It was skinning squirrels that would show whether or not I had the chops to make it as a trapper, or even a trapper’s assistant, I guess. It wasn’t as easy as Ingi made it look, and if I was going to do it right, I’d have to dig in with both hands.
Around Nov. 1, which is when the main trapping season starts, Ingi and I snowshoed down A and B trails and set squirrel poles – an idea he got from Trapper Gord. The poles are about seven feet in length and taper down in diameter. Between six and eight small wire snares are set along the pole, which is then set on nails between two trees with another small pole leading up to the snare pole. Squirrels run through them, and the motion traps and kills them.
Within two days we had trapped several, and I took my first shot at skinning.
To those who are used to skinning animals, the process is, I’m sure, simply what it is. To those who are not used to it, it probably isn’t pretty, and it probably won’t be pretty to read about, either.
I stood about four feet away, unsure, as the squirrel was hung by one leg on a long string dangling from a pole in the shower/laundry/skinning cabin. But Ingi chided me, then instructed me how to proceed. The process looks like this:
1) The first incision
The tip of a knife (this may seem like common sense, but a sharp knife is key) is inserted at the ankle of the other leg, and a smooth, clean cut is made from one ankle to the other. If you’re lucky and/or experienced, this cut may be made in one graceful motion. If you’re a newbie, like I was, several cuts will be made, and you will be confused about where the beginning of your last cut starts, and why squirrel hair keeps coming out as you try to find where dig your knife back in, and what to do when you reach the butt. This was the part that always tripped me up. A lot of questions and potentially cursing may ensue.
2) Strip the tail
Once the cut was complete, use your fingers to remove the fur from the entire leg, all the way down to and around the tail. We made small cuts down about an inch of the tail, then grabbed the tail bone with one hand, and wrapped our fingernails around the fur, pulling the fur off the remainder of the tail. Tail strippers can also be used to remove the fur from the tail. Tails are easily broken, and it took a couple tries and significant exasperation to get the hang of this part.
3) The big pull
The fur is removed from the rest of the body by pulling it down, with cuts to remove the fur from the ankles, and a few around the body to ensure we didn’t spill the gut piles (I wondered often during this trip whether human entrails are the same colour as animal entrails – your mind might go to some weird places while skinning. Or maybe that’s just me.).
4) The ears, eyes and nose
Small cuts are made on the head across the ears, eyes and around the nose, and voila! A squirrel pelt is removed. Caution: If you don’t cut around the ears properly, you will end up with a squirrel pelt that has a gigantic hole down the side of the face. Not that I’ve experienced this…
5) The stretch
The pelts are pinned to small forming boards, and the tail is cut down the middle so it doesn’t rot. It’s dried for a few days, then any excess fat is scraped off.
This method is the same we used for most other animals except the beaver. Otters, mink, marten and weasel are all skinned the same way, which is why squirrels were a prerequisite.
Being able to trap an skin a squirrel is also an easy, lightweight survival skill, and I now carry snare wire in all my coats – just in case!