Articles

War in the Fur Country

Fur fever can lead to murder when backwoods bootleggers rob Canada of millions in hot pelts

BRUCE McLEOD April 15 1949
Articles

War in the Fur Country

Fur fever can lead to murder when backwoods bootleggers rob Canada of millions in hot pelts

BRUCE McLEOD April 15 1949

War in the Fur Country

Fur fever can lead to murder when backwoods bootleggers rob Canada of millions in hot pelts

BRUCE McLEOD

Articles

ON A sultry June day two years ago Dan Tessier, a lean frowning French-Canadian trapper in a khaki jacket and coveralls,

pushed his skiff into the swollen waters of the Shikawamka River off Dalton, Ont. He dropped his .303 rifle across a seat, wrapped a chunk of knotted cord around the flywheel of his outboard and yanked.

The engine sputtered and caught. Dan nosed his boat downstream and headed for the Jackpine River, 10 miles away.

“Somebody bust into my shack,” he shouted to his Indian wife on shore. “Be back in t’ree ’ours. If I’m not, call the police. Somet’ing will ’ave ’appen to me.”

Next afternoon searchers found the trapper’s skiff floating near the cabin he had gone to examine. The stern was bullet-gouged. Stains smeared the seat.

Nine days later they found Tessier floating in the Jackpine. He had a bullet hole in his head.

Police didn’t have to wonder about a motive. The tiny mill settlement of Dalton, 44 miles west of Chapleau on the main line of the CPR, had become a hotbed of fur bootlegging —one of many outlets for a racket which, during the unprecedented fur boom of 1946, was bleeding Northern Ontario of close to $1 million worth of “hot” pelts.

Dan Tessier, like most honest trappers, wanted no part of the racket, and when poachers raided his trap line he went to the police. Angry mutterings were heard when it became known that Tessier would be the star witness against a half-dozen poaching suspects. Three days before the first trials were scheduled death from a high-powered rifle sealed the trapper’s lips. The killer is st ill at large and fur pirates continue to tramp the northern bushlands.

Today, more logical trapping laws, more rigid enforcement and a sharp drop in the price of skins have contributed to a lessening of poaching but game wardens of the Ontario Lands and Forests Department admit the loot still runs into hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. Trapping in banned areas or before the season legally opens still accounts for a valuable haul of beaver, muskrat, mink and otter. Many a debutante, society matron and stenographer wraps herself in furs which—if she but knew it—have a background of bush-feuding, treachery and corruption.

Pelts Through Loopholes

MEN CHARGED with smashing the fur racket say there are still too many dealers who buy pelts of doubtful origin. In defense, fur buyers argue it is not always easy for them to know when and how a pelt was taken.

It’s impossible to estimate accurately the annual value of bootleg fur throughout. Canada, but authorities agree it probably runs into several million dollars. The legitimate industry handles millions of pelts each year, which reach a manufactured value of more than $100 millions. Last year $26 millions worth of raw pelts were checked—a decline of 40% over 1946.

In Ontario, where 40,000 beaver are taken legally every year, it’s believed that during the era of boom prices and a 21-day season, racketeers were taking more than twice the amount of fur legally trapped.

Some provinces say nothing about the racket, preferring to keep the poachers ignorant, of how much is known about their activities. But it is generally conceded that Ontario and Quebec are hardest hit, with Montreal the ultimate destination of 80%., of the “hot” fur taken from trap lines of both provinces.

Biggest beef of Ontario wardens is the relative ease with which pelts are legalized in Quebec. “Ontario fur, taken out of season and smuggled into Quebec, can be legalized there with few

questions asked,” complains a Lands and Forests expert. “Even with recent changes in Quebec fur laws poachers who have a little drag in the right places don’t have much trouble getting their pelts legalized.”

Quebec buyers can take fur from an Indian without questions. When a Quebec raw' fur dealer was asked, “How can you be sure you’re buying from an Indian?” he shot back: “If t he guy’s got a good tan and says he’s an Indian that’s proof enough for me.”

Until recently Quebec wardens were issued hammers bearing the letters PQ. This was the official stamp required to legalize a pelt in that province. After collecting the provincial royalty, some wardens would stamp pelts without, getting too inquisitive. Today, following Ontario’s lead, numbered seals similar to boxcar seals—are used on beaver skins.

In Ontario it’s the warden’s job to seal each skin. In Quebec, however, the trapper is given one seal for each beaver house on his trapline. He, not the warden, at taches t he seal. This provides a loophole for the poacher. If a trapper with 20 Ireaver houses on his trap line takes only 1 1 skins, he can, theoretically at, least, use the remaining nine seals to legalize beaver taken elsewhere probably out. of season. Asked if a t rapper had ever returned any seals at. t he end of the season, a Quebec warden shook his head.

