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Francois Lake was a trapper’s paradise

John McCuish wrote poetry and drew cartoons that earned him a regular mention in the Smithers Interior News
Men in boats, raft, dug-out canoe on Ootsa Lake . According to BL&D: A History, seen here are the Harrison brothers (likley in motor boat in background) “Mr. Bolom and J. McCuish. The small outboard motor was the first on Ootsa Lake.” transportation travel water (Lakes District Museum Society photo/Lakes District News)

The rugged country south of Francois Lake was a trapper’s paradise during the last century, and it drew men like a magnet.

John McCuish, sometimes called “Jack” by his friends, was one of them. We don’t know where he hailed from, but McCuish “followed fur” to Ootsa Lake in approximately 1911, where he became a part-time prospector and one of the region’s most successful trappers. Described as rough and rugged by those who knew him, he was not your stereotypical “mountain man.” When he wasn’t skinning a marten or chipping at a rock, he wrote poetry and drew cartoons that earned him a regular mention in the Smithers Interior News.

McCuish trapped the “Great Circle,” the string of large lakes that girdles what is now Tweedsmuir Provincial Park. Every fall for almost two decades, he purchased supplies and headed into the bush, returning in the spring with a bountiful haul of fur—or not, depending on whether Lady Luck had smiled upon him.

Some years were better for McCuish than others. According to newspaper reports, he had a “season of bad luck” in 1921, and capped it off in November with a summons from the game warden. Yet as bad as 1921 might have been for him, it was nothing compared to 1929.

The year didn’t start poorly. McCuish must have had a reasonably good winter, because he still had enough money in early June to visit the beer parlour in Burns Lake. That’s where he met Percival Arthur LePage de St. Amand (alternatively spelled “Armand”), a man who had come into the country in about 1920 and went by the name of John “Jack” Roy.

According to Roy, who was looking for work at the time, he and McCuish struck up a conversation over a pint. No one knows what they talked about, but Roy subsequently accompanied Norman Schreiber and McCuish to Ootsa Landing in hopes of finding a job at the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company’s Emerald Mine on Sweeney Mountain.

The three men parted company at the landing. Schreiber and McCuish went their separate ways, and Roy traveled by riverboat to the mine site, where he got work in the camp kitchen. He next saw McCuish in July, when the trapper stopped at the Emerald camp while on a prospecting trip. The two men again got to talking, and before they parted, McCuish suggested that Roy (who, by his admission, was not an experienced woodsman) spend the winter trapping with him.

It was the first in a series of mistakes that ended in tragedy.

Roy demurred, but later accepted the offer. The two men returned to Ootsa Landing in September, where they purchased supplies on credit and borrowed a riverboat from Billy McNeill. They then headed up the lake, returning on October 10 for more provisions.

It was the last time anyone saw either man until the following June, when Roy showed up at Ootsa Landing with a tale worthy of Jack London.

According to Roy, after he and McCuish left Ootsa in October 1929, they made their way to Little Whitesail Lake. On October 18, after caching most of their supplies in McCuish’s main cabin at the lake’s west end, the two men loaded their backpacks with provisions and headed through a high mountain pass to McCuish’s trapping grounds around the Kitlope River. They repeated the exercise several times, sleeping under the stars or beneath lean-tos that McCuish had built previously.

On November 30, with a change in the weather imminent, they left one of the temporary shelters with “sufficient supplies for four days” and headed toward McCuish’s secondary cabin on Ear Lake. It rained heavily throughout the journey, and by the time the men arrived at their destination on the evening of December 2, they were cold and wet.

“There was no stove in the cabin, so we rigged up something which sent more smoke than heat, and we could not get enough warmth to dry our blankets,” Roy later told police. “We spent a miserable night and all day of the third [of December] at Ear Lake cabin.”

McCuish, said Roy, had originally planned to return to one of his temporary camps on the west side of the Coast Range, but decided on December 4 to trek northeast through the Lindquist Pass to his cabin on Little Whitesail. Because the trip normally only took a day, the men left their blankets at Ear Lake and hit the trail with only their snowshoes, axes, and one piece of bannock between them.

It proved to be a costly error.

The trail to Lindquist Pass, according to Roy, followed the left fork of a creek that flowed into Ear Lake, but for some reason, McCuish elected to stay on the right bank. After traveling some distance, he changed his mind and then cut across the creek, hoping to strike the original trail.

They couldn’t find it, and after hours of wandering up, down, and through the stream, were forced to make camp a mile from the summit of Lindquist Pass, just as the sun was going down.

“We were wet through,” Roy said later, “no stove and no blankets, but we still had the bannock. We built a fire and talked until dawn. There was a strong wind blowing and it was cold.”

McCuish and Roy hit the trail at sunrise. They made it through the pass, and by 11 a.m. on December 5, reached the head of Lindquist Lake, where they found an old canvas Peterborough canoe. Roy considered the vessel unsafe, but McCuish, perhaps because he was tired of hoofing it, decided to patch the canoe and take a shortcut across the lake.

More than five hours later, after kneeling in water the entire way and going ashore to empty the canoe every few hundred yards, the two men landed at the east end of Lindquist Lake. McCuish tried to pack their fragile boat to the next large body of water in the chain, but he found the task too difficult. Abandoning the canoe, he and Roy set off on foot for a lean-to on the shore of Big Whitesail. They lost their way for the second time, tried unsuccessfully to light a fire at sunset, and then staggered through the brush until exhaustion set in.

