The year always gets off to the right start for the Andersons
LITCHFIELD -- Life has a fixed starting point at the Karen and Gene Anderson household on the shores of Litchfield's Lake Ripley.
"The year didn't start until dad started trapping," said their daughter, Katrina Lustfield of Sioux Falls, S.D.
Now the parent of two grown children, Lustfield remembers accompanying her father as he worked his trap lines, hiking through woods and grass or canoeing into cattail-lined sloughs as the air turned brisk and the days short in late autumn. She returned home to a warm meal prepared by her mother, and fell weary into bed as her mom and dad made their way to the trapping shed to process the day's harvest well into the night.
"Once over 10 days I 'skun 700 muskrats," said Karen Anderson, who added that she has the pictures to prove it.
Hard work to be sure, but it was always the chance to enjoy the outdoors, make some money, and work together that motivated this husband and wife team and has made them so well-known in the trapping community of Minnesota.
Not to mention respected. Gene has made such a reputation for being conscientious to protect animal populations in the areas he traps and to keep the laws that Conservation Officer Brian Mies with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources called him "one of the best trappers that I have had the pleasure of meeting..." That endorsement was part of a stack of letters that placed Gene in the Minnesota Trapper's Hall of Fame in 2010.
That would be 10 years after Karen had already won recognition from the Minnesota Trapper's Association as the Female Trapper of the Year.
To be fair, she gives her husband the credit for introducing her to trapping. "I liked it because I could spend time with him," she said.
She not only helped process the catch, but for many years shared in the duties of walking the trap lines. She'd tend to the land sets and he the water sets when seasons for land and water fur bearers overlapped.
They were married 53 years ago. They had met during their school years. "He was the good looking kid in the back of the study hall," said Karen.
He started trapping when he was eight or nine years old. He loved the outdoors so much that a good winter's storm was all the excuse he needed to spend the night in the woods, he said.
Gene also had to make his way in life at a young age, and by his high school years was already working for area farmers to earn some money.
The farm work was hard and messy, and a month's work paid him $85. One time his trap line produced two minks, each fetching $38. "I had a lot more fun trapping that one mink" than a month's worth of cleaning calf bins, said Gene.
His trapping was interrupted twice:
For four years, when he served in the U.S. Air Force; and afterwards for a few years, when he began a 39-year career with the Meeker Power and Light Cooperative. He was working six days a week, 10-hour days and putting in overtime and call time with three young children at home: Katrina and her brothers Scott (now deceased) and Richard.
Becoming a trapper back in those days was about as easy as cracking the code of silence at the Central Intelligence Agency. There was good money in trapping. Trappers were extremely secretive about their techniques, said Gene.
He had an uncle and step-father that trapped. They gave him some advice, but he has relied mainly on his own wits to master this sport.
Those wits have come in handy when his passion for trapping provided unexpected adventures, too.
One New Year's Eve he cracked through the ice in 13-feet of water and spent a frozen hour and a half making it back to the safety of his pickup truck.
One year he and a partner set 80 beaver traps on a stretch of the Minnesota River reaching to Franklin, while unbeknownst to them the floodgates were being opened upstream. Overnight, the water rose eight feet. The next day the two trappers rigged up a pole and fished out all of their traps. They didn't miss a one, and their hard day's struggle had its rewards: "It seemed like half of them had beavers," said Gene.
The Halloween blizzard of 1991 threw him another one of those curveballs. He had placed 100 traps around the county by the time the snow started. He was clawing through four- and five-foot banks of snow the next day to pull the last of them.
There were years when fur prices made those kinds of effort worth it. There were also years when just the opposite was true. Karen remembers bringing one beaver pelt to a buyer and spreading it over the hood of the pickup truck like a quilt on a bed.
She was offered $5.
That's when she decided to do some of her own value-added processing. She purchased a machine and began turning the fox, beaver, mink and raccoon that they harvested into beautiful coats, vests, mittens and hats. Miss Minnesota and Miss Indiana are among those who have worn her apparel.
Her creations also answered a question that no history book could for Gene. He said he used to wonder how the early mountain men survived the harsh conditions without the benefits of modern garb. Discovering the warmth of fur-lined mittens was all the answer he needed.
Gene still starts the year in late October, but at age 73 has scaled back. He continues to answer the call to trap nuisance animals in response to calls from Meeker County or the DNR through the year as well.
It's no longer just his love of the outdoors or the pride that comes with success that keeps him at this. Years ago he began introducing young people to the sport of trapping, and giving his hard-earned secrets to those who might take up and keep the ways. Some of the young people who accompanied him have now become trappers. All have discovered the joy that comes with outdoor pursuits.
It's truly a gift that he continues to give to the next generation, said his daughter. Katrina remains an avid hunter, black powder shooter and outdoors person. She said there "couldn't be a better way" to grow up than as she did, discovering the outdoors and learning the value of hard work by her parents' example.