ACROSS NORTHERN British Columbia, between the Rockies and the Pacific Ocean, stretches an awesome 200,000 square mile chunk of mountain, swamp, river and valley, its vast solitude split only by one railroad track and a single car road, flanked by isolated villages and cattle loading pens.
Far beyond these only visible signs of man’s advance is a new frontier as tough and wild and remote as the west of early days. This unconquered barrier stands out, unique in this day and age, for it is the last great cattle frontier on the North American continent.
Back in its jack-pine forests there are Indians who have never seen a white man, and lonely loon-haunted lakes echo the spooky moans of timber wolves, the splash of beavers’ tails, and the grunting bellow of the moose.
It is a land of striking contrasts, where the tentacles of great, octopus-shaped, grey muskegs reach into dark, moss-hung spruce jungles; where rolling bunchgrass prairies, and flat yellow-green meadows glide between the fantastic shapes and colors of unexplored mountain ranges that split the sky.
It is a land that drew me into its soul like a magnet.
This story is about that strange land beyond the mysterious crags and canyons of the formidable Itcha, Algak and Fawnie mountain ranges; about the first horses and the first pack trains,to penetrate its forbidding solitudes; and about the fabulous characters who people the surrounding frontier.
Like most boys, I went through the routine “want to be a cowboy” stage, but unlike others I was unable to shake these visions loose. They followed me through military academy, into Stanford University, out on construction gangs in California’s High Sierras, south to roughnecking jobs in the East Texas oil fields, into the fight ring, and finally into a New York real-estate firm where I peddled apartments to money-befuddled clients before the 1929 crash.
In 1932, when I could no longer pay rent on my own apartment, I rolled my bed, took a last deep breath of New York’s exhaust-filled air, and headed west toward Wyoming. By 1934, I talked my way into a cattle-feeding job at Stanley Blum’s Box E ranch near Crowheart Butte, where a hawk-faced, horse-minded character named Panhandle Phillips did the riding.
One night, coming in late, I surprised Wild Horse Panhandle sitting in the middle of the bunkhouse, surrounded by maps and papers. He looked up startled, grinned sheepishly, considered a moment, then finally said, “Sit down, and I’ll show ya something.” I squatted beside him.
“I was keeping this here business to myself,” he explained easily, “but you’ve caught me with a cold deck. This detail map here has a big blank space on it—do ya see?” I said I did.
“Now look here,” said Pan. He pulled out another large sheet. “See this map; look at those little dotted lines ending with arrows.” There was practically nothing on it. At one corner a dark, winding line had printed on it “Blackwater River.”
“What’s the idea?” I said. “Is this a map of a hidden gold mine?”
“Yes,” he said, “a gold mine.” His narrow eyes gleamed out at me like live coals. “It’s in northern British Columbia.”
“British Columbia! You’re nuts, man!”
“Those maps show all that is known of the south tip of a country as big as Wyoming with Montana throwed in. There’s reports of a grass country there some place that reaches as far as the eye can see. That’s my gold mine. Free grass reachin’ north into unknown country. Untouched and just waitin’ for hungry cows.”
The Wild Horse packed one of the maps over to the bunk I was sitting on and spread it out between us. I turned up the lamp wick. The room brightened. My next words changed my life. I looked at Pan.
“When are we leaving?” I asked. On Oct. 15, 1934, with Pan at the wheel of the “Old Bloater,” an obsolete panel delivery Ford distinguished by large printed letters across its body—“BOLOGNA—BLOATERS — BLOOD SAUSAGES”—we rattled across the Canadian border.
Our goal was the blank space on the map, but our first objective was Tatla Lake, 300 miles north of Vancouver, the northwestern frontier of existing ranches. West of it lay the little-known Anahim country, walled in on the north by the wild, unexplored Itcha and Algak Ranges. Beyond the mountain barrier lay our final objective, the mysterious Indian taboo land on the unmapped headwaters of the Blaekwater River.
The next day we forged into Clinton, a one-storied cow town on the border of a grassy world where cattle graze across some of the continent’s largest ranches. Fifty miles northwest of us, strung along the east bank of the Fraser River, the vast Dog Creek and Alkali Lake ranches were dwarfed by their neighbor over the river—-the one-and-a-half-million-acre Gang Ranch— four times larger than Texas’ famous King ranch. The Gang, largest in North America, is so immense that there are different climates at opposite ends of its range.
