Ralph Edwards cut a farm out of the British Columbia wilderness
“Crusoe of Lonesome Lake,” by Leland Stowe
In his award-winning “Adirondack: Life and Wildlife in the Wild, Wild East,” Ed Kanze described the struggle to make a home for his family — wife Debbie and two children — in the unforgiving Adirondacks near Saranac Lake.
It is one of many fine books about people who desire to live in isolated areas. Kanze writes very well, and his book has been reviewed in these pages.
Another example of life in the wilderness takes place long ago (1912) and far away (3,400 miles from Lake Placid). Far from the Adirondacks (about 3,400 miles from LAKE Placid). American Ralph Edwards entered the British Columbia wilderness, after getting off a steamship in Bella Coola, searching for 160 acres of land far from everyone else. His incredible story, “Crusoe of Lonesome Lake,” by Leland Stowe, and while the writing is not as good as Mr. Kanze’s, the story itself is wonderfully compelling.
Edwards hiked 55 miles from Bella Coola, into the Atnarko Valley, to find his primitive Eden. There, on the shore of the body of water he named Lonesome Lake, he started his homestead, and began clearing the land. After four years of very hard work — felling trees that were sometimes 8 feet in diameter — he had about six acres of arable land.
But his first harvest was shared with uninvited guests. Grizzly bears “devoured every carrot, beet and parsnip. And when he led some sure-footed Angora goats over the mountain trail from town, hoping to have some livestock and company, the grizzlies ate them, too. Edwards, however, continued to take down trees, built fences to keep out the bears, and eventually created a home he called The Birches.
Big trees, bears, and freezing temperatures are not the only crises Edwards faced. When World War I broke out, he joined the U.S. Army and served for two years, and survived combat in France.
Later, in 1922, Edwards looked for companionship, for a wife to share his world. He courted 19-year old Ethel Hober, who was nearby (well, she lived only a forty mile hike and paddle away). Eventually, Ethel and Ralph have three children — Stanley, John, and Trudy – and Lonesome Lake had a family.
The family learns to live healthy without doctors, to get educated without schools, and to even care of trumpeter swans, which they preserve from extinction.
Stowe’s book, written in 1956, caught Edwards and the family at the end of Ralph’s wilderness experience, for he left Lonesome Lake in 1965. We can now access videos of Lonesome Lake via YouTube.
So, I offer two suggestions. Ed Kanze’s book is very well written, and has local appeal. Leland Stowe’s writing is pedestrian, but Ralph Edwards’s life remains fascinating.
Stowe’s writing is basic, but the story itself is compelling. Edwards hikes about 65 miles into the wilderness, looking for his wild and primitive Eden, where he will create a farm
When Edwards courts a woman, he has to walk 40 miles through the woods to see her. But the courtship comes nine years after Edwards has felled enough trees, some 8-feet in diameter, to carve a working farm in the Atnarko Valley. He had also built a cabin at the farm, additional cabins on his trap line, and rafts to navigate the seven miles of lake from his farm to the trail to civilization, such as it was.
Working alone to create a garden in the forest is difficult enough. But grizzly bears “devoured every carrot, beet and parsnip” of Edwards’s first “harvest.” When he led some sure-footed Angora goats over the mountainous trail from town, he had some livestock for his farm. But the grizzly bears ate them, too.
Ralph Edward continued to take down trees, build fences to keep out the bears, and slowly carved a home which he called The Birches.