Sue Bowman Rural Ramblings

If you were a fan of the long-running television series, “M.A.S.H.,” about a mobile Army surgical hospital during the Korean War, you might recall the character Trapper John, one of the surgeons assigned to the MASH unit. Before there was Trapper John on television, there was “Trapper John” Bowman, my older brother, who operated a thriving muskrat trapping business on our farm during his teenage years.

Our farm has two streams on it. One flows right through the middle of everything between our house and the barn; the other forms part of our western boundary. Back in the 1950s, the streams were home to quite a few pesky muskrats that always seemed to divert the flow of these little waterways into places my dad didn’t want them to go. Thus, he welcomed my brother’s efforts to trap them during the winter trapping season.

My brother greeted this opportunity to put a little spending money into his pockets with enthusiasm, so his trapping venture became a win-win for our farm. Since I’m nine years younger than my brother, I have only vague memories of riding along with my dad and John to the furrier who bought the pelts. After my brother was in his later teens, the appeal of getting up early on frigid mornings and plodding through the snow to check his traps started to lose its luster, and I took over his trap line very briefly before realizing the payback did not seem to be worth the unpleasant effort.

Those trapping days were in my mind a month or so ago when I thought I observed a crime in progress on our property. I was on the upper level of our barn, with one set of the little doors in the front of the barn open, so I could toss loose hay down into the hay rings in the barnyard below. As I surveyed the darkened landscape between our farm and the town a quarter mile away, my eyes suddenly caught sight of what looked to be a bright flashlight beam on the far side of the fields in front of me.

Why would someone be walking on our property in the dark with a flashlight, I wondered. It didn’t take me long to realize that the light was coming from the area of the stream passing through that field. As I moved to get a better angle, the light disappeared, but then I saw it again when I eased back to my original position. Why would the light be appearing and disappearing?

Suddenly, it occurred to me that perhaps the interruption in the light’s beam happened when the person holding the flashlight bent down, obscuring the light from my view. And why would someone be stooping down repeatedly in our field along the creek? It must be a rogue trapper, I thought, poaching muskrats from our property under the cover of darkness.

As I finished replenishing the supply of hay in the barnyard, I debated what to do. It was cold and muddy and whoever was wielding the flashlight would probably get away before I could reach them. Plus if I called the police, they would likely have the same problem giving pursuit. As I was closing the doors facing the area being trespassed on, I resolved to go check out the spot by the light of day and remove the poacher’s traps. That would surely send a message.

When I returned to the first floor of the barn, where Dennis was feeding our herd in their stable, I told him about my sighting and encouraged him to come upstairs so I could show him what I was talking about. I reopened the little second-floor doors and there it was again — the bright beam of a flashlight coming from the area of the creek. Dennis was standing right beside me, but insisted he saw nothing. I finally had him stand in front of me and then I pointed to exactly where I meant. Dennis “saw the light” at that point and agreed that something unusual was going on.

Shortly thereafter, I returned to the house, while Dennis finished up his outside chores. When Dennis came into the kitchen a bit later, he had a sly grin on his face as he reported that he had solved the case of the trespassing trapper. The bright light wasn’t coming from a flashlight at all. It was coming from a pole light in town that happened to be reflecting off the water in the creek channel, which was why it seemed to appear and disappear as the angle of viewing changed.

Boy, did I feel dumb — and relieved.

Besides, we haven’t seen a muskrat around here in years.

Sue Bowman is a freelance writer in southeastern Pennsylvania.


Vince Phillips, one of the Pennsylvania’s top agriculture lobbyists, retired at the end of 2020, capping a 31-year career that helped advance rural broadband for the Pennsylvania State Grange and pushed for legislative changes that were sometimes small but nonetheless valuable to farmers. Read more