Every year Quebec and Ontario wardens make many seizures. In 1947 Ontario officers made 2,068 prosecutions, got 1,979 convictions. They seized almost. 2,000 traps and snares and 749 beaver skins. But in most cases it’s the “little guy” who runs afoul of the law.

Nabbing the brains behind the illegal fur rings is a tougher job. The

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big shots rarely handle the fur, seldom take any of the risks. Working through a network of paid stooges, they direct operations from the comparative safety of their big-city offices. They are shrewd, greedy men w'ho care little about the preservation of Canada’s wild life and even less about the welfare of the human puppets who dance at the ends of their cleverly manipulated strings.

Occasionally, however, a big operator sticks his jaw out where the law can tap it. Like Jacob Click, a swarthy nervous little man whom police had long suspected but could never nail with the goods. Then one day Click’s luck began to run out.

A young Ontario warden named “Bull” Hemple wdio had little respect for red tape seized Click and ordered a search of his person. Click was

enraged, threatening legal action against the department. But the search was made and two books were taken from Click’s pockets. Hemple had hit the jackpot.

One book was a complete record of Click’s shady fur transactions. The other was his code book. Police described it as a masterpiece. Every letter, every combination of letters of every word meant something entirely different. Like the word “ROBIN.” The letter “R” might mean “Will pick up furs Tuesday”; the letters “RO” used together might warn “Cancel plans, police wise”; the combination “ROB” might instruct a stooge “Meet me by taxi at station.”

Seizure of his code book smashed the whole elaborate communication system linking Jlick with fur bootleggers throughout the north. But the department still couldn’t prosecute. Click went free.

A short time later Ontario Provincial Police were in Rouyn, Que., looking for

$40,000 worth of gold stolen from the Dome Mine at South Porcupine. They learned that a float plane had been chartered to fly from Rouyn into desolate country back of Sudbury, Onf., to pick up freight and a passenger. On the chance it might be going to pick up the stolen gold, the Ontario constables decided to stick around.

A Quebec constable was placed aboard the aircraft, disguised as a mechanic. On the return flight it was agreed that the pilot would land at Rouyn on the pretense that he had to gas up before continuing on to Montreal. If the passenger objected the “mechanic” had a gun as a convincer.

When the plane splashed down on an isolated lake far back in the Ontario hush the cargo waiting was hales of fur — 444 beaver skins worth $20,000. The passenger was Jacob Glick who—when the plane made its unscheduled landing at Rouyn—walked straight into the arms of the law and two years in jail.

Day and night—in weather sometimes 50 below zero—wardens and poachers wage their war. It’s a battle of wits; a test of cunning. There are no rules, no set patterns. Every poacher has a few tricks of his own.

Beaver to Catch Beaver

The odds are with the poacher, for the warden must keep on the move, often betraying his whereabouts. The fur thief can remain under cover, striking at moments of his own choosing. Tracking him is a tough chore, for he usually makes his sets during a snowfall, counting on the storm to wipe out signs of his activity.

In Saskatchewan, last winter, a warden came upon two men eating cold rations in bush closed to trapping. As he approached one of the men started a fire. “Make you some hot tea?” he asked pleasantly.

The warden was suspicious. Men chewing on cold grub with firewood stacked ready for lighting didn’t make sense. He rummaged through their packsacks and sleeping bags but found nothing. Then, on a hunch, he kicked the blazing firewood aside and dug into the snow beneath it. There, buried in a canvas sack, he found six mink and two muskrat pelts.

Spring brings a warden many of his biggest headaches. One problem is the use of castor by poachers to bait their traps.

Inside each beaver are egg-sized scent glands (technically, the perineal ¡ known as castor (which is Latin for beaver). In bis springtime mating travels a beaver will stop here and there, push up a mound of mud and leave a castor deposit on it a sort of Chanel No. 5 of the beaver world. Every beaver in the area will probably visit the spot.

“If a poacher finds one of these castor deposits,” explains Henry Haskins, district chief warden at North Bay, Ont., “he sets his traps nearby and makes a real killing.”

Haskins says he can smell a bear, a moose or a deer in the bush—but he still can’t smell a man. “I wish I could,” he laughs. “It’d sure be a big help.”

In the 20 years he’s been enforcing game and fish laws Haskins has learned a lot about poachers and how they operate. The offense which outrages him most is “trenching” —a favored method of poaching beaver in the fall.

The poacher first finds a beaver pond, then chops a hole in the dam and lets the water escape. Most beaver have holes in the pond bank about 50 or 100 yards away from their houses. As the pond drains, the beaver retreat into these holes.

“A mongrel dog,” says Haskins, “is used to find where the beaver are holed up. Then the poacher drives wooden stakes across the openings. Next, from above the hole a sharpened stick is shoved down through the mud. The hiding beaver is either speared or chased out where it can be clubbed to death.”

