Saturday, Sept. 18, 1982

Thirty-five years ago, a plane crashed just a few metres below Danny Moore Creek near its confluence with Driftwood Creek. Local pilot Emil Mesich and his four passengers were killed.

An excerpt from the accident report explains what happened:

Two company aircraft, each carrying a party of hunters, departed the seaplane base on Tyee Lake near Smithers, bound for separate camps located relatively close together. The Otter was bound for Tatlatui Lake, 260 kilometres to the north. DJA, the larger of the two aircraft, was loaded with equipment belonging to both groups. As well as the pilot and four hunters and this equipment, it also carried two 200 litre fuel drums. The pilot was to drop off his passengers and then fly to the other camp. He did not arrive. An ELT signal was heard by the pilot of the smaller aircraft on his return flight to Tyee Lake.

Harry Kruisselbrink photo

Apparently, the Otter had crashed ten minutes after takeoff.

As well as the 55-year-old Mesich, four men from Illinois were killed: Dan Bonaguidi, 42, Steven Bonaguidi, 38, and John Marconi, 41, and Jay Ford Blunck, 42.

My husband Lynn and Richard Overstall planned to fly into Twobridge/Reiseter Lake that weekend. But the weather wasn’t great, so they decided instead to hike into Silverking Basin, where there was a cabin. I remember piling the boys, who were three and four years old, into the car before heading to town. As Lynn and I said goodbye, a float plane flew overhead. Lynn commented on how low it was flying and we watched it for a moment.

Later that day, I got a call from Jim Shorter, a neighbour who was also a pilot. He asked me who Lynn and Richard had flown withhow he knew their plans was just another small town mystery. I told him they’d changed their plans; he told me a plane had crashed in the Babines. It was one of those moments: fear, anger, fear, relief, fear. I hadn’t seen them set off up the road with their packs. Had they perhaps changed their minds? AngerI was mad at Jim for what felt like a fishing expedition. What if they had been on that plane? What the hell would he have said? The anger surprised me. Held back the fear for a while, but I needed to see those two walk out on Sunday afternoon to finally settle.

I’ll let Lynn tell his story:

In the late summer and early fall we see float planes from Tyee Lake pass over our place almost every day, ferrying hunters and fisherman to and  from Spatsizi and Tatlatui provincial parks. On the day of the crash I was splitting firewood while waiting for Richard to arrive. That’s when I heard the Otter, louder than usual, and flying lower … much lower. Odd, I thought, and then went back to swinging the splitting maul.

Richard arrived about 15 minutes later and we headed off up Driftwood Road. I can’t remember now how far one could drive up the road then—maybe to Sunny Point but no further. Anyway, it could not have been more than an hour after hearing the plane that we were well on our way into Silverking and, more importantly, passing Danny Moore Creek.

We spent an uneventful, but chilly night in the old Silverking bunkhouse, built by Ernie Hann in the 1930s, and headed home late the next morning. A short while after re-crossing the Danny Moore Bridge, about three km above what is now the summer parking lot, we saw several vehicles, including an RCMP truck, parked on the road. We heard the whine of a chain saw uphill through the trees on our right. We immediately headed in that direction but within about 100 metres got turned back by the RCMP. All the member would say was there had been a plane crash in the bush just above us.

That’s when I told Richard about the low flying Otter from the previous day and we both wondered if it was the same plane.

Harry Kruisselbrink, a long time search & rescue volunteer took this photo at the crash site. The broken trees are signs searchers look for when a plane goes missing in the bush.

That question was answered later the same day … Emil had intended to fly up Driftwood Canyon and over the head wall at the end of Silverking Basin. When he realized he couldn’t get the necessary altitude, he tried to turn around and that’s when everything went sideways. The plane sheared off the tops of several trees and plummeted to the ground. Everyone on board was killed. But it did not catch fire.

And that’s probably the thought that has stayed with me more than any other over the years. If the plane had caught fire it would have been about the same time Richard and I passed by the crash site. We would have come upon fire and smoke and much worse had we climbed to investigate.

That’s one of the reasons the crash still gives me the shivers.

Ted Turner photo

Another reason is because Emil Mesich was flying the plane that crashed and killed our beloved neighbour Sunny Biniowsky in November 1979. She and her partner, Fred Seychuk Sr., had moved up the road just a few months after we moved into our place. They’d escaped Toronto with Sunny’s two youngest children and decided to make a life in Driftwood Canyon, a choice that greatly added to our own enjoyment of creekside life.

 

Rabbit stew and plonk with wonderful friends. From l-r Gregory, Sunny, Fred, Ilya, Fred Jr. Sheila and Lynn. Ted Turner took the photo. Both Freds still live in Driftwood Canyon.

Sunny was planning to fill in for the teacher at Takla Lake and had flown in to check it out. I will never forget sitting on our couch with her boys while Fred and his son went to find out what had happened. Watching their pain as her death was confirmed. The reason for the crash was heartbreaking:

This is the story from the Prince George Citizen:

SMITHERS, B.C. (CP) – A single-engine plane carrying four persons crashed in northern B.C. Nov. 26 because the pilot misjudged the weight of a case of empty beer bottles and overloaded the craft, a coroner’s inquest ruled Monday.

