Sunday, August 17, 2014

1999 Article from Ludington Daily News on Trapper's life journey: dated article, but an informative, inspiring read

Link to : UP Trapper Calls Life a Spiritual Journey


JOHN FLESHER, Associated Press
Sep. 16, 1999 2:11 AM ET

CHANNING, Mich. (AP) _ A breeze rustles the swamp grass as Mike Nowak lifts a trap from the gurgling stream and removes a beaver nabbed during the night. With a practiced flick of the wrists, he swings the sodden carcass over his shoulder into a woven basket strapped to his back.

``Animals are very special to me,'' the burly trapper says. ``All my meat has come strictly off the land, so I respect the animals. They give up their life for you, to feed and clothe you.''

One might consider Nowak a throwback to the 17th century coureurs de bois, those French hunters and trappers among the first Europeans to explore the upper Great Lakes region. They got along well with native Indians, respecting their customs and spirituality.

Yet the 52-year-old outdoorsman also represents a very modern cultural phenomenon: Americans who turn away from the high-tech, urban fast track for the less materialistic ways of the woods.

Nowak doesn't completely reject modernity or capitalism. He drives a battered Jeep and adores tinkering with Harley-Davidsons. He's a small-businessman, making and selling products made of animal furs and horns.

He earns a little extra money doing construction work in the summer, when hunting is out of season and animal furs aren't prime for trapping. ``But when Oct. 1 comes, I kind of roll that clock back 100 years and try to live that way,'' he says.

He has a cramped trailer with a wood stove on a 40-acre farm in northern Dickinson County. It's next to the house where he grew up, and where his 88-year-old father still lives.

Nowak takes pride in growing, gathering, catching, trapping or shooting nearly all of his food. ``My grocery bill seldom goes over $15 a week,'' he says. ``All I buy is bread and milk and cooking spices. Could make my bread but don't want to take the time.''

Michigan's Upper Peninsula is ideally suited for living off the land. Although dotted with towns, most are small; the largest city, Marquette, has only about 21,000 residents.

Roughly 85 percent of the peninsula is forested. Wildlife is abundant, and there's always a river or lake nearby full of fish. Despite a short growing season, farmers raise corn, hay, potatoes and vegetables.

Observers say the U.P.'s back-to-nature enthusiasts tend to be either traditional hunter-trappers such as Nowak or people of a more liberal bent who might embrace vegetarianism or environmental politics.

Regardless of motivation, this rural life is not for the fainthearted. Winters can be brutal. Self-reliance and ``sisu,'' a Finnish expression for gutsy perseverance, are the watchwords for yoopers who tough it out.

No problem for Nowak, who looks the part with his weathered visage and deep-set blue eyes. He rises before sunup and walks several miles a day, regardless of the weather.

His pantry is stocked with canned vegetables from the garden, his freezer packed with meat. His taste for wild game ranges from beaver to bobcat.

``Woodchuck, too,'' he says. ``They say it's a rodent, but I tell you it's the best-tasting rodent you'll ever eat.''

Today for lunch he pan-fries bluegill, served with home-grown potatoes and green beans and homemade applesauce and pickles.

``I asked a doctor one time why there's so much cancer, and he said the air we breathe and the food we eat,'' he says. ``Can't do much about the air, but you sure can control what goes into your body.''

Nowak was hunting and fishing with his father before he started first grade. But when he graduated from high school in 1964, city lights beckoned.

He spent much of the next 15 years as a bricklayer in Reno, Nev., before returning to the Upper Peninsula for good. ``Best move I ever made,'' he says.

Quite by accident, he became an entrepreneur in the mid-1980s after making himself mittens from coyote fur and a coat and hat from beaver pelts.

Friends began placing orders, and soon he was turning out hardy woodsman's garments with furs from otters, foxes and other critters. Demand grew, especially after he was featured in a couple of outdoor publications.

``I was getting so busy I couldn't get out in the woods any more, so I hired a woman to do the sewing,'' Nowak says. ``Now it's gotten so big that I have to buy fur.''

He also hit on the idea of using thin strips of beaver hair as bowstring silencers _ devices that eliminate the twang that can startle a deer in the second between when an arrow is shot and when it strikes.

Another product line: jewelry and knife handles made with deer, elk and moose horns, in keeping with Nowak's belief that no part of an animal should go to waste.

Nowak uses a distributor to get his bowstring silencers into sporting goods stores across the country. He sells his other products via mail-order.

But he says he has no interest in being so successful that he loses touch with the simple life.

``Sometimes my income's just $5,000 or $6,000 a year, but it's like $50,000 or $60,000 to somebody else because I don't have too many expenses. I can live like a king off that.''

Checking his traps, he pauses to pick wild cranberries and watch honking Canada geese soar over a nearby lake. Cedar and birch stumps gnawed by beavers litter the boggy landscape.

``You know, I haven't had a drink in 24 years,'' he says. ``I speak to school classes sometimes, and I tell them nature's the best high there is.''

He sets another trap in a narrow, two-foot-deep channel flowing into the lake, concealing it with swamp grass, hammering stakes on both sides to keep swimming beaver from bypassing it. Finishing the job, he grins contentedly.

``It's a great life, buddy. The only bad thing is I'm probably halfway through it. Where does the time go?''

Another article about Nowak: