Stories » Poachers, Beans & Birch Bark

Here are a couple of stories from my book Poachers, Beans & Birch Bark, BEAVER IS WHERE YOU FIND IT and KEEP THOSE GUNS UNLOADED! that I hope will bring you a smile or two.

BEAVER IS WHERE YOU FIND IT

By now, you will be familiar with many of the practices and traditions of Fish and Wildlife. Trips down the mighty Peace, from Peace River on down to Tomkins Landing, became something of an annual event. Officers, biological personnel, and occasionally others would set off from Peace River town, with me and another coming from High Level to converge on the mouth of the Notikewin river from where we would make our way down to Tomkins landing. The primary motive behind such expeditions was to check for bear hunters and beaver trappers to see what they might be doing right and what they might be doing wrong. This meant that the patrols had to be conducted in the spring, just as soon as the river was free of ice. However, with limited time, limited manpower, limited resources, all coupled with incredible distances, frequent patrols were out of the question. The next best thing to do was to try and cover all of the bases, which explained the mounting of large, several-day patrols.

If we did not dally too long to gaze at the abundant wildlife, Tomkins Landing to the mouth of the Notikewin was a one-day trip. For those history buffs the highlight of the trip was to stop and wander among the old and abandoned cabins. Some were used by trappers. Others had been permanent all-year-round residences in their heyday. What had the inhabitants cultivated in the small overgrown plots of land? Some had their own water systems that hooked into springs in the riverbank behind the cabin. How did these ever work at minus 50 when they were not buried? At one site, there was a raised platform, about 8 feet high with rectangular screened roof boxes on it where the folks would dry their catch. For all of the inhabitants, the river was the very essence of their existence; they caught its fish then turned around and sold the fish back to its travelers, especially to those manning the barges and the boats carrying freight of all kinds from Peace River to the Vermilion Chutes.

When passing the cabins, I found myself having to explain how I'd seen a trapper maneuver his boat up the bank for winter storage. Here we are talking about the Peace River when it truly was “the mighty Peace”, unchecked by dams in those bygone days prior to the W.A.C. Bennett dam in British Columbia . Because it was still natural and unobstructed, from its low in the fall, it could easily rise twenty feet high, even higher if constricted by ice or narrowed banks. That was only part of the problem. Huge chunks of ice floating down the river during spring breakup would find their way onto the shore, to be pushed higher and higher as more arrived behind, or as the water itself rose. To this day, there are big ugly scars on the black poplar and the spruce trees along the bank left by this annual happening. This meant that leaving anything on the bank too close to the river could be disastrous. Well, this old trapper had it all figured out. Starting from the low water mark in the fall, the time when the boat had to be “put in storage”, he would build a rectangular crib under his boat. One log at a time, he would raise his boat up 4 to 6 inches for each round of cribbing that he constructed. Slowly and methodically, he would work away until the boat was level with the top of the riverbank. At that point, it was a snap to simply push it off the crib onto makeshift rollers to a small flat area of grass situated in the safest of spots.

“Never had the boat smashed or washed away,” crowed the old man. “Been too long around here, I guess. I seen what this ol' river can do, and sometimes she ain't pretty.”

“Yes, I bet she can get pretty nasty if she wants to,” I said, urging him on.

“Yep. You should see this place in the spring, though. Sometimes I can't even launch my boat, can't get the old girl out because of the chunks of ice all over the place. Now that's a pain. Gotta get down and chip right through the ice. You don't ever wanna mess with this river. Folks that do that, well.....,” he trailed off into another world. I forgot to ask him if he saved his cribbing from one year to the next. Surely he did, as it would have been easy to retrieve and it was already cut to size.

Also very striking were the tiniest doghouses you have ever seen at some of the trappers' cabins. It was great entertainment to see a dog wiggle itself out of one of these, akin to watching the Incredible Hulk work himself out of a Volkswagen beetle! By design, the dog houses were that small so that any body heat given off by the dog would warm the house. Yes, yes of course, I have seen all those great white north movies where the sleigh dogs curl up in the snow. Well, now you know that some of them even get accommodation provided.

