Ian McTaggart Cowan

Chapter 13: Chilcotin 1931

“… scenes from that summer guide my hand.” 

– Ian McTaggart Cowan

After coming off Green Mountain, the Raceys and Cowan headed back by boat to Vancouver to pick up the rest of the family – Eileen, Joyce and Stewart – for the final leg of the 1931 collecting expedition. The destination was Chezacut Lake (now called Chilcotin Lake) up the Chilcotin River – four days drive from Vancouver at the time. They reached the Chezacut turnoff on July 23, following a long, very bad road to the village which consisted of not much more than a post office–general store servicing ranchers and trappers. They had come here to fill in some gaps in the small mammal distributions for this region of BC. The lake formed a transition zone for the many grassland species of the bunchgrass zone just to the south, the Jack pine and the northern spruce forests. They were also in Chezacut to collect birds and figure out one of the mysteries of the province: where did the White Pelicans nest that appeared every summer on Chezacut Lake?

They arrived at the height of the summer in the Chilcotin. Swallows and swifts with their fledged young are swooping overhead eating up the ample insect life around the lake and meadows. Bluebird chicks have fledged and the brilliant flashes of blue dart over the meadows. Dusk brings the nighthawks, with their high-pitched nasal peent and booming sounds as the birds pull out of dives during courtship display. Waterfowl are well tucked in to the marshes. After setting up his tent on the grassy shores of the lake, and before retiring for the first night, Cowan spotted their first two pelicans feeding and courting in unison on the lake with much bowing and swaying of heads. 

Ian McTaggart Cowan with Kenneth Racey (1931)

Each afternoon, Cowan laid his traps in the north-facing spruce forest, the south-facing grasslands or the low-lying marshes, returning at dawn to check them. A frequent journal entry was “Joyce + I went over to the spruce woods before breakfast on the way over seeing 2 herons.” While laying the traps for small mammals like Navigator Shrews and Western Heather Voles, they searched for other signs of wildlife. Some of the highlights Cowan noted were finding two grebe nests, one of a Red-necked (then called Holboell’s Grebe) and one of a Pied-billed. During the hottest part of the day, in the shade of their bush lab, they skinned. In the evenings, Cowan fished for trout with Eileen and Joyce – a tradition well-established since Alta Lake. There is more detail of pelican courtship than human courtship recorded from those extensive paddles round the lake, but this was the summer and location that they got engaged. In 2002 (just before Joyce died) Cowan told Neil Dawe, who had written on the Chilcotin area and was soliciting some feedback, “I spent a month at that lake with the Racey family. In fact it was there that Joyce and I began our close friendship that built into now 66 years together. You will understand that we have a special fondness for the area.” 

Ian McTaggart Cowan and Kenneth Racey (1931)

During the five weeks at Chezacut, they also made weekly excursions up the dirt track – which became an impenetrable mud trap after summer downpours – to the general store–post office. The rewards for getting there weren’t just to stock up but a chance to talk to the proprietor, Frank Shillaker. Shillaker was an English First World War veteran who had bought the store at Chezacut in 1927 and according to local historians “fell in love with this place for the rest of his life.” Besides stocking his store, he was the postmaster and traded with the Chilcotin native trappers for furs, mostly muskrat and weasel. The added attraction for the Racey clan was that Shillaker was a keen naturalist and kept good notes of the comings and goings of the wildlife as well as having extensive knowledge of the area.

Shillaker had obviously struck an enduring relationship with the young Cowan, as he left him his field notes, which Cowan used for his 1947 book with Munro on bird fauna of the province. One of Shillaker’s entries also shed some light on the elk die-off, which the local native trappers attributed to severe winter storms in the mid-19th century. Cowan’s interest in the elk was also piqued by this story. A highly adaptable species and also highly prized by hunters, elk in the early 1800s were the most plentiful game species on the continent, divided into six subspecies, two of which, the Rocky Mountain Elk and Roosevelt’s Elk, were in British Columbia. By 1931, however, the Rocky Mountain Elk’s range had shrunk to small populations in the east of the province and the Roosevelt’s had diminished to a small number in the mountains of Vancouver Island. The Roosevelt’s had been extirpated from the southern mainland, and other than a few reintroductions into some areas, elk were not the ubiquitous animal we see today. Cowan’s career spanned the re-expansion of the elk, and he witnessed the impacts of the reintroductions which, coupled with predator controls, had led to exploding populations in places like the Rocky Mountain national parks. 

Ian McTaggart Cowan with Raceys camping at Osoyoos Lake (1931)

Both elk and caribou were to increasingly feature in Cowan’s research and advocacy as he was brought in to assess these important game populations. Whether it was impacts of introduced elk to the Rocky Mountain parks or impacts on boreal caribou from pipeline construction, northern developments focused research and expert testimony on the ecology of these ungulates. The place was important too. Chezacut–Chilcotin Lake was identified by the Nature Trust of BC in 1987 as a site of scientific interest while Cowan was on the board. That summer on 1931 in the Chilcotin was a seminal one for Cowan and he referred to it fondly. “To this day, as I write about Canyon Wrens, Black Swifts, White Pelicans or Waterthrushes, scenes from that summer guide my hand.” 

Western Heather Vole specimen : male
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