Small Frye episodes - It runs in the family: Three Frye siblings take a turn at story-weaving

Leonard Lea Frazer

Small Frye’s brother, Jules, explores balloon pants and suspenders, near dies at the hooves of a deer and also finds a grizzly bear asleep on his mattress; Mike discusses grizzly equalizers, gives fair warning to “skidoo tourists,” and we share Ella Frye’s most dangerous adventure.

Introduction:  Mike and Jules Frye were known for their story-telling abilities. They knew how to open a back-woods tale and fill it with interesting, believable, and historically accurate material and then close it in a way that left us scratching our heads in wonderment and, sometimes, in disbelief. Perhaps with each retelling of their tales the storylines were honed and perfected helping to create stories that left lasting impressions.

Back in the late 1970s I was a co-worker of Jules Frye at Canyon Creek Forest Products at Cedarside, near Valemount. I was an “oiler” and Jules was the “night watchman.” The story fragments that were shared at the mill-yard that impressed me were from two different stories; one set when Jules was a young boy and one when he was older. This is how I remembered them:

Balloon Pants: “My mother used to send my brother Mike and I up to the nearest bush camp every spring. That’s when break-up time brought the lumberjacks and bush-mill workers out of the backwoods. The men would symbolically discard their wool pants and suspenders and leave them in a pile outside the bunkhouse. Then, they would head for town to get new cloths with their pay cheques. We’d collect those wool pants and suspenders and take them home to our mom. She cut off the legs and made balloon-type pants for us kids. We even used the old suspenders to keep them pants in place.”

So, that was Jules setting up the story with the historical facts.  Then, the narrative followed.

Ella Frye, famous registered trapper, displays beaver pelts at one of her trap line cabins.
Ella Frye, famous registered trapper, displays beaver pelts at one of her trap line cabins.
Photo: courtesy of Ella Frye.

“Mike and I were out hunting one day. We were both wearing the wool cut-offs that our mother had made. I had a knife and Mike had his 22-rifle. We spotted a deer standing near a ravine and Mike got off one good shot. The deer fell forward on its two front knees. Mike was just reloading when I told him to save the bullet. I would go up and cut its throat. So, there I was with knife in hand, kneeling on the ground and my arm around the deer’s neck. Then, the deer stood up and put one of its front hooves down through my open pants, pinning me to the ground. Then, the wounded deer started dragging me towards the edge of the cliff.”

Now, that was a real ‘cliff-hanger.’ Of course they both survived to tell the tale. 

Another one that I remember was when Jules was older and working on his trap line.

“Some of the log trap line cabins were small; like the one that only had room for a tiny stove, a mattress and a wooden apple box inside. One winter a friend and I were approaching the cabin on snowshoes. It was very cold out and the snow was deep. We noticed that the cabin door was wide open. Inside, sleeping on the mattress, was a big grizzly bear. He had been having a good nap and, apparently, perspiring a lot. The mattress ended up sticking to his fur. It was frozen in place. We approached the cabin with our loaded rifles. As soon as the bear woke up he tried charging us. The mattress, still on his backside, held him back temporarily. My friend fired first but his rifle jammed.” Yes, another cliff-hanger.

The following story is very similar to the ‘bear and the mattress’ tale; this time told by Mike Frye in the Robson Valley Courier, January 10, 1979 

Grizzly Bear by Mike Frye

The grizzly bear may be an endangered species, but if you get in his way, unprepared to meet him, you'll be the one in danger of annihilation.

The North Thompson and its upper tributaries have been noted for the production of "big fellows." Louie Knutson, who trapped and made trails in that area before the First World War, tells us that the Indians gave that valley a wide berth because of the fierce monsters they had learned to fear. Their guns weren't quite the calibre of those we have today and the native people know the dangers of beaver trapping in grizzly territory.

Because there are fewer of these monarchs of the mountains, is no reason to trespass on their right of way without the proper equalizer.

Jules Frye has taken over the North Thompson trap line from his sister, Ella, and since the logging operations have opened roads into that once remote area, hunters have frequented the roads in search of moose. Jules can drive a truck for part of his regular trap inspections and then rides a snowmobile to complete the route. His broken trail has been an open invitation to snowmobilers just wanting a place to go; little do they realize what might happen.

Jules had baits taken and had seen the tracks of a grizzly and the day the big fellow appeared; he had a friend, Ralph Bradley, with him. Both men carried recognized grizzly stoppers. One had a 300 Magnum Winchester and the other gun was a 338 Rubar Magnum.

The two men were within about ninety feet of Canoe Creek cabin that was nearly hidden by willows and second growth. The lone occupant exploded out of that door and in the face of plenty of lead and made it to within fifteen feet of the trappers before he fell. Now, if those two men had been unarmed "skidoo tourists" - well, that would have been another story.

