Tuesday, August 7, 2012

finding jim mitchell lake

James Scott Mitchell was a 20-year-old "six-foot youngster of quiet habits and a good bushman" when he died mysteriously in the bush of Vancouver Island in the summer of 1937.

Jim was a packer for a survey party and was going in alone to meet the survey party. He would relieve another young fellow who was coming out to go to school. On a Tuesday in late August, he began following a marked trail that faded to just notched trees along Upper Thelwood Creek.

He had been over the trail 11 times before, and knew it well. At some point, he set down his pack, maybe to find the best way to cross the creek.

On Friday, D. S. Harris, another packer, found Jim's body washed up onto a sandbar.

After a team came in to pack the body out and brought it to the coroner in Campbell River, it was determined that Jim had died from a blow to the head, just behind his right ear. The coroner thought he had died by slipping on the rocks or falling over a log as he was crossing the creek.

At the time, Jim Mitchell was one of the most promising pupils who had ever passed through Tsolum School. Everyone thought he should go to university, and that's what he was planning to do.

Jim Mitchell was my grandfather's older brother. His death came as a shock to the family, settlers who'd come out from Scotland when Jim was just a baby.

His father farmed a piece of land in Merville that had been rainforest before the lumber barons came through in 1910 and logged it all and burned it. Andy and Henrietta Mitchell arrived in 1920 to 80 acres of flat land where, legend has it, my great-grandmother had to walk a mile to the creek to get any shade. The farming wasn't great, and Andy also had to take up a job at a nursery in town.

Andy and Henrietta lost two of their four children young, but my granddad made it to 74. Their land is still in our family and I love exploring it, walking under towering second and third-growth Douglas firs and red cedars and hunting for huckleberries, while brambles actively try to trip me as they twine across my feet.

Merville, where the Mitchells settled, is near Courtenay, on the east coast of Vancouver Island. Jim Mitchell's body was found dead in the centre of the island, several mountain ranges and almost one hundred kilometres away, near a lake.

The lake used to be called Crystal Lake, but was re-named Jim Mitchell Lake about ten years after his death.

Scott, dad and I have always wanted to hike in there some day. We thought it would be days of rough hiking into uncharted territory.

That is, until I found a path to the lake listed in an Island hiking book. Then Scott found a site that said we could drive right up to it on logging roads and paddle round the lake in a canoe.

Suddenly, our gigantic adventure turned into a very do-able weekend trip. We set a date with my dad to make it happen.

On the last Saturday morning in July, Scott was itching to get driving, but both dad and I wanted to load up with picnic supplies at the Courtenay farmers' market. We tried to limit ourselves to 30 minutes, but were fairly pleased to get out in just over an hour. Amongst other goodies, we found fresh raspberries, bread baked in a wood-fired oven and garlic and chive verdelait cheese.

On the road, we ate warm cinnamon buns and chocolate ginger cookies from the market, and listened to my favourite radio show (which has great satirical lines like: "Canada: America's hair").

The drive down Buttle Lake was gorgeous and – as a bonus – paved. Once the lake ended, we turned on to a winding gravel logging road . . . but we knew we were on the right path because it was actually called Jim Mitchell Lake Road.

It took us almost an hour to drive six kilometres down that road, but then, all at once, remarkably, we were there.

Mountains and rocky cliffs rose almost straight out of the lake, and we could see higher mountains capped in snow and fog just behind them.

We sat on a log and ate our picnic lunch looking out over the lake.

Then we unloaded the canoe and paddled all along the rocky shoreline.

It was dammed years ago, but we think the water level only went up about a metre or so. We could see old tree stumps with their twisted root systems tangling over the rocks under water.

We saw patches of loose rock and little waterfalls where we could imagine Jim Mitchell putting down his 50-pound pack, looking for the best way to cross, and losing his balance. 


We inspected the creeping dogwood, copperbush and penstemon that wound its way over the rocks to the lake. We paddled in and out of shaded little coves and looked down into the clear water. We found a rock for dad to take home for his garden.

We were alone on the lake with our canoe. It was a time of peace and stillness that we will always remember. This is our last summer on Vancouver Island, and I think this was a parting gift for us.

After we'd made our way around the lake – staying well away from where the water suddenly fell over the edge of the dam – we pulled the canoe back onto the shore.

We found our picnic log and sat down again, this time to eat raspberries and drink tea and look out over Jim Mitchell Lake one more time.

last summer: sun tea
two summers ago: rote grütze on ice cream and hop & go fetch it: new restaurants on Salt Spring Island, Vancouver Island and Vancouver


  1. Stephanie,

    A nice bit of writing, with choice details and a poignant back story. I feel the quality of sabi at the end there. Very nice.


  2. What a neat story, thanks for sharing :) My bofyriend and I were up at Buttle Lake this past weekend and have visited a few times before. Now we have one more reason to go back and explore a new area.

  3. Beth Mitchell AtkinsAugust 10, 2012 at 3:58 AM

    Thank you, Stephanie, for the lovely story of your journey to Jim Mitchell Lake. I'm happy you 3 made the trip, maybe I will day. it's fitting that Jim is remembered as the fine young man he was, who sadly passed much too young. Happy trails!

  4. Beth Mitchell AtkinsAugust 10, 2012 at 4:09 AM

    also the photos are beautiful, thanks for the ones of Don and you on the Lake!

  5. Thank you again for another great story. Your family tales are very interesting!!

  6. I'm so glad you recorded this, Stephanie. I managed up there in the 80's with your Uncle Ross, now sadly no longer with us. Jim Mitchell is an old family name, going back to at least the 1820's from the Angus area of Scotland...This JM's grandfather was my great grandfather... I think that's right!

    Jim Mitchell, Isle of Bute, Scotland