Outdoors

In search of raccoons along Iowa's ditches

The Nature Call: Not knowing what you'll trap is part of the fun

Setting a trap in a ditch keeps the hunter wondering they may find. (John Lawrence Hanson)
Setting a trap in a ditch keeps the hunter wondering they may find. (John Lawrence Hanson)
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Uncertain outcomes stimulates thrill and chill emotions — two heads of the same coin.

It is that same coin that keeps the gambler returning to the casinos or fans ready to weather one more season.

I can empathize with the emotions of the mountain men of legend who braved the Rockies and wary tribes. They didn’t know what awaited over the next pass — paradise or peril. They mated wanderlust with the pursuit of profit and attempted to satisfy the demand for beaver felt as well as their own egos.

Growing up with the interstate in my backyard and a father in love with the open highway, I inherited a curiosity of what lay down the road. As a shoestring outdoorsman, the ditches hold a promise of adventure and bounty. Together, they put my gears in drive to see if the gods of fortune smiled on my traps.

Setting traps in the right-of-way is a historical practice in Iowa. In a state so squarely owned in private parcels, trapping the ditches allowed the hoi polloi to intersect the travels of fox and raccoon without struggling for permission from the landed.

Trap lines fed many a family with seasonal income, whether because construction slowed or harvest completed. I wonder how many teens bought their own car or banked college tuition from the raw work of running a line?

The high dollar days are past, fossil fuel based clothes with faux trim displaced natural materials. Farwell mink and muskrat, now it’s polyester and nylon.

Our meager line consisted of six handcuff-style traps. Often called a “dog proof” design because they required a dexterous paw that could grip a lever to set off the restraint. And then the raccoon waited, until released or collected on account of size.

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Trash-can pandas of the city would be easy to target but they enjoy a protected status. Country coons so far have eluded our traps. Maybe the sets smelled funny, more likely none passed by on account of poor placement. At any rate, my donation of bait to the local field mice population is part of the game.

Our line spans one kilometer, that’s a half mile and a skosh for the rest of you. The drive there is about five miles. But the distance in my dreams is vast. When the gears shift to “Park” and my foot steps out on the gravel, what lies, or doesn’t, in the ditch is a mystery awaiting a resolution.

The ditch contains a world of possibilities. To plumb the mysteries only takes some steps. If you’re just driving by, then you’re right, the ditch is just a strip, may 10 to 30 feet. But if you give yourself a little reason to explore, to wade in, then you will find the ditches are wider than you think.

Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.

John Lawrence Hanson, Ed.D., of Marion teaches U.S. history with an emphasis on environmental issues at Linn-Mar High School and sits on the Linn County Conservation Board.

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