Published January 10, 2010, 12:00 AM

The trapline tailor makes hats, gloves, more from beaver pelts

ON LAKE VERMILION, NEAR COOK — It’s 10 below zero on New Year’s Day, and Tom Yankowiak of Cook has appointments to keep with 15 beaver huts.

By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune

ON LAKE VERMILION, NEAR COOK — It’s 10 below zero on New Year’s Day, and Tom Yankowiak of Cook has appointments to keep with 15 beaver huts.

Yankowiak is near one of those lodges now, chipping through 2 inches of new ice to check a trap he set the day before. Once through the ice, he hauls up a 40-pound beaver. It’s dead, clamped firmly in the powerful frame of a Conibear 330 trap. It died quickly, drowning after the trap immobilized it beneath the water.

The price of beaver is so low this winter — $8 or $10 — that trapping hardly pays. But Yankowiak, 38, isn’t your typical trapper. He doesn’t sell his furs.

He looks at the dark, wet creature he has just pulled from the water.

“Oooh, nice one,” he says. “He’ll make a pair of mitts.”

Yankowiak sends his finished beaver pelts off to be tanned into supple furs. Then he fashions handsome, functional mitts and beaver-fur caps from the hides. He sells or trades the finished products, operating exclusively by word of mouth.

“It’s not a business,” Yankowiak says. “It’s a hobby that pays for itself.”

I’m along for the day with Yankowiak, who works full-time for the U.S. Forest Service in Cook. We’ll cover 60 miles on a pair of snowmobiles, stopping at 15 lodges to check a total of 20 traps. Along the line, Yankowiak will pick up eight beavers that weigh, collectively, more than 300 pounds. It’s a good day. He took eight the day before, too.

“I hate to trap a lodge out,” he says. “I like to just take a few, then leave the rest.”

In a typical winter, Yankowiak takes 30 to 40 beavers. He skins, fleshes and dries them at home.

The day is cold. In the time it takes Yankowiak to remove a beaver from a trap and re-set it, skim ice forms over the hole. Yankowiak, however, is not cold. He wears a pair of his own beaver-fur mitts and, when not wearing his snowmobile helmet, he wears one of his beaver-fur hats.

They are, most importantly, warm. Beaver fur possesses exceptional insulating qualities. They also happen to be gorgeous. Yankowiak traps in mid-winter, when furs are prime. He lines his mitts with Polartec 300 fleece and makes the palms from supple moosehide. The fur is thick and dense, and the long guard hairs look auburn in the afternoon light.

It takes one large beaver, 40 to 50 pounds, to make one pair of mitts, Yankowiak says.

Doing his homework

Yankowiak is not merely a trapper of beavers. He is a student of beavers. Throughout the day as we check traps, he imparts nuggets of beaver wisdom.

“A beaver has 100,000 hairs per square inch in its underfur.”

“Muskrats will sometimes share the lodge with a family of beavers.”

“Canadian studies have shown that a beaver leaves its hut, on average, once every 18 hours.”

He wrote a research paper on beavers at Bemidji State University. He has gleaned all he can from a 1,100-page book on furbearers published by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. He has watched videos showing life in a beaver lodge.

On the trap line, Yankowiak operates with complete efficiency. He takes no extra steps, wastes no motion. Yet he seems completely unhurried. It takes us five hours to cover the entire line.

Learning young

Yankowiak learned to trap on his own, inspired by Fur-Fish-Game magazine, growing up on a farm near Mora, Minn. He started on muskrats at age 9 or 10, eventually trapped almost every fur species, then settled on beavers.

He trapped through college, earning money by selling nearly all parts of his beavers. He sold the hides to fur buyers. He sold the castor glands, used in the cologne trade. He sold the tails to a man who made wallets and checkbook covers from them. He sold the teeth to an English teacher who made them into jewelry. He sold the carcasses to dogsledders and the International Wolf Center in Ely.

He started sewing mitts in the mid-1990s when he needed a pair for himself. His patterns have been “tweaked” probably 50 times through the years, he says. He sewed his original mitts by hand but in the late 1990s came upon a “fur machine” specifically for stitching furs. It looks like an antique, and perhaps it is, but it’s ideal for his purposes.

“It’s not an easy machine to use,” he says. “You have to get to know it.”

Low-tech, high-tech

Blending old and new technologies is common for Yankowiak in his beaver trapping. He uses time-tested steel traps and chisels them from the ice by hand, but he rides a new four-stroke snow machine to reach them. He carries an iPhone with a GPS mapping application on which he can see actual beaver huts in satellite imagery.

He is perhaps the only trapper in Minnesota who flies a paraplane at low altitudes during the summer to find the lodges he’ll trap the following winter. A paraplane is a sophisticated go-cart-like craft that powers a 62-inch propeller, all of which is suspended beneath a para-sail, the same kind you see towed behind power boats in Mexico.

The dichotomies in Yankowiak’s life follow him to work. He spends 80 nights a year sleeping on the ground as a wilderness ranger in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. He fells potentially hazardous trees with a crosscut saw. In winter, he travels to other Forest Service districts to do seminars on the use of GPS in mapping and timber sales.

“Here’s this guy with his primitive side and the use of primitive tools,” said his former supervisor, Nancy Larson of Chippewa National Forest. “On the other side of him, he’s quiet the techno-geek. He’s really forward thinking.”

“Variety is the spice of life,” says the unassuming Yankowiak.

Wearing warmth

Out on Lake Vermilion, the sun is starting its slow roll to the western horizon. Yankowiak approaches his next-to-last beaver hut of the day. He chips the trap free and peers down into the water.

“I see fur,” he says.

Straining, Yankowiak leans back and hauls up another big beaver, his seventh of the day. It lies on the snow, glistening and wet.

One day, its fur will warm the hands of someone who loves a northern winter too much to stay inside.