Engineer’s Trail

I think it was Gisela Mendel who first took us down Engineer’s Trail – the trail that angles down from the McCabe Trail  to a spot where the engineers camped beside Driftwood Creek the summer in 1919 when they were building the trail. You can find the entrance by hiking the McCabe Trail as far as the big rock slide, then backing up just a few metres. Or you can scramble a few metres down the rock slide to find the trail below.

It’s not much of a trail really. On the first couple of descents we trimmed back a few small sub-alpine firs and clipped the alders that close in on the lower parts. Ann and Alan Pickard helped us, Renee Granlin too.

Once you emerge at creek level, the trail disappears into soft moss and small waterways that often don’t freeze all winter – they seem to be the result of some extensive beaver activity a few years back and natural springs like the ones that cross the Silverking Trail above Danny Moore bridge.

You have to make your way across the creek to find the camp itself and there’s not much left of it – a round of wood where a wall tent might have been anchored, a few rusting vessels of indeterminate function. Almost one hundred years ago now – it’s likely others used it over the years for there to be anything left of it at all.

One November, we walked down there with our boys – teenagers at the time. Very little snow and a heavy frost created the most wonderful illusion. It was a special day and resulted in a poem, one of the ones included in the weather from the west.


one step down
from the named trail

we trace a lost descent
its perfect grade
tangled in alder
huge tracks
no dog wanders here    alone
where wolfish breath
clouds the glittering air
hot paws melt through
to thrifty November earth
hoarding its heat
beneath a dusting of snow
after a season of rocks

we follow the tracks
and the earth
to water
burrowing in its own cleft
towards the center
tricked by beavers
and winter into extravagance

ice floods the trees
a window to the earth
spread naked and surprised below
bubbles stilled




my boys slide on their bellies
and spin
their whoops shattering
the silence of indrawn breath

wolf tracks measure the beaver lodge

they too mark the surface
they too sing their wildness
into the ringing winter air

Driftwood spirits

Joe L’Orsa – Harry Kruisselbrink photo

Joe L’Orsa was one of the first people who befriended Lynn and subsequently me when we moved here. He lived with his family in the house his parents built on the Telkwa-Moricetown Highroad in the 1940s; his mother Harriet lived in a smaller house she had had built nearby in the late sixties. I still have mint from her garden – a hardy variety that finds itself a place among the vegetables every year.

Since Harriet died at age 90 in 1987, her house has been rented out to a variety of people – single men and women, couples, young families – many of whom had strange encounters there. But even while Harriet was alive, there was an unsettling sense about the place.

Sherry Wertz remembers that Harriet lived on her own, managing all the tasks of daily living. “She was somewhere in her eighties at the time and she was able to take care of herself and so on, but she would often talk to people we couldn’t see. Maybe her sister or others. She’d scold people who didn’t use the doors like other people did to come inside the house. We’d just go along with her and say hello to her friends. Aside from that, she was fine.”

Sita Then, who lived there after Harriet died, wrote:

Joe told me that his farm was on “a thin spot”, a magnetic line, a place where our plane of existence and another could be crossed.  He explained to me that his mother was always surrounded by people from this other plane and that she treated them as if they were real. The Earth had a grid of magnetic lines, he said, and Smithers, his home and the Babine Mountains were all directly on this one.

The magnetic grid theory was one Joe shared with many people. But the stories around Harriet’s house are more specific. Some tenants found that objects seem to get moved around; the teapot left on the table would be found in another room; a doll would appear that didn’t belong to any of the children in the house. Others talked about hearing children playing outside. One fellow who pooh-poohed the stories, reportedly left after spending a single night there. Another visitor, his sister reported, woke up “absolutely terrified.

Joe’s brother Tony, who lived in the house with his mother for a time, dismisses the stories. I’m ambivalent. I haven’t experienced anything to make me believe in ghosts or thin spaces between planes of existence, but people I respect seem to have a sense for such things. And when I asked for stories about Harriet’s house, I got a bit of a surprise. Both Sherry and Sita have never spoken to each other about what they experienced, but their stories bear a remarkable resemblance. And each one had a witness.