The Cessna, owned by Smithers Air Services Ltd., crashed at Takla Lake, 130 kilometres north of Fort St. James, killing Horst Kratz, Lee Arnold and Sonia Biniowsky, all of Smithers.

Coroner Wilfred Carpenter and the five-member jury found that Emil Mesich, 52, the pilot and lone survivor, erroneously estimated the weight of a case of beer at four pounds when the actual weight was seven pounds.

Evidence showed 397 empty cases were picked up from a lake resort. The plane’s nose dipped shortly after take-off and the craft stalled and crashed.

The jury recommended that each charter flight be equipped with portable scales, that the centre of gravity for each flight be computed accurately and that sufficient cargo restraints be provided and used.

Unfortunately the jury’s recommendations were not followed on the 1982 flight and the few times I have flown into the northern bush, I have never been weighed, nor has my gear.

Planes are such fragile things. Skin stretched over a framework, over switches and valves and wiring as complicated and breakable as our own.

The people who fly these planes face tremendous pressure from their clients to get their passengers and freight into hard-to-reach places. Every takeoff and landing carries its own risks and many pilots have lost their lives because of it. Emil certainly did. As did, several years later, Jim Shorter, who was also a long time resident of the Driftwood Creek watershed. His wife, Eileen, still lives on the beautiful property between the Driftwood Creek bridge on the Telkwa Highroad and Malkow Lookout. We know so many who have died in small plane crashes, people who care deeply about the land they’re flying over, people who are dearly loved and much missed.

 

Harry Kruisselbrink photo

Indeed, it is often the dramatic terrain these planes traverse that gets them into difficultywho knows if Emil wanted to show off the beautiful passage that Driftwood Creek has carved on its way out of the Babines or if the hunters wanted to catch a glimpse of goats on the headwall in Silverking Basin, the place they like to frequent in the fallthe one that proved too high for Emil that day.

If he’d gone around through McKendrick Pass the flight might have been uneventful.

Gisela Mendel took us up to the crash site many years later, the bright yellow wreckage still clearly visible. You could still see where the trees were clipped as the plane tried to turn. It was so quiet there, painful to imagine the roar of the engine, the trees splintering, the wings tearing and the final impact. And then, because there was no fire, nor any survivors, the quiet returning as the broken branches settled, the hot metal cooled, the tick, tick, tick subsiding into the usual fall sounds: the trickle in the nearby creek, a nuthatch’s nasal squawk, a jay’s screech, perhaps some wind groaning through the sub-alpine fir. And just a few metres away, two men passing on the road into Silverking Basin.

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Harvey Mountain Trail – making connections

Sunday, Sept. 3, 2017

It’s impossible to stay indoors when the weather is like this – warm, bug-free and with the added pressure that you know it can’t last. So Lynn and I head up Harvey Mountain Trail to walk one of my favourite Babine Mountains loops. As we begin our climb, I think about how these trails start off steep, with no gentle warm up. For a few minutes the loudest sound is my heart pounding as it overcomes its initial surprise that I’m making such inconsiderate demands. Soon things settle down and I hear a creek on my right. It fades in and out of earshot as the trail switches back and forth and you never see it unless you go looking for it further up. I don’t know of any name for it, unless it’s the Harvey Creek Joe L’Orsa refers to in his history of the Babines.

The air has the heavy smell of September – vegetation turning into next spring’s compost. Brilliant clusters of bunchberry. The columbine gone to seed, scraggly daisies in the gravel.

We hear a woodpecker enjoying a Sunday brunch, golden-crowned kinglets at one sunny turn, a hawk screeches once, twice, and then falls silent. Lynn scares a ruffed grouse and her chicks out of the thimbleberries. We come to the first viewpoint and look back down the canyon toward a valley choked with fog. The morning flight from Vancouver circles, looking for an opening.

The packrat hotel

Rounding the corner of the next switchback, I catch of whiff of packrat. Always right here, at a rocky outcrop. And as you walk through the smell and beyond it along a straight, relatively level stretch of relief for your heart, you come to the remnants of Peavine Harvey’s cabin. When we first hiked this trail, you could step inside the cabin – now there’s a jumble of tumbled down boards, a few metal scraps, and fireweed poking through the debris.

The remnants of the cabin

This is where you can finally see the creek, but you have to go look for it. If you don’t make the switchback turn you’ll see a small trail leading over to what there is left of it this time of year.

Dry rock where the trail crosses it at the base of a steep cliff. Up above, the creek is a trickle, a little riff and gurgle before it disappears again. If you keep going along the base of the cliff, you’ll come across old evidence of the work Peavine put in over the years, but the main adit is a pile of rocks.