Certainly if you take the time to explore in behind the numerous large islands, you will be amply rewarded by coming upon wildlife and other cabins that many pass by without ever knowing they are there. This is not without peril; care must be exercised to avoid sudden shallows, deadheads, sweepers, and rock bars. All of these will attack you and your boat without provocation if your lack of attention gives them the slightest opportunity.

So much for the digression, the scenic highlights and all that, business was pressing. We arrived at the mouth of the Notikewin just as the sun was descending below the trees atop the riverbank. The Peace River guys had not made it yet but that was quite okay, this was May in northern Alberta so there would still be plenty of daylight even if the sun was down.

My companion and I were traveling in a 14 foot aluminum runabout with a 35 h.p. outboard. As a result, there was not a great deal of room once we had loaded the gas, food, sleeping bags and so forth, but we would have no difficulty surviving the 3 days, not that we had any other choice. The folks from Peace River , on the other hand, were blessed with a 32 foot river boat equipped with 2 outboards, a 50 h.p. for main power, and a 20 h.p. for emergencies. These people traveled with style and panache. The cans that we lived out of were not for them; oh no, they had coolers brimming with fresh meat and vegetables. Our scurrying up the riverbank to procure water from the nearest spring was not for them either. They had their own pristine water supply on board albeit town water. On top of all that, they had room to lounge around despite the mounds of equipment and enough spare gas enough for 4 or 5 days.

It was while we were unloading that we heard the faint sound of an approaching outboard motor. There upstream was a long red boat. Sure enough, it was them not traveling particularly fast even with help the current. They arrived just as we were setting up our tent.

Our camp was set about 30 to 40 yards from the water, near some large spruce that would give us at least a modicum of protection in the event of bad weather. The stories commenced as they always did, while we were preparing supper, and the only one of any consequence concerned another boat that they had encountered.

While traveling downstream from Tar Island to our present location, the Peace River folks had come across a 10 foot boat pushed by a 9 horse motor carrying a man and a dog. When our guys made as if to approach the boat, it took off at high speed and vanished behind an island. Had to have been a beaver poacher was the general consensus. Okay, so this was why we were here; one poacher spotted, one poacher got away. We would have better luck on the next one. Oh well, supper was about ready, and “it was nigh time for a wee dram” as a Scotsman would say.

“Hey, there's that red boat that we lost this afternoon,” a voice announced in surprise. All eyes turned towards him, trying to gage whether this was the speaker's rather transparent strategy to be first in line for supper.

“No, look,” he insisted pointing upstream.

“That's the same boat we saw this afternoon,” chipped in another voice. “It's him for sure.” Definitely it was a small boat with an outboard and a lone man in it. Beyond that, we could make out few further details, it was too far away, but clearly he had no idea we were there. Two of us ran down the bank to the river's edge and took a look with binoculars.

“That's the boat all right, and it looks like the same guy,” said one of the officers.

“Let's go,” I said, already moving to our boat which had been unloaded completely except for the kegs of spare gas. My companion did not waste any time either. We untied the boat and both of us began to push it out into deeper water.

“What's he doing?” I asked as I primed the motor and checked the gas.

“He's heading this way, working his way along the far bank. Sure looks as though he's searching for beaver, the way he is carrying on.”

We needed time to get mobile so that if we spooked him, he could not get too far ahead of us and hide among the myriad of islands. There could not have been a more perfect answer! Finally, we turned into the current where the water was deep enough to start the motor. Almost as soon as we were going, our target spotted us and reacted instantly.

“Man, can that guy's boat ever go!” yelled the officer with me.

“Yeah, but we're still gaining in him,” I yelled back. “But if he can hold on to his lead, he'll give himself enough time to hide around that island up ahead.”

We continued on another hundred yards or so and realized that now he was holding his own, maybe even pulling away from us.

“Step over here,” I shouted, “and take over the steering. I'm going to throw all the spare gas overboard. We can find it later.” The look I got from my shipmate indicated that he thought I was a little mad.

