“She’s a grand lady,” said Terry Houghton on the phone.
Houghton was describing Edith Sweder, who turns 93 on December 23 and still lives in a simple cabin in the woods.
Houghton had been “the best of friends” with Edith and her late husband Oscar, since he met them through exploring the Baldy Trail.
Houghton has agreed to take me to see Edith, to hear about the history of the trapline he now rents, and the life she and her husband lived on it. Oscar and Edith spent winters on the trapline until Oscar was 89.
The simple cabin Edith lives in all year round now is a short drive from Vanderhoof, and is luxurious compared to the trapline cabins Edith lived in for most winters of her life in the Nation Lakes and Manson Creek area.
She has cold running water and electricity but she cooks on a wood stove.
With a still-sharp memory, Edith recalls the first time she and her husband Oscar went out to their trapline at Klawli Lake. There was no cabin, and the couple flew in with pilot Russ Baker, who dropped them off with their winter’s supplies in 1945.
“We were real greenhorns,” said Edith. “When I flew in in that airplane that day, I’d never been in that country before – I knew nothing.”
The couple had met at a party in Fort Fraser, and corresponded for the months following, while she was with her family in Willowvale, near Fort Fraser, and Oscar was at Tatuk Lake, working on his uncle’s mink farm.
The couple reunited when Oscar came and took Edith and her family to Caledonia Days in Fort St. James, where they became engaged.
Shortly after, they were married in a small church in Fort Fraser in October of 1941.
After spending a couple of years on the mink farm, the couple purchased the first part of their trap line on Klawli River, and after Oscar had walked in and trapped on it in order to register it, the couple was dropped off in the snow by Russ Baker.
They learned fast that winter, especially having accidentally forgotten one of their boxes of supplies, the one with their extra clothes in it, and boots. Instead, she only had “moccasin rubbers” to put on, which made snowshoing more challenging.
Edith had never even been on snowshoes before, but soon the couple were having to do a lot of miles each day to move around setting traps on different areas, not to mention to stay warm. The couple didn’t even have a stove at first, and only had a tent after Oscar’s uncle had suggested they bring an old one he had.
They had to dig down through the snow to get to bare ground, then lay down tree boughes before setting up the tent.
They salvaged pieces of tin and piping they dug out of the snow, remnants of previous trapper camps and haywired them together to make a basic wood stove. They then put this makeshift stove in some salvaged pieces of tarp and tent to add another room to their tent where they could cook.
Edith remembers having to bake bread on the simple stove, putting coals on top of the loaf and turning it part way through, because only one side would stay hot enough.
The couple survived their first winter, making a life of trapping, spending their winters on the trap line, and their summers outside of Vanderhoof, where they would grow a large garden to provide them with vegetables for the following winter on the trapline.
Edith and Oscar had a daughter, Stella, and adopted two other abandoned children, Dick and Linda. For a couple of years after having Stella, Edith did not go out to the trap line, but then she was out there with three children in tow.
Not used to having to plan for so many mouths to feed, the family ran short on food in the winter of 1962 or 1963, and Edith recalls being left with the three children while Oscar made his way back to the Fort to stock up on more groceries.
The round trip took him 11 days, and she had to manage the children and check the traps while he was gone.
She couldn’t take Stella, the baby, out with her when she went to check the traps, as it would slow her down too much and she wouldn’t have been able to carry the pelts back with her.
So she took one child, eight-year-old Dick, along with her to check the traps and left baby Stella and the older girl, Linda, at the cabin.
Edith struggled to get one beaver out of the trap, not having had to do it all herself before, and it took awhile to get the large beaver weighing 50 pounds or more out of the trap. After gutting the animal, she strapped it to her pack board, the carcass dripping blood and water down the back of her pant legs. She and Dick were rushing to check the rest of the traps and still get back before dark, when they came across a lynx which had been caught in a trap on their way home. She once again rushed to deal with the animal and it was beginning to get dark as they neared the cabin, and Edith could hear Linda quite loudly.
She rushed ahead of Dick, worried something was wrong. Instead, she found Linda had only left the chore of hauling water until late, and was singing loudly to herself because the young girl was scared to be out by herself as the darkness closed in.
After the 11 days, when Oscar finally returned, Edith learned of all the trials Oscar had to go through to get the food and supplies he needed in the Fort, having arrived during holidays, and not being able to get even his brother to give him a ride because he would not do business on the Sabbath.
But Oscar had even brought gifts for the family, and made it back just before a cold snap hit, which would have frozen the vegetables he had hauled back strapped to the roof of the bulldozer he had taken out to the road. He had driven the machine straight through two days and a night to make it back.
Oscar and Edith, through all their years, spending almost every winter on the trapline until 2008, surprisingly had little trouble with bears though.
The one exception, was when hunters had used the cabin when they were out, and had not secured it properly by putting the bars back on the windows.
An opportunistic bear had gotten in and cleared out the stockpiled tins of jam and lard left over from the season before.
The only story Edith recalled of a “close call” with an animal, was when she and Oscar came across a cow moose, tongue out, bristled up.
She charged the couple, and they had to shoot her.
The moose dropped within an arm’s reach of the pair.
Through it all, with three kids in a tiny cabin each winter, hauling water, no electricity, few visitors, she taught the children school by correspondence, the couple had their share of hard times.
But Edith was satisfied with the life they chose.
“That was really a nice life,” said Edith.