The sun glistened off a large lake nestled in a valley as a trapper and his wife loaded gear on a packhorse.
As they descended into the valley, picking their way among the leafless trees, a cold February wind cut the air. The morning sun faded behind a bank of clouds rolling in from the western horizon, and it was only a matter of time before the bright, cloudless winter morning gave way to a cold, gray afternoon that promised frigid water for setting traps in the nearby lake and river.
By early afternoon, the couple arrived at a small campsite tucked against the hills along the river. Unloading gear, they set up a simple wedge-shaped shelter, filling the area inside with leaves and small debris to insulate themselves from the cold ground. Large wool saddle-blankets, a spare blanket and a large buffalo robe completed the bedding.
In a short time, they heard the whinnying of their companion’s horses as pack animals and buckskinned figures came into view. Spirits were high as their journey back into time began.
When the Corps of Discovery returned to St. Louis in September 1806, the wealth of information it brought back to the small fur trading community on the banks of the Mississippi caused a flurry of activity among the trappers and traders in the vicinity.
While small fur-trapping parties had been ascending the Missouri River for many years, it was only a matter of time before major fur expeditions followed in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark.
The mountain men who made these journeys are often seen as quintessential outdoorsmen. Aside from the American Indians with whom they traded, trapped, lived and sometimes fought, Mountain Men of that era could be viewed as the best American outdoorsmen this country has ever produced. Well versed in not only trapping, but also expert hunters, horsemen and packers, their ability to survive in a hostile environment for years at a time truly set them apart.
Many of the skills the mountain men have been lost to generations of Americans. Even basic activities for comfortable survival, such as starting a fire and cooking a meal over open flame have disappeared from most individual’s daily lives — replaced by pre-packaged foods that move from freezer to microwave.
Today, those who hunt, trap and fish certainly keep alive the traditions and skills to some degree. But it is rare to find someone who could step back in time and exist in the wilderness as it was 200 years ago.
However, one small group of men strive to keep those traditions and skills alive. These men belong to an organization known as The American Mountain Men. The non-profit organization is dedicated to the preservation of the traditions and ways of our nation’s greatest, most daring explorers and pioneers — the Mountain Men, to the actual conservation of our nation’s remaining natural wilderness and wildlife and to the ability of its members to survive alone, under any circumstances, using only what nature has to offer.
Together, with a companion organization called the Women of the Fur Trade, members of AMM continue to keep alive the skills and pass along the knowledge of our ancestors.
An Authentic Experience
The original American mountain men were trappers, and their primary reason for traversing vast acres of trackless wilderness was their insatiable quest for beaver pelts.
For centuries, the fur trade in North American provided raw material for fashionable clothing around the world. By the mid-1820s, the rendezvous system was firmly established in the Rocky Mountains as a way to collect the year’s catch and re-supply trappers for another year.
AMM continues the tradition of the annual summer rendezvous as an opportunity to address organizational business, provide hands-on “Rocky Mountain Colleges” and to serve as a yearly social event to renew old acquaintances and make new friendships.
However, while the summer rendezvous is enjoyable, and usually located in a remote area surrounded by high mountain peaks and sparkling streams, smaller camps held throughout the year provide the chance for members to frequently live the life of the mountain men for short periods.
These events are often an eye-opening experience for new members who have the romantic perception of a seemingly carefree trapper eating buffalo, tucked away warm and cozy in a native lodge, enjoying the various aspects of native hospitality.
Although many historical, re-enacting or buckskinning organizations exist across the country, few reach the level of authenticity and hands-on experiences offered by the AMM. Consequently, few ask their members to undergo what most modern Americans would consider a state of deprivation. For those who succeed, though, the rewards are endless.
A Place for Fur and Fun
Many active AMM members have concentrated not only on enhancing their routine outdoor skills and the authenticity of their equipment, but on the skill that was most important to the mountain men — beaver trapping.
