Points North: Canoe Country Trapper Traveled by Dog Team

Mike West
Mike West

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About a year ago, veteran dog musher Tim White of Colvill graciously shared an interview he conducted with the late fur trapper Mike West, a patriarch of Minnesota mushing, which was published in Winter 1972-73 issue of Northwoods Journal. West ran long, canoe country traplines and trained sled dogs and drivers for the Army during World War II. The entire interview was a bit long to reprint, so, with full credit to White, a paraphrased version follows here.

Mike West grew up in Worthington. In 1921, he acquired his first Malamute puppies in Shelby, Montana, from a man who brought a pair of dogs back from Alaska. A chance meeting in a barbershop with Benny Ambrose, a trapper who lived most of his life on remote Ottertrack Lake along the Canadian border, introduced him to the canoe country. Ambrose said there was money to be made in fur trapping.

After an unsuccessful stint in Seattle, West and a partner moved north. They stayed in Ambrose’s old cabin at McFarland Lake. Fur wasn’t plentiful in the winter of 1929, so they mostly trapped muskrats. West’s partner left, but he stayed on. For over a decade he ran 200 miles or more of winter traplines in the canoe country. He used dog teams for transportation and carried a tent and down sleeping bag for shelter.

He also lived off the land, as many folks did back then. Game wardens—at one time there were six in Cook County—knew when to look the other way. The dogs were fed cornmeal and oatmeal cooked with salt and fish. They also liked onion and especially garlic mixed with their food.

Back then, fox were the money fur, but he trapped all other furbearers as well. West also had interesting experiences with wolves. Once, he and a partner trapped a small and docile wolf pup in the fall. They put a collar on it and tied it up at their cabin. Out on the trapline, they discovered a couple of wolves and a fox which were caught in their traps were stolen. Returning to the cabin, they discovered the wolf pup was stolen, too, possibly by a guest at a nearby resort.

On another occasion, West trapped a female wolf, tied her front and hind legs and put her in a burlap sack. While he was resetting the trap, the wolf in the sack got up and ran off, going 50 yards before she lost her balance. West kept the wolf, named Gertie, and eventually sold her to a man near Hovland who used her as a tourist attraction.
One day, the chained wolf got away from the man and then stayed just out of his reach. She was loose for several days and the man tried to notify the neighbors in hopes someone could catch her. Unfortunately, she trotted up to a cabin one morning and was shot.

Once, he owned a dog that would ride on the running board of a car. One day, they came upon a wolf. The dog ran up to the wolf and the two met, tails wagging stiffly, their postures bristling and stiff-legged. The two canines sniffed each other, then one lifted his leg on a bush and the other followed suit. Then they went a few yards and did it again. Then the dog ran back to the car wagging his tail while the wolf went off into the woods. West figured the two had sized each other up and decided “somebody could get hurt fighting this fellow.”

Drafted for World War II, West was in the mountain troops at Camp Hale, Colorado when he learned the Army was looking for big sled dogs. All of his dogs were over 90 pounds and some weighed as much as 120. Unfortunately, due to a mix-up his dogs never joined the Army, but he went to Camp Rimini in Montana to become an instructor for Army mushers.

Malamutes, Greenland huskies and other large canines were purchased from across the northern U.S. and Canada. West and other instructors matched them into teams and then trained enlisted men and officers to work with them. The enlisted men worked with teams in the morning, when temperatures were cold, while the officers trained in the afternoon, when it was warmer outside. However, everyone, enlisted men and officers alike, deferred to the instructors.

Originally, the dog teams were to be used for an Allied invasion of Europe launched through Norway, but military leaders changed plans and invaded through France at Normandy. After completing the training program, many of the teams and drivers were stationed in Canada under the air routes to Europe, where they performed rescue operations when planes went down. Some of the dog teams went to Europe, where they did emergency transport during the Battle of the Bulge.

After the war, West returned to Hovland, where he raised a family. He continued to have sled dogs and White considered him one of the few people in the 1970s who knew the practical details of working dogs. He made harnesses for working dogs which had a padded donut collar similar to a horse harness. He also made lightweight racing sleds capable of carrying 400 pounds.

West enjoyed watching sled dog racing, which was a new sport in the 1970s, but preferred working dogs. White concluded by writing, “He likes his own dogs the best: the kind that can go all day pulling a thousand pound sled and still have energy left to start some trouble. Mike has that kind of energy, too.” Mike West died in 1987.

Airdate: December 17, 2011

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