According to Joe’s history of the Babines, Peavine Harvey was already digging into the flank of this mountain as early as 1905. “The Pack Train claims were owned by C.G. ‘Peavine’ Harvey, Chas. (‘Charlie’) Barrett [Barrett Hat, Barrett Station all named in association with nearbyBarrett Lake, in turn named after Charles Barrett, early settler and c1900 owner of the Diamond D Ranch], and Jno. Charleston, and were what later became known as ‘The Harvey Mine’.” By 1909, he had excavated “41 feet of tunnel, four open cuts and a shaft 35’ deep.”

In 1914, Peavine moved his family to the land either Eli Fletcher or Peavine himself originally pre-empted. Joe writes, “Between 1915 and 1918, C. G. Harvey shipped approximately 25 tons of ore.” In 1919, a “new trail to the Harvey property, from the wagon road up Driftwood Creek, was constructed….On the Harvey Group, at that time owned by C. G. Harvey and W. J. Larkworthy, considerable work was done, including a shaft sunk to a depth of 40’.”

In the early days, I suspect it was pretty much all men and pack horses coming up this way. And the “new trail” Joe writes about was likely built with crosscut saws, pickaxes and shovels – it’s hard to imagine. Shipping ore? Pack horses or wagons? I remember Ralph Dieter telling us how he’d run/walk to town and back for the mail. It was really faster than horses, he said. Later mechanized activity turned this into a road and as you’re hiking towards the top, it goes straight up into the alpine where remnant tracks are still visible. I suspect these last tracks come from activity Joe reported for 1971-72. “Driftwood Mines cut a grid and did other work on Harvey Mountain. The project was then abandoned.” Peavine had died in 1945 and I never heard word that Gordon did any mining.

Before logging began in the 1950s (see Driftwood Creek Bush Mills), the trail was not the industrial corridor I thought it must have been from the amount of prospecting that was going on. Joe’s history refers to a letter his mother, Harriet, wrote after her return to the family home in 1964:

“Take for instance the Driftwood Creek road above Harveys’. Twenty-five years ago, this was probably the most beautiful forest road in the Valley, winding along the edge of Driftwood Creek and bordered by towering evergreens. “Sunny Point” was a tiny Paradise and a stopping place for many.”

Once on top of Harvey Mountain, the history all falls into place. Looking back and down, I can see, visible above the morning fog, the big hayfield just above our house, a hayfield that Eli Fletcher was cutting over one hundred years ago. I can see the route Gordon, Peavine and Katherine followed with Billy Kirtin into the canyon.* I can trace the creek all the way to its headwaters above the Joe L’Orsa cabin in Silverking Basin.

I can also see signs of activities that precede any of the settler community.  The rugged outcrops, dizzying goat descents, their dustbaths, their scat and a few scraps of goat hair caught in the vegetation. The crackling of the lichen the caribou preferred when they lived in these mountains. The horned larks flocking up before they leave.

We wander across, eat lunch looking down on Number Six Lake, and nap in the sunshine before we start the descent.

A creek trickles and bubbles down through scenic grottoes, the crackling lichens from up top giving way to mauve gentians, stalks of fireweed gone to seed, ratty little fleabanes, shabby monkshood. Brilliant hellebore. As we follow the creek we leave, for an hour, the Driftwood watershed. This creek drains into Lyon Creek, Ganokwa Creek, Canyon Creek. We circle around the mountain, see the town is now as clear and sunny as we’ve been all day. We walk down, back once again to Driftwood Creek. We’ve been out for six or seven hours and haven’t seen another person all day. Heaven.

*The Harveys show up many times in this blog: check out Gordon Harvey – tenacity and transience.

Silverking Basin

by Harry Kruisselbrink

Harry has lived in Smithers since soon after his family arrived in the Bulkley Valley in early 1951. He served on town council for many years and was a dedicated environmental activist and researcher. He is a wonderful photographer (the photos here are from his collection) and has helped record local history, working with Lynn Shervill on Smithers: From Swamp to Village and writing his own Smithers: A Railroad Town. He is also a great friend. Like many of us, he can’t help returning, year after year, to the beautiful Silverking Basin where Driftwood Creek begins its journey to the Pacific.

 

Harry and Juanita

By the late 1960s, Audrey and I had been to Silverking Basin quite a few times before we had the kids. Once we had them, it became a little harder. Leroy was born in 1966 and Juanita in 1969 (Charmaine was still four years down the road). It then occurred to us that we could actually take the kids into the basin and stay for more than just the day. The first time we did that was in July 1970. Leroy was a three-year-old getting close to four. Juanita was a year-and-a-half old.

When my fellow CN employ Robbie Robinson found out what we were thinking, he volunteered to drive us into the basin with his 4-wheel drive. He also offered to pick us up later on in the week. Well, that was an offer we obviously could not refuse! So on a nice summer Monday morning, Robbie drove us into the basin. In those days driving a vehicle into the basin was allowed since the Babines were not even a Recreation Area. The road was muddy and bouncy but we made it into the basin in one piece.  Robbie said he’d pick us up again sometime on Friday. And so we moved into the cookhouse that was still habitable in those days. The cabin was built in the 1920s and was formally named the LaMarr cabin – after the beautiful and famous movie star Hedy LaMarr of the early 1900s.

