As a fisherman, I am familiar with the movements of killing—difficult at first, but familiar over time—slipping a finger into the mouth, snapping the neck. Gutting, filleting, consuming.
A warm, furry, distant cousin? That might be a different story.
Today, I’m going to meet somebody who—I hope—will help me decide whether or not hunting is something I am capable of. My excuse for this expedition is a class film project—in the back seat I’ve tossed a pen and yellow legal pad, a small microphone, a tripod. Riding copilot at my side is a borrowed Canon XA10 video camera. I’m driving down a rural Vermont road east of Middlebury on a bright January morning, crisscrossing a patchwork of muddy, open fields and stands of hardwood forest.
After a ten-minute drive, I pull into a gravelly ice-patched driveway and park next to a dark green pickup. Stepping out of my car, I’m confronted by two large, toothy, barking German Shepherds. A man pokes his head out of a nearby RV and calls them off.
Relieved, I look around: two houses, one gray and one white, one brown wooden shed, a couple RVs, and a smattering of other vehicles—trucks and cars of varying ages and stages of disrepair. Outside on a picnic table there seems to be a massive pile of cast-steel holding traps. As I approach the white house, the brown wooden shed comes to life with baying and barking; it’s full of hounds.
I knock once and the door opens almost immediately. In front of me stands a man, not much over five feet tall, with bright eyes and a big bushy salt-and-pepper mustache. Even in his home, he’s dressed for warmth: hiking boots, green fleece pants, a green zip-up fleece vest overtop of a thick sky-blue button-down. He’s wearing a well-loved hat with the letters “V.T.A.” embroidered across the front (I’ll soon learn that this stands for the Vermont Trappers Association). This is Barry Forbes: Animal Control Officer, fur-trapper, and avid hunter. It is from Barry that I hope to learn the art of bobcat hunting.
“Good morning.” He greets me with a firm handshake and ushers me inside. His husky voice suggests decades of hard work and more than a few smokes. I start to introduce myself and thank him for meeting with me—
“Would you like a cup of coffee?” That works, too. In a dimly lit kitchen, I take a seat and wait for him to join me. As I breathe in, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee mingles with the scent of Barry’s cigarette smoke. The walls are covered in floral wallpaper, the floor in white tile. Beyond the wallpaper, the walls are mostly bare, save the occasional portrait and one small black plaque in the corner of the kitchen: Trappers Association Hall of Fame—Barry Forbes—2011. The small, wooden kitchen table at which I am seated is adorned with a magazine, a tablet computer, a bowl of sugar, and a half-empty bottle of Monument Farms Dairy half and half. I notice salt and pepper shakers from Hawaii living in seclusion on the windowsill, palm trees and Pacific sunsets bringing the dormant, snowy forest beyond into clearer focus.
Barry brings over two mugs filled with coffee. His is a somewhat nondescript mug with the phrase “Gulf Style” in big bold letters, surrounded by palms, pyramids, and something else I can’t quite decipher. I, in turn, receive a mug decorated with a happy family of snowmen and their pet cat. Perhaps he senses I’m out of my element, perhaps not. Either way, the snowmen help to put me at ease.
Barry sits. I fumble with my video camera and tripod while he looks on, amused. As I remove the lens-cap, it manages to clatter to the floor, pulling some other hapless piece of the camera down with it. I think I mumble something about the pain of dealing with technology.
Barry grins from behind his mustache. “I can see we’ll get along just fine.”
Finally, camera rolling, we get to talking about hunting. Something about the way he pronounces the letter R reminds me vaguely of Elmer Fudd, although I get the feeling that Barry could make pretty short work of Bugs Bunny. He tells me he’s been hunting and trapping for upwards of 55 years, predominately within the miles of forested land just beyond his house. With the exception of time spent serving in Vietnam, he’s lived in the area for almost his entire life, logging and processing wood to make a living and supplementing his income with work from Animal Control and fur trapping. It quickly becomes evident to me that this is a man who understands the outdoors better than I can ever hope to.
Barry hunts “just about anything you can hunt,” from the usual—deer, turkey, grouse, rabbit—to the less-than-usual, such as bear, bobcat, raccoon, and, apparently, crow. I ask him how crow tastes.
