There are chores to be done before dinner. First start the fire. Then hike a quarter mile to the underground brook for water. Then feed Emerson. Cronk scoops raw beaver meat from a big plastic jar and mixes it with dry dog food. "Good rich protein," he says. "If the little fella gets to runnin' a 'cat tomorrow, he's gonna need somethin' under his collar." After he eats, Emerson dozes on the soft recliner by the stove as Oscar prepares his own dinner: pork chops, boiled potatoes, canned corn, biscuits, brownies and a big dill pickle, which he munches along with the meal as if it were a bread stick.
Cronk believes he would have enjoyed trapping more in the '30s. He prefers the old ways, and his style is only lightly touched by technology. In his overnight survival pack he carries matches, not a lighter, and surplus C rations. He had a pair of state-of-the-art long underwear once, but says they made his back ache. His snowmobile is 15 years old and looks it. He got 125,000 hard miles out of his last pickup before the frame finally sagged, but even the new Chevy is a two-wheel-drive, because it's simpler than a four-wheel-drive.
Cronk doesn't even own a decent radio. His is an ancient transistor with baling wire for an antenna. It receives just one, sometimes two, stations and only at night, and they're both French-language stations. Next to no outside contact means no weather forecasts, but that doesn't bother Cronk. His attitude toward nature is one held by the best outdoorsmen; whether it is respectful or wise or merely fatalistic or even shortsighted, it is, simply, submit. When the weather changes, you change.
Every week Cronk drives 30 miles into St. Camille in Quebec for gas and supplies and a phone call to Edie, but otherwise his only information from the "real" world comes from a stack of old tabloids of the kind found in supermarkets. In the winter, Cronk knows only two worlds: the wilderness and the one about to be attacked by UFOs. He doesn't need more company than Emerson. He had a partner at the old camp, but he doesn't really miss him. And there's no economic necessity for him to spend every winter at camp. The price for beaver pelts dropped drastically two winters ago; Cronk could have stayed in Wiscasset, but he needs winters at the camp for his soul.
Cronk is an outdoors-man of considerable repute in the state, known through his store and the writings of a regular column called "Maine Traplines" in the monthly tabloid The Maine Sportsman. Each year since 1971 he has hosted "Cronk's Trapper's Days," a convention of sorts for trappers, who have come from as far as Arizona to meet him and mingle with other trappers. For years he held Maine trapping license No. 1, a privilege that goes with being president of the Maine Trappers Association, a post he held from 1964 through 1978. The membership during that period grew from 50 to more than 1,200. He was a founding member and, until 1978, vice-president of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, an organization formed in 1975 to resist threats to hunting and trapping. And believing it would improve his communication with legislators as well as help him in his efforts to edify the public about trapping, he once enrolled in a Dale Carnegie course. At graduation he was voted most likely to succeed by his classmates. "I could get in front of 5,000 people today and speak to them if I had to," he says, "but leave me alone and I'll crawl back into my hole." As a political leader, Cronk was popular and known for his reasonableness—he likes people, but often sided with the animals. But despite his ventures before the public, he has led a relatively sheltered life.
Having avoided the worst of it, Cronk's reception of the world is with unreserved optimism and untarnished faith. Like Davy Crockett, he sometimes runs across the Big Mike Finks and usually recognizes them, but he sees their good parts and gives them the benefit of the doubt. He has the kind of trust and integrity that make it easy for him to follow his own golden bobcat-hunting rule: Follow your dog to the end of the world. Still, he knows that disillusionment lurks out there in civilization, so it's easier to deal with the wilderness. Emerson and Mother Nature are a lot safer.
Cronk has had a stomach ulcer since he was 19. He believes it's hereditary and he treats it with good humor, like a pesty old dog. He also has high blood pressure, which he was afflicted with when he was politically active. "I found out my insides didn't like me involved in a lot of wranglin' positions," he says. "Now I only do what's necessary for the business."
When Cronk backed out of politics, Edie took over, and in 1981 she was elected president of the Sportsman's Alliance. She's considerably more militant than Cronk had been in advocating the causes of hunters and trappers. She's a strong and attractive woman with jet-black hair, a quick and spirited wit and a hale voice that can be mistaken for Cronk's over the phone. She has been his business partner since they were married in 1960; he was 30, she 21. The next year they opened Cronk's Outdoor Supplies, and now Oscar sticks mostly to the field work while Edie manages the store. "I couldn't do it without her," he says. "She's very much a part of my life, even though we spend so much time apart. She's sort of a special woman."
Cronk's Outdoor Supplies does a modest retail trade in items ranging from Maine honey to dog collars to suspenders to arcane outdoors books, such as Oscar's own Cronk's Scientific Raccoon Trapping and Cronk's Scientific Muskrat Trapping. But most of the business is in mail-ordered trapping supplies, from a catalogue the Cronks write themselves. Oscar is renowned for his scents and lures. He has more than 100 formulas, secret combinations of animals' glandular secretions. In summer he spends hours in the store's basement mixing up the musks and pouring them into little brown bottles. The odors are wafted upstairs through the floorboards, giving Cronk's Outdoor Supplies a scent of its own.
The camp is warm and cozy and slightly smoky. Ice has formed in thick designs on the inside of all three windows; outside, the thermometer reads -15°. Dinner is finished and the dishes have been washed, and the old alarm clock has been set for 5 a.m. Cronk climbs into bed in his long underwear and reads a while, the hissing lantern lighting the pages of a tattered green book titled Famous Frontiersmen, Pioneers and Scouts. Cronk collects such books. Before he turns out the lantern, he performs his bedtime ritual—a woodsman's way of dealing with nature. After having cheerfully excited his ulcer with things like pork chops and pickles, he rubs his belly to stir up gas, belches a few times to release it, and then fades off, snoring peacefully, a brace of as-yet-to-be-skinned beavers piled at the foot of his bunk, keeping him company as he sleeps soundly.