Canada: Cherishing life in the wilderness
[Reprinted from original]
Acquiring skills and knowledge passed down from parents and grandparents, kids learn the basics of living and getting along in the world. In a recent interview with outdoorsman and trapper Paul Peever, we chatted about how he and his six siblings learned not only how to survive in the wilderness of northern Ontario but to thrive.
The family hunted and trapped for food and furs, built shelters and cosy cabins, and earned a portion of its income by guiding anglers and hunters. With respect and concern for the natural world, Peever learned to humanely trap animals. He shared his valuable knowledge while working with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.
Gathering up their few belongings and a tent, seven-year-old Paul and his family climbed off the train on Sept. 1, 1940, but not at a station. Parents Bill and Isabel Peever and their seven children trekked into the woods about 22 kilometres from the village of Hornepayne, Ont., to make the back country their home. Their urgent task after setting up camp was to build a home near Obakamiga Lake.
By October’s end, a log cabin was constructed from cedar logs. The walls, floor and roof were built without a single nail. Settling into the cosy cabin was the first step for the family making its living in the bush.
Peever’s mother was a great fisherwoman, Peever recounted, fearlessly catching enormous pike. She “could paddle a canoe and cut wood with a Swede saw,” too. Fishing provided pike, pickerel and speckled trout for food, along with trapping and hunting. In winter, essential supplies — canned goods and non-perishables — were brought in by train, then loaded onto a dogsled to be taken to the cabin. No riding for the people, though. Strapping on snowshoes, they followed along.
The family may have been living deep in the woods but it was not fully alone; First Nations also lived in the Algoma region. Peever described how Indigenous homes were often teepees made with canvas exteriors instead of skins.
In the 1940s, the government encouraged guiding as a business. Already acquiring trapping licences, the Peevers were happy to accommodate by building sturdy cabins and shelters and taking anglers and hunters through the lush region. The visitors arrived by train, then the Peever “boys picked the tourists by canoe and took them to the lake.”
The Ontario Forestry Branch built a substantial fire tower in early 1941, reaching almost 26 metres for a bird’s eye view of the forests and waterways. Peever’s father was hired to tend the new Foch Township Tower in spring 1941, at a pay of $1.35 per day, seven days a week. Holding the job until 1945. his sons then took over the seasonal work for the next decade or more.
During Paul Peever’s tower employment, he earned $3.50 per day and a bonus of $30 per month if he stayed on the job for the full season. By the time he was 19, the tower was equipped with a two-way radio to report fires. With so many family members working there over the years, the tower became known as Peever Tower.
Attending school was a significant problem for the family, and an arrangement was made to learn by correspondence courses. Since there was no post office nearby, the children studied over the winter seasons, then submitted the year’s bundle of assignments at once for grading. Learning the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, Peever was also instructed by his mother. She read the Bible to the family every week and instilled an enduring faith in God in her son. As well, she ensured a Bible was placed in each cabin along the trapping routes.
Preferring the outdoors rather than concentrating on schoolwork, Peever gained comprehensive knowledge of forests, animal life and working with his hands. Learning how to use mechanical tools was a priority as there was no power equipment available. It was all by hand.
Taught to safely handle knives and saws as a child, Peever learned to carve wood pieces into lovely small statues such as beaver and moose when he was about 10 years old. With an abundance of cedar logs handy, he challenged himself to create a dugout, a form of boat similar to a canoe but much heavier.
Part of the fur trade with his family, Peever established a trapline of his own when he was 16 years old. Using dogs and sled, canoe and on foot, the teenager worked on his line from early in the morning until evening, when he reached the next cabin for the night. Nature provided a bounty of animals in the traps — beaver, otter, martin, fisher, mink and lynx. The area was rich in caribou, but only a few moose were in the region.
The art of trapping includes skinning and preparing the animal. Peever mentioned how he became a pro at it from a young age, at first using knives and animal bones for tools and scrapers then appropriate tools in later years. Over time, he developed a passion for humane trapping, trading the leg hold traps and snares for Conibear traps, which limit animal suffering.
In the early years, furs sold for good prices and trappers could make a living with the work. A beaver or martin pelt brought in $60 each, and a fisher pelt could earn the trapper $150 to $200, Peever said. But with activists protesting trapping and a changing society, by 1993 a beaver pelt was worth $6.
Starting a job in 1957 with the forestry department in North Bay, Peever fought forest fires in the warm seasons and trapped over the winters. Moving 200 kilometres north to the Temiskaming area, Peever set up a new trapline for furs. He also found something else. A young woman named Shirley working in Woolworths caught his eye, and they married in 1960. She was the right girl for him. “She loved to go on the trapline,” Peever stated with pride. The Peevers raised two daughters.
As part of his work with the MNR, Peever taught the facts, benefits and humane techniques of trapping to students, adults and Indigenous groups. While the natives were expert trappers, they were unaware of the improved traps for efficient trapping that did not cause animal misery.
The outdoorsman readily gave speeches at lodges and also trained Junior Rangers in outdoor skills, how to use tools, to safely handle a canoe and to respect nature.
Attending annual Ontario Trappers Association Conventions, Peever won prizes for his speed and skill. He proudly displays his plaques in his home. On display as well are two beautiful log cabin models, meticulously made without nails, just like the first family cabin and trapline cabins in the wilderness. Using his lifelong woodworking skills still, Peever is now expertly preparing a wood mould to build a four-foot model of a cedar strip canoe.
In 1998, Peever retired from a 20-year career as superintendent of Kap-Kig-Iwan Provincial Park in northeastern Ontario. He moved to Kingston in 2019 to live with his daughter and son-in-law. Sadly, Peever’s dear wife, Shirley, died earlier this year after living with dementia. His faith gives him hope that someday, “God’s Kingdom will remedy all man’s problems.”
Looking back at his extraordinary experiences, Paul Peever remarked, “All you worried about was that you’d have food for the day, water and a warm cabin.” It was a hard life but a good life, he said with satisfaction, and a life he cherishes.
Susanna McLeod is a writer living in Kingston.