Here’s what Sherry said happened when she and her daughter spent a night with Harriet:

It was somewhere in December – it was cold and wintery and there was snow on the ground. Megan and I went to bed in the spare bedroom.  Somewhere between two and three a.m., I heard a lot of noise, men talking, and some banging around. I got up and went to Harriet’s room because she did sleepwalk sometimes and I was worried she might have gone outside in the cold. But she was there, asleep in her room.

It was quite loud and seemed like it was just outside the kitchen window. It sounded like someone was loading heavy metal objects or something. I turned on the outside lights, but there was no one there. The noise had also awakened Megan – in her toddler way she asked me what the noise was and was someone here?

Here’s what Sita wrote:

It was winter, and the snowy afternoon had continued into the evening, but by bed time the sky had cleared, the snow had stopped, and the temperature had fallen considerably.  The brightness of the moon on the L’Orsa fields shone through the generous windows of Harriet’s old house illuminating our squat furniture and casting deep shadows all around.  Sound tends to travel well on nights like that, as we noticed when both Ron and I woke to noises both loud and close.  Even with the atmospheric mood taken into account, the sounds were simply too close and too loud to be anywhere but in the parking area around the back of our house.  Without even discussing it, we both launched out of bed to see what the heck.

Straight to the back door we went, both of us stopping with our noses up to the glass, searching the crystal blue night for what sounded like two men talking to each other and unloading empty metal milk containers like the old fashioned ones from a dairy.  We were sure that it was the sound of these empty containers rolling across a truck’s flat deck and then onto the ground. But not how it would have sounded if they fell on snowy ground. And outside our door there was at least a foot of brand new sparkling snow.

But now we heard nothing, just our own breathing as we stood peering out through the glass.

Still without a word we bolted back to the living room to look out those windows to help us make sense of the noises we had heard. Seeing no trace of truck or men, we looked for tire tracks or human tracks. But all the moon showed us was the flawless skin of untracked snow.  No deep blue shadows of tire marks, no clumsy human footprints to break up the perfection that was the landscape of that night.

Uneasy, we vowed that in the morning, we would go over to Joe’s to see if he’d heard anything or was up to some late night milk container rolling.  In the morning, we skipped coffee and put on our gear to see what we could see. We found exactly what we had seen from the windows the night before, a landscape of perfect, untrammelled snow.

We shovelled out the truck and returned to our warm kitchen for breakfast.  I called Joe’s house.  I asked him if he’d heard what we had, or if he’d had some nocturnal projects on the go. He hadn’t.  So we were left with a few options: was it uncommonly audible sound traveling from far away, had we both dreamt the same dream and awakened at the same time, or was it the past speaking to us?

It would have been easy for us to go over to the Nageli’s dairy farm further down the road and ask them what sort of mischief they were up to the night before. Maybe we would have found our answer there. But maybe we wanted the mystery of “the thin spot”.  Maybe we wanted to affirm the crowd of spirit visitors that kept Harriet company every day of her life in the Bulkley Valley. Maybe we wanted to be part of the great unknown of magnetic lines connecting the places we loved.  Maybe we too had crossed over to another plane and startled some other people awake with our industry and chatter. After all, who doesn’t want to be a ghost?

Neither woman felt threatened by the sound. “It wasn’t scary,” Sherry said. “It was just as if I had tapped into someone else’s life. Later I thought about Harriet’s visitors and I thought it could be an overlap of some kind – some dimensional thing.”

Over the years a couple of cleansing ceremonies were done and reports indicate there haven’t been any incidents for many years. Or at least none people are talking about. But rumour has it there may be spirits hanging around Glenwood Hall and Driftwood Schoolhouse…just think of all those weddings and funerals…






October high water

Tuesday morning, I was sitting in my office listening to the rain pound the roof. It had been going on long and hard enough to make me nervous. Then, mid-morning, it started snowing. Huge clumps of wet snow.

Better than rain, I thought, until I saw the way the silly trees that hadn’t dropped their leaves were drooping under the weight. Branches breaking.

Two and a half inches of snow later, it started to rain again. Really rain. I heard rumbles of rocks slipping and sliding somewhere out there. Maybe a tree dropping a limb, or falling.  The creek roaring.

I couldn’t help myself, and threw on my rain gear, opened my umbrella and went out to take a look. Shook wet snow as best I could off the larch, off the mountain ash. Hauled broken willow branches off the driveway. Went over to the creek and watched the muddy water swirling like it was spring.

