PART 1: THE TRAGEDY
A short distance west of lovely Azouzetta Lake near the summit of the Pine Pass there is a little stream with the undistinguished name of John Bennett Creek. If the National Geographic Board or the British Columbia Provincial Government had used the full name John Noel Patch-Bennett you might give it a second though. You might see in your mind’s eye some old English trapper, escaping from civilization for reasons known only to himself, after a long residence in that area remembered by his friends as a “character’.
John Patch-Bennett had no friends here. In fact, nearly everybody who met him was critical of the Britisher’s inexperience and arrogance. He was like those flyers of today who insist on taking off without registering a flight plan and with neither survival equipment or tracking device. He stayed only long enough to leave a wolf-stripped skeleton and the diary of a foolhardy and hopeless journey. He was not old — just an English schoolboy in short pants and rolled down knee socks. He was just an eighteen-year old “doing his own thing” in the best traditions of the 1930’s (and 1960’s).
What was he doing in the Pine Pass? There was a well-blazed trail used by trappers with cabins strung out along the Pine River, Azouzetta Lake, Missinchinka and other rivers. Nobody now living can tell what drove the heir to a large British fortune to leave his home in Coventry, England to walk from Grande Prairie to Prince George in the late autumn of 1930. There are two stories; one that he had made a bet with his uncle, who was his guardian until he reached twenty-one years, that he could walk across Canada on an expense account of $60. He is said by another man, who spoke to him at East Pine, to have made a bet of $500.00 (£ 100?) with someone, just to walk from Grande Prairie to Prince George.
He was supposed to report at Imperial Banks, as mailing addresses. If the second story is correct, he may have been expected to pick up his pay-off at Prince George. Bennett may have thought that his venture would be a suitable preparation for his chosen life in the diplomatic corps, which would take him to foreign lands. He may have read the popular book, “Land of the Muskeg“, by another wealthy British teenager who, with a pack train and guide, had crossed the Pine Pass about 1883 or ’84. He does not seem to have been trying to imitate the old Trail of 98’ers. Perhaps his guardian had been over-guarding his ward to such an extent that the boy had to prove something to his uncle — or to himself. Had he been accused of being a coward? Or of being unable to finish an undertaking?
In any case the young man appeared in Grande Prairie where he was remembered by Police as a cocky youngster, who took no advice about the equipment he should take to cope with the conditions he would meet in the approaching winter. Ignoring all warnings he set out on October 11 — alone, with a packhorse, food for one week, a blanket and a .22 rifle. It is not clear whether he reported in at Pouce Coupe. At one place or another he decided that he could not buy snowshoes which cost $11.00. Two trappers, he wrote in his diary, told him that “there was an awful journey ahead of him, and tons of snow”.
This seems odd, considering that trappers like Linsley, Rosenar, and Jake Smith — who talked to him at East Pine — knew that Phil Esswein, Ted Strand and Zeb Croteau had traplines along the route Bennett was taking. Perhaps they were considering the poor outfit Bennett had.
These trappers were at the time just moving out to their cabins. Two weeks previously a thirty-year old British accountant Geoffrey Woods had found Ted Strand at one of his cabins. Before Stand left with a load of supplies for his farther cabin, Ted had advised the adventurer how to handle his pack and saddle horse to keep them alive in a mountainous area that affords little grazing. On the search for Bennett, the trappers observed that his man listened to instruction to stop at anytime of the day that he found grazing and let his horses fill up. Even though Woods abandoned his packhorse, he made it to Prince George safely.
While Ted was up the line with his first load of supplies, Bennett stopped at Strand’s cabin. Ted regrets that he missed meeting the boy, although it is questionable whether Bennett would have listened to him.
On October 24, Bennett had stopped overnight at the neat establishment of Phil and Mrs. Esswein. Because an unusually early storm was brewing they managed to detain him one day to feed his horse and accept an additional week’s food. Nothing would induce him to take a pair of strong boots, which would certainly have been treated to be waterproof. He stubbornly retained his running shoes; the coldest footwear one could wear. On the morning of October 26, the Essweins awoke to see him disappearing over the river on which ice was already forming near the shore. Nobody ever saw him again. Only his diary carries on the story of misdirected determination and un-selfpitying bravery.
