Trapper John
Carrying on the family tradition

Terry Halifax
Northern News Services

NNSL (Feb 01/99) - You can tell Johnny Desjarlais takes tremendous pride in carrying on the family business.

It's deep in the glint of his eyes, his wide, generous 'Johnny smile', and you can hear it in his sincere, confident voice -- this is a man who's truly happy in his work.

Desjarlais and his partner, Kim Hill, work on the north side of the Slave River, just across from the town of Fort Smith. Their office is about 25 square miles of pristine forest that Johnny's come to call his "bank."

Desjarlais learned his craft from his father, Modeste John Desjarlais, who'd also earned his living on trapline # 710.

"My dad always explained it to us like, 'That's your bank, you take what you need,'" Desjarlais recalled. "You let them come back. You trap in different areas each year."

Like a farmer rotating his crops, Desjarlais leaves an area to replenish its stock while harvesting another area, sometimes leaving the marten to repopulate and taking the lynx instead.

He says without proper management of the bank, the balance would rise and fall to unhealthy levels.

"I've seen it happen where the lynx were like rabbits, they were producing so much," he recalled. "My dad brought in 20 lynx one time."

"Some were chewed up. They were eating each other, because there were no rabbits left for them."

As his father did, Desjarlais has gone back to using a dog team to work his line.

"I've had too many experiences breaking down with Ski-Doos," he said. "Sometimes you can't travel because there's no snow for a Ski-Doo. A dog team can travel as long as things are frozen."

"Just feed them and take care of them, and they'll look after you," he said. "If you get hurt they'll bring you home. A Ski-Doo won't drive you home."

xxxIndustry woes

The fur industry has suffered in recent years, largely due to fluctuating world economy and boycotts from environmental groups. Desjarlais takes issue with the boycotts that threaten the industry.

"Who is anyone to tell me I can't be a trapper," he offered. "I don't tell them they can't be doctors or accountants."

He uses humane methods of trapping with snares and quick-kill traps, where the animals feel little or no pain.

"The conibear trap is a quick-kill trap," he said. "They don't suffer at all. We're not out here to beat up animals."

"I don't use the leg-hold trap much any more," he said. "Only for wolf."

Last month, Desjarlais had to take a grey wolf, which was coming in too close to their dogs.

"Sometimes you have to take them down, because they become pests," he said. "He was coming too close."

Desjarlais set a trap, and that night he dreamt of the wolf.

"I told Kim the next day, 'We'd better go check that trap, I think we have him.'" he said. "Sure enough he was there."

The wolf just seemed to give up, he said.

"You could see the tracks, how he walked right into it. There was no reason for him to go there, but he did."

"Out here, you take what you need and I was kind of glad he gave himself up like he did."

Desjarlais said he won't go out of his way to trap wolf, but the animal had threatened his camp and his livelihood.

"He was starving anyway. He wasn't happy any more. He was by himself -- chased out of the pack and ready to eat my dogs."

xxxRespecting the land important

Desjarlais works the land with care and respect for each life he takes.

"When you're out there, you're attached," he said. "You work with everything and everything works with you."

Without having that attachment to fall back on, Desjarlais may have never recovered from an eight-year addiction to alcohol. He hasn't had a drink since 1990 and credits trapping as a major factor in his recovery.

"While I was drinking, I would always say, 'I'm going to get back on the land, and quit drinking,'" he recalled. "My friends would all say, 'Yeah right, Johnny.'"

"They'd heard it too many times before, but in my heart I knew I meant it."

He has many good friends in Smith who also helped him through his recovery and the voice of his father echoed in his memory.

"'Johnny, you're no good when you're drinking,' he used to tell me," he said. "'You don't need it.'"

"When you want to sober up it takes a lot of work and for me, it was easier to get away from drinking when I'd get on the land."

"Out here, your mind is happy because you did something today," he said. "In town, I'd always be hanging around drinking and doing nothing."

Desjarlais said he also owes a good part of his continued sobriety to his partner, Kim Hill. Hill moved to the North from Ancaster, Ont. -- a town just outside Hamilton. She found her way west, to Dawson Creek, and moved to Yellowknife in '92.

"I wanted to study tourism, so when I saw they had a program in Yellowknife, I thought, 'Hey, there's an adventure.'"

After graduation, Hill moved to Fort Smith, where she enrolled in the Renewable Resources Technology Program at Aurora College's Thebacha Campus.

"My friend in Yellowknife had taken the program, and I really wanted to take it," she said.

"I came here, and I'm glad I did," she beamed. "I remember driving into Fort Smith and seeing big trees, and thinking, 'This is going to be great!'"

While in college, she met Desjarlais and the two have been together since. She's adapted very well to the life "across." No phone, electricity or running water were things she'd grown up around anyway.

xxxFamily influences

"My mom was always an outdoorsy kind of chick," Hill said through a smile. "We were always camping or working outside."

"It's really not that hard and Johnny does a lot," she added.

The two share in feeding and training the dogs as well as the daily chores around the cabin.

"The water thing is easy, it's right at the river. All you have to do is get a pail and go get it," she said.

In the winter, they melt chunks of ice from the Slave.

"I like it better hauling ice than water, 'cause I can't spill it all over my leg," she laughed.

"Having no electricity is worse than having no water," Hill added. "You have to deal with these gas lanterns flaming up and smoking."

Taking it all in stride, Hill has found there is much more in less.

"You don't have the outside stress over here, like you do in town," she said. "You don't have people coming over and giving you the latest -- you're just doing your own thing."

"You learn so much out here," she said. "If you're a curious person, I don't think it's an uncomfortable place to be."

The pair were secluded across the river this fall for five weeks, waiting for the river to freeze.

"I think during freeze-up, we got along pretty good," he laughed, smiling his big smile. "There were no punches thrown anyway."

In the off-season, the pair has worked with troubled youth from the Trailcross program in Smith. The kids would come over to camp and learn environmental and cultural lessons.

"Over here, those kids are different," she said. "If you sit them down and start lecturing them in a classroom setting, they are impatient, but out here you teach them things."

"They show a genuine interest in traditional knowledge."

Many of the youths are from remote communities and feel more comfortable on the land, Hill said.

"They're happier out here," she said. "I think there is a real need for this kind of education. It's something you take with you forever."

Breaking into tourism

With fur prices at an all-time low, Hill and Desjarlais are working on other ways to supplement their income. They plan to fix up some existing cabins on their land to offer a retreat for tourists.

"We can't rely on trapping as our only source of income," Desjarlais said.

He added if your needs are simple, it is still possible to earn a living strictly from trapping.

"If you stay right out there, buy only what you need for your trapline and don't use a Ski-Doo, you can make it," he said. "You're not going to get rich out there, and you're not supposed to."

If someone is interested in getting started in trapping, Desjarlais said the best thing to do is get out with an experienced trapper.

"Sometimes (RWED) offers a course in using the conibear trap or snares, but the best thing is to get out on the land with somebody," Desjarlais said. "Quite often trappers are looking for someone to give them a hand and the company is good."

Eager to pass on the knowledge his father passed to him, Desjarlais sees traditional education as a responsibility that he owes to the cycle of life.

"I've brought a few young guys out here to start them off," he said. "You're teaching them to teach others and it makes you feel good too."

He's grateful to the land that has been the family business, but you can tell he worries about the future of trapline #710. His eyes carry the pain of a thousand hangovers, his big 'Johnny smile' narrows to a line, and his voice falters, as he worries out loud.

"Not everybody wants to be a trapper, but there are people who, in their hearts, want to be part of something," he said. "I'm glad it was here for me. I hope and pray it continues for the generations who follow."