The Bear Paw Mountains rise out of the northern Montana plains in all of their early summer glory. Wildflowers blanket the green prairie sprawling as far as the eye can see.
A little over 200 years ago, this country was the domain of the plains Indians and trappers. It was here that the fur trade broke new ground and became the stuff of legend built by the likes of Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith and Osborne Russell. The days of the mountain men are long gone, but it is here in this very place that the legacy of the furbearer trade and wildlife conservation continues to be preserved at the annual Montana Youth Trapper Camp.
The driving force behind this movement is a group of experienced trappers and wildlife professionals who understand the important implications trapping has for wildlife management in a modern world. Sponsored by the Montana Trappers Association, Montana 4-H and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, the youth camp brings together trappers, young and old, to pass on the skills and legacy to the next generation. Folks from as far away as Louisiana have made the journey to give young, aspiring trappers an unforgettable experience and solid education in trapping.
Preservation of a Craft
The camp begins in earnest on Friday when check-in begins at noon. Within hours, a small town of RVs and tents springs up and the area is abuzz with activity. Students run uphill in an eager attempt to summit Mt. Otis while others wet a line in the small beaver pond right in camp, teeming with brook trout. Meanwhile, instructors prepare to teach evening classes.
Montana natives and lifelong trappers Jim and Fran Buell started the camp in 2000. It began as a response to a need recognized by the Montana Trappers Association to ensure the survival and preservation of a craft near and dear to their hearts, important to the state’s heritage and critical to wildlife management. Since its inception, it has grown by leaps and bounds with a waiting list that gets longer every year. Several states have modeled their own youth camps after what the Buells started in Montana.
Each year, students who return have the opportunity to progress to a new level of skill. Often, third-year students are already running their own traplines back home and focus on improving their skills and sharing what they’ve learned with fellow students and instructors.
A happy camper hoists a furbearer from a successful set.
First year students start off with the basics. The age range for first year students can be between 6 to 16 years of age. They are introduced to skinning and fur handling, ethics and conservation, furbearer identification and regulations, trapline safety, land sets, snares, water sets, baits and lures, parasites and disease awareness and predator calling. It might seem like a lot to throw at a young person in two days, but the amount of enthusiasm present among these youngsters makes it clear they love every bit of it.
Second year students step up to the next level, learning hands-on skills. The main focus is on equipment, primarily manufacturing and maintenance. Students actually make their own predator calls from a section of PVC pipe and plastic reeds. While one segment of the second year class is doing this, the other two are learning how to make snares and pelt stretchers. In terms of equipment, the last big block of instruction is on trap modification.
Third and fourth year students are out in the field actually setting land and water sets, applying the skills they learned in the first two years.
If there is an accurate way to fully measure the success of the Youth Trapper Camp, it is in the bonds forged between students and instructors. These bonds promote wider camaraderie in the trapping community.
The camp’s success could also be measured in terms of the deep satisfaction trapping instructors get when they see students develop a passion for trapping almost instantaneously. As many of the instructors can attest, seeing the strong enthusiasm they have for trapping take root in youngsters brings their lifelong pursuit full circle.
Ed Hebbe III, who teaches skinning, perhaps best personifies this aspect of the camp. Ed, a Wisconsin native from Deer Lodge, has been trapping since the mid-1940s. At 71 years old, he jokes at his own expense that he was trapping when “Noah got off the Ark.” Ed methodically goes through the techniques of skinning coyotes, beavers, muskrats and mink.
Perhaps one thing that really gets some kids hooked on trapping here is the enthusiasm of the instructors and the way they interact with students. Bob Sheppard, a longtime wilderness trapper out of Ovando, teaches trapline safety and introduces first year students to trapping equipment. Bob draws the attention of many students when he begins a class by describing his perfect day on the trapline.
“What could be better”, he asks, “than an early spring or mid-winter day and you’re standing in the creek in hip boots and there is pure white snow on each side, and the creek is running? There’s fresh beaver sticks right there in front of you. You know you’re gonna be able to set a trap and catch a beaver. You got mink tracks running along the bank. There might be a goose or duck swimming around downstream. There’s a bit of a breeze makin’ the brush rustle. There’s big ole fluffy white clouds in a blue sky and its 15 or 20 degrees out. Boy, you’re so alive! How can you not like it?!”
The enthusiasm he creates is contagious. In the young students, it conjures up a vision of what they will be doing themselves at some point potentially. In his fellow instructors it brings to mind their great memories of days they have had which were very similar and great in their own way. It reminds all of them why they got into trapping in the first place.
