by Drew Hanson
This is the second in a series of articles about Ray Zillmer’s pioneer mountaineering exploits in the Canadian Rockies. Ice Age Trail fans know Zillmer as the Milwaukee attorney who in 1958 founded the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation which became the Ice Age Trail Alliance. Each article in the series enlarges our picture of his rugged approach to wilderness travel by summarizing one of his papers that were published in the Canadian Alpine Journal. This one is based on Exploration of the Southern Cariboos which appeared in 1939.
Zillmer's own words is the best place to begin. “This was my seventh back-pack trip in the mountains of Alberta and British Columbia. On two previous trips I went alone, and on the others I was accompanied by another amateur who was inexperienced in mountain backpack trips. This year Lorin Tiefenthaler, my companion on the Mackenzie trail, was again with me, and he has put an end, once and for all, to the comment of my friends that ‘no one goes with Zillmer a second time.’ We planned to carry everything ourselves, without help or re-provisioning. The food was measured in the exact amounts required for the thirteen days. We carried only that which was absolutely necessary—2-pound sleeping bags, a very small tent, no firearms, no camp axe, no change of clothing except socks and underwear. But as we planned to make a plane table survey and to cross the icefields, we carried, in addition to our normal load, the equipment for the survey together with a primus stove, a gallon of gasoline, and climbing equipment. We planned to go up the valley of the Thompson from the point where it leaves the Canadian National Railways at the flag stop, Gosnell. The vicinity is unsurveyed and the only maps are based on sketches made by prospectors or trappers”.
|Ray Zillmer on the Azure-Thompson Divide|
The first documented trek through the southern Cariboo Mountains was in 1871. Seven other expeditions explored the area in the intervening years, two of which included geologist R. T. Chamberlin—another man with Wisconsin ties. R. T. Chamberlin was the son of famed geologist Thomas Chamberlin who was an unwitting Ice Age Trail pioneer.
As had been arranged for Zillmer and Tiefenthaler, upon disembarking the train they met “Miss Ella Frye”, the licensed trapper of the upper Thompson River. They spent a night at her cabin of which Zillmer wrote, “On the wall of her cabin was the hide of a grizzly which she had shot a few miles up the trail we were to take in the morning. We plied her with questions for several hours, and her knowledge of the valley was of great help to us. She helped us even more, however, by insisting that we take the only mosquito netting she had. That was the one thing we needed most, yet we had forgotten it. She gave us a gasoline can, for ours was leaking. And she offered us a rifle which we declined. An old friend could not have been kinder to us.”
The next morning was July 3, 1939. Zillmer’s description of the next few days needs no editorializing. “For thirty and a half miles we followed the rough and heavily overgrown trail up the north and east side of the Thompson, to a point where it crossed to the other side of the stream. It took us four and a quarter days of strenuous travel to reach the crossing. It rained a lot and we were always wet, either from the rain or from the dripping willows, alders, and parsnip, through which we forced our way, or from the tall nettle and Devil’s club growth, through which we walked with hands raised high. Only when we crawled into our sleeping bags were we dry. It was wasted effort to dry our shoes or clothing, for we would only be thoroughly soaked again shortly after we started walking. I had trouble seeing, for my glasses were covered with the water or the debris from the bushes we pushed through.”
“At times the trail was so overgrown that we could not even see it, although we were on it. On such occasions we kept on it only by feeling for and following the trail’s depression of several inches. But this frequently resulted in our stumbling or falling when we stepped into holes or against small stones or logs we could not see. We forded the many branches of the Thompson and crossed many mud holes, and marshes often covered with water.”
“A day was lost through an injury to my left leg. Late on the first day of our trip the trail led to an area 150 to 200 yards in diameter, which was cluttered with several large and many small fallen trees. With my attention focused on looking for the trail while I was walking on a fallen tree seven or eight feet above the ground, I suddenly lost my balance and was compelled to jump. I was carrying my heavy sixty-pound pack and I crashed through the debris and undergrowth a foot or so. Only the next day did I realize that I had injured the tendons in my left leg. I suffered the next few days, not because of the very painful leg, but because of the mental anguish over the thought that I might have to give up the trip. But my leg improved on the fifth day, and I could again travel at a faster gait.”
“I had trouble opening my eyes on the morning of the second day, and when Lorin looked at me he said: ‘No wonder. Your eyes are almost closed from the mosquito bites. And you look as though you had small pox.’”
“On the morning of the fifth day we arrived at the crossing of the Thompson. For the first time, the weather had begun to clear.”
At this point the tandem faced several options. Zillmer described each choice within the historical context of their predecessors’ expeditions. They ended up choosing the option which involved fording an ice-cold stream back and forth. Eventually they reached a ford which was deeper and swifter than the rest. Zillmer wrote, “Lorin crossed rather easily, but he was six inches taller than I.” On Zillmer’s second attempt, “after standing a few seconds, though they seemed hours, I was thrown over, pack and all, on my back into the fast water. But the very strong current fortunately threw me quickly across to the other side of the stream, with no injury except a slightly skinned finger, in spite of the many rocks in the river.” They soon set camp.
In the morning they began their exploration of the Thompson River headwaters and adjacent basins. For the next week they enjoyed good weather while they mapped this previously uncharted area and documented the sources of several rivers. They were afforded commanding views from the hand-full of peaks they summitted. They reveled in floral alpine meadows, described mountain goat, caribou and marmot and surveyed several glaciers.
Their time drawing to a close, it took three days to hike out. Of reaching the trailhead, Zillmer wrote, “We now weighed thirty pounds less. In spite of bushwacking, mosquitoes, rain, mud, and marshes, we are ‘rarin’ to go back to the Cariboos.”