By Alan Sorensen
Though he's a 21st century teenager, 17-year-old Havre High School junior Matt Schnittgen would fit in just as well among Montana's legendary mountain men of the 19th century.
Since he was a toddler, Matt has busied himself with outdoors activities that are given little thought by others, particularly trapping and gold prospecting.
Matt made news in September 2004 when the Hill County Park Board approved his request to trap beaver in a section of Beaver Creek Park. Matt, then 16, had proven himself during a trial period in the spring of 2004 and received enthusiastic support from park board chair Steve Mariani.
“I think it's awesome for a father to teach a son something that's productive something to help us out,” Mariani said this week. “I think (Matt's) done that really well. I think we need him more than he needs us.”
The Park Board approved three trappers and sectioned the park among them. Matt's area of responsibility extended from the cattle guard just beyond Kiwanis Camp to the cattle guard at the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation line.
Matt has pulled in and hung up his beaver traps for the winter and plans to take them out again when the creek thaws next year.
“You go back in the spring before they start biting each other and damaging their pelts,” he said.
He gets about $12 for each beaver pelt, but that falls short of covering all of his costs, which include his license fee and fuel. He said he wouldn't do it if it was just for the money.
“(Trapping) is not a moneymaking business,” Matt told the park board last year. “It's a privilege.”
Matt came to trapping early, the same as his older brother, Mike, and younger brother, Mitch. He's the only one of the three who still traps.
“I'm more of a clean guy,” Mike said. “I don't really get down with the coyotes and stuff. I don't mind killing them, but I don't like skinning them. Each animal has its own smell, but I think predator is a little worse. But Matt's not like that. He gets done what needs to get done.”
Matt devoted a substantial amount of time working his trap line in the park.
“It works out to three and four days a week,” Matt said. “I try to be out there by daybreak. It takes about four hours to check (his stretch of creek), set more traps, find more beaver.”
He said his area contains what he calls four colonies of beavers. He sets four to six traps in each.
“You get all the beaver, but three months later, there's beaver again,” he said. “During Thanksgiving, I chased a beaver down the creek. He set up a new lodge and I whacked him.”
Matt said he has “pulled out a little more than 100 beavers” since March 2004. In one five-day stretch, he said, he trapped 17 beavers.
Matt said he completely submerges his beaver traps so they won't be a threat to any dog that may wander into the area. He wears hip boots to set and check them. The 330 Conibear traps he uses always kill rather than cripple the beavers.
Matt learned how to trap at his grandfather's ranch south of Zurich when he was very young. Over the years he has trapped mink, muskrat, coyote, weasel, bobcat, fox, porcupine, skunk, jackrabbit, raccoon and hundreds of gophers.
He had one particularly harrowing experience in December 2004 when he was checking a trap in the Bear Paw Mountains.
“I walked up, I thought I had a bobcat,” Matt said. “I was really excited. I walked up on it, I was about to shoot it and saw that it had about a 4-foot-long tail.”
Instead of trapping a bobcat, Schnittgen had caught a young mountain lion.
“Young mountain lions look like bobcats with the spots,” Matt said. “The only thing you can tell is the tail is longer.
“I went back to the truck, got a gun with me and took the choke pole. The mountain lion's mom was up on the hill watching.”
Matt said he got the choke pole loop over the young lion's head and released the cat from the trap.
“I dragged the cat back to the truck, climbed in, threw the loop and closed the door as quick I could,” Schnittgen said, adding, “I kept an eye on (the mom) all the time.
“Dad didn't believe me,” he said. “I had to take him out there and show him the tracks.”
Matt also began prospecting early.
His father, Don, said Matt camped out and prospected in the Little Rockies the summer he was 5.
“We used to live in Zortman,” Matt said. “I've had some luck (prospecting). You don't find enough to live on. You find some nuggets here and there and a lot of dust.”
He said he had planned to pan for gold in the Little Rockies again last summer, but got sidetracked.
“The wind came through and knocked down all those lodgepole (on BLM land in the Little Rockies), so we felt kind of obligated to go in and whack them down.”
Schnittgen, the defending state Class A heavyweight wrestling champion, turned that chore to multiple good. He got plenty of exercise cutting and splitting the wood and hauling it into Havre.
“The wood was green and hard to split,” Don said. “It really built him the stabilizing muscles. It was a win-win situation.”
“And it strengthened my back muscles,” Matt said.
Being a team player, he wasn't about to hog all the benefits to himself.
“I got Cody Seely and Chris Buskirk to come out and help split the wood,” he said.
In the end, Matt hauled three 32-foot trailer loads and several pickup loads of wood to Havre. He also borrowed a trailer from head wrestling coach Scott Filius for one load.
Matt sold the wood to raise money for a trip to the National Junior Championship wrestling tournament in Pittsburgh in the spring. At the National Sophomore Championship wrestling tournament in Lincoln, Neb., last year, Matt lost in the semifinals and took third.
While Matt is a state champion and is aiming for a national championship, he insists he's a Blue Pony first.
He said one of his goals is to talk his junior teammates into competing in Pittsburgh, too. But first, he wants the Blue Ponies to unseat the Sidney Eagles atop the Class A ranks.
“I think we can win it,” he said.
“I wrestled with Sidney down in Florida two summers ago and they're tough. But I think we could be tougher if everyone works to their potential. I think the team's pride is as good as last year or better.
“There's a solid group of freshmen. We've got really good sophomores. Our juniors, we've been together for five, six years and we know what each other can do, and our two seniors, you couldn't ask for more.”
He also credited the coaching staff, parents and fans for the team's success.
“Our coaches are doing a really good job,” Matt said. “We have different coaches for different weights, and everyone does a really good job preparing the kids.
“The team has really good support from fans and parents,” he added. “My mom is my No. 1 fan.”
Matt didn't take to wrestling the way he did to the outdoor life. If it hadn't been for his big brother pushing him, he would have quit before he got rolling.
“Mike's one of those brothers who will push you to the point where you just want to punch him, but he was just making me better,” Matt said. “He's taken time out of his life to make me better.
“Every day after my sixth-grade year, during the summer, he took me into the weight room, even though I didn't want to go,” he said. “And Mike would talk me into going to high school practice with him.”
Matt, now 5 feet 11 inches and 275 pounds, is a force on the mat. But the day of the unlimited heavyweight division in Montana wrestling is a thing of the past. He must work, just like any other wrestler, to keep his weight under the 275-pound limit. He ate hearty after winning his weight in the Havre Invitational last weekend and went over 280 pounds. He spent this week working those pounds off for this weekend's Mining City Duals in Butte.
“He is the hardest working kid I ever met,” said Mike, a former Montana State University-Northern wrestler and football player.
Mike said he hopes wrestling gives back to Matt what Matt has put into it.
“I'd like to see him go to college,” Mike said. “He's an outdoorsman. He'd like to go to the mountains, but he could go to the big leagues for wrestling and get a good education out of it, too.”
Matt, whose school days are filled with football, wrestling, track, classwork, running in the morning, weight lifting every night and his outdoor chores, said he hopes to go to college.
What major interests him?
“I'd like to go into forestry or wildlife biology, something like that,” he said.