The special bonds formed among the instructor staff are also noteworthy. A good example is Brian Stoner and Jason Geer. Stoner, a trapper in the Gallatin Valley, began trapping in the ’70s. Geer is a bit younger and began trapping in 1998. New at the game and anxious to learn the ropes, Geer sought Stoner’s expertise in trapping coyotes near his home in Havre. Stoner taught Geer a lot of the finer points of coyote trapping, especially fur handling.
Through this mentoring relationship, Stoner and Geer have become great friends as well as trapping partners. Both are also instructors at the Youth Camp. Geer is the head instructor for using cable restraints to catch coyotes. Stoner assists first year students with introduction to water sets. Geer says he was lucky to have someone like Stoner teach him because he did not have an opportunity like the youth camp when he began trapping. Becoming an instructor was a way for him to give back and teach a host of young trappers the things he learned about doing it right.
As one walks around to different classes and the camping area, it is evident that family plays a key role in the trapping lifestyle in Montana.
Donn Sponholz of Helena makes the trip every year with his daughter, Sonja, and two sons, Scott and Sawyer. Sponholz, in the game since the 1960s, traps year round and the kids are heavily involved. What Sponholz loves most about trapping with his children is the time they spend together. He doesn’t know if he would be trapping as much if it weren’t for his kids’ enthusiasm. Perhaps the best part for them, Sponholz believes, is the different values it teaches: personal responsibility, respect for wildlife and the value of hard work.
Instructor John Bergquam echoes Sponholz’s sentiment, saying that he would likely not be trapping were it not for his son, Kevin. He feels so fortunate that he was able to introduce Kevin to trapping and that Kevin took to it. The Youth Trapper Camp is an annual father/son vacation the Bergquams look forward to every year.
On Sunday morning, the culmination of the camp, senior students go out to check water sets on the aptly named Beaver Creek. There is electricity in the air as the students pull on their hip boots and take off to the creek bottom.
Sonja Sponholz is confident she put her #330 bodygrip in the “right spot.” She is sure a beaver will be in her set. Nine year-old Jake Miller of Great Falls, is all smiles as he boasts, “If I get a beaver, I’m gonna carry him out over my shoulder all by myself!”’
The 2008 Montana Youth Trapper Camp participants pose for a group shot.
Instructors, for safety reasons, approach each beaver set with the student and check the trap carefully. After the first initial trap checks, the only prize is a muskrat.
Donn and Sonja Sponholz are the third team to check their set. Inside a thicket of alders in a narrow stretch of stream, trappers hear a “Whoop!” and a “Way to go!” One of the voices belongs to Sonja. She is the first student to find a beaver in her set this morning. Hoisting it out of the water, she is grinning from ear to ear. Her dad is all smiles too and a proud father at that.
Several trap checks later, another beaver is harvested. This time it’s Choteau native Tate Ley’s set. Tate, a junior in high school, has been running his own trapline for two seasons now and is pleased with his take this morning. He caught a large beaver.
“I owe a lot of my success to this camp,” he said. “This is where I learned the fundamentals.”
Pushing into the thick alders, Jake, followed by instructor Larry Dilulo, makes his way to where he placed a #330 bodygrip trap yesterday. A large beaver is there. Jake, a young fellow true to his word, squats down, grabs the beaver by the feet, shimmies his shoulder under the beaver’s chest and hoists it up on his back. If ever a youngster had a bigger smile on his face, I never saw it.
Out of about 30 students, three beavers and a muskrat were harvested in this year’s water sets. There are a few long faces among the unsuccessful trappers, but by and large they are excited for their fellow students who were successful. Many are not totally surprised as the sets were only out for about 24 hours. They know beaver can be tough to catch. For the few who did find success, their spirits are soaring.
The Buells set out to ensure that the trapping legacy survives in Montana and elsewhere when they formed the youth camp. Both grew up trapping from an early age and saw the strong benefit it provided to their families in terms of income, wildlife management and the satisfaction that comes with living off the land.
Jim says that as he grows older, the thing he and Fran appreciate most is youth and the enthusiasm they have. He and Fran enjoy seeing young folks from all walks of life learn a unique skill that they build upon year after year, eventually becoming proficient trappers on their own.
It is the Buell’s hope that this program and others like it continue to preserve and promote trapping for the positive effect it has on the students, instructors, and trapping community.
Matt Wemple is an avid outdoorsman and writer from Three Forks, Montana.