Let the Fur Fly

Maryland trappers convene each summer to swap stories and lament an endangered species: themselves


LA PLATA — La Plata-- --Early on the morning of the first day, the men are still wary. They stand motionless in the shade of trees, breakfasting on toothpicks, their eyes roving back and forth. Most wear at least one article of camouflage, as though they're not quite ready to leave the underbrush yet.

Trappers are, after all, solitary creatures, skittish around their many critics and most comfortable on lonely, late-night rounds of swamps, brier patches and cornfields, where they pace their lines and listen for the rattle of chain that means, by God, they've got something.

But now the long winter slog is over; it's the first Friday in July. The day warms, and the smell of skunk essence that's wafting from the vendor booths becomes as palpable as Pepe Le Pew's animated wake.

More pickups pile into the parking lot of the Charles County Fairgrounds near LaPlata, and "How y'all?"s hang in the air. Some of the trappers have gained 30 pounds since mink and muskrat season ended in mid-March, but hardly anyone notices, because the last time they'd seen each other was the previous summer's trapping conventions, and they'd been hibernation-heavy then, too.

Now shy smiles are visible beneath thick beards, and muscled backs are slapped.

"What do I do with a freezer full of muskrats?" one trapper asks another. "They're getting freezer burn."

The trappers drift toward the first seminar of the National Trappers Association Northeast Regional Convention: Ron Leggett's "Problem Canines." The Boonsboro resident explains how to set for fox and coyote; the exhibition ring, with the help of a truckload of dirt and some potted plants and a little imagination, has been transformed into a forest floor.

Usually the fairgrounds are used to show off live animals, prize heifers and the like, but not this weekend. Later on at the skinning demos, very dead muskrats will be peeled like bananas, and inside-out raccoon skins will be hung up like windsocks.

In between seminars, the trappers shop and peddle unlikely wares in the vending areas. There are jars of homemade Bobcat Meat Medley and armpit-length rubber gloves and synthetic crawdads for catching mink and jugs of fox urine, meticulously collected with funnel and cheese cloth for use as a lure. There are shelves of classic trapping manuals (The Dirt Hole and Its Variations; Musk, Mystery, Misconceptions) and, on the floor, rusty heaps of traps, both leg-hole and body-gripper, functional and antique.

Here, too, trapper humor takes wing, in the form of "Bambi Makes Cute Sandwiches" bumper stickers and tank tops that say: "I Have the Right to Bare Arms."

But trappers know that not everybody likes their jokes, and at the slightest whiff of a critic, the merriment disappears, and wariness surfaces again. There are fewer than 3,000 trappers in Maryland; the numbers have dwindled considerably since fur prices fell in the early 1980s. It's not a consistently profitable activity, nor, in the era of animal rights, is it always a socially acceptable one. In a blue state with ballooning suburbs, the trappers who endure sometimes feel like an endangered species with an open season on their hides.

"The animal-rights industry is just that, an industry," says Morgan Bennett, a muskrat trapper from Hurlock. "Well-organized, well-funded, ruthless."

And so the trappers circle newcomers like foxes around a suspicious-looking mouse hole. They watch for signs: Are your sandal straps made of fake leather? Do you refuse a cheeseburger? Are you alarmed when a red fox, stiff from the deep freeze, lands nearby with a frozen thud?

If so, they'll make a run for it. Trappers can sense a trap.

On the fringe

Even in Colonial America, fur-gathering was always a fringe activity - geographically, at least. Trappers pushed the western boundaries of this nation in pursuit of beaver and bear. They helped to settle Alaska, the Rockies and other forbidding boondocks.

Less well known is their pioneering role in the convention industry. In centuries past, trappers attended "rendezvous" - epic once-a-year gatherings where the "mountain men" convened to sell a winter's worth of fur and buy supplies. Legend has it that they also drank themselves practically blind and visited with what some old trappers at this gathering called "the travelin' ladies," returning to the wilderness only once bankruptcy loomed - in other words, after a few days.

Today, the trappers' summer conventions - the rendezvous' descendants - are family affairs. There are trap-setting contests for the kids, soda is the refreshment of choice, and several of the young women at the fairgrounds are trappers themselves, including 24-year-old Tera Roach of Reisterstown, who on Friday wore three sparkly earrings in each ear, pink nail polish and an itsy-bitsy tank top that says "Foxy," because she's one of the best fox trappers in the state.

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