We carried on to the north and stopped for lunch at a quiet little lodge on the banks of Lac La Hache. The proprietor told us that for many miles we had been driving through Englishman Lord Martin Cecil’s 100 Mile Ranch.
Next day, in Williams Lake, big, ruddy Pete Slavin, proprietor of the Log Cabin Beer Parlor, told us there was a road of sorts to Tatla Lake, at the far end of the Chilcotin, some 175 miles to the west. He also told us that after freeze-up in early November a snowfall usually ended any further use of the road by car until spring. Obviously we were about to plunge into a back country where we would be trapped for at least six months before we could get back to town for equipment and supplies.
Early on the morning of Oct. 20, the Bloater, loaded to the springs with every article of food and equipment we figured we’d need, crept westward toward Tatla Lake. We didn’t have the vaguest idea what we were going to do when we got there. We did know that we were pushing into the frontier, and that we would not see town again for a long time.
It took us two days, through wide-open prairie, jack pine timber belt, and grassy, rolling foothills where the fierce Chilcotin Indians once camped. Now the Chilcotins, with headquarters at the Anahim Rancheree, are content to quarrel among themselves.
Perched on a flat-topped bench, the Rancheree presented a fantastic spectacle: an expanse of dust-grey log shacks in various stages of decay and collapse reared ugly heads above frightening piles of litter and rubbish. Hundreds of half-wild, half-starved dogs crawled like vermin in the debris.
Pan slowed the Bloater to a stop. A horde of ragged women, children and wrinkled old men picked their way through the garbage to the car, no doubt thinking we were peddling goods. Pan stepped on the gas and we chugged slowly on, leaving the babbling giggling mob behind.
At one point, Pan stuck the Bloater in what appeared to be a bottomless mudhole. A rancher, with four horses, pulled us to safety. He was a lean man with a hungry look, his pants held together with binder twine and a blanket pin. He gave me the impression that he had fought a long losing battle with these backlands.
He told us that we were now in Redstone, B.C., often the coldest spot in North America—74 below zero once the previous winter. And he sadly shook his head when we asked him about the distant Anahim Lake country. He told us we were crazy to go into that dark jungle land, where groups of law-dodging wild men chased wild horses and lived on moose meat and muskrat.
A Wilderness of Swamp and Snow
That evening we camped on the timbered shore of Tatla Lake. Looking northwest across the water, we saw a jagged mountain range, reaching above a black world of jack pine. Pan studied his map, snorted loudly. “Sure as hell those are the Itchas. Next spring those pinnacles will be south instead of north to us.”
A stick cracked in the black bush behind us. In one movement, Pan whirled and whipped out his Smith & Wesson .44.
“Ho, there!” sounded a voice. Pan’s gun settled back into its holster.
It was a lanky, black-haired rider from Bob Graham’s Tatla Lake Ranch. He told us that a wagon road carried on west of the lake and admitted that he knew of an odd car that had made it over the trail some 75 miles into the Anahim Lake country.
During the previous seven years about 12 single men, most of them Americans, and several Canadians with their wives and families had moved into the Anahim area.
“They’re havin’ a tough time back there,” said the rider. “I don’t know that you boys will find much but swamps, jack pine, snowballs and wolves. The men spend most of their time chasin’ wild horses or runnin’ down coyotes in winter. They’ve got a few cattle and lots of horses. They’re a wild - and - woolly bunch, roamin’ about the jungle, only cornin’ out here to civilization about once a year.”
Two long days plugging ahead through mud, windfalls and up steep, rocky hills saw the obstinate Bloater roll to a stop a short distance from some ancient, barely visible holes, resembling caved-in trenches. And they were trenches, dug not so many years before by a road crew battling for its life against a band of Chilcotin Indians; all in the crew were killed in cold blood.
Later that evening the Bloater came to its final rest on a little knoll overlooking a narrow, mud-bottom creek. The road from here on was not for us. Only a wagon or a pack outfit could travel it.
