Chapter 14: Cariboo 1932


“Sunk several [gold] pits with negligible results… Took female peromyscus in pit.”

– Ian McTaggart Cowan


The 1931–1932 academic year, Cowan’s final one, was full on. He was soaring with honours in zoology and had a green light to go to Berkeley. He was curator of the Biological Discussion Club, which had students and visiting scientists gathering at professors’ homes for edifying lectures on Darwinism, entomophagous insects [insects that eat other insects] and oysters, among other topics. The objective of the club was to “stimulate interest in the biological sciences within the university by the reading of papers or addresses of general interest.” Cowan presented his paper on “Big Game in BC.”

Big game was also the subject of his honours thesis, “The Ecology and Life History of the Columbian Black-tailed Deer in British Columbia.” This early thesis already holds all the ingredients of Cowan: the supremely confident researcher and enthusiastic educator. Like his favourite author, Ernest Thompson Seton, Cowan narrates the natural history of the deer with a round-the-campfire flair spiced with some sensational chapters on Freak Antlers, Enemies, Parasites and Polygamy. The writing provide a real sense of what is to come with his later television shows, lectures and publications. For example, his fondness for the sociability of the male deer is captured in the chapter of that name:

The Coast Blacktail is entirely lacking in gregarious instincts… However, two and sometimes three bucks often form a very close friendship during their summer sojourn in the mountaintops. These blood brothers stick together at all times until the “mad moon” awakens the old unrest once more.

In Cowan’s final year at UBC, his mother, Laura Cowan, received a small family inheritance, with which she bought a car, and the two brothers used it for a trip to the Cariboo, to be financed themselves by panning for gold. It was the height of the Depression and there was little other work, the national park work having disappeared. Cowan had put out the idea to Racey that the museum might need some additional collections, including “the little-known interior marmot, or woodchuck”.

The two brothers left on May 9, headed for the Cariboo – first stop, 100 Mile House, where they did a bit of birding while fixing a leaky valve after a tricky summiting of Mount Begbie in snow. On day two they made it to Soda Creek, where they did their first six pans of gravel. They spotted a pair of Pygmy Nuthatches there but didn’t secure enough “colour” to pay for lunch. Racey had connected Cowan with the Boyds at Cottonwood Ranch, their destination. The Boyds were well known in the naturalist community. Racey knew them through T.T. (Tom) McCabe, another one of the ‘B’ who lived just north of Cottonwood at Indianpoint Lake. Tom and Elinor McCabe figured strongly in Cowan’s life. They were the instigators of a 240 square-mile nature sanctuary reserve at Indianpoint in 1925 which was to evolve into the larger Bowron Lakes Provincial Park. Although the McCabes weren’t there that spring to greet the two brothers, they were orchestrating things from behind the scenes to ensure some hospitality and a place to camp from the matriarch of Cottonwood Ranch, Janet Boyd. Cottonwood lay just outside Quesnel on the road to Barkerville, the Boyd family having supplied meat and a general store to prospectors during the gold rush. Besides being good naturalists, the Boyds also had good local knowledge of gold around their lands. 

On the way into Quesnel, they stopped at Four Mile Creek and managed to get “16–20 colour” out of four pans – not enough for groceries – but the effort gave time to spot four species of warblers, the appropriately named Golden-crowned Sparrow and other treasures: the first being a sunny camp on a grassy bench overlooking a picturesque gorge of Four Mile Creek. In between panning they set out traps, and caught their next treasure, Caribou Slim, a trapper of few words who told them four Fishers last winter fetched $269 – far more lucrative than the gold dust they were sifting. Then came their ultimate prize, the silent interior Marmot, Marmota monax petrensis a male specimen coming in at 18 1/4" × 4 3/8" × 3" which they found sharing their campsite in a burrow under the roots of the trees along the steep banks. 

Panning was not to be their vocation. After eight hours on the Cottonwood banks with “the Rocker” on May 11, they had only garnered 10 cents worth of gold. They had, however, time to study the Marmot habits of feeding exclusively on grass, clover and dandelions. The next day, they hiked up the old Pacific Great Eastern railway grade to Ten Mile Lake, where they came upon a breeding frenzy of ducks, gulls, terns and loons. They investigated a Merlin pair (then known as the Pigeon Hawk) and their nest 25 feet up a white spruce tree, of which few nests had ever been described, Cowan climbed up, measured it (12 inches deep by 18 inches in diameter), noted the materials, took the two eggs, killed the pair, skinned them, then hiked the six miles back to camp.

The North American Merlin was one of the species most heavily hit by DDT. Spencer and Buckell had drawn attention to the problems for bees in 1946, but Cowan didn’t document the impact on birds until 1955 in his paper on fluorocarbons. The little falcon sat on the threatened list throughout the 1970s, but with the banning of DDT, populations started to inch back. Today their characteristic alarm call is familiar in many parts of BC.

The Cowan boys were moving through a lot of country in the Quesnel–Cottonwood region, following along the old railway grade, and they quickly homed in on the biodiversity gold, if not the real stuff. When they wanted to cross the Cottonwood, they chopped down trees to make bridges between bars and built rafts where the crossing was wide. They lived on deer and trout and at least two afternoons were spent lazily lying by the river investigating the nasal passages of their prey for botfly larvae and the intestines for intestinal worms. They stumbled onto a bear eating a deer, which they scared away so Cowan could do a postmortem and measure the size of the two embryos.

As spring gripped the Cariboo, Cowan noted the arrival of each of the songbirds, including his first Magnolia Warbler, which he struggled to identify – not surprisingly it turns out. Cowan was to return to Ten Mile Lake four years later with Joyce in their honeymoon year, 1936. They stopped by twice, taking in Ten Mile Lake – which he had such sweet memories of – and Indianpoint Lake to visit the McCabes, on their way to and from a museum expedition farther north. Ten Mile Lake, at the time of their honeymoon was not the warm, fecund place he remembered from his earlier visit. It “rained torrents” and was “cold and miserable” and they spent a week trudging around soaked, crouching under canvas to skin specimens, including an American Mink and diving for their tent when the mosquitoes got bad. Cowan noted that the Magnolia Warbler, despite the inclement weather, was still there singing his sweet song, “which consists of five syllables swee-swee-swee-whitl-swee.”

Although the gold panning seems to have been a washout, the collections from the Cariboo certainly weren’t. Neither Cowan nor the McCabes could have anticipated the significance of the Indianpoint nature sanctuary in the context of what was to come. The sanctuary stands in stark contrast to the “Bowron clear-cut” that surrounds it – the largest clear-cut in the world at 300-plus-square-kilometres in the Bowron River Valley in response to one of the most poignant indicators of climate change, the die off from bark beetle infestation. 


Chapter 13: Chilcotin 1931
Chapter 15: Berkeley 1932-1933