“Why does the beaver have his eyes open?” one of the littlest boys asks.
“When animals die, they keep their eyes open,” says trapper and instructor Marcel Dulac.
The boy—Gavin Moore, age 9—considers this.
“All animals do,” chimes in Arthur St. Laurent. At 14, he’s one of the oldest boys here. “Even people.”
“Are you sure?” Gavin asks.
“Yes,” Arthur says, “I’m sure.”
These kids—eight out on the ice, another handful back at the main camp—are learning on-the-land skills at a muskrat camp on Pickhandle Lake, about an hour from Destruction Bay, Yukon. It’s an educational event put together by Kluane Lake School and Kluane First Nation (KFN) to teach land-based skills around survival. Here, that means trapping animals.
A girl in a red coat, Hailey Scott, tenderly strokes the beaver’s glistening, red-brown fur. The animal is wet, having been pulled from beneath the ice only moments before by Ryan Sealy, a Yukon government trapper, education coordinator, and instructor. The beaver—weighing in at around 14 kilograms—has been trapped by a square metal rig known as a 330 Conibear. Trapper Today praises the tool for its “quick, humane kill.”
When set, the Conibear works like a mouse trap. Laid at the underwater mouth of the lodge and baited with poplar or birch—favourite foods of the beaver, says Sealy—it will, when sprung, clamp shut around the animal’s head, either breaking its neck or drowning it.
While the instructors work together to reset the trap, Eden Dulac—a spry girl of 13 who does everything with calm, competent movements—picks up the beaver, lifting it onto her shoulders in a firefighter’s carry. Eden is one of Dulac’s three daughters and has, by her own admission, been trapping on the land “for as long as [she’s] been alive.”
The younger children instinctively turn to Eden with questions and watch her carefully while she sets traps. Minutes later, she will be laughing and playing with them. The school’s principal Alyce Johnson, a KFN citizen, calls this the “layered knowledge process.” The littlest kids learn from the older kids, the older kids learn from the adults, and the adults learn from elders, so that “learning cuts across all ages.”
Eden lays the animal on the ice. Usually, a trapper would roll the beaver in dry snow to suck moisture from the fur and dry the pelt. But the territory has experienced an early warm snap and there’s little to no snow left this year. Eden chooses a sunny, flat spot instead.
Gavin approaches, reaching out with a finger to poke at the body.
“Don’t do that!” Eden hisses.
The boy snatches his hand back.
“It’s disrespectful,” the older girl says, smoothing down where the other child’s finger has rumpled the fur.
Although the beaver garnered special attention, it’s really the humble muskrat around which the camp revolves. Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) are rodents, and like their larger cousin, the beaver, they’re adapted to a semi-aquatic lifestyle. Growing to a weight of one kilogram and 51 centimetres in length, their soft, insulating fur makes these plump, tenacious mammals—nicknamed “water rats”—appear much larger than they actually are. Skinned, they’re about one-third the size as they are with their fur still on.
They’re also herbivores, dining on aquatic plants such as reeds and horsetails. To survive the brutal Northern winters, muskrats build what are called “pushups”—grassy mounds about the size of a dinner plate that help keep the ice open. The pushups create a cozy pocket with an ice shelf for the muskrats to hang out on so they can breathe, stay warm, and access the world-above when the rest of the lake is frozen so thick you can drive a Ram 3500 across it.
The kids are responsible for checking the muskrat traps. En route, they’re laughing and throwing snowballs as their sledge weaves and bounces behind the snow machine. At each stop (marked already by an orange flag) they peer down into a hole made by a pushup.
Most of the traps, carefully placed on the critter’s ice shelf inside the pushup, are empty. Should a muskrat come to rest on the shelf, the trap is triggered and in its panicked dive from the shelf, the weight of the trap would cause the light water rodent to drown. Sometimes the animals either won’t or can’t retreat to the water.
The first muskrat of the day is still very much alive. His tiny, hand-like foot is firmly crushed in the bite of the trap. He writhes and hisses, lashing out with sharp front teeth at the invading circle of feet gathering around.
Trapper Luke Johnson grabs an axe and uses the handle to strike the muskrat on the head—once, twice, three times—and the little animal is finally still. To ensure he is properly dispatched, Dulac takes the flat of the axehead, places it against the back of the muskrat’s skull and applies constant, heavy pressure for a few minutes to suffocate him, with minimal damage to the meat and pelt, both of which will be used later.
The trappers and their young protégés say a few words of thanks to the muskrat for giving his life. There is blood on the ice when the animal is laid out.
The youngest of the crew, Amirah Miller-Hundrup, five, is thoughtful. “This is my first time seeing a muskrat,” she says, slowly. She cocks her head to the side, eyeing the body spread out on the ice. “I feel bad.”
Amirah seems to be thinking about the animal’s fate; the wheels in her head quietly turning as she strokes the muskrat’s whiskered cheek. A few minutes later, her sadness has dissolved. Amirah is among the most enthusiastic participants for the remainder of the day, running happily from pushup to pushup. When the children are corralled on the ice for a group photo, it is Amirah who is the most excited to hold one of the four muskrats taken that afternoon.
After the group returns to the main camp on the edge of the highway at the Pine Lake Bakery, the children help their teachers, parents, and elders prepare the day’s catch for a communal feast. Elders, including Rose Blair-Isber of White River First Nation, show them how to clean and skin out a muskrat, which involves some careful knife-work around the eyes and ears, and around the belly to avoid nicking the entrails.
The skins are turned inside-out, pinned on a board, scraped down to remove the blood and fat, and then strung on a frame to keep them from shrinking and warping while drying. The beaver pelt—impossibly soft and rich, the colour of a perfect cup of coffee—is stretched on a round of bent green wood. The beaver meat goes into a large pan for roasting. The muskrats, with a flavour like dark cuts of pork, are wrapped in tinfoil and placed on a grill over the fire alongside other delicacies: salmon, fresh-caught burbot cooked in the oil from its own liver, and chicken carefully braised in a thick, molasses-like barbeque sauce. The beaver’s fatty tail is cut into hunks and fried, but his paws have been reserved so an elder might wave the appendage over a child, with the hope it will make them a hard worker.
The evening feast is a slow simmer of activity as community members drop in and elders dine together. People are laughing and telling stories over slices of moose meat, canned green peas, and bannock so soft and light it’s more like a fresh donut than bread.
Many of the kids here attend the camp year after year, says Johnson—it’s something they look forward to. Muskrat camp isn’t just a learning experience for the kids to keep traditional skills alive, but a community event around which families and friends can welcome the arrival of spring.
As the day draws to a close, the impact of these lessons is made clear with the sight of little Amirah—who earlier was so touched and fascinated by the muskrat’s death—dragging her feet behind her father, who has come to pick her up. She doesn’t want to leave.