Bruce McGonigal, who worked for many years with water management in Smithers and still keeps careful track of what’s happening with our creeks and rivers, sent out this report:

Wet and then more wet. And then yet more.

In case you were wondering…….yesterday we were overwhelmed by some rather substantial rain. And those conglomerate snow flakes…big enough to bring down a goose.

I did a visit to Environment Canada’s met. site for Smithers Airport this morning….

69.4 mm recorded over the 24 hour period for October 24th. Previous record rainfall was recorded on same day in 1966 at 24.1 mm.

There you go, in case you were wondering – Smithers area smashed the previous rain fall record in a rather substantial way.

Today, the sun is shining and the snow is melting. The creek is settling down. Rumour has it, though, that there’s fog down in the valley.

Ben Nelson – the Cataline of the Babines

Thanks to Lynn Shervill for writing this piece and to the BV Museum for the older photos.


In the Winter 2014 issue of Mining Exploration Magazine local mining historian Tony L’Orsa mentions some of the colorful characters who scoured the Babine Mountains east of Smithers for viable ore deposits, men like Jack Mackendrick, Joe ‘Kicker’ Kelly, Peavine Harvey, Axel Elmsted and J.J. Herman.

Working conditions for these men, some of whom worked through the winter on their claims, must have been dreadful, not to mention the rigours of accessing those claims via horseback or on snowshoes. One of those prospectors, Martin Cain, actually died when he got lost in a snowstorm while trying to get to a claim near the Little Joe Lakes and another died in a blasting incident at the Cronin mine.

The challenges that faced those men were somewhat relieved by a man who actually lived on Driftwood Creek at the site of what is now known as the Silverking Ranch.

Ben Nelson at his cabin on Driftwood Creek (Photo courtesy Bulkley Valley Museum).

J.J. Ben Nelson, Danish by birth, emigrated to the Bulkley Valley from the United States where it is thought he worked for the US Army as a horse wrangler. The date of his arrival is unknown but the Bulkley Valley Museum has a photo of his pack train in Smithers circa 1914.

Nelson worked as a prospector but was best known as a horse packer, supplying all of the mining camps in the Babines with food, tools and building materials. His pack trains were also used to bring ore down from the various Babine mines to the rail line.  According to the late Joe L’Orsa’s history of the Babine Mountains, Nelson was also responsible for naming Lagopus Mountain and Valhalla Basin.

That same history also records the fact Nelson, along with fellow prospector Ralph Dieter and a policeman, brought Martin Cain’s body out of the mountains by horseback. That was in 1938.

Ralph Dieter, circa 1983

The next summer Nelson, along with Ralph Dieter and fellow prospector Joe Murray set off on a journey from which only two of them would return. Joe L’Orsa told that story in an Interior News article from 1989.

[They] left Driftwood with a string of packhorses following a lead that gold had been found near Chuckachida Lake in the headwaters of the Stikine River many years before. The route lay up the old Telegraph Trail from Hazelton to Blackwater Lake, through the famous Groundhog Range, across the Skeena River at Jackson Flats and north to Table Mountain.

They finally stopped [at what might have been] the Spatsizi River. Ben Nelson camped here and Joe Murray and Ralph Dieter returned to Smithers for supplies. Murray went back with … Gus Hildebrandt, returning afterwards to bring the horses [home].

Nelson spent the winter in Hildebrandt’s cabin in the Groundhog, then started out again in March pulling a sleigh carrying about 250 pounds of supplies, mostly mining steel. On April 12 he met P.M. Moncton, a surveyor who was involved with the proposed Alaska Highway, and Ed Borders, a young man who was hiking from Alaska, at the headwaters of the Spatsizi River. They camped together and had a long talk.

Ben asked Borders, who was headed for Hazelton, to send a message to Joe Murray asking for a plane to meet him at Chuckachida Lake around May 1. He then headed down the Spatsizi River with a map drawn by Moncton who knew the country and explained the best way to get to Chuckachida Lake and where the Stikine River should be crossed.

On April 31 Caribou Hide Indians found a note on the door at Hyland Post, abandoned at the time. It said that Ben Nelson had lost everything—provisions, clothing, even his guns—when his raft capsized on the Spatsizi River.

