By Harold Hinkelman
I was almost 15 years old and had a friend named Jim Hagen. The head of the B.C. Forestry district in McBride, a Mr. Ray Sansom, offered us a job, with the forestry department out of Prince George, for about two and a half months at approximately $55 per month, including room and board. We agreed to go and left the next morning by train for Prince George where we were met by a Forest Service Ranger and taken by pick-up truck out to Fort George on the Fraser River. This was approximately two miles out of Prince George, the camp was very small, just a few storage sheds and a couple of tents. We were issued a sleeping bag, a foam pad, and a mosquito bar 2′ wide 6′ long and 1″ high to put over our sleeping bags so the mosquitoes would not eat us up at night. The first morning we were joined by a group of three young guys and an older man who was going to be our cook. The three young guys were from Prince George. One was a Doctor Ewart’s son, one was the son of the man who owned the Europe Hotel in Prince George, the other was the son of the school principal, all three as green as grass when it came to living out in the woods and working for a living. The Forester explained to us that we were called a ‘suppression’ crew, and we would be the first crew sent out to any forest fires that broke out, and we would set up camp for the regular fire crew. Then we would go back to Prince George and wait for another fire, or if it was a large fire and we were needed we would stay there and work with the regular crew.
Because the weather was cloudy and not hot there were no fires expected for a few days, so they decided to give us some other work to do. We loaded up a couple of pick-up trucks and they took us out to Six Mile Lake where we got into boats and went across the lake to the beginning of a trail up the mountain. This was the first of five jobs that I worked on that summer for forestry. It took us about an hour to climb the mountain to the forestry lookout. There were six of us and we each made two trips, so this took up most of the day. We were there for four nights and our job was to cut and clear off the side of the mountain so the lookout person could see all around the surrounding valleys to spot any fires that happened to break out. As it turned out we just finished what had to be done and we were told to return to Prince George as a fire had broken out to the North. This fire was on the Finlay River between Fort Grahame and Finlay Forks, in the Omineca Mountain District.
This was the area before the dams were constructed and made up what is now Williston Lake that stretches south as far as the town of Mackenzie. We left by plane, taking off on the Fraser River the next day. It took one hour to get to Finlay Forks, stop and gas up and then about an hour to get to the fire area. Our camp was on a creek called Olsen Creek. The plane was something else, as the motor would spit and sometimes stop for a few seconds, and then would start up again. You could look out the window and see how fast you were going as there was an instrument on the wing that recorded it. Top speed of 125 MPH.
We began setting up camp and they flew in the fire crews; they also brought some Indigenous men from Fort Grahame in long narrow river boats. Because we were so far North, they made us stay and work with the fire crews. This work lasted for two weeks. The boys from Prince George nicknamed me ‘Huck’ and called me this name all summer. I guess this was because I was an outdoor type and familiar with conditions in the woods. To give you an idea how far North we were, one of the cooks that flew in refused to fly back because he did not like the flying conditions. They put him on a riverboat to go back to Prince George via rivers and lakes and he ended up at Summit Lake, just north of Prince George. They were able to do this as there was a freight outfit operated by Dick Corliss between Summit Lake and Fort Grahame. The story was that it took him two weeks to get back to Prince George.
Finlay Forks was the area where the Finlay River and the Parsnip River joined. They built the Bennett dam, which resulted in forming Williston Lake. The result of this is that the Parsnip River is not shown on any of the modern maps.
After we were able to get the fires under control, we had some free time, so the Indigenous men took us up and down the Finlay River. We stopped at one clearing where there was a trapper’s cabin and we went inside, it was very neat and stocked with supplies for the winter. It even had a cylinder-type gramophone that had to be wound up to play. One song was “The Red River Valley.”