On October 27 the rain started. It soaked his bedroll so that he was unable to dry it. He wrote that the journey seemed pretty hopeless, but he would proceed. On October 29 his horse fell in the river, but a cabin was nearby where he partly dried his bedding. Why he did not stay until the blanket dried thoroughly is hard to understand, as is also his failure to provide himself with a tarp to cover the packhorse load. In all probability he did not know how to pack his horse properly. On the way again on October 30, he wandered trailless for the greater part of the day “soaked to the skin by rain”.
“Raining, spent time drying blankets — pretty hopeless. Burst one of my moccasins, (which he must have got at the cabin). Still wearing what remains of it. I so sincerely thank God for bringing me this far. It shows I shall get through all right so am not worrying any more. Floundered on hopelessly all day. Betty, the horse fell again.”
Bennett left a note in Ted Strand’s cabin on Callason Creek. Another in “The Frenchman’s” cabin two miles down the Pine River from Canyon Creek told of his losing the trail in torrential rain.
On November 2nd, he lost his horse, axe and gun, and spent the day in the rain, recovering them. On November 4th he found that he had become turned around in the search, and was going the wrong way. He retraced his footsteps. His horse was without food.
On November 5th, ‘Betty’ fell again, but he managed to get the exhausted beast on her feet. There was no place to sleep. For two nights he wandered sleepless in the driving rain. He did not lose his axe until November 8th. This reveals his utter lack of trail wisdom. Any Peace River boy would have constructed a shelter from branches, spread his blanket as a reflector, made a fire with his few remaining dry matches, and spent a relatively comfortable night himself, while resting the exhausted Betty. Indians would have peeled cottonwood trees down to the under bark and feed it to the beast.
On November 9th his blankets and all his matches were wet — a woodsman would have had the matches in a waterproof container.
On November 11th he found that he had left his rifle behind, recovered it, and continued. Just before dusk he decided to abandon his horse and return to the cabin where he had stayed on November 8th. He left a note on the horse’s bridle, which he hung up, along with the packsaddle. His supper was raw flour. On November 12th, on frozen feet, he started back to the cabin to get some rubbers. His feet were terribly raw.
Bare-footed he crossed the jammed floe ice on the Missinchinka, reaching Frank Horn’s cabin at dusk.
Imagine the luxury of a good fire, and the food the trapper had “packed” in. The diary barely mentioned the agony of pain as the frozen extremities came partially to life in the warmth. They must have been gangrenous then. He wrote, painfully, “I failed to get through to Fort McLeod and am entirely out of food so am going back …… I think I will make it. Sorry to have taken so much (food), but it was very necessary.” Then there was a list including meat, flour and a little salt which he had used in the two nights in the cabin. He ended with his name and address, “Oakdene, Manor Road, Coventry, England” where the cabin’s owner could get paid for the supplies. Evidently he also took some raw macaroni and a couple of cans of milk. The night before, he had eaten a raw duck which he had shot.
The last pathetic diary entry was made on November 15. “Woke at intervals during the night and ate macaroni and milk. And tea. (He had evidently taken some matches.) Quite good, as milk provides flavor. Finished one tin of milk, and will use other quickly, saving the other can. Hands frozen. Pretty painful but can’t be helped. Ought to make cabin over summit Monday, then two days to the next cabin. (Zeb Croteau’s or Strand’s). Three days then without crossing river, until Essweins. Got to cross river four times before next cabin.”
Did the boy not know the meaning of fear? Or was fear the weakness in himself that he recognized, and resolved not to admit? Had he failed himself in some way, and determined to die to wipe out the shame? Few veteran men would have ended that note without a trace of whimpering. Or, as some who met him have suggested, was he really too cocky to think that anything could defeat him?
PART 2: THE SEARCH FOR PATCH-BENNETT
Sometime before Christmas 1930 John Noel Patch-Bennett’s guardian cabled the headquarters of the Imperial Bank asking that a check be made, since no news of the young man’s arrival at Prince George had come. From the bank to the police in Prince George, to Grande Prairie and to Pouce Coupe the question made the rounds without answer. The boy was unreported anywhere and long overdue. A $500.00 reward was offered by the family for finding him dead or alive.