Now it was time for us to make a few decisions. We had succeeded in winning our first objective: Wyoming was 2,000 miles away. But, although the Itcha and Algak barrier was now only 50 bush miles from us, lack of time and heavy snows in the high peaks postponed all thought of tackling it until spring. Winter was almost on us. In less than two months we would run out of everything but coffee, sugar and salt. Horses would have to be bought, and hay.
Our first and most urgent need was a cabin. According to Pan, we could easily build one in two days. “First thing at daylight we’ll take an axe apiece and fell the trees over there across that swamp,” he said, pointing to some lodgepole pine 50 yards away. “We’ll need 50 logs, I figure. Then we’ll each pack one end of a log, and tote them over the swamp on our shoulders. We’ll square off the ground for the foundation, and then fit and notch those base logs so that the foundation will be constructed by noon.”
I looked sceptically at the big trees. “It sure won’t be much work to do that in half a day. What next Panhandle?”
‘"Let’s see. Oh yeah, right after lunch we’ll put up the walls and cut out a place for the door. We’ll lay on just a shanty roof. That’s it. After the punchin’s set proper, we’ll throw on about a foot of dirt on top of that much grass. One of us can cut slough with the big hunting knife. The second day we can make a stove, a bunk, windows and floor, and any kind of finishin’ work that’s necessary.”
I stood up. “Why man, the way you tell it, we may be able to clean up the job in a day,” I said a little sarcastically.
Pan filled his tin cup with coffee. “It’s easy, Rich, mighty easy. Everythin’s easy. It’s just when a man thinks a job is hard and won’t try that it’s tough. No sir, all a man needs is a small amount of brains, and enough strength to carry them up off the ground. Nothin’ to it boy, nothin’ to it at all.”
That Swift Moccasin Telegraph
By noon I was exhausted. The two of us had cut, limbed and packed 50 green logs, averaging about 10 feet, through to the building site. As I threw lunch together, Pan notched four logs and laid them in the grooves. The foundation was completed. The size of building now under construction was just seven feet by eight.
Late that afternoon I looked up from cutting slough grass to see a man watching me silently from a saddle horse. He wore a long-visored cap, a yellow wool shirt and moosehide ohaps. Jungle-like, hlack hair covered his ears. He grinned. “You’ll have to work fast to beat the snow. Horses eat lots of that stuff when Jt’s cut late in the season. Haw, haw, haw!”
This was our first visitor, loud laughing Bert Leaman who had migrated into this backland two years before from the state of Washington. He owned six horses, four cows and three calves His cabin was built on Cahoose Flats, 10 miles west of us. Bert’s close-knit carcass was as strong as a three-year-old bull’s. His earsplitting laugh boomed like a cannon through the silent jack pine.
Within a day of his roaring departure from our camp, Anahim’s mysterious moccasin telegraph went into action one of the spookiest phenomena o;f British Columbia’s remote interior. No one has yet given me a logical explanation of how frontiermen, living in widely-separated, isolated hangouts in the far reaches of Anahim’s vast empire, receive messages or hunches about important events in the country. But since then Pan and I have seen it happen many times.
Within two days of our arrival men 30 miles away felt that something was taking place near the headwaters of the Dean River. And so it happened that Bert was the first of a line of curious riders who drifted into our camp at all hours of the day and night from every direction. They were a strange, tough breed, these Anahim men—the “wild men” of whom the rancher at Redstone had spoken. Each had a background that would have filled a book. Take Cyrus Lord Bryant, the bald-headed, keen New Englander, for example.
Twelve years before in 1922 Cyrus Bryant, his wife and four children had driven a wagon and six horses nearly 1,000 miles from Southern Washington into the Anahim Lake country—dark, mystic, forbidding land of blackened wastelands, dripping spruce jungles and stinking swamps.
The Bryants were on the trail for months. A blizzard swished out of the northeast before the little family could reach Alexis Creek. Cyrus’ driving hand froze almost solid inside his inadequate leather glove. A gnawing wind stabbed the 40-below zero weather into the huddled bodies of Mrs. Bryant and the children, hunched together around a coal-oil lantern beneath the wagon tarp.