“I don’t remember it being particularly good.”
He tells me he also traps beaver, muskrat, and coyote for fur.
As a fur trapper, Barry is part of a small but stable community of trappers statewide, which he estimates numbers about 800. Historically, fur trapping was an ecologically impactful, profit-driven enterprise. Take Castor Canadensis, for instance, better known as the American Beaver. Beaver were driven to statewide extinction by 1850 partly by habitat destruction brought about by Vermont’s burgeoning wool industry, but largely in order to support the global demand for beaver felt hats—think shiny black top hats atop well-dressed gentlemen with shiny black canes. It is only within the last century that the population has rebounded.
Beaver were reintroduced to the state beginning in the 1920s and reintroductions continued into the 1930s. At the same time, forests began to recover following the crash of the wool market and the subsequent abandonment of much of Vermont’s farmland. As a result, by 1950 the state’s beaver population had rebounded enough that the state allowed an annual harvest, but never at the unregulated commercial levels that drove the population into the ground a century prior. In fact, Vermont has made a concerted effort to keep non-resident trappers out of the state altogether. This isn’t to say that trapping by nonresidents is illegal—it’s just prohibitively expensive. For instance, Vermont residents were charged $23 apiece for trapping permits for the 2016-17 season. Nonresidents who wished to trap in Vermont, on the other hand, were forced to shell out $305 for the same privilege—more than a thirteen-fold increase. Compare this to resident versus nonresident prices for hunting ($26 versus $100; a fourfold increase) or fishing ($26 versus $52; a modest doubling of price), and it’s clear that the State of Vermont understands the ecological danger of opening its arms too widely to the potentially profitable fur market.
For Barry, however, harvesting fur isn’t about the money. At current fur prices, it can’t be. He explains that, this year, a raw beaver pelt might sell for just under ten dollars—a far cry from the value that helped to decimate populations 150 years ago. Even for a bobcat skin, which might have fetched north of $200 a decade ago, Barry can’t expect much more than $40 for a good pelt.
Barry disappears out the door for a moment and returns carrying a couple muskrat furs.
“These are the only furs I have at the moment.” Describing them as “fur” might actually be a bit misleading. It’s true—they are fur—but they’re turned inside out, a little bit like a sock peeled off the foot. They look more like flattened packages of vaguely animal-shaped rawhide than furs; veiny crimson streaks weave their way across a shiny brownish surface. Wisps of deep, fuzzy fur just manage to peek out of the tops of these rawhide packages.
“For these muskrat, I’ll probably get three or four bucks apiece,” Barry notes. “Like I said, it’s not about the money.”
But what is it about? I hope to find out.
When I ask Barry if he has bobcat skins around that he can show me, he says he doesn’t. They sell pretty quickly when he gets them, and the weather has been so bad for tracking that he has yet to bag a cat this year.
It all comes down to snowfall. Once Barry’s hounds are tracking a fresh bobcat trail, they can follow the scent pretty consistently, ideally cornering it in a place where Barry can then shoot it. In order to find a trail, however, Barry needs fresh, soft snow so that he can find tracks. Because the cats are nocturnal, Barry also needs a snowless night before a hunt so that the bobcats come out of hiding and make tracks that he can detect. If the weather warms up too much before freezing again, creating a crust on the top of the snow, Barry won’t go out—the ice tears up the hounds’ paws. In other words, timing, precipitation, and temperature all have to work in Barry’s favor if he wants any chance at all at hunting the cats. Granted all ideal conditions, it’s still up to him to find a set of fresh tracks—not an easy task by any means. I ask him how often—when he does find a set of tracks—hunts are actually successful.
“If you get one cat for every ten times you go out, you’re a pretty good bobcat hunter.” Barry and I are hoping for that one in ten chance.
As I put on my coat, he tells me to keep my phone on and warm clothes at the ready. He’ll call me at the first sign of a good snow.
“It’s the sort of thing where you’ll either love it or you’ll love hating it.” He grins. With that in mind, I leave him my number on a piece of yellow legal pad and leave behind the warmth of his kitchen, setting out into pale winter sunlight.