Recently, a small group of us began looking for a place to ride, roam and step back into time without modern interferences. We wanted to find an area for a trip that would allow us to explore new country, give us decent saddle time, and provide a destination location where beavers were as plentiful as the stars in the sky. Two out of three might have made a good goal, considering we were not really living in 1806. But giving up goals easily isn’t necessarily our strong point, and we began researching horse trails, public lands and other areas for beaver trapping.
The research led us to a contact with the U.S. Forest Service and a woman whose family has been heavily involved with 18th century living history for many years. She not only recommended a good spot for beaver trapping, but offered four different possible sites.
By overlaying the locations of the sites she mentioned with a map of the so-called Ozark Trail in Missouri, we pinpointed areas that might meet our needs.
We selected an 8-mile section of trail that would lead us to a large lake tucked away in the heart of a national forest, close to a fairly wide stream.
On that cold morning, our horses were ready to go as soon as we swung up in our saddles and headed out along the faint trail. Over ridge tops, along creek bottoms and through streams, we rode fully loaded with not only our normal gear, but with the additional weight of double-longspring beaver traps and related paraphernalia. We took our time working through some of the rugged terrain because our horses were unshod.
We rode for almost four hours before descending into the bottoms along the creek. The site, although sparsely vegetated, provided plenty of open water for trapping. The nearby lake also held promise.
Camp was soon established, horses were watered and high-lined, and plenty of firewood was gathered. Our bedrolls were simply rolled out near the fire for sleeping under the stars. Because it was getting too late in the day to set traps, we settled down by the fire and listened to the distant gobbling of a turkey as we made plans for the coming day.
The next day, we took care of the stock before eating a bite ourselves. A turkey flying off a nearby bluff and soaring upstream by camp was a nice morning greeting as the sun peaked over the ridge tops to the east. After downing a light breakfast, one of my companions changed into his period trapping clothes and disappeared downstream. Meanwhile, I busied myself with pouring bullets and keeping the fire burning.
He returned after making a set in the lake and one in the stream. I quickly changed moccasins, pulled off my leather leggings below my knees and slipped on knee-high wool socks.
Grabbing my trap sack, I headed out.
The first set I planned was in the creek close to camp. I dropped off the makings of the set before moving on to the lake. I chopped through ice at the lake and weighted a #4 foothold with a rock. I made a small scent mound and drove in a trap stake and a drowning stake slightly farther out in the lake. The water was cold, but not as bad as I expected. A couple of guide sticks completed the set.
My first set location back along the stream was at a nearly vertical, 3-foot-high bank. The bottom dropped quickly into a pool of deep water. A fresh cutting floated nearby along the bank, and I found a 30-pound rock to tie to the end of the #5 trap chain.
I stepped into the stream and made a shelf 5 inches below the waterline before tossing the rock into the deep pool, tying a float stick to the chain, and setting the trap on the shelf.
A mostly skinned green stick, some shavings and beaver lure on a small green stick right over the trap completed the set.
Back in camp, I changed into my dry clothes by the fire. By late afternoon, we were making old-time French dumplings, with cranberry fritters for dessert. There was more than enough for us to enjoy before taking care of the horses and watching the sun set over the creek.
One of our members entertained us by reading Henry Schoolcraft’s journal, “A View of the Lead Mines of Missouri” about his 1818 trip through the general area we were trapping.
Schoolcraft went through the area when Missouri was still considered the frontier. Occasional, isolated cabins of hunters were basically all he encountered along the trail, but the explorer and his companions were vigilant in watching for roving bands of hostile Osage warriors who roamed the region.
It was easy to imagine, as night came down upon us, Schoolcraft’s small party working its way down a nearby draw to set up a camp that might have appeared much like ours.
The following day dawned partly cloudy, and the distant yelps and howls of coyotes broke the still morning air as we crawled out of our blankets. The night had been cold, and we had inched closer to each side of the fire, tossing on fuel and burning nearly all of the wood we had gathered.
Another quick breakfast started our day. Then, I changed into my wool socks and older moccasins to check the trap line.