Audrey, Leroy and Juanita at the cookhouse. 1971.

 

It turned out to be a beautiful week although that is not a word that we could use to describe ourselves. We agreed that Audrey wouldn’t fuss with her hair and I wouldn’t shave. All of us wore old clothes. So you can imagine that we were a rather forlorn looking bunch by the end of the week.

Everything worked out very well although Audrey was not happy about the mice that roamed through the cookhouse at will especially at night. The floor was of two-inch lumber and, over the years, the knots had dropped out of the knotholes and they had become just plain holes allowing easy access for the mice. The kids slept on the bunk at the back of the cookhouse but Audrey and I had to sleep on the floor. This meant that at night we could feel and hear the nice running over our sleeping bags. Not a situation to Audrey’s liking.

 

Lynn Shervill in Silverking – the bunkhouse and the foreman’s cabin. 1978.

We had considered moving into the big bunkhouse next door but seeing all of the mouse droppings on the floor and the even easier access the mice had there, we dropped that idea. For me, it wasn’t so bad. My family lived for sometime in a decrepit old log house in Barrett Lake, a haven for mice, and we discovered there that mice will run over you at the slightest opportunity but they will not touch the face of a living human being. I told Audrey this but she was not convinced nor impressed! The solution to the problem lay in the old garbage dump in the bush just behind the cookhouse. There were dozens of old rusty tin cans laying around with lids just the right size to cover the knotholes. In the bunkhouse, we found a pair of pliers, some rusty nails and a hammer. By the end of the second day, we had closed all of the knotholes and were now looking forward to a good night’s rest. We had just barely gone to sleep when we were awakened by the sound of “thumps in the night”. You could hear, quite loudly, metallic sounding thumps. Thump, a bit of silence and then thump again. Then the process repeated itself several times. Soon we were hearing thumps in three or four places on the cabin floor. It didn’t take us long to discover the source of the thumps. It was the mice trying to come up through the knotholes. You could practically hear them thinking, “I can’t figure this out, I’ve been coming through this knothole for years! What is happening here? Let me try it again!”  Thump…..! It was really quite funny but also very effective in keeping the mice out – and Audrey was happy.

 

Fortunat L’Orsa 1906 – 1953

We had a truly wonderful time. We hiked over Hyland Pass into Hyland Basin, we paid a visit to Fortunat L’Orsa’s grave and planted some flowers around it, we checked out the old mining adits, etc. The weather was great all week and we got totally relaxed though rather scruffy looking. So relaxed, in fact, that one day, while I was taking a picture of my crew, little Leroy suddenly blurted out, “Dad, there’s a man….!” In those days hardly anyone came into the basin so our intruder caught us completely off guard. It turned out to be Forbes Lee who was the Secretary-Treasurer of School District 54. We had not met before but as a result of that meeting we became good friends. Forbes explained that he tried to be as obtrusive as possible so as not to scare us but Leroy caught him in the act! He was the only person we saw for the entire five days!

True to his word, Robbie picked us up on Friday afternoon and drove us back home. When we arrived in town, it seemed to us that everyone was running around in such a hurry. We had become so relaxed that even the citizens of laid-back Smithers seemed to be in a perpetual hurry!

The following year, Joe L’Orsa drove us into Silverking again for, by now, we were totally hooked on the basin. We’ve been coming back there many, many times over the years always spending five days there. Even our grandchildren are now hooked on this beautiful basin. It has added a very meaningful dimension to our lives.

Lynn and Sheila at the Joe L’Orsa cabin with Harry. 2015.

Harry Kruisselbrink and Joe L’Orsa (more on him later) were two of the most important people in our introduction to the community and the Babine Mountains. Harry likes to tell of story of how he and Joe decided to befriend Lynn when he first arrived to work at the Interior News in 1976 because he wore hiking boots. Soon after, they took him into the mountains. And Lynn took me …

McCabe Trail

Three routes from Driftwood Road give access to Harvey Mountain: Lyons Creek, Harvey Mountain and the McCabe trails.

I first set foot on the McCabe trail in 1977 or 1978, can’t quite remember which. Joe L’Orsa took a group of us (including Walt Taylor, Mike Morrell and his son Tomas) up the Lyons Creek trail to the lake just above its headwaters where some of us swam. We then dropped down on what is now called the Blix trail until a tiny path emerged out of a wet meadow full of flowers. Mike and his son went right to follow the McCabe trail to its summit above the Little Joe lakes; the rest of us turned left to follow the trail down to Sunny Point.

This was not yet a park and there were no signs signaling trail heads or route distances. But we had Joe who grew up travelling in these mountains with his family. At the hike’s beginning, he stopped just below the Lyons Creek trail entrance to show us where the trail originally began. It used to be called the Gale & Lifton trail and was, he wrote in his unpublished A History of the Babine Mountains Recreation Area, “already considered an old trail by 1921. It may have followed an ancient Indian entry route, possibly into the marmot ground near Ganokwa Basin.”