I wait for a week. Snow is nowhere in the forecast. If I want to learn about hunting and trapping, it may be time for a new strategy. I call Barry up and ask if he’ll take me out trapping while we wait for bobcat-worthy snow. He agrees.
“Come out Sunday. We’ll see if we can get a beaver or a couple ‘rats.”
Trapping it is.
Sunday rolls around, cloudless and breezy, and I make the relatively quick drive to Barry’s house. As I roll up, he’s out cleaning the hounds’ cages. Barry sees me and beckons to me.
Three hounds—Lady, Guy, and Hoss—charge the chain link fence, plastering their bodies against it in greeting. They’re lanky, athletic-looking dogs, black and brown mutts that look like they may have a splash of coonhound in them. They slobber profusely, exuberant tails wagging obedient bodies.
“These guys are friendly to a fault,” Barry inserts between barks.
The excitement is too intense for Guy, wild-eyed, to handle, and he retreats to the back of the cage to urinate. Hoss plasters his muzzle to the fencing, tongue wiggling through to the other side. This is the boundless energy that cat hounds require—enough to pursue a crafty (or desperate) cat over and under logs, through thick underbrush, negotiating icy cliff faces and deep snow—for sometimes upwards of twenty miles.
Barry parks his shovel up against the shed. “You ready to head out?”
We hop into Barry’s pickup truck. I hesitate momentarily at the sight of a sizeable rifle in the back seat. I start to think about why people don’t hitchhike much anymore. I shrug it off—I guess there’s no going back now.
We drive ten minutes up the road to a neighbor’s property. Barry hangs a left and smooth asphalt gives way to the rhythmic bump of dirt and crunchy gravel. The road, pockmarked with massive ditches and potholes, cuts through a marsh of cattail and speckled alder. As he somehow negotiates back-wrenching bumps and frozen puddles, Barry strains his neck to look out the driver’s-side window.
“I’m not seeing much in the way of sign,” he tells me. By “sign” he means indication of animal activity—deeper channels in the surrounding water that are clear of silt, indicating recent disturbance; an icy layer on the bank of a pool, betraying a beaver or mink “dock.”
Nevertheless, we—well, Barry, really—spend about an hour setting traps in different parts of the marsh. Some smaller traps he sets for muskrat, at times kicking through an inch or more of ice in order to access the most promising trapping locations.
Tromping through alder thickets, I struggle to keep up with Barry as he weaves between shrubs and hops between frosty tussocks of sedge. My video camera’s lens cap keeps catching on branches, and I fiddle with the dangly piece of plastic, trying desperately to pin it to the camera with my hand so that it doesn’t high-five every last bush between me and the other side of the marsh.
My foot plunges through the ice.
Frigid water surges over the top of my boot and works its way to my toes. I curse. I swear Barry just put his foot there a second before me. He’s amused but sympathetic. “I don’t weigh very much, so sometimes I can get away with things that other people can’t.” Apparently. We carry on.
Another minute or so brings us to a beaver lodge—a towering pile of chewed up sticks and mud the size of a couple of sofas. Hidden deep inside the lodge is a chamber above the water table where beavers—if there are any here—rest and keep warm. The chamber is only accessible via underwater tunnel—this helps ensure that the beavers are relatively secure. Barry tells me there are almost certainly muskrats in this lodge as well—during winter months, beavers and muskrats will cohabitate in order to conserve body heat.
Barry elects to trap for beaver in these channels. With a series of practiced movements, he adjusts the trap’s triggers—little metal wires that jut out toward the center of the trap—so that a muskrat will swim under them but a beaver will trip them. When triggered, the trap will snap down, in some ways similar to a mousetrap, and break the neck of whatever is passing through it. Barry sets two traps, anchoring them with makeshift staves that he plunges into the semi frozen muck. We tie the traps to a nearby alder bush for added security, and then make our way back to the truck.
Extracting himself from his rubber hip-waders, he looks at me with a twinkle in his eye. “So, question for you—how many traps did we set?”
I describe each trap set that I can remember. “So, five, I guess.”
A long pause. The ghost of a smile creeps onto Barry’s face. “Just when I thought there was hope for you.” He swings up into the pickup and turns the key, finally pointing just to our left. “We set a sixth one over there.”
