Mysteries of James Van Slyk The man who lived in a cave

Leon Lorenz

Van Slyk at his Canoe River shack  
- Valemount Historic Society photo.
Van Slyk at his Canoe River shack - Valemount Historic Society photo.
Introduction: When I first visited Valemount in 1962 my father, Leagh Frazer, who was the new school Principal, took my brother and I on a back-roads ride in a Land Rover truck. Near the Canoe River train trestle we stopped to visit a run-down, one room, lumber frame shack just off to the side of the road.
I was informed that the former resident was the late Van Slyk, an artist who had lived nearby in a cave and used the shack, a gift from a local sawmill owner, to store his painting supplies and other gear. Van Slyk had been living in the Robson Valley for several years. Being a curious nine-year-old boy at the time, I proceeded to pull a small piece of wood off of the outside wall of the shack. (I realize now that piece of wood must have been the door-stopper). The short board had been fastened in place with one nail so it was easy to remove. When I turned it over I saw several blotches of coloured paint on the backside. This board had been the artist’s painting pallet and now it was a souvenir for me to take home.
While we were there we tried to find the cave, but my dad insisted it was too dangerous to explore the Canoe River Canyon. Later my father showed me a wood carving that Van Slyk had done of the four-room Valemount School house. The carving was three-dimensional with little pieces of mica used as the windows of the school. It was displayed in the trophy cabinet in the hallway of the Valemount Junior Secondary School.
Years later I moved to Valemount to live. In 1979 I interviewed local resident Ellice Blackman for a story on “old bottles.” Mrs. Blackman had some original artwork of Van Slyk, as well as some of his art supplies, which she allowed me to photograph.
On the afternoon of August 20, 1985 I met up with members of the Valemount Historic Society at the home of Louise McLean in Valemount. Mrs. Starratt had just donated a large collection of original artwork, postcards, photographs, negatives, notes and a hand-drawn map that had belonged to James Van Slyk. The old wooden box, containing these historical treasures, had been in her wood shed for many years and now she was giving it to the Society to care for. We had an enjoyable time examining and discussing the contents of that box and rediscovering Van Slyk.

