Slim lights another candle

by Glenn Taylor
Northern News Services

INUVIK (Aug 08/97) - Slim Semmler celebrated a birthday this week., Aug. 4 to be exact.

Like the Queen Mother, Slim is now 97. "It's amazing how a guy like me could live to be so old," he said through a mischievous grin. We both agreed it must be bush life that has kept him so lively over the years. "Those other guys, working in asbestos plants didn't live so long. Me, I was breathing clean air and living good."

Like the Queen Mother, Slim is one of the last living legends of a heroic period in history. We at the Drum were thrilled to have a chance to talk to Slim and his wife, Agnes, last week. The topic of conversation: how the heck did an Oregon farm boy find himself at the top of the world, trapping for white fox while the wind howled around him?

Slim has lots of great stories to tell. This is one of his finest:

As a young boy, Slim left the family farm to work at a logging camp. He later found himself across the border in Canada, acquiring his own homestead and set to farm for himself. "I still remember the number of that homestead, north of Beaver River (Alta.)," he said: it was 63-10 West of Fourth.

Semmler decided earlier that farming wasn't for him, however. He wanted to be a trapper. "I didn't have a strong enough back to farm, to tell you the truth," he said. "Many times you had to dig out big stumps, and I found it just back-breaking.

"I stayed with a fella when I came up, and for the first year I didn't do nothing but explore the country," he said. "I learned the habits of the animals, what they do and stuff like that, so I could set my traps."

Semmler started a small trap line in Alberta, and thanks to his observations, it paid off. "I got so I was a good trapper," he said. "I caught more foxes than anybody else."

Encouraged, he sent a letter to the federal government asking for a map of all the Hudson's Bay Company posts across the North. When it arrived, he looked with interest at Coppermine, Cambridge Bay, and other far-flung Eastern posts. That's where the enterprising young man would go.

"I tried to get there right away, but it took several years," he explained. He took his first step in the right direction when he got a job cutting wood on the Athabasca River for Hudson's Bay Company ships passing through to the North laden with supplies and passengers.

Finally, "we decided to try it," he said, and he sold his boat and other goods and moved to Slid Island, about 90 kilometres from Fort McMurray. There, he came across a man trying to move a boat -- the Byzona -- up to the North.

"The boat was sitting on a sandbar, and he was taking a rest," said Slim. "I asked him what chance I had to go down with him, me and my trapping outfit." The man agreed to take him, so long as he helped with ship duties.

The first order of business came shortly after, when the boat came to a shallow portage in the river. Slim and another man -- Nels Hvatum, another well-known trapper -- worked all night to jack up the vessel to be carried by wagons across the spot.

His most vivid memory of the trip was the night they saw a beautiful area to park the ship for the night. "It looked like a lovely place, until a black cloud appeared. I suspected what they were and turned about, but the mosquitoes just hit us. I've never seen mosquitoes come in a horde like that before," he laughed.

Semmler was hardly given the red-carpet treatment upon arriving in Aklavik. While talking to other shippers, a man strode up to him and punched him in the face.

"Afterwards, while I was walking in the settlement, the man came up and attacked me again. We had a brawl right there, until we were separated."

An RCMP inspector with whom Slim later travelled from Aklavik to Herschel Island asked him, why did that man attack you? Slim's answer: "The only reason I could see, the coast was too small (for trapping) for me and him."

After Herschel, the boat travelled east, and he got off at Young Point, on the coast between Coppermine and Paulatuk. The first year was not a great success. But the second year, he trapped 220 white fox.

He later moved to Cape Krusenstern, closer to Coppermine, where the good string of luck continued for 20 years. During one spring, he walked across to Bernard Harbour, and saw a tent. He went inside to see who was in it and met Agnes, his future wife.

"She was eating jello, so I sat down and ate jello with her ... I've been eating jello ever since."

Agnes, now 86, giggled at the memory.

In later years, the couple became traders, opening shops and selling flour, tea and other essentials to other trappers. "With fur, you always had to sell cheap," he said. "I figured it might make sense to buy fur and then try to speculate on the price going up and then re-sell it."

Semmler opened the first dry-goods store in Inuvik in 1957. "That first summer, we put a tent frame up on the beach with a board floor, and used that while we built a small store down on the beach."

The small store was so well insulated with sawdust that the "onions would grow in there at night," laughed Semmler. Four years later, they built a bigger store. "We never could have done it ourselves without friends in the construction business who helped us. That's the way it was built," he said.

Slim's real name is Lawrence Frederick (L.F.). People travelling around Krusenstern gave him the nickname, he said, because he was so tall and slim. To complicate things, another man in the area also had the nickname Slim, so L.F. became Big Slim, while the other man was called Little Slim.

But still -- why would an Oregon farmboy give up the warmth and comforts of the South to live in isolation and bitter cold in the North? "I wasn't scared of cold, I wasn't scared of nothing," he said with a big grin.