I cannot speak at first hand of the earlier work of Miss Storrs and her helpers nor, to my regret, of the Rev. George Wolfendale, but I visited most of the extremities of the parish, travelling on his horse, Starlight, or else by boat. In those days the word “highway” meant only a graded road. Gravel was notably absent, except where it could slide onto a cut by the force of gravity. In such cases the term “falling rock” was more appropriate.
Mail between Dawson Creek and Fort St. John began to be taken by truck when the going was good and continued by team and wagon or sleigh when it was not. Horse teams served all the district post offices because the roads were much too soft or steep for trucks. A boat plied between Taylor and Hudson’s Hope in summer, and another made a monthly trip from Portage to Fort Grahame and back. The road which linked the main settlements with Fort St. John was our chief concern. I recall keen criticism of the hazards to be faced on the Cecil Lake “new grade”, at that time newly cut along the north bank of the Beaton River and subject at many points to violent erosion. Most of the residents clung to the evils they knew on the swinging, slithering descent of almost 600 feet in half a mile on the old road. They stayed with the old rather than risk the unknown round the many blind corners of the precarious and extremely narrow new road with its easier gradient. “If you meet anything, one of you has to go back and as likely as not you’ll be over the edge into eternity”. A car could negotiate it in perfect conditions, but for reliability the Rector preferred his team. It was almost unknown for him to have to abandon any of his regular trips. The trip to Hudson’s Hope was usually made with the team as far as the Halfway and then, if the river could not be forded or crossed on the ice, the buggy or sleigh would be left at Tompkins’ and the saddles ferried over with the horses swimming behind. Miss Storrs’ journeys were similar, although she more often set out on horseback — dispensing with the portable organ which was one of the chief items of equipment to be driven to most corners of the parish in its time. When the river was frozen and became the mailman’s highway to Hudson’s Hope, we used to follow his trail for long stretches of the route.
Others are better able than I am to describe the gatherings in houses or schools and at the Gough Memorial Hospital at Cecil Lake for worship and for Sunday school in those early days. Help and much encouragement were given by the people, and sometimes by those who had not been Anglicans by upbringing but were glad to welcome the Church’s missionaries when reached by them.
Of Miss Storrs’ fellow-workers, Miss C. Goodenough had more bad-weather travelling than any of us and she carried out a full schedule of services, visits, classes and clubs. She also found time to produce amateur dramatics, to the delight of all concerned and the benefit of Church funds. When ill health caused her return to England in November 1936, she left many friends behind her and a record of work so faithfully done it must have enduring results. Maybe we can trace a connection today, as young parents who were once her pupils bring their children to the font.
Although I cannot claim to set down these recollections in chronological order, I shall mention dates where a reference is easily to hand. My present aim is merely to touch on typical events in my own experiences, and I shall therefore omit much that others are more likely to have dealt with. In particular, I was very seldom in Fort St. John except to attend St. Martin’s Church or to have Starlight re-shod.
In addition to the main centres, the outlying districts have been served by the Anglicans whenever the staff was adequate. During a gap in the Presbyterian ministry, work was undertaken at Peace View and Sunrise. The Sunday School by post, mailed locally then, enabled us to keep in touch with the Anglican families when weekly classes were discontinued. It was impossible for the Rector to go often, but there were folk living out at Peace View who sometimes rode or drove down to the Church of the Good Shepherd. We also visited Montney and North Pine regularly at various times until, after a period shared with the United Church in genuine co-operation, we withdrew and left them to carry on.
The camps held on the rocky eastern margin of Charlie Lake were a great feature of those years. Usually the boys went first, and a student, sent each summer by the Fellowship of the West, was always a tremendous help to the Rector. We followed them with the girls, and thus stepped into a camp that was already there. We brought our own stores, however, and I remember one very hard pull round the point to the campsite from the nearest landing where the truck had deposited us. A cargo of packing cases made the head wind all the more formidable. Meanwhile the girls took the lighter baggage through the bush. In better conditions I was able to teach the rudiments of rowing to all the novices and found some very apt pupils. My own education progressed, too, for it was there that I encountered my first pack rat, and saw its treatment of a jar of wild flowers as well as part of our stores.
One of my earliest memories is of the only time that I met Miss Claxton, first matron of the Red Cross Outpost Hospital at Cecil Lake. One day she came down the old Carmichael Hill to Taylor as I was going up. Having heard much about her work and powers of endurance, I was surprised to find how small and almost fragile she appeared to be. The lasting impression I received, during the few moments of greeting and mutual introduction, was of her gaiety of spirit and alertness of mind. The following Spring this grand Christian woman contracted virulent influenza through nursing a patient and died within a few days. She was laid to rest by the community she had served so devotedly, in March 1937. Subsequently the church that they built was furnished as her memorial. After the war, when I returned to that district, I found her memory still fresh in the minds of those who had known her.
A chance to meet one of the pioneers of our Church north of the Peace came during the summer of 1938, when the parish had a return visit from the Rev. Geoffrey Guiton, then on furlough from Palampur, in the Kangara District of North India. He brought slides to illustrate his work there as headmaster of the boys’ school, and also as their leader in some vacation mountaineering. For his lecture at Baldonnel, St. John’s Church Hall was crowded.