Jim and I were on the first trip into the fire area, and we were also the last ones out. This took many trips over three or four days as there was a lot for fire-fighting equipment to return to Prince George. We loaded up the last load and started downstream, the pilot said we were overloaded as the plane would not lift off. We tried and tried, but no luck, we got farther downstream into a narrow channel with a logjam, so turned around and tried to take off upstream. After many tries, we finally were airborne, but we were in a narrow canyon so when we cleared above the trees the pilot turned the plane in a sharp sideways bank which enabled us to clear the trees, back in the direction of Finlay Forks. The pilot could see I was sick from the sharp banking turn and threw me a paper container for me to throw up. We stopped at Finlay Forks, but I was sick all the way into Prince George. Jim laughed at me all the way, but I had the last laugh because when we landed at Fort George they took us into Prince George in a pick-up truck. We were sitting backwards in the truck and who got sick then but Jim. They put us up in a hotel for a few days and Jim decided he had had enough and left for McBride.
Job number 3 was halfway between Prince George and Quesnel, where we shoveled and hauled gravel to build up an access road that went up another mountain to another fire lookout station. We were in an area of a lot of nice lakes and had an enjoyable week there, we were able to go swimming, hiking etc.
Job number 4 was a fire that broke out on the Stuart River that joins the Nechako River near Vanderhoof. They assembled us in the Prince George army base where we joined up with a regiment of soldiers from Quebec. I think their regiment was called the St. John Fusiliers, most of them spoke only French. We loaded up supplies on a large army truck and headed for Vanderhoof. They put us up in a hotel overnight, the next morning we went about 15 or 20 miles north to the river where we got into boats and headed upstream to the fire area. The Nechako River runs out of Fraser Lake and runs two ways, south and east, where the Stuart River joins it. This first was quite large and broken up into two or three areas, so they also brought some Indigenous men down from Fort St. James to help fight the fires. Each morning we had to pack our own lunches, pick up a fire-fighting tool. We picked an axe, shovel or grub hoe and headed for the fire area which was about a mile away. The army soldiers were of no help at all, as soon as we were out of sight of the camp, they threw their tools into the bush and just tagged along with us for the remainder of the day. The Indigenous men all worked together, and sometimes they would take one of us along with them. The time I went with them, for lunch they would bring slices of beef and cooked this over an open fire. They were being paid by the hour and they were happy.
We would control one fire area controlled and then another one would break out nearby. The story was that some men wanted the work, so they would set more fires so they could make more money. I cannot confirm this as I did not witness any such thing. Once the fire jumped over our heads and crowned in the tops of the evergreens and we had to detour a couple of miles around it to get back to camp. We were too far from the river to get water so we had to clear strips of forest and make small trenches along the ground to keep the fires from spreading; we also could back-fire if the wind was in the right direction. It was all very hard work and when we got back to camp, we would go swimming in the Stuart River. The river was quite warm, slow moving, and enjoyable. We spent approximately 10 days here. The Forest Ranger that was in charge kept in touch by radio with Prince George every evening. One evening an RCMP officer, an army official and a forest ranger arrived in camp. They lined up all the soldiers and searched them. What had happened was our cook was robbed of three twenty-dollar bills, he had marked down the serial numbers, and they were found in possession of one of the soldiers, who was then taken away to Vanderhoof. One of our crew members used to lay down every evening after supper and fall asleep, so one evening we all got ready for bed and had the cook ring the breakfast bell. We pretended that it was morning, the fellow who had been sleeping after dinner also got up, dressed, and headed for the cook tent, when he realized what was going on we all had a good laugh.
We finished fighting fire in this area, went back downriver to Vanderhoof and on to Prince George.
The last job we were on, four of us and one forestry man went out to Summit Lake, we went by boat into the Parsnip River system then branched off to the west into the Weeden Lake area. In some spots the stream was so shallow we had to shut down the motor, get into the water and pull the boat along until we got into deeper water. To this day I don’t know why we were there unless they were trying to prove that they could access this area by water in the case of a fire. It was flat country; the streams were crystal clear and full of large trout. We spent two nights out and then went back to Prince George the same way. This was the end of our work, and they told me they would give me a job with the forestry in Quesnel when I turned 16, but I refused this as I was homesick for family in McBride and went back home. On looking back this may have been a very good opportunity that I turned down.