We passed the old sawmill site, the remnants of which are still visible, and struggled up the hill to the long central stretch where the climb abates for a few kilometres. The trail was often muddy and not always clear. Joe was very patient as we struggled towards treeline. Hiking was still new to me and I suffered from the delusion that if you sweated and struggled up steep inclines swatting mosquitoes, you weren’t having fun.

Once in the alpine, we followed the trail around to its junction with the route leading over Padella Pass and turned left to follow the creek up to the lake we call Number Six Lake (if you look down from Harvey Mountain you can see a six or a nine clearly drawn by the lighter sediments on the lake bottom). The shintangle almost obliterated the trail up the creek, and the route down was equally sketchy. It was hard at the time to believe Joe’s stories of taking horses down there. It’s still hard.

Once on the McCabe trail, we had a pleasant walk out though I don’t remember much of that specific trip. When I think about how many times we’ve walked it since, the years blur together. We often take visitors up to a lookout point where you can see across into Silverking and catch a glimpse of the cabin there. The dramatic drop is stunning and we almost always see goats.

According to Joe’s research, the trail was built in 1919:

The famous McCabe trail was constructed, from the wagon road below Sunny Point, along the backside of Harvey Mountain, to the Copper Lakes area. This trail was built – or caused to be built – by Red McCabe, on a trail grant under the provision of the Mines Development Act.

Red McCabe didn’t get his name from the colour of his hair: he was the president of the local chapter of the old Socialist Party of Canada and prospected with two other party members – Pat McPhee and Jim Carson.

McPhee had been prospecting in the area for at least fifteen years by then. Joe describes a trip taken in 1905:

Provincial Mineralogist W. F. Robertson makes a major trip from Quesnel to Hazelton. From a camp at the Hudson Bay Ranch in Driftwood, he visits the Babine Range, with Pat McPhee as a guide. Apparently they went up what is now the Lyons Creek Trail and visited the … claims on what is now known as Harvey Mountain.

Jim Carson had a camp just above the bridged creek that crosses the trail below its opening into the boggy meadows where the Blix trail takes off.  Joe showed us the remnants of his camp as we walked out. The only evidence now is a wire scar left in a big spruce tree where he pitched his tent. (Carson Basin, a long gentle slope on the north flank of Pyramid Mountain, is also named for him. If you poke around up there, you’ll find lots of old adits.) I’ve been told Axel Elmsted, another longtime Babine Mountains prospector,  used to call the mountain Bolshevik Hill because of the three men’s political affiliations.

After crossing several brushy slide areas, the trail further down traverses a big rock slide that pre-dates its original construction. If you stand on it and look down, you’ll see just below another path crosses the rock – this is the trail that leads down to the spot on Driftwood Creek where the engineers who surveyed the trail (hence it’s pleasant grade) camped. More on that another day.

Tony L’Orsa, Joe’s older brother, still remembers when the McCabe trail was wide enough to be the wagon road instead of the narrow path it is today. There used to be a cabin not far from Sunny Point which was burned down by the forest service, he said. Later exploration tore up the original trail’s beginnings, but it remains one of the most scenic routes into the Babines and, on its lower reaches, provides splendid views across the upper Driftwood watershed.

A Review of the Driftwood Canyon Fossil Beds

by Tony L’Orsa*

Sheila and Lynn are celebrating having lived beside the Driftwood Canyon fossil beds for more than forty years and I have been asked to present a little of our current understanding of some of the stories that the fossils tell us. A few million years ago, the spot where they are living would have been beside or in a lake, rather than beside a creek.

The Driftwood Canyon fossil beds are a remarkable natural library. The pages of this library are thin layers of sediments that were deposited annually and upon which were imprinted the records of a few of the happenings at that place and time. That place was a freshwater lake and the time was about 51.77 million years ago, during the Eocene Epoch on the geological time scale. The age was obtained from uranium-lead dating of the mineral zircon found in a layer of volcanic ash. The exceptionally well preserved fossils here offer us a few glimpses into a little-known part of Earth’s history.

Figure 1: Pages of history in the Driftwood fossil beds. The rocks shown above represent thin layers of mud, fine-grained silt, and local bands of volcanic ash that settled on the ancient lake bottom now exposed at Driftwood Canyon.
Image by A. L’Orsa.

The formation of the ancient lake now exposed by Driftwood Canyon approximately coincided with the onset of basaltic volcanic activity in this area about 51 million years ago. In this general area, there is some evidence that basaltic flows locally blocked river valleys and formed lakes. Basaltic mountains, such as China Nose Mountain near Houston, are remnants of some of these volcanic events and have their own stories to tell. Driftwood represents the most northern of dozens of fossil-bearing lake and swamp exposures of similar age that have been discovered southeasterly from here, through the Cariboo (Horsefly), Kamloops (McAbee), Falkland, Princeton and down to Republic, Washington. This discontinuous and time-restricted accumulation of fresh-water sediments, with many fossils in common, represents fragments of a relatively warm upland ecosystem, now collectively referred to by researchers as the “Okanagan Highlands” (including Driftwood). In addition, there are extensive lake deposits of similar age in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, which also contain many superb fossils.

