The cabin where the bodies of the trappers were found. It was reported to have been demolished at a later date by a road-building crew.

Vernon Lake diary tells a tale of desperation

Harrowing tale recorded in the diary of a pair of stricken trappers.

Vernon Lake is located in the top end of the Nimpkish watershed. Located in the traditional territory of the ‘Namgis First Nation, it was given its current English name in March 1924, after the Honourable Forbes George Vernon, who served as Chief Commissioner of Lands and Works for British Columbia.

Today Vernon Lake is known for its small campsite and its fishing. Some also know it as the terminus area for the Englewood Logging Railway.

There is another, much more sad and desperate story linked to the history of this remote lake.

In July 1939 two trappers, James H. Ryckman (56) and Lloyd Coombs (27), chartered a plane to fly up to the Lake. They had a cabin, and brought in 1,500 pounds of supplies and some personal gear. They planned to work their trap line for the summer, and then to hike down either to Nimpkish or Tahsis.

Unfortunately, heavy rain and flooding in the fall prevented them from hiking out. On Dec. 1 Coombs tried to hike out, but had to return after repeated effort to cross waist-deep and ice-cold, rushing streams frustrated his efforts.

The life of trappers was rough, and many died while working their traplines, but what is unique about the Vernon Lake story is that the trappers left a diary that chronicled, in detail, their last horrific months.

The pair’s food was critically low by Christmas, and they grew more and more desperate as they struggled to find enough to eat.

While they started off venturing from the cabin to hunt and fish, as they grew more and more weak they found it harder to catch any food. They resorted to luring warblers into their cabin with salt, shutting the door, and catching them. Eventually they were too weak to leave the cabin or even to split firewood.

On March 18 Coombs noted in the diary that Ryckman had died: “Dear mother, Jim died today at 2 pm.  This might be the last I’ll have nerve enough to write so if I do anything wrong, please forgive me. I can’t stick it any longer.”

In March 1940 worried family members chartered a plane to look for the men. After struggling with low cloud cover, a plane finally did touch down on April 1. The searchers found an SOS marker on the shore, and the bodies of the two men in their cabin.

When the Coroner arrived, he noted that the two men weighed only about fifty pounds each.  One had ended his life with a gunshot.

In April 1940 newspapers across North America ran a syndicated story that quoted large portions of the diary.

Brenda McCorquodale is a Port Hardy resident and North Island history enthusiast. If you have any stories or local lore you’d like to share, email her at storeysbeach@gmail.com. A collection of her past articles is available on her blog at http://undiscoveredcoast.blogspot.ca/.