At last Bryant hauled the horses to a stop near the log cabins of Alexis Creek. Mrs. Bryant and the children were rushed into a rancher’s house for frost treatment, and Cyrus took care of the ice-caked, frost-covered horses. He left the lantern burning beneath the wagon to keep their food from freezing.
Winning a Stake the Hard Way
Inside that, over-sized wagon box were the family’s precious and most priceless possessions — family portraits, oil paintings, Mrs. Bryant’s jewelry and music, their life savings, rare old books, winter clothes and provisions, tools, saddles and extra harness. All these were to be the foundation of their new life. But in the dark dawn of the following day Cyrus kicked the black, hissing ashes of what had once been that wagon box. He routed out a 50-cent, iron wrecking bar, an axe head and a few well-tempered horseshoes. That was all.
The lantern had touched off the load. The Bryant family was in a desperately critical position, without money in a strange country, with winter on them.
A rancher advanced them grub and what clothing they could get by on. Cyrus cut and hauled logs out of the bush and in a month’s time had built a two-room cabin for the family. For years every member of the family worked from dawn to dark. In the Chilcotin, Cyrus hired out with his well-broke teams for cash, cows, sheep or vegetables. Mrs. Bryant helped shear the sheep, cleaned, carded and spun wool garments for the family and for neighbors. Ten-year-old Alfred worked with an axe, a saddle horse and a rifle. The girls became as good as men at riding jobs and axe work.
After nearly six years of privation the family once again was outfitted. With two wagons, a dozen cows and 18 head of horses they axed their way through the bush to a swamp meadow, five miles from Anahim Lake. Here, on Corkscrew Creek, they worked unrelentingly for two more years. The girls cut trees and bucked wood, made clothes of moose hide and patched others with gunnysacks, binder twine, moose hide and rabbit fur. Young Alfred eked out their supplies by driving pack trains 100 miles down a narrow trail through the bush to Bella Coola on the coast.
In 1931 there was no money in the country no work and no relief. There were only six other families in an area as big as the State of Maine. The family was in desperate need of footwear, clothing, horseshoes, ammunition, needles and thread and new axes. And so, with their beef crop of four steers and six loose saddle and pack horses, black-haired Alfred, then 18, and two of his teen-age sisters, Jane and Caroline, struck out on the long trail for Williams Lake. Ahead of these children lay more than 450 saddlehorse miles. Thirty-six days and nights of mud and rain and dust. Night herding, freezing, sweating, moosemeat and rice.
At Williams Lake, dog tired in pouring rain, they found a cattle buyer who glanced briefly at their 1,200-pound steers and handed Alfred $12 apiece for them. The children paid a merchant a long-overdue debt and, with the remainder of the money, purchased the most needed supplies. They looked blankly in the shop windows and comfortable hotels, then turned abruptly, with squared shoulders, and walked down the hill in the rain to their battered little canvas tent. At daylight they started back again along the lonely trail.
By spring of 1934, the year of our arrival, the Bryants had pulled themselves up and out of the almost bottomless hole into which the wagon fire had plunged them 12 years before. Their herd of white-face cattle had increased to 100 head and they ran nearly 50 head of horses. The Bryants had made good.
A Visit from the Backwoods
Cyrus Lord Bryant was only one of the Anahim men drawn to our cabin by the moccasin telegraph of the north. Others followed, a motley crew. They wore moose-hide gloves and coats, hats of every description, torn and patched bright-colored wool shirts and rode big, leggy part-blooded horses. Sixty-year-old Jim Holt, a tall dark Texan with a long slow drawl; Shorty King, a strange little hunchback with a biting tongue and a fetish for big saddle horses; Tommy Holte, eighteen years old, square-jawed and shy, lived with his family 40 miles back through the jungle; Ole Nucloe Localo, a wide-shouldered, straight-featured half breed who had never seen a town in his life; Billy Dagg, big dark foreman of the biggest cattle ranch in the Anahim area, the Christenson spread.
Pan said howdy to each new rider, and told him to throw on the coffee pot. “Get on the coffee, man, we’re near dead for coffee, but we can’t quit this work!”