The police set up search operations immediately. Kelly Sunderman, a big game guide around Beaverlodge, was engaged. He went west at once, picking up Commander Geake and his famous dogteam at Pouce Coupe. He was doubtless planning to bring Bennett out if he were found injured at some trapper’s cabin. At East Pine, Al Lamont and Jake Smith with four packhorses were recruited. The party left George Goodrich’s the day before Xmas and camped at Willow Flat, Marten Creek and then Big Boulder where Ted Strand had a cabin. Ted and Zeb Croteau joined the party. At Silver Sands the snow became too deep. They took packs to the lake, but came back with the report that the snow was too deep. As the dogs were out of meat, the party split up, Strand and Sunderman going on. Jake Smith and Croteau turned back with the horses, and Commander Geake reported at Pouce Coupe the events up to date.
Pressing on, Sunderman and Strand found notes in several cabins and finally one at Frank Horn’s some distance beyond the Pass where Horn had moved onto his line in November. The trapper, noting that the boy was turning back, and that snow had fallen covering all tracks, assumed that Bennett could make it to some shelter, and had not searched very far. He had gone to McLeod Lake for Xmas. It seemed useless to back track.
Kelly and Ted took off on an old trail between Bijoux Falls and Tillicum Creek, followed the Missinchinka River to the Pack River, then cut across to Trout Lake, (now Tudjah Lake). One night they came to a deserted old cabin that would serve as shelter. To their surprise in walked, said Ted “the most enormous tomcat I have ever seen. He was living off the land and thriving on it, but hadn’t forgotten that he was somebody’s pet. He came in, purring with pleasure, and curled up in the bed roll to sleep with the men.”
At McLeod Lake the searchers stayed overnight with the old free trader and postmaster, Justin (Mac) McIntyre. From here the going to Prince George was easier, because from an old experimental farm a path had been bulldozed. They had covered well over three hundred miles, and passed within a very few miles of Bennett’s last camp.
After reporting to police and seeking orders, they apparently met Frank Horn and back tracked for three days, carrying only a gun, some food, some bedding, and a tarp for a back reflector of the campfire’s heat, showing that experienced men could survive in winter.
On the 19th of January they were ordered to take the train back via Edmonton to Grande Prairie, the long roundabout way at that time. Ted resumed trapping.
The next summer, after the snow was gone, Sunderman made a fourth try to find the boy, now given up for dead. This time he approached from the other end of the trail. He told the reporter for the Daily Colonist, “Charles Boyd, Frank Horn and I left Prince George and went down the Crooked River to Fort McLeod. Then along the Parsnip, Missinchinka and Tillicum Creek (now Attunachie Creek) to within two miles of Azouzetta Lake”. Whether they met Ted Strand there is not recorded, but the Daily Colonist reported that he and Kelly Sunderman made a tragic find. A skeleton lay beside a clump of willows. “We found a pair of khaki breeches, torn to shreds, a woolen scarf, a piece of navy blue overcoat, a fur cap with leather top, a .22 caliber rifle with the stock tooth-marked by animals, a Hudson’s Bay blanket, a pack sack which was unopened and a little food. We also found pieces of burlap in which the boy had evidently wrapped his feet. He had lost his axe about a mile away from where we found the skeleton. He had apparently broken small boughs in an attempt to make a fire, then dropped frozen and exhausted. The body had been ravaged by animals that had dug it up from the snow”.
Inside the packsack were identifying letters. The body was taken to Prince George where a full report was made by Inspector W. Spiller of the Provincial Police. The diary and remains were shipped to England to the boy’s mother.
John Noel Patch-Bennett had never learned to live in the wilderness, or to take well-meant advice, but he had learned how to die with dignity and composure. He had learned not to whine. One note was a character-revealing comment — “Ate food raw. Not very appetizing, but nourishing”. His last note –written with frozen hands by a man facing death — carefully itemized every bit of food he had used, so that his host could be repaid. Evidently Bennett had nothing of his $60 left when he set out from Grande Prairie.
This, then is the story of the undistinguished name of that undistinguished stream.