One such story concerns brothers, Hans and Nels Neilson, and a number of local people, some of them still living. Mr. William Warn, well-known local trapper and guide, told us a story that illustrates the generous response of pioneers to a neighbor’s need. The story that follows is condensed slightly from Mr. Warn’s unpublished account.
During the depression years we all preferred the hard labour of trapping to city soup kitchens. We weren’t used to “hand outs”. Two brothers, Hans and Nels Neilson, had traplines in the Rocky Mountain Lake Area. Experienced trappers always left notes telling where they were going and when they should return. When Hans did not show up at the time scheduled in the note he had left, Nels thought that something must be wrong, and set out to see.
After three or four days following Han’s trail, he found him lying dead in his cabin at the head of Martin Creek, which flows into the Middle Pine [Sukunka] River. He had been dead for some time.
Nels left the body as he found it for investigation by the R.C.M.P., stationed a hundred and five miles away at Dawson Creek. He removed some bedding from the cabin to camp out by a little fire. It was a bad night for him.
The next morning he set out on snowshoes for Dawson Creek. About thirty-five miles away on Fish Creek, was the cabin of Al Hopkins and his partner, Bill Warn. Nels stayed there for the night and told Al about the tragedy. Bill heard the news when he came in a few days later. Nels had seventy miles to go in all — thirty-five to Groundbirch first, where he might catch a ride if he was lucky. The team and sleigh was expected back in about a week.
Bill had been at the Lick Cabin on the night the party had arrived. It was about fifteen miles from the Lick to the main cabin on Fish Creek (now called Gwillim Creek.) The snow was fairly deep. It was dark when he got in to find the party there, cooking supper. It smelled good after a hard days walk.
There was only room for two in most of the trapper’s cabins, but the five slept there that night.
“At 20 to 40 below zero, you just crowd in,” said Bill. “If you are fussy just sleep out. The next night it will look good — provided you can find a cabin.”
The next morning — December 15, 1939 — Bill volunteered to join the snowshoe party to Han’s cabin. Nels gladly accepted, as they were poorly equipped. The toboggan wouldn’t stand the trip out, with the body on it. Oscar Quesnel, Game Warden and one of the official party, asked whether they could get meat or fish as they were short of food. Bill said that it could be arranged, in an emergency. Bill had shot a moose up the hill from the main cabin on the way back from the Lick.
“I had lost track of time, so I wasn’t sure whether hunting season was over, so I was cautious about telling of the carcass I had left there,” said Bill. “It turned out that it was the last day of the season, so the kill was legal. Anyway, we had some deer meat in the cache, so we stowed it in the packs we had made up the night before.”
The party set off on snowshoes, Oscar Quesnel of the fish and game branch representing the police, Wilbur Harper, coroner, Nels, Bill Warn, and young George Greaves, with two horses and the toboggan. George rode most of the way, but the others snowshoed. Oscar was a good bushman, but little soft from his recent office work. “It was a sunny day but rather cold. Oscar took moving pictures of us all along the way. He showed them to me later,” said Bill. “They were real good.”
As Nels was the only one who knew Han’s line he took the lead. They camped at the east end of Rocky Mountain Lake.
The next day after about four hours travelling we reached the west end of the lake. The ice was rather thin, but Nels took the lead testing it, for he had travelled this way for many years. We were rather green at it, but we all spread out, ourselves and the horses to distribute the weight. We finally reached Han’s home cabin at the west end, about eight or ten miles away.
“First we had to see about building a small fire to melt some water, and also to get some firewood, while George attended to the horses. Nels went to his brother’s cache where he kept extra supplies. He called to us that there were four Dolly Varden trout averaging about two pounds apiece, so we had it made for food.
Word had got around so Frank Parr and Clarence Linsley came over to give a hand. That was the way in those days — we never gave it a second thought to leave our trapping if anyone was in need. We thanked them and took off that morning for Martin Creek, Nels in the lead. Oscar and I cut trail to get the horses through and taking turns breaking and cutting trail. Being in his mid-sixties, Nels finally had to fall back with Wilbur Harper. George rode one horse and led the other packed. Oscar was a very capable bushman having been a Government Cougar Hunter some years before.