The early Eocene was an interesting time in Earth’s history. Earth was experiencing one of its several “greenhouse” climatic events. The climate was much warmer and wetter, and there was probably no permanent ice at the poles. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are estimated to have been much higher than they are today.  Average temperatures were apparently a little warmer than in southern coastal British Columbia at present. Fossils of palms and members of the walnut family indicate an even warmer climate at lower elevations. Many of the trees listed below also grew in the High Arctic at this time, where exceptionally well-preserved fossil forests have been discovered, as well as fossils of alligators, turtles and many mammals. The “greenhouse” conditions peaked about 50 million years ago and then the temperature started to decline. By the end of the Eocene Epoch, Earth was rapidly cooling down to the “icehouse” conditions that we consider “normal” today.

Plant fossils that have been reported from Driftwood Canyon include alder, birch, cypress, elm, false larch (Pseudolarix), ferns (especially the floating fern, Azolla), fir, ginkgo, hemlock, oak, pines (note Pinus driftwoodensis), redwoods (Metasequoia and Sequoia), sassafras and spruce. Some of these tree groups still grow in the area, but many others now only grow naturally in warmer and moister climates in Asia (e.g. dawn redwood, false larch and ginkgo) or farther south in North America (e.g. oaks and redwoods).

Two examples of fossil tree leaves from Driftwood Canyon are pictured below, followed by pictures of their nearest living relatives. These pictures help to remind us that these fossils, although they may now appear rather dull, were once live, green and vibrant plants living in a lush lakeside forest.

Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia sp.).
Photo by Ken Pugh.

Dawn redwoods were common in western North America in the Eocene, but gradually became extinct, or so it was thought. In the mid-1940s, a Chinese forester found a few “living fossil” dawn redwoods in a forest in southwestern China, apparently on the verge of extinction. Seeds and seedlings were collected and now these trees can be seen in gardens and parks around the world, including in southern British Columbia.

 

The only known surviving dawn redwood species (Metasequoia glyptostroboides).
Image: Public Domain.

Ginkgos are another easily identified, but rarely found, fossil at Driftwood Canyon. They represent a “living fossil” that can be traced back more than 200 million years. Ginkgos are locally common in the sandstones of the Skeena Group that probably directly underlie the Driftwood Canyon fossil beds and outcrop in places downstream along Driftwood Creek. Although these trees had an almost worldwide distribution some 200 million years ago, for many years they too were thought to have been extinct in the wild, but they had been preserved in temple gardens and other cultivated places in the Orient. Recently they too have been found growing wild in a few Chinese forests. Extracts from the leaves have long been used in Chinese medicine.

One half of the leaf below can be seen at the Bulkley Valley Museum in Smithers. The other part is in a private collection.

Ginkgo adiantoides. Identified by Glenn Rouse, UBC. Scale in millimetres.
Image by A. L’Orsa.

 

The last known surviving ginkgo species (Ginkgo biloba). This young tree is growing in Halifax.
Image by Judi L’Orsa.

 

The scientist who has been at the center of plant fossil research at Driftwood Canyon in recent years is David  Greenwood, a specialist in plant fossils at Brandon University. He is the leader of the Okanagan Highlands Project. For more information on his work, click here for his website.

Insects reported from Driftwood Canyon include lacewings (note Pseudochrysopa harveyi, named in honour of Gordon Harvey by Bruce Archibald), March flies, crane flies, snakeflies, mosquitos, water striders, bees, wasps, gnats, earwigs, ants and termites. Some of these species are only found in warmer climates today. Bruce Archibald, Simon Fraser University, has recently been studying the insects from Driftwood Canyon and other Eocene sites. His website is here.

March fly Plecia (?) from Driftwood, private collection.
Photo by Ken Pugh.

 

Fish fossils found at Driftwood Canyon include the important “dawn salmon” Eosalmo driftwoodensis first described by Mark Wilson, who teaches at the University of Alberta. It is the oldest known fossil member of the salmon family. The dawn salmon has since been identified at a few other Eocene sites in British Columbia and at Republic, Washington. Other fish fossils found at Driftwood Canyon include suckers (Amyzon) and members of the bowfin, mooneye and trout-perch families.

Mark Wilson has not only worked on the fishes at Driftwood and other Eocene and older fossil localities, he has studied Eocene insects and he has studied the environments of deposition in Eocene lakes. To visit Mark Wilson’s website, click here.

Eosalmo driftwoodensis. Identified by Mark Wilson, University of Alberta.
Bulkley Valley Museum collection.
Image by A. L’Orsa.

Bird fossils are very rarely found, but an important discovery was made in 1968 by Patricia Pedley who split a piece of shale and found a fossil bird of the “rollers” family (Coraciidae; Primobucco). These birds have been found at other Eocene localities, especially in the Green River shales of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. They are extinct in the Americas, but members of this family still exist in warmer parts of the Old World. Most of the living species are in Africa.

