Hide And Seek

Boiling brains and hunting voles in search of the old-time fur trader's life

Original rendezvous traders traveled from the wilderness into relative civilization. Nowadays, rendezvous-goers move from civilization to relative wilderness.

"They're mostly an escape," says Hastings. "You leave your cell phone in the car, you park your truck far away. You have candle lanterns. It's cooking in a Dutch oven, having wonderful food, meeting your neighbors, dances at night, waking up in the morning and everybody has their fires going for the morning cookout. It's a return to a simpler life. Generally it's peaceful. It's a different pace. It's hard sometimes, because you have to say goodbye to everyone and pack up, and then you're back on the highway--back in the cities, with the cars and the radios." He rolls his eyes and flings up his hands as he finishes with an "ugh."

In addition to providing an escape, Rendezvous events fuel Hastings's business. Many of his customers are fellow reenactment enthusiasts. "The majority of my beadwork has actually been sold to Native Americans--which is cool," says Hastings. "I made a pipe bag once. Pipe bags are sacred and ceremonial. They're heavy-duty"--he hesitates, as if to imply that it's a strange for a white man to be making ceremonial Native American objects, then continues--"but I made one anyway. An elderly Native American woman who lives on a reservation came into the shop and bought it. That was pretty cool to me, because she probably knew her beadwork."

Let me feel your bootie: James Hastings with his supple handicraft
Michael Dvorak
Let me feel your bootie: James Hastings with his supple handicraft

 

The early trappers and tanners likely sold their furs and hides to a trader instead of directly to the customer. Traders worked from a home base, exchanging goods and hides with trappers at annual extended gatherings such as the Grand Portage Rendezvous. Traders would frequently extend credit for supplies in return for a season's worth of furs and hides.

In his 1979 book Voyageur Country, Robert Treuer explains, "The rates of exchange varied from one time and locality to another, but they were always weighted in favor of the trader and against the trapper. A kettle or blanket worth $3 was traded for 60 muskrat skins worth $12, and in other exchanges, beads worth pennies against pelts worth dollars were commonplace. As in today's consumption economy, Indian trappers were encouraged to draw guns, ammunition, tools, blankets, and other goods on credit against which they pledged future furs."

As a result the early trader's position was quite lucrative, often generating salaries ranging from $20,000 to $60,000--a sizable sum. The trappers, however, seem to have found their real reward in the adventure of solitary lives led hunting and trapping in the wilderness. Hastings shares this love for the remote experience of the wilderness. Recently he traded in his road bike and Nicollet Mall-riding privileges for a shotgun shack outside Ely, nestled inside a 660-acre swamp.

The cabin, located 100 yards on foot past the paved road, was originally an 8-foot-by-16-foot deer hunter's shelter. According to Hastings, its previous inhabitant "got drunk one night and started it on fire," at which point the shack's owner--a professional carpenter and rendezvous enthusiast--removed the burned parts and added an extra five feet. The interior now boasts a set of bunk beds and some steel shelves that are obscured from view by piles of supplies, groceries, and whatnot. For heat, it's equipped with what Hastings refers to as an "ancient, very leaky, cool-looking but inefficient wood stove." There is no running water.

The cabin is also equipped with a family of red-backed voles, which insist on sleeping in the top bunk. Hastings describes the creatures as being larger than a mouse, but smaller than a rat--approximately the size of a hamster. "I'd be sitting there at the table, lights on, fire going--the whole bit--and the little shits would run between my legs. One tried to run up my leg. One ran across my gun. I chased one into the corner and thought he looked weird. Then I realized he'd run away with the cookie that I'd put out a couple of nights before to try and catch him. He's got half a cookie! He's running and gets into this backpack I have, so I can't shoot at him. I tried to scare him out, and couldn't. I messed up. I messed up my one shot." He laughs and shakes his head saying, "They were all over. They're very stealthy."

For its lack of creature comforts and its abundance of unwelcome creatures, Hastings still prefers cabin life to any other. "I love the terrain out there," he says. "You can hear the wolves, the coyotes. The northern lights are like curtains of light going across the northern sky in red and green and white. I saw some particularly good displays in the winter of '97. I sat on the roof on the top of my cabin. The lights were so bright that there was a glow on the snow on the roof. That's a big part of it--of my wanting to go up there."

The other draw to cabin life is that he can refine his leathermaking there without interruption. Tanning leather can be a gruesome business, and city dwellers--drawn by the sight or the smell (more on this later)--can't help but become a nuisance.

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