Stoke for the Advendurist



Earning Every Penny - Trapping in NZ

Written by : Andy Magness

I was truly happy to have the work. By the time our extended vacation to New Zealand turned to a permanent move, my family's savings was running a bit low. We were getting pretty close to the time where money-in needed to equal money-out and I'd have taken almost any job that paid me. The fact that this one came with a helicopter commute and involved walking through a valley that is on just about every 10-places-you-must-visit-before-you-die list, actually made me feel a bit guilty. Maybe I should have been paying for the privilege, rather than earning a few hundred per day. I wondered why there wasn't a waiting list a mile long for the position.

I was about to learn.

At 8:15 am, I got dropped off in the middle of nowhere. It was cold. There was frost covering the ferns in the clearing of the steep sided valley where we'd landed just long enough for me to hop out and for the pilot to toss me my pack. I squatted down and held my hat, like I'd seen people do around choppers in movies, hoping it was the right thing to do. It was a strange feeling, watching the helicopter fly away. I was pretty used to remote wilderness settings, but realized that through all my mountaineering expeditions and trips down isolated rivers, I had always had company. Not anymore.

Just before it had lifted off, Patrick, had given a vague wave down valley and said the last words I'd hear for more than 10 hours -- "the track starts right over there, good luck." It was my job to check and re-bait the nearly 70 stoat traps along the North Branch of the Clinton River, deep in wilds of Fiordland...was I going to need luck?

An hour later I no longer felt like I owed any debt for where I was, nor did I feel particularly lucky. My feet and hands were frozen. It had taken me 20 minutes to find the first trail marker and trap, which had almost taken my finger off. The 5 minutes of 'hands off' instruction on how to reset them that I'd been given the day before, now seemed rather cursory. This was going to be trial by error, and while I'd certainly have plenty of trials by the end of the day, I didn't so much like the error part.

The 'track' that led between the traps was a cause for concern as well. It was far from easy going and while it may have been 'cut' at one stage, that had been a decade ago. The upper valley in which I found myself was so volatile with avalanches, rock fall, and flooding that it might as well not have been cut at all.

Yes, the scenery was mind-blowingly stunning, but after the third stream crossing up to my crotch that fact seemed to matter less, especially when considered alongside the potential loss of toes I felt sure I was facing. Then came the first trap that actually had a stoat in it (at least that is what I imagine it was, as I'd never actually seen a stoat before, and this first opportunity didn't provide what I'd call optimal viewing conditions). There was a strong odor as I approached the box and I remember wondering what in my surroundings could be producing the smell. It was as if after several hours of empty traps I'd forgotten that they were actually designed to kill things. The stoat (or whatever it was) was unrecognizable and the stench that was released when I pivoted the lid of the box to the side caused me to retch involuntarily. There, under the sprung trap was a mass of rotting fur crawling with maggots and some other type of black, beetle-like carrion eater. As luck would have it the paint scraper which I'd been provided for just such a scenario, was buried deep in my pack. I'd just vomited a little into my own mouth, was tired, wet to the bone, and shivering uncontrollably. I just wanted to keep walking. And so I did what I continue to this day to tell myself that anyone else would have done; I used my clumsy and weak-with-cold left hand to lift the trap and my bare right one to scoop up the oatmeal like mass of wriggling flesh, and fling it into the forest. It took several scoops and as many gags to remove all of the material from the trigger plate and reset the trap. I closed the box, wiped numb fingers on my pants, the snot dripping from my nose with the back of my hand, and carried through the bush. I was now earning every penny.

And then, suddenly, we stopped in the middle of the lake. We were out of fuel. 'Well that's embarrassing'

By the end of the next day (hooray! It was a two day job!) I'd already started to harden. Thankfully, the human organism, at least my human organism, seems to readily adapt to dire circumstances. I was no longer retching when my boxes weren't empty (although I was never smart enough to pull out that scraper) and the cold seemed to be less severe (my logical explanation for this latter point involves the idea that long term memory faculties are less critical to survival, and so had been abandoned, so that I had no memory of what it felt like to be warm). Hardening aside, I was still thrilled when the mist-shrouded wharf came into view at the North edge of the lake. There, small and lonely, sat our ride back to civilization some 40 lake kilometers away - a small 95 HP motorboat. I'd been looking forward to the ride all afternoon!

Alas, as soon as it started I wished I was back in the bush, frozen, crossing creeks, and smushing creamy stoat mulch through my fingers. The lake itself was full of whitecaps and the boat bounced fearsomely from peak to peak. The driver, a grizzled old Kiwi mentioned on more than one occasion that if we went here or there we'd all drown for sure. He regaled me and the other three passengers with tales of cross currents and wind tunnels and shallow rocks, sometimes turning 180 degrees to face the back of the boat as he waved his hands wildly to emphasize his point. I only caught every third word, but it didn't matter, my concentration was devoted to holding on to the railing, and my knuckles were white from the cold or the tightness of my grip, or both. While I squeezed the railing, I pondered the absurdity of carrying a Personal Locator Beacon as I walked through the valley, only to now have it stashed deep in a pack, stashed in the bow of the boat, where it would be useless in the event of a capsize. I debated releasing my grip and trying to dig it out, but decided against the idea as the boat shot from the top of a wave, twisted slightly in the wind in midair, then landed violently, shuddering sideways as it grabbed the water again. I kept my eyes on the steep green mountains that formed the shores of the lake, mentally analyzing my chances of swimming to them before dying of hypothermia, should our next airborn moment end in a cartwheel. My focus on these thoughts was broken when the wind turned suddenly and the frigid spray, that would ordinarily shoot 30 meters out to the side of the boat each time it crashed back to the lake, was blown into my face with the force of a firehose.

And then, suddenly, we stopped in the middle of the lake. We were out of fuel. 'Well that's embarrassing' quipped the driver as he asked Patrick, behind me, to check a rear compartment for an emergency can. We sat there, battered by the swells, as we (thankfully) found a bit of gas and emptied it sloppily into the tank. It was, quite frankly, crazy. But for some reason, I was the only one that seemed to think so.

Eventually, we made it to our destination. Twenty minutes later as Patrick and I were driving home with the heater on full blast and I was just starting to warm up, he turned to me. "I've got some more work coming up next week if you're keen. Real similar stuff except maybe a bit tougher," he said, straight faced.

I stared back at him. "OK." I replied. "But I think I want a raise."


The author Andy Magness is a husband, father, recreational philosopher, wanna-be gardener, reluctant homeowner, occasional adventurer and part-time athlete/race director/coach/philanthropist. Magness has recently written Ultra Mental, an unconventional approach to training for endurance events on a few hours a week. If you haven't heard of the book, have a browse through here: Ultra Mental

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