The Phantom Trapper of Labrador

This tale originally was told in Episode 005 – Christmas Special 2020

The Phantom Trapper is a ghost seen in the Labrador area of Canada, whose presence is often said to herald the arrival of a large storm.

The person most commonly accredited to being The Phantom Trapper was a man named Esau Gillingham. He was a Newfoundlander who would regularly cross the Straits of Belle Isle into Labrador to trap. Depending on who tells the tale, there’s two slants on the story that are usually told.

The first is that trapping never made Esau the kind of money he wanted, so he ended up setting an illegal still up in the tall spruces. This swill was a foul but effective alcohol made from pine cones, sugar, and yeast, and he called it ‘smoke’, earning him the nickname ‘Smoker’.

The other version of the tale is that he actually brought back very fine, valuable furs whenever he returned, which was kind of fortunate since in this version he was a horrible, raging, hot-headed, woman-attacking asshole. The money he and his skins brought into town were the only thing that would convince the townspeople to put up with him for a short time. But eventually his drunken and ornery side would become too much, and he would wear out his welcome and get kicked out of town until the next time he had a load of furs. He still makes and sells smoke in this version, but it ends up more a feather in his ne’er-do-well hat rather than being a key part of his origin story. In some tellings, he continued selling smoke even though he was well aware that it was poisonous. 

Photo by Roland Juhász from Pexels

Whichever the version we prefer, eventually the Mounties found Smoker’s still, smashed his kegs, and hauled him off to jail in St. John’s for a year. But that time in the cooler just gave Smoker the time he needed to plan the next stage of his evolution.

After being released, he went around begging or stealing every white husky he could in the area, building a new team of dogs–some say a team of 8 while others say as many as 14. He then made himself a suit exclusively of white animal skins, and after restarting his distilling business, painted his komatik and kegs white as well.

Now decked all in white, Smoker began selling his contraband booze again. RCMP tried several times to shut him down again, but his new white camouflaged outfit made it impossible to track him for long in the snow.

There’s several tales about how Smoker met his end. Some say he harassed the wrong innkeeper’s wife and got gunned down by her husband. Some say he got lost while out in the wilderness or maybe got caught in a vicious storm.

My version is that it was his own smoke did him in at the end. While soused on his own drink, Smoke fell off of a fish flake and broke his back. He lay, on the frozen ground, suffering and unable to move for three days. Sensing his time was drawing to a close, and having a pretty good idea what was waiting for him in the great hereafter, he shouted out, “Lord God, don’t send me to Hell! Let me drive my dogs till the end of time, and I’ll make up for all the bad I’ve done!”

Eventually Smoker’s body was found and brought back tp Newfoundland to be buried, but he would not find peace in the grave. Legend tells that even today the howl of the Labrador wind is sometimes joined by the sound of a dog team running through the night.

Some hear them passing by in the snow, while others have heard their traces slapping against the outside of their cabin. Occasionally a person might catch a glimpse of an all white dog team being driven by a figure in white furs on a white komatik, but they never leave tracks in the snow or stop on their eternal run.

Stories tell of a Labrador man who got lost in a blizzard while driving his dog team, and became desperate to find shelter. As he drove on, he was passed by a team of all white dogs piloted by a man in white furs. Sensing this was his best opportunity, he followed the team.

A half-hour later, the lost man and the white driver came upon a fishing village, and hearing the dogs a fisherman stood in the doorway of his hut to see who was approaching. The white driver continued on past with his team, but the lost driver slowed to a stop, thrilled to find shelter, and called out, “Thank you!”

“You’re welcome!” called out the fisherman. “Come in a get warm!” The lost man thanked the fisherman, but corrected him that he was calling out to the other driver. The fisherman just looked at him strangely, and said that he never saw or heard another driver.

Another story involved a man on foot who got caught in a blizzard and had nearly froze to death by the time the Phantom Trapper found him. The trapper easily picked the man up and set him on his sled, covering him with warm skins, and drove towards the nearest inn. Upon arrival, the trapper again easily picked up and carried the man inside, sitting him on a chair next to the fire. The trapper turned to the innkeeper, told him to take care of the half-dead man, and promptly disappeared into thin air.

Hero, villain, or antihero, the Phantom Trapper, or sometimes Damned Trapper, is a proud piece of local folklore. He was fictionalized in the 1972 novel White Eskimo: a Novel of Labrador, and is a respected entity in the local folklore.

Photo by Tomáš Malík from Pexels

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