The gas was stored in the bow, covered by that part of the deck that housed the steering column, the console and the windshield. I scrambled into position and immediately began to wonder how on earth I had got the kegs in there in the first place.

“I think he's getting away,” yelled the officer. That was all the encouragement I needed. Those 2 ten gallon kegs were tossed over the side like a pair of torpedoes. More to the point, lightened up by a good hundred pounds, the boat virtually leapt out of the water.

“That did it!” yelled my partner ecstatically. “Now we're really gaining on him, but it's still gonna be touch and go.” The downstream end of an island was coming up very fast. Our quarry was keenly focused on the island approaching him from the front and on us coming rapidly up behind. He made it around the headland, with us about three hundred yards behind him. Unperturbed, we covered the intervening distance in seconds, straining our eyes to see where he had gone. We rounded the headland in a flurry of spray and, much to our surprise, there he was, sitting waiting for us, his boat dead in the water. I looked over at my partner who simply shrugged his shoulders.

“You do the talking, I'll do the looking,” I hissed.

He nodded as we turned and pulled up alongside our now apprehended suspect.

“How come you finally decided to stop?” asked my colleague.

“Motor trouble,” answered the man a bit too abruptly. We were not about to believe that one, not by a long shot. He had been out of sight long enough to have gone back upstream a little way, to have thrown something out of his boat, and then to have made it back to where he was. The other aspect of our disbelief centered on the fact that when we first saw him dead in the water, he was not working on his motor. So much for his “motor trouble”.

Oh yes, he had been down the river earlier in the day, and yes, he had seen a big red boat, but how was he to know they were Game Wardens and that they had wanted him to stop?

“So what are you doing down here?” my companion persisted.

“Can't a guy even have a look around?” he retorted, betraying a hint of an attitude problem.

While the interchange was going on, I was going through a very careful visual check of the inside of this very small boat. Wooden, 10 or so feet long, a 10 horse motor, a gas can, and a small dog. Oh yes, and a .22 caliber rifle for shooting something, beaver perhaps? It was a very distinct rifle with obvious wear and tear so it should be easy to identify later on if the need was to arise. My partner knew whose trapline we were on, but he asked the question anyway to see if the fellow was into lying. Would he tell us he was checking his trapline when his only registered one lay many miles downstream? He said nothing.

I had spotted what appeared to me to be very fresh blood on the deck of his boat. It was mixed with some hair that immediately suggested beaver. I snatched a sideways glance at my partner; apparently, he had seen it too.

“Where did that come from?” I asked, pointing to the telltale evidence.

“Oh that,” he said, not missing a beat, that got there this afternoon. I was moving some beaver across the river for another trapper.”

It was not an unreasonable response if one did not think too hard about it. But how come a small dog running around in the boat had not licked it up? Moreover, it had been very hot that afternoon. If he had traveled any distance at all, as we knew he had, the wind would have congealed it in no time so that one could not wipe it off with ones finger how ever one could and that meant it was fresh. We all knew what it had come from, but I went ahead and put some of the blood and hair in a vial to send the message that we were serious. The forensic boys would know what to do with it. Nevertheless, it was clear to us, but especially to him, that we did not have enough evidence to seize his gun nor to write up any tickets. We pushed him further about the blood and the hair but he was sticking to his story. We had to let him go.

Would it amaze you to know the motor that was the victim of “motor trouble” started on the first pull and ferried our suspect out of sight like a boat possessed, nary a cough, nary a hiccup?

“That so-and-so had a beaver in there and threw it out when he was out of sight behind the island, before he came back down to meet us,” I said dejectedly.

“I'm sure you're absolutely right, but we don't have the beaver,” replied my partner, equally dispirited.

“That's true. But you know what? We have been drifting with the current ever since we started talking to him, right? And now it has brought us to this riverbank. So, logically, if he didn't actually throw the beaver onto the island, it should be drifting along with the current somewhere around here if we are lucky. So here's what I'm going to suggest. I will stay here and see if I can find it, even though it could have drifted to shore. That's if it didn't sink. It looks like it's going to rain, so how about you head back to camp and grab some rain gear. And take a look for the gas while you are about it.”