We’ll check all six traps tomorrow.
Back at his house, Barry tells me there’s something he wants to show me.
Leaning up against the wall is a large, furry brown skin maybe three and a half feet long. It’s stretched tight, tacked to a board to dry. This is a bobcat—what we’re really after this winter.
“Don’t worry, you didn’t miss a hunt.” This one was road kill, Barry tells me. His friend found it and brought it to him so that it wouldn’t go to waste.
The fur is mottled brown with streaks of gray and hints of a warmer red. Barry tells me he calls cats with this color pattern “silverbacks.” Silverbacks are worth more than solid brown cats.
He invites me in for coffee. Barry’s wife, Martha, sits at the kitchen table, ripping the living daylights out of ill-fated junk mail and stuffing it into a bulging black plastic trash bag. She greets me with a warm, mildly exasperated smile. Across the table from her sits a friendly, older woman who tells me to call her “Grandma.” I never quite figure out which one of them she’s actually related to, or who’s Grandma she really is.
Barry calls to me from the kitchen. “All right Ben, I’ve got just the perfect mug for you.”
This time it’s an off-white mug with an image of a cartoonish, wrinkly old man in dire need of some dental work. The mug reads: I had the choice of being rich or good lookin’!
Martha tells me someone bought it for Barry’s fortieth birthday as a joke a couple of decades ago. I contemplate the mug. Barry is a man who has worked hard his whole life. From felling trees to dodging bullets in Vietnam, he has every reason to be exhausted by life. Instead, he seems to find a quiet, slow-burning joy, even humor, in everything I see him do—from setting traps, to taking care of his hounds, to serving me coffee.
After a few minutes I finish my drink and, a bit warmer inside, make my way home. I’ll be back first thing tomorrow to check traps.
The morning air is crisp—the kind of chill that tickles the back of your throat and slips into your lungs. Snow is on the way. Barry seems energized by the forecast, and is ready to check traps as soon as I step foot in the driveway. The quick drive to the marsh is uneventful, and we bounce and crunch along the dirt road, puddles and potholes frozen even more deeply than they were the day before.
Hopping out of Barry’s truck, we get right to work. I strap on my video camera, adding fresh batteries. Barry swings a big white plastic tote onto his back and squeezes into his rubber waders—the trapper’s armor against high, cold water and hypothermia.
Barry Forbes is intimately familiar with the risk of hypothermic shock. Many winters ago, while trapping alone on a mountain pond, he fell through the ice in the center, soaking himself from the waist down. By the time he made it to shore, all of the water on his clothes and his boots had frozen solid in the sub-freezing air. He then hiked, utterly alone, the four miles out of the mountains and back home.
“We’ll see what we get. I’m not expecting much.” Barry leads me through the crunchy, frosty weeds as we approach the first two muskrat sets. The traps, set in a narrow channel lined with grass, come up empty. Barry tells me not to get my hopes up. “Like I said, I didn’t see much sign yesterday.”
At the third set, Barry has to punch his hand through re-frozen ice in order to break his muskrat trap free. Empty. Despite his own prediction, Barry seems a little disappointed. “And I’m supposed to be a trapping instructor,” he jokes. “Let’s go see what else we haven’t caught.”
The fourth trap, also set for muskrat, comes up just as empty as the first three. As we near the end of our trap line, we once again find ourselves weaving through clumps of dense alder, hopping from tussock to tussock across a treacherous minefield of frigid water. I notice my lens cap isn’t catching on the bushes this time. Then I realize the lens cap is actually gone entirely. I don’t think I’ll be searching terribly hard for it.
We approach the beaver lodge quietly, hopeful. Trap number five is empty. I stare at it for a moment.
“Looks like I lied to you,” Barry motions down the channel toward trap six. “We did get something after all.”
My heart skips a beat. Twenty feet away, floating motionless at the surface of the water, is a big, soggy, brown lump of fur. It rests motionless, chocolate brown against the frosty reflection of a cold cloudy sky.