The Caribou Hide people did not find Ben, but did see his tracks at Sanabar Creek, only about 30 miles from Chuckachida Lake and the Toodoggone area.

When Joe Murray flew in to meet his partner he found no trace.

Subsequent searching by the provincial police and others failed to find the missing man and a mystery was born.

Only a few years ago [from 1989] Ralph Dieter was approached by a Native Indian man who told him that many years before, he and his father had met Ben Nelson. They gave him some food and gave directions how to get to their camp.

When they returned they found Ben dead and buried him beside the trail.

Forty years later, the Dupont Baker gold mine, and subsequently the Cheni mine began production not too many miles from Chuckachida Lake.

Ben Nelson, Ralph Dieter and Al Fletcher working a mineral claim, circa 1936 (Photo Courtesy Bulkley Valley Museum). Al Fletcher took over Nelson’s packing operation after his disappearance.


The McCabe Creek probe

Lynn and I have, for many years, hiked with friends who are up for almost anything—and who will set out under almost any circumstances because you just never know. That fog might lift, that threatened rain might not materialize, there might be an inversion that raises the valley bottom -25° to something more pleasant.

The view from Harvey Mountain looking down at the junction of the creeks.

Here at the cusp of winter, it’s especially hard to adjust. To stuff the down jacket, the warm mittens and the toque into a day pack that’s already fat enough. To be sure to carry a headlamp because it gets dark so damn early. But good hiking companions won’t quail when you ask them to join you on a little bushwhack, a little probe. Karen Diemert and Jim Pojar took the bait when we told them we wanted to try to find an old cabin built in 1936 by Al Fletcher* and his brother Edison on the banks of Driftwood Creek just below its confluence with what we have now named McCabe Creek.

You won’t find that name on any map, but if you’ve walked along the north side of Harvey Mountain you will have seen it. It is created when a triplet of creeks—one that runs out of two little lakes on the south end of Hyland, one that runs out of Copper Lakes on the McCabe Trail and one that runs down the headwall between the two—join forces to make its way through some wet meadows to join Driftwood Creek below Silverking Basin.

Morgan Hite map showing McCabe Creek’s junction with Driftwood Creek.

Our Gilbert Road neighbour George Loset—George has done more solo exploring of the Babines than almost anyone alive—directed us to drop down to Driftwood Creek where Valhalla Creek crosses the Silverking trail and follow the creek upstream. When he was last there, close to 40 years ago now, he found an old horse track and Fletcher’s cabin, its roof caved in but otherwise intact. He also snowshoed up into the meadows, a route he said the prospectors took in winter to avoid the avalanche chutes crossing the McCabe Trail. That was the route, he said, that Ralph Dieter, Ben Nelson and a policeman took when they packed out the body of Martin Cain, who died on a snowshoe trip into Little Joe where Axel Elmsted was “living a hard-working, solitary life … working in the tunnel alone.”

It seemed like now or never. We could still drive to the summer parking lot, there was just a skiff of snow in the bush and that could all change in a week or two. Plus there was a little window of clear weather.

Karen follows the old horse trail.

Valhalla Creek crosses the Silverking trail just above the four km marker. We were ready to get soaked in the underbrush, but the descent was dry—our boots sank into the frozen moss, the few deadfalls were easy to skirt. Just a few minutes and we were there. We stuck close to the creek until a tangle of downed trees sent us higher where Jim spotted the remnant trough of the trail outlined by the snow. We found a few blazes on the trees, but nothing clear enough to guide us when the trail lost itself in the underbrush.

When the current road was driven into Silverking in 1946, the old trail was likely only used if Fletcher was trapping or perhaps guiding hunters—in 1949, he was given the first guiding license in the Babines and his third client killed the goat that set the Boone and Crockett record and is memorialized near the junction of Highway 16 and Main Street. Now that the mountains are protected, signs of the older uses—the mineral workings, cat trails and sawdust piles—are disappearing back into the bush. As is Fletcher’s old cabin.

We had dropped back down to the creek after losing the trail and there it was, an insignificant heap of logs, the sawn ends still visible, a few lengths of stove pipe and one lamp. A small flat spot near the creek but high enough to survive any big runoff events. Dark though.

