by Drew Hanson
Most people know of Ray Zillmer as the father of the Ice Age Trail and founder of the Ice Age Trail Alliance. Fewer know that he was a prominent Milwaukee attorney, leader of the Izaak Walton League and instrumental in the State’s purchase of lands for the Kettle Moraine State Forest. In this article, we see another side of this amazing person: as an accomplished backpacker, mountaineer and outdoorsman.
After reading the diary of the explorer Alexander Mackenzie, Ray Zillmer later wrote, “There was always with me the thought that I must take the overland pack trip of Mackenzie.” The 1792-93 journey Mackenzie and his nine comrades took across Canada was the first recorded transcontinental crossing of North America north of Mexico—twelve years prior to Lewis and Clark’s voyage of discovery.
The area of Mackenzie’s travels that most captured Zillmer’s imagination was in the mountains of western Canada. Since there were no guidebooks of the route and not even large scale topographic maps of the area, Zillmer wrote letters to all who might have useful information to help him plan a trip through the still wild country. He found scant reliable news. The manager of a remote lodge near Bella Coola wrote, “This is an extremely arduous trip, the trails are not well defined and the country only very thinly populated by Indians.”
At roughly 250 miles, the route crossed the Telegraph Range, Nechako Plateau, Coast Mountains and parts of present-day Tweedsmuir and Kluskoil Lake provincial parks. No one since Mackenzie had duplicated his route.
Zillmer’s description of their journey was published in the 1938 Canadian Alpine Journal—the primary source for this article.
The two men set out from Prince George, British Columbia on June 28, 1938. One of Zillmer’s “greatest concerns was to locate the Mackenzie trail where it left the Fraser”. After some searching, they found, “a faint trail. It was 4.30 p.m., we were not in condition, our packs were at their heaviest, and the way to the plateau above was very steep, and, just as Mackenzie did, we found the next hour the hardest on our trip. Hereafter we were to have many experiences such as Mackenzie related in his diary.”
Chief among the similarities was the scarcity of water. While they could sometimes see lakes and rivers in the distance, they found little water to drink during their first few days. The first night they found only “a small, stagnant, shallow pool among the trees. It was full of debris, mosquito larvae, and tasted of decaying vegetable matter. I strained it through a clean cloth and drank it. Lorin could not bring himself to drinking it. We had only soup and apricots. We expected to be sick that night from the water. However, we slept well, and the next morning we enjoyed a meal cooked with this water.”
There were important differences between the Zillmer and Mackenzie expeditions as well. “Whereas Mackenzie travelled with Indians most of the time, met them almost every day, and learned the route from them. We saw no Indians until the twelfth day, and no whites on the entire trip.”
Near their crossing of the Euchiniko River, for instance, they faced several confusing route options. Hours later it turned out they chose the wrong option. Zillmer recounted, “For less than a day we had been off his trail, but now we were on it again.”
They carried no gun but Zillmer did have a fishing pole. On their second evening of fishing for their supper Zillmer wrote, “With a casting rod of which the top section was missing, and a small bass plug, I fished three pools adjoining fast water. Approximately twenty casts netted fifteen bites and ten rainbows weighing about two pounds each. On one cast I caught two fish on the two hooks of the plug. I never fished after that for it was too easy, and besides, we did not have time for it.”
Of the final days of the trek, Zillmer wrote of the downward descent, “our toes were constantly pressed against the front of our shoes. As a consequence, both of us lost the nails of our big toes. Our feet were badly swollen and blistered. Lorin lost thirty-two pounds and I fourteen. However, we had not experienced cold weather as we had expected from Mackenzie’s account.”
On their 16th day, they reached Bella Coola where they recuperated for a week. Taking special comfort from a rustic Tweedsmuir Lodge, Zillmer wrote, “Our clothes were rags, so we wore clothes kindly loaned us until we were again completely outfitted a few days later. I have always wanted English flannels and here in this outpost I got them, and they were altered to fit me by a daughter of a pioneer settler of the valley, a settler who had come from Wisconsin, my own state.”