
Steve Meyer of Kenai is a longtime Alaskan and an avid shooter. He writes every other week about guns and Alaska hunting.