One success. The confluence, George had told us, was nearby. Steep banks and more deadfalls sent us up away from the creek. We were getting ready to give up and look for a good lunch spot in the sun dappling the moss when Driftwood Creek made a hard turn north. A beautiful little esker, all green moss, led us back down and sure enough, there was the tributary joining the main flow.

As we stood there, jubilant, two dippers flew down Driftwood Creek and paused, chattering and bouncing at the confluence. The first we’d seen in months.

It was enough. Those alluring meadows were on the other side of a very cold creek and a rocky scramble up into who knows what. We already had a few hours of hiking remaining, first finding our way up to the Silverking trail and then back down to the summer parking lot. Another time perhaps.


*Al  Fletcher was our neighbour for several years. He lived on the ranch his parents, Eli and Laura, homesteaded in 1913. The year he built the cabin, he also registered a trapline, one that had been registered in 1926 to Peter Bazil or Wah tah K’eght—and the trapline, which followed Driftwood  Creek up into Silverking, was in his territory—now that of the current Wah tah K’eght, Henry Alfred. That’s another story I hope to chase down.







Hans Tugnum

Every June, we used to walk along the ridge above Driftwood Creek from Hans Tugnum’s gravel pit on Gilbert Road to our place—often with Gisela Mendel and Nancy Leighton. We were always on the lookout for clematis, warblers and bears; the clematis likes the brush under the spruce trees, the warblers like the sunny slopes and the bears like the anthills. We didn’t really know Hans and Emily then (though one of his foster daughters, Brenda, became friends during my writing of Canyon Creek: A Script as Elizabeth and Jack Joseph were her grandparents). But Hans is one of those neighbours you realize you can go to when you need to check the facts about local history. Since researching his story about Driftwood Creek bush mills, Lynn has spent time time with Hans and, if you’re a local history buff, you’ll recognize many of the names that come up in his story below.


Hans Tugnum

The headwaters of Driftwood Creek are located at one end of a glacier in a col high above the old mine workings in Silverking Basin. The other end of the glacier drains into the Reiseter or Twobridge Creek watershed. Within these two watersheds Hans Tugnum, who emigrated at age six from Switzerland to the Bulkley Valley with his family in 1936, has spent more than 80 of his 87 years.

Hans’ parents, Conrad and Walburga (Wally), bought property at Glentanna where the Telkwa High Road and Snake Road intersect, a site by then rich in Bulkley Valley history. Prospector Danny Moore built a roadhouse there in 1904 and George Duhamel, a Yukon Telegraph lineman, built a second roadhouse—Glacier House—about a quarter mile closer to Moricetown on the High Road.

An adjacent property, the Chapman ranch, was staked by Peavine Harvey in 1903, owned by mining promoter James Cronin (Cronin mine) and operated by Charlie Chapman for whom Chapman Lake is named. The land was later purchased by Mike Mesich, father of Emil, Tony, Tommy, Steve and Kitty Mesich.

Conrad bought his property (Lots 861 and 862) from the Lapadats and lived in the roadhouse built by Danny Moore. He dismantled that place and built a new, squared-timber home in which the Bill Brandsma family now lives. According to Stories of Swiss Settlement in the Bulkley Valley, Conrad had a mixed farming operation that included hay, grain crops, pork and dairy and beef cattle.

Other neighbours over the years at Glentanna included George Sharp, Matt Mackenzie, the Sturzeneggers, the Veenstras and Hark Vandermeulen.

Hans, along with brothers George and Florian and sister Margrit, fed or milked cows before and after school, cut firewood and helped in the kitchen. During the day they attended the Glentanna school. According to Hans, he started school in 1937 under the tutelage of Della Herman (nee Carpenter). She was followed by Florence Lundstrom and a series of other teachers including June Fletcher (Al’s wife and Della’s sister) and Anna Morris (nee Edmonds).

Some of Hans’ classmates included Johnny and Annie Lapadat, Helen and Irene Oulton, and Ernie and Otto Zust.

“Many of the kids, like the Malkows and the Lundstroms, had to walk three miles or more to school,” Hans said. “On the weekends we went exploring, hiking, squirrel hunting or horseback riding. There were very few cars then so mostly we just visited with one another.”

