by Jerry Nelson
Special to the Farm Forum
You know that the housing industry is booming when new homes start popping up in the middle of a bog.
In one of my fields there’s a slough and out in the slough there’s a burgeoning housing development. A dozen new domiciles have been erected in the swamp since last summer – and all without my knowledge or consent! Wait until the zoning board hears about this!
Well, OK. The houses in question were built by muskrats. But they could have at least asked before they began construction.
I look at those muskrat huts and think of all the money I’m leaving on the table. And I don’t just mean the back rent owed by those aquatic squatters. I could also be making serious cash by resurrecting my short-lived muskrat trapping career.
My grandpa Nelson quietly pulled me aside one autumn afternoon when I was 12. He said that I was nearly a man and that every man should know how to live off the land. He suggested that a good way to do this was to learn how to trap muskrats.
I was familiar with muskrats and my opinion was (and is) that they are yucky. They look like stunted beavers that have a black, snake-like appendage for a tail. Muskrats live in bogs, so I reckoned that eating one of the rodents would be like munching on swamp muck.
Grandpa informed me that muskrats are sold for their fur. The mention of money instantly boosted my regard for muskrat trapping. Did you say cash? Count me in!
Winter arrived and the earth was plunged into a cosmic deep freezer. One day Grandpa drove to our farm in his ancient Ford Fairlane and told me to get in. We then motored out to the edge of his slough.
Muskrat lodges – four-foot-high slapdash stacks of weeds and reeds – dotted the bog. We walked across the ice to the nearest hut and Grandpa showed me how to trap muskrats. There isn’t much to it. You simply spade a hole through the mound of frozen muck, set a trap inside and re-plug the hole.
It seemed easy because muskrats aren’t exactly the Einsteins of the animal world. You never hear of muskrats who became astronomers or nuclear physicists. Their main claim to fame appears to be their ability to build in areas that are too boggy for anyone else. Muskrats probably built Disneyworld.
Grandpa waited in the warmth of his car while I set a handful of traps. When I was done, he told me that I had to check the traps daily. The road to furbearing riches suddenly seemed steeper than I had imagined.
Every day, I would trudge out to the slough and slip-slide across the ice, constantly envisioning what might happen if I broke through. As a non-swimmer, I had (and still have) an intense pathological terror of any water that’s deeper than my boot tops. This is why we no longer have a bathtub in our house.
It didn’t help that I’d recently read Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire.” The tale is about a Yukon newbie who decides to walk to a mining camp on a day when the mercury had plummeted to 75 below. The luckless greenhorn falls into an unseen spring and is soaked to his knees.
Realizing that he has mere minutes before he freezes, the man hurriedly tries to build a fire. Things don’t go well. The story ends with the guy slowly assimilating the temperature of the surrounding environment.
That scene constantly played in my head as I skittered across the slough. I wondered: what if the muskrats knew the path I took each day and used their ugly yellow teeth to weaken the ice and cause me to fall though? Would I survive? Most importantly, could I endure the incessant ridicule that would ensue due to my being outwitted by a swamp-dwelling rodent?
Muskrats might be smarter than we think. The uniformity of the methods used to construct their houses seems to indicate that they are clever enough to have formed a homeowner’s association.
After I’d caught a few rats, Grandpa insisted on driving us to a fur-buying station in a nearby hamlet. Grandpa strolled over to the liquor store while I sold my muskrats. As we climbed back into his Fairlane, Grandpa patted the pint of blackberry brandy in his bib overalls and proclaimed, “Now I’ll stay warm while I’m doing chores!”
So that’s what this was all about! I decided that from then on I was going to take a safer, less hypothermic stance regarding muskrats.
I wonder if the Muskrat Homeowner’s Association is in the phone book?
If you’d like to contact Jerry Nelson to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can email him at [email protected] His new book, “Dear County Agent Guy,” is available at Workman.com and at booksellers everywhere.