From Marks of a Century: A History of Houston, BC 1900 – 2000 by Grace Hols
... as told by Ross Merkley
Led by native guides, Ross Merkley and his brother Bill travelled into the Clore and Burnie River country between November 7 and December 23, 1945. Bill Merkley came to Houston in 1937. Ross came in 1940, riding the freight across the country. Older brother Ellis arrived in 1943. All three had grown up in Williamsburg, 40 miles south of Ottawa, but they stayed to become a part of this community.
In 1944 my brother Bill bought a trapline from an estate in Hazelton that had belonged to a Mrs. Brown. There was no one left in the family to leave it to and so they could sell it. We bought it for $500.
We had no idea where the line was until we looked at maps and seen it was way out in the Clore River and the Burnie River area. Then we had to decide how we'd get out there.
Well, we bought a boat from Paddy Leon in Topley Landing for $50. It was around 22 feet long. So we hauled it into town, and that fall, as luck would have it, Fay Short from Francois Lake come in to get his winter supply of groceries and stuff with the sleigh and horses, so we got him to take our boat and supplies on his way back. There was brother Bill and Joe Seymour, Art Seymour and I. We had to take food enough for a month and a half, and 45 gallons of gas and three outboards. One was Joe Seymour's - a 5 h.p. They were pretty well antiques already back then in '45. Fay hauled us up to above the canyon on the Morice River, at about 17 mile, I guess, and we all camped there for the night.
The next morning we decided to let the boat down the slope towards the river. So we tied a rope to the seat and around a tree, and loaded three-quarters of our groceries and everything in the boat, traps and all, and started letting it down the slope. We got it about halfways down and the seat broke out of it and the boat took off down the hill. When it hit the bottom you could look through the front end of it and look through the cracks in the sides. So we had a job on our hands for another day - finding pitch and heating it and chinking up all the cracks we could see through.
We finally got it in the water, loaded, and took off up the river. We had the 10 horse engine on. On the swift spots two of us would get out with a rope and walk along the shore. There would be one of us running the engine and another one holding the boat out from shore so we wouldn't be hitting rocks or anything with the engine. We didn't want to put our big 22 horse Evinrude on; we were saving that for on the lake.
Two days of real hard work and we made it to about 24 mile on the river. Art decided he wanted to build a dug-out there for Joe. So we stayed there for five days and made a 16 foot dug-out canoe out of a nice cottonwood. Then Joe headed up the river alone with his traps and his 5 horse engine. It went along really nice.
So Bill and Art and I went on the rest of the way to the north fork and we got there about three days later. We left the boat at the river and walked up to Jim Holland's log trapping cabin there and stayed overnight. The next day Jim's son Joe Holland came along to show us how to get to our trapline, and we made it to between the Nanika and McBride Creek area. We camped in there and I set about a dozen traps to McBride Lake and back. I picked up two marten, a cross fox and a mink, so there was lots of fur in that country. Art said, "All of this around Morice Lake is mine. You can trap any place you want to." Little did we realize it was Matthew Sam's trap line we were on, but according to Art it didn't matter, he'd trap where he wanted to anyway.
We had taken tools along, an adze and a few other things, because Art wanted to build a canoe. That fellow sure knew how to do that. We stayed about three days, I think, and then picked our traps up and the rest of the fur and headed up Morice Lake. We went across on the other side and up to the end, and when we come around the point there were 28 mountain goat standing by the edge. They were eating moss on the rocks. They ran up the mountain when we pulled in with the boat on a bit of gravel there. There was one about 50 feet up: one shot and down he come. He slid down a ravine to the boat and all we had to do was lift him in. He was sure good eating. Those ribs roasted over an open fire on sticks were delicious. Maybe it was being out in the open like that made it taste way better.
We proceeded to the end of Morice Lake and trapped there a few days. Then we headed into Atna Bay and made our permanent camp there on the left side of the Atna River for our jaunt into the Clore and Burnie River. Our shelter was just a fly, with spruce boughs on the snow and a canvas on top of that. We didn't have fibreglass tarps in those days. After three days of trapping around the bay we got our packs ready to go over the hump to Atna Lake. We took our traps and as much food as we could carry. The next morning we took off over the pass to the Clore. Well, that was a whole day's walk over and down the other side. We stayed at the big meadow on the Clore. Two days later we got to the Burnie. There we camped for maybe five days, trapping and stretching our skins. We had made boards out of balsam that splits real nice.
After about five days we returned to the big meadow and picked up our traps and headed back to Atna Bay. We were plenty hungry when we got there as we were just about out of food. We were down to bare necessities and you burn up a lot of energy when you're snowshoeing from daylight to dark every day in fresh snow. It could snow four feet in one day and you never went anyplace without snowshoes. After some struggling we got to our main camp. We had some dehydrated potatoes there and cooked up a big pot of those and threw in a quarter pound of butter - everybody was real hungry - and then we sat down to a feast after not having much to eat for a day and a half.
That night I was sleeping like a log, and about one a.m. brother Bill jumped on my legs and woke me up. A spark had landed on my sleeping bag and it burned about a foot of the covering. We got it out and I had to sew it up with snare wire to keep from losing any more of the eiderdown. The weather was down around zero Fahrenheit, which is about -20 C.
We survived. About two days later we were heading for home. We put the 22 horse on the boat and had everything loaded. There was about two feet of slush on the lake, and the engine overheated on account of the slush. It took all day to get out of Atna Bay because we had to keep changing engines when one overheated. We finally got to the end of the bay and a big storm blew up and we had to turn and go back. So we just cut some poles and made a tee-pee with a fire in the middle and that's how we spent the night. The storm blew itself out and dawn broke real nice. We headed down the lake and made it to the north fork.
We got back to town by December 23. Bill and I were staying at E.G. Bellicini's and he bought most of our fur. I sold one marten - a nice coal black one with white guard hairs - to Mike Fenton for $150. The cheapest we got for anyone of them was $65. Usually it was around $100 to $125, which was really a good price for fur back then.
One thing, out on the trapline you had to be careful because you were 50 miles from civilization. No helicopter, no cell phone, no snowmobile. It was a case of look after yourself so you were real careful with an axe.
The next spring brother Bill and I with Joe Holland went up the north fork and over by Herd Dome and Gosnell, over the top into the Clore and Burnie, trapping again. After that trip I never went trapping again. Brother Bill finally sold the trapline to Charlie Skinner in town here.
There are a few things I left out - like getting lice and breaking my snowshoes, but I didn't think anybody'd want to hear about getting lice. I had to throw my underwear into the fire and go the last week with just wool pants and no wool underwear on in winter weather. I'll tell you that wasn't too nice.
These are all true things that happened when we were trapping. It was an interesting time for me because I was young and it gave me a good idea of what this country could be.