It takes an experienced eye to recognize pelts that have been “trenched.” Veteran wardens are sometimes fooled. Skins seized from a trapper suspected of “trenching” look like any other pelts —until Haskins explains the reasons for his suspicions. One hide has two small boles in it, indicating spearing; several pelts have blackened welts, crusted with dried blood.

“This one was clubbed with an axe,” Haskins says, parting the rich brown fur to reveal a long gash in the hide. “And look at the feet. Not a trap mark on any of them.”

Poachers need plenty on the ball to outwit the bush-wise wardens. Not long ago a farmer brought several beaver skins into Haskins’ office. The season had just opened that morning.

“Pretty fast work,” said the warden drily.

“Didn’t know the season opened (his morning,” pleaded the farmer. “Thought it opened in January.

Trapped them on my farm about a month ago.”

Officials unrolled the pelts. The farmer was from Southern Ontario, which has a later opening date than northern districts. If he was telling the truth he might he excused—wardens know that honest mistakes can he made. It didn’t take them long to prove this man was lying.

Winter-trapped pelts don’t have dried leaves clinging to them. Three of these did. The hair on a fourth skin was so short that the beaver’s ears, which normally can’t be seen, stuck out like sore thumbs. “An August pelt if I ever saw one*,” said Haskins.

Trapping “hot.” fur is one thing: getting it safely to buyers in big cities is another. Some fantastic smuggling methods are used and eagle-eyed wardens have learned to expect anything.

“Bootleg fur is smuggled out of the north by plane, train and automobile,” says Charles Bibhy, warden at Sudbury, Ont. “Taxi drivers, traveling salesmen, railroaders, truckers—even women are involved. They are wellpaid (usually a dollar a pelt) and spotting the guilty ones is a terrific problem.”

About the time of the Dan Tessier murder, 150 beaver pelts worth $6,000

were seized on a train out of Chapleau, Ont. A sleeping-car porter was working in cahoots with two brothers. On another occasion a veteran conductor was nabbed with 100 pelts stowed in his luggage.

Some poachers buy it rail ticket and then check a trunk or suitcase loaded with fur as baggage. They seldom Lake the train themselves. Instead, they mail the baggage stub to a confederate who claims the baggage on arrival.

One of 14 bales of fur addressed to the Montreal Fur Auctions came under suspicion. Three large X’s had been scrawled on the side of the bale, and when investigators opened it they found 73 unsealed skins mixed up with 8-15 legally sealed beaver. Someone at the auction had been tipped to watch for this bale. The culprits who shipped it paid a fine of $7,300.

Another poacher got several shipments of fur out of the country before a curious warden pried the lid off a box labeled “fish” and found it crammed with otter and mink.

About a year ago two sisters checked a baby carriage onto a train headed for Montreal. Underneath a top layer of bedding and diapers were found two dozen mink pelts.

One matronly suspect who claimed to be pregnant was found to be hiding bootleg fur inside a corset. “That was an expensive baby,” chuckles a warden who remembers t heincident. “Delivery cost her $500.”

Near Sudbury an overseer searched a suspected poacher’s home from attic in basement but found nothing. As he leaned against a stair post a knob atop the post fell off. Inside the hollow post were found 10 beaver pelts. Skins have

been found rolled up in kitchen blinds.

In ears smuggled fur turns up in upholstery, spare tires, window slots and secret compartments. Sometimes the driver will have pelts taped to his flesh under his shirt or trousers.

Smugglers using cars sometimes operate in groups of two or three. The first car, carrying no fur, checks the highway to make sure wardens aren’t stopping traffic. From each town he reaches the driver of the lead car phones back to his associates, informing them whether the coast is clear or not.

Skins are difficult to recognize when wrapped in parcels because they can be rolled into such a variety of shapes. “You can pack 25 skins into a 12-by-12 inch package,” says Mort Parks, former chief warden in Northern Ontario. “At Jocko we once caught a man who had rolled skins into hard round balls. When wrapped they looked like anything hut fur.”

Two years ago the Ontario Departments of Fish and Game and Lands and Forests were amalgamated, and facilities and staff increased. Use of the new department’s aircraft has also taken some of the cockiness out of poachers who were running fur by air.

During the many years Mort Parks (he’s ref irod now) battled the poacher he seldom had more than 38 wardens to patrol that vast stretch of heavily timbered, lake-studded country from James Bay to Parry Sound, and from the Algoma district eastward to the Quebec border. Today the department has about 190 wardens to police all Ontario, but there are still only nine men policing an area that sprawls over 77,000 square miles. Officials aren’t joking w'hen they sav the life of a warden is a hard, thankless one. +