Atikokan’s Tyler Zygmunt has turned his passion for the outdoors into a year round occupation
“It’s not a job it’s a way of life.”
That’s a favourite saying of 19 year-old Tyler Zygmunt, who has turned his passion for the outdoors into a year round occupation.
This is his fifth summer working at Canoe Canada Outfitters, guiding fishing clients and baiting around 200 bear stands in preparation for the August hunt. And as if one 40+ hour per week wasn’t enough time outdoors, he’s also employed for a second summer as an OPP marine assistant, helping conduct boat safety checks on local waters.
As a guide he gets to share his passion for the outdoors and “helping someone realize their dream”, whether it’s getting a black bear or a day of fishing on a pristine northern lake. Last fall he helped around 70 hunters get their bear, and this fall he’s already booked to guide 100 clients.
Come mid-October, Zygmunt will be shifting gears but not slowing down, when it comes to his workload. From then until April he’ll be headed out on the north of town and in Quetico Park.
While only having graduated two years ago and just recently began trapping on his own, Zygmunt is already gotten into the business in earnest. He is purchasing one of the four lines he traps and is planning to buy another.
It is a tough way to earn a living: Fur prices remain low, and the fuel costs associated with covering a large, rugged territory and the necessary purchase of new traps make it a costly endeavour.
“It’s full time, if not more. And if you worked it out by the hour it’d be less than even a dollar, honestly,” says the 2012-13 AHS Outer. “With skinning and stretching, it takes so much time. The way you have to look at it is your time is worth nothing, really. If I catch enough beaver to pay for my gas and buy some traps, then it’s a pretty good year.”
So what is the payback? Simply to be outdoors and a steward of the land he loves.
“I just love to be outdoors and to help balance our ecosystem. To go out in the boat in the spring or fall beaver trapping… it’s just the best time ever,” says Zygmunt, with characteristic exuberance. “It just feels good to be out there, whether it’s just turning cold in the fall or starting to warm up in the spring… By the end of the day, you’ve got 20 beaver in the boat, and it’s pretty cool, exciting.”
Zygmunt takes the responsibility of harvesting seriously. Trappers are given quotas by the MNR to ensure a minimum of certain fur bearers (in this area that is primarily beaver) are harvested annually.
He traps north of Atikokan and into Quetico Park and the territory is vast and largely unspoilt, which makes it very productive for wildlife. “Around here, we’re pretty fortunate – it’s all bush, so the wildlife populations grow pretty fast, like marten, lynx and wolves. There are so many square miles of bush that’s not even touched.”
Over the past three years, the wolf population has been at the peak of its cycle; Zygmunt caught a staggering number, 36.
“Wolves really interest me. My family deer hunts and the past three or four years the wolves are everywhere, and the last two years the deer numbers have just been plummeting and the winters have a lot to do with that as well. This year, I got more area to trap so I started trapping wolves to help out the deer. I set some traps before we even had snow on the ground in mid-October.”
It was a trial-and-error process to figure out the best technique. Without snow, “I was setting snares blind because I couldn’t see where they were walking….” By the time the snow flew, Zygmunt had already trapped ten – an entire season’s worth in most years. He discovered that boiling the snares removed the human scent, and trapping become even more successful. After that, “they honestly kept coming.”
Even so, the nuisance wolf population was still a concern for the Town last winter, which paid to have additional animals trapped, as it has for several years now.
Once the population peaks, and the deer dwindle, wolves will begin dying off due to starvation and mange, a parasitic infection spread by deer. Trapping them “just speeds up the process,” said Zygmunt. Large packs of wolves (sometimes close to 20 in a pack) require a lot of food and will even take down a moose, he added.
Managing the beaver population is another crucial aspect of trapping. Problems arise when the animals divert water and flood roads.
“Beaver are a rodent and multiply very fast, no different from a mouse or rat.. same deal. They can move water anywhere.”
Last winter he caught about 200 beaver. Logistically, setting and checking traps on the lines is a big undertaking for one guy. Zygmunt relies on boating in the fall for 85% of his trapping, using ATVs and snowmachines once the snow gets deep and some of the bush roads are no longer passable by truck.
When he goes into the park, he usually plans an overnight stay in a cabin or in one of the lean-to shelters he has built (thanks to his Outers training).
