Vagneur: ‘There’s no holding back a man’s destiny’
Working our way through brush and tall grass along the lee side of a long ridge that used to be part of our ranch, we spotted them: Steel, leg-hold traps, seemingly scattered about but still anchored to the ground in a no-nonsense fashion that would prevent their easy removal by a struggling coyote or other creature.
Covered in rust, the long-spring traps, which were strung out near a game trail, had been released eons ago and were clearly abandoned, and whoever set them had undoubtedly left the area without having the time or the inclination to pick them up.
Almost immediately, a small twinge of recognition shivered up my back, a sadness and a joy all at once, for I knew we were walking in the steps of a dead man. In a way difficult for many to understand, coming across these traps was similar to running your hand over the smooth sheen of furniture made caringly by a personal friend, long dead. This trapper left his unique mark for me to discover 15 to 20 years after his death, a gift from the beyond, perhaps.
We first met inauspiciously about 45 years ago on Aspen Mountain, where Hanging Tree and the gulley under Lift Three meet. It was a blind hairbreadth away from a treacherous collision between two professionals, damn near an embarrassing situation, but through quick reflexes on both our parts, disaster was averted. I was a new kid on the trail crew, he a seasoned ski patrolman, and with new-kid uncertainty I figured on an ass-chewing, but instead he praised my ability to miss him. The next year, I became a patrolman and he and I developed a friendship.
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“Let’s move to Alaska and trap for a winter,” he’d say on the lift, but when I admitted a lack of interest, he’d roll on to another idea: “Let’s move to Canada or Alaska and start a sawmill.” OK. I could get behind that, as I’d long admired the Lenado sawmill as we pushed cows through the neighborhood. We plotted, we planned, we wrote numbers down as though we really meant it, but on some level, we knew it was just talk, and years later, long after we’d given up the ski patrol, we’d sometimes say, “Damn, we shoulda built that sawmill.”
The last time I saw him he was managing the Starwood Ranch, which coincidentally abutted our old Woody Creek spread, and in one of my forays through his place, he gave me the rundown of what his job entailed. He found it difficult to trap, he said, because some of the homeowners on the ranch let their dogs run free. Not good news for a safety-conscious trapper, especially one concerned about his job. So he walked a long way to the outskirts of the property, he said, and set his line in a spot far away from civilization. That’s where we found his legacy to me, the traps mentioned in the opening paragraph.
There’s no holding back a man’s destiny, no matter the timespan, and before long my friend was living in, or near, Talkeetna, Alaska. The call of the wild, which he spoke of so often with me, had lured him north where, on a good day, he bought a piece of land far out in the wilderness, accessible only by air or foot and built a working cabin. In the fall, Talkeetna Air would drop him off for a winter of trapping, dropping supplies during the duration on a prearranged schedule.
What a life, he must have thought. With his cabin as a base, he walked or snowshoed throughout a large radius, setting his trap line, hunting for game and visiting with the very occasional visitor. A trapper makes a good living if he works at it, and Bob Appleton was one of the best.
The realization of a dream doesn’t last forever, and Bob, better known as “Apples,” succumbed to a massive coronary, alone in the loft of his small cabin, an end hastened by a lifelong battle with diabetes. You can’t live like he did and take care of yourself the way you maybe should, but to live less wild would have been an insult to the very soul of the man who chose his own path.
A few ashes were left in Talkeetna, and there was a respectful homecoming for the rest of them, which were scattered on the area surrounding Apple’s Tit, a small promontory located at the top of T4 in Trainor (Traynor). While on an avalanche-control mission during his ski patrol days, Apples survived a dangerous slide there — hence the name. In the end, in death and irony, he forever rides sentry over the chute that tried to kill him years ago.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.
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