“Good idea,” he responded.

Away he went without even a backward glance. I watched him for a second or two and then turned to walk upstream on the riverbank. As I glanced into the water, I could not believe my eyes. There, 6 to 8 feet out into the river was a dead beaver doing its best to float right by me. There was no way I could just step into the water to retrieve it, the water was too deep.

“A stick, a stick, I need a stick,” I yelled out in frustration; it was one of those moments when the injustices of life seem to creep up on you. There I was on the bank, there was the beaver floating innocently away, there was my partner blasting off back to camp, and there wasn't a stick to be had.

“Oh, wait a minute, hold on now,” I babbled to myself, “there's a stick. Sure, there's a stick, and it looks as though it'll even be long enough.” Since I am known to be eccentric, it's quite obvious that I would be talking to myself. I grabbed the providential stick and stepped to the very edge of the bank.

“Oh man, it's even further out than it was before!” I wailed. I poked the stick out as far as I could, being extra careful not to push the carcass any further out nor to poke it so sharply that it sank.

Ah, the sweet smell of success! The stick was long enough and I snagged the beaver. Gently, oh so gently, I started to pull it in. Hello, the head was all smashed in; had to be the work of a bullet. Could this be the non-existent, phantom beaver that we had been searching for? All bets were off!

As if in congratulation, a cloud burst forcing me and the beaver to seek refuge beneath a giant spruce to wait for my colleague and the rain gear. I wondered about other practical considerations too, like had he found the gas? The 2 ten gallon kegs would have had some air space that would have allowed them some buoyancy. Yes, they would float low in the water, but they would float nonetheless. Besides,1 could never let a suspect get away for the sake of 20 gallons of gas, even if one had to walk home.

“I sure hope he finds the gas,” I said to the unresponsive beaver.

As quickly as it showered on us, the rain ended. And there was my partner on his way back. He could see me now, so I held up the beaver. Looking at his face, anybody would have thought that he had just won the grand prize in a lottery.

“Where the hell did you find that?” he asked breathlessly as he pulled alongside the bank. I told my story. “Looks like it was shot all right,” he said after examining the head for himself.

“Yeah, but our only hope of convicting this guy is to find the bullet that's in there, you know that,” I said. He agreed. “Oh great, you found the gas too,” I exclaimed, spotting the gas back in the boat.

“We will try not to do that again,” he responded dryly. “It was one hell of a job getting it back in the boat.”

“You're right. But, come to think of it, I'd do it all over again, and so would you.” He grinned back and nodded his agreement.

Triumphant, we made our way back to camp, its location advertised with a blazing fire that, at first glance, seemed out of control. Thankfully, it wasn't; we had survived enough drama for 1 day. We tied up the boat and hauled our newfound trophy into camp.

Of course the first order of business was clear, a dissection of the cranium where the remains of the bullet should be. A Coleman lantern was hung over a table. All other items of lesser importance were pushed to one side and the dissection of the beaver's head commenced. This had to be undertaken with considerable care to avoid marking the bullet with the blade of the knife. Forensics objected to any marks that could not be accounted for. Besides, even for us, it was unprofessional to alter an exhibit in any way, even accidentally.

My partner in the boat and an officer from Peace River were the designated dissectors. Within minutes, amid flashing blades and cries of “hold this so I can cut that”, the head was reduced to an unrecognizable mess of hide, flesh, bone and blood. There was very little brain evident because the bullet had pulverized it. But there on the far side, and inside of what was left of the skull, was a badly deformed bullet. One of the “surgeons” extracted it and held it up in triumph. Without this tiny particle of evidence we had nothing absolutely nothing. Now at least, we had a chance to avenge the beaver's untimely demise. The precious piece of evidence was put in a vial and stored away safely in my boating partner's gear.

Unfortunately, I was not on hand for the rest of the story but was filled in later as to what happened. A couple of days after the boat trip, our suspect was located by the officer. Armed with a search warrant, he unearthed the rifle that we had seen in the boat and seized it in evidence. However, before he could be tried, we would still have to prove that the bullet we possessed came from the gun now under seizure. The bullet taken from the beaver's skull, and some sample bullets shot from the seized rifle were sent to the forensics people. The results were a perfect match; all the bullets had been fired by the same rifle.