Long before this our toboggan was a total wreck. We still had pack equipment. We were getting into the four or five thousand-foot level and the snow was quite deep in the pass. We got to Han’s home cabin at the head of Martin Creek, which flows into the Sukunka River, about two hours after dark. Nels and I made a small fire like an Indian does, but the boys had to make a big fire like the white man does. You freeze on the outside and burn on the other — and likely some of your equipment, too!
Oscar, Wilbur and I looked over Hans to find out how his death had occurred.
After checking everything we decided it had happened this way:
He was packing a sawed off .22 caliber rifle, about fourteen inches long overall. It had a real hair trigger. A jar on the butt would set it off. He put the rifle on the packsack — barrel up — with a shell in the barrel, and forgot to let the hammer down. Then as he was setting the packsack down in the cabin the butt of the gun hit something hard, setting it off. He being bent over a little, the shot hit him in the forehead. There were powder marks inside the packsack where the bullet had passed through, but no powder marks on the forehead, so we knew that he hadn’t been murdered.
As Hans had fallen all spread out, it was impossible to get the frozen body through the bush in this shape by toboggan, travois or packhorse.
There were some large loose rocks around the stove to hold heat overnight. We warmed these and wrapped them in cloth, then placed them where we wanted to bend his limbs for packing. It took most of the night to get him straightened out. The odour was very bad. I’ll never forget it. One of us would have to go in every once in a while to change rocks and stoke the fire. It must have been 20 or 30 below that night but we slept out. By morning we had him ready. First we tried to put him on a two-pole travois between the horses lying on a moose hide but the back horse wouldn’t stand for this because his head was right over the body. I didn’t blame him. Hans had been dead three weeks to a month. It wouldn’t work, so the last and only way left was the packhorse. We put him lengthwise on the horse, using two logs on each side of the saddle. This worked fairly well, except that one of us had to walk alongside of the horse to keep the load balanced and at the same time be very careful that the horse didn’t step on the snowshoes and break them. Oscar and I finally got him loaded, and the rest — Nels, George, and Wilbur — came behind leading the other horse, now carrying the packs. Even George was now travelling on snowshoes. We got back to Han’s cabin in good time. The trail was broke — no trail cutting and a little downhill. Oh, boy — that old trapping cabin looked like a castle. Fish for supper and a warm place to sleep. What a treat! You appreciate it after a night like we’d had.
In the morning we crossed the lake to the east end. The lake had frozen quite a bit more and seemed a lot safer. It takes quite a lot of cold weather to freeze it so early.
We stayed at Frank Parr’s that night to catch up on sleep and rest. The next night we arrived at Al Hopkin’s cabin. There was more snow during the night so we could use a team and sleigh from here out. In the morning we left for Bob and Sandy Elliott’s, some fifteen miles on. From Elliott’s to Groundbirch was twenty-five miles, and from there to Dawson Creek about thirty miles on a well-travelled road. I stopped off at our Fish Creek cabin where I had trapped in 1937 — and still do to this date [January 1977].
It’s a rough way to make a living, so they say now, but we preferred this life to the soup kitchens of the thirties — or welfare now. But we didn’t need pills to keep our weight down. I do not regret it. We had a good time, and we were self-supporting.
TOTAL MILEAGE FOR THIS MERCY TRIP
|Nels Neilson to locate Han’s body, estimated||
|Nels Neilson between tragedy site to Dawson, 3 trips||
|Quesnel and Harper each 210, round trip||
|Bill Warn Fish Creek to site and return||
|George Grieves and horses||
|Nels Neilson back to pull or spring Han’s traps||
|Total miles Nels travelled in season, over||
“I have trapped from Fish Creek since 1937. Al Hopkins died sometime in the early forties. Bob and Sandy Elliott passed on a few years ago. I heard Oscar had died. George Grieves, I think, left the country. Wilbur Harper died just a few years ago. Nels lived until his nineties. Frank Parr and Clarence Linsley still live at Groundbirch. I am the only survivor of the trip.” Bill Warn