Digging up the past while walking in the woods

Thinking about the interesting people who travelled on the Hudson’s Bay Trail

This pitchfork was retrieved from inside a living aspen tree that was about to be milled for cabinet lumber. An old rusty tool in an unlikely place is just one of the many surprises you might find when you live on a Cariboo pioneer’s homestead.

Living on land that was ranched more than 100 years ago can offer surprises and a glimpse of what living was like during the past century.

At Lac des Roches, I live on a piece of, what was, two great ranching operations – the MacDonald family in the early 1900s, followed by Gardner Boultbee in the 1940s.

Long before these pioneers, fur traders and indigenous people moved periodically through the property on a portion of the well-documented Hudson’s Bay Fur Brigade Trail.

For the past 10 years, developing and clearing our residential lot has revealed many finds. Some tell a story, but most trigger a lot of questions.

For instance, what caused the small indentations in the ground where the grass and weeds grow especially green?  Was it an area for compost or fish cleaning?

Was fertilizer spilled there, or was it simply an old outhouse location? I won’t be digging there to find out.

Another place I won’t dig is near the wooden cross I discovered under a fallen aspen tree. Located on a grassy knoll overlooking the lake, the unlabelled cross is about one-quarter of a mile from the old home site, but only about 100 feet from the Hudson’s Bay Trail.

I like to speculate it is marking the grave of a family pet who loved to roam the field in search of mice, but its proximity to the ancient trail makes me suspect it is likely marking the grave of some unfortunate trekker who did not make his destination.

Raking dirt or gravel areas is particularly rewarding. To rejuvenate the gravel, we run a harrow over our driveway several times each summer.

A lot of undesirable items will pop up out of the ground.  While most of the debris seems to be rusty spikes and broken glass, we have dislodged broken sickle teeth and countless shear pins.

Every now and then, I walk the driveway and paths with a magnetic wand and fill my pocket with bent nails, broken chain links and pieces of wire just waiting for my vulnerable ATV tires.

One area that intrigues me is an old dumpsite. If the BMT (big metal thing) that protrudes out of the ground is any indication, the dump is filled with useless stuff, but if ever I run out of yard to maintain and the fish stop biting, I may be inclined to take a shovel and pick to that spot and just see how extensive the site is and just what kind of BMTs are there.

Some abandoned items are a little more obvious, such as fences. Over the years, unmaintained fences will rot, but the fencing wire seems to last forever and will tangle around the hoof of an animal and may be dragged for several kilometres.

Any time I feel a tug at my feet when walking through the fields, I stop to check the reason and often find a rusty piece of wire snagged on my shoelace.

Other rusty objects are discovered in the most interesting places. Trees growing close to the water’s edge or near buildings are likely spots for nails and are rarely chosen as saw logs for the mill.

Random bullets found in trees are not uncommon, but a pitchfork inside an aspen tree trunk was the most surprising find yet at the sawmill. The tool must have been poked into the side of the tree for safekeeping and was forgotten.

The wooden handle eventually broke or rotted off, but the metal tines of the fork became part of the tree as the aspen trunk continued to grow around it.

I wonder if the rancher spent as much time looking for that tool over the years as I have spent recounting the amazing discovery.

Some finds prove that despite significant advancements in technology, many of the basic necessities for ranchers have surprisingly been left unimproved and continue to fail today like they obviously did decades ago.

Stovepipes burn out, glass shatters, leather straps stretch, gear teeth snap off and boot soles wear out.

Having broken many shovel and rake handles, I chuckle when I find old wooden tool handles incorporated into the abandoned beaver lodges along the shore. I wonder if the ranchers were learning about recycling behaviours from the beavers back then.

Human behaviour, whether predictable or questionable, seem to have remained relatively unchanged over the years.  Discarding metal and glass containers into the woods, marking trails with blaze marks on trees, hanging rope swings from trees leaning over the water and cutting chairs in stumps are timeless traditions that are repeated through the generations.

Was the water well dug in that spot because there were indications a natural spring was just under the surface or is the moss growing in the area because the well was dug on the only level piece of land near the original homestead?

Since the homestead is also located on the shores of Lac des Roches, I can’t help wonder how some of the ancient debris ended up in the water. Wagon wheels, rubber tires and metal rims are some of the bigger items easily seen in the shallow water.

Were they sent rolling down the slopes by playing children?

Were they intentional acts vandalism by rebellious youths or were they the outcome of an equipment maintenance or repair job gone horribly wrong where the parts accidentally rolled down the hill into the water?

I am sure the pioneers would have benefitted by owning a magnetic wand like the one I use occasionally to retrieve hardware and tools from the lake that have literally slipped through the cracks of my dock when I am working on a project.

There is evidence everywhere of the intense physical labour that was expended on a ranch and tells a story of the life of our pioneers.

Every rock in the many rock piles bordering the pastures was place there by hand. Cement for the barn foundations was mixed and moved by hand.

Giant cut stumps are evidence of backbreaking work to obtain logs for something important. Manure was shovelled and spread by hand, and to this day, still provides nutrients to several ancient and bountiful rhubarb plants I harvest every summer.

The wear marks on the barn logs are evidence of the hundreds of loads of hay that were lifted into the loft with the help of ropes and hard working horses of the day.

Residing on a Cariboo homestead is like living in a perpetual treasure hunt. Every bush, tree, rock and square foot of ground may have an artifact to find and a story to discover.


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