Dreaming in camouflage

Trappers: About 130 at an annual convention share tales and an appreciation of the animals whose fur they take.

August 15, 1999|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

ROHRERSVILLE -- The unmistakable scent of fox on a stiflingly humid afternoon in Washington County smelled strangely sweet to Bernie Serafin and his burly group of friends.

Breathe deep, they challenged. After all, there was no room yesterday for the prissy or the timid at the annual convention of the Maryland Fur Trappers Association. The group is 50 years old this year, and its members are just as macho and wild as you can get -- for a bunch of mostly retired men who began skinning and fleshing furs when they were teen-agers.

Here, animal urine is the nectar of the gods when it comes to luring the wily red fox. Here, skinning five muskrats in a minute can make you the coolest guy in the field. Here, the outfit of choice comes in anything camouflaged.

To city people, this display of pocketknives, beaver pelts, and steel-jawed, coil-spring traps might be something of an oddity. And perhaps seem a little primitive and unchic. But in this community park, to be a trapper is to continue an American heritage.

"Most people may not understand these people here, but they grew up doing this, and come hell or high water, they're going to keep doing this," said Serafin, referring to the 130-plus people who attended the convention.

Serafin, 64, of Pasadena, is vice president of Maryland Fur Trappers, an organization of 230 that is struggling to conduct business in a state that has become increasingly suburbanized and a world that has become more politically correct and anti-fur.

Demand for fur has dipped in the past 25 years, too.

The trappers' numbers have plummeted with the price of fur. There are 160,000 trappers in the country -- half the number of fur's heyday of the '70s, said the International Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies.

"We've been knocked around pretty good, but there will always be trapping in the United States," said Scott Hartman, director of national and international affairs for the National Trappers Association in Bloomington, Ill. "Trappers are very close to the land. They would live like pioneers if they could. They are your farmers, your watermen, biologists, telephone repairmen and your engineers. More importantly, they are people who love what they do."

Take James Campbell. The 52-year-old retired grocery warehouse worker from Chesapeake Beach in Calvert County began trapping when he was 13. He loves animals so much, he says for proof to ask his children -- who are named James Fox, William Wolf, Travis Hawk and Laura Robin.

"I bagged my first raccoon when I was 13," said Campbell, reminiscing after a seminar on how to set a better snare for foxes. "I had been trying to catch one forever; so when I finally saw him covered with mud, I had the pangs in my stomach.

"My heart was pounding," Campbell said. "That's why I've been trapping for 40 years."

At the annual convention, such men sit back, chew tobacco and swap stories -- including the near-universal one about the time they fell through the ice while checking a beaver trap.

Grown men "ooh" and "ahh" over Victor 1 1/2-jaw coil-spring traps, which sell for $2 a piece. They say things such as, "The day I stop learning about trapping is the day I'm dead." They trade secrets. They try to find more humane ways to snap a fox's neck.

It's the kind of place where young people such as 10-year-old Garett Colona can practice baiting and setting traps, as the adults around him talk about the best way to raise the next generation of trappers.

It's the kind of place where you can meet 74-year-old Pete Leggett of Boonsboro in Washington County -- known as one of the best trappers in the country.

And it's the kind of place where they teach about respect for animals -- where one learns that if animals are free to reproduce without checks such as hunting and trapping, Mother Nature will take over. Overpopulated herds and packs can lead to diseases.

"We've got a huge problem with coyote and beavers now, and these guys help keep the population down for us," said Robert Colona, Garett's father and a biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources.

The trappers haven't turned their backs on technology, though. These guys are on the Internet. They work on legislation. They have hired lobbyists to fight against the powerful "antis" -- the generic term for members of animal-rights groups.

Mostly, though, they gather once a year to have fun -- and to raise money for the Maryland Fur Trappers Trapping School, which teaches young people how to trap.

The one big event of the convention is the presentation of a coat to Miss Maryland. Like the six Miss Marylands before her, Keri Schrader of Rockville traveled to this community park to accept the gift -- made out of 22 Maryland gray fox pelts -- with warmest regards.

"It's a very strange group of people," said Bob Dunker, 67, a trapper from Catonsville. "Most people don't know this goes on. But it's great fun, and they're the nicest bunch of guys you can ever meet."

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