“They call me the Jackal” the old trapper says. The seventh-graders at Duluth’s Ordean Middle School look up in a kind of dazed wonder at the man with the bear teeth and the weasel skin dangling from his hat, this squinty-eyed old character in buckskin pants with traps, a blanket coat and beaver skins at his side. Russ Johannsen has the kids right where he wants them. The formerly clean-shaven Itasca County sheriff, now sporting a white beard and an earring, is the personification of a 1790’s “free trapper,” a man who was equally at home among Indians and voyageurs, who who could live off the land or dicker with the haughty bourgeois who bought his furs.
This pace is nothing new for Johannsen, who lives in Grand Rapids. As a popular county sheriff for 16 years, he always demanded to be called out by his deputies at any hour an any big case. He has taught Minnesota firearms safety classes for 40 years. He’s in demand as a 1990’s trapper, live-trapping skunks from under people’s garages and weasels from office buildings. To Grand Rapids residents like sheriff deputy Gregg Deutsch, Johannsen has been a mentor, a story-teller, and a symbol of fairness. To kids like 14-year-old Ryan Roy of Grand Rapids, Johannsen is the old trapper who always has time to pass along a few tips. “The community knows him as a real sincere, warm, compassionate guy who likes to have fun,” said Bill Berg, a wildlife biologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “It’s fun to watch him walk into a restaurant because everybody knows him and everybody loves him.”
USING HIS SKILLS
His rates for skunk trapping are reasonable. “It’s $10 for each one,” Johannsen said. “If they’re stinking and it’s my fault, it’s free. If it’s someone’s kid’s or dog’s fault, it’s still $10. If they don’t pay, I bring two skunks back – alive.”
He began collecting traps early in his life. He may have never thrown one away. “My wife Rose calls me a rat-holer,” Johannsen said, not bothering to deny the charge. On four walls of his basement hang the 1,100 traps in his collection. He probably has a hundred more working traps, but the ones in the basement are just for show. They date back to the 1790’s or earlier and include virtually every kind of trap conceived. “That collection-” said the DNR’s Berg, “without a doubt, it’s the best trap collection I’ve ever seen.” Johannsen has rare and long-since discontinued models.
But as long as he can, he will carry on as the Jackal, taking the message of the trapper and the 1790’s to as many as he can. He and fellow members of the White Oak Society stage a fur-trading rendezvous at their Deer River trading post each summer. Part of the White Oak Society persona, Johannsen admits, is “re-enacting childhood fantasies, you might say.” But, at least for Johannsen, more of it is translating a slice of history to those who live only in the present. “It bothers me to see a father, 35 years old, who doesn’t know a caribou skin from a deer skin, a bear from a woodchuck,” Johannsen said. “He’s the one who’s going to be making the laws.” So, he continues to reach out to the kids. That is surely why he’s spend 40 years as a firearms safety instructor. “I’m not going to amass any money,” Johannsen said. “If there’s any legacy I’m going to leave it’s going to be from my contact with people. You only have to be a success with one kid to make it worthwhile.”