Photo: Chris D'Alessandro
Photo: Chris D’Alessandro

By: Chris D’Alessandro

I spent 18 years on a wilderness trap line in the Robson Valley, from 1981-1999. The things I saw, experienced and learned were amazing and truly enlightening; I received insight into the animal kingdom that I don’t think you will see in any other way. Because I was out in their world, it becomes routine to see and have encounters with all the members of the forest community and the valley bottoms. Because of my involvement with their environment I began to learn about the habits and natures of my woodland neighbors, what they eat throughout the year, breeding habits and most interesting of all, the principles and ideas behind managing a trap line and ensuring a healthy resident population that can sustain itself on an annual basis.

While humans have many things in common with the animals, critters have a great advantage with their heightened senses. Each species has one or more extremely strong sense that keeps them alive and they learn to rely on. The mountain goats and mountain sheep have the equivalent of 8-powered binocular vision; they spot their enemies at a great distance and move into their pre-chosen escape terrain to stay alive. The bear’s and canine’s strong suit is their sense of smell; they rely heavily on this sense to warn of enemies or locate food and breeding opportunities in the mating season. The deer family members have very developed ears to go along with their good sense of smell; they use both to avoid becoming part of the food chain. The salmon have a very advanced sense of taste; they use this to test the mouth of each creek to identify the exact tributary of their origin. The sense of touch seems to have its greatest value in the inter-social behavior that all species experience and share. And last but not least is the sixth sense, a sense that we all know exists but have a hard time to put into words. Somehow these senses acting in tandem, at different times and in sophisticated combinations, help our animal brothers stay alive in the harsh conditions of Northern Canada.

I want to isolate one of these senses and expand upon it; it will lead into a story about something I don’t think gets enough press and that is the sense of humor that animals have. I am going to explore the olfactory sense or smelling abilities most notably of the dog or canine group. Canines and bears have a super-powered sense of smell; their ability to use the nose is legendary. Both clans can smell food species at tremendous distances. I have read that a polar bear can smell a seal six miles away on the ice. We all know how trained dogs can sniff out contraband that is hidden in fuel tanks and so on. The list of examples goes on forever. The source of the olfactory sense is an isolated compartment of the dog’s brain. As a brain consists of thousands of folds of tissues, the folds have to be theoretically flattened out to be accurately measured. The portion of area in a dog brain that holds the olfactory center is 40 times the area of a human’s, to put things in perspective. A human’s olfactory area covers a space the size of a postage stamp. That means the dog has an area of 40 postage stamps. The canine ability to smell is almost akin to x-ray vision.

As a trapper and hunter I learned many years ago to respect the different species’ abilities, along with a little secret – and that is to use their strengths to overtake them. To hunt a sheep, I use high powered optics to locate them and take great pains that they never see me. It is their vision that I am arm-wrestling, so to speak. With the deer we use smells to mask our scent, camo to hide the sight of us, and the wind or very still places to disarm their excellent hearing. To catch a member of the canine family in a trap you have to go up against their main weapon, their sense of smell.

First of all, your traps have to be boiled and dyed to remove all human scent and it is best to use kneeling pads or wax paper to keep your scent off the ground. All the dirt and materials for the trap set should be carefully prepared. The most irresistible set to any canine is a natural mouse hole with a small amount of proper lure hidden out of sight deep in the hole. The trap should be camouflaged, set off-center into the ground in front of the hole, in order to catch the left or right foot. To make such a set it is necessary to dig a hole large enough in the ground to conceal the trap. A stake is driven into the ground under the trap and attached, and a piece of wax paper is placed carefully underneath and above the trap. This prevents the trap freezing to the ground and forms a large air pocket to ensure the action of the trap is free. The wax paper is carefully covered with uncontaminated dirt and the final result after a small dust of snow is a small mouse hole with an invisible smell filtering out into the area, calling any critter with a nose to come and investigate. The set is placed against the edge of a trail and the 45 degree angle of the hole insures that the canine visitor will approach the trap straight on. While beginning to dig, it will put his left or right front foot onto the pan of the trap.

The whole science of the proper use of lure is knowing what to use, when to use it and how much to apply. Too much will often make them wary and give the opposite response. Just enough to give a slight whiff will usually cause their curiosity to overcome any warning signals. I used decomposed mice cooked in a jar by the sun all summer; perfectly natural, and it worked unbelievably well with great results. The biggest part of this game to remember is this – no matter how much care you take to reduce your scent, the wolf, coyote or fox will know that you were there. The trick is to overwhelm his curiosity, which will turn off the alarm bells. The whole point is that the dog has a chance and a choice to make – one that can go either way. It is what we call a “fair chase hunt” or 50/50 odds. A canine who has escaped a trap or been taught by his mother will have a great advantage to come out on the winning end of the showdown.

So armed with all my great knowledge I trudged off into the bush to start my first season. Because I did learn a lot of excellent techniques, I surprised myself with a lot of immediate success. Within two years I had taken wolves, coyotes, lynx and wolverine with these specialized types of trap sets and felt fairly confident. I guess I got a little cocky and began to cut corners. One day I came to a dirt hole set that had a lynx in it. As it was cold and getting dark, I removed the lynx but didn’t bother to take the time and care to reset the trap with all the normal precautions. The next time I returned to check the trap I was met with the surprise of my life, one that gave me a good hearty chuckle and revived my strong belief that humor is a much stronger part of the animal soul than we usually will give credit.

For some reason the lower value people generally place on animals gives rise to false truths, such as they have no souls or can’t think or feel like we feel – in short, animals in general are the victims of human arrogance, presumption and prejudice. Well, Brother Coyote showed me otherwise. He had come for a visit the night before and without a doubt, he knew I had been there. Instead of just leaving the trap alone, he decided to play a prank on his enemy – not just any prank, but one that would heap the greatest amount of disdain possible upon my trapper-man ego. He had a point to make. He meticulously removed all the dirt from the top of the trap and the pieces of wax paper. Every particle of dirt that had been in the entire air pocket was gone. The trap was entirely exposed for the whole world to see, sitting in the middle of what looked now like a large excavation. This was embarrassing enough but to add insult to injury and make sure I got the point, that smart little bugger squatted over the hole and deposited a large and smelly pyramid of pure coyote excrement directly on the center of the trap pan – without setting off the trap! I looked around to make sure no one was looking and also because I thought the coyote was probably watching me from a tree, but of course only the Raven was up there laughing. I had to laugh too! It was obvious that the only way that dog could have done that so carefully without setting the trap was to literally use the hairs of his toes like a whisk broom to so surgically remove all the material in that hole. He had to be patient and I am quite sure he had to enjoy every minute of it.

So Readers, watch your backs if you have a canine friend living with you, treat him right and give him a scratch behind the ear and a tasty dog snack. He has a mind, he has a soul and he certainly has a sense of humor!