Fragmentary fossils of a member of the hedgehog family and a tapir have recently been described by Jaelyn Eberle and others, and represent the only mammal fossils reported from Driftwood Canyon to date. Click here for a review of the article.

Driftwood Canyon Provincial Park was established in January 1967, after pioneer Driftwood farmer, Gordon Harvey, donated 14 ha of his farm to the British Columbia Government, which added 9 ha of Crown Land, to cover the key outcrops of Eocene fossils exposed by Driftwood Creek. This is a Class A park and removing fossils from the park without a permit is contrary to the Park Act. However, it was Gordon Harvey’s wish and understanding that fossil collecting by the public would continue, and there were no serious attempts to enforce the rules until recently. We have to follow the rules, but there may be a way to permit public collecting provided that important fossils are recognized and preserved for study. A good solution to this problem has been developed in Republic, Washington, at the Stonerose Interpretive Center (http://stonerosefossil.org/fossilhunting/visitors-information/) where limited supervised collecting is allowed and school children are encouraged.

Fossil discoveries at Driftwood and other places continue to make important contributions to our understanding of the development of life on Earth. Now, with the Earth possibly on track for a change back to a greenhouse climate, fossils can help us understand probable responses of plant and animal communities to that projected change. There is more work to be done and a few rocks are eroding off the cliffs every year, providing easy access to new samples. However, with very limited budgets and other interesting fossil sites calling for their attention, institution-based scientists can only do so much here. Fossils left weathering on the ground are not contributing to science.  Supervised fossil collecting by hobbyists and students might not only inspire potential new scientists, but might well bring us the next important discovery.

 

Books of Interest

Ludvigsen, Rolf, editor, 1996. Life in stone: a natural history of British Columbia’s fossils: UBC Press, 310 pages.

Tidwell, William D., 1998. Common fossil plants of western North America, 2nd edition: Smithsonian Institution Press, 299 pages.

 

*Tony is the elder son of Fortunat and Harriet L’Orsa who moved to Smithers in 1935. Both he and his younger brother, Joe, were born in Smithers. Tony is a geologist and has long had a special interest in the fossil beds found at Driftwood Canyon Provincial Park. Thanks for this wonderful article, Tony.

What’s blooming in Driftwood Canyon?

When we swat away the mosquitoes to climb into the summer alpine, we take a good look at what’s quite literally under our noses (easy to do as you climb because you’re moving slowly and your nose is often close to the ground), the micro-view matches the expansive mountain vistas. Patches of moss campion, inkypot gentians, tiny potentilla, anemones, the mosses, the blooming heather, meltwater tumbling down through picturesque grottos streaked orange with xanthoria to form pools of astonishing clarity, well, why would anyone bother planting tulips or petunias? And this is early in the season, before the avalanche slopes and lower meadows are knee-deep in valerian, hellebore, artemesia, lupines, and I know I’m forgetting many others.

 

 

Even at lower elevations, where we do plant tulips and petunias, the flora is sumptuous – Lynn valiantly mows the grass to keep back the press of fireweed, cow’s parsnip, young aspens, and roses that form a wall of vegetation – this time of year filled with the squawks, screeches and chirps of fledglings, soon to be gone either up high, further into the bush or maybe even back south. Our trail up out of the canyon needs regular attention to keep back the thimbleberry, snowberry, roses and young maple shrubs joining forces with the nettles, meadow rue, chocolate lilies, false Solomon’s-seal, columbine, twisted stalk, star-flowered Solomon’s-seal that all spring up new every single year. An astonishing fecundity.

I wrote a series of sonnets that were gathered in a chapbook Leaf Press published last spring- it has an impossible name – The Bathymetry of Lax Kwaxl – and arose from a kayak trip we made to the Melville-Dundas group of islands off the northwest coast a few years ago – Lax Kwaxl is the Tsimshian name for the islands. This is the first sonnet in the collection.

My curtains close against the winter darkness
scuttling through stripped down trees and shrivelled asters.
Summer is filed in photographs, in salmon
fillets and halibut buried in the deep freeze.
We struggle to remember willows frothing
with wind, with leaves and yellow warblers. The garden
green with cabbages and garlic scapes unfurling.
Grizzlies fat with sockeye, salal and huckleberries,
first children of a succulent world. Our kayaks
hang in the shed above a rolled up pea fence
and empty flower pots. The battered hulls tell stories
of rasping barnacles and the rumble of bull kelp
under the keel. Outside, the tide of snow
eats up the last light of fallen leaves.

