YELLOWKNIFE, Northwest Territories

For David Giroux, happiness is a dead marten.

Pried from his trap, thawed out by his wood stove at home, skinned and dried, the marten's pelt would bring Giroux $65 ( $57 U.S.) at the local wildlife office. After the office sends the fur off to auction, the trapper might get a few additional dollars if the brown pelt is thick and luxurious.

And that, pretty much, is what Giroux lives on. As the burly Chipewyan native tramps through 18-inch snowdrifts, through the tamarack and black spruce stands 30 miles north of Yellowknife, he is looking for his family's sustenance.

"Nothing here," he says glumly, peering inside one of the small, rectangular boxes he has made from plywood and set among the trees. In the back of the foot-long box are several frozen pieces of fish. They have been nibbled by field mice. If a marten, a weasel-like animal with a long bushy tail, had investigated the bait, a powerful pincer trap at the entrance of the box would have snapped its neck and killed it, holding it for Giroux's collection.

None had. Giroux shrugged and tramped on, toward the next box in his trapline.

He is one of roughly 1,000 trappers in the Northwest Territories whose prey include marten and beavers, wolves and wolverines. Most, like Giroux, are aboriginal people following the traplines of distant ancestors who worked these lands long before Europeans arrived.

For Giroux, there is no cultural imperative in this. It's just work.

"I have to put food on the table" to feed his wife and two boys, he says. When he is not checking his traps, Giroux will collect dead wood and chop it to sell for firewood. Sometimes he will go out onto the ice sheath over Great Slave Lake and cut holes to cast a net for trout and whitefish. If he's lucky, he will come across a moose on his travels and put some steaks in the family freezer.

In his father's day, this work could easily feed a family. Back then, a thick lynx pelt would bring about $1,500 (about $1,300 U.S.), he says. But in the early 1980s, the anti-fur movement ravaged the trade, and the price of pelts plummeted. Giroux harbors the bitterness of the youths who saw their proud fathers suddenly impoverished and a way of life gone. The animal rights groups, he says caustically, "were controlled by the mafia."

Giroux, 42, would like to have a salaried job. Unlike most of his 12 brothers and sisters, he finished high school, and he went on to train in carpentry and computers. He has worked short or seasonal stints as a forest firefighter, a wildlife officer, a park officer and a fur management officer. But there also have been brief brushes with the law, and a boozy stretch of his past when "I said a lot of things I shouldn't have said and done things I shouldn't have done."

Now, when he applies for jobs, he gets the brushoff. It's frustrating. "I'm trying my best. I'm trying to get ahead and pay off my debts in an honest way," he says. "I have dreams and aspirations like anyone else."

So he is out for three hours on this day, a balmy morning at 5 degrees below zero slipped in among the usual 20-below days, hoping a marten has had an appetite for frozen fish.

Giroux has a round face that breaks often into a gentle smile. His pants are patched; he wears a few layers of shirts and a thin coat, and shrugs off the cold. His hands show the rough history of work, and as he pulls his old Ford pickup truck off to the side of a road, he slips on simple work gloves.

He unpacks other old tools: an aging .22-caliber rifle in case a trapped animal is still alive, and a worn .30-30 rifle for bigger game in the woods. He once met a black bear, nearly face to face. In his surprise, Giroux says, he fired at the bear and just nicked its back.

"It rolled up in a big ball, just like one of those tumbleweeds you see on television, right at me," he recalls. "I stepped aside, and it rolled past me, got up and took off into the woods."

But the rifle "has fed me a few times," he says, and he is intrigued by moose tracks he noticed as he drove toward his trapline. "I think he's hanging around here," Giroux says of the moose. "I'll come back here in a couple days to do some woodcutting, and I'll bring my rifle."

The other signs in the snow are less encouraging. Ptarmigans birds with ivory-white plumage this time of year and black-tipped wings, have wandered about the snow. A few jack rabbits have passed by, but even these have avoided the small circular snares he has hung on their path in hopes of rabbit stew. No tracks of martens. Or wolverines. Or lynx. Or anything else he could send to an auction.

"I think I may have trapped out this area," Giroux says as he investigates another set of empty traps. Since Nov. 1, he says, he has collected 30 martens, three wolverines, three foxes, one mink and four weasels in this stretch of woods.

But now, he thinks, it might be time to pull up his 37 traps and head east of town to a new stretch of forest. He approaches his last set of traps for the day, hoping at least to recoup his gas bill with one dead marten.

The traps are empty.