Soft Gold

‘Soft gold’ is a term used to refer to the fur trade–and often to beaver pelts specifically.

The fur trade was a huge contributor economically to the development of North America. Although fur trading reached its zenith during the 19th century here in the United States, the fur trapping and trading industry is still a multi-billion dollar worldwide business.

Growing up in the 1970s and 80s, trapping not only provided supplemental income for our family of five, it created an opportunity for father-daughter bonding as well. As November neared, Dad would start preparing for the trapping season. He’d walk the fields and creek behind our house or other approved land to get a sense of how the animals were moving.

Dad generally used two types of traps–a foot trap for fox and raccoons, and a body trap for muskrats. I’d watch him take a steel brush to his traps then boil them in a black kettle over a wood fire. He’d add a little beeswax, purchased from a local beekeeper, to ensure that the traps would operate smoothly.

When trapping season was afoot, (usually November 1st for coons and fox, and November 15th for muskrats), Dad would cinch up his hip boots, strap on his woven trapper basket and set off to ‘lay some steel.’ My younger sister was most often his trapping companion, but I went my share of times as well. In the early days, we traveled on foot. In later years, we went by Scanoe (which is a cross between a skiff and a canoe, with a flat stern that can accommodate a motor).

The older I got, the less often I went with my father on his trapping excursions. During my sophomore year of college, however, I briefly renewed my interest in the activity. It had been several years since I’d ventured down to the creek behind our house, and I was shocked by the condition of the creek banks. Fallen trees were everywhere. It looked like a wasteland. Dad said it was the result of beaver. Being a wide-eyed idealist, I wanted to save the creek.

My father explained that beavers are very territorial, and that I could likely trap one if I set up a snare that looked like a competing beaver was moving in. With Dad’s guidance, I erected a dam using fallen branches and creek debris. I smeared some lure (animal urine) on a trap and set it inside the fabricated structure.

The next day, one less 30-pound beaver was living in that creek.