 

It all happens so fast.  And is over so soon. On a walk up the road, I stopped to take stock, to see what flora is here, right now, in Driftwood Canyon:

  • cow parsnip just beginning
  • more roses than we’ve ever seen before, but they’re fading fast
  • sitka burnet
  • arnica
  • geraniums – sticky and cranesbill
  • cut-leaf anemone or Anemone multifida
  • columbine
  • paintbrush
  • Jacobs ladder (almost done)
  • clover
  • large-leafed avens
  • a few fireweed swelling
  • bedstraw – its red roots a good dye
  • the nasty hawkweed – such a lovely yellow
  • buttercups
  • daisies
  • peavine and vetch
  • alfalfa
  • the bear berries (twin berries) dangle black from their red bracts – the birds (and bears, I guess) love them
  • Saskatoon berries are forming
  • raspberries in flower
  • currants and gooseberries
  • wild strawberries ripening – hot and sweet
  • soapberries beginning
  • snowberries still hiding, waiting until September to surprise us

 

Leaf miner has returned – the wonderful aspen green is turning silver yet again. And the cottonwood seeds are floating through the air like a lazy snowfall, blowing in the open door, snagging on pots, in the woodshed, reminding the grass that winter is not far off. But for the moment, oh, the wonder of it!

 

 

 

Driftwood Creek – the wellspring of our lives

Riding my bike down Driftwood Road. Riding into a tunnel of sensation, the gravel rattling my tires, flickers erupting from the ditches, the creek a muffled roar on my left. Sweet with the smell and sight of the big white plumes of flowering false Solomon’s-seal. And the roses! There has never been such a year for roses. I ride into a wind, heavy with roses. Past a thicket of elderberry bushes, a copse of cottonwoods, across the bridge. Leaving the creek and climbing out of the canyon into the expanse of (I think) an alluvial fan formed when the glaciers receded into the remnant snowfields of the Babines leaving an outwash of the gravel underlying the fields beside the Driftwood school and Glenwood Hall at the Telkwa Highroad.

I turn to ride down the highroad to Glentanna—a ribbon through a pastoral landscape—and the rising wind carries new smells. First horses as I pass Eileen Shorter’s farm, the L’Orsas’, then cows in the Nageli’s fields and more horses up around the corner past the Northern Wildlife Shelter. The Bruhjells’—cattle ranchers from the early days—and then hay, the cutting just beginning, the air thick with its fragrance. Down through the pungent odor of dairy farms—Ewalds’, Brandsmas’—as I make the turn, not up Snake Road past Veenstras’ toward Sturzeneggers’, but left and down once again towards the creek. It is only then the wind lets up and I coast down to the driveway that leads to Tristan and Damien Jones’ place on the edge of the steep drop that gives Snake Road its name.

They bought the land from the Sturzeneggers in August 2001, started building the next spring and moved into their new home in November, 2002.

Brent Patriquin photo

Tristan tells the story:

“We came here to visit my aunt and uncle (Peter White). We came in November and it was pouring rain. The next morning the clouds parted and there was snow on the peaks. He started driving us around the valley; I looked at Damian and said, I could live here.”

The house they built shows some of the influences of Tristan’s Banff connections—she grew up in what she calls the Whyte bubble—the Whytes are an old Banff family deeply connected to the park’s mountain culture. She and Damian ran a guest lodge in Canmore and both wanted out of the hospitality business, into a life that offered Damian more opportunities for creativity.

“It took us four years to sell our place—Uncle Pete was our land agent. The month we closed the sale of our guest lodge, this place came up for sale.”

Tristan figures they passed some kind of test because they were grilled closely about their plans for the place before the Sturzeneggers agreed to sell. Peter and Paul, the brothers, spent a lot of time on the property fishing both on the river and the creek, and were pretty attached to it.

As well as wanting to snowshoe and hike on their property, Tristan and Damian hoped to get right off the grid. Leroy Taylor (who owns land on the other side of Driftwood Creek as well as 40 acres below their place down to the confluence) talked them out of early plans to build a micro-power project on the creek because it tends to wash out significant sections every few years. Instead they’ve installed solar panels, built a root cellar, greenhouse and planted a big garden. Along with Damian’s parents who live right next door, they are about 80 per cent there in terms of self-sufficiency, Tristan says.

And they’ve made room in their busy lives for creativity: Damian’s Harvest Designs creates beautiful furniture out of re-purposed wood, he builds guitars for Rayco Resophonics and plays guitar with The Train Wrecks.

Tristan loves the solitude as well as the convenience of being just 16 km from town.

“We live on a bear highway. There’s an ephemeral creek and when it dries up the bears have to go down to Driftwood Creek to get water and we see them coming through. My brother was sleeping in our cabin and spent an hour one morning watching a bear eating Saskatoons outside the window. We see them eating dandelions, tearing up anthills. One day we watched a mom introduce her cubs to an anthill—they’d jump in and then jump back—it was hilarious.”

And the hiking is amazing.  “Last summer I hiked every Friday and all summer we saw four other hikers—the people from Banff and Canmore don’t believe us when we tell them.”

Everywhere I walk with Tristan today, we see the iconic view of Hudson Bay Mountain and we hear Driftwood Creek.

“I love that I can hike up to the headwaters of the creek that runs past our home, that waters our garden —it’s the wellspring of our lives here.”