“Looks like a young beaver,” Barry works it carefully out of the trap. It’s on the small side—maybe 18 to 20 pounds—and it looks even smaller, sopping fur clinging to its lifeless form. I find the beaver hard to look at, knowing that it died at my request. At the same time, there’s something exhilarating just below the surface of my initial shock—something relating to the animal’s beauty and, perhaps more primal, a sense of success.
“Gosh, we made a catch—what a deal, huh?” Barry leads me back to the truck, beaver riding in the plastic tote on his back.
In the grass of his backyard, Barry skins the creature. Leg bones crunch, knife weaves in and out of pale connective tissue. Barry’s hands work confidently, guided by five decades of practice. He’s performed this same task in this very spot, hundreds, if not thousands, of times. A brief glance through Barry’s photo album would reveal that his mustache and hat have remained the same, too. In some photos he’s skinning
foxes, in others he’s dressing turkeys. Sometimes he wears a red flannel, other times a deep green hunting jacket. In each photo, a bushy mustache—sometimes brown, sometimes gray—underlines the bill of a dark green trapping association cap.
As he finishes the process of skinning, Barry rolls the beaver’s now dry, puffy fur up for cold-storage. Beaver meat, he tells me, is delicious. It’s dark meat, and tastes a bit like beef. Tonight, however, he will hang this beaver in a tree several miles from here in the hopes of attracting a bobcat. If we’re lucky and the snow pans out, we’ll be hot on the trail of a cat by mid-morning tomorrow.
Before I leave, Barry hands me a plastic bag with the animal’s thick, scaly tail inside. My homework assignment: fry it up and try it.
It’s finally snowing. I look out the window: big, heavy, promise-laden flakes fall to the earth. I set my clothes for the hunt out on my dresser: thermal tops and bottoms, snow pants, thick wool socks. Channeling anticipation into productive energy, I set about fixing myself dinner: golden cornbread, baked potato and onion wedges, one heavily fried beaver tail. The peeled tail, mostly fat, sizzles mightily in the pan; the whole kitchen smells sweetly of cornbread. By the time I sit down to eat, I’m famished. I take a bite of beaver.
Fatty, chewy, fried. Probably not the healthiest option on the menu, but not bad. I try to imagine the beaver’s energy flowing into my muscles. I envision pounds upon pounds of spotted alder bark—consumed to power this animal day-in and day-out as it swam through the channels of the marsh—entering my stomach, renewing my body. I am grateful for this beaver.
I look out the window. Promising flakes have given way to a warm drizzle. The pitter-patter on the roof above me makes me nervous. Maybe the rain will stop, or—better yet—become snow again. The only way to find out is to wait.
The next morning, I survey the forest outside my window. It looks like the rain stopped shortly after I noticed it, but the damage is done. Snow cover on the forest floor is patchy in places. What was crystal white yesterday is now mottled brown. I’m not sure if there’s enough snow for tracking. I call Barry just in case.
“I’m afraid it’s too thin. I need full snow cover to track the cats.” He’s disappointed, too. January in Vermont is usually a time of heavy snow. This year has been rainier than most, and much of the state—not just Barry—is hurting. Winter tourism is down, ski resorts are battling warmer temperatures, and snowplow operators don’t have much to plow.
It is possible that this kind of winter will continue to become more of the rule than the exception here in Vermont. After one of Vermont’s warmest summers on record, weather data from Burlington, on the western side of the state, suggest that this winter may have some of the weakest snowfall in the state’s history. In a region where average snowfall over the last hundred years is just over 70 inches annually, by the end of January 2017, this winter’s snowfall has amounted to a mere 21 inches. All of this comes in the wake of national news that 2016 was the hottest year on record. Certainly, next year could turn around and dump five times as much snow on the state (1971 saw 145 inches of snow). For trackers like Barry, however, what matters is that there is no snow right now.
Right now, a bobcat doubtless crawls, undisturbed, back into its den after a long night of hunting. Right now, Hoss, Lady, and Guy must wait another day to bound through the forest, over creeks and under logs, exuberant in pursuit of their quarry. Right now, somewhere deep in a secluded patch of woodland, the remains of a beaver hang lifeless and wet in the crotch of a tree, Barry’s sacrifice to the silent lords of the forest.