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Winter – The Trapline, Mushing and Snowshoeing

“I remember when from September through April, [our whole family] was out on the trapline…November is the best season [on the trapline] – and the top quality, that’s in December.”

Athabascan Village Elder,
August 8, 1999

Trapping for furbearers takes place during much of the long hard winter months in the Interior. With snow on the ground from late September through May, mushing by dogsled and walking for miles on handmade snowshoes were the two main ways that our ancestors used to access the seemingly endless miles of thickly blanketed woods, mountains and frozen lakes.

Today, the snowmobile (known in the Native bush villages as the “sno-go”) has replaced the dogsled except for recreational use. And yet, while the sno-go allows trappers to more quickly maintain their lines and check their traps before their game becomes another animal’s dinner, the limited hours of usable daylight still limit just how much can be accomplished during the Interior’s short, cold winter days.

The furs of the martin, snowshoe hare, wolf, wolverine, lynx, beaver, and “rat” (muskrat) have long brought essential warmth to clothing needed to resist temperatures of -50, -60, -70, and (on rare occasions) -80 degrees below zero Fahrenheit that exist annually in the deepest valleys of Alaska’s Interior regions where many of our villages are located. Today, most clothing worn by our people comes from stores in Fairbanks or Anchorage. Still, our winter clothing includes fur – in our hats, gloves, boots – that is, in all those areas where it matters the most. It’s hard to really understand the importance of the trapline to Alaska Native culture until you’ve been in -70 below with a wind!

Economically too, furs have long been a major part of the lifeblood of our Athabascan communities. Were it not for the fur trade, the Europeans would not likely have taken much of an interest in our region in the mid-19th century when they came through Canada to explore and to trap.

So the trapline and the fur trade have been central to our economic survival. There is no doubt that we are blessed by the animal wealth around us, as their furs have kept us warm for thousands of years.