Faces, Places and Traces by Mark Ruston
Every winter, the fields of the Fraser Valley are dotted with magnificent trumpeter swans in flocks of 100 or more, their total number overwintering here perhaps in the thousands.
With so many of these remarkable birds, the largest and heaviest in North America, their wing-spans up to 10 feet, foraging our grasslands and fallow fields, it’s hard to imagine that in 1916 it was thought there were fewer than 100 left in North America. That was thanks to 19th century commercial hunting of them for their feathers to make quill pens and their skins, bizarrely, to make powder puffs.
Of those 100 or so remaining birds, roughly a third of them overwintered on a remote Chilcotin lake. By 1932, that flock dwindled to 19 and if it weren’t for one man living in the B.C. bush, the trumpeter swan would have likely joined the passenger pigeon and dodo bird on the list of extinctions (to be clear, aerial surveys much later discovered a large flock living in the Copper River area of Alaska).
Realizing the birds were starving to death on the ice-bound lake, Ralph Edwards, who was homesteading remote Lonesome Lake (75 walking miles from the nearest post office) contacted the BC Wildlife Service and in turn the Canadian Wildlife Service with his concerns.
In a case of surprisingly swift action, particularly on the part of governments, Edwards was provided with $25 with which to purchase 800 pounds of wheat and barley. It was up to him to pack on his back, and on a horse, the swan feed from the Bella Coola valley to the lake.
And thus began the long road back for the trumpeter. I recall in the 1970s being thrilled that a rare pair of swans were feeding on my Matsqui Prairie field. And every year since then I have seen throughout the valley the numbers grow to their current magnificence.
And it was all because one man, living about as far from civilization as you can get, cared enough about the beauty of nature. His efforts for more than 30 years, and continued by his daughter and family well into the late 1970s, are the result of what we see today.
Those many years of toiling along rough trails, hauling grain and feeding swans every day during fierce winter storms in the Coast Mountains did not go unrecognized.
In fact, in many ways Ralph Edwards, his family and the trumpeter swans became famous. Leland Stowe, a writer for Reader’s Digest, showed up one day and later wrote a book entitled “Crusoe of Lonesome Lake” which revealed to the world Edwards’ efforts to preserve the swans. From that a Hollywood film was made, the Queen of England acknowledged him and his family, and even asked the Canadian government for some trumpeters to grace her palace ponds. The Governor General of Canada decorated him with our nation’s highest award for his contributions to preservation of Canadian wildlife.
Over the years, there have been a number of books written, among them “Ralph Edwards of Lonesome Lake” in his own words as told to Ed Gould. Additionally, Ralph’s daughter Trudy Turner wrote an excellent book entitled “Fogswamp” which further details the recovery efforts of the swans as well as telling a compelling tale of life in the backcountry.
I’m uncertain if any of the aforementioned books are still in print and available on B.C. bookstands, but if you can find them they are well worth a read.
Regardless, if you take the time to tour Sumas Prairie over the next month or so, you can witness yourself the results of this wonderful effort to save a species. And if you approach a flock you will hear why they are called trumpeter swans … their call is a one note, perhaps slightly off-key, honk that sounds exactly like a trumpet.