It started with an enigmatic name on a map, which I chose to name the trail from Brilliant to Glade- Skattebo Reach. I realized that I would eventually find a face behind that name, and hopefully, to dredge up details that would round out the image with an appreciation of the personality behind the haunted-looking face which emerged from the mist. From many sources, the image of Ole Skattebo took its shape in my mind's eye.
So far I have found five confirmed photographs of Ole Skattebo. Most are
of him in his declining years when his gaunt frame is showing the weight of
time. While researching the West Kootenay Power photographic archives, I
stumbled on an incidental snapshot which looks like it might be of Ole around
1926, when he was already in his early seventies. The real highlight period of
Ole's legendary life in the West Kootenay still eludes me as far as photographic
Ole Skattebo was born in the small Norvegian town of Skattebo to Ole Reiersen and Ingaborg Torgesdatter. They had four children: Reier (born 1846), Tom (born 1850), Mary (born 1852), and the youngest, Ole (born 1854). Not much is known about his early life and his family background. All the siblings emigrated to America to search for a better life, as was so common in those days. The two younger brothers eventually ended up in the West Kootenay area, while Reier and Mary never left the United States. Reier, who changed his name to Riley Olson, died at a relatively young age in 1900 in Wisconsin, while Mary passed on in Washington in 1944.
Ole spent some time prospecting in the Black Hills of Dakota, and according to one story, suffered some facial damage when a dynamite charge went of prematurely. He had been tamping down the powder when it exploded. News of the mineral discoveries in the West Kootenays in the 1890's caught his attention and in 1896 he crossed the border to Rossland, where he worked for a year. In 1897 he moved to the South Slocan area. Dave MacDonald recollects a conversation where Ole told him that he had to cross the Slocan River on the provisional railway trestle, most likely a wooden Howe truss which was later replaced by the steel bridge of today.
Ole quickly settled into the prospecting life, working several creeks in the vicinity of the Slocan Pool. Soon, however, a new opportunity offered itself, which was to make him somewhat famous. Canadian Pacific, the parent company of the newly-completed Columbia and Kootenay railway from Robson (originally Sproat's Landing) to Nelson, was beginning to realize the tourist potential not only along the mainline but also along the shorter lines which were at this very period being expanded in a lively competition with American railways. The attractions of the Slocan Pool quickly became apparent and Canadian Pacific decided to exploit the excellent fishing resource of the unique site. A lodge was constructed for guests, and several wooden dories were shipped in and offloaded from the train at Fraine siding. The boats were dragged to the water along a specially constructed skidway made of planks and then floated upstream to the lodge. The company needed operators who would look after the guests, act as fishing guides, maintain the dories, and serve the company in other ways. Ole took on the responsibilities, in company with other guides such as Jack Killey.
Thus he slipped into the vocation for which he became famous. All indications are that he was meticulous at his work and set high standards for his art. He only used tackle which he felt was worthy of a true sportsman, and success under his guidance was virtually guaranteed. Fly fishing was the approved method while gang trolling was definitely out. If someone did not meet Ole's standards of technique and behavior, a boat could not be found for them for a second opportunity at the sport. Many company executives as well as famous travelers fell under his spell and retained life-long memories of the charm of the place and of the man that overshadowed it.
The other major force which was making its presence felt was the growth of West Kootenay Power and Light Company. The company was formed to tap the vast hydro-electric potential of the Lower Kootenay River and in 1897 construction started on the first plant at Lower Bonnington Falls. Others followed in due time: work on the Upper Bonnington plant commenced at the Upper Falls in 1905, and in 1924 the original plant at the Lower Falls was demolished to make way for the much larger new plant at the site. Three years later, work commenced on the third plant, at South Slocan. This latest venture had major impacts on Ole's life. Canadian Pacific sold much of their property along Slocan Pool to the power company, including Creel Lodge which until then had been the basis for Ole's operations. Ole decided to carry on in spite of the unfavourable turn of events. He retained his fleet of boats and relocated his enterprise to a cabin slightly downstream which had been built by Archie Johnson as a summer home. The new homestead was fondly known as Skookumchuck (place of fast water). He expanded the well-built log building by constructing on its western aspect an attached summer kitchen which was used by his guests during the prime fishing season. Two wooden frames were also constructed over which tents were strung. He also built a large shed where he kept firewood, repaired boats, and constructed new ones. The boats were manipulated from the shed to the water along a steep trail with the help of wooden rollers. Other buildings on site were the mandatory outhouse which was located to the west along the trail to Purdy's Point, and a gazebo to the east of the cabin. With these improvements, he was able to retain a good portion of his former guests and attract new ones.