The almost black grizzly measured eight feet six inches from snout to hind toes. The estimated weight was around 700 pounds. He was definitely not fat enough to hibernate and his fangs were yellowed and damaged (again an estimation). His age was set at about twelve years but a smart bear can learn a lot in that many years. He was large enough to believe there was nothing that moved that he need fear.

The moral of the story: Don't follow a trap line on your pleasure trips. That scent of bait might entice one of those big fellows to be on hand at your destruction.

This grizzly had gone through the window of a trapper’s cabin. Because the opening was too small, he took the logs in with him. His weight had broken the bed down and the mattress had to be clawed into shape to suit the new tenant. The cabin, as a trapper’s cabin, was a dead loss.

And now, a glimpse at the life of sister Ella Frye, lifted from the pages of the Valemount Historic Society’s ‘Yellowhead Pass and Its People.’

Ella Frye - by Jean R. Haines

Ella Frye, famous registered trapper, tends a 200 square mile trap line in the rugged, tall timbered north land of British Columbia. Inside her cabin and on the trail, she has encountered bears galore. She has killed a grizzly at 50 feet as it came running towards her, clubbed a black bear into unconscious­ness, then severed its jugular vein, faced biting bliz­zards and floundered in deep snows.

Once only, she declares, has she been really frightened. That was when she rode the rapids on the North Thompson River in a makeshift raft. It was a beautiful spring day and the air fresh and tangy. The river looked calm and inviting. Ella Frye plodded along carrying 24 beaver hides, sleeping bag, a hand axe and a rifle. Tired and weary, having trapped all winter, she dreaded the 20 mile trek back to her headquarters at Gosnell.

"An idea struck me," relates Ella. "Why not build a raft and sail down the river? Louis Knutson used to do that when he trapped along this route. Tired, but with enthusiasm, I got to work and by nightfall I'd fash­ioned a raft that looked, for all the world, like Noah's Ark."

Next morning dawned clear and calm with the promise of another glorious day. The raft was set on peeled skids on the bank of the river where the water was deep. With her equipment strapped securely to the cross bars, Ella and her dog were ready to start on a brand new adventure. She pushed the raft into the water and leaped aboard. It floated high and for the first hour everything seemed lovely.

"This is better than fighting willow and alder branches on the old pack trail, eh, Joanie?” she said to her dog. Joanie agreed, wagged her tail and barked. Ella was happily humming her favourite on the Hit Parade when sud­denly she realized the water was becoming choppy. It grew rougher and rougher. She recollected, too, that the rapids were not far below. Should she continue on down the remaining three miles or abandon the raft?

Louis Knutson, Ella's brother-in-law, had warned her that a man had lost his life trying to go through the rapids in a boat. She decided that her substantial raft would go anywhere and she soon found out that was exactly what it would do. "Had it been a small, well made raft," Ella confided, "and I'd known how to handle it, everything might have turned out dif­ferently. What happened when I hit the rapids almost turned my hair grey! The raft headed for one big boulder after another. I realized what a helpless plight I'd gotten myself into. All I could do was hang on like grim death. The logs of my raft were being jarred loose; one had been knocked off completely. I became paralyzed with fear when I remembered the second falls, which were just ahead of me. It would either be suicide or jump off, I thought, as I couldn't swim. Presently, the raft bounced on top of a boulder and sat there rocking from side to side like a cradle. The angry water would surely turn us over right there and then, but no, the raft finally shook itself loose and tore on down the river again."

Like a drowning person clutching at a straw, Ella thought of the log jam at the bend of the river not far below. If logs floated onto this, then surely the raft would do the same. Looking anxiously ahead, she spotted a large spruce tree bending over the river, squarely into her path. She was certain the raft would never clear under it. Quickly, she moved to the back end and dropped off clinging tightly to the cross bar. She floated under the tree, the branches scratching her face unmer­cifully and tearing her tight fitting hat off her head. The dog was swept into the water but she climbed onto the raft again, which by this time was reduced to three logs. The raft was headed for the log jam.

Frantically, she reached for her tie rope and fastened it to the crossbar. When the raft hit the logs, Ella jumped clear, snubbed the rope on an up-root and tied it securely. The rear end of the raft turned down­stream with a groan, as if reluctant to finish the escapade. "I dragged myself and my water soaked equipment ashore," Ella relates, "and thanked my lucky stars that I was again on dry land. The dog was nowhere to be seen. My beaver hides and sleeping bag, I spread out to dry, then set out for the pole camp about a mile away where my two brothers were working. I told them my story, but they had little sympathy to offer."

‘You should have more sense than to attempt to go through the rapids on a raft,’ commented Charlie. "When I returned to pick up my equipment, I was relieved to see my dog along side, on watch. She leaped for joy as I approached. Her tail wagging, friendly greetings was compensation in­deed for the terrible experience we'd just shared together. I've learned a lot about rafts since then," says Ella, "but believe me; never again will I tackle the rapids."

Ella Frye lived a life in the Northland of B.C. that rivalled any fictional character for adventure, courage and self-reliance.