COLLIER, Eric (1903-1966)




Author Tags: Essentials 2010, Literary Landmarks, Outdoors

LITERARY LOCATION, Heritage cabin, Meldrum Creek, near Riske Creek.

Directions: A rough road leads off the Chilcotin-Bella Coola Highway 20 at Riske Creek, 49 kilometres west of Williams Lake, to Eric Collier’s four-room log home.

Formerly one of the most famous books about British Columbia, Eric Collier's gripping Chilcotin memoir Three Against the Wilderness (Irwin Publishing, 1959; London: Companion Book Club, 1959) is a classic homesteading account that has been gradually slipping into obscurity, along with the reputation of its author, even though the Meldrum Creek homesite where Collier and his family lived in isolation for 26 years was restored by the Chilliwack-based Canadian Army Engineers in 1994. Nowadays, as Canadian society becomes more urbanized, Eric Collier’s hugely successful and only book, Three Against the Wilderness (1959), is rarely cited in major guides to Canadian literature, but if there was ever a “top-ten” of classic B.C. titles, Collier’s Chilcotin memoir would have to be considered.

QUICK REFERENCE ENTRY:

Born in England in 1903, Eric Collier, the son of an iron foundry owner whose company supplied machinery for the emerging shoe industry, did not shine in his studies of the law, so he was sent to the wilds of Canada to work as a “mud pup” on his uncle’s property near Clinton, B.C., in 1920. That uncle was Harry Marriott, author of Cariboo Cowboy. Collier worked at the Riske Creek store for Fred Becher, at the Gang Ranch, at Cotton Ranch, and married Lillian Ross in 1928 at Riske Creek.

A few years later, in spite of his wife’s hip deformity due to a childhood accident, the couple took a wagon, three horses and their 18-month-old son Veasy, along with a tent, some provisions and $33, and reached the Stack Valley where they lived in an abandoned cabin built by trapper Tom Evans. In a few years they relocated to Meldrum Creek, ten miles away.

Collier and his wife Lillian had promised her 97-year-old First Nations grandmother, LaLa, to bring the beavers back to the area that she knew as a child before the white man came. As a result, Collier imported several pairs of beaver, and raised the area’s water table sufficiently to reinstate the beaver population.

In 1946, Collier became the first president of the B.C. Registered Trappers Association, an organization he co-founded with Ed Bobbs. With the second guiding licence issued for the Chilcotin, Collier supplemented his meagre income from trapping and hunting. He also accepted speaking engagements and sometimes took adversarial positions in talks with the B.C. Game and Forests Department. To encourage more humane trapping methods, Collier undertook field tests for the Conibear trap invented by Frank Conibear and turned his hand to writing for Northwest Digest in Quesnel, the Williams Lake Tribune and Outdoor Life in the U.S. In 1949, he became the first non-American to win Outdoor Life’s Conservation Award.

Written in longhand and transcribed onto his Remington typewriter, Collier’s recollections of “roughing it in the bush” for Three Against the Wilderness were condensed by Reader’s Digest and translated into seven languages.

Soft-spoken and usually unassuming, Eric Collier moved his family to Riske Creek in 1960. He sold his 38-mile trapline to Orville Stowell and Val Coulthard in 1964 for $2,500 and died at Riske Creek in 1966.

Collier's cabin, erected in 1946, remains as one of the few historical sites that have been preserved for writers in British Columbia. Efforts have also been made to preserve the homes of John Tod (Victoria), Roderick Haig-Brown (Campbell River), George Ryga (Summerland) and Joy Kogawa (Vancouver). The preserved four-room cabin replaced the original, one-room home that the Colliers first moved into upon their arrival at Meldrum Creek.

Visitors can stay overnight at the nearby Chilcotin Lodge at Riske Creek but should be aware the Collier site is not easy to find. Cariboo historian Irene Stangoe, one of the many Cariboo residents who insisted the Collier buildings should be saved, has written about her first visit there in Looking Back at the Cariboo-Chilcotin (1997).

FULL ENTRY:

Born in Northampton, England in 1903, tall and lean Eric Collier was the son of a successful iron foundry owner. At age 14 he joined the navy and served for two years a signalman prior to being sent to Canada to work as a 'mud pup' on his uncle's property near Clinton, B.C. in 1920. That uncle was Harry Marriott, author of Cariboo Cowboy. Collier also worked at Riske Creek store for Fred Becher, at the Gang Ranch, and at Cotton Ranch. He married Lillian Ross in 1928 at Riske Creek and took up meadows at Madden Lake in 1929. Two years later, in spite of his wife's hip deformity due to a childhood accident, the couple took a wagon, three horses and their 18-month-old son Veasy, along with a tent, some provisions and $33, and reached the Stack Valley where they lived in an abandoned cabin built by trapper and carpenter Tom Evans. In a few years they relocated to Meldrum Creek, ten miles away, where they lived in a tent and built their own cabin. Collier and his wife Lillian had promised her 97-year-old grandmother, LaLa, to bring the beavers back to the area that she knew as a child before the white man came. Collier imported several pairs of beaver, and raised the area's water table sufficiently to reinstate the beaver population.

In 1939, Eric Collier sold his favourite saddle horse in order to purchase a radio and hear news of World War II. In 1946, Collier became the first president of the B.C. Registered Trappers Association, an organization he co-founded with Ed Bobbs. With the second guiding license to be issued in the Chilcotin, Collier earned a meagre income to supplement his trapping and hunting. He increasingly accepted speaking engagements and sometimes took adversarial positions in talks with the B.C. Game Department. To encourage more humane trapping methods, Collier undertook field tests for the Conibear trap invented by Frank Conibear and increasingly turned his hand to writing for Northwest Digest in Quesnel, the Williams Lake Tribune and Outdoor Life in the U.S. In 1949 he became the first non-American to win that magazine's Conservation Award.

In the 1950s the staff at Outdoor Life encouraged him to consider writing a book about his experiences. Written by longhand and then transcribed onto his Remington typewriter, Collier's recollections of 26 years of family life and 'roughing it in the bush' for Three Against the Wilderness (1959) were soon condensed by Reader's Digest and re-sold in at least seven translations around the world. Nonetheless Collier's hugely successful book is not cited in major guides to Canadian literature.

Soft-spoken and usually unassuming, Eric Collier moved his family to Riske Creek in 1960. He sold his 38-mile trapline to Orville Stowell and Val Coulthard on March 26, 1964 for $2,500. He died at Riske Creek on March 15, 1966. The Williams Lake Tribune's obituary stated, "To watch Eric Collier stride through the woods was a joy to behold.... Gun crooked comfortably in his arm he moved along as easily as the city dweller would stroll down Granville Street."

Collier's wife and trapping partner Lily moved to Williams Lake and died in 1992. Their son Veasy, schooled by correspondence, served in the Korean War, married Judy Borkowski, and settled at Williams Lake. Erected in 1946, the Collier's much-deteriorated, second, four-room log home at Meldrum Creek was slated for demolition in 1989, under the auspices of the Chilcotin Military Reserve north of Riske Creek, but local protests in Cariboo encouraged Captain Paul Davies and the Canadian Army Engineers to resurrect the remote dwelling and its log barn with new roofing, shakes, doors and windows. A very rough road leads off Highway 20 to the site--one of the few literary historical sites that have been preserved in British Columbia.

[Image: Polish version of Three Against the Wilderness, emphasizing the preservation of beavers]

BOOKS:

Three Against the Wilderness (Irwin Publishing, 1959; London: Companion Book Club, 1959).

Reprinted by Touchwood Editions, 2007, $19.95, 978-1-894898-54-6

[BCBW 2015]