Ole was always a charming host respected for his honesty and generosity. There was only one occasion when he was less than cordial with a client. A customer returned with a rented dory, obviously drunk. This was something Ole would not tolerate. As was standard practice, the offending customer deposited his payment on the steps of Skookumchuk cabin for Ole to retrieve when he felt like it. When he saw him in the act, however, he stormed out, kicked the coins off the steps and told the offender to keep his money and never to return. That story made quite an impression on his clientele.
People that visited his cabin were always amazed by the array of pipes which were displayed at various spots. The aroma of tobacco pervaded the cabin atmosphere. His favourite tobacco was "Batton Fine Cut", which he bought as five pound plugs. The other obvious items in the cabin were a collection of fly-fishing rods and an assortment of related fishing gear. In addition to regular customers, Skookumchuck cabin attracted his friends and neighbours. Company executives like Lorne Campbell mixed with ordinary workers on the verandah as they came to visit the veteran of the Pool.
The fleet of boats was always kept in prime condition. All boats were individually named, some of them after mining claims: IXL, Fram, Franson, Le Roi, Osprey, etc. They were very seaworthy and stoutly built. At high water, the boats were relocated to the relative safety of Purdy's Point where they were fitted into specially-constructed cradles that kept them from grinding against the rocks. On one occasion a boat broke loose and was carried away through the cascades of the Kootenay below the Pool; it turned up in a back-eddy at Brilliant, none the worse for the rough trip. In addition to building sturdy boats, Ole displayed his ingenuity and craftsmanship in many other ways. He made pumps out of wood and leather and used them to de-water his mining operations.
New setbacks developed a good decade later. The outbreak of the Second World War shut down his business as security measures did not allow visitors anywhere near the dams. The construction of the final plant at Brilliant in the 1940's also led to dramatic changes in the fish population in the Pool (more dramatic even were changes arising from blockage of the Columbia to salmon by the Grand Coulee Dam a few years earlier). To compensate him for his loss of income, West Kootenay Power and Light Company paid Ole a pension, and the employees kept a lookout for the old man's welfare. Dave MacDonald fondly remembers a Christmas during the Depression, when, as a teenage boy, he was summoned with his sled to the Company staff house to deliver suppiles to Ole. Staples such as flour, sugar, and bacon were piled on the sled. He can still see the huge grin on the face of Mickey Byrne as he added a large ham to the overloaded sled. In his later years, Ole was able to enjoy the benefits of electricity which was run to his cabin so he could be comforted by electric heat and light. All these acts of kindness made his life considerably easier, especially as he was not eligible for a government pension because he had never taken out Canadian citizenship. Friends again came to the rescue and managed to secure a minimal prospector's pension for him.
Ole also turned back to prospecting, although without success. Once in a while he would meet with his brother Tom, who was living at Crescent Valley. Tom made his living as a sign painter and he was well known for his work on the early steamers as well as businesses in Nelson. Ole didn't approve of Tom's tendency toward alcohol, and the meetings often broke up in heated arguments. An acquaintance remembers catching the two brothers in a typical argument. Ole was chastising Tom, who wanted to accompany him on a visit to one of his mining claims. He told him he was much too old for the trip. When the guest interjected that they were both getting old, Ole remonstrated that, at 84, Tom was far too old, while he himself was still a young man of 80. Tom died in the early 1940's; it is not known where he is buried. The cabin he built still stands and the homestead is presently owned by Bob Dean.
For most of his long life, Ole was blessed by good health and a robust constitution. These were no doubt augmented by physical exercise and a sense of contentment. He believed in natural remedies for various ailments and was remembered for the purgative or "spring tonic" which he concocted by soaking and then pounding the bright-yellow roots of Oregon Grape in a wooden vat of water. The resulting potion was offensive to most senses and tasted awful, but it worked like a charm. People also remember that he would collect birch sap in the spring when it was running and use it as a refreshing drink.