Hans quit school when he was 15 and stayed working on the farm until he was 25.

“Then I partnered with Hark Vandermeulen and we ran a sawmill on crown land up Twobridge Creek.”

For much of the next 10 years Hans lived either in the bush or at a property on Dieter Road and ran sawmills, one of them located off Old Babine Lake Road near what is now the Rabbit Road. He said a typical operation consisted of a bunkhouse and cookhouse, the mill and about eight employees. “Between Houston and Hazelton,” he said, “there were at least 100 bush mills.”

Just about the same time he started in the sawmilling business Hans married his wife Emily. “I met Emily in 1951,” he said. “We were on and off, mostly off, for the next five years. But I was persistent and we got married in 1956. We lived at Dad’s for about three years and then in the bush after that. She was my camp cook and a damned good woman.”

Together they raised six children—one of their own, two adopted children and three foster children.

The view from the ridge walk from Tugnum’s along Driftwood Road.

Hans quit the sawmilling business in 1966 after being injured in a car accident. In 1973 he bought his current property which borders Driftwood Creek just off Gilbert Road, spending time with his growing family and close friends such as the late Oscar Pederson, who started coming to the valley from Saskatchewan in the 1940s to work in the bush mills, and with Ronnie Gilbert, who was born in the valley.

Ronnie, Hans and friend Bev Brinkhurst built a snowmobile trail from Ronnie’s house on Dieter Road all the way to Smithers Landing on Babine Lake. According to Hans it took the “old guys” about eight hours to make the trip “but some of the younger guys could do it in five or six. We’re too old for that now and the trail is overgrown anyway.”

A director of the Bulkley Valley Credit Union for many years, Hans is now working with the Smithers Co-housing Association.

“The idea for that,” he said, “is to get back to the way it was … visiting, helping each other. To have a sense of community again.”

Thanks to Lynn Shervill and Hans for this story.

The song of C’ede’i Kwe

I started this poem a few years ago and set it aside, as I often do. Yesterday I sat in at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Smithers. Heartbroken at the stories, I was also proud of the Witsuwit’en welcome to the participants, proud of their healing spirits. We are so lucky to live in their territory. Somehow the music C’ede’i Kwe/Driftwood Creek makes as it forms the boundary between the territories of Wah tah K’eght and Woos seems to speak of both gifts and great loss. Of what passes and what remains. I offer this in the spirit of healing.



Around here, the creek across the road
sings the prettiest.
From the bedroom window it’s a blur of sound
but if you move closer –
say down to the picnic table in the canyon’s park –
it has a rise and fall
that seems to follow the rise and fall
of your breathing,
the pulse in your throat as the sun heats up your face
and the hand moving this pencil.
It soothes the chitter going on inside your head when you’re trying not to think,
trying to be here, be now,
as they say,
and not to wonder if that prickle on your ankle
is a late-season ant or fly or cranky wasp
disturbed by the arrival of your restless feet
under the table.

It’s like that in this small park.
Mostly refuge, mostly haven, mostly peace.
Until the sudden chaos of field trips or family picnics,
kids heaving boulders into the creek.
Burnt picnic tables, an overturned outhouse.
Lovers leaving crumpled tissues, an empty bottle.
That time there was the little black dress,
a rag on the morning grass, the police searching the underbrush
for the woman who picked it out of some closet
and slipped it on. What could she have been wearing
when she left this place?

When you go down to the shaded gravel bar
and crouch to listen,
individual songs emerge.
You close your eyes and try to single out
her voice. One clear chord
still echoing between the canyon walls.
You wait, watching for a sign.

This gravel bar has somehow survived
forty seasons’ floods and ice.
All the children tossing rocks into the water.
Another variation on the theme of kerplonk
that makes our grandson raise his hands in glee
aha, he crows, aha
his small body stretched tight, quivering
in wonder at the chorus he makes
with a handful of pebbles tossed high
to fall into the creek.
It’s a wonder there’s anything here but sand.

I’ll pack up my songs
and drive into town to sing, join voices
and sound a charm against the pain that sometimes happens
just across the road. Against the coming winter
when the creek sinks deep under the ice
so quiet, so still, that even the dipper has to look hard
to find an entrance into the concert hall.