In conversation with Evelyn Starratt, Aleda Bain, Louise McLean and Leonard Frazer:
Louise: I wonder where he learned to draw. Do you suppose he took lessons in Bulgaria or New York?
Aleda: Bob (Beeson) told a lot about him. He started out working with some survey outfit. I transcribed (for the history book) that whole thing off the tape. His parents were both diplomats of some kind. And, he didn’t like this posh life that they lived.
Evelyn: Now, this is a different story from what I was told. I was told that when the Germans were coming into Austria (1937) they all tried to get out of there. That he and his mother and father made it to New York. And, she was an opera singer in New York and he was an engineer… his dad, that is. His dad didn’t live too long in the US before he passed away. And, the mother was in the opera crowd and Van Slyk was hemmed in and he wanted to get away from it so he jumped a freight (train) and left. And, he was all over the States when he finally came to Canada. And, that was the story that he told us. But, she was an opera singer. He told us about that when he was making a violin.
Leonard (Regarding Van Slyk’s love of hiking in the mountains and the times when he was gone a long time): “Do you remember who it was that went up to find him… you mentioned one of the Fryes?
Evelyn: Jules went up. Jules went to look for him. Ella (Frye) might have been in on the hunt. In fact it was up her trap line. That was the last time he went out for us (prospecting). He didn’t come back when he was supposed to. He was up talking to the grizzly bears and picking wild flowers and stuff like that. He got boxed in the canyon.
Leonard: So, that was the time you were concerned? Did you contact the Fryes?
Evelyn: We asked them to go up the creek, up the Canoe (River). They couldn’t find any sign of him at all up there. They went right up to the top of the glacier but they couldn’t see anything and they came back. And, then we got the helicopter and they went in and they couldn’t find anything and they were there for two days. And, they couldn’t find a sign of him. So, the thing was… it was Jules that went up the North Thompson (River).  He said, “I’ll go up the North Thompson.” That was Ella’s old trap line and he knew his way. And, he’d get up on top and he’d go over to the Azure Country in case he (Van Slyk) had made it across to the Azure River. Perhaps he’d gotten into the river and gone down to his old stomping grounds at Barkerville. You see, that was the supposition. He (Jules) was gone two days and out walked Van Slyk. The search party met him up the North Thompson and he wasn’t too far up the trail. He had gotten around the box (canyon)… he’d gotten up so far but he couldn’t get over the top, so he came through from the Canoe to the Thompson River. And, I guess he went up and down all kinds of mountains and valleys and he found Camp River. He was two weeks overdue. He was only supposed to be gone for eight days, and then we started looking for him. He was pretty hungry when he got back and Bob (Starratt) said, “We’ll never send you out again.”
Leonard: “What kind of claims would he have been looking for on that trip?”
Evelyn: Copper is what we usually staked up there. You see, he (Van Slyk) was trying to make a circuit (trail) for us, Bob (Starrett) and I and… there were ten of us who were going to make the trip across. We were all prepared. We had the horses, our tents and all our equipment ready to go. Van Slyk was going to make us a half decent trail where we thought that horses could get through on. And, he got himself in this box canyon and couldn’t get out. So, finally he backtracked and got across one of these mountains we can see here (from Valemount) and eventually got over to the Thompson and came home (on) the Thompson River. He was out there three or four weeks.
Leonard: How would he have marked the trail? Just blazes on the trees?
Evelyn: (Later after he returned from his ordeal in the bush). He showed the degrees from here (pointing to a map) with a compass. And, he put names on the peaks that he saw. But, when he came back he said there was no way to get through with horses and across it (the mountain) to where we intended to go. One of our party was a mining engineer and he was the one that was interested in finding copper. I guess they’re (present day prospectors) now looking for copper there. And (Archie) MacMillan looked for copper there. There have been a lot of people (looking) up there. That is, local people have been up there.
Leonard: When he was out in the bush, was he a vegetarian?
Evelyn: Oh, no. He’d eat anything.
Aleda: I asked Mrs. Mortenson (Alice) what he bought at the store. She said, “Just tea and tobacco.”
Evelyn: Bob Beeson would pass Van Slyk’s place beside the Canoe River on their way to work (logging and bush mills). We would only see him when he came to town in the valley. The Hystad Brothers also went by Van Slyk’s. They were logging right up the Canoe River and up Mount Thompson (Canoe Mountain). Barney and Perry (Hystad) would stop at Van Slyk’s place every time they went past. They’d always stop and chat with the old fellow and take him in some food. They used to carry in a lot of groceries for him.
It must have been ’52 or ’53 when he came down here. He landed (first arrived) at our place there along the Trans Mountain (Pipeline) right-of-way and burned his (army) uniform there. He was still using his fatigue (uniform) in 1953. And, he burned his clothing along the pipeline then and I went over to see what was going on. He’d been camping there all week. He said, “I’m all through with that” (referring to his army uniform).
Leonard: From the times that you saw him, did it seem like he always had the same outfit (clothing) on?
Evelyn: He was always looking like a tramp. That’s the best I can tell you. And, he was always hungry. He used to come to the cookhouse, you see, when he got hungry. That’s when I’d see him the most. He’d come to the cookhouse and have food there.
Leonard: Did he work there (at the planer-mill) or did he just come to the cookhouse door?
Evelyn: He’d come in, get warm and get a meal.
Leonard: But, did he work there for a short time?
Evelyn: I think he did a little of something there, but not very much. He was mostly a prospector and painter (artist) when he was here. We were down the Canoe with a Sawmill and we were at Cedarside with a planer. Hystad’s Mill was up the (Canoe) River and he (Van Slyk) lived in this rock cave. That’s where we first really met him - at this rock cave. He had a bearskin in there.
Leonard: What about the shack that was built, just up from the cave? Was that constructed later on?
Evelyn: I think Bob (Starratt) had something to do with that. He may have sent some guys up from the planer to build that shack for him, so he’d have some cover. He was living in very primitive circumstances in that cave.
Leonard: Why do you think he was like that (living in a cave) when he was so talented?
Evelyn: That’s what he wanted… back to nature.
Leonard: Why do you think he burned his army uniform?
Evelyn: They were just rags. He had nothing but rags when we saw  him burning them up. I remember, Bob (Starratt) going by with a pair of jeans to keep him (Van Slyk) covered. Then, of course, he worked for us. He made a fence for us around our place (the Diamond S Ranch). He put our first fence up, he and John (Murid). It was made using cedar posts. Van Slyk was in the prospecting business extensively when we knew him. That’s how he came to our place. He wanted to know if I’d buy his (mineral) claims and I bought the Rock Bin Claim from him. And, that was the beginning of my association with him. Then, he staked out… I don’t know how many claims after that. Then he went to Hystad’s and he staked for them. He had the whole (upper Canoe) River staked up there. But, they (the claims) have now all expired.
Leonard: The collection of artwork that you have brought here. Do you place a monetary value on that?
Evelyn: No.
Leonard: So, to you, what is it?
Evelyn: It was just left at my place and Bob (her husband) was in charge of his affairs when he (Van Slyk) died and when Bob died it was just left at the ranch. There was drawings and notes. He made these etchings and these drawings on his own from things he saw. He would just sit down and draw. He’d sit down in a restaurant and draw something he saw in the restaurant but with his talent he could have been a well-known artist. He would draw on whatever he could get a hold of, like the back of a cigarette box.  He had this gift of drawing.

Regarding the passing of Van Slyk:  
Evelyn: He was found unconscious in the late fall (1960) by members of the Alpine Club who were up on the (Canoe) Glacier. On their way down they stopped at the cabin (above the cave) then they brought him into our place (cabin). Bob hustled him onto McBride Hospital. That was the last we knew about him except the doctor had said he was suffering from malnutrition. But, he came out of the McBride Hospital and back to the planer mill at Cedarside and he was living there when we left (Valemount) for the south and it wasn’t long after that… we got word that he had passed away. The supposition was that he was 53 years old at the time, and that he had died of a brain haemorrhage.
He seemed to be a wanderer. He just wanted to wander through the mountains and the rivers and the lakes and draw his pictures.

 The Valemount Hotel - by James Van Slyk.
 The Valemount Hotel - by James Van Slyk.
The Valemount Hotel - by James Van Slyk.
The Valemount Hotel - by James Van Slyk. The Valemount Hotel - by James Van Slyk. The Valemount Hotel - by James Van Slyk.