Back in the Seventies I spent an inordinate amount of time chronicling the lives of various eccentric characters. Two of them were self-professed fur trappers.
Joseph “Timber Jack Joe” Lynde was born on a farmstead about nineteen miles south of Gillette, Wyoming. In his lifetime he’d worked as a sheepherder, heavy equipment operator, road builder and coal miner—but his favorite activity was trapping wild animals, the pelts of which he fashioned into articles of clothing. Others, such as a skunk named Sweetness, he turned into pets.
When I first met him, Joe was living in a compound he called Bear Hole 621—approximately five acres of wilderness he’d carved out of suburban DuBois, Wyoming. His best friend and constant companion was his dog Tuffy, and the two of them made regular public appearances at parades, pageants, ceremonies, and powwows throughout the intermountain West. For a time, I understand Timber Jack Joe even hosted his own children’s television show on Channel 9 in Casper.
In other words, Joe Lynde was quite the showman. But I have no doubt he would have been more content had he come into the world a hundred years earlier. He would have fit right in with the likes of Kit Carson, Jed Smith, Bill Sublette, Jim Bridger and John “Liver Eating” Johnson. In fact, his fondest wish was that he could somehow ingratiate himself into that pantheon of American frontiersmen, and to that end he expended a considerable amount of time and energy and money, going so far as to hire an artist to design a commemorative postage stamp and a stenographer to follow him around with notepad and pencil in case he should utter something worth writing down.
“It’s always springtime top o’ the Rockies,” was about the best he could come up with.
As a photographer I was drawn to Timber Jack Joe because he was, above all else, photogenic. And his story was an easy sell; in fact, I sold it several times to various publications.
At the other end of the social spectrum was James P. Harrison, better known in Utah’s West Desert as Trapper Jim. Trapper Jim was no showman, but in his own way he was plenty photogenic. And authentic as authentic can be.
Jim lived in a musty dugout cabin at Fish Springs, which today is a national wildfowl refuge. But before it became a refuge for wildlife it was a refuge for outlaws, moonshiners, rustlers, outcasts and reprobates. Trapper Jim fit right in!
Up until the big winter of ’49, Jim ran cattle at Fish Springs, supplementing his income as a trapper of what he called “mushrats.” After selling his spread to the government, Jim stayed on as resident predator, doing what he could to maintain the delicate ecological balance between the rats and ducks—all the while railing against just about everything that was transpiring in the outside world. Once, he even offered up a complaint about Timber Jack Joe.
“They tell me this guy is stinkier than I am,” he huffed, pointing to the cover of a Sunday supplement that was tacked to the wall of his cabin next to a rusty coyote trap and a moldering beaver tail. “Some guy in Wyoming who calls himself a trapper.”
It so happened I had written the article and taken the picture. I assured my host that he had nothing to worry about, for when it came to personal hygiene, Trapper Jim had set the bar so low that no one could possibly crawl underneath it.
Unlike Timber Jack Joe, Trapper Jim didn’t wear animal skins. His wardrobe consisted of cotton long johns, denim jeans, and a wool shirt. He had just two sets of each. In the fall he’d change from one set to the other, rinse out his dirty clothes in a nearby irrigation ditch and leave them to dry on the alkaline ground. During colder months, he’d wear a tobacco juice-stained snowmobile suit, into the seat of which he’d stuffed several fistfuls of duck feathers for extra insulation.
“If you’ve lived out here for as long as I have,” he declared, “you learn you’d better keep your ass warm in the winter.”
Like Timber Jack Joe, Trapper Jim would have been more at home in an earlier era. Nothing about the Twentieth Century appealed to him and every new invention that came along baffled and frustrated him. Meantime, fur coats had fallen out of fashion, which in Jim’s case was bad news, because when it came to the “science” of catching fur-bearing wild things he was the absolute master.
Another thing the two men had in common: neither had to live the rustic lives they lived. Jim could have simply moved from his earthen dugout into the fine brick house he owned on the refuge—or into his sister’s mansion in Federal Heights. He could have lived comfortably on what he’d banked after selling his ranch to the government, augmented by monthly disability checks that came as a result of injuries he’d suffered fighting in the trenches of France during World War One. But, no, Jim didn’t want to live anywhere but in the desert, nor do anything in life except just exactly what he wanted to do.
Same deal with Timber Jack Joe. Turns out Joe Lynde enjoyed a regular income thanks to royalties from “some oil wells” on property he happened to own near Gillette. So in a way he was like so many young rich kids I knew at the time who had dropped out of the upper class in order to live “simply” on communes where one could dress as one pleased and grow and consume as much marijuana as possible. Matter of fact, I’m surprised Timber Jack Joe didn’t spend less time in DuBois and more time in Haight-Ashbury. Every time the man let loose a chuckle, it made me wonder if he might be stoned.