The suspect was duly charged and committed to trial. The guilty verdict saw him fined and stripped of his trap line. At this time in Alberta , if you committed an offence remotely related to trapping and subsequently found guilty, you could lose your trap line, even if the offence did not take place on your designated trap line.

The moral for the would-be poacher? Be careful where you get your beaver!

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KEEP THOSE GUNS UNLOADED!

In a courtroom in northern Alberta , with all the pomp and circumstance of any courtroom the silence verged on the oppressive. The judge's face is a scarlet that Sherwin Williams would surely love to market. The author of the strained silence was standing in shock, a now unloaded lever action rifle in his hands. A live 30-30 round has just bounced onto the courtroom floor. Utter astonishment paralyzed the audience, their eyes mesmerized by what they had just witnessed. The firearm itself was evidence in a case that had been months in preparation, a case that had enough of a profile to have attracted the head office brass from Fish and Wildlife to come in and listen.The only part of the part of the story I have first-hand knowledge of are the activities that went on in the courtroom. The background I obtained from a of the participants.

It all began with information coming into one of our Fish and Wildlife offices about a guide out with some hunters from south of the border. It seemed that they could be associated with some illegal activities while they were hunting north of Athabasca . This necessitated a trip by truck and tracked vehicle to the hunters' camp so that the designated officers could verify exactly what might be going on. Upon their arrival, they started off by checking the number of guides, the number of hunters and who had what licensees and who had shot what. For their parts, the hunters did not appreciate the process, particularly as they were guilty of a number of offences for which tickets were being written and firearms seized.

One of the hunting party got himself so incensed that he decided to take on one of the officers with his fists. Cooler heads intervened and the combatants were separated. All during the episode, there was a deluge of swearing and name-calling directed at the Fish and Wildlife staff by the hunters. When the dust, more properly snow had settled, all the seizures, including the rifle in the courtroom, were loaded onto the tracked vehicle for transfer to the truck which took them on the rest of their journey to the Fish and Wildlife office in town. There, they were marked as exhibits and locked up in an exhibit cabinet, the required procedure. Months later, they found their way into the courtroom.

A certain amount of preliminary evidence about the fighting and swearing had been presented and now the judge was inquiring about the dynamics of the incident itself. One of the officers was being questioned about the fighting and the swearing.

“Officer, you have given your evidence about the fighting and swearing, but I have the distinct impression that you have something else to say, that you have omitted something that was said.”

“Yes, your honor, I have.”

“Officer, let me be quite clear about this. I want to know exactly what the accused said during your investigation.”

“Your honor, there are ladies present,” the officer blustered.

“That does not matter,” the judge responded, glaring over his bifocals and daring any deviation from the truth. “The record must show exactly what was said.”

“Your honor,” said the officer pointing at one of the accused. “That man called me a fourteen carat gold prick.”

Needless to say, this being rough-and-tumble northern Alberta , the whole place came undone. It began with an uncontrolled snicker, itself enough to trigger an avalanche of repressed laughter. The only person in the court without tears coursing down his cheeks was the ever stalwart judge. There was no doubt as to who was in charge; his steely glare over the top of his spectacles coupled with a couple of very authoritative thumps with the gavel soon settled everybody down, allowing other officers to give further evidence. This finally led to the issue of the seized firearms which were laid out on an exhibit table near to the witness box and the recorder's desk. At the appropriate time, whenever a firearm was mentioned in evidence, the item was removed from the exhibit table and handed to the witness under examination. In this instance, one of the officers had to identify a particular rifle.

“This is the gun I seized from the accused,” he stated for the court.

Noting that the lever action rifle was not open, the judge interjected. “Officer, please open the action on that rifle.”

As the officer complied and the action was opened, brass was seen being withdrawn back by the bolt. Immediately the thought …(to be continued in my book Poachers, Beans and Birch Bark).

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