Working alone in the bush without cellular service can be a safety risk, as he realized last fall after his outboard motor broke down on a lake south of Finlayson. Loaded down with animals, two rifles and his gear, he had to paddle the boat for two hours to the nearest road. From there, he started bushwhacking through thick wilderness until he hit Wajita Bay Road.
“It was getting darker and darker” but he still had another three hour walk to get to the Finlayson Lake landing where his truck was parked. “I ended up getting home at 11:30 pm.”
Had it been a cold winter night, or if he had been injured, the situation “could have been a lot worse. Safety is always number one in the bush. If I have to think twice about whether to do something, I just don’t do it. If I’m going out of range, I always let somebody know where I’m going.”
Trapping is even work in the off-season, meaning Zygmunt is brushing trails, cutting new ones, and scouting new locations for trap sets on the line he began working last winter.
He’s fortunate however, to already know the area around here pretty well, given his upbringing.
“Ever since I was wee little, I’ve just always been an outdoors guy. Hunting, fishing – that’s been my life, how my Dad (Roman) brought me up.”
It was his love of that lifestyle that got him hooked on trapping around age 12.
“I saw that trapping was another thing to do in the outdoors.” Local trapper Max Clement, who has logged some 70 years trapping (and is still at it), was looking for a helper, so Zygmunt got to learn from the best and most experienced in the industry here.
“I walked into his basement and there all these beaver hanging there, stretched, and I’m thinking, ‘Whoa, that it so cool.’”
The next day, Clement taught him how to skin, which was nerve-wracking for the youngster. “I’m just shaking because I don’t want to wreck it, it’s not my fur, and it’s worth money… but Max was just great, he has so much patience.”
After learning the tricks of the trade from Clement and earning his licence in the April, 2013, “there was nothing stopping me.”
He started working on the line for Clement that first year, and soon started working lines for other local trappers. (In his early teens, he also worked as the Town’s animal control helper for two years).
Zygmunt is clearly passionate about what he does – and his enthusiasm is infectious – but sharing his passion for living on the land is a tough sell nowadays. Each school year he conducts about three trapping and skinning presentations in the schools, including one for the AHS Natural Resources Technology class. It’s a hands-on presentation, where he demonstrates how to skin and stretch a marten, how to set traps, and then the class divides into small groups, where each participates in skinning a beaver.
“I always [tell] any of the students who want to come out trapping with me to just give me a call, but no one has ever taken me up on it. It’s kind of sad, because if they were to get out there, they would probably enjoy it, but [everyone is so wrapped up in computers and video games].”
He says it’s frustrating that there are misconceptions about trapping, and he said even some locals are upset to see fur bearing animals in the back of his truck. In one instance, a passerby even called the police because they were offended by the wolves in the back of his truck.
Yet, Zygmunt is unapologetic about his livelihood, a tradition that dates back as long as humans have lived here.
“I will never apologize for being a trapper, hunter and outdoorsman,” he says emphatically.
Anti-fur campaigns have devastated the industry over the past few decades, economically and in public perception. Markets largely dried up for many years, and have only recently seen somewhat of a rebound, thanks to Chinese and Russian markets.
Zygmunt sells through North Bay’s Fur Harvesters Auction, and while fur prices were still low for some furs – especially Beaver which bring in around $20-60 each, Otter ($36-50), Mink ($15), and Fox ($26-45). Zygmunt’s pelts fare better given the quality of the fur and skinning skill. That means often the pelts are in the auction’s ‘top lot’ sales. (For example, while lynx prices averaged at around $120 at the auction house, Zygmunt’s lynx pelts sold for over $200 apiece.)
Despite the negative anti-fur campaigns, Zygmunt contends wild fur is a renewable resource and current fur harvesting practices are harmonious and responsible management of the wildlife. Trapping regulations are constantly changing to make the process more humane, including the requirement for ‘quick kill’ traps with much stronger springs, and for leg-hold traps to be checked daily to reduce animal suffering, he says.
While Atikokan has a handful of young trappers (mostly second or third generation), Zygmunt is the only high school graduate who is pursuing this as a livelihood. His OPP summer job has sparked an interest in policing as a career, but he is adamant that he will always live, and trap, here.
Whether with a trap, gun or fishing rod in hand, Zygmunt feels living on the land is a calling, an honour… and a responsibility.
“For some, hunting and trapping are a hobby, but for me it’s my passion.”