A war whoop soon echoed down the valley, when I saw the trap was gone — along with the large rock!
Changing positions along the stream bank so I could see through the glare on the surface of the water, I spotted the rock downstream about 10 feet. A 45- to 50-pound beaver was anchored nearby.
Because I would get wet retrieving my catch, I chose to check the lake sets before pulling the first trap and beaver out. However, my lake sets were totally frozen over. I simply pulled traps and stakes and headed back to the stream.
On my return trip, I went downstream to check out another set made by one of the other trappers in camp, and I was soon back with the good news that we had a nice beaver in that trap as well. It was starting out to be a good day.
At the first set, I scouted for a limb that I could use to snag the trap chain. Finding one in a nearby pile of driftwood, I was soon hauling my #5 trap and large beaver out of the creek.
I returned to camp to keep the fire going, while the others went to retrieve the second beaver.
After we were all back in camp, we began to skin the beavers. Both were large, and we did a quick skinning job on them. Because fleshing and hooping the pelts would take some time, and the day was waning with a long journey facing us, we elected to break camp after eating beaver loin and squaring away the camp area.
Horses are funny animals. Some of them take to the smell of blood without a problem, while others want nothing to do with the aroma.
My gelding was fine with the smell of blood and beaver. It patiently stood while I was saddling and loading gear. One of my companion’s mounts, on the other hand, was not happy.
What was about to happen was yet another excellent learning experience and a revelation of what the old-timers must have gone through in their journeys.
We saddled the other horse without incident and took the offending mare for a quick spin before placing trap sacks and other foreign objects on her. When we were ready, I held her lead rope.
She settled down a little, but when the trap sacks — filled with beaver plew, skull, tail and rear feet — slid over the pommel, she went ballistic. The jumping horse quickly hit the end of the lead rope, causing the saddle to slip under her belly, and nearly sending me flying through the air.
Gear was spread down the trail for 200 yards as she bucked, kicked and jumped along the bottoms.
While her rider followed on foot, I quickly finished tacking up my gelding to go in mounted pursuit.
The situation appeared to quiet down when the rider caught up with the horse, as the saddle slipped down by her hind legs. However, as soon as he slid the saddle off, she again jerked away and ran up the trail, over the ridge and somewhere into the forest.
I quickly dropped my heaviest gear at a nearby trailhead, and headed off in pursuit of the mare. My companion and another friend who had joined us during the weekend retrieved my rig from the trailhead 8 miles away and brought it closer. While they shuttled gear, I dropped everything except the items I would absolutely need if called on to stay out overnight, and returned to where we last saw the mare.
Picking up a trail that led to the lake, I followed the faint markings up to the nearby ridge, then lost all sign in the rustled leaves on the forest floor. Zigzagging over the ridge, I spotted a small, unshod hoof print in a worn spot of an old trail. The chase was on.
Ultimately, I tracked the mare for a mile or so, over two ridges. When I caught up to her, she was happy to see my gelding, but wanted nothing to do with my arm reaching out for the tatters of her lead rope.
Knowing she would buddy up with my horse, I turned and began to retrace my steps with the mare following close behind.
When I reached the rendezvous spot with the others, they had not yet returned. I let the mare get ahead of me, then slowly eased up and took hold of the lead rope.
It was a calm end to an exciting adventure, and the others returned with the rig about 45 minutes later. We loaded up both horses and hit the trail for home.
Every AMM camp helps us learn new skills, and use those we already know. In the end, I believe that beaver camp was one of the best AMM camps I’ve ever experienced.
Running even a very short trapline from a primitive camp and foregoing modern luxuries is challenging.
However, we had a lot of horse time, an excellent camp location, prime beaver in our traps and an occasion to actually put tracking skills to serious use outside of hunting season.
Each camp teaches something new, but I think this one might have helped us move up a notch in our never-ending journeys to ride with the original mountaineers.
Jim Hannon, of Labadie, Mo., is an experienced trapper and member of the American Mountain Men.