Hopkins was a small town when I was in seventh grade.
A wild area separated it from the bigger city to the east, St. Louis Park. Today, that formerly wild stretch is Hwy. 169 where it intersects with Hwy. 7. Minnehaha Creek is a natural boundary that winds between the towns. In fact, a great cattail marsh existed where the shopping center, Target and their respective parking lots stand today.
West of that was a large tract of pasture owned by Hennepin County and occupied in summer by a herd of black angus cattle. In autumn, they would be trucked away to barns and corrals near the Home for Boys. (The county had another close-by livestock business, too, where edible garbage from the Glen Lake Tuberculosis Sanatorium was fed to a hog operation stashed in the woods off Indian Chief Road.)
This wilderness was my far North. One could legally hunt there with shotguns and rifles, and trap animals for their fur.
A No. 0 long spring trap hung in the basement of our small home on 9th Avenue N. in Hopkins. I never did find out why my dad had it. But I wanted to use it to catch animals for their fur. I could be a trapper like a guy in a movie I saw. And furs sold for money, which was in short supply in our home, overpopulated with six kids and a grandmother.
The older brother of one of my friends told stories about the value of fur. His name was Emmett and he had a lot of traps. More important, he actually made money selling muskrat pelts.
One Saturday in mid-October, I began my one-trap venture. The pasture was a couple of miles from my home, an easy hike with my trusty dog, Happy. Like Stewart Granger in the 1952 movie "The Wild North," we would make big money catching fur. Happy was no sled dog, but he was all I had. And he liked to go into the bush.
While I didn't have any experience trapping, I had learned a lot about tracks and the woods. I had scoured every inch of this 150-acre site for years. And it wasn't long that I found the perfect spot to make my first set.
Something had killed a hen pheasant, and most of the carcass remained in a stand of sumac. The feathers were scattered in the leaves, the perfect spot in which to hide the trap. There were no tracks in the grass and leaves, but this spot was very close to a small pond, and I was convinced that a mink had made this kill, and would be back to eat the rest. No doubt a big, black male. Mink pelts were worth about $25 at the time — my allowance was 25 cents a week.
I bound the trap with wire to a fence and covered it with the feathers. Then I hiked home, followed by my dog, with visions of mink, money and adventure.
I headed back just after dawn Sunday morning. I imagined having snowshoes on, plowing through the drifts, pulling marten and lynx from the pines. But as I got to the trap, reality reared its ugly head. Oh, I did catch something. Happy was ahead, and he suddenly wheeled, charging into the trap site.
"I caught it," I hollered. Then I called off my dog, fearful that he would ruin such valuable fur. No need. Happy he wasn't, and he turned back, his chin on the ground, pawing at his eyes and yelping in pain. The acrid smell was overpowering.
Skunk? I never even considered it. I got close enough to see that it was a spotted skunk (which we called a civet cat in those days). It was held securely, and it was upset. What to do?
I had a friend, Wayne, who had a gun, so I began the trek back to town. It didn't take much to talk Wayne into helping me. He grabbed his .410 single shot. Wayne shot the skunk, and he shot it from far enough away that I was certain (and wrong) it still probably had value as fur. But what to do with it?
Convinced that it still was worth money, I was going to take it to Emmett's house.
Emmett wasn't home, so Wayne and I decided the best thing was to throw the skunk onto the roof of a kind of lean-to shed attached to the house. This was Emmett's headquarters, where he kept his traps, and where he dried his pelts on both wire and wooden stretchers. We felt that putting it on the roof would keep the skunk out of sight from those who would surely steal it for its valuable fur.
That proved least of my concerns. I learned later that Emmett wanted to give me a beating. Turns out that skunk so soured things around his home that the nuns sent Emmett and his brother Richard home early from class. They smelled so badly of skunk that the foul odor was disrupting school.
I patched things over with Emmett, and gave up my plans to be a trapper until the following year, when he showed me how to catch muskrats and avoid catching skunks.
Thus, I began a somewhat more successful trapping career.
About the author: Don Grussing, 77, of Minnetonka is a 1962 graduate of the University of Minnesota journalism school. A hunter and conservationist, he has managed wood duck and bluebird house trails most of his life. He also has written two birding books, and had magazine articles in National Wildlife, Field & Stream and other outdoors publications.
This essay is part of an occasional series of stories by readers and Star Tribune staff members called First Person: Ageless Adventures.