In 1950, Ole was in his ninety-sixth year. During the last years of his life, he became more confined to his home and dependent on the kindness of his friends and neighbours. Creel Lodge was at this time occupied by Harry and Ethel James; their boys, Roy and Douglas, often brought water and supplies to the ailing Ole, and helped him with the firewood. The Mulloy children also helped in these charitable tasks. The last time Dave MacDonald saw him, Ole was sitting in his bed to which he was more or less confined, still trying to manage on his own. At least two photographs exist which were taken in the last year of his life. Ole looks frail, his face gaunt, his large and somewhat deformed nose the dominant feature, his eyes still piercing but overpowered by heavy shadows. In one photo he is leaning on a large walking stick, in a stance somewhat reminiscent of the early telemarkers in the snow-laden Norvegian hills. As always, his head is covered by a large hat. It seems he had a penchant for unusual looking hats. What stories he could tell . . .
During his long and contended life at the Pool, Ole witnessed the passage of an era. The native people who had been attracted by the bounties of the Pool for thousands of years were over a few seasons displaced by the new settlers who seized the fabulous opportunities for acquiring wealth without feeling a pang of conscience. Even more dramatic changes followed when dam construction on the American Columbia River permanently and irreversibly curtailed the natural migration patterns of the great fish from the sea which had in the old days congregated in such vast numbers below the falls that you could imagine it would be possible to cross the Pool by walking on their backs. The last salmon was caught in the Pool in 1935. The construction of the upper dams as well as the newest one at Brilliant also produced subtle changes which led to the decline of the fabulous fishery. Ole saw it all and must have pondered about it during the long winter evenings when he sat in his cabin alone. It must have made him sad.
Death dropped over him like a shadow on a quiet wintry day. He was found lying in the snow on the path to the outhouse by a crew of linemen who made it a point to check up on him. They came to shovel freshly-fallen snow off his paths, and noticed what appeared to be a bundle of rags protruding. It was Ole, free at last. An entry in the Nelson Daily News sets the day as the Thursday of the week the paper was published (Jan. 13, 1950); this would make it January 12th. He was buried in the Nelson Cemetery, in an unmarked grave which I hope to locate.
Skookumchuk cabin was demolished and burnt after his death. In the hills
across the Pool there are still relics which testify to his boundless energy and
optimism. A short distance up Connor Creek some vestiges of one of his mining
cabins may still remain, while at Bird Creek there can be found a long tunnel
which he at last had to abandon after so much fruitless work when he finally had
to defer to his advancing years. He left little in personal possessions. The sum
of sixteen dollars was found among his personal effects. Much earlier, he had
given young Dave MacDonald a brass pocket compass out of gratitude for his help
in "ghillieing" the customers around the enchanting Pool. Dave eventually came
in contact with Reier's descendants in California, and turned over the pocket
compass to Ole's great nephew, who in turn passed it on to his son. Dave was
also responsible for suggesting that the new reservoir behind the Brilliant Dam
be named in honour of this colourful pioneer. I am pleased that we were able to
further do justice to his memory by naming a popular new trail after this
feature of the river he so loved. I trust that additional measures can be taken
during the development of the Slocan Pool property, recently acquired by
Columbia Power Corporation, and dedicated to the preservation of the
recreational opportunities and historical values of this very special site.
* * * * * *
Dave MacDonald, who personally knew Ole from 1924, is the source of much of
the information used in this article. He also supplied me with a fine copy of
the photograph of Ole by R.J. Mulloy, and much other information on early
history of the South Slocan area.
Other sources were:
Carl Johnson, who also remembers Ole in his later years, and offered an excellent photograph of Ole shortly before his death.
Cominco magazine, various articles about the Pool and Ole, with some excellent photographs.
Nelson Daily News , Jan. 13, 1950; with a short obituary and a photo. Two facts in the obituary don't quite agree with my article which is based on information from people who personally knew Ole.
West Kootenay Power archives. I have obtained a selective photographic record of the construction of the first three plants, and within those resources have found two additional photographs of Ole. There are probably more to be found.
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