The weather was abysmal, and somewhere along the way, McCuish lost his backpack and mitts.

The two men, miserable and chilled to the bone, started walking again at dawn on December 6, and eventually reached the shore of a broad lake that McCuish recognized as Little Whitesail. They made a raft from two long logs tied together with Roy’s pack rope, and started poling up the lake’s southern arm. By this time, the rain had turned to snow, and there was an icy wind blowing from the east.

The raft overturned after little more than a mile. They made it to shore, then tried walking across a point of land to the head of Little Whitesail, only to find their way blocked by a steep bluff.

“McCuish then said he could not climb, so we decided to make another raft,” Roy stated. “It was here that McCuish first complained of being ‘all in.’ He showed me where to put the notches in the tree to cut for the raft, and I felled it … . McCuish was all in and could give me no assistance at all. When I asked for directions as to how to make the raft, he told me to do as I liked. I used the slats and nails from my pack board to fasten the logs together.”

The two men boarded the raft and started down the west arm of the lake just as darkness fell. “It was a thick, black night,” recalled Roy. “There was an east wind with snow and rain in the air, and we could not see across the lake.

“I cannot say how long we paddled nor what tipped the raft, but we went into the water again. McCuish had lost the use of his lower limbs. He put his arms around my neck and it was only a [few] strokes I had to swim before I touched bottom and assisted him to shore. There was about twelve feet of beach at the foot of a small alder slide, not any shelter at all. I got him beside a log to protect him from the wind … I rubbed his legs to try and get back the circulation, but [was] unsuccessful. That failing, I lay down beside him for the sake of warmth. Neither of us knew exactly whereabouts on the lake we were. It was still dark.”

At this point, according to Roy, McCuish’s mind began to wander. One moment he was coherent, the next, he muttered things his partner could not understand. Sometime during the night, as the snow fell and the temperature plummeted, the veteran trapper realized he was going to die, and sought to hasten the process.

“He asked me to shoot him,” Roy said later. “I had a little .22 pistol but it would have been no service, it having been in the water too much.”

Roy, overcome by exhaustion, finally fell asleep. When he awoke, McCuish was dead.

Determined not to suffer the same fate, Roy followed the shoreline to McCuish’s main cabin at the head of Little Whitesail Lake. He managed to make a fire and put on some dry clothing before passing out.

Roy said he slept for nearly forty-eight hours, and awoke to find the cabin cold and his feet partially frozen. After soaking them in coal oil (an old remedy for frostbite), he walked back to the place where he had left McCuish.

“It had snowed during this period, and the lake had frozen near the shore, and I was able to walk on the ice,” he said. “Although I knew the locality the body was lying in, I could not find it, as it was covered with snow. There was then four feet of snow, and it had been blowing and drifting … My intent was to bring the body over to the cabin and make a coffin out of logs.”

Roy returned to the cabin. For three weeks, he hovered near death, all the while wondering what he should do. It nearly drove him mad.

“During these weeks, my thoughts ran riot as to what would happen and to whether I should at all costs come out to the settlement,” he said. “The boat we had had been pulled out, and it was then about a quarter-mile from the [open] water. It was a very heavy boat, and I was in no condition to turn it over and launch it. In thinking about walking out that seventy miles, with my blankets that were not up to scratch, it was an awful long way, and where I was, I had warmth and also food. I also felt that supposing I could reach the settlement, I could only notify the authorities as to what had happened, but no action could be taken until spring to verify my statements.

“While thinking of this, I was thinking of my past actions and my past life, and together, it was gradually driving me out of mind, till it came to a point where it was a case whether I would have to shoot myself and end it, or put all thoughts out of my mind and wait till spring and try and come out.”

Roy eventually decided against trying to reach civilization or committing suicide, and this is where the story takes a bizarre twist. While his former partner lay frozen in the snow a few hundred yards away, Roy went trapping. In January 1930, he even snowshoed alone over the pass that now bears McCuish’s name, and went trapping along the Kitlope River for almost two weeks, returning to Little Whitesail on February 5 “with about twenty-five dollars’ worth of fur.”

After that, he settled down in McCuish’s cabin and ate the dead man’s food until May 30, when he dug out Billy McNeill’s boat and floated down to Ootsa Landing. He immediately reported McCuish’s demise to the BC Provincial Police, who took his statement and then went back to Little Whitesail with him for the body.

They brought out what they could find of John McCuish—trapper, prospector, poet, and cartoonist—and buried it in the Burns Lake Cemetery on July 28, 1930.

At least one source says that Roy stayed in the area after McCuish’s death, settling near Wilson Bay on Ootsa Lake, and that he died by his own hand in 1955.

While the authorities did not suspect Roy of foul play, some old-timers found it difficult to believe that a man of McCuish’s skill and experience could make so many “greenhorn” mistakes in forty-eight hours. One man said in the 1970s that Roy’s decision to remain at Little Whitesail for the winter while his partner lay dead a short distance away was suspicious. McCuish, the prospector said, could be difficult to get along with at the best of times.

It bears noting that during questioning, Roy admitted to having kept a diary in the months leading up to McCuish’s death, but said he “burned it, as it became all blurred.”

Would that diary have told a story different from the one Roy gave police? Did Roy’s violent demise a quarter-century later have anything to do with the events of late December 1929?

Only McCuish knows, and he’s not telling.

2022 Michael Riis-Christianson and the Lakes District Museum Society