Here I come to my own ‘crowded hour’ of glorious adventure. It consisted of the five weeks or so following August 4, 1937. This was the day on which Miss Storrs and I set out for Hudson’s Hope, leading our pack-pony, on the first stage of an exploration beyond the western boundary of the parish. In general, the incidents one recalls most readily are to do with the weather, the state of the trails, or the behaviour of horses. When, as in this case, our route took us beyond or alongside the Halfway River, the various crossings were seldom uneventful. Oddly enough, my two most sensational samples of fording occurred when we were being guided. The first was on this trip, and it happened because the ford in use above the estuary was ‘washing out’. Our saddle horses veered very slightly to the left and got into quicksand, from which we had quite a struggle to extricate them and gain the bank. After that, a place lower down was tested and used for the rest of the season. The second occasion was as recently as 1948 while on our way to the Simpsons’. Back along the trail we had been well warned of newly deposited boulders in mid-channel at Wagnar’s Crossing, just upstream of the confluence with the Graham River. They had been brought down by the exceptionally heavy ‘break-up’ and heavy ice of that spring. However, our self-appointed guide — not a resident of the valley — led us onto one of them in swift water. He must have missed it, in blissful ignorance, by inches, but from the rear I saw Miss Storrs’ horse stumble, lose its balance lurch wildly to the right and . . . mercifully regain foothold, with her still in the saddle. After that demonstration Starlight and I steered clear of trouble.
But to return to 1937. The horses were left in a good pasture beyond Hudson’s Hope and we joined the Rev. Russell Brown and his guide for the river trip, visiting families and isolated miners up to Finlay Forks. Beyond that point we were taken as auxiliary ‘crew’ for, although we did not meet three other women, the reason for the voyage up the Omineca River was that Bishop Rix had asked our Mr. Brown to meet his namesake from Vanderhoof at Germansen Landing. They were to visit the rapidly expanding gold-mining communities around Manson Creek and to hold services wherever possible and assess the need for future ministration by the Church. Our adventures, which cannot be recorded in detail here, were always interesting, full of variety, and sometimes thrilling. We reached Germansen on the 17th of August, having taken five days to battle our way up the sixty miles or so of the Omineca, plus the fourteen of the Finlay. Ours was the first powered boat to cover the whole distance, much of the water being very swift and also very shallow over most of the riffles. Our guide’s father, Mr. Neil Gething, had been one of six who poled and portaged their canoe up the same route many years before. His son told us after our trip was over that the men at Finlay Forks had said, before our attempt, “They’ll never make it”. They reckoned without the skill and almost uncanny ‘river-sense’ of our guide and our joint determination.
We all walked up the old trail to the nearest mining camp and were very kindly received. After supper there was a good attendance at a service held in the mess hall. Next day we left the clergy to continue their mission, after which they were to fly to Prince George. At a dizzy speed we swept and swirled downstream, with scarcely time to take snapshots of the features that we were looking out for, and were back at the Forks in under thirteen hours, including stops for meals and repairs, and a swim. After taking on more gas and visiting the only woman at Finlay, we rolled down the Peace, gathering gold. Almost every outfit produced its small but heavy package for the store which acted as a bank.
Back at Hudson’s Hope we retrieved our horses and proceeded to visit the homes up the Halfway trail as far as Brady’s does. It was Miss Storrs’ first successful attempt, as she and Miss Goodenough had been frustrated on a former occasion by heavy rain and swollen rivers. We were fortunate, for although it rained enough to be thoroughly unpleasant on one of our longest rides; we encountered no serious setback. Once, owing to a wet morning and the difficulty of striking camp and making a secure pack, we were overtaken by darkness before we had located the house to which an interminable hay-field undoubtedly belonged. We therefore camped on the spot, and feeding the horses presented no problem. Our supper was on the dry side as there was no water. Next morning we found the homestead, whose light had been hidden from us by trees. It was only half a mile away, and we joined the family for breakfast, to their great surprise.
At another point we stayed with a family where no other woman had been for two years past, except for some Indians. It was difficult indeed to come away from there, even after three days.
Of the services held that summer in out-of-the way places, I recall the various little family groups — one for a Baptism at Carbon River, and one at Hudson’s Hope, Sunday Evensong in the school there, and so on. Strangest and most impressive of all were the two Eucharists on our up-river Sundays — the first with the great mountains lying ahead, and the second in a forest by the Omineca, with squirrels scolding overhead and dropping cones at intervals. The trunks of the tall spruce were like the pillars of a vast cathedral.
During 1937 and 1938 there was great activity at Cecil Lake and Hudson’s Hope, for the two beautiful log churches were designed and built. At the end of August 1938, both were almost complete, and Bishop Rix had the joy and satisfaction of consecrating them during his visitation. He commended each building to its own congregation as a worthy place for the worship of Almighty God, and a reminder to all who pass by that He is supreme. Finishing touches were gradually accomplished, and across the Pine the belfry was added to St. Matthias’ Church in the spring. Once, when I was there for the monthly classes I borrowed some old overalls and spent an hour or so helping to paint the chancel roof.
My last pre-war trip to Hudson’s Hope was at the end of April 1939. The bridge across the Halfway was finished and they were making up the approaches. We managed to lead our saddle horses up onto the bridge itself, to make our first, luxurious, dry-shod crossing.
My voyage home on leave in July provided an unexpected link with the North Peace River Parish. The “Letitia” carried the Canadian delegation to the World Conference of Christian Youth at Amsterdam, and with it as an observer went Professor Elton Scott, another of our Fellowship of the West pioneers. He was very interested to hear recent news at first hand and I was grateful for the chance that had enabled me to meet him. Since he came west in 1939, we were rounding off a decade.