The night after we finished the cabin no less than eight Anahim men sprawled about the fire. To a man, the ranchers invited us to “hole up with me for the winter. I got horses and we can split the grub bill.” Pan and I refused and proudly pointed to our luxurious new home.
The stove, our happiest accomplishment, consisted of two five-gallon coal oil tins fitted together. Pan cut out the bottoms of several four-pound jam tins for stovepipe. We never could understand why the smoke leaked out into the cabin so much but later found that most of it floated back down from a hole in the roof. At times we were compelled to lie flat on the pole floor where smoke wasn’t too thick and we could breathe.
We suffered from the smoke and the cold for two nights before Pan got a brilliant idea. “Friend,” he said, “we’re not doin’ this thing right. This here cabin is built for real cold weather. We’ll move back out to the tent and cook over the campfire until it colds up some. Then we can move back into the cabin. Nothin’ to it at all, boy. Everything’s easy if you just stop and figure it out.”
I shivered. It was now 2 below zero. Pan was whistling and carrying junk out to the tent. On Nov. 2 the thermometer plunged to 30 below. Cooking in the dark over the fire (we had been frozen out of bed), I shiveringly asked Pan if he thought it was cold enough to move back in the cabin.
The Top Hand’s teeth were chattering. “No, Rich, that’s not the idea at all. We moved out her to harden ourselves so we can take this here B. C. winter like men, not like shiverin’ rats. We ain’t toughened ourselves up yet. And besides it’s not colded up much, anyway.”
It was quite apparent that Pan didn’t like living in the smokehouse.
We chinked the cabin with moss. The mercury climbed to zero and it was snowing hard. I had a hunch Pan was on the verge of giving in when we looked up to see Cyrus Lord Bryant riding into camp, leading five horses tied head to tail behind him. The bright-eyed rancher was serious. He tied his big black, bald-faced horse to a tree and strode hurriedly to the cabin. He swung our sad-looking door open, took one sweeping glance and grunted, “Thought so!”
At the fire Cyrus lifted off his Stetson and shook an inch of snow off the brim. He didn’t respond to Pan’s cracks about the weather. After thoughtfully downing two cups of coffee, he came to the point: “You two young idiots plan to live in that cabin this winter?”
Pan smiled. “Oh sure, we’ll move into that palace after the weather gets bad.”
Cyrus Lord snorted. “Now you boys listen to some common sense. This isn’t Wyoming. This is central B. C. We’re at 3,800-feet elevation. The temperature may drop to 60 below, and stand between 30 and 50 below for days at a time. That little pile of poles can’t hold heat for an hour. I’m telling you both the truth when I say there’ll come a morning when you won’t wake up, neither of you. Boys, you’ll be froze stiff in your beds, and I’ll be damned if I’ll start digging holes in frozen ground to bury you.”
Bryant stopped to pour himself another cup of coffee. Then he continued, “I’m living five miles north of this flat. There’s only my boy, Alfred, and myself there. The girls are out at Williams Lake with their mothergetting civilized. You two sure aren’t proving anything to anybody, including yourselves, by toughing it out.. Now roll your beds, pack your grub, as much as these horses can handle on this trip, and come on home with me.”
Cyrus Lord walked over to the horses. Pan scratched his head.
“Smart idea,” I mumbled, and dashed for the tent and quickly pulled up the tent pegs.
Snow was falling blanket - like, purring as it piled up over everything. Finally mounted and leading the pack horses behind, Pan called ahead to Bryant who had taken the lead. “It sure looks like we had the right idea about building that cabin. If we’d had a few more days and a team, we’d have made a bigger shack and a better finished one, but we had a hunch about this here weather and figured we had to get it set up before a storm. We laid her up on time. It’s a good shack; it’ll always be there to come home to.”
We rode off through the jack pine toward the Bryant homestead. To the north of us, reaching east, the towering walls of the Algaks were engulfed by the crags of the impregnable Itchas. This was the unknown barrier we had to crack and we would have all winter to reconnoitre it and get a string of pack and saddle horses in shape.
Behind that barrier lay the blank space on the map. In the spring the big push would be on to find just what it contained.
(In the next installment, Rich and Pan crack the Algak barrier and enter into a land never before explored by white men.)